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White Knight

Chapter Text

*

I remember how we danced
Through the towns on the Thames
For one little night I felt like
I could be made new again
And you stayed here with me
While I lost nearly everything
But "what do you really love?"
I heard you say

-Brian Fallon, "Watson"

*

There was a slushy grey mess in the road, and traffic moved slowly.

John shifted in the back seat of the taxi, unzipped his coat, leaned his head back against the seat. It was warm. The cabbie had the heat blasting, and that coupled with the jerking stop-start motion of the car in heavy traffic was vaguely nauseating.

Rosie, at least, seemed content to sleep through it. She was worn out, slumped sideways against the glass, cheeks flushed in the warm air.

It had been a good holiday. Better than he'd expected, in all honesty.

"Come out for Christmas?" Harry had asked a few weeks back, as they were ending one of their periodic, obligatory phone calls. She'd laughed a little, after she'd asked. It had been an odd laugh; dry, sardonic, as if she already knew his answer but felt compelled to go through the motions anyway.

She'd had a point, he knew. They were not close. He did not willingly seek out her company. Never had.

But that laugh, that mocking little laugh—

He'd found himself irritated at her, wanting to call her bluff. Wanting to prove her wrong.

"Yeah," he'd said. "Yeah, all right, we will."

There had been silence on Harry's end, and that silence told him he'd read the situation correctly, that she had not expected him to say yes, had not even expected him to give the idea serious consideration.

"All right," she'd said, finally, and her voice had lost its sharp edge.

And he'd hung up and breathed out hard, suddenly relieved that he wouldn't need to go through the motions of decorating his quiet little house, putting up a tree, making a fuss about it for Rosie's sake. Christmas had rather lost its lustre, over the years.

He'd expected argument, or at least complaint, from Sherlock when he'd told him his plans. He'd received neither. Just a long, level, considering stare from across the room, and a quiet "yes, obviously."

"Obviously?" John had asked, with a half-incredulous laugh. He couldn't think of anything less obvious than a sudden desire to spend a week with his sister.

Sherlock had opened his mouth, and John had braced himself, had drawn up tense and rigid, expecting:

Yes, obviously, you've a small child and will feel the need to make the holidays special for her—though she's likely still too young to form any lasting memories—and yet the thought of festooning the house you shared with your dead wife is strangely abhorrent to you. You don't enjoy your sister's company, though you do feel a sense of obligation towards her, and it's likely that recent events have made you more open to mending fences, so to speak. People tend to choose holidays for that sort of thing, don't they? They find it—symbolic. Or something. So, there you have it. Obvious.

The sharp words had been quite clear in his head. John had ground his teeth, ready for it, waiting for Sherlock to say it. He'd waited and—

Nothing. Sherlock had said nothing. He'd nodded, made a small sound in the back of his throat, looked away.

The cutting voice in John's mind was his own. If those thoughts, if any of those thoughts had crossed Sherlock's mind, he'd not voiced them.

John wondered if, perhaps, Sherlock had a new perspective on the topic of estranged sisters. Though Harry, even if she'd occasionally wished him dead in her darkest moments, had certainly never tried to kill him.

So he'd gone. Spent a week out at Harry's place with Rosie. He'd surprised himself by having a nice time.

She'd been enamored of her niece, more so than he'd expected, really. She was sober, or, if not, she was doing a hell of a fantastic job at shamming it. They'd passed the week without engaging in the sort of mean-spirited sniping he'd grown accustomed to.

She hadn't mentioned Mary at all.

Harry had not attended his wedding, nor Mary's funeral. She seemed uncomfortable about it, as if she knew she'd committed some grave faux pas, and instead of attempting to rectify it had chosen to ignore it entirely.

He found, strangely, that he didn't mind.

He didn't much care what her reasons were for avoiding the subject. He'd been relieved not to have to discuss it, not to have to think about it. He'd done little else since it had happened, it seemed, had nearly torn down what remained of his entire world in a haze of guilt and anger.

It was good to forget, for a little while.

They'd got on well. She'd spoiled Rosie with far too many gifts. It had been nice, in a way, sharing space with another person again. There were quiet domestic sounds in the morning, none of the aching empty silences that haunted the halls of his own home.

And if he'd found himself frowning down at his phone in the evenings, checking for messages that never materialised, well . . . it was only because he'd been worried that Sherlock might find some reason to interrupt his holiday.

But that hadn't happened.

Instead there had been tea by the fire, and gifts under Harry's lopsided little tree, and several good photos of Rosie wide-eyed and smiling under the fairy lights. There had been careful, quiet evenings not talking about Mary, not talking about Clara, not talking about drinking or mistakes or disappointments or failures.

Quiet evenings not talking to Sherlock.

Harry had taken a job as a barista at a cute little coffee shop. She shared outrageous stories about customers that had John snorting with laughter and Rosie giggling at her exaggerated expressions and voices.

John had left his position at the surgery shortly after the explosion at Baker Street, after Sherrinford, after all that had happened with Sherlock and Eurus. The work had bored him to tears, and Mary had left behind a bank account with the kind of startling balance that made him wonder why either of them had ever been working there to begin with. There was Rosie to consider, Rosie who deserved so much more from him than he'd given her over the first year of her life.

And there were cases, of course—no amount of sensationalism or scandal surrounding Sherlock ever seemed enough to drive away clients.

"I've been back at Baker Street a lot lately," he'd told Harry, skirting entirely around the subject of Mary and money and jobs. "Cases, and—well. That sort of thing. It's been good. Yeah."

He did not mention the times he'd arrived at Baker Street and found the flat empty and quiet, Sherlock gone out without a word. The cases they worked together seemed only to be a matter of convenience—a client ringing the bell while John already happened to be there.

He didn't mention that, as much as things felt back to normal, it was a new sort of normal, and not one he was particularly contented with.

And he definitely did not mention that, lately, he'd been missing his old life terribly. That he sometimes woke in the morning in his empty bed in his too-quiet house and let himself imagine that none of it had happened, that he was still at the Baker Street flat in his old upstairs bedroom and Sherlock was downstairs setting something on fire in the kitchen.

There'd been no sense in his mentioning any of that. It would only bring down the mood. And he'd been having a lovely time, truly.

On Christmas Eve, he'd sent Sherlock a text. He had not received a response.

That had troubled him more than it should have.

Sherlock frequently lost himself in projects, neglected communication in favor of his work. It was far from the first time one of John's texts had gone unanswered.

Still—

Well. He worried. After everything, after all they had been through, he couldn't help but worry.

He'd texted again on Christmas morning, sent along a photo of Rosie chewing on the edge of a brightly wrapped gift. This time, the response was immediate.

Merry Christmas. SH

He'd waited, but that was all.

It had made him uneasy. Sherlock was usually far more loquacious. He tended to bombard John with stream of consciousness texts throughout the day. Instead, almost a full week had passed with nothing.

He'd spent the rest of Christmas day on edge. Had barely tasted the dinner Harry had prepared, had defaulted to terse replies to her hesitant inquiries. Rosie had picked up on his tension and had spent much of the day in ill temper, alternating between wailing and whimpering, thunderous tantrums followed by bouts of extreme clinginess, refusing to eat, impossible to soothe.

"Ah," Harry had said with a wry little smile. "After a week of being a perfect angel, I'm glad she chose to remind me why I never wanted to have kids."

She'd meant no ill will by the comment, but it had irritated him regardless, and he'd found himself suddenly quite eager to leave, relieved that he would only have to pass one more night until his scheduled departure.

He'd packed his bags. Finding himself on edge and unhappy with little to do, he'd unpacked them again and refolded all of his shirts. He'd slept poorly. Rosie fussed through the night in the little portable cot next to his bed in the guest room, did not settle for more than a half hour at a time.

He'd been unsure if she was disturbing his sleep, or if he was disturbing hers.

He woke early on Boxing Day, gathered his bag and Rosie's collection of gifts. Declined Harry's offer of breakfast, but accepted a mug of strong coffee. He'd hugged her goodbye, feeling a bit badly that he was ending a good week in such a sour state.

He'd taken the train back to London, laden down with bags and gifts and toddler, his back aching and his head pounding and a sick mounting sense of worry in his gut.

The taxi lurched and stuttered through traffic. John looked out the window, watched the slow creep of cars around him. Thought about his phone, dark and silent in his pocket.

A week. A full week gone by, with nothing more than that single, terse Merry Christmas.

Since he'd known Sherlock, there had been only three occasions where that length of time or more had passed without any communication between them.

The first time, he had been dead. The second two times, he'd been high.

John bounced his knee, stared out the window. It would have been easier to go home first, to unload his packages and unpack his bags, to settle Rosie before trying to make contact with Sherlock. But he'd given the cabbie the Baker Street address without hesitation.

They finally pulled up along the kerb, and John fumbled to pay. He zipped up Rosie's coat, left his own hanging open as he struggled out of the cab into the damp icy air.

He managed to unlock the door, stumbled inside, set his bags on the ground along the wall. He balanced Rosie on his hip and she fisted at the back of his shirt with her small hands, grumbling with discontent.

"I know," he murmured, pressed a kiss to the side of her head. "Just going to make sure everything's all right. Then we'll go home."

He went up the stairs, cautious, listening for anything amiss.

Rosie made a grumpy noise against his neck as they reached the landing, shifted uncomfortably in his arms.

He went through the door to the sitting room without knocking. Stopped. Stared.

Janine was on the sofa, mid-laugh, one hand pressed against her mouth. She was looking out across the room towards Sherlock's chair. Towards Sherlock, in his chair. Towards Sherlock, who was—who was smiling.

She turned towards the door, still laughing, as he came through. Her wide smile faltered a bit at the sight of him, and she cleared her throat, quieted. Across the room, Sherlock slipped from his chair, his face sobering. He disappeared into the kitchen without a word.

"John," Janine said, standing up. "Hi." She came towards him, hesitated for a moment before closing the distance.

He leaned in, uncomfortable. They exchanged a stiff, one-armed hug.

She pulled away quickly, barely brushing against him. Looked down, her gaze fixing on Rosie, who was studying her with a bewildered, scrunched face.

"Oh, is this the little one, then?" she asked.

"Yes," John said. He cleared his throat, looked at his daughter, smiled at her furrowed brow. "This is Rosamund. Well. Rosie."

Out of habit, he dipped the arm holding her slightly towards Janine. It had been his experience that most people, upon being presented with the most charming baby in the history of the world, immediately wanted to hold her.

"Oh," Janine said, recoiling slightly. She smiled, shook her head, let out a halting little laugh. "No, I'm not—I find children a bit scary, to be honest."

"Ah," he said. Stepped back.

"She's cute, though," Janine said. "Very."

"Yes," he agreed. "She—yes. She is."

The silence between them was strained. He glanced away, looked at the wall, pursed his lips.

"John," she said, hesitant.

He shook his head, feeling sorry but not quite sure why. He turned back towards her. "No, just—"

"I'm sorry about Mary," she said. She bit her lip.

"You don't need to—"

"I was angry," she said. She spoke quickly, but there was genuine warmth in her voice, real regret. "Of course I was—but I didn't want anything like that to—I didn't know what to think, when I heard. But I should have called. Or sent a bloody card, or—"

"It's—" John said.

"Don't. Don't let me off the hook. I should have called, John," she said. "I was a shite friend not to."

He looked at her helplessly. Somehow, thank you for your sympathy. In turn, I'm sorry my wife lied about her past and befriended you under false pretenses, then bashed you over the head and tried to murder your boss did not feel like an appropriate reply.

It was an uncharitable thought, however true. Though she had never once spoken of it, he'd got the sense that Mary had deeply regretted losing Janine's friendship.

"It was a difficult time," he hedged. That was—putting it mildly. But accurate.

"And how are you doing now?" she asked, lowering her voice a bit, looking from him to Rosie.

"Better," he said. And he mostly meant it. He cleared his throat. "And you?"

"Oh, I've been keeping busy," she said. There was a bit of mischief in her voice.

She shifted where she stood, and something glinted in the light. He glanced down, his gaze caught on the delicate band on her ring finger, the sparkle of diamond.

"Oh," he said, smiled. "Congratulations. I—" he hesitated, because her presence here in the flat, which had not made much sense to him moments earlier, now seemed to make even less sense. "I hope you're not here to have him investigated," he finished, breathing out an awkward laugh.

Her grin widened. "Not unless he's the one doing the investigating."

What?

He looked at her hand again. The stone gleamed prettily. Except he'd—he'd seen that ring before. He'd—

"A happy occasion, no doubt," Sherlock said, approaching from behind her, holding a bottle of champagne. "Care for a toast?"

There was a sick lurching in John's stomach, as if the ground had just fallen away beneath him. He looked from Janine's smiling face to Sherlock—Sherlock who had raised his brows and was staring at John with something approaching a challenge in those pale eyes.

He popped the cork. The sound was like a gunshot.

John clenched his hand. "Sherlock," he said. "Can I talk to you for a moment?"

"Yes?"

He pressed his lips together, breathed through his nose. Sherlock looked back at him, wide-eyed, innocent. The champagne bottle had begun to sweat in his hand, condensation running down the neck and beading up against his long fingers.

"Privately?" John said, forcing a hard smile.

"I'll pour," Janine said, plucking the bottle from Sherlock's hand and disappearing into the kitchen with a quick, indulgent smile in John's direction.

"Not fond of champagne?"

"Don't play stupid," John said. "It really doesn't suit you."

Rosie chose that moment to fuss against him, kicking her legs. She lifted her head from his shoulder and babbled at Sherlock, reached out a straining hand towards him.

"Not right now, sweetheart," John murmured against the side of her head, shifting her on his hip.

When he glanced back up, Sherlock was frowning, his brow creased. He'd clasped his hands behind his back and was studying John quite intently.

"What are you playing at?" John asked, finally, when it became apparent that Sherlock was not about to volunteer any information.

"I've no idea what you're talking about."

"Janine," John said. He flapped his hand. "The—engagement ring."

"Oh, that," Sherlock said, the furrow in his brow smoothing out. "Handy thing to have held onto, don't you think?"

"Handy." John cut himself off, not wanting to shout while holding Rosie. Already she had sensed his rising tension, was squirming in his arms, pushing against his chest. He lowered his voice. "What's this all about? You decided the last engagement ended too quickly? Time for another go?"

"Don't be ridiculous. It's for a case."

"Does she know it's for a case?"

"Of course!" Sherlock had the nerve to sound offended.

John stared at him, thought of the way he'd beamed that soppy, false smile into the security camera, the way he'd held up that ring and bit his lip like he was nervous. He thought of Janine, sleep-rumpled and clad in Sherlock's shirt, wearing an unashamed smile, moving around the flat like she lived there. Thought of Sherlock, still and pale on Magnussen's floor, blood seeping from a hole in his chest and that damned ring still in his pocket.

"What case?" John's face felt hot. He struggled to keep his voice down. "What case could possibly—?"

"Reginald Teller."

"Who?"

"Oh, John, surely you haven't forgotten already," Sherlock narrowed his eyes. He waited a moment, then let out an impatient huff. "The groom. Died from anaphylactic shock at his own wedding, halfway through the ceremony."

John frowned, thrown.

"For God's sake, it's not as if we've had a surplus of wedding murders," Sherlock said.

"I remember the case," he said, irritated now. "Yeah that—you took one look at the body, proclaimed it boring, and blamed the florist."

"To be fair, I also blamed the bride," Sherlock said, his nose wrinkled up. "Sloppy work on my part, won't happen again."

"Sherlock, that was four months ago."

"I've received new information."

"What new information?"

Sherlock huffed again, clearly already losing interest in the conversation. "Information that suggests I may have been hasty in my initial assessment."

He started to whirl away, hesitated. Spun back. Ducked down, locked eyes with Rosie, and offered her a sudden, genuinely terrifying smile.

She squealed with glee at the sight, twisted in John's arms, reached out again. He sighed, resigned, and handed her over.

"Creepy," he said. "You do know that's creepy, right? Next she'll be mimicking that face."

Sherlock settled her onto his hip without comment, continued his sweep through the flat as if he'd never been interrupted in the first place.

"Sherlock," John said, following. "What—"

"A serial killer, John!" Sherlock said, turning back. He looked pleased. Rosie, John noted, was smiling too. The effect was somewhat unsettling.

John shut his eyes, pinched his brow. He could hear Janine rustling about in the kitchen.

"Reginald Teller. It was anaphylactic shock," John said, after a long moment. "From the bouquet."

"Very good," Sherlock said, his voice dry. "You do remember."

John huffed, folded his arms across his chest. It had been one of the more chaotic crime scenes he'd seen. Guests milling about with cameras, a weeping bride, a shocked and stuttering vicar, and amidst it all the groom—sprawled face-up and gape-mouthed before the altar in his tuxedo, crushed flowers strewn in his wake.

Sherlock had taken a keen interest in the flattened bouquet, paying particular attention to the delicate yellow flowers woven in with the larger blooms.

"Ragwort," he'd announced, his expression at once bored and smug "It's a weed. Not common to bouquets. A bane to those who suffer from seasonal allergies—and I'd wager that the unfortunate Mr Teller did, indeed, have a severe reaction to the plant's pollen." He'd made a wide, sweeping gesture towards the corpse on the ground. "John?"

And John had taken his cue, had dutifully crouched down and examined the body, had confirmed that it looked like anaphylactic shock, and—

"Letting him in on our little secret, then, Sherl?" Janine's voice cut through his thoughts and he blinked away the memory, focusing on the present.

"Sorry," John said. "Secret?"

She smirked, pressed a champagne flute into his hand as she walked past. Her heels clicked on the wood floor.

"Secret?" John asked again. He followed Janine into the sitting room, stood behind her and looked up at the wall over the sofa, which had been plastered with photographs.

"Someone's been offing insufferable grooms," Janine said.

John frowned at the photographs. There was Reginald Teller, dead amongst his flowers. A smattering of photos from at least three other distinct crime scenes.

He looked over towards Sherlock. He'd shifted so that Rosie was facing away from the wall, was bouncing her absently on his hip. Mollified, John returned his attention to the photographs.

"Insufferable?" he asked.

"Four murders. Reginald Teller, four months ago. And—" Sherlock pointed. "—Vincent St Clair, one week ago. These two, Christopher Thomas and Winston Crane, happened last year. Cause of death was ruled accidental in all cases—"

"Could they have been?" John asked. "Accidental?"

"One groom dropping dead in the middle of speaking his vows is an accident," Sherlock said, and his lips were twitching, that unconscious little smile that he seemed unable to suppress when he was excited about a new case. "But four? No, four is a pattern."

John had to admit that was a fair point. "But the deaths all appeared accidental, yeah? No one was—I don't know. Stabbed with a salad fork?"

"St Clair nipped off to the gents immediately following his wedding ceremony, and was discovered half an hour later in the church basement at the foot of the stairs." Sherlock pointed at another photograph. "He'd suffered a broken neck, and displayed bruising consistent with a fall. Post-mortem blood testing revealed him to be quite inebriated—apparently he'd required a fair bit of liquid courage to go through with the ceremony—and the basement door was meant to have been locked. The bathroom was just down the hall, so naturally, Scotland Yard's finest assumed he'd simply opened the wrong door and—well." He smiled, a quick flash of teeth. "There was no suspicion of foul play."

"And Thomas and Crane?" John smiled, in spite of himself. Raised his brows. "Speared by a tossed bouquet? Tripped over a flower girl? Gluten in the gluten-free cake?"

"Peanuts."

"Sorry?"

"Not gluten. Winston Crane had a severe peanut allergy. By all accounts, very careful about it. His death was attributed to an unfortunate mix-up in the restaurant kitchen. There were two wedding celebrations occurring simultaneously. The wrong cake was served."

"Christ," John said, the smile fading from his face. "That's awful."

"Mm," Sherlock agreed noncommittally. "Though I imagine the restaurant will be relieved to know it was an intentional act and not, in fact, caused by their own negligence."

John pinched the bridge of his nose, looked back at the wall of photographs. His gaze fell on the last victim. "What about him, then?"

"Ah," Sherlock said, perking up. He gave Rosie an unconscious bounce on his hip, and she cooed against his shoulder. "Saved the best for last. Or, should I say, first."

"Sherlock."

"Christopher Thomas was the first victim," Sherlock said, toning down his interested good humour slightly. Only slightly. "Apparently there was a good deal of money tied up in the wedding. Something of a spectacle, by all accounts. He and his bride had arranged a photo opportunity on horseback following the ceremony. Witnesses claim there was a loud noise. His horse spooked, he was thrown. The whole thing was caught on camera."

"I assume you've watched the video," John said.

"Oh yes," Sherlock said. He gave a pleased bounce on the balls of his feet. Rosie made another happy cooing sound, settled more firmly in his arms.

John waited. When it became clear that Sherlock was going to make him ask, he rolled his eyes and huffed. "And?"

"The story checks out," Sherlock said. "Bride and groom on horseback, in full formal attire—begs the question of why, I suppose, but—"

"Sherlock."

"—but, as reported, there is indeed a noise, perhaps a car backfire. Difficult to say for sure without a detailed audio analysis. The horse spooks, Thomas hits the ground at a bad angle and rolls under the hooves, and suddenly it's not a wedding but a funeral."

"Right," John said, and looked down at the ground. He breathed through his nose for a moment, then lifted his head, met Sherlock's gaze. There was something strange in Sherlock's expression, something fleeting and uncomfortable. "So you're telling me that the video showed exactly what the police report said it did."

"Precisely."

"A tragic accident."

"Yes."

"But you think it's murder."

"Oh yes."

"Explain."

"I was so hoping you'd say that," Sherlock said. "If we go to the video—"

"No."

Sherlock stopped, the smile slipping from his face. "No?"

"No. I don't want to watch—" John breathed out, clenched his hand. "I don't want to see some poor bastard get his head kicked in on what's supposed to be the happiest day of his life."

"To be fair, he doesn't look entirely happy," Sherlock said. "In fact, he appeared quite nervous around the horse."

"With good reason, apparently."

"Well, yes." Sherlock hesitated, then ploughed on. "Except his bride is not discomposed at all. You can see in the video that she's quite comfortable on horseback. The noise spooks both horses, but she reacts instinctively, keeps her seat. He does not."

"So you think—what, exactly? That she planned this? You've already falsely accused one bride of murder, best not make it a pattern."

"No!" Sherlock said, his brow scrunching up in irritation. "I'm saying that, as with the other deaths, there was planning involved. Whoever did this had access to details about each couple, enough information to make a murder look plausibly like an accident."

"Including the fact that Christopher Thomas didn't like horses."

"And his wife did," Sherlock agreed, a smile pulling at the edge of his mouth again. His eyes gleamed with interest, that great mind cycling through endless variables, alive with possibilities. The sight made something in John's heart stutter.

It was contagious, that enthusiasm. It always had been, and it always would be. He could feel it in his veins, in his lungs. A siren call. The thrill of the chase.

"The victims are all white males between thirty and forty years of age. There are no obvious connections between them," Sherlock said.

"Except for the fact that they've all been described, by family and friends, as difficult," Janine added.

John twitched where he stood, suddenly feeling caught out, uncomfortable. He'd forgotten her entirely.

He tore his eyes away from Sherlock, looked at Janine. She smiled, took a sip of her champagne. Her ring sparkled.

"Ah," John said. He pinched at his brow again, shifted where he stood. Dragged his thoughts back to the case, back to what Sherlock had said. Thought about who might have it out for someone whose own grieving family and friends would label as difficult. "The waitstaff? Vendors?"

"Excellent, John, you're getting better at this."

"Sherl's got a list," Janine said.

"Oh, a list," John said, unable to keep the edge from creeping into his voice. "Let's have it then, Sherl."

"There are some overlaps," Sherlock said. He looked keyed up, enormously pleased with himself. "We'll be focusing on companies that provided services for all of the victims. You may remember, John, there are a lot people involved in creating that one perfect day."

John winced.

Sherlock cleared his throat, looked away. He seemed suddenly uncertain, regretful of hasty words in a way that he never used to be.

"I—" Sherlock said. "Not that—I mean—perhaps I shouldn't have—"

"So—" John interrupted, anxious to change the subject. He cleared his throat, looked at Janine. Found himself unable to look away from that ring on her finger. "You two—?"

"Obvious, isn't it?" Sherlock asked, seeming grateful for the change in subject. He walked over to stand next to Janine. He looked absurdly pleased with himself. "Pretend we're getting married, approach list of suspects in a nonthreatening way, find the killer. Shouldn't take long."

Janine smiled, looped her arm around his waist.

"And if—" John said, stopped. He looked at Sherlock, there with Rosie on one hip, Janine at his side. A proper family. "If it does? Take long?"

Janine laughed, a full, throaty sound. She glanced up at Sherlock and then over at John, her expression at once mischievous and mirthful. "If it does, then we'll have a wedding," she said. "Surely he'll have pissed off enough people by then that someone will try to kill him."

"Ah. So this case is going to have you acting like an arsehole to a bunch of strangers." He smiled tightly, looked back at the wall. "Business as usual, then, yeah?"

"Exactly," Sherlock said. It came out clipped, rushed, as if he were eager to return the conversation to familiar territory.

John's smile felt stiff and unnatural on his face. He could not quite bring himself to look back at where Sherlock and Janine were standing together.

"I will, of course, need your help."

John cleared his throat, squared his shoulders. Turned around. "Of course. What—"

"You'll need to put an engagement announcement on your blog."

It was like being hit with a bucket of ice water. "What?"

Sherlock huffed. "An engagement announcement, John. Use lots of exclamation points. That should indicate a certain level of enthusiasm."

"You want an engagement announcement. On my blog."

"Well, it's really my blog, isn't it?"

"Nope."

"It's a blog about me."

"It's my blog," John said. He pursed his lips, feeling wrong-footed, defensive. "I just write about you. Sometimes."

"All the time."

"Occasionally."

"Name an entry that isn't about me."

"Sherlock—"

"Boys," Janine said, smiling brightly. She squeezed Sherlock's arm. John found his attention caught by her fingernails, neat and squared at the edges and painted a vibrant red.

It reminded him, sharply, of Irene Adler, her red fingernails, and he pressed his lips together, forced himself not to look away.

"Can't you just tweet about it?" he snapped.

"Just did," Sherlock said, holding out his phone. "But there are certain expectations."

"Expectations."

"Expectations that you'll blog about any and all major events relating to me. It would seem suspicious if you didn't mention it. As the best man, of course."

"Best man," John said, trying hard not to feel like he'd been kicked in the stomach. "Right."

"John—"

"Look, I'll—fine. I'll do it. When I get home." John clenched his hand again, scowled. Looked up at the ceiling. "Which I should be doing. Now. We've had a long trip. Rosie's tired."

He gestured helplessly towards Rosie, who had fallen asleep against Sherlock's neck, her face slack and peaceful.

"Oh," Sherlock said, and there was a flicker of genuine surprise on his face, there and gone. "Of course. Right. Um—"

He shifted Rosie off of his shoulder, held her out towards John. She grumbled in sleepy protest, her eyes fluttering open to stare accusingly at him.

John took her, murmured an apology against her soft warm head. Did not meet Sherlock's eye.

"John—" Sherlock started.

"Congratulations," John said. It emerged sharp-edged, brittle. He tipped his glass in their direction. "To the happy couple."

He downed his champagne in one large swallow. It burned his throat. He put the empty glass down on the coffee table. Then he turned and made his way back down the stairs. He did not look back.

Chapter Text

*

The sun had slipped below the horizon, the shadows gathering close and heavy. John had not bothered to switch on a light.

He sat at his little kitchen table, laptop open in front of him, and stared at his blog.

It's for a case, he told himself firmly. And, frankly, it's far from the weirdest thing he's ever done. At least she's in on it this time.

Janine hadn't seemed put off by the whole thing. Not in the least. She'd been amused, in high spirits.

She'd been in high spirits that day he'd come upon her in the flat, too, before the whole fiasco with Magnussen. Bustling around like she owned the place. Wearing Sherlock's clothes. She'd even rearranged the kitchen to her taste.

And she hadn't been in on anything, back then. The affection on her face had been real.

For a case.

He wondered how long she'd been back in Sherlock's life. If she'd rearranged the cabinets again. The scheme they were planning was not the sort of thing that wrapped up over the course of a single weekend. She'd be around a lot. Until it was done.

If it was done.

Leave it to Sherlock to be vain enough to assume a serial killer would view him as an irresistible target. Maybe he wouldn't. Maybe the whole thing was a dead end. Maybe there was no killer at all, just an unfortunate collection of ill-timed tragedies. Then what?

Then we'll have a wedding, Janine had said. She'd been smirking. It had all been a big joke, and it would surely remain a big joke right up until they were standing face to face at the altar in front of a vicar, and then—

Surely they wouldn't go through with it.

His mind helpfully supplied an image of Sherlock, neatly groomed and pressed and tuxedo-clad, beaming down at Janine as he lifted a gauzy veil from her face—

No. Nope. Wouldn't happen.

And if it did, Sherlock wouldn't beam.

The thought made him feel a little ill.

He stood up, poured himself a drink. Stood leaning against his kitchen counter as he swallowed it down. When he was done, he looked at his empty glass. Set it in the sink, put the bottle away.

The house was silent around him. Rosie did not stir.

He sat back down at the table, pinched at the bridge of his nose, shut his eyes. Thought about the way the diamond on Janine's finger had caught the light.

*

The Personal Blog of Dr John H Watson

26th December - The Rumors Are True

So I suppose you've all seen the news already. He's gone and done it. Sherlock Holmes is engaged and officially off the market.

To who, you might ask?

Well, if you've paid attention at all over the last few years, you already know all about Janine Hawkins. Last time was a bit of a disaster, but she and Sherlock have made up and have decided to give it another go. They're very excited to begin wedding planning, and I suppose as the best man I'll be along for the ride. Stay tuned here for updates!

 

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To whom.
Sherlock Holmes

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*

John woke early, blinking off the vestiges of a thin and unsatisfying sleep.

He tended to Rosie's needs. He made himself a cup of coffee. He showered, stood under the hot water longer than necessary, not thinking of anything.

He dressed without looking at himself in the mirror. Did not turn on his laptop, did not look at his email.

He tried not to think about Sherlock. Failed, as he always did when attempting such foolish endeavors.

And so he thought about the way that Sherlock had not said anything to him, not a single word about his decision to spend a week at Harry's for Christmas. He'd expected the worst, and yet Sherlock had been—accepting. Understanding. Or, at the very least, he'd been quiet about it.

John had, at the time, thought it was down to Sherlock having a new perspective on life, on family, on all of those complicated yet necessary relationships.

Now he found himself unable to shake the notion that Sherlock had simply wanted him out of the way.

It was absurd, really. It wasn't like he lived at Baker Street. If Sherlock wanted to conduct a fake courtship, he could have done so whether or not John popped by for the occasional bit of takeaway in front of the telly.

Still. It had been a solid week of silence. Unanswered texts. And, finally, that one perfunctory Merry Christmas.

Had it been deliberate avoidance? Or just disinterest?

Letting him in on our little secret, then, Sherl? Janine's voice, sly and amused.

Her hand on Sherlock's arm, that ring glinting on her finger.

John switched on the telly, stood drinking his coffee while flipping through the channels. Skipped past a familiar face. Stopped. Went back.

Janine.

Janine, standing in front of the door to 221B, holding two cups of coffee from Speedy's. Her hair was piled messily on top of her head. She was wearing pyjama bottoms and one of Sherlock's shirts, the fabric rumpled, the sleeves rolled up. She painted a perfect morning-after picture, the sleepy lover surprised by sudden attention, blinking into the camera.

There was something calculating in her smile that indicated she was not really surprised at all.

"—well, we've reconciled, yeah? When someone's as pretty as my Sherl, you can forgive a bit of bad behaviour every now and again, don't you think?" She smiled at the camera, cradled the two paper cups closer to her body.

"Does he still make you wear the hat?" the reporter asked.

Janine turned to the door, tossing a saucy grin over her shoulder as she went inside. "Oh, none of that. I promised I wouldn't kiss and tell this time. But—oh—maybe I make him wear the hat."

John turned off the television, stood looking at his own reflection in the darkened screen.

In the kitchen, there was a clatter as Rosie threw her spoon across the room. John shut his eyes, pinched his brow. He'd hoped that a good night's sleep would have put her in better spirits, but she seemed determined to remain balanced on the edge of a tantrum.

He went into the kitchen, shot her a stern look, bent to pick up the spoon. She threw her juice cup at his head. He ducked.

"No," he said.

"No," she echoed, and looked around for something else to grab.

He stood up, dropped the spoon and juice cup in the sink. Scooped her out of her highchair.

"Come on," he said, deciding without realizing there was a decision to make. "Let's go see Sherlock."

*

"John!" Mrs Hudson cried as he pushed through the door, shutting it behind him against the winter chill. "Oh, it's in all the papers. I had no idea they were so serious!"

She flapped a newspaper at him, and he grimaced and took it, tucked it under his arm as he attempted to navigate the stairs with Rosie in tow.

"Oh, I wish he'd said something! Did you know all of this was going on? Hello, dear," Mrs Hudson added, pausing to smile at Rosie.

Rosie grinned back, and then seemed to remember she was supposed to be in bad temper and buried her face against John's neck.

"Bit of a rough morning," John said.

"Don't you think they're moving a bit quickly?" Mrs Hudson called after him, her voice dropped into an absurd stage whisper. "I know I'm a bit old-fashioned, but she's only been staying here for a week, and after the way things ended last time—"

"Mrs Hudson," John said, pausing as his mind caught and stalled on staying here for a week. "I don't think anyone, anywhere, could ever make the mistake of calling you old-fashioned."

He continued up the stairs, went through the door into the sitting room without pausing to knock.

Janine was on the sofa. She'd got dressed, he noted with some measure of relief. In her own clothes.

"Good morning," she said. There was a smile curving at the corner of her mouth. "Sherl didn't mention you'd be stopping by."

John breathed out through his nose, deflating a bit. Rosie fussed in his arms and he held her a little tighter. "Right. I—didn't say I'd be—" he paused, frustrated with himself. Shook his head. "Er—is he in?"

"He's just getting dressed," Janine said. Still smiling. Still watching John with sharp eyes.

John swallowed, pointedly did not look down the hallway towards Sherlock's bedroom.

"Saw you on the telly this morning," he said. He dropped the unopened newspaper down onto the coffee table. "And you've made the papers, apparently."

"Oh, yeah, they surprised me on my morning coffee run," she said. "Bit embarrassing, really."

"I bet."

An uncomfortable silence stretched between them.

"So," John said, after a time. "Mrs Hudson says you've been staying here?"

"Well," she said. "Sussex is a bit far for a daily commute."

"Right."

"I don't think she likes me much," Janine said. "Mrs Hudson. Seemed a bit scandalised this morning. Probably hasn't forgiven me for last time, with the papers."

"Probably not, yeah," John said. He scratched the back of his neck. The last time, the papers had headlines that screamed things like SEVEN TIMES A NIGHT IN BAKER STREET and HE MADE ME WEAR THE HAT. It had been uncomfortable, really. Embarrassing. No one—no one ever really wanted to know those kinds of details about their best mate.

"Well. We want to make things look realistic. Like we can't keep our hands off each other." She smiled again, leaned back against the cushions, looking a bit like a smug cat. "Not too difficult, that."

"Right," he said again. "Yeah." He wondered what she meant by that, and found himself unable to meet her eye, casting desperately around the room for something to grab his attention.

"Ah, John."

John turned. Sherlock was in the hall, smoothing his suit jacket into place. He was fully dressed, shoes and all. Impeccable.

"Sorry to just drop in," John said. Perhaps he ought to start calling ahead, now that Janine was—now that Sherlock no longer lived alone.

Rosie flailed in his arms, indignant.

"Hello, Watson," Sherlock said, bending to offer her a quick smile before straightening up and continuing past John into the room.

He smelled good, John thought. New shampoo, maybe. Or cologne. And that was—that was a distractingly unnecessary thought to be having.

"Thought we could talk through the case," John said, dragging his thoughts away from Sherlock's scent. "You know. Figure out a plan of attack."

"Not sure how much more we'll need you to do," Sherlock said, and oh Christ but it rankled to hear 'we' used in a way that excluded him. "You've already posted the announcement on your blog."

There was a sour twist to Sherlock's mouth.

John frowned. "Something wrong?"

"Well."

"Well?"

"You could have been a bit—"

"What?" John asked, hackles rising. "A bit what?"

"Happier. More enthusiastic. Fluffy clouds and hearts and exclamation points," Sherlock said. He wrinkled up his nose. "May I point you to the entry following your own wedding, where I emulated your writing style—"

"Emulated my—" John stopped shook his head, blew out a hard breath through his nose. "I don't write like that, Sherlock."

"You really sort of do," Sherlock said.

"You were exaggerating. Blowing it out of proportion. That's what you do."

Sherlock see-sawed his hand in the air.

"Fine," John said through his teeth. "Next entry will have more exclamation points. Any other requests?"

Sherlock had already moved past him, clearly having lost interest in the conversation. He crossed the sitting room to stand in front of the sofa, peering up at his wall of gruesome crime scene photos.

"Oi," said Janine. "You're blocking the telly."

"I'll need to speak with the spouses," Sherlock said. "Likely a dead end, but there's always the chance that one of them knows something—"

"Er—no," John said. "Not a good idea. The last time you saw Reginald Teller's bereaved wife, you accused her of murder."

"For the sake of clarity, John, I simply expressed the likelihood that someone had slipped ragwort into the bouquet prior to the ceremony, and—other than the florist— who would be better positioned to do so than the bride herself?"

John shut his eyes. The woman had already been a sobbing mess, and Sherlock running his mouth had only made it worse.

"Well, it's not like she was arrested," Sherlock said.

"No thanks to you," John sighed.

"Anyway, we can cross that particular florist off our list. They've gone out of business."

"Yeah, wonder why."

"You'll need to speak with the spouses, then," Sherlock said, his expression souring.

"Fine," John said, trying not to feel too smug. "I'll just—"

"Not as yourself."

"Sorry, what?"

"You can't approach them as yourself, you'll give the whole thing away. No one's going to attempt to murder me if they think I'm in the middle of an investigation."

"You sure about that?"

Distantly, John was aware that Janine was laughing. He turned away from Sherlock, looked at her. She was sprawled against the armrest of the sofa, watching them with bright eyes. She looked entirely comfortable, content. Like she belonged there.

His chest felt strangely hollow.

"Use one of the Facebook accounts," Sherlock said.

John groaned, turned back to Sherlock. "No."

"It's the only way."

"There are other ways."

"There really aren't."

Sherlock maintained a rotating stable of false Facebook accounts. He had, it seemed, spent years building them up—adding photos, checking in at various locations, cultivating a varied enough list of friends as to make them seem entirely real. Real enough that he could usually get a client (or suspect, or witness) to accept a friend request without second thought, thus opening up their entire history of social media posts for his perusal.

It had, John was forced to admit, proved a useful tool in the past, if not an entirely ethical one. And he was not particularly keen on doing the dirty work himself.

"I'll do it," Janine offered.

"Fine," Sherlock agreed. "Now—"

"No," John snapped. He hesitated, startled at his own vehemence. "Erm—you'll be. Busy. With the wedding planning. Fake! Fake wedding planning. So. I should just—"

Rosie flailed in his arms again. She'd grown heavy and warm, and his shoulder ached.

"I should just—" he tried again. He went over to his chair, set Rosie down in it. She immediately pulled herself up to standing using the arm rest, peered at him from over the back. Her blond ringlets were tousled, sticking up at odd angles. Her expression was indignant. He hesitated for a moment, waiting to see if she would start another tantrum.

For a moment she looked poised to scream, but then her eyes caught on the bookshelf and her face relaxed as she studied the curiosities stacked there.

John breathed a sigh of relief. Turned back to Sherlock. "Erm—which—?"

"Mm, the medical receptionist, I think. Alice. Yoga in her spare time, mild but not fanatical interest in reality television, posts far too many wine memes," he wrinkled up his nose at that last. "Boring—well, everyone is, really—and more importantly, entirely ordinary. Unmemorable. Easy enough to convince just about anyone that they'd been introduced at a recent social event and immediately forgotten."

"You've been posting wine memes?" John raised his brow.

"Helps to get into character."

"Right."

"The contact list is on the wall," Sherlock said, gesturing vaguely over Janine's head.

John flashed a tight, apologetic smile at Janine, who shifted to the right in order to allow him access to the wall. He tugged down a scrap of paper upon which four names had been scrawled. Frowned.

"Hang on," he said.

"Problem?"

"No, but—" John stared down at the paper. Cleared his throat. "Robert?"

"Winston Crane's bereaved husband, yes."

"Wait," John said. His face had grown hot. "Husband? But I thought—"

He stopped, looked at Sherlock, who had said nothing but was watching him with that patient, blank expression, the one that said that he'd fallen terribly far behind and had quite a lot of ground to cover if he ever hoped to catch up.

"Oh," he said, feeling foolish. He cleared his throat again, looked away.

Janine stood up from the sofa, went into the kitchen. Her heels were loud on the wood floor. John wondered idly what Mrs Hudson thought of that.

"Hang on," John said again, because it wasn't the fact that Crane had left behind a bereaved husband that had tripped him up, it was the fact that their killer wasn't targeting only heterosexual couples as he'd first assumed.

Sherlock should not have needed to request Janine's assistance for the case at all. He could have just asked John.

But he hadn't.

"Why all of this, then?" he asked. He tipped his head towards the kitchen, where Janine was fiddling with the kettle. "I could have just—wouldn't it have been easier for us to just—?"

"You're not gay," Sherlock said.

"Well," John paused. "No." He cleared his throat, looked back at the wall. "But everyone already thinks we're a couple. Wouldn't be that much of a stretch, really. For a case."

"No one has thought that for quite some time."

"What do you mean?" John frowned. "Of course they do. People are literally saying it all the time—" he stopped. Considered. Tried to remember the last time anyone had made such an assumption.

Sherlock was right, he realised. He'd not had to clarify their relationship, or lack thereof, in a very long time. Whatever there had been between them that had made people think there was more to their relationship was no longer there.

He should be relieved, he thought. No more embarrassing situations. No more awkward conversations. No more people getting the wrong idea, always the wrong idea.

Instead it left him feeling strangely bereft. He looked down at the ground. Wondered when it had stopped, and what had been the thing to stop it.

Christ, it felt like something had died. Like a part of him had died, without him ever even noticing.

Janine came back from the kitchen with two mugs. She handed one to Sherlock. John watched as their fingers brushed. There was a comfortable familiarity to their movements. He'd been comfortable around Sherlock like that, once. A long time ago.

It wasn't his life anymore. Would never be his life again.

Sherlock was still Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective. Older, wiser, and perhaps a bit kinder, but still the same person. Still brilliant and slightly mad and intoxicating to be around. But John—

Well. John was now the person who warranted a single generic text on Christmas morning.

"John?"

"Right, no, you're right." John forced himself to laugh, looked away. He felt sick. "Wouldn't have worked, anyway. With—with Rosie. I'd never have enough time to fully commit to the role. You know."

Sherlock blinked at him.

"Guess you couldn't have asked Irene, yeah?" John said. He resisted the urge to clamp a hand over his mouth. Settled for rocking slightly back on the balls of his feet, tipping his head up towards the ceiling. Heat had begun to creep up the back of his neck.

Sherlock said nothing.

"Well. She is supposed to be dead," John said, and he had no idea why he was still talking. His pulse pounded in his ears. "Might raise a few eyebrows."

"More secrets, Sherl?" Janine asked. She took a sip from her mug. John would not have believed it possible to smirk and sip tea at the same time, but she seemed to be faring quite well.

Sherlock opened his mouth, shut it again.

"Should I be jealous?" Janine pressed.

John shook his head. "Just—he dragged you out here, all the way from Sussex. Inconvenient, yeah? Might have been easier to go with someone more. Um. Local."

"More local," Sherlock said, speaking slowly, his brow furrowed up.

"Not me," John said. "I mean. You already said—well—obviously—that wouldn't have worked. But. I mean, maybe Molly could have—"

"I would not have asked Molly Hooper to do this," Sherlock said quietly.

"Right, no, that—" John sighed as his own words caught up with him. "That would have been cruel." He shut his eyes, wished he could disappear. He could sink right into the carpet. That would be nice.

"I—" Sherlock said.

"Forget it," John said. "Stupid idea. Anyway. You already had the ring, yeah? Janine's size and everything. More convenient that way. You'd have had to get another one for me. Not that—not that I could have helped you with this anyway. And then you'd have two useless rings lying around instead of just one. Expensive. So."

Mercifully he managed to wrangle his mouth shut. Forced a bland smile onto his face instead.

Sherlock blinked at him. Blinked and blinked.

John cleared his throat, went on talking. "So. Alice with the wine memes. I think I can handle that."

"Probably best to send friend requests on New Year's Day," Sherlock said, an odd expression flickering across his face. There and gone in an instant. "Easier to pretend you've crossed paths in a pub the night before."

"New Year's Day. Yep. Got it." John looked over at his old chair. Rosie had clambered down, was making her way with clumsy, determined steps towards Sherlock. She caught his trouser leg in her fists, tugged.

Sherlock bent down and picked her up without batting an eye, balanced her on his hip. She squealed with glee, buried her face in his neck.

He'd been tentative with her at first. Uncertain. But he'd taken to her. And she to him.

"This is going to be a delicate balance," Sherlock said, looking at the wall, his eyes skimming over the slips of paper and photographs he'd pinned there. "Set a wedding date too soon, and the murderer won't have time to put together a plan. Set it too late, and we'll risk losing interest and visibility."

"What makes you so sure someone is going to come after you?" John asked.

Sherlock scoffed, rolled his eyes.

"No, I'm serious," John said. "You're going to a lot of trouble with no real guarantee. Maybe he's set his sights on some other wedding. Maybe he's on holiday."

"Please, John, as if any serial killer worth his salt would pass up an opportunity to take me on."

"Maybe he doesn't want to get caught."

"They all want to get caught." Sherlock smiled.

John smiled tightly back, did not respond.

"Besides," Sherlock said. "It's not as if he'll know I'm investigating the murders. They've all officially been classified as accidents. As far as anyone is concerned, I'm planning my actual wedding to my actual girlfriend. What better legacy could he ask for than adding me to his list of unsuspecting victims? Impossible to resist."

"Ego's still intact," John said. "Good. Yeah. That's good."

"What are you thinking, Sherl?" Janine asked, turning to study his wall of clippings. She gave Rosie a wide berth.

John decided that if he never heard Sherl uttered again, it would be too soon.

"Three months," Sherlock said. "Late March or early April would be best."

"That's still fast," John said. He could not quite meet Sherlock's eye. "Very fast. You know these things take time to plan."

"Ah, but what better way to showcase my poor behaviour than by insisting on unreasonable deadlines?"

"You have a point," John conceded.

"Janine," Sherlock said, turning to look at her. He was smiling, his eager smile, his game-is-on smile, and John's chest clenched at the realization that it wasn't for him.

"Hm?"

"We'll need to go out. New Year's Eve. The more conspicuous the better."

"Ooh, good idea," Janine agreed.

"Er—" John said. "Why?"

"Can't be any doubts this time around," Janine said. "We'll have to look like a couple, or else the murderer might start to worry he's being set up."

She looked over to Sherlock, just a quick little glance. Checking in, wanting to see if she'd got it right. Sherlock favoured her with a pleased expression.

John looked away. He felt a bit ill. Too much coffee on an empty stomach, he supposed.

*

He spent New Year's Eve alone in his little house, eating reheated takeaway while Rosie napped on the sofa next to him.

Bit pathetic, he supposed, but in the grand scheme of things it was not the worst holiday he'd ever had.

He kept his phone near, just in case. Checked it periodically.

Harry called around ten o'clock. She sounded sober. They chatted for a few minutes and then rung off.

Sherlock did not text.

Happy New Year, John sent at midnight. He kissed Rosie on the head, carried her off to bed. Spent a few moments looking down at her, quietly promising her a better year than the last.

When he returned to the sofa, he looked at his phone.

No response.

*

In the morning there were photographs in the papers. And, of course, a simple internet search promised more.

John searched.

He told himself it was for the case. It was, after all, necessary to know the reaction Sherlock and Janine's little display was garnering. He could keep an eye on these sort of things from an outside perspective. Sort of an objective third party.

He scrolled through photos—professional shots from the tabloid rags, a few blurry ones clearly hastily captured on a mobile. One shaky video of Sherlock and Janine dancing.

In all of them, Janine was smiling. Her eyes sparkled. She looked very much like a woman in love. If he hadn't know she was faking, he would have been—

Well. Fooled. He would have been fooled.

Janine, smiling. Janine and Sherlock, arm-in-arm. Janine sipping champagne. Janine kissing Sherlock on the cheek.

In nearly all of the photos, Sherlock had his head down, staring at his phone. He looked disinterested, bored.

Bad behaviour, John reminded himself. Well. Sherlock was certainly an expert at that.

One photographer had caught the happy couple at midnight. Janine had one hand on Sherlock's waist, the other cupping his cheek. Her engagement ring gleamed in the light of the camera flash. He had both arms looped over her shoulders, his phone cradled in his hand behind her. She was kissing him, full on the lips, her eyes closed. His eyes were open, fixed on his phone screen.

John looked at his own phone again, though he already knew what he'd find.

Nothing.

Well, it didn't matter. Sherlock was putting on an act. The phone and the disinterested stare were all part of it. For all John knew, he'd spent the night solving crimes on Twitter while photographers snapped away. Or perhaps he'd been texting Irene.

That thought brought with it a sick swooping sensation in his chest. John ignored it. Opened his laptop, logged into the Facebook account of Alice with the wine memes. Spent a moment scrolling through the photos and posts that Sherlock had already established over the years, refreshing his memory on the type of person Alice was supposed to be.

"Right," he said. He cracked his knuckles. Sent friend requests to each of the four bereaved spouses.

Sooooo nice meeting you last night! he typed. Paused. Added a second exclamation point.

Sherlock would probably find fault with it. He'd spent so many years building up the woman's online personality that he'd likely be able to point to the extra punctuation, or the lack of emojis, or some other absolutely idiotic detail and claim that it ruined the entire effect.

Well. If he felt so strongly about it, he could do it himself.

John scowled at his screen. Sent the messages.

Christine Thomas accepted the request immediately. She also sent a response to his message.

happy new year :)

Exactly the sort of generically polite response he supposed one would send to a nonthreatening stranger she did not actually recall meeting during a lively night out at the pub. Excellent.

Alice, he thought, would be the type of person who hoarded superficial contacts but made no effort to cultivate long-term relationships, at least at first. He elected not to respond to Christine's message.

Instead he scrolled through her page, glanced at her photos, looked at the posts from her friends. She had recently started a new job, he noted. Moved into a new flat. She'd been tagged in several photos out at various pubs and events. She was smiling. Surrounded by friends.

He scrolled further. Paused at a lengthy note about the death of her husband. There were several comments on the post acknowledging the one year anniversary of the event.

He glanced over the comments.

A woman named Connie: **hugs** thinking of you luv

A man named Peter: Thinking of you on the anniversary of this terrible day. I'm here for you if you ever need someone to talk to, or even just a shoulder to cry on.

Peter again: And you are doing so well! I know Chris would be happy to see how far you've come this past year!

A woman named Valerie: I know this year has been hard for you, and I'm hoping and praying there are nothing but good things ahead!

A woman named Julie: just remember everything happens for a reason…thinking of u…be well <3

And so on and so forth. They made him uncomfortable, much like the platitudes that had poured in after Mary had died.

If Sherlock was right (and John had no reason to doubt him on the subject), Christopher Thomas had been a difficult man to like. He wondered how many of the friends offering support and comfort were secretly glad that he'd been removed from her life.

Well. The everything happens for a reason commenter was likely one of them. He made a note of her name, scrolled on.

Christine seemed genuine, he thought. A woman touched by tragedy who was making an effort to rejoin the world around her. Not an easy thing to do. He would know.

He was glad he had not watched the video of her husband toppling from the horse.

*

Sherlock was perched in his chair, knees under his chin, eyes closed, when John made his way into the flat.

"Happy New Year," John said, unable to keep the edge out of his voice. He stepped towards his chair, stopped. Did not sit.

"Mm," Sherlock said, his voice distracted. He did not open his eyes.

"Where's Janine?"

"Out."

John took a deep breath, released it. Tried not to feel too pleased about that. "Right. So, Christine Thomas accepted my—well—Alice's friend request."

"And?"

"Not sure what I'm looking for. She's grieving. It's been more than a year, so she's started trying to move on. New job. New flat. Nights out with friends. You know."

Sherlock said nothing.

John shifted where he stood, feeling strangely hollow. He thought about how Sherlock had stood from his chair and embraced him, once, had held him quietly while he shook himself apart.

"You were right about the horses," he said, clearing his throat, aware that the silence had gone on a shade too long.

"Of course I was," Sherlock said. He opened his eyes. "Right about what?"

"She rides. Or rode, I don't know if she does anymore. I don't think I could if—well. Doesn't matter. But there are pictures of her on horseback."

"And her husband?"

"Plenty of photos of the two of them, yeah. Vacations, fancy dinners, all sorts of things. None of him on horseback, though."

"Hm, thought so."

"Right," John said. "Well. She's the only one who accepted."

"Give it time."

John sighed, looked up at the ceiling. "You were in the papers again."

"Yes, that was the plan."

"Fun night, was it?"

Sherlock opened his eyes. His gaze was startlingly sharp. "It's not about fun, John. I'm laying the necessary groundwork to catch a serial killer."

"Yeah, well, that's the sort of thing you find fun."

Sherlock's lip twitched. "True."

"Look," John said. He clenched his hand. His palm was clammy. "Do you have anything on? A case, or—"

"A . . . case?" Sherlock furrowed his brow. "You mean a case other than the delicate and complex operation I'm currently engaged in?"

"Engaged," John said weakly. "Puns, now. Good. Yeah. Next you'll be writing the blog entries."

Sherlock sat forward in his chair, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped under his chin. "What are you—?"

"It's just—Rosie's with the sitter, so I have a few hours. I just thought. If you had something on—?"

"Nothing at the moment," Sherlock said. He did not take his eyes from John.

"Nothing besides the obvious, you mean."

"Precisely."

"All right," John said. He took another breath. Steadied himself.

Sherlock swallowed. Said nothing.

John turned around, went down the hall to use the loo.

Janine's hairbrush was on the counter, a stray dark hair coiled in the bristles. The small room smelled like her shampoo. There were two toothbrushes in the little holder.

John washed his hands, studiously avoided meeting his own gaze in the mirror.

When he emerged, Sherlock had not moved from his chair.

"Well," John said. He could no longer invent excuses to linger. "I guess I'll just—erm. Go."

Sherlock sat up a bit straighter, frowning. He opened his mouth, shut it again, did not respond.

John went back down the stairs without another word, his face flushed, his stomach roiling.

*

One of John's neighbors was a stay at home mum with a daughter about Rosie's age. He paid her to take Rosie off his hands a few hours each week. Until recently, he'd been in the habit of spending many of those hours with Sherlock.

Sometimes, the stars would align and there would be a case, some hapless client at the door. Sometimes they just had tea and watched a bit of crap telly. Well. John watched crap telly while Sherlock fussed with his microscope or typed on his laptop or stared at his phone.

For a few hours each week, he let himself pretend that things were different.

He still had three hours until he was due to pick Rosie up.

There was no reason he couldn't have stayed at the flat, he thought, even as he let himself out and set off down Baker Street at a fast clip. They didn't need to be out on a case to spend time together. He could have sat down on the sofa, turned on the telly. Sherlock had never objected to that, no reason for him to start now.

Except then he'd thought of Janine coming home from wherever she'd gone to find him just—just sitting there, waiting for Sherlock to acknowledge him, and—

Well. He thought it did, perhaps, look a bit sad. Pathetic. Like he didn't know how to take a hint. Sherlock didn't call him for cases anymore, after all. He tolerated John's company, but he didn't seek it out. And why should he?

John kicked at the ground, dodged around a slow-moving group of people in a heavy winter coats.

Janine had slotted right in at Baker Street. And Sherlock certainly seemed to enjoy her company. He spoke to her. He asked for her input. He laughed with her. Hell, he might as well marry her for real, the way they got on. He certainly didn't need John hanging around, filling up the space with uncomfortable silences.

John walked for a while, let the icy January air clear his head. Found his way into a cosy looking pub when his fingers had begun to numb.

He settled into a seat at the bar, ordered himself a drink. Logged into Facebook as Alice on his phone and checked his messages.

Robert, the bereaved husband of Winston Crane, had accepted the friend request.

John sipped his drink, scrolled through his photos and posts. It had been more than a year, but the still-raw grief was apparent in everything he wrote.

It was difficult to get a sense of Winston or Robert's personalities from photographs. There were countless shots of the pair together—in their home, out at dinner, on vacation. Smiles all around. Were they genuine? He could see nothing to suggest otherwise. Perhaps Sherlock would have a different opinion on their body language.

He wondered who had been the first to brand Winston Crane difficult. Or Christopher Thomas, or Reginald Teller, or Vincent St Clair, for that matter.

The comments on his posts from friends were supportive, if vague. No one hinting that he'd be better off now that Winston Crane was no longer in his life. No one saying much about Winston at all.

He thought about Janine, and the uncomfortable look on her face when the subject of Mary had come up. I should have called, she'd said. I was a shite friend not to.

She'd had more reason than most to be pissed off at Mary, and yet she had attempted to be respectful of his sorrow. She had not suggested that he was better off now, without her. Even if the thought had crossed her mind.

And Harry—Harry hadn't spoken about Mary at all. Ever.

He wondered why that was. When Sherlock had—died—it seemed like every person John had ever encountered in his life had an opinion on the man that they were suddenly determined to share with him.

John ordered another drink. Looked at his phone. He felt hollow, frail, like he might simply drift away.

It's five o'clock somewhere! he posted on Alice's feed. He added a winking face and a wine glass emoji.

He took a sip of his own drink, tried not to think about any of it.

Chapter Text

*

The message icon popped up just as John had finished settling Rosie down for an afternoon nap. He took his phone with him into the sitting room, settled down on his little sofa and turned the television on. He kept the volume low.

He stared at the screen for a few moments without really seeing anything.

Finally, when he could no longer find a reason to delay, he looked down at his phone. He swallowed hard, suppressed the small, irrational feeling of disappointment when he saw that the message was not from Sherlock. There was no reason for it to be Sherlock. He'd not heard from him in days.

Sherlock was busy, of course. With his case. That was fine. John was busy too. That's just how it was, now. It was all fine.

The message had come in through Alice's Facebook account.

who are you?
you didn't meet me on new years

John looked at the text on the screen, watched the little blinking dots. He frowned.

i wasn't out on new years
my husband just died
who is this???

"Shit," John said out loud.

He supposed it had been in rather poor taste to include Vincent St Clair's widow, Olivia, in his initial spree of friend requests and messages on New Year's Day. St Clair had only taken his fatal fall down the church stairs a little over a week before Christmas.

It was highly unlikely his widow had been out celebrating at any pubs.

He should have known better. When it came to this sort of thing, when it came to people, he was the one who was—well, who was supposed to know better. It was why he'd elected to be the one to speak to the spouses in the first place.

He'd been too addled over this—this thing with Sherlock and Janine. He'd let it get to him.

And why should it get to him? Janine was fine. She was—she was fine. He did not recall disliking her back when he'd been dating Mary. He hadn't really paid her much mind at all. But now—

Well. Now everything about her irritated him. The delicate scent of her perfume clinging to the fabrics in 221B. The way she'd rearranged the contents of the kitchen cabinets to her liking. Her magazines on the coffee table. The sound of her heels—and why, why always with the heels?—clacking across the floor. Sherlock's closed bedroom door at the end of the hall.

And that was something he very much did not need to be thinking about at the moment.

It just seemed unnecessary. All of it. Bringing Janine in all the way from Sussex to collaborate on a case, after everything that had happened between them. John hadn't even known that they'd kept in touch. Why should they have? Sherlock had used her—rather heartlessly, in his opinion—and she had soothed her broken heart by airing all of his dirty secrets in public.

What reason could they possibly have had to stay in contact after that?

Had Sherlock . . . missed her? The idea seemed too absurd to even contemplate, and yet—

Well. He hadn't really got a chance to tie up loose ends, had he? He'd been in hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound when his little web of lies had unravelled. And things had been— things had been chaotic in the immediate aftermath. Perhaps now, with the dust settled and life back to some degree of normalcy—

Well. Perhaps Sherlock had decided to try again.

In any case, clearly John had made the right decision in giving Sherlock space to pursue . . . whatever it was that he was pursuing. No sense in John hanging around needlessly.

Sorry, he typed to Olivia, choosing his words carefully. She had waited a few days before responding to his friend request. Clearly it had been bothering her, or she'd have simply ignored it. I thought you were someone I knew. Must have clicked on the wrong profile.

He watched the dots. Blinking and blinking and blinking. They disappeared. Started blinking again. He felt oddly anxious, watching them.

Sorry for your loss, he typed, when the blinking had gone on for far too long with no new messages incoming. And then: I lost someone too.

He hit enter, and then sat back with a sick lurching sensation in his gut. He shouldn't have said that. It was too personal. It wasn't something that Alice (she of the wine memes and yoga classes and moderate-but-not-fanatical interest in reality television) would ever share.

The dots blinked and blinked and blinked.

He thought of Mary on the floor of the aquarium, blood spreading dark and hot across the front of her shirt. Thought of Sherlock sprawled on grey pavement, a wet crimson halo crowning his shattered head. There had been things he'd wanted to say. To Mary, to Sherlock. He'd never got the chance.

He thought of that pretty little diamond ring, sparkling on Janine's finger. Like it belonged there. Hell, maybe it did.

He took a breath. Shut his eyes.

When he opened them again, Olivia had responded.

oh
sorry for your loss too

Blinking and blinking. More hesitation.

its just been very hard
no one understands they all think im better off now

John rubbed his hand over his mouth, sighed. That was practically an invitation to dig for more information on what kind of man St Clair had been, who in his life might have wished him harm.

After all, that's why Sherlock had wanted him to use Alice's Facebook profile to begin with.

He forced down another wave of guilt. I know what you mean, he typed.

*

"So," Harry said.

John tucked the phone against his ear, grimaced as he bent down to retrieve Rosie's spoon. He handed it back to her and she immediately flung it against the wall, giggling.

"John?" Harry said.

Rosie squealed as she slapped her hand right down into her plate of mixed veg.

"Sorry," he said, shutting his eyes briefly before fetching a napkin and running it under the tap. "You've rung right in the middle of dinner. Rosie—"

"—sounds exactly like you did at that age," Harry said. "You were awful, you know. Mum just about tore her hair out."

"Awful seems like a bit of an exaggeration—"

"Awful," Harry reiterated.

"Right," he said, ducking another projectile spoon. Rosie had startlingly accurate aim. "Good. Yeah. That's helpful. Thanks for that."

Rosie picked up a carrot, eyed it. He watched her for a moment, Harry's voice distant and forgotten in his ear. She mouthed at the carrot, screwed up her face in distaste. Held out her hand and let it drop to the floor.

He sighed.

She'd been a difficult newborn. Fussy. Almost impossible to soothe. He'd been rubbish at the job when Mary was alive. He'd barely even tried. She'd taken on the lion's share of responsibilities. And then after Mary had gone, well—

He'd let it slide. For too long.

He supposed it was only fair that Rosie would give him a hard time, now that he was actually making an effort. And most of the time, he thought he was doing a fine job with her. She was bright, inquisitive, and often charming. But toddlers, he'd decided, were worse than babies. Toddlers had mobility. Toddlers had intent.

"So were you just going to not mention it, or—?" Harry's voice in his ear. The phone. He was still on the phone.

"Not mention what?" John bent and swiped at Rosie's messy hands with the damp napkin. She squirmed in her high chair and attempted to pull her hands free from his grasp.

"You know. Sherlock. Getting married."

John stood up. Threw the soiled napkin in the bin. Stood staring at it for a long moment.

"There's not much to mention," he said, finally.

"It's in all the papers."

"Yes, well, he does tend to attract attention."

"I didn't say anything about it on New Year's," she said. "Thought it might have just been, I don't know. One of his cases."

John tightened his grip on the phone. "Mm."

"But he's still—?"

"Yep."

"Huh," she said. She did not mention it again.

*

Reginald Teller had succumbed to his severe ragwort allergy mere moments after exchanging his first kiss with his new bride.

Jennie, the bride, had been weeping and stunned and not much help at all when she'd first been interviewed. Sherlock had been unnecessarily harsh with her, John recalled. Well, he had thought her a murderer at the time.

She was the last to accept Alice's Facebook request. She did not send a message.

John scrolled through her pictures, paged through her old posts. She had a tendency to overshare. She and Reginald Teller had split and reconciled several times over the years leading to their ill-fated wedding, and she had documented each and every disagreement IN ALL CAPS. He dutifully read the details, noted the comments.

She'd waxed rhapsodic about her husband-to-be and complained about his attitude towards wedding planning in turn.

REGGIE DOESNT EVEN CARE, she noted nearly five months before the big day. I SHOWED HIM THREE BOUQUETS AND HE JUST SAID PICK WHATEVER

Considering he'd later been felled by said bouquet, John thought perhaps the unfortunate groom should have paid closer attention.

He checked the comments, found some commiseration from her friends, but nothing that seemed particularly murderous.

I JUST LOVE HIM SO MUCH, she'd posted not two days after the bouquet incident. CANT BELIEVE WE ARE GETTING MARRIED XOXOXOXO

The posts and the capital letters vanished right around the time of her wedding. There was a conspicuous gap in her activity lasting several months. The Jennie that eventually returned seemed more subdued. She did not smile in her newer photographs.

John looked until he could not bear to look any longer. He clicked away from her page.

*

Reception site booked. Date set. SH

John pressed his lips together, stared at his phone. It had now been six days since he'd last seen or heard from Sherlock. Not that he'd been counting.

Great, he finally typed back.

Sherlock did not respond.

*

"He was an absolute terror, you should have seen him," Janine said.

John perched on the edge of his chair, Rosie wriggling in his arms. He tried for a polite smile.

"I only did what was necessary to sell the illusion," Sherlock said primly.

"Mocking the décor, making unreasonable demands—"

"As I said, selling the illusion."

"They couldn't wait to get rid of us. He had the coordinator in tears."

"That's a bit of an exaggeration. The man was in a state of mild distress."

"Tears," Janine insisted.

John pressed his lips together, shifted where he sat. "Well. You've certainly got the whole bickering thing down to a science. Very convincing."

"Thank you," Janine said with a cheeky little smile. Had she always smiled so much? It was excessive, really. Unnecessary.

It wasn't playacting. He was in on the ruse, after all, so there was no reason for either of them to put on a show for his benefit. They just—clicked.

He ought to be happy, he supposed, that the pair of them had fallen so readily into their roles. It certainly made things easier. Instead he felt oddly uncomfortable watching them together, as if he were intruding on something intimate and shared.

"You'll need to blog about it, of course," Sherlock said.

John sniffed, set Rosie carefully down on the ground between his feet. He straightened up in the chair, tried not to sound quite as outraged as he felt. "Blog about what? I wasn't actually there, in case you failed to notice."

Sherlock waved a hand in the air. "The date, the time, the location. And please do try to sound at least moderately enthusiastic this time around. Your engagement announcement was practically funereal."

John opened his mouth, shut it again. Looked at Rosie, who had toddled over to Sherlock's chair and grabbed on to his trouser legs with chubby fists, crushing the material. She was grinning.

"Funereal," he echoed flatly. He cleared his throat. Thought about the blog post he'd tried to make just after Sherlock had leapt to his supposed death. Thought about how many times he'd tried to write out exactly what Sherlock had meant to him, exactly what he'd been feeling, the gaping, bleeding wound that had been torn open in his own chest.

He had never successfully found the words. He was my best friend and I'll always believe in him was all he'd ever managed to say on the subject. Sherlock had, for the most part, gone unmemorialised.

Of course, no such memorial had ever been necessary. He hadn't known it at the time.

"You know what I mean," Sherlock said. "Use more exclamation points next time."

"Next you'll want all capital letters, too."

"Don't be absurd. That would be shouting."

John sighed. "Right. Exclamation points, no shouting. Got it." He looked from Sherlock to Janine. "Well. When is it, then? I'll need the details if I'm expected to write about it."

Janine let out an amused snort, looked at Sherlock. He stared back at her, lip twitching in silent amusement.

Ah, so they'd started in with the shared jokes and the nonverbal communication. Like a proper couple. Brilliant. Very convincing. They'd have no trouble at all shamming their way into any wedding venue in London.

John thought about standing up, about picking up Rosie and walking out of the Baker Street flat and simply not returning until all of this was over. The idea held a certain appeal.

But he had the sinking feeling that, if he did so, he would simply never hear from Sherlock again.

"April first," Sherlock said.

John frowned. "April Fool's Day?"

"It's the first Saturday in April this year," Sherlock said, his tone slightly defensive. "Besides, it seemed fitting."

"Right," John said. Belatedly, he wondered if he ought to have laughed. It seemed the kind of thing he'd have found amusing, once. Now he just felt tired.

Sherlock met his gaze for a moment, looked away. The wind seemed to have gone out of his sails a bit. Maybe he had been expecting John to laugh.

"Oh, come on," Janine said, and she was laughing, and John's chest tightened unexpectedly. "It's perfect. Makes him look like he's not taking any of it seriously. And after how cruelly he led me on in the past!"

"Mm," Sherlock agreed, glancing up and flashing her a too-quick, too-bright smile. "Rather insulting, don't you think? Twice the fool. You really should have seen it coming."

"Scoundrel," Janine said.

"Well," John said. He patted his hands on his knees, stood up. Smiled tightly. "Seems like you've got this all sorted out. So I'll just—"

"The spouses," Sherlock said abruptly.

"Hm?"

Sherlock had leaned forward in his chair, was pinning John with a particularly sharp gaze. "I assume you've utilised Alice's dubious charms and made contact with the rest of them? Any leads?"

John thought about the profiles he'd combed through, about the sadness and the fragile hope that he'd encountered there. Four separate lives, interrupted and set on an entirely different track than what they'd been expecting.

"I don't think any of them are murderers, if that's what you mean."

"Mm, no, that would be far too convenient." Sherlock relaxed back into his chair, folded his hands under his chin, seemed to consider. "Well? What are they like? Any other relevant details?"

"Sad," John said stiffly.

"Yes, but I was hoping you'd go beyond the obvious."

"What else is there to say?" John snapped. "They're grieving."

Sherlock cleared his throat, looked down at his lap. "Ah. Well. Assumed it would be a dead end. I did say. Still, never hurts to be thorough."

There was something contrite in his voice, in his demeanor. Bit like a kicked puppy, really.

John sighed, sat back down. Scrubbed his hands over his face. He supposed he had been unnecessarily sharp with Sherlock, who had only been following up on a line of investigation that John himself had volunteered for.

There had just been too much grief. Too much sadness. Whether or not they had been difficult, the four murdered men had left an empty space in their wake. They'd been missed. They'd been mourned. And regardless of how much or how little their surviving partners were moving on, they were still missed. They were still mourned.

For better or worse, nothing was the same anymore. Everything had changed.

Sherlock had leaned forward and was carefully attempting to detach Rosie from his trouser legs. She was proving to be tenacious.

"You ought to clear your calendar next week," Sherlock said, still not looking up.

John frowned, caught off guard. "For what?"

"That's when the fun begins," Sherlock said. He succeeded in liberating his trouser leg from Rosie's iron grip, hoisted her up to sit on his knee. She seemed to feel that was an acceptable compromise and settled down.

"Fun?" John had the sinking sensation that whatever Sherlock was referring to would not, actually, be much fun at all.

"Cake tasting, suit fittings," Sherlock said, tapping his fingers against Rosie's arm with each item he listed. "Invitations. Bridesmaids' dresses—Janine, have you selected your bridesmaids yet? Best do it quickly."

"Taken care of," she said. "Using some old friends from uni. Haven't seen them in ages, but it doesn't matter. That lot is practically gasping for a bit of fame. They won't ask too many questions."

"Excellent," Sherlock said. He turned back to John. "Flowers. Photographer. Need I go on?"

"I think I've got it," John said stiffly.

"I've a list of all the vendors each couple used. There are some overlaps, which will save time. But we'll need to make it look realistic, which means appointments with multiple vendors. Can't let our killer suspect we've caught his scent."

John looked at Sherlock, sitting back in his chair with Rosie perched calmly on his lap. He looked at Janine, on the sofa all bright-eyed and utterly pleased with herself.

"Not sure what you need me for," John said. He looked down at his hands. He'd clenched them against his thighs. "Seems like you two have everything under control."

Sherlock frowned. "You're the best man."

John scoffed. He forced his clenched hands to relax. "And?"

"Your assistance would be appreciated," Sherlock said.

"My assistance? You're the bloody wedding expert. You're the one who—you—" John cut himself off, sniffed in a sharp breath through his nose.

Rosie made an indignant sound, squirmed out of Sherlock's arms and slid to the ground.

Sherlock had stiffened up in his chair, his shoulders rigid, his face carefully blank. "It's—I'm afraid a precedent has been set. It would seem. Unusual. If you weren't involved in the planning process."

"Right," John said, and tried to imagine what it would be like, tagging along after Sherlock and Janine. Watching the pair of them take the lead, play their roles, completely and utterly in sync with one another. It sounded like a bloody nightmare. "I'll—well. No promises. I'll see if I can arrange a sitter."

"Mrs Hudson is happy to do it," Sherlock said. "It's all been arranged." He stopped, looked down at Rosie and then up at John. Something in John's expression seemed to unsettle him. When he spoke again, his voice was hesitant, uncertain. "Unless—unless you would rather—"

"No," John said. He stood up, stooped to pick Rosie up off of the ground. She immediately attempted to writhe free. "No, it's—fine. Yeah. That's fine."

He stood for a moment, struggling to tuck Rosie against his hip. She was growing fast, and the strain on his bad shoulder was enormous.

Sherlock frowned up at him. A furrow had appeared between his brows.

John was not particularly keen on being deduced. "Monday, then?" he asked, hoping to forestall whatever it was that Sherlock intended to say.

"I'll text you the details," Sherlock said.

That seemed as good a dismissal as any, John thought as he gathered Rosie's things and made for the door. It was clearly the right choice, as Sherlock made no effort to call him back.

*

Rosie had fallen asleep, so John kept the telly at a quiet volume.

The sofa was uncomfortable.

John had always thought so. The fabric was stiff, the padding unyielding. It was nothing like the worn sofa at 221B with its faded leather and soft cushions that seemed to mould to his body. The throw pillows that always smelled a bit like Sherlock, given how often he tended to kip there.

He ought to get a new sofa. A softer one. Oversized and overstuffed and welcoming.

The very thought of it exhausted him. He could not quite imagine dragging Rosie along to shop for a new sofa. Well. He could imagine such a thing. He just didn't particularly want to.

He could order one, but that would still entail taking measurements and searching online for one that he liked. He'd have to consider colours, and patterns, and fabrics, and, well, then he'd have to take into account whether or not it was bloody stain resistant or whether the colours would look the same in person as they did on his screen, and frankly it all just seemed more bother than it was worth.

In any case, the sofa was not his problem. He could admit that to himself now, alone in his darkened sitting room with the quiet murmur of the telly as his only company.

His problem was that he no longer felt at home in his house. Hadn't, really, since Mary died. Even before that, if he wanted to be brutally honest with himself.

John had bought the place after leaving Baker Street. After Sherlock had jumped. He'd known he couldn't stay in their shared flat any longer. Not after that. Sherlock's ghost was everywhere.

He'd gone out and he'd got himself a respectable little house. It had come fully furnished. The house was bright and airy, the furniture bland and impersonal, and it had been as far from 221B Baker Street as he could possibly get without outright leaving London. When Mary had come along, she'd slid in effortlessly. There had been no painful merging of their lives, no sacrificing of his own things to make room for hers—he simply hadn't had much of a life left at all.

Mary was gone now, and there was very little in the house that felt like it truly belonged to John. He had made a home there, but he had never really been at home.

He could not help but think about how quickly Janine had settled in at 221B. Case or no case, ruse or no ruse, she'd made herself comfortable in a way he would have thought impossible had he not seen it with his own two eyes.

He thought of the way he himself had settled in there, the improbable way he and Sherlock had simply taken to one another. The gleeful rush of adventure, of danger, of camaraderie he hadn't felt since the war (and even that was a poor comparison, what he shared with Sherlock went beyond camaraderie, beyond brotherhood). The year and a half he'd spent at Baker Street had been the happiest time of John's life.

There had been other joyful moments in the subsequent years, of course. But nothing that even approached the prolonged sense of happiness and belonging that he'd felt in that all-too-brief time. He thought he could have stayed there forever, had circumstances allowed.

But Sherlock had jumped from the roof of Barts Hospital, he'd looked down at John and said this is my note and had cracked his brilliant, irreplaceable head open on the unforgiving pavement. and forever had no longer been in the cards. John's life had taken him in another direction. By the time Sherlock made his way home, things were different.

He'd missed his chance, that was all. He could not blame Janine for taking hers.

Chapter Text

*

There were twelve small slices of cake, each individually plated, arranged carefully on a narrow table. John stared down at them, frowning.

"Ooh, it smells good in here," Janine said. She took a deep breath, sighed.

To John, the heavy, sugared aroma in the bakery air was almost overwhelming. Too many confections in such a tiny space.

Twelve different slices of cake.

That had vexed him while he was planning his wedding to Mary. Why were there so many choices? Who agonised over what kind of cake to serve? It was just a cake. No one ever really liked wedding cake, did they? People served it because it was traditional to do so. Guests, in turn, politely ate it and pretended it wasn't dry.

He could not recall what flavour of cake had been served at his own wedding. He certainly hadn't gone to any tastings. Whatever it was, Sherlock had most likely picked it.

They'd got an early start on the day. John had left Rosie in Mrs Hudson's care back at Baker Street, the pair of them sporting matching delighted grins as they'd bid him farewell. Mrs Hudson was terribly fond of her goddaughter, and Rosie was clearly equally enamoured. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been the one to coax a smile that big out of his daughter.

"We've appointments at five bakeries today," Sherlock had said as he'd slid into a taxi. "Save your appetite."

John had glanced at Janine over the door. She'd raised her eyebrows back at him, clearly a challenge, and so he'd found himself awkwardly climbing into the taxi after Sherlock, tucking himself into the uncomfortable middle seat and trying not to lean too heavily on him when Janine slipped in after.

"Sorry," Janine had said, gesturing to the window. "I get a bit carsick."

John had cleared his throat, braced himself in his seat as the driver took a hard turn, forcing his thigh up against Sherlock's. Sherlock did not seem to notice.

They had arrived promptly for their appointment at the first bakery. The woman who met them at the door of the shop had introduced herself—John did not catch her name, as he'd found his attention inadvertently snagged by Janine, who had slipped an arm around Sherlock's waist—and led them to a small private room in the back to begin the first taste test of the day.

And so, the cakes. Twelve of them.

"No strawberry," Sherlock said, stepping forward to stand very close to John. Their shoulders brushed as he leaned forward to peer down at the cakes.

John glanced at him, surprised. He'd thought Sherlock was quite fond of strawberries.

"Deathly allergic," Sherlock said. "Could kill me in an instant. Wouldn't want that."

"Oh," the woman said, visibly startled. Her hand twitched once, hesitated, then withdrew a plate from the table. "I'll just—take care of that."

"Thank you," Sherlock said, not sounding particularly grateful at all.

The woman returned. Cleared her throat. "Please, have a seat."

John reached for the first chair, tried not to bump against Sherlock as he sat down. God, but the room was small. He told himself not to look as Sherlock and Janine linked hands conspicuously atop the table. Found himself staring anyway as Janine's thumb moved in small circles along the side of Sherlock's wrist. She'd shined her ring, and it sparkled under the lights.

The woman—Christ, he really should have paid attention to her name, it's not like he could reasonably expect Sherlock to remember it—smiled brightly and gestured to the array of cakes. "So! Let me go over our options."

John stared at the gap where the strawberry shortcake had been. He supposed it made sense, Sherlock faking an allergy rather than revealing an actual weakness. If someone attempted to serve him strawberries, he'd know he was being targeted, and he'd manage to figure it out without actually dying.

"Red velvet, very popular right now," she said, pointing. "Or a classic wedding white?"

"White is a flavour?" John asked.

A heavy sigh, in stereo. Sherlock and the woman both.

"Well, I wouldn't know, would I?" John asked, frowning down at the table. He picked at a bit of lint on his jumper, fidgeted where he sat. "I don't—I don't bake, I hardly even eat sweets. I didn't even do this—" he gestured wildly around, "—for my own wedding."

Sherlock cut his eyes towards him, did not say a word.

The woman cleared her throat. "Perhaps our signature chocolate—"

Sherlock made a face.

To her credit, the woman diverted quickly. "Ah—I see something a bit more refined is called for. We can also offer a wide variety of citrus flavors—the lemon is particularly delicate on the tongue—"

"Wait," Janine said. "What's wrong with chocolate?"

"Everything," Sherlock said. "Utterly inappropriate for a wedding cake."

"I like chocolate."

"Yes, well, your taste is rubbish."

The woman threw a shocked glance in John's direction. He smiled blandly back, gave a little shrug.

"Oh, you think my taste is rubbish? I'll tell you what's rubbish. My taste in men." Janine stood up, her chair legs scraping against the floor. "It's absolute SHITE!"

She turned and stalked out of the room. Sherlock followed on her heels, shouting. Something about buttercream, John thought.

There was the sound of the shop door opening and slamming shut, a muffled stream of voices continuing the argument out on the street.

John shifted in his seat, smiled awkwardly. Took the sample plate of chocolate cake and tried a bite.

"It's very good," he said.

The woman stared at him.

He put the plate down. Swallowed. Cleared his throat. Looked up at the ceiling.

"I'll—just—" he said, after a moment. He stood.

"Do you think—?" the woman started.

"Erm. Pre-wedding jitters. You must see a lot of that, yeah?"

"Um," she said.

John nodded, turned and left the consultation room. He walked past the glass case with its myriad confections, headed for the front door. Drew up short just as Sherlock was backed roughly into the plate glass window at the front of the store, his suit jacket crumpling, his arse flattening up against the glass.

He was being snogged, quite thoroughly. Janine had her hands clenched in the lapels of his coat, was wrestling his head right up against the glass. She seemed to have caught him on the retreat. His head thumped back, once, twice, his curls crushed against the window.

John put his hand over his eyes, pinched his brow.

For the case, he reminded himself. All an act. Except, he'd never really seen Sherlock behave quite like this, even for a case.

Well—yes he had. He'd gone and got himself engaged. Twice. To the same woman.

Sherlock's head thumped against the glass again. The people queued up at the bakery counter had begun to stare.

He was awkward at this whole kissing thing, John thought. Looked a bit like he was being eaten alive. Perhaps he ought to have practised. Though—surely by now, after Irene—

John forced himself to look away. He turned, walked back through the store, past the scandalised check out girl at the counter.

He sat back down at the little table in the consultation room, looked at the slices of cake laid out on their tiny plates. None of them seemed particularly appealing.

A moment later, Sherlock and Janine appeared, pink-cheeked and contrite. Sherlock's hair was mussed. His jacket was rumpled. There was a smear of lipstick on the right side of his neck, just above one of his freckles.

John stared.

"I'll try the lemon," Sherlock said, and reached for a slice of cake.

*

They carved a swath of destruction through what felt to John like every high-end bakery in London.

Sherlock was at once sneeringly dismissive and nauseatingly solicitous, cycling between personalities at a whiplash-inducing rate. He waxed rhapsodic about raspberries in one shop and declared himself repulsed by them in another. If Janine offered an opinion, he cut it down immediately. They shouted at one another. They stormed out into the street. Screaming rows and tearful apologies and passionate embraces followed in turn.

John watched the cameras click as passerby stopped to watch them argue and make up. And argue and make up. And argue and make up.

Sherlock was right, he thought. He never could have asked Molly Hooper to do this.

John's head was pounding by the time they reached the fifth and final bakery.

There was no consultation room this time, only a small seating area in the back of the shop. They were greeted by the chef himself, who carefully laid out six slices of cake on the table. The individual slices were meticulously decorated with delicate swirls of buttercream.

The bakery was clearly well regarded, going by the steady stream of customers. The bell over the door jingled and jingled and jingled ceaselessly with the traffic.

"I'll be back when you're ready," the chef said, and left them alone.

Janine excused herself to use the loo. She kept her fingers tangled with Sherlock's as she stepped away, their hands stretching and parting reluctantly. John watched her go. She turned and blew Sherlock a kiss over her shoulder.

She had not seemed particularly bothered by Sherlock's behaviour all day, shrugging it off easily between each dramatically staged and rapidly escalating argument. Of course, she'd have known it was coming. Yet John doubted there was really any way one could ever truly prepare for such a thing. He'd seen Sherlock in action before, had seen him slip into and out of roles like changing costumes, and even he had been a bit surprised by the . . . vehemence of it all.

He threw a cautious glance at Sherlock, wondering what horrifying new personality he was about to unleash.

Sherlock was calm, composed, aloof. His expression and body language gave nothing away. There was no trace of the soppy smile he had worn mere moments ago as Janine had peeled herself from his side.

"The cake for the Crane wedding originated from this bakery," Sherlock said.

John flinched, aware he'd been caught staring though Sherlock had not so much as glanced in his direction since they'd entered the shop.

"The one that killed him?"

"No," Sherlock said. "I double checked. The bakery provided the correct cake—very clearly marked. The fatal error occurred in the kitchen, after the cake had been delivered. The cake that triggered Winston Crane's peanut allergy was provided by a different bakery, meant for another party. An accidental switch, so we're to believe. "

"Accidentally on purpose," John said.

A small smile quirked at the corner of Sherlock's mouth. "Exactly."

"So we're not likely to find anything here," John said. He looked at the cake slices carefully arranged on the table in front of him. He thought he might be happy never to see another slice of cake ever again for the rest of his life.

"Unlikely, but not impossible. You know my methods, John. It would be a mistake to theorise without all of the facts."

"Facts, yeah," John hissed, keeping his voice low. "The fact is, only one couple used this bakery, and by all accounts, they delivered exactly what they'd promised. Did any of the others even come here? Taste tests? Anything?"

"No."

"So why are we here? Why have we gone to five bloody bakeries today? Wouldn't it make more sense to focus our efforts on a more likely source?"

Sherlock did not answer. He'd stooped slightly to examine the cakes that had been laid out for them.

"This doesn't seem a bit excessive to you? Or were you just feeling peckish today? You do have a sweet tooth."

Sherlock looked up at him, raised his brows, turned his attention back to the cakes.

"You can't possibly like cake that much. No one could like cake enough to justify all this."

Sherlock said nothing.

John glanced over at the counter, watched the slightly harried staff as they rushed to assist customers and keep up with the steady flow of orders.

John looked back at the cakes. Red velvet. Lemon. Bloody wedding white. It was all getting to be a bit predictable, really.

"I am in the public eye, John," Sherlock said quietly. He did not look up from his scrutiny of the cakes. "The only way this ruse will work is if I make it into a spectacle."

John sighed, did not respond. Everything Sherlock did was a spectacle. That was just the way it was.

"Besides," Sherlock said, lifting his head. There was a strange expression on his face—a little strained, a little lost. He offered a thin smile. "It took seven bakeries to find your cake. Even—even Mary grew a bit bored with the whole thing, by the end."

John stiffened up, looked sharply at Sherlock.

Sherlock rolled his shoulders in a small shrug, a helpless little gesture that did not belong on the man who had been rampaging around London all day, terrorising bakers and checkout clerks alike.

John was acutely aware that he hadn't done this. He hadn't sat and prodded slices of cake with a fork, hadn't had endless tedious discussions about the—sweetness of the filling or the airiness of the frosting or—the precise shade of lavender he wanted for the sugar flowers. He hadn't wanted to. He hadn't any interest or inclination. Whatever you want, I'm sure it'll be lovely, yeah, he'd told Mary.

Unbidden, he thought of Reginald Teller and his ill-fated bouquet, his bride-to-be's despairing social media post. REGGIE DOESN'T EVEN CARE, she'd complained. HE JUST SAID PICK WHATEVER.

No, John hadn't done this. But Sherlock had.

Sherlock had.

Sherlock had set appointments. Sherlock had sat patiently with Mary, had spent time going over small details, had tasted cakes and looked at fabric swatches and made suggestions, had toured locations and decided on menus, had done all of that and a thousand more things that by all rights should have driven him mad with boredom. But he'd done it without complaint, and he'd done it perfectly.

And John hadn't even noticed what kind of cake he'd chosen. All of that effort, all of those small details, and he'd just—

"Lavender honey," Sherlock said.

"What?"

"Your cake. It's only just occurred to you that you never actually tasted it. Not your fault. Things did get a bit—distracting. What with the attempted murder and all."

"Lavender—?"

"Very subtle flavour. Just a hint of it, really. Honey in the buttercream for a bit of sweetness. Ideal for a spring wedding."

"Oh," John said, because he did not know what else to say. He looked away. Surely Janine should be returning any moment.

Sherlock seemed agitated about something. John could tell from the stiffness in his shoulders, the way he bounced slightly on the balls of his feet.

"What?" John snapped finally.

Sherlock looked at him. Stopped fidgeting. "Was it the wrong choice?"

"Was what the wrong choice?"

"Lavender honey."

The laugh wrenched itself from the back of his throat, a raw and startled bark. "I—Christ, I have no idea, Sherlock. What does lavender honey even taste like?"

Sherlock held his gaze for a moment, mouth turned down, brow furrowed. Then he chuckled. The chuckle gave way to a full laugh, one that he clearly tried and failed to stifle. His shoulders shook.

John snorted, pressed the back of his hand against his mouth to muffle the escaping giggles. Something in his spine relaxed as a weight he'd been unaware of carrying dropped away.

Sherlock's shoulder bumped up against his. It was companionable, familiar, and it left John aching, aching with a twisting swooping burn of nostalgia and longing for something he had not realised was lost. It had been a very long time since he and Sherlock had shared laughter like this.

Sherlock had not gone anywhere, not really, but John missed him. He missed him terribly. And the worst part of it all was that he had no idea when, exactly, he had lost him.

"Looks like I missed all the fun," Janine said.

Sherlock turned towards her and John took a half step back, the laughter dying in his throat. His face heated. He felt inexplicably guilty, as though she'd caught him doing something inappropriate.

The amused warmth on Sherlock's face had vanished. He was once again bored, aloof, inscrutable. He ignored Janine and frowned down at the cakes as if they had done him a grave personal offence.

Insufferable groom persona firmly in place. The game was back on, it seemed.

"No," John said, flashing a tight smile in her direction. He gestured towards the table. "Looks like the fun's just beginning."

He looked away as Sherlock and Janine began bickering over the merits of buttercream versus fondant. Pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, tuned them out.

"Oh, if you're going to be such a cock about it, just pick it yourself!" Janine shouted, loud enough that the hum of conversation in the room cut out. Several people in the queue craned their necks to see what was going on.

"That would be counterproductive," Sherlock said, calm and patronising and utterly insufferable, and John was fairly sure that his tone alone made several otherwise peaceful people in the room entertain thoughts of murder.

She pushed past John and made for the door, shoulders squared, chin up, heels cracking like gunshots. She yanked open the glass door, then whirled back. "You ought to marry yourself, too. Clearly that's the only person you care about!"

"Oi—" John started, seeing disaster unfolding before his eyes.

Janine, caught up in a crescendo of righteous fury, stalked out the door without looking and crashed face-first into a man in a black wool coat on his way in.

They went down in a flurry of limbs.

"Christ," John said, starting forward.

"Wait," Sherlock said, grasping John's arm.

The man had stood up and helped Janine to her feet. He looked terribly flustered, apologetic. Janine seemed to be laying it on thick, leaning heavily on his arm, looking deeply into his eyes, swiping at a tear on her cheek.

"She's flirting with him," John said.

"Obviously."

"You know, if you two were actually getting married, I'd have some real concerns," John said.

"I think we're remarkably well-suited," Sherlock said.

John cleared his throat, tried to keep his expression bland, like his stomach had not just plunged from a great height. He must have done a rubbish job of it, because Sherlock leaned in close to peer at him.

"Too much sugar? You're looking peaked."

"Must be, yeah," John said. His own voice felt faraway, distant and floating.

"My apologies, we'll need to cut this short," Sherlock said, turning his attention to the alarmed-looking chef making his way towards the table. He plastered a particularly smarmy smile on his face. "You know how it is. Women. Can't make up their minds. Come, John."

John trailed him towards the door, past the disapproving queue of people, out into the damp cold air.

Janine had hailed a taxi, stood waiting for them with the door open and a rather smug smile on her face.

"Got his number," she said as she climbed in.

Sherlock looked expectantly at John, who sighed and climbed in after her. Sherlock followed him, taking up altogether too much space with all of his—all of his great sprawling limbs.

"Flirting?" Sherlock sniffed as the taxi pulled into traffic. "Bit rude, isn't it? We were picking out our wedding cake."

"Well," Janine said, waving a slip of paper at him before slipping it into her bag with a wicked little smile. "You can be a bit of a bastard at times. I like to keep my options open. Besides, I'm always on the lookout for someone prettier."

John passed his hand over his face with a groan, leaned back in his seat, waited for the ride to be over.

*

At Baker Street, John collected Rosie from Mrs Hudson, bounced her warm weight in his arms. He carried her upstairs, to where Janine had already taken over the sofa.

Sherlock stood in front of her, frowning up at the wall over her head where he'd pinned his list of suspects.

"He's a dance instructor," Janine said.

"What?" Sherlock said, clearly startled. He looked down at Janine and took a step backwards, as if he had not noticed her sitting there.

John stifled a tired smile, sat down in his chair. Rosie struggled for a moment, but she was clearly exhausted from her long day and eventually relaxed against him, dozing against his shoulder. He should not get too comfortable, he knew. It was getting late, and Baker Street was not his home any more.

"Pete," Janine said, extracting the slip of paper from her bag and holding it up. "He owns a little studio around the corner from the bakery."

"I'm not an expert, but it is my understanding that actively pursuing other people in front of one's betrothed is generally frowned upon." Sherlock abandoned his wall and threw himself into his own chair.

His movements were hasty, uncoordinated. He seemed frustrated, John thought, as if he'd expected the day's investigation to yield more than it had. Or—or as if Janine's interest in this Pete had struck a nerve.

John frowned, looked away. He was not sure he wanted to know.

"Jealous, Sherl? I didn't think you had it in you," Janine said. She laughed, then shook her head. "I'm not pursuing anyone. I made it quite clear to dear, sweet Pete that I'm off the market."

"Then why are you bringing it up?" A definite note of irritation in Sherlock's voice.

"Because, as I said, Pete is a dance instructor."

"I fail to see how that's relevant."

"Dance lessons," Janine said. She grinned, leaned forward with her elbows on her knees, her eyes sparkling.

"Yes, well, you certainly could use them," Sherlock said.

John sat forward, shifting Rosie to a more comfortable position. Though much of the day had been a blur, he could recall certain moments from his own wedding with perfect clarity. The sharp, unexpected sting in the back of his eyes as Sherlock made his speech. His first dance with Mary, all eyes on them as they turned on the dance floor to the sweet melancholy notes of Sherlock's violin. And—

And the moment he'd rounded the corner to see Sherlock and Janine, tucked into a quiet alcove, dancing. Sherlock had been insulting her, of course, but that had not mattered all that much. He was Sherlock, he insulted everyone.

His hand sliding across her back, fingers spread against the purple satin of her dress.

It had sent an unpleasant spike of jealousy through John, the sensation sudden and sour. Bile had burned hot at the back of his throat. At the time, he'd chalked it up to an excess of adrenaline, his blood still boiling from Sholto's near death and the apprehension of his would-be murderer.

But now—

"Not me," Janine said. "Well. Not only me. Us."

"Absolutely not."

"You owe me," she said.

Sherlock stared at her. Something twisted in his expression. He shook his head.

"Oh, come on," she said. "You said. You told me. You've been waiting for the right case. This could be that case."

"It really couldn't."

John looked back and forth between them. He had the strange, sinking sensation that they were having some other, deeper conversation just below the surface.

"People getting married take dancing lessons all the time," Janine said. "Even John learned how to waltz."

Sherlock looked at John. John looked back, tried not to remember the feel of Sherlock's hands on him, of Sherlock's breath puffing warm and uncertain against his face as they'd swayed together in the quiet seclusion of their sitting room, hidden from the world by heavy curtains.

He'd never been particularly good at putting that out of his mind. There were some things that were simply not meant to be forgotten.

"Did any of the other couples take lessons?" John asked.

"No," Sherlock said.

"Then it's a waste of time, yeah?"

"Not if it helps us stay in character," Janine said.

"You don't seem to have any trouble staying in character," John snapped, and looked away, embarrassed at his own behaviour. Rosie had begun to snore lightly against his neck.

Sherlock had sat up straight in his chair, was studying John with an alarmingly keen expression.

"Fine," he said.

"What?" John looked from Sherlock to Janine again. Had he just—given in? Just like that? And what was all that rubbish about waiting for the right case? When Sherlock had offered to teach him how to dance, he'd given no indication that it was something he actually enjoyed, just one of many skills he'd acquired at some point over the years.

"Janine's right," Sherlock said, never taking his eyes off of John. "Dance lessons would be entirely appropriate in our situation."

"Good," John said. "Great. Yeah. Have fun with that, then. Let me know how it goes."

He stood up, careful not to disturb Rosie. It was getting to be past her bedtime, and he still had a taxi ride across London to contend with.

"Oh, are you leaving?" Janine almost sounded dismayed. "I was going to order takeaway."

John shifted Rosie in his arms. "I should—it's late. I need to get her home."

"Oh, right. Well. Have a good night, then," Janine said. "Sherlock? Thai?"

Sherlock shrugged, waved a bored hand in the air. "Doesn't matter."

"See, you always say that, and then you're pissed off when I don't order what you want," Janine said. She stood up, brandishing a menu like a weapon.

John turned away, the word always reverberating unpleasantly in his mind.

It was all so terribly comfortable and cosy and familiar. The sort of thing he might have said to Sherlock once, a long time ago, when they were still—

Well. He did not quite know what they'd been, back then. Only that they weren't, anymore.

You always say that.

Always.

Always.

He carried Rosie downstairs. Janine was still talking. He could no longer hear what she was saying, but her voice was lively and teasing.

The night air was cold, and damp, and he shivered, holding Rosie close as he stuck out his arm to hail a taxi. He could not help but turn back to look up at the warm light glowing in the windows, at the cosy flat that he no longer called home.

Chapter Text

*

"You know, I've been reading the papers," Harry said.

"That is what they're for," John agreed. He stood at the kitchen sink, rinsing dishes in hot, soapy water, phone pinched awkwardly between his shoulder and ear. Behind him, Rosie was sat comfortably in the sitting room, babbling streams of semi-intelligible nonsense to a line of stuffed animals.

He could not see Harry's face, but her frustrated exhalation over the phone told him all he needed to know.

"Is it—trouble in paradise?" she asked. He had the impression that she was trying to be delicate.

"Of course not," John said. He rinsed another dish, set it down a bit more firmly than he'd intended. "Just Sherlock being Sherlock."

"Loads of people photographed them fighting," she said.

"And loads of people photographed them making up," John said. He'd seen the pictures. And the headlines, which were both lurid and startlingly creative. None of it had really captured the full experience.

"Well," Harry said.

He rinsed the last dish, shut off the tap. Spared a glance into the sitting room to confirm that Rosie was still happily at play.

"Well, what?"

"It's just. Well. You know him better, of course—"

"You don't know him at all," John said, bewildered by her sudden line of questioning. "You've never met him."

"No, but—well." Harry hummed to herself, a thoughtful sound. "I suppose with anyone in the public eye, you always feel a bit like you know them, yeah?"

John sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose. "The papers have it wrong, Harry."

"It's just—if it's not for one of his cases, don't you think he might be making a mistake?"

"He's Sherlock Holmes, he doesn't make mistakes." John paused, then forced a stiff laugh, knowing it did little to cover up how bitter the words sounded.

He did not particularly want to continue the conversation. Bad enough he had to put up with—whatever it was that Sherlock and Janine were playing at. He had only just reconciled with Harry, after all, and he wasn't keen on lying to her more than he had to in order to keep Sherlock's secrets.

"It's just," she said again. She seemed irritatingly determined to stick to the subject.

"It's just what?"

"I just always had the idea that he—" she paused. "Well. You know. Played for a different team."

"Oh, are we using euphemisms now? That's not like you. Always thought you favoured a more direct approach," John said.

"Fine," Harry said. "I'll be clearer. I always thought he was gay. As in gay. As in likes men. Is that direct enough for you?"

He groaned, shut his eyes. "Look. He's Sherlock-bloody-Holmes, he doesn't play for any teams. He's a force all unto himself. Who even knows what goes on inside his head? I certainly don't." He stopped, breathed out hard through his nose. Wondered if he'd said too much. Wondered what, exactly, could even be considered too much.

"John—" Harry said.

"Look, for what it's worth—" he took a breath, ploughed on. "The only person I've ever seen turn his head—and I do mean ever—it was a woman, Harry. So whatever it is you're thinking, you're wrong."

She laughed, the sound mocking, incredulous. "Right."

He did not like that laugh.

"I just don't want to see anyone get hurt," she said, finally.

"Nice of you to be so concerned for his well being. I'll pass along the sentiment. I'm sure he'll be touched."

"I don't want to see you get hurt," Harry amended.

John blew out a breath of air through his teeth. It might have been a laugh, but he put no humour into it. "How could I possibly get hurt?"

Even as he spoke, he thought of Sherlock and Janine holed up in the familiar cosy comfort of 221B. The shared laughter, the meaningful glances, the jokes—and him on the outside peering in, thinking this used to be my life.

He had no reason to be unhappy about that. He had a life, and a perfectly respectable one at that.

"I don't know," Harry said. "Just forget I said anything."

"Right," he said.

"I'm sure it will be a lovely wedding," she said.

"Mine was," he said.

She fell silent for a long time. Too long. He could hear her breathing through the line, slow and uncertain.

They did not talk about his wedding. They did not talk about Mary. He had slipped.

Why have you never asked me about her? he almost asked. He realised with some surprise that he genuinely wanted to know. He was no longer comfortable simply avoiding the subject.

Still, he could not quite find the words. Harry's silence had dragged on too long—perhaps she'd thought he was chastising her.

"I only meant," he said, backpedaling now in spite of his own instincts, hating the sullen heavy silence at the other end of the line. "Sherlock did most of the—well, you know. The arrangements. I was rubbish at it. Better to just let him take over. Photos were very nice. Well, I mean, the photographer did turn out to be a murderer, but—hah, well, no one really could have seen that coming, so—"

"Sorry," Harry said, her voice slow. "Did you say that Sherlock planned your wedding?"

"He was surprisingly good. At the, er, wedding planning," John said. "Though I don't know why I was surprised, really. He's Sherlock. He's good at everything he does. Mostly."

"Oh," Harry said, and then again, softer: "Oh."

"What?"

"Oh, John."

"I'm only now realising how much effort he must have put into it," John said, heat climbing up the back of his neck. He felt oddly defensive. "It's not easy, you know. All of this."

"No," she said. "I'm sure it wasn't."

He was left feeling unsettled and on edge, like he'd missed something of terrible importance.

*

The flowers were worse than the cake.

John had not thought such a thing could be possible. At worst, he'd expected to be a bit bored.

But florist shops, though lovely, seemed to uniformly possess a humid, oppressive air that quickly grew suffocating. His eyes watered. He sniffled and snuffled and struggled to draw breath through his nose.

A cold sleety rain beat heavily against the windows, rendering escape outside for a temporary reprieve impractical.

"It's the lilies," Sherlock hissed at him in the second shop, ducking his face too close, his breath ghosting against John's ear. "The pink ones. Stargazers. They are especially fragrant and you have a mild intolerance. It's fairly common. Many people find the scent overwhelming, particularly in an enclosed space."

John turned to look at him. Their noses nearly brushed. Sherlock did not back away. He never had seemed to grasp the concept of personal space.

"Then why—" he asked through clenched teeth, "—do they feel the need to have so many of them in an enclosed space?"

The smell of the lilies reminded him, chokingly, of Mary's funeral, of the endless floral arrangements that had arrived with heartfelt condolences from friends and family he rarely saw.

There had been no flowers at Sherlock's funeral. There had been no Sherlock at Sherlock's funeral either, but he hadn't known it at the time.

He thought of Reginald Teller, sprawled stiff and dead at the altar, crushed flowers from the mangled bouquet strewn all about his body.

Christ, he needed to get his head on straight. All of this was making him feel like he was going a bit mad.

"People like them," Sherlock said, flashing a bland little smile before stepping back to a more reasonable distance and returning his attention to the (rather flustered) florist.

He'd got them kicked out of the first shop after pointing out the florist's wife was cheating on him with the delivery driver. (For God's sake, look at the back of her coat! Dirt! Bits of gravel! Crushed flower petals ground right into the fabric! Tell me, does she make a habit of loading the van and then rolling around in it?)

He seemed to be taking a different tack with this shop, holding off on the unwanted deductions and instead demanding an unreasonable amount of roses for centerpieces and bouquets and various—well—whatever other kinds of arrangements were common to weddings. John could barely keep it all straight in his head. It seemed excessive, though he supposed that was by design.

"Pink roses," Sherlock said, looking crisp and haughty and far too posh for his own good. "Long-stemmed. Thorns removed please, I'll not have the day ruined by an unexpected prick." He clicked the 'k' and folded his hands primly in front of him.

John did not even bother to muffle his snort of amusement—he'd put up with rather a lot, he thought, and he'd take his fun where he could get it. Most people were too busy being intimidated by Sherlock to realise that he could also be quite funny, when he wanted to.

"I'm not particularly fond of roses," Janine said.

"I expect you'll come to love them in time," Sherlock said. He offered her another one of those bland smiles. "They'll remind you of our wedding day."

"Mr Holmes," the florist said. She sounded like she'd meant to scold, but had pulled back at the last moment. The result was a bit strangled.

She seemed nervous, John thought. He wondered if she'd been reading the tabloids.

"Don't much care for the colour pink," Janine said.

"I don't much care for your opinion," Sherlock said, smiling sweetly.

The florist looked from Sherlock to Janine and then threw a helpless glance in John's direction. He shrugged, found himself echoing Sherlock's bland smile. Surely she didn't think there was anything he could do. Sherlock was—what had he told Harry? A force all unto himself.

"You must understand," she said, finally, looking beseechingly at Sherlock. "The volume of flowers you're requesting, it's—it would be difficult on a normal timetable. And with your wedding date approaching so soon—"

"Then I suggest you stop wasting time whinging about it and start making calls to your suppliers," Sherlock said.

It was only downhill from there.

Janine fawned over pink roses in the third shop, only for Sherlock to sneeringly dismiss them as hopelessly cliched. They argued over flowers, over colours, over stem length, over cost.

In the fourth shop, they seemed to get along splendidly. They held hands and stared at sample bouquets, Sherlock complimented Janine's perfume and she favoured him with a long, lingering kiss amongst beautiful arrangements of long-stemmed flowers. The result was so startlingly convincing that John stared for a moment too long, then looked away, his cheeks hot and his stomach churning.

Sherlock followed up that display by slipping the florist his number with a sly wink and a salacious smile.

"She'll never suspect a thing," he stage-whispered. "Bit of an idiot. Well. Everybody is. Oh, don't take it personally!"

*

Sherlock and Janine were giggling, hunched against the rain as Sherlock unlocked the door and ushered them inside the flat.

"Her face," Janine said. "Did you see her face?"

John trailed behind, shook rainwater from his hair, removed his sodden coat.

Sherlock's laughter was genuine, he thought. It was the snorting, uncontrolled kind that he did not often share with—well—with people who weren't John.

"John, did you see?" Janine turned towards him, still grinning. Her makeup had smudged a bit under her eyes, and her hair was mussed and unruly from the damp. Her eyes were bright, her smile infectious. "When he said—"

She was lovely, John thought in a detached way. Not his type, but he could see why someone would—why even Sherlock would—

He cleared his throat, smiled. His face felt stiff. "Yep. Yeah—there was—there was no missing that."

"Is it always this much fun, solving crimes?" she asked over her shoulder as she started up the stairs.

John hesitated, still holding his coat. "It's never boring," he said.

"It's not any of the florists," Sherlock announced, brushing past them and taking the stairs two at a time. He seemed energetic, invigorated.

John glanced at the closed door to Mrs Hudson's flat, then back at the stairs. Thought about fetching Rosie and taking her out into the frigid downpour, of packing shoulder-to-shoulder in the Tube with hundreds of other damp and miserable people. Of his quiet, empty little house. The evening stretched before him: Dinner for Rosie, a bit of playtime, putting her down to sleep. Spending the next several hours alone, awake, staring at the telly. Wondering what Sherlock and Janine were getting up to in his absence.

He turned away from the door. Hung his coat on the peg, went up the stairs.

"How do you know it's not one of the florists?" he asked as he went through the door into the flat.

Sherlock, already sprawled in his chair as if he'd been there for hours, looked up. Smiled—a quick, genuinely pleased twist of his lips. "Isn't it obvious?"

"Considering you accused one the last time we dealt with this," John said, folding his arms over his chest. "I'd say no. Not obvious."

Sherlock rolled his eyes. "I was operating with an incomplete data set."

Janine snorted.

John glanced back over at her, then at Sherlock. Thought again of his empty house, of the quiet and dreadfully dull night that stretched before him. Of all the endless dull nights that would follow.

"And now?" he prompted.

"Well," Sherlock said, springing to his feet, moving to the window. "If you'd been paying attention, you'd have noticed—"

"Hold that thought," John said, deciding on the spot. "Let me—we should get takeaway. I'll go bring Rosie up, and you can walk us through—"

"Can't. First dance lesson is tonight," Janine said.

John paused. Clenched his hand, released it. "Oh. Right." He forced himself to smile. He'd been doing a lot of that, lately. It hadn't got any easier. "I'll just—"

He looked at the door, suddenly feeling very foolish.

The dance lessons. The lessons Sherlock had agreed to, even though they had nothing directly to do with the case. The ones he'd agreed to simply because Janine had asked, because she'd wanted to learn.

"You'll need to attend as well. In case that wasn't clear," Sherlock said. He turned away from the window, studied John in the fading light. "Consider it a refresher course."

Sherlock's hand on his waist, his breath on John's face. The stumbling, halting start-stop of their steps, socked feet whispering against the aged sitting room rug. Sherlock had insisted he take his shoes off while he was learning. It had been uncomfortable, strangely intimate, to be that close. John had thought he might laugh, but he hadn't. They had both taken it quite seriously.

He blinked away the memory, aware that too much time had passed since he'd last spoken, that Sherlock had almost certainly seen where his mind had gone.

"I can honestly say that I never intend to be in another situation where a waltz is necessary, Sherlock."

Sherlock blinked at him, a furrow briefly appearing between his eyes before smoothing away again like it had never been there. "One never knows. Would be a shame to be unprepared."

"I think I've endured enough humiliation for one lifetime, thanks," John said.

"Humiliation? Your efforts were amateur, but reasonably competent given the amount of time you'd had to prepare. Surely you remember the basic steps."

John remembered. He remembered everything. Sherlock's quiet instruction, devoid of his usual impatience. His own stiff hesitance eventually relaxing into acceptance. The clumsy bump of their feet together with every misstep. Sherlock had been right to insist that he take his shoes off. He'd have trampled all over fragile toes otherwise.

Sherlock had been warm to the touch, his skin radiating heat through the thin fabric of his shirt. He had not seemed like he should be warm, but he was. John had thought about that, later, as he carefully guided Mary around on the dance floor. She had smiled at him under the shifting lights, and he'd smiled back and thought about the unexpected heat of Sherlock's skin.

He'd banished the thought immediately, almost horrified to have thought it at all. If she'd noticed his momentary inattention, she'd never once mentioned it.

"Can't you just—" John shrugged, looked helplessly at Sherlock, "—teach Janine here?" Even as he spoke, he regretted his words. He did not want to imagine Sherlock and Janine swaying together in the warm privacy of 221B. He knew the rapturous expression Sherlock wore on his face while dancing, and it would be all to easy to imagine it directed at her.

He would rather hold that memory close, untouched and untainted.

"Where's the fun in that?" Janine asked. She went down the hall towards the bathroom. "Just going to fix my hair. Be back in a jiffy."

"Sherlock," John said, his voice low. "I don't think I should—"

"Hm?"

John looked at Sherlock. He found that he had no idea what he'd been intending to say.

"Nothing," he said. "Erm. Never mind."

*

The dance studio was around the corner from the last bakery they'd visited. It was a small, neatly-kept space. The floor was a warm blonde wood, the lights dimmed and inviting. John watched Sherlock scan the room, wondered what conclusions he drew.

They checked in at the front desk, gave their names. Sherlock was all wide-eyed charm, his voice pitched slightly too high, his sentences punctuated with nervous little laughs. He kept his arm looped around Janine's waist.

"I'm afraid I'll be complete rubbish at this," Sherlock said, blinking and utterly guileless. "She wants me to learn for our wedding, but—" he let out a nervous giggle, "—I'm afraid I've got two left feet. Oh, I'll be just hopeless."

Janine smiled. "I told him he can't embarrass me on our wedding day."

"Don't worry," the receptionist assured them. "We help loads of people in the same situation. Pete really is a wonderful teacher."

"I'll be the judge of that," Sherlock said, and for a moment he sounded like himself.

John smothered a smile.

They filed into the studio behind a small group. John frowned as he watched them all pair off—it seemed everyone had brought a partner.

At the front of the room, his back to the crowd and fiddling with a speaker and phone setup, was the man Janine had collided with outside of the bakery. Pete, she'd called him. He was fit, John supposed. Dark hair. Decent arse, not that he was looking too closely. A dancer's physique, slim but well-muscled.

He turned around, flashed a brief smile at the gathering crowd. "Be just a moment," he said. He gestured to the speaker. "Technical difficulties." His gaze caught on Janine and his smile widened. "Ah, my lovely friend from the bakery! Nice to see you again."

"Better circumstances this time," Janine said brightly.

"They certainly are," he agreed.

Sherlock cleared his throat, stepped a little closer. A well-played little territorial display. Quite convincing. Unless he wasn't shamming at all, in which case it was—well. Still quite convincing.

"Do try not to knock my fiancee off her feet this time," Sherlock said.

"No promises," Pete said with a cheeky little wink. Bold of him, John thought, given the circumstances.

Pete went back to fussing with the speaker. Janine favoured him with a look of open appreciation, then looked at Sherlock.

"Well?"

Sherlock heaved what could only be called a long-suffering sigh. He studied the man for a moment, his gaze sweeping him up and down. He turned back towards Janine.

"Bisexual," he said to her, speaking out of the corner of his mouth, his voice just loud enough for John to hear. "No pets. Currently single. He's recently out of a relationship and quite torn up about it—no!—not a relationship. Unrequited feelings for someone unattainable."

John shifted where he stood, cleared his throat. "All right, Sherlock, no need to lay out this poor bloke's entire life story, yeah?"

Sherlock ignored him. "He flirts with everyone, don't take it personally, it's reflexive—"

"Well, thanks for that," Janine said.

"Part of the whole—thing—he's trying to do. His image or—or whatever ," Sherlock said with a vague wave of his hand. "Though judging by the two—now three—appreciative glances he's thrown in your direction since our arrival, it appears his interest is genuine, if fleeting. He'd likely be amenable to a fling, though I'd imagine a long-term attachment is off the table."

"Cheers," Janine said, brightening slightly.

"No, wait, you—" John shook his head, stepping closer, keeping his voice low. "You can't just—I can't believe I even have to say this. Janine, you can't actually flirt with him. You're supposed to be getting married."

"Well, not really," Janine said. She pouted a bit.

"He thinks you're getting married."

"I'm supposed to be unhappy!"

"No," John said. "Sherlock's supposed to be difficult."

Sherlock stared at him for a moment, his mouth slightly parted, his eyes wide. As if he'd just realized something momentous.

"Oh," Sherlock breathed. He stepped forward, put his hands on John's shoulders, a brief, ecstatic squeeze and release. "That's brilliant, John."

"What?" John frowned at him. He could still feel the ghost of Sherlock's touch. This was getting to be a problem.

"That's been the assumption all along, hasn't it? That the grooms were difficult, therefore their partners must surely be unhappy. But what if they weren't? All of them went willingly into the marriage, after all, and there were no signs of blackmail or even substantial financial inequality."

"Right," John said. "No. When their partners died, they—they were—"

"Sad," Sherlock said. "That was the word you used. None of them expressed relief or even ambivalence over the circumstances. They were all sad."

John swallowed, looked down. "Yeah. They were sad. Are sad. Even now."

"Even now that some of them have moved on."

"Well it's not a thing you really get over, is it?" John snapped. He paused, took a steadying breath, clenched his fist tightly against his leg.

"No," Sherlock said softly. "I suppose it's not."

John shut his eyes for a moment, forced himself to focus. "So their partners weren't unhappy. So what? What does that tell us that we didn't already know?"

Sherlock was silent for a moment, his eyes distant. "I don't know."

"You think it means something?"

"Almost certainly."

"Right," John said. He unclenched his fist, took another look around the room. Couples. It was all couples. As if this wasn't humiliating enough, now he'd be sticking out like a great sore thumb. An obvious third wheel. A tag along.

He glanced towards the door. Perhaps he could slip out when the class began.

"It's possible the killer isn't someone who's been personally offended by the groom at all," Sherlock said. He stared at the wall over John's shoulder, his face at once thoughtful and closed off. "Maybe he's not taking revenge for ill treatment. Maybe thinks he's helping."

John turned back. "What, like some kind of white knight? Swooping in to save the day?"

Sherlock shrugged, a smooth lift and fall of his shoulders. "It's a natural assumption that the partners of these men were unhappy. An assumption I, myself, just made."

"Then it could be anyone," John said. "There's no reason to limit it just to wedding vendors, it could be—it could be anyone. It could be a bloody chance encounter for all we know. A doorman. A cabbie, even. Wouldn't be the first time, yeah?"

"No, no, there's significance to our killer choosing to strike at weddings. He's around the industry, familiar with it. We're on the right track."

"If you say so," John said.

"Good evening!" Pete called cheerfully from the front of the room. "Can you all hear me? Good. My name's Pete, and I'm going to be guiding you through an introduction to ballroom dancing tonight."

"Look, I'm going to go—" John started.

"I see we have an odd number here tonight—"

"That's me," John said, lifting his hand and smiling tightly. He pointed to the door. "Yeah. Sorry about that, I'm just going to—"

"Oh, there's no need to leave! It's my lucky night," Pete said. "It's actually far easier for me to show you all the steps if I'm working with a partner. So if you could just come on up here Mr—?"

"Watson," John said, conscious of the all of the eyes on him, of the amused smile flitting across Janine's face. He stepped forward. "John. You can just—just call me John."

"John," Pete said. His smile was warm and John could spot the moment he recognised the name, saw his eyes flick quickly to Sherlock, saw him connect the dots. His brows lifted. He looked chuffed. "It seems we have celebrities in our midst. Have you ever done any kind of dancing before?"

"Erm," John glanced helplessly over at Sherlock, who was watching him with an inscrutable expression. "A bit. Just—just a waltz."

"Excellent, then you'll be familiar with the basics. That'll make things easier," Pete said. "Now, I'm going to lead to start off the night, but we'll switch in a few minutes. Sound good to you?"

John lifted his shoulders in a weak shrug. "Erm. Sure."

"All right. Just so you all know, this is an eight week course. I also host dance nights at Slaney's Pub down the street on Thursdays. There's no charge for that and a lot of my students find it a great opportunity to come down and show off their new skills."

Pete waited a moment, and then went over to the speaker to start the music.

"We're going to begin by working on footwork," he said, stepping up close to John. One hand went on John's waist, the other clasped his palm. "Try to keep time with the beat. One-and-two-and—"

John looked down at his feet, not quite able to meet Pete's eye.

Pete's hands were cool and slightly clammy. His steps were smooth and sure and he spoke over John's shoulder as they moved, directing the other dancers, correcting mistakes, bestowing the occasional compliment.

"What made you decide you wanted to learn how to dance?" Pete asked him, once the couples around them had begun to move with a bit more confidence.

"Oh," John said. He looked up. Pete's face was very close and he ducked his head again, feeling oddly uncomfortable. "My—Sherlock. My friend. Sherlock Holmes. He's getting married."

"So I've seen in all the papers."

"Well. He wanted us all to learn how to dance for the reception."

"Ah," Pete said, glancing across the room. "He's been keeping an eye on you."

"Has he?" John lifted his head again, managed with some effort to keep from looking over.

"You know, I thought he looked familiar when I saw him before," Pete mused. "I guess I thought he'd be taller. He seems taller. In the papers."

"That's what everyone says, yeah," John said. The back of his neck prickled, as if he could somehow feel Sherlock's eyes on him. He forced himself to keep moving, focusing on his footwork.

"Does, uh—" Pete paused, ducked his head so that they were eye-to-eye. He smiled, bit his lip. "Does everyone also mention that you're quite fit? In person?"

"Oh," John said. His steps faltered. He breathed out through his nose, resumed his gentle sway. "I'm not—" he hesitated. The familiar dismissal on the tip of his tongue felt disingenuous, somehow, in a way it never had before.

Pete looked at him, patient, wearing the expression of one who had heard it all before.

To John's left, Sherlock was moving in a simple box step with Janine, his hand tucked against the small of her back, his head bowed down close to hers.

John knew exactly what it felt like to be that close to him.

I don't want to see you get hurt, Harry had said. He was beginning to wonder if she might have had a point, after all.

"—interested," he said, looking back at Pete. He squared his shoulders, met his gaze steadily. "I'm not interested. Thank you, though, I'm—I'm flattered. Really." He was flattered, he realised with some surprise.

"Oh," Pete said, following John's gaze to Sherlock and Janine. A smile pulled at the corner of his mouth as he watched them for a moment. "Off the market, then?"

"Bit complicated, but—" John pressed his lips together, nodded once. "Yeah. Something like that."

"Fair enough," Pete said mildly. He kept on turning without breaking stride.

*

It was near midnight when John finally turned off the telly and took himself to bed.

They'd returned to Baker Street after the lesson. He'd watched Sherlock and Janine climb the stairs to the flat, and had then gone to collect Rosie from Mrs Hudson.

Mrs Hudson had fed her dinner, and it was getting on her bedtime when they'd returned home to their quiet little house. John had put Rosie down to sleep, had sat alone on the sofa watching television with the volume turned down.

There were a lot of nights like this in his future, he thought. He'd best get used to it.

His room was dark and quiet. He lay flat on his back under the covers, stared up at the ceiling. Thought of all the times he'd gone to sleep with Mary next to him while he quietly wished he could be somewhere else, with someone else. Thought of how he'd wished he could take those thoughts back, once she was gone.

He'd been skirting around her memory a lot, lately.

He did not miss her. Not really. The knowledge made him uncomfortable. He did not like to think about it. He still grieved her. He still woke up some nights, drenched in sweat, remembering the wet bloom of blood on the front of her shirt, the way she'd held his gaze and gasped out her last words. He still talked to her, sometimes, even though he no longer saw her ghost lingering in doorways.

He'd loved her. He was sorry she was dead. But he did not miss her.

If she miraculously turned up one day, wearing a disguise and a cheeky grin, he'd be—

Well. He'd be glad she wasn't dead. He'd be happy for Rosie's sake, that she would still have her mother. He suspected his lingering sense of guilt over everything that had happened might finally be put to rest.

But he wouldn't take her back into his home, into his bed, into his life.

He did not miss her. Not like that.

He did not like to think about the person he did miss.

His thoughts took him to strange places in the night, that was all. It made little sense to miss Sherlock, Sherlock who alive and well and only on the other side of London in the flat that used to be theirs.

Chapter Text

*

The dress shop was small, with aisles narrow enough that John could not help but stumble over voluminous skirts, satin and tulle whispering against his legs as he made his way resolutely towards the back of the room.

Sherlock and Janine had already gone when he'd arrived at Baker Street with Rosie. Mrs Hudson had accepted her cheerfully, waving John in to her flat.

"They went out early," she'd said, settling Rosie on the ground in her sitting room, which she'd gated off from the kitchen and hallway. "Something about brunch and meeting the bridesmaids."

John had raised his brows. "Sherlock? Brunch?"

"He seemed to feel it was very important that they all get on," she said. She pursed her lips, shook her head.

"You're joking."

She'd shaken her head and given him a little shrug, one that seemed to convey disapproval, bewilderment, and fondness all at once.

In the sitting room, Rosie pushed herself to her feet and flung herself at a soft basket of toys. She withdrew a stuffed bear, cast it aside with a gleeful squeal. Bent to retrieve another. John stopped to watch her for a moment, struck by a wave of fondness.

"It only seemed right for her to have her own things here," Mrs Hudson had said, coming up behind him. She'd sounded a touch defensive, as if he might somehow object. "She is family, after all."

He'd smiled, looked down at the ground. "Mrs Hudson, you are a saint."

"I'm nothing of the sort, dear, and you know it," she'd said. And then she'd patted at the pocket of her cardigan. "Oh! I'm to tell you to meet Sherlock at this address."

She'd handed him a folded slip of paper. John had looked down at the address written in Sherlock's distinctive hand.

"Dresses," he'd said. He'd closed his eyes. "Bridesmaid dresses. Why?"

"Well, you know it's best not to argue with him when he's got his mind set on something."

"I didn't think the groom had anything to do with the bridesmaid dresses. Let alone the best man."

"Well I suppose that's why he was so concerned with making sure everyone got on. You know, Sherlock was very involved in choosing the dresses for your wedding," Mrs Hudson had said, sounding a bit stern. "He took his responsibility very seriously. Spent ages worrying over colour combinations. I expect it's only right for you to return the favour."

That had stung, a bit.

And so he'd left Rosie playing under Mrs Hudson's watchful eye, made his way to the little shop that Sherlock had directed him to. He thought about Sherlock and Janine, at brunch. Sherlock, caring enough to meet the bridesmaids. To make sure they all got on.

Perhaps Mrs Hudson had confused get on with antagonise to the point of tears, which seemed more Sherlock's style.

A little bell had chimed over the door at the dress shop when he'd stepped inside, rubbing his hands together to warm them. There was no attendant at the front desk, but he could hear muffled voices in the back, and so he'd made his way down the narrow aisles, brushing past full skirts and overdressed mannequins with eerie blank faces.

He found them in the back, near a row of small dressing rooms and a large mirror that spanned a good chunk of the far wall.

"Ah, excellent. John, you've finally made it," Sherlock said.

"Morning," John nodded. He pursed his lips, looked away from Sherlock to Janine and the three unfamiliar women standing by her side. They were tall, the three of them, and rather startlingly attractive. He cleared his throat, squared his shoulders.

"This is John Watson, the best man," Janine said. "John, these are my bridesmaids. Old friends from uni."

They were introduced as Evie, Lily and Victoria (always Victoria, never Vicky, she stressed). Victoria was to be the chief bridesmaid and she was, he thought, a bit terrifying.

He could only assume that Mary's friend circle had not overlapped with this one, as he'd never so much as heard their names mentioned. Possibly it was for the best. He could not quite imagine Mary fitting in with this set, even with a false identity firmly in place.

"Very excited to get to know you," Evie said, taking his arm, tilting her head to look down at him. There was a bit of a predatory glint in her eye. "Sherlock was telling us about some of your cases over brunch."

"You must tell us all his secrets," Lily said, taking his other arm.

"Too many to list, I'm afraid," John said, drawing back with a nervous laugh. He glanced towards Sherlock with an expression that he hoped appropriately conveyed: what the hell?

Sherlock looked blandly back at him, said nothing.

"We've all been wondering—" Victoria said. She eyed herself in the mirror, ruffled her long blonde hair. "—how Janine managed to snag him. I mean, he's hardly her usual type."

"No, he's much prettier," Janine said, stepping closer to Sherlock. There was a flash of—something—on her face, there and gone. She met Victoria's eye, held her gaze without backing down. Smiled, an insincere flash of teeth. "We're not in uni anymore. Tastes change."

"Indeed they do," Victoria said, turning away from Janine and looking Sherlock up and down instead. The tip of her tongue darted out to moisten her lips.

Christ, but that look was brazen. John sniffed, looked away, tension creeping into his shoulders. He was used to people throwing themselves at Sherlock, it happened often enough that he considered it a hazard of the job, but there was something about Victoria's keen interest that rubbed him the wrong way.

The attendant bustled over from somewhere in the back, lugging three dresses with her. She gave John a curious look, stepped around him.

"All right, let's give these a go," she said.

Victoria took the first dressing room. John watched her go. Lily and Evie followed, leaving him by the large mirror with Sherlock and Janine.

"Brunch?" he asked Sherlock, quietly. "Seriously?"

Sherlock raised his brows, shrugged.

"He said he wanted to get to know my friends before our special day. Because they'll be his friends too," Janine said, putting her hand on Sherlock's arm. "Can you even believe the shite that comes out of his mouth?"

"Generally, no," John said.

Janine squeezed Sherlock's arm. He leaned down and she murmured something in his ear. He nodded his head, twisting slightly as if her breath tickled him. John found himself unable to look away.

Evie emerged from the dressing room first, smoothing her hands over a sequined gown.

"Hm," Sherlock said, frowning. Janine squeezed again, then let her hand drop from his arm.

John clasped his hands behind his back and waited for Sherlock to do or say something horrible. It was inevitable, at this point.

Sherlock swallowed. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down. His hands twitched at his side.

Nervous, John thought. He looked nervous. Why would he—

Sherlock swallowed again, and then he put his shoulders back, tilted his head to the side and changed. Gone was the hesitance. Gone, even, was Sherlock Holmes, smirking and self-assured detective. The man left wearing his skin was someone else entirely.

He brushed past Janine, went towards Evie. "You look stunning," he said, dropping his voice. "But that dress is all wrong."

John blinked. Looked at Janine, then back at Sherlock. Blinked again.

Victoria emerged from the dressing room, and Sherlock swiveled away from Evie to focus on her instead. His voice dropped even lower. He was nearly purring, now. "No, no, no. When one is working with such beautiful art—" he gestured vaguely towards her and she dropped her head, smiled coyly, "—the frame needs to enhance that beauty, not cover it up."

"Christ," John said out loud. He turned away, then realised he had turned directly towards the mirror and had escaped nothing. He watched as Sherlock's reflection bent down towards Victoria's reflection, as he whispered something in her ear that made her giggle and cut her eyes towards Janine.

She had an irritating laugh, he thought.

The dressing room door creaked as Lily made her way out.

"Don't even bother," Sherlock said, shooing her back in. He turned towards the attendant, snapped his fingers briskly. "We'll need something else."

John sank into a stiff-backed little chair against the wall near the mirror, put his head in his hands.

And so it went.

The attendant gamely brought forth dresses. Sherlock shot them down. He talked over Janine, made disparaging comments about her taste that made Victoria laugh. He smiled. He simpered. He flirted. He dropped casual comments about wealth and fineries and fancy restaurants like a proper city boy. He mentioned his family's country pile and dropped hints about taking the women there for a weekend holiday (failing entirely to mention that it had been burnt to the ground by a murderous sibling).

He flattered Evie and Lily. He flirted shamelessly with Victoria. He was at once dismissive and demanding towards the attendant, who progressed rapidly from solicitous to irritated (and John suspected it was only a matter of time before she advanced to homicidal. Sherlock did tend to have that effect on people.)

He was—

He was insufferable.

He'd always been a good actor, of course. Always. But this—this was on an entirely different level. He positively oozed with a smarmy charm that, until today, John would have sworn he'd have had no idea how to emulate. And he didn't just emulate it, he embodied it.

Somewhere around the twelfth round of dresses, John turned glassy eyes towards Victoria, who had approached the mirror near where he was sitting. She'd bent over at an improbable angle, examining the way the green satin stretched across her arse.

Clearly she did yoga or some other form of intense exercise that required a good deal of stretching, John thought absently. He spared a thought for Alice, whose profile he'd been neglecting amidst the recent excitement.

He looked away from Victoria, scrubbed a hand over his face. Sought out Sherlock, who had his head bowed over a book of fabric swatches. He studied him for a moment, unobserved. Sherlock's brow was creased with concentration, his chin tucked in. There was something endearingly familiar about his intense focus, and John could not help but smile at the sight.

"Sherlock," Victoria called, her voice slicing through his thoughts. "Come over here."

Sherlock straightened up, his expression shifting, smoothing into something—into someone—else. He closed his book of samples and went. No, he prowled.

"Does this dress make my arse look big?" Victoria asked, smoothing her hands over said arse and bending forward. "Be honest."

He crouched down so he was at eye-level. Seemed to devote the entirety of his considerable attention to the urgent matter of her arse.

John glanced over Lily and Evie, who were watching with twin expressions of amusement. And then he looked to Janine, who seemed—well. Not amused.

"I was hoping we'd have a chance to chat privately. I've heard so much about you," Victoria purred. "How you see everything."

"Oh?" Sherlock asked, leaning in, his lip curling up into a smile that looked alien and unwelcome on his face. Even his voice did not sound like his own. "Is that so?"

"Mm," she said. "So, go on. Impress me. What do you see?"

"That seems like a trick question," Sherlock said. He dropped his voice. "What do you want me to see?"

"Everything," she breathed.

"Jesus," John said, his face heating with secondary embarrassment. He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then took his phone out of his pocket. He logged into Alice's Facebook account and scrolled, suddenly quite desperate for a distraction. Any distraction.

"Hm. Not sure I like the green," Janine said. She had crossed the room to stand next to Sherlock, her expression tight, her arms folded across her chest. "I was thinking a pink—"

"No," Sherlock said. He did not stand up, did not pull his gaze away from Victoria's face. "I'm rather partial to the green."

Victoria raised her brows, smirked.

"Won't it clash with the flowers?" Janine said.

"I'll change the order."

"It was already last minute."

He rolled his eyes, an overexaggerated expression that was clearly meant for Victoria's benefit. Look, that eye roll said. Look how she nags me. "I'm quite sure it won't be a problem."

"Fine, but—"

"Please go away," he said, flapping a dismissive hand over his shoulder. "You're distracting me."

Victoria smiled, let out one of her abrasive giggles.

It was not actually abrasive, John amended. It was a normal enough giggle. She just seemed to inject it with a bit more cruelty than necessary.

Janine opened her mouth, shut it again. Turned and went towards the front of the store without a word, her hand pressed over her eyes.

John watched her go, feeling a stab of sympathy in spite of himself. He'd thought she might lash out. Instead she'd retreated quietly. She was just acting, of course. It was all just acting. No different from Sherlock insulting her taste in cake frosting or flowers.

Except—Victoria wasn't in on the scheme. She seemed to be playing her own strange little game. And John did not like it. Did not like her.

She was Irene Adler without the cleverness, he thought. And without the cleverness, there was very little left to admire.

"This is the dress," Sherlock said, seemingly oblivious to everything but Victoria. He ghosted his hands down her sides without actually touching her. John swore he saw her shiver. "It's perfect."

"Perfect," she echoed. She fluttered her eyelashes, smiled. Her teeth gleamed.

"Yes," Sherlock agreed, his voice gone all hushed and reverent. They were toffee-eyed, the pair of them. Every word seemed to thrum with an electric hidden meaning.

John's phone screen had gone dark. He'd been staring. He looked away, quickly. Woke up his phone and resumed scrolling absently through Alice's feed.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flutter of green satin as Victoria turned and made her way towards one of the little dressing rooms.

He lifted his head. Watched Sherlock watch her go.

Bile burned hot at the back of his throat.

I don't want to see you get hurt, Harry's voice in his head.

Too late, he thought miserably. Too fucking late.

He watched as Sherlock returned his attention to the fabric book.

Watched as Lily and Evie approached Sherlock from either side, flanking him with a tactical precision that would not have been out of place in the army. They were also in green dresses. John bit back the urge to say something cruel, to send them scattering.

Green. He'd never really considered the word green before. Clearly an oversight.

The word green was used to convey a great many things. Illness. Envy. Inexperience.

There amidst Janine's chattering bridesmaids, watching Sherlock furrow his brow and study fabric swatches, watching him smile and simper and flirt, John thought it a remarkably apt colour choice. Because he felt quite sick to his stomach, he feared the source of said sickness might very well be jealousy, and he had absolutely no idea at all what to do about it.

His phone had gone dark again. Furious at himself, he woke it up.

Jennie Teller's face stared back at him. He'd inadvertently clicked on her profile.

Sherlock murmured something that made Lily and Evie giggle in unison. John ground his teeth together and stared down at his phone.

Jennie Teller's recent updates were subdued, ordinary, boring. Proper capitalisation and punctuation. Mentions of work events, evenings out with friends, some sort of class she'd taken that seemed to mix painting with copious amounts of red wine.

Alice, John thought, would approve of that. He tapped to like her status. Scrolled on.

Past the update about Reginald's death. Back through her livelier posts in ALL CAPS, the rambling high-energy rants that went into far too much detail. Photos from her hen night, Jennie all done up and beaming in group shots with several other women in a crowded pub. Dancing—poorly, going by her posture and the expression on her face (captured in the throes of an embarrassed laugh)—amidst a crowd on a packed dance floor. Holding up a pink drink and laughing in front of a neon pink bar sign.

Back past her post complaining about her fiance's lack of interest in wedding bouquets—and oh, John now had a new sympathy for the poor bloke after what he'd just been through with Sherlock and his bloody pink roses—past the smiling selfies and gleeful announcement of her engagement. The highs and lows of a life played out in reverse.

"Sherlock?" Victoria's voice again, once more cutting through John's thoughts.

John looked up in spite of himself.

Sherlock had paused in the midst of his conversation with Lily and Evie. Janine was nowhere to be seen.

"Sherlock, my zipper is stuck. Would you come help a lady out?"

John watched with a numb creeping dread as Sherlock smirked and excused himself. As he made his way past the racks of ruffles and satin, as he brushed by the attendant (who shot him the most disgusted look John had ever seen leveled at another human being). As he opened the door to Victoria's little dressing room and slipped inside.

There was a rustle, a thump, and a giggle. And suddenly John could no longer even pretend to be interested in his phone.

Blood roared in his ears. He turned, scanned the room for Janine, could not find her. The attendant had retreated back to her desk, was staring at her computer. She looked ill.

Another thump from the dressing room.

Lily and Evie exchanged glances, then doubled over with muffled giggles.

"I can't believe her!" Lily hissed, though it sounded more admiring than chastening.

"Every single fucking time!" Evie agreed cheerfully.

Another thump.

Time seemed to slow down.

John put his phone back in his pocket, stood up. His hand clenched at his side, fingernails digging into his palm. He looked at the door, allowed himself to imagine fetching his coat and walking out without looking back.

I don't want to see you get hurt.

He turned back, looked at the dressing rooms. He had gone cold all over.

Was this how it was going to be, now? One fake relationship had jarred Sherlock out of his—aversions—to intimacy, freeing him up to go running around London seducing people left and right for the sake of his cases?

I don't want to see you get hurt.

He thought he was going to be sick.

The dressing room door creaked open. Sherlock emerged, looking ruffled and mildly guilty, but guilty in a way that suggested he was only acting guilty and not really feeling particularly remorseful at all. Someone had clearly raked fingers through his hair. His shirt collar had been tugged to the side. There was a vivid smear of red lipstick on his neck, still damp.

Sherlock cleared his throat, stepped to the side.

"Zipper was stuck," he said, his voice bland, giving nothing away.

Victoria emerged behind him, smoothing down her hair. Her face was flushed, her lipstick clearly freshly reapplied.

"You dropped this," Sherlock said, passing her a phone. Their fingers brushed. "I took the liberty of adding my number. In case we need to discuss . . . logistics. Later."

She took it with a coy little smile, went over to join Lily and Evie.

Sherlock looked down, tugged his rumpled jacket back into place.

John started forward without intending to, and once he'd started he could not stop. He barrelled into Sherlock, twisting his hands in the lapels of his jacket and marching him backwards into the empty dressing room. He kicked the door shut behind him. It rattled in its frame.

"What—" John said, crowding Sherlock until his back hit the wall, "—was that? What do you think you're doing?"

"Bad behaviour," Sherlock said flatly. He twisted out of John's grasp, moved to step around him.

"No," John said, once again seizing Sherlock's lapels and forcing him back against the wall. His face was hot, blood pounding in his ears. The room was very small and smelled, chokingly, of Victoria's perfume.

She'd had her hands on him. She'd had her mouth on him.

He dragged his thumb across Sherlock's neck, down past the ridge of his collarbone, wiping away the smudge of red lipstick.

Sherlock's eyes went very wide. He stilled, breathing hard, waiting. John could feel the live-wire tension vibrating in his frame.

John loosened his hands, then tightened them again, crushing the fine fabric of Sherlock's jacket. "No, you don't get to just say that. You don't get to just act like that. There are lines, Sherlock. Lines you don't cross. Not even for a case. Janine is—whatever you're doing with Janine, I assume she knows where she stands. But this—you're involving someone else. Why? Why would you think—"

"Because," Sherlock hissed, stooping slightly so that their noses nearly brushed. His breath puffed harsh and angry against John's face. "The attendant—" he jerked his head to the left, in the general direction of the front of the shop, "—is mere minutes away from completing a draft of an outraged email to the Daily Mail conveniently highlighting every shocking thing she's witnessed today. Tomorrow, all anyone will be able to talk about is Sherlock Holmes callously cosying up to the chief bridesmaid while his poor oblivious fiancee waits in the next room, thus saving us the need to perform this tedious exercise again at every dress shop in London!"

Tedious.

Of course this was tedious for Sherlock. He enjoyed acting, and he and Janine had clearly amused themselves playing their parts, but . . . in essence, they were doing the same things over and over and over again. And if John had been bored, then Sherlock—

John let go of Sherlock's lapels, looked down at the ground, breathed out. Resisted the urge to reach back out to smooth the crumpled fabric in apology. He'd already overstepped, and badly.

"Is that acceptable? Or shall I go ahead and snog you too while I'm at it? Oh, that would certainly make the front page. Scandal at Baker Street!"

John blinked, looked up again. Sherlock was angry, genuinely angry. John could not recall the last time he'd seen him in such a state.

Sherlock breathed hard. His nostrils flared. His chest heaved. He stared down at John without blinking.

"No," John said, voice distant and weak to his own ears. His stomach lurched. He felt like he'd suddenly plunged from a great height. "No. There's no need to—no. I don't think that would—"

"Then kindly get out of my way and let me finish my work."

John hesitated. Then he nodded, stepped back. He could not meet Sherlock's gaze.

Sherlock twisted around him, disappeared through the door without another word.

John staggered in his wake, feeling like all the air had been punched out of him. He put his hands on his knees, waited until his breathing had steadied.

That smear of lipstick on Sherlock's neck. Christ, he'd wanted to bite it, wanted to lick it away, wanted to leave his own mark in its stead.

And that was—that was—

Christ. That was a hell of a realisation to have at this moment in time.

"Shit," he said.

By the time he'd composed himself and stepped back out into the shop, Sherlock and the bridesmaids had gone.

*

Neither Sherlock nor Janine were at Baker Street when John arrived to pick up Rosie.

"Did they pick dresses?" Mrs Hudson asked, and then, seeing John's stricken face, let out a sound of dismay. "Oh, it was another one of those terrible rows, wasn't it?"

"Mm," he agreed.

"I just don't think they're right for each other," Mrs Hudson tutted as she passed over Rosie's nappy bag. "They way they carry on. And in public like that!"

"Well, you know Sherlock," John said with a tight smile, stooping to buckle Rosie into her pushchair. "He has a tendency to bring out the worst in people."

Even me, he thought but did not say.

Even as he thought it, he knew it wasn't really true. He did a good enough job bringing out the worst in himself all on his own.

*

The Daily Mail ran a short piece about Sherlock stepping out on his fiancée with her chief bridesmaid. John could barely bring himself to read it.

Other papers and internet sites were quick to catch on, speculating that one woman would never be enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of London's favourite consulting detective.

"Don't believe everything you read," Janine, caught on camera outside Speedy's, said in an oft-repeated clip. "Sherlock and I are just fine." She smiled, but her face looked tired, her eyes puffy.

"Is the wedding still on?" a reporter asked.

"Of course," she said. This time she did not smile.

John's blog rapidly accumulated angry comments. They spilled into his inbox by the hundreds.

It reminded him uncomfortably of the time immediately after Sherlock's death. The waves of public anger had seemed unending, then, battering relentlessly at the bruised walls around his heart, dragging against nerves already rubbed raw by grief.

He considered posting about it, but found he had absolutely no idea what to say.

He disabled comments, instead.

*

Sherlock did not contact him about further appointments. It was possible, of course, that he'd got it all arranged. That there were no further appointments to be had.

Get out of my way and let me finish my work.

It was also possible that, following John's outburst at the dress shop, Sherlock had simply decided it was more trouble than it was worth to continue including him in his plans.

He ought to apologise for that, he thought. It wasn't any of his business, really, who Sherlock went around kissing. If anyone should have got angry about it in public, it should have been Janine.

Even if he—

Well. There was no sense thinking about it. Even if he—even if it were something he wanted, Sherlock wouldn't—clearly he wouldn't—

No. No sense thinking about it. That was all.

John spent too much time looking down at the dark screen of his phone, waiting for a text that did not come. He found himself unsettled, irritable, unable to sit still. He refreshed gossip sites on his laptop, scrolled through pages of inane chatter about this celebrity or that, hunting for Sherlock's name.

Get out of my way and let me finish my work.

He took Rosie to a toddler playgroup, watched her tumble around with other children her age. He did not speak to the other parents there—mostly mothers—and they, in turn, gave him a wide berth.

He thought about the days stretching out ahead of him. Rosie kept him busy, of course, but eventually there would be school and friends and then—and then his empty lonely days in his empty lonely little house would seem that much emptier, that much lonelier.

He thought about Sherlock. It seemed he was always thinking about Sherlock.

He thought about the look on Sherlock's face in the dressing room, his eyes wide, his pupils dilated, his hair mussed from Victoria's fingers, his lips swollen from Victoria's kisses. The maddening smudge of red lipstick.

Get out of my way and let me finish my work.

Sherlock had been angry at him. Going by his continued silence, Sherlock was likely still angry. Or perhaps he wasn't. Perhaps he wasn't thinking about John at all. It was never easy to tell with him.

Shall I snog you too while I'm at it?

John wondered what Sherlock would have done if he'd said yes. The words had been flung in anger, painfully sharp, clearly intended to make John back down.

He wondered what was going on in 221B. He wondered what Janine had thought of Sherlock's stunt with Victoria, if they'd planned it ahead or if she'd been as surprised as John. He wondered how far Sherlock was taking it.

I took the liberty of adding my number, he'd said, turning Victoria's phone over in his palm. His voice had been dark and seductive and utterly unfamiliar. John wondered where he'd learned to do that. Sherlock had always been a gifted actor, of course, but—

He doubted he'd like the answer. It did not stop him from thinking about it.

Two days passed. Then three. Then four.

The sight of a new message notification on his phone nearly sent his heart skittering out of his chest. But it was Alice's messenger, not his own.

u ok? Olivia St Clair asked him. Well. Asked Alice. havent heard from u in a while.

He waited until the hot flush of guilt and shame had abated. The last time he'd spoken with Olivia St Clair, he'd carefully misled her into talking about her husband. She'd been brimming with fresh grief and had believed she was opening her heart up to a new friend. One who understood her. One who could empathise with her situation.

Sorry, he typed. He frowned, pursed his lips, considered. I've been keeping busy. Haven't been home much.

dating?

He hesitated, frowning down at the screen for a moment.

Taking dance lessons, actually, he typed, and then winced. It's been good to get out.

There was a long pause.

oh
i always wanted to do that

Dancing? It's been fun, he said. He thought about Pete and his relaxed, charming smile. He had been eager to escape that first lesson, but it had not turned out as bad as he'd feared. He hadn't minded, in the end. Of course, he had no intention of ever going back, but—

He checked the date, frowned. Had it already been a week?

is it weird going by yourself
sorry just assumed
do u go with someone?

No, he typed. He thought about it for a moment, then decided to try to be encouraging. It's not weird to go by yourself. Last time I wound up dancing with the instructor!

i signed up for lessons before the wedding
vincent didnt want to go
i should have just gone by myself but i didnt
i just cancelled them instead
i was so mad at the time but now i just want him back

John thought about Mary, how angry he'd been at her, how it had festered in him even as he'd forgiven her, as he'd embraced her. How he'd wished, in dark private moments, that he'd never learned the truth about her, that he could have gone on pretending. How he'd sometimes wanted to hurt her the way she'd hurt him, how badly he'd wanted to cultivate his own secrets.

How he'd regretted that anger, all of it, every single miserable thought he'd ever had, when she was gone.

And how Sherlock had stood by his side through all of it, a convenient scapegoat. How he'd stood and absorbed John's anger, his grief and his guilt. He'd taken it all, and he'd not thrown any of it back in John's face, even though he'd—even though—

And John had hated him. He'd hated him for telling the truth and shattering the peaceful domestic fiction that John had let himself believe in. He'd hated him for forgiving Mary, for befriending her even after she'd put a bullet in his chest. He'd hated him for not seeing through John, for not reading the signs of John's confused miserable unhappiness though surely it must have been obvious. He'd hated him for making a vow and then proving himself to be human after all—fragile, fallible, capable of failure. He'd hated him because he could not possibly hate Mary, because Mary was dead.

He certainly couldn't say any of that. He was ashamed even thinking it, now.

I know what you mean John typed carefully. It gets better. I know it doesn't seem that way now, but it does. It will.

He paused, thought about what it had been like for him, alone and angry and hurting after Mary's death. How he'd pushed everyone away. How he'd had to cling to his anger, he'd had to, because he'd been so terribly afraid of discovering what lurked beyond it.

When Olivia did not respond, he added: And you should take dance lessons if you want.

maybe, Olivia said. She did not add anything more.

John stared at that little maybe floating there unanswered on the screen for a long time. And then he went to get ready for his dance lesson.

*

The back of Sherlock's head was the first thing John saw as he slipped into the studio, carefully winding his way through the small crowd.

He took a steadying breath, not sure if the twisting sensation in his chest was relief or dread.

Pete saw him first.

"John!" he called, waving.

And, God help him, John looked to Sherlock, saw his friend's shoulders stiffen and his head whip around, felt the moment when his searching gaze landed on him.

John nodded, pressed his lips together.

Sherlock nodded back. His brow had furrowed up.

"Sort everything out?" John asked stiffly.

"Oh, don't tell me you believe that tabloid rubbish," Janine said, giving John's shoulder a little shove. She smiled, and it seemed genuine.

"Right," John said. He could not seem to bring himself to meet Sherlock's eye.

"Don't feel sorry for her," Janine said.

John lifted his head. "What?"

"Victoria. She made it her mission to systematically seduce every single man I ever dated in uni. Thought it was funny."

John frowned, Victoria's bizarrely brazen behaviour in the dress shop finally coalescing into something that made sense. "And she's still—still at it? After all this time?"

"Pettiness never dies, John," Janine said. She looked at Sherlock, gave him an oddly rueful little smile. "But Sherl here helped me get a bit of revenge. So it was worth it."

John cleared his throat, looked at Sherlock. "Oh?"

"When I added my contact information into her phone, I might have switched my name with her boyfriend's," Sherlock said.

John smiled in spite of himself, looked away. "So every time she thought she was texting you—"

"She actually texted him, yes. Could be either an Innocent misunderstanding or relationship-ending gaffe, the ball was entirely in her court."

"And I take it she, erm, didn't go the innocent misunderstanding route."

"Mm, no, I believe she did not."

John let an amused breath hiss out through his teeth. He met Sherlock's eye briefly and looked away.

"I should—" John said, inclining his head towards the front of the room.

He turned away before Sherlock could say anything more.

"You know," Pete said as John approached. "I didn't think you'd be coming back. I can usually tell when someone's not really into it."

John swallowed and watched as Pete finished fussing with the speaker at the front of the room. "Well. I considered not coming back. But."

"I'm glad I was wrong," Pete said, turning around as the music started to play. He held out his hand, smiled. "Shall we?"

John, still feeling Sherlock's eyes on the back of his head, stepped forward.

Chapter Text

*

"My neighbor is moving next week," Harry said. "She's got a little girl, about four, I think."

The telly was on, some meaningless talk show. John had it muted, sat on the sofa with his phone tucked against his ear.

"Oh?" he tried to sound interested. He did not know why Harry thought he'd care about her neighbor.

He picked up the remote, flipped through the channels until he found the news. Told himself he was not looking for Sherlock.

"She has a lot of toys and things. Says her daughter's outgrown them. She's planning on binning it. Thought maybe you'd like some of it for Rosie."

"Mm," John said absently. "That would be nice."

Other than the dance lessons, Sherlock had been lying low since his little tryst with Victoria had gone public. A calculated move, John supposed, to make people believe he felt some remorse over the whole thing.

"—little dollhouse that opens up like a suitcase," Harry said. She paused. "John?"

"Hm?" he started, looked away from the telly. The phone had grown uncomfortably warm against his ear. "Erm. Yeah, sounds great. That'd be—yeah. Great."

"Are you listening to me?"

He breathed out through his teeth. Stared at the screen.

The house was very quiet. The entire neighborhood was quiet.

Sometimes he missed the chaos of Baker Street. The traffic noise outside his bedroom window, coaxing him awake as the sun peeked over the horizon. The stream of unexpected visitors and the muffled throb of Mrs Hudson's downright bizarre taste in music. Explosions and shouting and screeching tempered by the sweetest sounds coaxed from the strings of Sherlock's violin.

When he spoke, his words were slow, thoughtful. "You know, people used to think we were a couple. Sherlock and I."

Harry was silent for a long moment. John sat and stared at the telly and listened to himself breathe.

"Were you?" she asked, finally.

"No," he said.

She was quiet again. He wondered what she was thinking.

"Did you want to be?" she asked.

He laughed, at that, the sound hollow and unamused. He pulled his gaze away from the screen, looked up at the ceiling. The room had grown dark around him, Rosie long since put to bed.

"No," he said. Something wrenched in his chest, a sick lurching feeling, and when he spoke again his voice was barely above a whisper. "Not then. I didn't know."

"John—"

"I didn't know," he said, louder this time, suddenly angry at himself, furious. "Not until he was dead."

"Jesus," she said, and he hated that tone, hated the guilt in it. They'd not been on speaking terms when Sherlock had died. She'd never seen him, had never known.

He'd mourned Sherlock like a lover. He could see that, now, looking back. The realisation had escaped him at the time. He'd had other things on his mind.

He was suddenly furious at her as well, furious that she'd been absent twice, furious that she'd managed to miss the two most significant losses in his life. Furious that this was the best they could do, these tentative phone calls where they carefully avoided speaking of anything that mattered.

He twisted his hand in the sofa cushion, grinding his fist down until he could feel the springs.

He thought of Sherlock in the dressing room just the other day, eyes wide, pupils big and dark, chest heaving. His face had been flushed. That damned smear of lipstick on his neck, that patch of damp shiny skin where Victoria had put her mouth. He could still see it, even when he closed his eyes.

He'd had idle thoughts of Sherlock like that before. He always had, since they'd first met. Sherlock was an attractive man. More than attractive. He was—he was magnetic. And he'd been the center of John's world. Of course John would entertain the idea. But that had been all. Just—just idle thoughts. Harmless little fantasies. He'd not taken it seriously. How could he ever have taken it seriously? Sherlock wasn't—he didn't—

"I never thought it was an option," he said. His voice sounded much too loud in the claustrophobic quiet of his little house. His breath came in a rough gasp.

"Is it?" she asked delicately.

He thought of the way things had been between them since Mary died. The months of angry silence, culminating in something John still did not like to think about. Something ugly, something monstrous. The pair of them, battered and broken in different ways—John lashing out, Sherlock taking on.

He thought of Sherlock's arms around him, that careful hesitant embrace, the way Sherlock—restless, easily bored Sherlock—had stood there for ages and let him cry. Sherlock's hand on the back of his neck. His fingertips had trailed along the curve of John's spine, aimless little patterns. It had been startlingly human, startlingly intimate.

And the way things had been, after that. They'd been good.

Hadn't they?

Hadn't they?

John, passing afternoons at 221B while Rosie was with the sitter. Sometimes there were clients and crime scenes and gleeful sprints through back alleys. Sometimes they just drank tea and John watched telly while Sherlock solved cases on Twitter. It was nice. It was normal.

Even if he'd never shaken the fear that Sherlock had changed in some fundamental way. Because Sherlock did not text him in the middle of the night anymore, he did not interrupt him in the middle of Rosie's playdates to insist that John accompany him to Scotland Yard. He did not pester, cajole or demand. He passively accepted John's presence when John offered it, and that was that.

Sherlock was busy, that was all. And John had nothing but time on his hands.

They used to be mistaken for a couple all the time. All the time. But now—

No one has thought that for quite some time.

Sherlock was moving away from him, slowly, steadily. Any gaps left by their—by their polite estrangement were easily filled. He'd always claimed he had no friends, but it wasn't true. People gathered around Sherlock. They were drawn to him. It was John who drove everyone away.

Sherlock hadn't even considered him for his little wedding scheme. He'd categorised it as so far outside the realm of possibility, so entirely unbelievable that he'd rather pass off a rekindled romance with a woman who had once smeared him in every tabloid in London as the truth.

"No," he said flatly. "It's not an option. It never really was."

*

I won't go back, John told himself when the third week rolled around. He found himself studying the clock, painfully aware of the time, unable to focus on anything else.

There was no sense in it. He already knew how to stumble his way through a waltz without making a fool of himself. He had no reason whatsoever to return, week after week, to Pete's little studio just to watch Sherlock tread all over Janine's toes and pretend to be rubbish at dancing.

As if Sherlock—tall, lean, graceful Sherlock—could ever be rubbish at anything.

What was worse was that they both seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. Sherlock, who never missed an opportunity to show off, had inexpliably elected to spend weeks pretending to be utterly incompetent at something. And he was doing it without complaint.

Well. With minimal complaint. He was Sherlock, after all.

There was no need for John to be there. None of the victims had taken dance lessons, after all. This was purely an indulgence. Sherlock could certainly manage to embarrass himself on the dance floor without any assistance.

John did not mind dancing with Pete. He'd thought it might be awkward, but it—well—wasn't. Pete was relaxed and friendly and entirely undemanding. It was fine. It was somewhat enjoyable, even. Nothing at all like those strange and heady afternoons leading up to John's own wedding, Sherlock's hand on his waist, swaying together in the warm dusty sitting room.

John looked at the clock.

Not going, he thought, firmly.

Ten minutes later he fetched his coat and went.

*

Weeks passed.

Sherlock chose a wedding ring with very little fanfare. There were no staged arguments and no hysterics.

Janine did not accompany them. It was only John, leaning awkwardly against a glass case while Sherlock conversed with the jeweler.

("He owes me a favour," Sherlock had said. "I once helped him track down a particularly clever thief.")

The jeweler had certainly greeted Sherlock like an old friend, thumping him heartily on the back and bringing out endless arrays of rings for him to examine.

John watched them for a while, found his mind wandering.

He looked down at the case he'd been leaning on, studied the displays. His thumb automatically went to his ring finger, stroked the bare skin where his wedding band used to rest.

It had been a simple ring. Gold. Rounded edges. Nothing flashy or particularly eye-catching. He'd liked the design. It had suited him.

If he were ever to marry again—and wasn't that an unlikely thought—he would choose something similar. Not gold, though. Gold was Mary's colour, and Mary was gone.

"John," Sherlock said.

John glanced up. Sherlock and the jeweler were both looking at him.

There were two rings laid out side by side on a scrap of dark velvet. They gleamed under the lights.

They were both white metal. Platinum, he supposed. Simple designs, nothing ornate or fussy. One had rounded edges, much like his own wedding ring had been. The other was a flatter design with squared edges, more streamlined, modern.

John picked up the one with the rounded edges, studied it.

He liked it, he realised with a pang.

"I'm not an expert," he said, putting the ring down.

"No, he is," Sherlock said, raising a brow and tilting his head towards the jeweler. "But I was hoping for a second opinion."

John held his gaze for a moment, then looked back down at the rings. Tried to imagine either one of them on one of Sherlock's long fingers.

He did not know why Sherlock was bothering with all of this. Platinum was expensive. A strong metal. Durable. It would hold up to the frequent abuses Sherlock inflicted on his hands in the name of his work. Undoubtedly what he'd have chosen, if the marriage were real. If he intended to wear that ring for the rest of his life. But, for this? Surely he could have gone with something less—permanent—to suit his charade. It was a bit surprising that he didn't have a box full of cheap wedding rings hidden away somewhere in the flat.

Unless he intended it to be permanent.

The thought, once it had occurred, wormed uncomfortably into John's mind.

The relationship was fake, of course. A matter of convenience. But Sherlock and Janine had been sharing 221B for months, now. They certainly seemed to get on. They were, as Sherlock had once mentioned, remarkably well-suited.

Maybe he intended to make some sort of grand gesture. He could blather on all he wanted about being unsentimental and above such things, but Sherlock always seemed to go for the grand gestures. Wouldn't that just be bloody fitting.

"This one," John said, softly, tapping the one with the rounded edges. It was what he'd have chosen for himself. "I like this one."

"Why?"

John blinked. "Erm—I just—I just do."

Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Surely you have a reason."

"Well," John said. "It's just—the round edges. Bit more traditional than—than the other one. And that's—well. It's traditional for a reason, yeah? Makes for a comfortable fit. Nothing protruding that could catch on clothing, or—or poke through latex gloves. Both of which could be a concern in our—in your line of work. So. That's the one I like."

Sherlock looked at him, held his gaze for a moment longer than seemed necessary. Nodded. Looked away.

There was something meaningful in his expression, John thought. Too bad he had no idea what, exactly, it was supposed to mean.

*

"Now that we're a few weeks in and all—hopefully—familiar enough with the basic steps, I'd like to switch things up for tonight's lesson," Pete said. "I'm going to ask everyone in this room to switch partners."

John blinked in surprise, glanced over at Sherlock before he could stop himself. Forced himself to look away.

There was an unsettled murmur running through the little crowd.

"I know," Pete said, smiling. "Most of you came here with someone. But while you've been learning the steps together, you've also been learning your partner's reactions, their movements. I want each and every one of you to feel comfortable performing this dance with anyone. And to accomplish that, I like to incorporate a little variety."

John looked down at the ground. He'd grown accustomed to dancing with Pete.

"Don't worry," Pete said, catching John's eye. "We'll go back to the usual arrangement next week." He winked, then tilted his head towards Janine. "Would the lovely bride-to-be like to join me this evening?"

"Ooh, I'd love to," Janine said, preening a bit under the attention. As she went towards Pete, she glanced over her shoulder and raised her eyebrow at Sherlock. He responded with an exaggerated eye roll.

John watched them, irritation crawling up his spine. Remarkably well-suited, he thought, and then he thought of that ring, that lovely, well-suited, expensive ring.

"John?" Sherlock stepped closer. He held out his hand. A question.

"Ah—" John held up both hands, as if such a simple gesture could ever keep him at bay. "Doesn't this go against the whole—well, the whole spirit of the thing? Switching partners? I thought I was meant to dance with someone I've never danced with before."

Sherlock frowned at him. "Do you want to dance with someone you've never danced with before?"

John shook his head. "Erm. No, actually. I don't particularly want to dance at all."

"Then why are you here?"

That was the question, John supposed. Why was he there? Why did he keep showing up?

The room was loud, buzzing with the hum of uncomfortable conversation, as people scrambled to find new partners. Someone laughed, the sound high-pitched, nervous.

Sherlock looked over his shoulder, his attention caught by something at the front of the room. When he spoke, his voice was flat. Dismissive. "The music is about to begin. Best make your excuses and go."

"No," John said, and he forced a laugh. "No—no excuses necessary, Sherlock. Just—come here."

"Why?"

"Because we're dancing, you arse. But—look—Janine might let you get away with it, but if you step on my toes I will fight back."

Sherlock chuckled, and some of the tension seemed to seep out of his shoulders.

John wondered how the hell they had got here. Uncomfortable, tripping over one another. Out of tune. It had been so easy, once. Right from the beginning, it had been easy.

He thought of the dressing room, of Sherlock's lapels crushed in his hands, Sherlock backed against the wall with lipstick on his neck and his eyes wide and furious.

"Come here," John said again, voice softer this time. He put his hand on Sherlock's waist. Through the thin fabric of his shirt, his skin was as warm as John remembered.

Sherlock stepped forward, linked their hands. His other hand settled on John's back. His movements were stiff, hesitant.

The music began, and all around them, people began to sway.

"Look," John said, his mouth dry. He could not quite bring himself to meet Sherlock's eye. "If you don't actually want—"

"It's fine," Sherlock said, voice clipped.

They took one step, then two, hopelessly out of sync. John stumbled, catching himself against Sherlock's chest.

"I'm—"

"You lead," Sherlock said.

"All right."

They moved together, slowly, not quite matching the beat of the music. John closed his eyes and thought about the afternoon sun in 221B as it crept through gaps in the curtains, about Sherlock's sure steps and warm breaths, the low rumble of laughter in his chest. It had been clumsy and lovely and nothing at all like this, nothing like this uncomfortable masquerade, all stiff limbs and awkward lunges.

"Why are you doing this?" John asked.

"You're going to have to be more specific than that, John."

He laughed in spite of himself, ducked his head. "Dance lessons. You and I both know you don't need them."

"Helps to stay in character."

"You have no trouble staying in character."

Sherlock sighed, a long-suffering, put-upon sound. "I enjoy dancing."

It was a terribly simple answer, and John found himself at a loss for words.

They moved together in a slow circle, Sherlock's hand a steady pressure against John's back. He did not move his fingers, no idle tracing, no casual intimacy. It was all rather chokingly formal.

"You're going to have to go through with this, aren't you?" John asked.

Sherlock looked down at him, frowned.

"The wedding. You haven't—I mean, I guess it was always a long shot that you'd be able to spot the murderer during one of your—erm—performances. But."

"I had hoped to wrap this up sooner," Sherlock said, sounding irritated. "Inconvenient."

That did not sound like a man planning some sort of romantic grand gesture. John breathed a sigh of relief and hated himself for it.

Over Sherlock's shoulder, he spotted Pete dancing with Janine. She seemed to be enjoying herself, laughing and tossing her hair.

As if he felt John's gaze, Pete lifted his head. There was something uncomfortably close to pity on his face as he looked from John to Sherlock and back again.

Unrequited feelings for someone unattainable, Sherlock had deduced, back on the night of their first lesson.

John felt suddenly quite exposed, as if his every thought, every confused muddled feeling was on display as he breathed in Sherlock's scent, as he swayed slowly in Sherlock's arms. He did not want Pete to see him as a kindred spirit. He did not want Pete's pity.

He swallowed, looked away.

*

The weeks dragged on. The planned wedding date loomed ahead, inevitable, unavoidable.

Sherlock solved a forgery case while John sat in an overcrowded room, watching a group of toddlers enact some sort of incomprehensible ritual upon a tattered stuffed bear. One of the poor beast's button eyes had come loose and dangled precariously by a string.

The effect was macabre.

Lestrade had sent a text. John had opened it, feeling awkward and out of place amidst the mothers (and would Mary have felt awkward and out of place as well? He was unhappy to realise that he did not know. She'd have done a better job of pretending to be comfortable, he supposed. But her real feelings on mothers' groups were a mystery to him, as were her real feelings on most everything else).

Looks like he'll finally make headlines for something worthwhile this time

There was a photo with the text, blurry, out of focus. Sherlock, holding up something that looked like an old piece of parchment. He wore the endearingly half-stunned look he tended to get whenever someone turned a camera on him.

It was a terrible picture. John looked at it for a long time, then saved it.

One of the children squealed, and John glanced up. A ginger-haired boy had seized the unfortunate stuffed bear and was beating it against the wall.

Rosie had the sniffles, kept wiping her nose on the back of her hand. He'd fussed after her with tissues and hand sanitiser for a bit, and had eventually given up. He wondered if the other mothers were judging him for that, finding him inadequate.

Perhaps he was.

He looked back down at his phone. Sherlock had not texted about any case, but why would he? He didn't do that anymore.

Please keep him busy, John texted back. Don't think I can handle another cake tasting.

Too late! They already went home.

They.

John stared at the word for a long time, his mouth dry.

His phone buzzed again.

I can see why he likes her
Never thought I'd see the day though
Planning a stag night?

John blinked, lifted his head and stared across the room at the unruly mob of children. He sniffed, looked back down at the phone.

Thought about Sherlock and Janine, together, on a case. They already went home. Because Baker Street was their home. Sherlock's home, and Janine's now.

Of course she'd—well—it only made sense that she'd tag along on cases from time to time. Sherlock liked company when he went out.

His ears were ringing. It was much too loud in the room. Too many people. Too many children. The heater was on full blast and why did no one else look uncomfortable?

Stag night. Lestrade wanted to know about a stag night.

John frowned at his phone. Thumbed out a reply.

Wasn't planning on one.
Not really his thing.

Lestrade responded almost immediately.

What really?

Christ, now John wondered if perhaps he ought to feel guilty over it. How much of an active role was he really expected to take in all this? It wasn't real, none of it was real, and he doubted Sherlock would have wanted a stag night even if it was.

There were the memories of his own stag night to contend with, of course. Hazy and indistinct, warm and comfortable and vaguely alarming.

You know he can't hold his liquor
Remember what happened last time?

Again, Lestrade's answer came quickly.

Between the two of us we'll keep him out of trouble

John pinched the bridge of his nose, sighed. Typed: You sure about that? and then erased it.

He sat for a moment, weighing his response. He supposed the idea held some appeal.

Fine, he replied.
Let's do the Thursday before the wedding?
I'll text details

John put his phone in his pocket without waiting for Lestrade's response.

His pocket buzzed. He sighed, took the phone back out, woke up the screen. Blinked when he realised that Lestrade had not sent another text message. Instead, he'd got a Facebook notification.

He frowned, tapped the icon. Hesitated as he realised the notification was not for Alice, as he'd thought, but for his own personal account which he rarely used.

It was a friend request. Pete's face grinned back at him from his profile photo.

John stared at it for a moment, weighing his options. He quite liked Pete. But—

Well. He wasn't terribly keen on socialising outside of dance class, that was all. And Pete's sad, sympathetic gaze still weighed heavily on his mind.

He closed the app without accepting or declining the invitation. Put the phone back in his pocket. He'd think about it later.

He lifted his head, scanned the room for his daughter.

Rosie had wrapped the bear's head with a bit of cloth and appeared to be performing some sort of rudimentary field surgery on its abdomen. She extracted a fistfull of cottony stuffing in a triumphant fist. One of the other children screamed.

John stood, grimacing, and went to fetch her.

*

"So. The stag night," John said. He spoke into the mirror, holding eye contact with himself as he fumbled with his bow tie. He very carefully did not look to his left, where Sherlock was fussing with his own tie.

"Hm?"

"I was thinking the Thursday before the wedding. That'll give you plenty of time to recover from the inevitable hangover."

"Do you like that tie?"

"What? It's—erm—it's fine. It's a bowtie. Not like there's much of a variety in bowties, yeah?" John plastered a smile on his face, dared a glance to his left.

"Hm," Sherlock said, and went to flag down the attendant.

John looked back into the mirror. Sighed. The suit was nice, it was very nice. He tugged a bit on the lapels, twisted in place to get a better look in the mirror.

"No, no, take that off. Try this one," Sherlock barked, reappearing with the attendant, two new suits in tow. He went straight into the dressing room without slowing down.

The dressing room door clicked shut. John swallowed.

He took the suit into his own dressing room, slipped off the old jacket, stepped out of the old trousers. The new suit was a very dark grey, nearly black but not quite. The fabric was fine, smooth and soft under his fingers, not stiff or scratchy. He did not even want to imagine what it might cost.

When he was satisfied, he stepped out of the cramped little room. Sherlock was already in front of the large mirror at the back of the store.

John paused.

Sherlock looked—

Good. He looked good. He always did. Well—there were times where he failed to shower and draped himself all over the furniture in old pyjamas, but even that held a certain appeal.

"Nice," John said, joining Sherlock at the mirror. He breathed out through his teeth. "The suit. It's nice."

Sherlock met his gaze in the mirror. The corner of his mouth turned up. "Mm. For what Mycroft is paying for it, it better be."

John turned to look at him, raised his brows.

"Nicked his credit card," Sherlock said, mouth still curled in unsuppressed amusement. "He didn't even notice. Age has rather dulled his reaction time."

John snorted, unable to stop a slow smile from spreading. "He's going to notice."

"Then he can consider it a wedding present," Sherlock said, turning back towards the mirror and giving a decisive tug on his tie.

Some of John's good humour drained away.

"Right," he said. He hesitated. "So he's—not coming, then? To the wedding."

Sherlock made a face. "God no. Why would he?"

"Well. He's your brother. Bit odd for him not to be there, yeah?"

"I wouldn't consider it odd at all, no."

"Right. Well. Your parents, then?"

"John."

"No, I guess—" John stopped, looked away. "Well. If they didn't go to your fake funeral, I don't suppose they'd be particularly interested in your fake wedding." He forced a laugh, the sound just a bit too sharp, and turned back to look at Sherlock. "Do they . . . know?"

"If you mean did I tell them, then no," Sherlock said. He tilted his neck in the mirror, studied the tie critically. "But they know."

"Right," John said again. He cleared his throat. "Stop fussing with that tie."

"It's too tight."

"It's fine."

Sherlock's hand went to his throat, tugging. Without thinking, John batted them away, took the silky scrap of fabric between his own hands. He gently worked a finger behind the knot, loosening it slightly.

Sherlock had gone quite still. He swallowed. The bob of his Adam's apple brushed against John's knuckle.

John breathed in sharply, took his hand back.

"See?" he said, his voice deliberately light. "It's fine."

Chapter Text

*

The sun had not quite set and a light drizzle was falling over the city as John stepped out of a taxi in front of the Baker Street flat.

He stood on the kerb for a long moment, looking up. A faint feeling of dread pooled in his stomach.

He let himself in, stood at the foot of the stairs. He did not take his coat off.

There would be tonight, he told himself. And then there would be tomorrow. And on Saturday, there would be a wedding, and all of this would be over. One way or another. For better or for worse.

He took a deep breath. Climbed the stairs.

The door at the top of the landing was open. He went through it into the sitting room. Stopped at the sight of Sherlock, sprawled across the sofa in his dressing gown and pyjamas.

The flat was dim, curtains drawn, the only light coming from the lamp in the corner of the room.

"What are you doing?"

"Thinking," Sherlock said, opening one eye.

"No," John said. "Nope. Not tonight. Get up."

"What? Why?"

"Stag night," John said. "You did know this was happening."

"Oh, that," Sherlock said. "Not necessary. I can just—"

"Nope," John said, taking his arm and tugging. Sherlock sat up in an indignant flail of limbs. "We're going out. It's all been arranged."

Sherlock glared at him for a moment, ruffled and irritated, like a petulant cat. Then he stood up with more grace than should have been possible and stalked off down the hall, his dressing gown flapping.

The bathroom door slammed.

John sighed, sat down on the sofa. The leather was warm where Sherlock had been resting.

He slipped his phone from his pocket, checked the time. Shifted against the seat cushions. There was an edgy restlessness in his limbs, a strange electric thrum in his veins. He jiggled his leg impatiently. Looked back down the hall towards the bathroom.

He was nervous, he realised. Nervous about spending the evening with Sherlock.

Sherlock's bedroom door creaked open. John lifted his head, looked down the hall just in time to see Janine emerge. She was barefoot, clad in a short red dress. She had a pair of strappy heels in her hand.

"Hello," she said.

John smiled tightly, looked away.

"Hen party tonight," she said unnecessarily. She sat down on the sofa next to John and he scooted over to give her room. She bent to fiddle with the strap on her shoes.

"Yeah," he said. "Figured. With the—you know. Dress."

"Mm, might head to Slaney's for one of Pete's open dance nights."

"Oh."

"Feels a bit cruel, lying to them like this," she said, straightening back up. She'd curled her hair and it fell in appealing waves around her face. She flashed him a crooked smile. "But, then again, one of them did try to seduce my fiancé in a dressing room."

John pressed his lips together, nodded. "That sort of thing is usually frowned upon, yeah."

"We've 'cleared the air,'" Janine said, making exaggerated air quotes with her fingers, her voice curving sardonically around the words. "She's very sorry if I misconstrued her friendliness towards Sherlock as romantic interest, which was never her intention. Also, her boyfriend's clearly ditched her, so she's very eager to get back into my good graces, if only for another crack at Sherlock before he's officially off the market. She's got her eye on that country pile."

He laughed, shook his head. "They're—friends of yours? Really?"

She smiled. "Well. Not really friends, yeah? But we've known each other a long time. Things got a bit competitive, back in uni."

He thought of Victoria, tall and statuesque and utterly remorseless. "Yeah, I'll bet."

"The three of them probably wouldn't give me the time of day, except now I'm in the papers. They're all very eager for a taste of the limelight." She shot him another smile. "I'm just using it to my advantage."

There was something vaguely vulnerable in her smile, and John looked down at his hands. He could smell her perfume. It had permeated the flat over the last several months, seemed to cling to every surface. It had been slowly driving him mad, that scent. He'd wanted to fling open the windows, to purge it, to drive it out. To drive her out, and that was insane, it was entirely unreasonable and he knew it.

He realised he knew very little about her. He hadn't asked. He hadn't wanted to know.

"Mary was my friend," Janine said, breaking the silence that had fallen. "Actually my friend. I want you to know that."

John looked at her, surprised.

She bit her lip. "Well. Until—you know."

"Yeah," he said, and sighed. "I know."

They sat in silence. John wondered what the hell was taking Sherlock so long. Perhaps he'd escaped out the window. It wouldn't be the first time.

"Your parents," he said, finally. "Do they know? That this—" he waved his hand helplessly in the air, "—is all an act?"

"Oh," she said, shifted on the sofa. She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. The ring gleamed in the half-darkness. "No. Orphan, actually. One of the things that—" she broke off, laughed, the sound a little bitter.

John cleared his throat, realised he was still staring at her hands, looked away.

"It's one of the things that Mary and I bonded over, actually," Janine said, and she lifted her head, almost a challenge.

"Ah," he said, suddenly wishing he could be anywhere else. He threw a desperate glance down the hall towards the bathroom with its stubbornly closed door.

"Was she?" Janine asked. Her voice was soft, a little sad. "Really, I mean. An orphan? Or was that a lie too?"

"I don't know," John said. It came out sharp, clipped. He clenched his hand, unclenched it slowly, breathed through his teeth. He didn't know. He'd never bothered to find out. All that time she'd been there, and he'd never thought to ask.

He thought of Mary having parents out there, somewhere, never knowing what had become of their daughter. The thought was unpleasant. It twisted deep in his gut and brought to mind unwanted memories of Eurus leering behind glass. He pressed his lips together.

"Sorry," Janine said, and her voice was stilted, uncomfortable. "Didn't mean to—"

"No," he said, wanting badly for the conversation to end but not wanting it to end this way. "It's—fine. I don't talk. About her. Much. And it's—maybe I should."

"Yeah," she said, and gave him a little smile. "For what it's worth, I am sorry."

"Yeah," he nodded, blinked against the startling flood of heat behind his eyes. "I know. Me too."

"It's been nice," she said, after a long pause. "Living here. With him."

John raised his brows. "Nice?"

"It's lovely in Sussex. It is. Really. But it gets a bit lonely."

He opened his mouth to respond, realised he could not think of a single thing to say.

"I don't have friends," she said. "Not close ones, not really. And he's a good listener."

That startled a sharp laugh out of him.

She shifted in her seat, looked at him curiously.

"Sherlock," he said. "A good listener." He laughed again, shook his head.

"What—?"

John held up his hand, stopping her. "Let me guess. He goes very still and doesn't interrupt. Doesn't even blink." He paused, looked at her. Shook his head. "That's not—he's not listening. He's filtering."

She opened her mouth, shut it again. Did not speak.

"He goes off in his mind palace and does—whatever it is he does in there," John said, aware that his voice was growing louder, somehow unable to stop himself. "Tunes everyone else out. It only looks like he's paying attention." He let out another laugh, sharp-edged, brittle.

"Have I upset you?" Janine asked. She seemed uncomfortable, her shoulders tense.

"Upset me?" John shook his head, made a scoffing sound. Looked at the ceiling. "No, of course not. Why would—what could you have possibly said to upset me?"

"It's just—"

"What?" he snapped. "It's just what?"

Janine stared at him for a moment, then shook her head, looked away. "Nothing. Never mind."

"You're not—" he said, his face heating. He willed himself to shut up, but was vaguely horrified to see that his mouth kept on running. "You're not actually falling for this, are you? This act? Because that's all it is. An act. And he's fooled you before—"

"I know what happened before," Janine said, and all residual warmth had bled out of her voice. "And I know what's happening now."

She stood up, smoothed her dress with the palms of her hands. Stared at him for a moment with an inscrutable expression.

"Enjoy your night," she said. She went out through the door, down the stairs.

John watched her go, listened for the slam of the front door.

"Shit," he said, and let his head tip back against the sofa cushion. He had no idea why he'd said that to her. Any of it.

He's a good listener.

Christ, were she and Sherlock sitting up into the night having bloody heart-to-hearts? Was she pouring out her feelings to him on a regular basis? There was no way Sherlock would tolerate such a thing, was there? He had to be filtering her out. That's what he did. He filtered. He tuned out. He avoided.

He wasn't—he didn't—

"Where are we off to, then?" Sherlock asked.

John turned his head to look at him. Sherlock had changed out of his pyjamas into a slim-fitting black suit. The shirt he wore was a light dove grey. His hair was tamed and his eyes were bright.

"You haven't deduced it?"

"Mm. I have, but I figured I'd let you maintain the illusion of control."

"Great," John said with a sigh. He stood up, stretched. "Let's go."

*

John steered Sherlock through the door of a crowded pub, scanning the room.

"John! Sherlock!" Lestrade called from the back of the room, waving. He'd secured a tall table, was leaning against it with a half-empty pint in front of him.

He was not alone. Standing next to him was Anderson.

"No," Sherlock said, turning around and heading towards the door.

John headed him off. "Nope, no, none of that. It's your stag night, you're staying and having a drink. Or ten."

Sherlock stopped, stared down at him. Narrowed his eyes.

"Don't much care if it's fake," John said, dropping his voice, putting both hands on Sherlock's shoulders, turning him back towards the crowd. "It's likely to be the only wedding you have—"

"I should hope so."

"—so there will be no graduated cylinders, no measurements, no experiments. You are going to get ridiculously, humiliatingly drunk, the normal way."

"Thrilling. May I remind you what happened the last time you attempted such an endeavor?"

John smiled tightly at him. "Well, I guess it's a good thing you're supposed to be engaging in bad behaviour tonight, yeah? And Lestrade has generously offered to chaperone."

He steered Sherlock through the crowd to join Lestrade and Anderson at the table.

"I would prefer—" Sherlock began.

Anderson leapt forward and crushed him into a hug, thumping his back hard. Sherlock let out a little oof! of surprise, just barely managing to catch his balance.

John shut his eyes, pinched his brow. He feared it was going to be a long night.

"I'm so happy for you," Anderson said between thumps. His voice was very loud.

John lifted his hand away from his eyes, watched as Sherlock attempted to extricate himself from the embrace with a polite little pat on Anderson's shoulder.

"Always knew that sociopath thing was a bunch of rot," Anderson said, holding firm. "Always."

John glanced at Lestrade. Lestrade tipped his pint glass in Anderson's direction.

"He got off to a bit of an early start," Lestrade said.

"Right," John said. He pursed his lips, looked towards the bar. "Well. Let's catch up, shall we?"

*

The tabletop was sticky with old beer and some sort of unpleasant gummy residue. John scratched at it with one fingernail while he drained the remnants of his second pint.

Lestrade had downed three pints in rapid succession and vanished off to the gents. And Anderson had not stopped talking.

"—in New Delhi. That was you. It was. It was!"

"Was it?" Sherlock did not seem to know what to do with his hands. He set them on top of the table, then lifted them again, his lip curling in dismay. His drink was untouched, sweating in its glass to his left.

"It was. I know it was. You solved that murder with the ice cream cone. Come on. You can admit it. You're among friends."

Sherlock set his hands in his lap. Lifted them again. Picked up his pint and took a small sip, set it back down on the table.

"If you won't talk about New Delhi, then Germany. The Trepoff trial. Surely that was you!"

"If you're so certain, then surely you don't need confirmation," Sherlock said. He flashed a tight, insincere smile, looked towards the door.

"But—"

"Anderson," John cut in, taking pity. He lifted his empty pint glass, gestured towards the bar. "I think this round's on you, yeah?"

Sherlock breathed out as Anderson walked away, took another prim little sip of his drink.

"You're being very polite," John said.

Sherlock looked at him.

"Well. I mean. For you, anyway," John amended.

Sherlock touched the tip of his finger to his pint glass, wiped away a bead of condensation. John stared at his outstretched hand, at his slim pale fingers, and thought about how the curved platinum of a wedding band would look against that skin.

"Look," John said. "I know this is—erm—not really your idea of a good time. But—" he paused, looked at Sherlock, awkward and compliant under the dim pub lights. It felt wrong, somehow.

He thought of his own stag night, how the two of them had cut across the city giggling like schoolboys before retreating to their own private cocoon to continue the revelry in comfort and quiet. Things had gone a bit pear-shaped after that, of course, but he'd enjoyed himself tremendously right up until the point when he'd been wrestled into handcuffs.

There had been none of this forced politeness. Sherlock had been relaxed and happy and John—John had been relaxed and happy too.

He looked away, cast his eyes down to the scuffed and sticky tabletop. Frowned.

"—but you think I should pretend to be enjoying myself for the sake of the two photographers who have just taken up residence at the third table from the door?" There was a wry sharpness to Sherlock's tone.

John lifted his head, startled. Sherlock inclined his head towards the front of the pub.

There were two men leaning casually against a high table, looking in their direction. One of them had set a rather expensive looking camera on top of the table.

"Oh—" John said, and looked away. "No. I—just—how long have they been there?"

"About ten minutes. Came in while Anderson was attempting to lecture me on new advances in proper crime scene protocol," Sherlock said.

John winced. Perhaps he should have intervened sooner.

He looked back at the two men. "Well. I guess you should be—I don't know. Stumbling drunk? Flirting with some woman up at the bar? Starting a brawl?"

Sherlock lifted his drink, took a sip, and then another. His Adam's apple bobbed. "Dull."

John smiled down at the table. "It has been getting a bit repetitive, yeah."

Sherlock made a sound that might have been a chuckle, lifted his drink again.

"Oi, Sherlock, finish that drink!" Lestrade said, emerging from the crowd somewhere behind them and thumping Sherlock hard on the back. "Anderson's got another round. And I've got something good planned."

Anderson set four pint glasses roughly on the table. Beer sloshed over the rims, pooling and puddling on the scratched surface.

"I sincerely doubt you've planned a murder," Sherlock said, "which would be my definition of something good."

"Yeah, no, no murders," Lestrade said, still smiling genially. John supposed nothing Sherlock said could shock any of them, anymore. Not after all this time. "Planning one would be illegal, first of all, and second of all I thought you learned your lesson last time about not investigating while pissed."

John smiled, took another sip of his drink.

"Ah, look, right on time," Lestrade said, turning in his chair. He waved an arm. "Hopkins! Over here!"

John followed his gaze to the front of the pub, where Stella Hopkins had just stepped inside, looking rather bedraggled.

She smiled, albeit a bit grimly, and made her way towards their little table.

"Hi," she said. A bit of rain that had beaded on the sleeve of her coat dripped onto the table.

"Hi," John echoed, a little bewildered. He'd met her a handful of times at Baker Street, of course, but hadn't been under the impression that she and Sherlock were particularly close.

"If you've come to harass me about the Borgia Pearl—" Sherlock said, setting his pint glass down on the table rather firmly, "—the answer is still no."

"No, look, I've got a bit of a game planned," Lestrade said, looking quite pleased with himself. "Hopkins here was kind enough to help out."

John looked at Sherlock, then at Hopkins. Took another healthy swallow of his drink.

"She's spent the last three—"

"Four," Hopkins said. She did not look nearly as pleased as Lestrade.

"—four hours traveling around to various spots in London."

"Clearly," Sherlock said, his voice flat, his face wary. "And?"

"And," Lestrade said, smiling wider, leaning back. "You're going to tell us where."

Sherlock opened his mouth, shut it again.

"For every deduction you get right, we'll all take a drink," Lestrade said. "For every one you get wrong, you'll take a drink."

"Erm—" John said. "Have you really thought this through?"

"Trust me," Lestrade said, grinning. "We've spent ages setting this up."

Sherlock shifted in his seat, looked Hopkins up and down. When he spoke it was in a slow, bored drawl. "You've been on the Tube. Obviously. Your jacket and hair are damp but not soaked through, though it's raining quite heavily. You've been outside, but not for an extended period of time. If you'd taken a taxi, you'd have emerged right in front of the building, sheltered from the rain. So. You emerged at Marylebone station, just across the street, a short walk—or, in your case—a short run to the front door. You were still breathing hard when you arrived, but not sweating, indicating a brief physical exertion."

He leaned forward, sniffed at her coat. Hopkins wrinkled her nose, leaned back.

"Body odour," Sherlock said. He rolled his eyes. "Oh, don't be dull. It's not yours. The scent's mingled with a fading cologne, masculine scent, clearly a poor attempt to disguise the problem. Concentrated here—" he tapped her left shoulder. "Indicating you were pressed against someone with an arm raised for an extended period of time. You've a strand of blonde hair here—" he lifted a gossamer coil of hair from her right shoulder, held it up to the light. His speech sped up, interest caught seemingly in spite of himself. "Clearly not yours. Snagged on your coat collar. A dusting of bronze powder here on your right sleeve—not your shade. You spent an extended time in close quarters with a smelly man on your left and a blonde woman rather sloppily applying makeup on your right. There are arguably very few circumstances under which those conditions would be acceptable. The fact that you did not simply stand up and move to a new location indicates confinement. You didn't leave because you couldn't leave. And, of course, there's the one piece of evidence that's the most damning of all."

John sucked in a breath, waiting. He realised, belatedly, that he had not taken his eyes off of Sherlock the whole time, that he had watched the supremely pleased expression creep into Sherlock's features, had seen the very moment the joy of showing off had taken over.

Sherlock leaned forward, entirely focused on Hopkins. "The oyster card sticking out of your pocket."

Hopkins looked helplessly from Lestrade to John.

John sighed, lifted his glass.

"Yeah," Lestrade said, laughing. He took a healthy swig of his own beer. "All right. Well done. But where was she before she took the Tube?"

*

"—King's Cross? You can't have got those chips in King's Cross, it's the shop in Camden that uses those cartons with the—the—"

"Sorry," Hopkins said, nudging a drink in Sherlock's direction. "Wrong again."

"I did a study on the decomposition rate of various takeaway cartons, you know," Sherlock said, his eyes glassy but his expression quite serious as he pulled his drink towards him with unsteady hands. His voice slurred. "Took ages."

"It's true," John said, and he put his hand on Sherlock's back, intending to give him a friendly pat. Instead he squeezed, let his hand linger. Sherlock's shoulder was warm and solid under his palm. "He did."

"Suppose you'll have to update your data," Hopkins said.

Sherlock stared at his drink as if it had personally offended him. Lestrade went to buy another round.

*

Hopkins left them as they stumbled through the rain towards the third pub.

Sherlock had his face turned up towards the sky, his eyes closed, moisture beading up on his forehead, his nose, his cheeks. He was flushed and slow and stumbling with drink, and John loved him.

He supposed it was all right to admit that to himself. As long as he didn't say it out loud.

He wanted very badly to say it out loud. It seemed, suddenly, imperative that he say it out loud.

"In here!" Lestrade shouted, pulling open a door. He and Anderson disappeared inside, into warm golden light and murmuring conversation. The door swung shut behind them.

Sherlock stayed on the pavement, and John stayed with him.

John was dizzy, and drunk, and happy. He could not remember why he'd ever thought this was a bad idea.

Sherlock kept his face turned up into the rain.

"Sherlock," John said.

Sherlock opened his eyes. Looked at him. His eyes were very pale under the streetlights.

Don't get married, John thought. Don't get fake married, or real married, or any kind of married. I love you. I love you.

"We should go inside," he said.

Sherlock blinked at him. His movements were sluggish, dreamlike. His breath steamed in front of him. The rain was very cold.

"It's raining," John added.

Sherlock smiled. "Very observant, John."

"Dick," John said. He stepped away with some reluctance, opened the pub door. The air inside was warm and welcoming.

There was an empty booth in the far corner and John slid into it without looking to see where Lestrade and Anderson had got to. Sherlock followed him without hesitation, all long uncoordinated limbs. He flopped forward onto the tabletop, pillowed his head on his arms.

John wanted to stroke his hair. He clenched his fist against his thigh instead. Giggled.

Sherlock lifted his head. "What?"

"What?"

"What's funny?"

"You."

"I'm funny?"

"Always," John said, and leaned back against the cracked vinyl seat cover. Across from him, Sherlock frowned thunderously.

"I'm not funny," Sherlock said. "I'm very serious." He slurred the last 's', the word trailing off as he dropped his head back onto his arms.

"Consulting comedian," John said. He sighed, looked down at the table. "I miss you."

Sherlock lifted his head. "What?"

"Nothing," John said. "Do you want another drink?"

"Noooo," Sherlock said.

There was a tingling heaviness in John's limbs. He didn't want another drink either, he decided. He wanted to stay right where he was, suspended, uninterrupted, forever.

Sherlock's hair had flattened in the rain. It made him look a little younger. More human. The sight of it made something in John's chest go terribly soft and fond.

John looked away with some reluctance. "So. Saturday's the big day, then, yeah?"

"Yep," Sherlock said. He popped his 'p', shifted in his seat. One of his legs bumped against John's. "Finally. It's been ages since someone tried to kill me."

"Only you could make that sound like a bad thing."

"Mm," Sherlock agreed. He let out a little hum of laughter.

Silence fell between them. It was comfortable. John leaned his head back against the headrest and listened to the indistinct babble of the crowd that surrounded them.

"Lestrade's going to be angry when he finds out you've been lying about all this," John said, finally.

Sherlock shrugged, bleary-eyed and unconcerned. "He'll forgive me."

John looked down at the table, smiled a little bitterly. "People forgive you anything."

"You didn't."

John jolted a little in his seat, his head snapping back up. He looked at Sherlock, but Sherlock had turned his face towards the bar.

"That's—" John's voice was rough. He swallowed, tried again. "That's not true."

Sherlock turned back to look at him. His eyes were damp. From the rain, John thought. Must be.

"Even Janine forgave you," John said, trying for a light tone and missing by a mile.

"Yes," Sherlock said. "A stroke of good fortune, that. Otherwise I'd be out a fiancee."

"You should've asked me," John said. "I would have—it would have been all right. You should have—"

"There's only so much I can pretend, John," Sherlock said quietly.

"Oh," John said, stung. He looked away.

The silence that fell between them this time was not comfortable.

"I think I'll have that drink after all," Sherlock said, moving to stand.

"Wait," John said, putting his hand out. He caught the edge of Sherlock's sleeve, looked down at his own fingers splayed against the rain-damp fabric.

Sherlock stilled.

"I'm sorry," John said.

Sherlock made a low questioning noise in the back of his throat.

"I haven't been—we haven't been—I just—"

"John—"

"Oh god," John said, and dropped his head, looked down at the table. His voice sounded unfamiliar to his own ears, breathless, miserable. "I've fucked it up. I've—I had something, something remarkable, something rare, and I let it go—"

"John," Sherlock said again. He shifted in his seat, settling back down with a small pained sound. "Mary was—"

"Not Mary, you absolute arse," John said. "You."

Sherlock stopped.

John's own words caught up to him. He shut his eyes, pressed his hand to his forehead. Breathed out through his nose. The world swam around him, tilting on its axis. He'd had far too much to drink. He hadn't meant to say that. He hadn't meant to say any of it.

When he opened his eyes again, Sherlock was no longer looking at him.

"The bartender is stealing from the register," Sherlock said, staring off across the room. His voice was flat, almost bored. He seemed not to have heard John's miserable mumbled confession at all.

Maybe he hadn't.

He's not listening. He's filtering.

"You know what?" John forced a hard smile. "Forget it. I'm drunk. Don't listen to me."

Sherlock opened his mouth, shut it again. Went on looking at the bartender. His fingers played at the hem of his suit jacket, as if he wasn't quite sure what to do with his hands.

"THERE you are!" Lestrade staggered up against the back of the booth, his face flushed and cheerful. "Thought we'd lost you."

"Just catching you a thief," Sherlock said, standing up with more grace and poise than his level of inebriation should have allowed. He tipped his head towards the bar. "Watch the register."

"What—?"

"I'll leave it in your capable hands," Sherlock said. He smiled, tight and bloodless, and headed for the door.

John stood up, too late, too late. "Sherlock," he said.

Sherlock did not turn around. He flipped his coat collar up as he went through the door into the night.

Chapter Text

*

Something was buzzing.

John groaned, opened his eyes, slammed them shut again. The room was too bright. Everything ached. His pillow was scratchy and stiff and bunched uncomfortably under his cheek.

The buzzing continued.

He rolled to the side. Reached out a hand, expecting to find the nightstand. Encountered only air. Reluctantly opened his eyes a second time.

His neat and orderly little sitting room swam into focus.

He was on the sofa. He remembered, now. He'd got home late, had deemed the stairs too daunting. The sofa had welcomed him. At least he'd remembered to take off his shoes first.

He sat up cautiously, mindful of his head. His stomach churned, then settled.

Sherlock, he thought. And then: Shit.

His mobile was on the coffee table, still buzzing. He picked it up, squinted down at the screen.

It was not a message. He'd set an alarm. A reminder to pick up Rosie from the sitter.

Right. He needed to sort himself out. And quickly.

Coffee, paracetamol, shower. That seemed like a good starting point.

He stood up, went into the kitchen. Started a pot of coffee. Tried not to think of Sherlock's quiet, resigned voice shaping the words there's only so much I can pretend.

While the coffee brewed, John went into the bathroom, downed a glass of water, then a second. Swallowed two paracetamol. Stepped into the shower and let the hot water blunt the sharp edges of his headache.

Thought about Sherlock and the way he'd flipped his coat collar up before disappearing through the door into the rain.

The bathroom mirror was fogged up when he stepped out of the shower. He wiped it clean with the back of his hand, met his own tired gaze in the glass.

There's only so much I can pretend, John.

So much for not thinking about it.

John sniffed, looked away from the mirror. The scent of fresh coffee hung in the air and he went back into the kitchen, towelling his hair dry.

There was a cold, heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He ignored it, drank his coffee.

He'd said too much. There was no denying it, no getting around it. He'd been drunk, and comfortable, and all of the things he'd been so very good at keeping buried had come bubbling right up to the surface. He supposed he ought to consider himself lucky that it hadn't been worse.

And Sherlock—

Well. Sherlock had either heard him, and elected to ignore him, or—or he hadn't heard him at all, had tuned John out the moment the bartender had caught his attention. It wouldn't be surprising. He filtered. That's what he did.

It was better that way, of course. If he hadn't heard. Not that John would ever know for sure. They didn't discuss that sort of thing.

John finished his coffee, set the mug down in the sink with a bit too much force. Rinsed it out.

Surprised he lasted this long, to be honest, Lestrade had said as they'd both watched Sherlock vanish through the pub door.

John could not recall what he'd said in response. He supposed it didn't matter. He'd made his excuses and left, had gone out into the rain and walked until a taxi took pity on him and picked him up. And he'd gone home to his quiet little house in his quiet little suburb and had passed out on his quiet little sofa because he couldn't manage to tackle the bloody stairs.

Fantastic. Brilliant. Not exactly what he'd had in mind for the evening, but things with Sherlock rarely ever went to plan.

John turned off the tap, dried his hands on a towel. Went to fetch his daughter.

*

He passed the afternoon with Rosie in the sitting room, rolling a ball back and forth and smiling as she attempted to master the skill with clumsy, chubby little fingers.

The minutes and hours that slipped past felt like a grim countdown. The wedding. Tomorrow.

Rosie dropped her ball, looked at him. Grinned.

"Oops," he said. He picked it up. Rolled it back to her. Wondered if he'd ever stop feeling guilty for missing so much of her early life.

She did not seem to have suffered any ill effects. He was grateful for that.

He couldn't really say the same for himself.

Rosie rolled the ball back to him, giggled and clapped her hands when he picked it up.

She fell asleep around two, and he switched on the telly, stared numbly at the screen and tried not to think about Sherlock. He spent far too much time not thinking of Sherlock. It wasn't really working.

The house was very quiet. It was lonely. He was able to forget that, sometimes, when Rosie was awake and filling the space with her lively babble. He was able to forget, but not for very long.

Sometimes he rather thought he was back where he'd started. The house was an upgrade from the grim and cheerless bedsit he'd stayed in after returning from Afghanistan, of course. It was bright and comfortable and colourful. But the walls closed in on him just the same.

There's only so much I can pretend, John.

He thought about calling Harry, decided against it. She'd not be overly impressed to hear about any bad decisions he'd made while drinking, after all.

So he sat, and he stared at the telly, and he tried not to think about Sherlock.

Rosie woke from her nap just before four, and he left the television on as he prepared her an early dinner. His headache had mostly abated.

John checked his phone while Rosie ate, not really expecting anything. Sherlock had not texted. He hoped he was all right.

"Sher," Rosie said.

He looked up. She was looking at him looking at his phone.

He laughed, put it in his pocket. "Yep. You caught me."

Sherlock had been very drunk. He'd likely spent the day hungover and aching, much like John had. Even worse, probably, since he wasn't much of a drinker. John hoped Janine had thought to take care of him, that she'd—

"Sher," Rosie said again.

He looked at her for a long moment. Bad idea, he thought. Bad—

"Well," he said. "If you insist."

*

The evening air was chilly and John did not linger on the pavement outside the Baker Street flat, tucking Rosie close against him and hurrying through the front door.

He left their coats on the hook by the door and went up the stairs, trying not to stomp too loudly.

The sitting room was dark, the only light coming from the corner lamp. Sherlock and Janine were sat on opposite ends of the sofa. They were both in pyjamas.

"Hi," John said, pulling up short.

Sherlock made a groaning noise, put his head in his hands.

"Don't mind him," Janine said. "I keep telling him he'll feel better once he eats something, but—well, you lived with him. You know how he is. Stubborn."

"Sher!" Rosie said, and John set her down on the ground, watched as she made her way towards Sherlock with her arms extended.

Sherlock leaned forward and picked her up, wincing a little bit.

A smile tugged at the corner of John's mouth and he looked away. Christ, but Sherlock was dramatic about his hangovers. He'd almost forgotten.

"You haven't eaten?" he asked.

"Oh, are you offering?" Janine leaned back against the sofa, stretched a bit. Made a satisfied sound. "Because I think I'd cheerfully murder someone for takeaway."

"No need to resort to violence," John said. He went into the kitchen, rummaged around for the menus. "Chinese all right?"

"God yes," Janine said.

"Right," John said. He placed the order, went back into the sitting room. "Be about twenty minutes."

Rosie had climbed out of Sherlock's lap and was attempting to snatch his phone out of his hands. He held it out of her reach, but seemed a bit unprepared for her tenacity. She wobbled where she stood on the sofa and he put out a hand to steady her.

John watched them for a moment, his chest warm.

"So," he said, looking back at Janine. He cleared his throat, suddenly awkward, recalling the way they'd parted the night before. "How was the—er—hen night?"

"All right," Janine said. She gave him a long, level look. "Went to Slaney's. Here—" she held out her phone. "Pictures."

He took it, smiled politely. Swiped through a seemingly endless array of photos of Janine in her red dress, arm-in-arm with Evie and Lily and, of course, Victoria.

He hesitated over a photo of Janine and Pete, leaning against the bar, clinking glasses in a toast. They were both drinking something violently pink, and the neon sign behind them cast their skin in a pink glow. Janine's smile seemed a shade more genuine than it had in the earlier shots.

It was a striking photo, he thought. Best of the lot.

There was something about it, something about that sign in the background—

She noticed his hesitation, leaned over to get a look at the screen.

"Pete was happy to see us," she said.

"Looks like it, yeah." He handed her back the phone. "Slaney's you said?"

"Yeah. Music was good, lots of dancing. Popular spot. Pete's a big hit with the ladies. Mine wasn't even the only hen do there."

"Well," he said, offered a stiff smile. "Glad you had fun."

She smiled, shrugged. "It was a lot more fun once he showed up—" she leaned over to nudge Sherlock in the arm.

Sherlock glanced over at her, scowled, went back to attempting to keep his phone from falling into Rosie's determined clutches.

John's smile felt frozen on his face. "Sherlock? Showed up? At—at Slaney's?"

"Utterly bladdered, yeah," she said. She laughed a little, shook her head. "It was fecking perfect—he came stumbling in and made a scene, accusing me of wanting to cheat on him before the wedding. It couldn't have gone any better if we'd planned it."

John did not know what to say. He stared at her for a shade longer than was comfortable, then turned to look at Sherlock.

"The opportunity presented itself. I'd have been remiss not to take it. One last chance to telegraph to our killer—if he is indeed watching—that I am every bit as insufferable as the tabloids would have you believe," Sherlock said. He folded his arms across his chest, almost defensive. Rosie immediately set about trying to pry his hands free.

John swallowed. Went to his chair. Sat.

"Of course, great bloody show off that he is," Janine said, "had to completely show up the other dancers. Fed Pete some utter rubbish about how his lessons just clicked all of a sudden. Like magic."

She grinned, rolled her eyes. Sherlock looked away.

"Oh," John said, finally. His mouth was dry. He thought about Sherlock heading out into the rain, Sherlock with his collar up and his back stiff as the door swung shut behind him.

There's only so much I can pretend, John.

He thought about Sherlock willingly walking into a crowded pub, seeking out Janine for one last public row. And then staying to dance with her. The pair of them, on the dance floor, under the lights.

"Well," John said. He cleared his throat, hoped he did not sound as lost as he felt. "Sorry I missed it."

Sherlock looked at him. John did not know what to make of his expression.

The doorbell rang.

"That's the food," John said. He stood up.

He paid the delivery driver, then stood at the foot of the stairs, holding the bag. He was not quite ready to go back upstairs.

The wedding was tomorrow. Sherlock had done everything in his power to attract the attention of a mad serial killer, and in only a few hours they would find out if his efforts had been successful. If all went to plan, things were likely to get very dangerous, very quickly.

And all John could think about was Sherlock's arms around Janine on the dance floor. About Sherlock standing in front of the altar and reciting vows, vows, while staring into her eyes. About Janine slipping that lovely, expensive wedding band onto Sherlock's finger.

For the first time, he allowed himself to wonder what would happen next.

He'd viewed the wedding as a deadline of sorts. Either the case would be solved or Sherlock would be forced to admit that his ruse hadn't worked and would find a new angle from which to continue his investigation. Either way, this charade would come to an end. And in his mind, once it was all over, Janine simply—disappeared.

But what if she didn't?

He swallowed. The scent of the food, appetising moments earlier, now turned his stomach.

A floorboard creaked upstairs.

"Everything all right?" Janine called down.

"Fine," John said. "Just—on my way back up."

He breathed out, hard, then squared his shoulders and climbed the stairs.

Janine had cleared a space on the coffee table, and he set the bag down. Sherlock leaned forward and snatched one of the cartons.

"Oi—" John said. "You don't even know if that's yours."

"Of course it's mine," Sherlock said. He stood from the sofa and marched over to his chair, carton in hand. Rosie clambered down from the sofa and followed, hands outstretched.

John sighed, took his own carton to his chair, sat down.

"I've got a sitter for Rosie tomorrow," he said. "Dropping her off first thing in the morning. Don't want her underfoot at the wedding if there's going to be. You know. Trouble. So. What time do you need me here? I mean, I assume you'll want to arrive together. Unless you'd rather I just go straight to the venue."

"Early," Sherlock said. He took a large bite of chow mein.

"That's helpful, yeah," John said.

Sherlock rolled his eyes, swallowed. "Before nine."

"Right, okay."

"Ugh, only one more day that I have to put up with those insensitive cows," Janine said, dropping her head back against the sofa cushion. "It's been even worse than I thought. I'll be so glad to be rid of them."

"You were almost free of Victoria," Sherlock said. "Then you went and accepted her entirely insincere apology—you do realise she tried to snog me twice at Slaney's last night?"

John set his carton of noodles down on the side table. Smiled tightly.

"Oh, who can blame her? You really are very pretty," Janine said. She winked.

John stood up.

Sherlock and Janine both looked at him, Sherlock from his chair and Janine from her place on the sofa.

"Does anyone want something to drink?" John asked. His face was hot. His hand twitched. He went into the kitchen without waiting for a reply.

There were no body parts in the fridge, which he put down to Janine's influence. There were no beverages, either, which was almost certainly Sherlock's fault. He settled for filling a glass with water from the tap, drinking it while standing at the sink.

Janine and Sherlock were still in the sitting room, just—chatting. He could hear the indistinct murmur of their voices over the running water.

He thought of Janine saying he's a good listener.

John set his glass in the sink, took a breath. Went back.

"—just because I don't have a bloody index—"

"An index wouldn't help, you're beyond help."

"Says the man who lives in this scuzz dump—"

"I have a system, which you are clearly ill-equipped to comprehend—"

John cleared his throat, perhaps a bit loudly for the room. He went back to his chair. Rosie toddled over to join him, clinging on to his leg, rubbing her eyes. She was tired. It was getting on past her bedtime.

Janine glanced at him, shot him a sheepish grin. "Sherl hates the way I pack."

"It's not packing, it's chaos," Sherlock objected. "You just throw everything in a pile and hope for the best."

John looked up. "Packing?"

"Sherl didn't mention the honeymoon?"

John pressed his lips together, looked down at the ground. It was still there, still solid, even though the room seemed to have abruptly tilted around him. "Honeymoon?" He swallowed, lifted his head, looked briefly at Sherlock. "Sex holiday, he calls it."

"Cheeky," Janine said. She laughed, shook her head. "Majorca. I think I deserve a little sun after all this, don't you?"

"Sure," John said. His voice felt distant, weak to his own ears. "Right. Of course. Yeah."

"Mm, looking forward to it after all this rain," she said.

"When are you—you've packed. So you're leaving right away, then?"

"Flight's Sunday evening. That should be enough time to get things sorted."

"Right," John said. He glanced helplessly around the room, anxious for something to change the subject. He did not want to think of Sherlock and Janine in Majorca. Together. On the beach, under the hot sun, giggling together as they celebrated a successful end to their little case.

Honeymoon. Christ.

"I was thinking of asking Pete to take the second ticket," Janine said.

The words did not register at first. John hesitated, looked at her.

"Once Sherlock heartlessly ditches me."

"He's not available," Sherlock said, sounding bored and slightly put-out.

"Not emotionally available," Janine corrected. "I think you're entirely missing the point of the rebound relationship."

"Pete," John said. He blinked.

"Unless I'm stepping on your toes?"

"What?" John blinked again, shook his head. "No. I—no."

"Why would you be stepping on John's toes?" Sherlock's voice had sharpened, the lazy boredom falling away.

"Oh—" Janine paused, glanced at John. "He just—seemed a bit into him. That's all."

"John's not—" Sherlock stopped, looked at John. His brows furrowed.

John felt uncomfortably on display. Sometimes he forgot what it was like, having Sherlock's full attention fixed on him.

"No, just—go ahead and ask him. That's—it's fine," John said. He brought a hand up, pinched at the back of his neck. "Yeah. Good."

"If—"

"I'm not interested in Pete," John said. He smiled tightly, wanting the conversation to end, unable to bear Sherlock's eyes on him, Janine's bewildered smile.

"All right," Janine said. She looked a bit embarrassed. "Sorry. I'd thought—well. Never mind."

Sherlock said nothing. The furrow between his brows had disappeared. He looked away, stared at the darkened fireplace. He looked—

Well, John had mostly given up trying to decipher the expressions on Sherlock's face. The man was a master of self-control, he gave nothing away.

Even so, he thought Sherlock looked a bit sad.

"I should go," John said. "It's getting late, and, well. Rosie."

"Put the kettle on on your way out," Sherlock said.

"Please," John said.

"Hm?"

"Please. A polite term, usually added to a request?"

"Just tea for me, thanks."

John shut his eyes, counted to ten. Went into the kitchen and filled the kettle, switched it on. Stood listening to the steady hum of their voices in the other room. Sherlock, chatting. Sherlock, at ease.

He thought about that ring, the one Sherlock had picked out for himself with John's help. Thought about the look on Sherlock's face when Janine had mentioned bringing Pete along to Majorca.

It drew him to uncomfortable conclusions.

He'd seen Sherlock heartbroken once, or as near to heartbroken as he supposed the man was ever going to get. He wasn't terribly keen on a repeat performance.

The kettle clicked off.

"Kettle's boiled," he called. "You can make your own bloody tea."

When no one answered, he went back into the sitting room to the sound of Janine's deep, genuine laughter. Stopped dead.

"No—" Janine said, still laughing. "Not—what was that thing you did last night? With the twirl?"

They were dancing.

Janine was tucked into Sherlock's arms, laughing, bungling up the steps as Sherlock huffed and barked corrections. His hand was on her back, fingers splayed wide.

Rosie was up in Sherlock's chair, watching, enthralled.

"Left foot," Sherlock said. "No, your other left foot. For God's sake."

"Like this?"

"No! You're supposed to—"

John turned around, went back into the kitchen. Kept on walking down the hall, went into the loo, shut the door behind him. He did not switch on the light.

They looked ridiculous, the pair of them, dancing in the sitting room in pyjamas and dressing gowns. Dancing without music, entirely at ease in one another's arms.

Once it had been him and Sherlock together, just the two of them, always the two of them, safely enveloped in their own little bubble. Apart from the rest of the world. The memory felt distant now, the edges blurred and out of focus.

He would never have that again, he knew. Not after all that had happened.

He missed it, though. God help him, he missed it.

John opened the door, went back out into the hallway. Listened to the low hum of Sherlock's laughter, punctuated by Janine swearing as they bumped into something.

Probably the coffee table, he thought detachedly.

He went back into the sitting room, cleared his throat. When no one responded, he clapped his hands together.

Sherlock and Janine stuttered to a stop mid-turn.

"I'm off, then," John said, unable to look at them. He went to Sherlock's chair, picked up Rosie. Held her against his chest.

Janine's hand was still at Sherlock's hip, fingertips dangerously close to the waistband of his pyjama bottoms.

"Maybe you can spare some time tomorrow morning to tell me what I should be looking for at the ceremony," John said to Sherlock. A startling wave of anger had begun to build in his chest. His blood roared in his ears. "Since you've been too distracted by—by all of this—to discuss any kind of proper strategy."

"John—" Sherlock said.

"Kettle's boiled, in case you didn't hear me before. Yeah. You can make your own tea. Only—I mean, I've only told you a thousand times about replacing the milk when it's run out. Don't know why I ever expected that to sink in."

Janine let her hand fall from Sherlock's side. She looked bewildered.

"Yeah," John said. He sniffed, looked towards the door, turned back. "I don't know why I ever expected anything else to sink in, either, when you can't EVEN REMEMBER TO GET THE BLOODY MILK."

Rosie jerked in his arms, startled, and he was immediately sorry, whirling away towards the door with only the most fleeting glimpse of Sherlock's face—shocked and hurt—whipping by.

John went down the stairs in a rush, cradling Rosie against him, murmuring apologies into her soft hair. He bundled her into her coat, slipped his own on as they went out into the cold night air. He let the door slam shut behind him. The sound gave him no satisfaction.

"Shit," he said, when he'd made it halfway down the street. "Shit."

Rosie shifted in his arms, lifting her head. She let out a little whimper.

"I'm sorry, love," he told her, the guilt and shame rushing in to claim the space vacated by his rapidly receding anger.

He'd been so careful around her, these past long months. So careful to keep his temper in check, to not terrorise her with raised voices and angry words.

He should not have shouted at Sherlock. If Sherlock was—if he really was falling for Janine, it wasn't John's place to get angry about it. It wasn't as if—it wasn't as if John had some sort of claim on him. They barely even spent time together anymore.

He looked towards the street, intending to flag down a taxi. It was cold, and Rosie was tired. He needed to get her home to bed.

He thought again of Sherlock's face, the surprised hurt he'd glimpsed there.

He heaved a sigh, let his hand drop against Rosie's back, rubbed a soothing circle. She had relaxed in his arms again, apparently either not too upset by his outburst or too sleepy to care.

John held her close, bouncing her a little as he continued walking.

*

The Tesco Express was brightly lit, and he stepped through the glass doors into a rush of warm air.

His phone buzzed in his pocket and he set Rosie down on the ground so he could answer it, taking her hand and maneuvering her over towards the dairy.

"John," Harry said. "How did everything go? I don't need details, but—"

"Hi," he said. "I can't really talk now. I'm in Tesco."

"Was the stag night fun?"

"That's—" he paused. Looked at the cartons of milk lined up before him. "Well. 'Fun' is one word for it, sure."

"Oh," she said. "Was it that bad?"

The phone nearly slipped out from between his ear and his shoulder and he readjusted, lifting his shoulder at an awkward angle.

"Um," he said.

"Sorry," she said. "Just—call me when you can talk, all right?"

"Wait."

She waited. He could hear her breathing on the other end of the line.

The anger he'd choked down outside of the Baker Street flat was back, thrashing in his chest, bubbling at the back of his throat.

He stared at the milk.

"Why do you never ask me about Mary?" he said.

Harry breathed in sharply. "What?"

"Mary," John said. He looked away from the milk. "My wife. My dead wife. You've never once mentioned her."

"You . . . want to talk about Mary?"

"NO!" he shouted, and then lowered his voice with a quick glance around the shop. "No, I don't want to talk about Mary. That's the last bloody thing in the world I want to talk about."

"Then what—?"

"I don't want to talk about it," John said. "But I'm starting to get the idea that I need to talk about it, or I'm going to—" he took a breath, looked up at the ceiling. Thought of Janine saying Mary was my friend. Actually my friend. I want you to know that.

"I'm sorry," Harry said, and she sounded half-panicked now. "John, I'm—I don't know what to say. I've never known what to say. Are you all right?"

"I didn't know her," John said. A woman reached past him for a container of milk and he twisted to the side to get out of her way. "I loved her, but I didn't know her at all. I don't think I ever could."

"Um—I mean—I'm not an expert, but I think we all hide some parts of ourselves, even from a spouse or—"

"No," John said, and he horrified himself by laughing. "No, she—this wasn't the normal kind of thing that people hide. She killed people, Harry."

Harry was silent for a long moment. "Metaphorically?"

"It was more of a career."

"What?"

"Sorry," John said. "This isn't—I don't mean to just—look, the point is that she died, Harry. She died and I was fucking sad."

"Of course you were sad—"

"I was fucking sad, Harry. I was sad, and you didn't come to the funeral and that was a shit thing to do. And Sherlock—he wanted to go to the funeral and I didn't let him. I held him responsible. I told him he'd killed her. "

"John," Harry breathed.

"I did that, Harry. I had a friend who wanted to be there for me, and that's what I did. And I was sad—I'm still sad, I'm fucking devastated, but I don't miss her. The mother of my child, and I don't miss her."

"I don't know what you want me to say."

Someone brushed by John on their way down the aisle. He cleared his throat, suddenly terribly aware of where he was.

"I don't think there is anything to say," he said, defeated. "It just—is what it is."

"Yeah," she said, her voice quiet. "I'm—look, I'm sorry that I never—that I never asked. I just—"

He made a questioning sound, waited.

"Just, I always thought you were making a mistake. Marrying her. That you were rushing into something without really thinking it through. And I—we just—we weren't close enough for me to want to be the one to tell you that." She breathed out, a wet sound, and he realised with a pang that she was crying. "And then she died, and it felt weird to show up at the funeral when I hadn't—it just—it was easier not to mention it. Yeah?"

"We let it slide," John said, weary and sad and no longer angry.

"Yeah. I guess we did."

He stood very still for a long moment, then cleared his throat. "Um. I should—"

"Why did you let Sherlock plan your wedding?" Harry asked.

John lifted the phone away from his ear, frowned at it. "What do you mean?"

"You heard me."

"He was good at it. He—he offered."

"He went to all of your appointments. With—with Mary?"

John breathed in sharply. "Yes," he said. "He went with Mary."

"Why didn't you go?"

He laughed, the sound a little high, a little desperate. "I told you, I was rubbish at it. Kept calling the bridesmaids' dresses purple when they were supposed to be—I don't know—lilac or lavender or whatever it was called. Made me feel a bit like I was losing my mind, to be honest."

"But you're doing it now."

"Hm?"

"Going to appointments. Cake tastings, flowers. That sort of thing. Thought you were rubbish at it?"

"What are you—" he let out another perplexed, gasping laugh. "What are you trying to say, Harry?"

"You're doing things for Sherlock's wedding that you wouldn't do for your own."

Because it's for a case, he bit back the words at the last minute, pressed the back of his hand against his mouth. His hand was trembling.

"He asked for my help," John said instead. That, at least, was the truth.

"And you're going to just—go on helping him? Right through tomorrow's festivities, without ever saying a word?"

"Yes," John said quietly.

"For fuck's sake, why?"

He sniffed, looked at Rosie. She had started to fidget where she stood. Any moment now, she'd start whinging, and then a complete tantrum and meltdown would be inevitable.

"I have to go, Harry," he said. His voice emerged rougher than he'd have liked. "I need to buy milk."

Chapter Text

*

John paid for the milk without making eye contact with the teenage boy at the counter.

He scooped up Rosie, tucked her against his chest as they went back out into the night. She fussed and pushed against him with her little hands, trying to squirm free. He wished he had her pushchair.

"Shh," he told her, a little desperately. "One more stop, and then we'll go home. I promise."

The night air was cold. He clenched and unclenched his fist around the handle of the plastic bag, walked faster.

He felt sick. Sick and hollow and wrung out.

Harry's words echoed in his mind. You're doing things for Sherlock's wedding that you wouldn't do for your own.

Sherlock and Janine, dancing in the sitting room. Sherlock's hand on her lower back. He'd felt that touch as if it had been branded into his own skin.

He walked back to Baker Street in a hurry, legs burning. It felt urgent, somehow, the sudden pressing need to be there. He had broken out in a cold sweat.

He pushed through the front door, let it slam behind him. Looked to his left automatically. Two coats: Sherlock's and Janine's. Still there, then. Neither of them had gone out.

Mrs Hudson came through the door to her flat, holding a rubbish bag, clad in a floral nightie and dressing gown. She startled at the sight of him, dropped the bag on the floor.

"John," she said, coming towards him, putting her hand on his forehead. Her palm was cool, dry. He shut his eyes as she tutted. "You look like you've seen a ghost, dear."

"Just—" he shook his head, breathed in. Looked down at the plastic bag in his hand. "Just popped out to the shop. Sherlock needed milk."

Rosie let out a little wail, and Mrs Hudson reached out, lifted her gently from John's arms. It was late, he thought. So very late. Long past her bedtime.

"Let me take the little one for a while," she said. Her face was furrowed up with concern.

He felt badly. Mrs Hudson had had a good deal to be concerned about, in her lifetime. Too much, really. And she always took it in stride.

"I'm—" he said. His thoughts were sluggish, uncooperative.

"I'll put her down for a little nap on the sofa. Poor dear looks exhausted. I'm just going to sit up with a bit of telly. You come fetch her later, after you've—" Mrs Hudson hesitated, looked him up and down. "Is it the wedding? Is that what's got you in such a state?"

He shook his head, looked down at the bag in his hand. Condensation had beaded up on the plastic.

"It's not too late, you know," she said. "If you have something to say, you should say it." She frowned at him for a moment, then patted him on the shoulder and disappeared back through the door to her flat with Rosie. She left the rubbish bag behind, slumped against the wall.

He took it, carried it out to the bins. Went back inside, hung his coat on the hook next to Sherlock's. Climbed the stairs. His steps were heavy, mechanical.

He thought about Sherlock's hand on Janine's back. Their shared laughter.

He'd made his peace with Irene Adler. He had. It was—well, he was never going to like her, exactly, but she was clearly a remarkable woman, and it was no surprise that she'd managed to capture Sherlock's attention.

And if Sherlock—texted, or if they snuck off for the occasional wild rendezvous—it didn't change anything. Irene was never going to pack up and slot neatly into 221B. She was out there, in the world, living her own life. If that life occasionally and fleetingly intersected with Sherlock's, then so be it. John could live with that. He could. He could.

But Janine—

She was present in a way that Irene never would be. Janine was warm and vibrant and near, Janine was funny and friendly and seemed to genuinely like Sherlock, to like being in his orbit. And he seemed to like her, too.

(I think we're remarkably well-suited.)

Sherlock was a very good actor. But. If this was—if this thing with Janine wasn't entirely an act—if he really had fallen for her—

His stomach lurched sideways and he stumbled on the top stair, paused to lean against the wall, put his head down. The plastic bag bit into the flesh of his palm.

Sherlock's hand on Janine's back. He'd once placed his palm in the same spot on John's back, had carefully and patiently coached him through the steps. They'd swayed together behind the closed curtains overlooking Baker Street. Sherlock's breath had been warm in John's hair, and John had tried very hard not to think about the steady thump of Sherlock's heart, the familiar inviting scent of his skin, the fact that his own impending wedding had felt strangely distant and unimportant.

It's not too late, you know, Mrs Hudson had said.

She was wrong.

They'd been safely enveloped in their own little bubble, once, he and Sherlock. Apart from the rest of the world. But that bubble had burst a long time ago. It had burst years ago. He wanted it back. He'd only realised how badly once it was gone for good.

He forced himself away from the wall, went through the door into the flat. The air was quiet, heavy. No music, no laughter, no droning telly. The sitting room was empty.

He stood blinking for a moment, thought of those two coats, still hanging neatly side-by-side on hooks downstairs. He didn't want to think on what that might mean, so he went into the kitchen, put the milk in the fridge.

He clenched his fist, breathed. Dared a glance past the fridge, down the hallway.

Sherlock's bedroom door was closed.

The air left his lungs as if he'd been punched. He sagged, reached out and braced himself against the fridge.

He thought about Janine emerging from that bedroom in her little red dress, ready for her hen party. He wondered why he hadn't, in the entire time she'd been living at Baker Street, thought to question the sleeping arrangements.

He didn't know why he was so shocked. She'd slept in Sherlock's bed before. They'd had—they'd had a relationship, before. None of it was new.

John thought about that first frenetic afternoon, rushing from appointment to appointment while Janine and Sherlock quarreled and made up, quarreled and made up, quarreled and made up. The colour in Sherlock's cheeks, the way he'd gradually unraveled—his hair rumpled, his clothing in disarray.

He slowly straightened where he stood, went back out into the sitting room.

He thought about leaving that conspicuously shut bedroom door behind him, going downstairs and fetching Rosie, catching a taxi across town to his quiet, empty little house.

It was what he should do.

It felt too far away.

He thought about Sherlock and Janine, ensconced in the warm cosy comfort of 221B. It had been his home, once. But there was no place for him here. Not now, not anymore. He shouldn't—

His heart thudded in his chest. He did not want to go downstairs, did not want to knock on Mrs Hudson's door with his hands shaking, did not want to lift Rosie against his chest and feel her stiffen up and begin to squall in distress. He'd frightened her once already tonight, and he was not particularly keen on doing it again.

And mostly, he did not want to go out into the cold and unforgiving night, Baker Street receding behind him like a fading memory.

He looked at his chair, thought of settling down by the dark cold fireplace until this—whatever this was—passed. Thought about Sherlock and Janine, tucked away together behind their closed door.

Would he hear them? A muffled giggle? A quiet moan?

But it needn't be muffled or quiet, would it? They had no reason to think that he was just outside. No reason to think they weren't alone.

Christ.

His face burned with embarrassment, with shame, at even thinking about it. He turned away from the door, stomach sick and roiling, skin clammy and cold.

He wanted to splash cold water on his face. He wanted to look himself in the eye in a bathroom mirror and tell himself to get a grip. The bathroom was—the bathroom was adjacent to Sherlock's room. He couldn't do that. No way.

His head spun.

He walked out of the flat, stood on the landing. Breathed.

Downstairs. Mrs Hudson. Rosie. Back out into the night, back home, where he should have gone in the first place. Rosie needed sleep, real sleep, not just a kip on the sofa.

Instead he went up the next flight of stairs on wooden legs, towards his old room. He couldn't show up at Mrs Hudson's door looking and feeling like this. He needed to get himself under control, and he needed to do it somewhere that was not mere steps away from Sherlock's (closed, closed, closed) bedroom door.

He could sit for a moment. Open the window. Take a deep breath and let the fresh air whip some sense back into him without terrorising both Mrs Hudson and his daughter.

At the top of the stairs, he put his hand against the smooth familiar wood of his old bedroom door. Pushed his way inside. Reached for the lamp, hesitated.

The room was not empty. He could hear breathing, steady, even respiration. Could just make out the dark edges of a shape, huddled under bedding.

He withdrew his hand, slowly, without switching on the lamp. Stood very still, let his eyes adjust to the darkness. The moon was bright through the little window.

Sherlock.

Sherlock was curled up in the bed, wrapped in a duvet. He was sound asleep, dark curls mashed against the pillow, his mouth hanging open. He'd never been a particularly graceful sleeper.

What—?

John rubbed at his face, sagged against the doorframe. Looked around the room.

It was not the sparse, unoccupied space he occasionally kipped in after a long case. There were piles of books and papers on the little desk, wardrobe open and stuffed haphazardly with clothing, shoes tucked under the bed. A half-crushed pack of cigarettes on the windowsill.

He breathed in, and over the heavy close scent of sleep, of Sherlock asleep, he could just make out the faintest whiff of stale smoke.

The room was not neat the way that Sherlock typically kept his bedroom. It more resembled the mild chaos that occurred when they'd been forced to travel outside of London, to spend the night on unfamiliar ground. Sherlock had a tendency to begin unpacking with some zeal, only to be distracted by his own thoughts midway through his task and leave his suitcase open, belongings strewn about.

The clothes in the wardrobe, the shoes under the bed. The cigarettes by the window, the books on the desk. Sherlock hadn't come creeping upstairs to rest, or to escape a lovers' quarrel, or to adhere to some outdated wedding tradition. He'd staked out John's old bedroom as his own temporary living quarters.

Which meant—

"John?"

Sherlock's voice, a sleepy slur from the shadows, made John start.

"Sorry," he said, voice low, as Sherlock stirred under the blanket, raised himself up on an elbow. "I didn't mean to wake you." He winced at the words, shook his head. "No. God no. That—came out. A lot creepier than I intended. I wanted—um. My—my jumper. Thought I'd left it. I didn't know that you—what are you doing up here, anyway?"

Sherlock blinked at him, his eyes nearly colourless in the darkness.

"Mine's the better mattress," he said.

John hesitated, cleared his throat, tried to read between the lines. "So you—offered it to Janine?"

"Mm," Sherlock said. And then he frowned. "Well. Actually, she just sort of took it."

John huffed a quiet laugh, because that was something he had no trouble imagining.

"So," John said. "You two aren't—"

Sherlock's brow furrowed up, his gaze sharpening, the haze of sleep dropping away.

"Aren't—?" Sherlock prompted, when John failed to go on.

"A couple."

"Don't be ridiculous, John."

He breathed out, nodded. His cheeks felt hot. He was glad for the dark.

"We're getting married tomorrow."

John sucked in a breath, his stomach dropping even as he registered the hint of amusement in Sherlock's voice, the barest suggestion of a smile pulling at the edges of his lips.

He laughed, little more than a gust of breath pushed out through his teeth. Clenched his hand, released it, let his fingers worry at a loose thread in his shirt cuff. Something fluttered in his chest, something that felt uncomfortably like relief.

Sherlock chuckled, the sound low.

Not with Janine. Not with Janine. No more so than the case demanded, at least.

"So. Irene, then," he said. The words seemed loud, harsh in the close quiet. He wanted to yank them back.

"What about her?" Sherlock asked, still up on his elbow, his eyes still pale and gleaming in the moonlight.

"Well." John shifted, uncomfortable. "You know."

"No," Sherlock said, sitting up, the duvet dragging across his frame. The whisper of fabric seemed overloud to John. The bedspring creaked. "I am almost certain that I do not know."

"You—"

"Yes?"

"How does it work, then, with you two?" John asked, then pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. He looked up at the ceiling, the familiar peeling paint that he'd once slept under. "I take it she's not the—erm. Jealous type."

Sherlock stared at him. A deep furrow had appeared between his brows, and John fought against his sudden, wildly inappropriate urge to reach out a finger and smooth it away.

"John," Sherlock said, and he spoke slowly, as if addressing an idiot. "The last time I saw Irene Adler, she left me tied up in a vacant flat in Wapping."

"What? When was this?"

Sherlock looked slightly abashed. It might have been just a trick of the light. "Always a bad idea. Texting back. I did say."

"Oh," John said, realising, taking a half-step backwards. He went hot, then cold with second hand embarrassment. His heart seemed to stutter in his chest before restarting. "Jesus, Sherlock, I didn't actually want the details—"

"Of course you want details, why else would you continue badgering me about this?"

"Sherlock," John said, because now he couldn't get the image out of his head, Sherlock bound at the feet of Irene Adler, looking up at her with a slack stunned expression and his eyes gone wide and dark—

Had she brought the riding crop? John wondered, half-hysterically. Scheduled some time for a bit of recreational scolding?

Sherlock straightened where he sat, flailing at the blanket that had wound itself around his limbs. "I'd have asked you along at the time, but it was less than a week after Rosie'd been born and you'd been nattering on ceaselessly about lack of sleep—"

"Hang on," John said, holding up his hand, shaking his head. "Just—hang on. You'd have asked me along?"

"Of course," Sherlock said, smiling a bit as if at some private memory. "It was sort of fun. But—"

"That's not the kind of thing you invite a mate along for!"

"What are you talking about? That's exactly the kind of thing I invite you along for, all the time—"

"There are certain boundaries, Sherlock, you know? Lines you don't cross—"

"—wasn't even that dangerous, really, except—"

John saw red. "I should hope it wasn't bloody dangerous, Sherlock, she's a professional and should know better than to—"

Sherlock opened his mouth, clicked it shut. Stared at him. "A professional . . . jewel thief?"

"Well that's certainly one way to put it," John snapped.

Silence fell between them.

Sherlock made a muffled noise. It sounded, suspiciously, like a laugh.

John felt a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. He shook his head, looked down at the ground, chuckled in spite of himself. He was helpless in the face of Sherlock's amusement, always had been. Christ. What was wrong with him? "Sherlock—"

"One of her clients had stolen a bracelet, John. Something of personal value. She enlisted my help in getting it back."

"And then tied you up in a flat in Wapping? As a—what? Sort of reward?"

"What? No!" Sherlock said, brow gone all furrowed again. "The thief tied me up in a flat in Wapping. Surprisingly strong, I'll grant you, but terribly unobservant. Didn't even realise I'd pickpocketed the bracelet off of him while he was knotting the ropes."

"Sherlock," John said again, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"She arrived after he'd gone, relieved me of her bracelet, and went on her way."

"Left you there. Tied up."

"Mm," he agreed. His voice was mild. "Seemed to find it amusing. Took a photograph before she left. I'm sure it will surface again at a most inconvenient time. Like I said, bad idea."

"Oh," John breathed. He looked away, suddenly not quite able to meet Sherlock's eyes.

"Why?" Sherlock asked. His tone had sharpened.

"Hm?" John looked back at him, embarrassed now, wanting badly to change the subject. "Why what?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Just—erm—" John trailed off. "Didn't know how it worked. You two."

Sherlock's face was far too keen in the dim light, his eyes far too sharp.

John cleared his throat. "Didn't want a—you know. A scene tomorrow. Angry girlfriend blowing your cover at the wrong moment. That sort of thing. Yeah?"

"Girlfriend?" The surprise in Sherlock's voice seemed at once mocking and genuine.

"Sorry," John said. He wanted to leave. He could no longer remember why he'd come upstairs at all. "Think I just—well. Got the wrong idea."

"Yes," Sherlock agreed, still sitting at the edge of his bed, half-tangled in the duvet and staring at him with those sharp, sharp eyes. "I believe you did."

"So you're not—?" John was still talking, why was he still talking? "—you know. With her?"

"Who am I meant to be with now, John? Even I'm having a bit of trouble keeping up."

"Irene Adler," John said, feeling irritated and cornered even with the open door at his back. He could not seem to keep his mouth shut. He never should have returned to Baker Street, never should have come upstairs.

Sherlock shut his eyes for a moment. Tipped his head back with a soft little sound in the back of his throat. It might've been frustration, that sound. Irritation. Sorrow. Regret. Despair. John had no real idea.

"No, John," Sherlock said. His voice was slow, very patient. He kept his eyes closed. "I am not."

John had no idea what that slow, patient, somber voice was meant to convey. "Do you want to be?" he asked, before he could stop himself.

Sherlock's eyes opened. They fixed on John, pinned him in place.

"No, John," Sherlock said. His voice was no longer patient, no longer somber.

John did not know what to say. He clenched his hand. Licked his lips. Wondered if he should prepare to fight or flee. Wondered if it might not have been better, in the end, to have come back to the flat and discovered Sherlock and Janine in bed together after all, tangled in each other's arms in the moonlight.

The thought made him feel sick to his stomach, like the ground had dropped away below him and left him in free-fall, plunging ever downward. He'd been falling for months, it seemed. Years. Surely he must hit bottom eventually.

"John," Sherlock said again, and he stood up, shrugging the duvet aside, crossing the floor in three short steps.

He was barefoot, still clad in his faded blue pyjama bottoms, a threadbare t-shirt. He was tall and oddly awkward, crowding into John's personal space, trailing his warm sleepy scent.

"I don't understand it, Sherlock," John said, helpless. His voice was barely above a whisper. He looked at the stretched collar of Sherlock's t-shirt, at the way the pulse jumped against the pale skin of Sherlock's neck. "Everyone wants—everyone wants something. Even if it's not—even if it's not that. There must be something. Even you. Even you must—"

Sherlock's breathing was unsteady. He stared down at John with darkened eyes, with furrowed brow. His face was pained.

"—want something," John said again, with a little helpless shrug. He should leave. He should apologise, turn around, go back down the stairs. He'd left the milk in the fridge, a peace offering. That was all he'd meant to do.

"Why?" Sherlock asked. His voice was very quiet. There was something sad in it, something almost accusing.

Because I think you're lonely, John thought. Because I used to believe you when you said you didn't want anything or anyone, but I don't really believe you anymore.

He could still see the smile on Sherlock's face, that pleased, genuine little smile as he'd taken Janine in his arms, twirled her across the dance floor at Pete's studio. The way they tipped their heads together and laughed, sometimes, the sound low, conspiratorial. He could still see Sherlock's guilty little start whenever Irene messaged him, the way he shammed embarrassment at being caught out but never once thought to change her text alert sound. The way that Sherlock, for all of his fussing and complaining about idiots and wanting to be alone tended to cling to the right kind of companionship when it was on offer.

"I don't want you to be lonely," John said. His throat felt raw. "I don't want you to be unhappy."

Sherlock made a sound that might have been a laugh. It was the loneliest, unhappiest sound John had ever heard.

"Shit," John said. "I'll shut up now. Sorry. I shouldn't have—I shouldn't have assumed. None of my business, really."

Sherlock's gaze flicked down to John's lips, then back up. It was quick, fleeting. "John," he said, his voice pained.

John's heart kicked hard in his chest.

Sherlock's mouth worked. He seemed unable to form words. He blinked, once, twice, three times, turned away.

John reached out, caught hold of Sherlock's wrist before he could step back.

"You've got to be—" John broke off, looked away, barked out a disbelieving laugh. The sound cracked the stillness that had stretched between them. "You've got to be kidding me. Are you joking? Is this some kind of—"

"John," Sherlock said again, and he truly did look miserable now, his face pulled taut and blank.

"This," John said. He used his other hand to gesture between them. Blood roared in his ears. "This? This is what you—?"

Sherlock took a step back. He jerked hard at his wrist, pulling it free of John's grasp.

"No," John said. His face was hot. His chest was cold. "I don't—that's not what—I'm sorry. Sherlock. Wait."

Sherlock stopped. Waited. His face was terribly, terribly blank.

"How?" John asked, finally. His voice felt as though it had been ripped from his throat. "How can this—how can this be what you want. I don't—I don't understand, Sherlock. Please. Help me understand this."

You could have anything, he could not quite say. Anything you wanted. Anyone you wanted. Why would you want this? Why would you want me?

Sherlock said nothing. His eyes were wide, unblinking in the dark.

"I don't understand," John said, desperate, even as hope dared to flare somewhere deep in his chest.

"I am in love with you," Sherlock said. His voice was shockingly steady, devoid of inflection. Emotionless. "What more could you possibly need to understand?"

John's eyes stung. He shook his head, pressed one trembling hand against his mouth. Breathed in through his nose.

"I apologise if that makes you uncomfortable," Sherlock said, in that same awful flat voice. "I never intended for you to know."

John dropped his hand away from his face, his heart galloping. He stepped towards Sherlock and Sherlock flinched, a tiny motion, barely even perceptible.

"God," John said, his heart aching. He slowed his movement, held his hands up in surrender.

Sherlock watched him warily, did not back away.

Breathing hard, John reached out, achingly slow, and wrapped Sherlock up in his arms.

Sherlock stumbled against him, stiff and unyielding, his heart rabbit-quick against his chest under that thin t-shirt. He was warm. He smelled good. Familiar.

"What are you doing?" Sherlock asked, his voice edging a bit higher than usual. "Why are you doing this? What are you—"

"Trying to tell you I'm in love with you too, you absolute dickhead," John mumbled into Sherlock's chest. "Apparently doing a rubbish job of it."

Sherlock did not relax. If anything, he tensed further.

"What are you saying? Don't be ridiculous. No you're not. Why would you be? I'd have noticed. Wouldn't I have noticed? Of course I'd have noticed. I notice everything. When is this meant to have happened? You—"

"Sherlock," John said. He shut his eyes. Slipped his hands in a slow, soothing caress along the thin worn shirt at Sherlock's back.

Sherlock breathed out, a long slow exhale. He seemed to deflate. His spine lost its proud, rigid tension and he melted forward into John's embrace. He made a small despairing sound as he did so.

John held him. He held him as he'd always wanted to, close and safe. Listened to Sherlock's unsteady breathing as they stood together in the dark.

"Oh," Sherlock breathed.

John cleared his throat, did not step away. "Oh?"

"That's why you've been utterly useless on this case," Sherlock said, his face dipping down, his nose brushing against John's ear. His whispered voice was alight with realisation. "You're jealous."

"Utterly useless, yeah, that's nice," John said, without any real heat. "Ta for that."

"I meant utterly useless in a nice way," Sherlock said.

"Oh, right, yeah, that makes it much better."

"You—" Sherlock swallowed audibly. "You have nothing to be jealous of, John. You never have."

John looked at him. Sherlock's face had lost some of its sharp edges over the long years that they'd known one another, but he was still beautiful. His eyes were still just as pale, just as keen. His lips plush and inviting and so very, very close.

John had wanted this. To see him like this, to have him like this. For so long, he'd wanted without ever really knowing what it was he'd wanted.

The possibilities yawned in front of him, a terrifyingly vast chasm.

John tilted his head back, slowly, achingly slowly, and ghosted his lips against the corner of Sherlock's mouth. Waited.

Sherlock sucked in a shuddering breath, tilted his head so his lips met John's. It was a sweet kiss, surprisingly chaste. Just a firm press of dry lips, the puff of unsteady breath through flared nostrils.

John lifted one hand and cupped Sherlock's cheek. His heart pounded. Sherlock shut his eyes, his lips soft and unmoving against John's own. His face was hot under John's palm.

John sighed and pressed forward, tilting his head ever-so-slightly, letting his lips part. The hand cupping Sherlock's cheek slid back to curl around the back of his neck, fingers sliding through soft dark hair. Sherlock made a muffled, strangled sound, yielding to the kiss. John's other hand crept up Sherlock's side, crumpling the hem of his soft t-shirt.

Sherlock hissed as John's chilled hand met sleep-warm skin. John dragged his hand up, his palm splaying open to cradle the rise of Sherlock's ribs.

"John," Sherlock said, his voice barely a whisper. He shuddered under John's hand, curled forward, kissed him and kissed him and kissed him.

John walked him backwards until the back of his knees hit the bed and he sat down with a surprised, indignant huff. The mattress squeaked.

"You planned my wedding," John said softly. He thought of Harry's words, her ceaseless and troubling questions. He thought maybe he understood, now.

"I would do anything for you," Sherlock said, his eyes downcast. "Surely you know that by now."

John groaned and kissed him again. There was nothing else he could do.

Sherlock lifted his hands, set them tentatively on John's shoulders, a light pressure, as if uncertain of their welcome, as if he might need to snatch them away.

"It's all right," John said.

Sherlock's fingers tightened.

John nudged and Sherlock fell backwards willingly, his hands grasping, pulling John down to join him. John kissed him, one hand in Sherlock's hair and the other still stroking along the side of Sherlock's heaving ribs.

"Is this—" he pulled back with some difficulty, looked down at Sherlock, wide-eyed and stunned in his bed, his old bed, the duvet crumpled beneath him. "Are you—?"

"John, please shut up," Sherlock said, and there was something almost giddily unrestrained in his voice. His hands fluttered helplessly in front of John's shirt before settling on the buttons, working them free with a single-minded intensity.

John looked down and watched Sherlock's deft fingers at work. The sight was overwhelming and he shut his eyes, took a shuddering breath.

His chest felt like it could rip open, like it could spill his carefully concealed heart out into Sherlock's lovely hands.

Sherlock finished with the last button and sat up slightly, tugging John's shirt down off his shoulders. He immediately went to work on the vest, tugging impatiently. His eyes were wide open, unblinking, intensely focused in the darkness.

John kissed him. When he drew back, Sherlock's eyes had fluttered shut.

"John," Sherlock said, not opening his eyes. "I—"

John reached down to cup him through his pyjama bottoms and Sherlock hissed, throwing his head back against the pillow.

That was good, that was very good, so John did it again.

Sherlock made a strangled sound, his hands sliding up John's back, fingers splaying wide. His skin was warm. His chest was heaving. He opened his eyes. His expression was wild.

"God," John said, and there was no chance at taking this slowly, no chance at all.

Sherlock jerked his head up, crashing his lips against John's so hard their teeth clacked together, a bright burst of pain. His fingers clenched, digging into John's back.

John fumbled for the hem of Sherlock's t-shirt, helped him wrestle it up and over his head. Let his hands skate across the raised scar tissue that spanned his back, but did not linger. Instead, he ducked down to mouth along Sherlock's neck, tasting the light sweat that had beaded there.

He pulled back just enough to fumble at the button of his jeans, blood roaring in his ears, heart thundering in his chest. This was happening. He was—they were—

Sherlock kicked out of his pyjama bottoms in an awkward flail of limbs, falling back against the duvet. John followed him, crawling awkwardly across the narrow mattress.

The air was cool against John's back, Sherlock's breath hot against his neck.

Sherlock's leg had slipped between his own, slick skin sliding together, hairs prickling all along the inside of John's thigh and his toes were cold against John's calf and John couldn't think, couldn't focus on anything but the feel of him, the smell of him, the (oh, God) taste of him, the mild salt-tang of sweat.

Sherlock's eyes were closed, wiry muscles coiled beneath his skin. He looked utterly overcome, overwhelmed, his head rolling against the pillow, his chest heaving, his hips rocking in gentle waves against John's own.

"Sherlock," John choked out, and Sherlock's eyes snapped open, locked on his.

There was no room for finesse. John dropped his head, buried his face in Sherlock's neck, chasing the feeling. He brought his hand between them and Sherlock gasped, bucking up against him, and just like that it was over, too soon, a shocking hot rush of sensation that left him shaking.

He flopped, boneless, against Sherlock, rolling slightly to avoid crushing him. He shut his eyes, caught in a strange rip current somewhere between euphoria and shame.

Sherlock nuzzled closer, seeking a kiss, and John breathed out hard, met his lips. Focused on the sweat cooling on his skin, on the warm welcome press of Sherlock's lean body against his own.

*

"That was. Um. Unexpected," John said, when he had caught his breath.

Sherlock blinked at him, said nothing. He looked a bit stunned.

"I—" John said, and stopped. He had no idea what to say. One of his hands had strayed close to Sherlock's and he tapped their fingers together, stopping just shy of taking his hand.

Sherlock's eyes flicked towards their hands, back to John's face.

"Was—?" John tried again, and cut himself off. He shook his head, rolled from his side onto his back, looked up at the ceiling. Sherlock's face was so very, very blank. Utterly unreadable.

I am in love with you, Sherlock had said. He had spoken calmly, and evenly, as if stating an obvious fact and not all as if he'd just tilted the entire world on its axis.

And then they'd fallen into bed, a desperate rush of tangled limbs, over nearly as quickly as it started. No fucking wonder he didn't know what to say. What to do. He hadn't felt this out of his depth in years.

And if he was out of his depth, then surely Sherlock—

John lifted his hands, scrubbed at his face.

"I meant what I said," John said, finally. His voice was surprisingly steady. He kept his eyes on the ceiling, watched the shifting shadows. "About being in love with you, too. Just in case you—well. In case you were wondering."

"Why would I be wondering?" Sherlock asked, too quickly. His hands had come up to fidget with the edge of the duvet.

John shut his eyes. "I didn't say you were. Just—in case."

Sherlock did not respond.

John was painfully aware of the distance between them. He opened his eyes, looked at their bodies, at all of the places they nearly touched.

He thought of the way Sherlock had gasped into their kisses, the way he'd thrown his head back and rocked his hips. Thought of the wild expression on his face, so far removed from his usual careful composure.

I am in love with you.

John smiled into the pillow, turned so he could see Sherlock more clearly. Sherlock's eyes were on him, unwavering.

"You are going to get married tomorrow," John said. "Fake. Fake married tomorrow. Er—it is going to be fake, right? You haven't got a vicar, or—"

"Wiggins," Sherlock said.

"Wiggins."

"The vicar."

"Wiggins is your vicar," John said. He looked back up the ceiling. "Right. Well. Okay. Sorry, no, how exactly is he going to pull that off?"

"He's got an excellent costume."

"Oh, right, of course." John shook his head, looked back at Sherlock. "Well. What I was trying to say is that—"

"Yes?"

"Just," John breathed out through his teeth. "You're going to get fake married tomorrow, and if all goes according to plan, someone is going to try and kill you."

"Yes?"

"Right. Well, and after that—"

"Yes?"

"Oh for—" John rolled towards Sherlock and took his face in his hands, kissed him hard, once, and then pulled back to look him in the eye. "After that, I would like to, erm, have another go at this. If that's—um—"

"Oh," Sherlock said. He looked at John, looked away. It was difficult to say, in the darkness, but John thought there was a flush beginning to creep up the long pale line of his neck.

"I'd like to keep you in bed for a whole week, if you'll let me," John said.

"That's something you'd—"

"Yes," John said, and kissed Sherlock again. He was warm, and sleepy, and no longer sure exactly what he'd been so concerned about. He sighed, burrowed his head into the pillow. "It's the sort of thing that gets better with practice," he added.

"I have no complaints," Sherlock said, and cleared his throat. He had definitely gone a bit pink.

John smiled, face heating. "Um. Good. That's—that's good."

"And I find I'm not immediately opposed to the idea," Sherlock said, his voice thoughtful. "Though, of course, a full week is impractical, unless you intend restraints to be involved—"

John blinked at him.

"—there are, of course, certain biological imperatives, such as the need for food and water, that would need to be taken into consideration in order to assure a satisfactory experience. Basic hygiene—"

He looked so terribly serious, so earnest, that John's heart lurched sideways in his chest. He laughed, a genuine, startled sound, was surprised to feel his eyes prickling as he reached for Sherlock again, his hand landing lightly against his chest somewhere between a swat and a caress.

"—and of course you'll need to tend to Rosie's needs," Sherlock said.

John sat up, his blood running cold. "Oh, shit. Rosie."

"John?" Sherlock sat up next to him, the amused sleepiness draining out of his voice.

"Just—" John let his hands flail helplessly. "I left her downstairs with Mrs Hudson. She can't spend the night on her sofa, that's not fair to either of them. I have to get her home."

"Oh," Sherlock said, contrite. "Of course."

John put his head in his hands, the pleasant fantasy he'd indulged dissipating like smoke. There would be no week in bed with Sherlock, giddily exploring one another like teenagers in love, taking breaks only to fetch takeaway and—well, it was Sherlock, so he was sure that solving crimes would factor in at some point, but—

But that was not his life, could not be his life. Not now. He'd made his choices, even if they had not felt much like choices at the time. He had responsibilities.

And he was damned if he was going to resent his blameless daughter for his own failures. He'd already wrought enough damage on her early months.

"John?"

John turned away, moved to stand. The floor was cold under his feet. "Um," he said.

"John," Sherlock said again. His hand was warm against John's shoulder, stilling him before he could rise to his feet.

John reached up, clasped that hand with his own. He choked on his own words, unable to speak. He did not want to leave. He thought of his lonely little house on the other side of London, thought of the endless grey hours he spent there, staring at the telly while Rosie napped. While the rest of the world went on around him, leaving him behind.

"She's not going to be a baby forever, John," Sherlock murmured into his ear, his voice low and calm and somehow everything John needed to hear. "She is growing and changing every single day, at a truly remarkable pace."

"I know that," John said, gasping his words out on an exhale. "I know."

"I only mean," Sherlock said, still speaking slowly and softly, "that, before you know it, her demands will shift as well. You won't be spending whole days centered entirely around the purpose of keeping her alive. She'll go to school. She'll make—friends, I assume. She'll grow into an entirely separate person with her own purpose and you'll—" Sherlock hesitated, his mouth close to John's ear.

"Um," John said, and he laughed, a wet sound. He could not quite bring himself to look over his shoulder at Sherlock. "I've, um, spent whole days centered entirely around the purpose of keeping you alive, so I'm not quite sure where all of this certainty is coming from."

Sherlock snorted, huffed out a surprised little laugh just as John had intended. "Go get your daughter, John," he said. "Take her home. Get some sleep. Tomorrow we catch a killer."

"And then?" John asked, turning so that his nose brushed against Sherlock's.

"Then," Sherlock said. A slow, pleased smile spread across his face. It made him look younger, utterly charming with his mad hair and still-flushed skin. "I believe you promised me a week. With certain necessary modifications to the original plan, of course. I think it could work. If—?"

John wanted to kiss him, and so he did. Their lips slid together, comfortable and warm, like they'd been doing it for years.

"Go," Sherlock said against his lips. "John. Go. Before I don't let you."

John laughed, cupped his hand at Sherlock's nape, drew their foreheads together. Breathed for a moment before releasing him, standing up.

He dressed hastily in the dark, went down the stairs. Stopped off in the bathroom to wash up and put himself in order. He left the light off, conscious of Janine sleeping just beyond the frosted door.

The flat was sleepy and silent around him. It was surreal, strange, his heart pounding an elated beat against his ribs, adrenaline coursing through his veins, the very air sparking with electricity. He felt young again, young and vibrant, thrumming with an irrational nervous tension, a fear of being caught.

He shut the water off, went quietly down the hall.

Sherlock was waiting for him in the sitting room, a tall and awkward ghost.

John stopped.

Sherlock regarded him without speaking. He'd pulled on his pyjamas and dressing gown. His bare toes curled against the floor, the only part of him in motion.

John smiled, looked down at the ground, some of the tension seeping out of his shoulders. Sherlock took a hesitant step forward, then another. John lifted his head as he approached, met his gaze.

And then they were kissing, twining together in the darkness. John's hand slipped along the silken back of Sherlock's dressing gown. Sherlock's breath caught and stuttered against his lips.

John wanted to take him back upstairs.

"Good night, John," Sherlock said when they broke apart.

"Christ," John said, and shut his eyes, took a steadying breath. He felt buoyant, giddy. "Good night."

He went down the stairs without looking back, his heart light. Rosie departed Mrs Hudson's sofa without a fuss, a warm sleepy weight against his chest. He cradled her close as he hailed a taxi, and turned to look at the darkened windows of 221B as it pulled away from the kerb.

He thought he could just make out Sherlock amidst the shadows, watching them go.

Chapter Text

John reached for the door of the Baker Street flat at eight-thirty, the garment bag with his suit in it slung over his shoulder. He paused for a moment with his fingertips against the worn wood, looked around.

The morning air was chilly but the sky was clear, promising a lovely spring day. Speedy's was crowded, with several patrons taking advantage of the outdoor tables.

It was, John thought, a rather nice day for a wedding.

He went inside, took the stairs two at a time. He hesitated on the landing, nerves sparking. Took a deep breath, steadied himself.

Janine was on the sofa in the sitting room. She looked up at the sound of his footsteps.

"Good morning," she said. Her voice was cautious.

"Morning," John agreed. He draped his suit over the back of his chair, glanced around the room before sitting down. There was no sign of Sherlock.

Janine was dressed casually in dark trousers and a soft cardigan. She'd done her makeup, and her hair fell around her face in appealing waves. She had clearly been awake for some time, putting herself together.

"Taxi is picking me up in about fifteen minutes," she said, reading the question in his eyes. She inclined her head towards the kitchen.

He followed her gaze to the large garment bag resting on the kitchen table.

"Ah," he said. He swallowed. "The dress."

"Bad luck for him to see me in it before the wedding," she said. "Superstition, I know. But we are trying to catch a murderer. Might need all the good luck we can get. So."

John pressed his lips together in a small smile. "Sure you want to leave that in the kitchen? Bit of a biohazard, last I checked."

"Oh, I scrubbed the table down," she said. "He'd just live in filth if you let him get away with it."

"Ah," John said again. He cleared his throat, flattened his palms against his thighs. He was oddly nervous, warmth creeping up the back of his neck. "Look, Janine. Er. I—I think. I think I might owe you an apology—"

"Oh," she said. She shook her head, looking a bit like a deer in the headlights. "No, you don't need to—"

"Just, I've been—" he said. He swallowed, shook his head. The words would not come.

"I saw the milk," her voice was soft. "In the fridge. Had some with my tea this morning. I know it wasn't Sherlock, getting him to go to the shops is a bit like pulling teeth, and it definitely wasn't Mrs Hudson—she's barely been up here since I moved in. So. Must have been you."

John nodded, a quick jerk of his head. Breathed out through his teeth. "I was rude, yesterday. Shouldn't have been."

"It's all right," she said.

"It's not," John said.

"Well," she said. She shrugged, gave him a small smile. "It is what it is, I suppose."

The words struck him, though she could not have possibly known their weight. He sniffed, looked down at the ground.

"You know, Mary was the first real friend I made after uni," Janine said, her hesitant voice cracking the silence that stretched between them. "I told you that, before. But I didn't tell you—I just—I didn't really have good friends, before her. Acquaintances, mostly."

John looked up. "Your bridesmaids."

She smiled tightly, shrugged again. "Well. You've met them."

He smiled back, mirrored her shrug. There was not much to say.

"I'm not a very good judge of character," she said.

He swallowed, looked uncomfortably towards the door. "I'm sure that's not true."

"Come on," she said, her mouth twisting in a crooked smile. "I'm about to pretend to marry Sherlock Holmes, of all people. And, if I'm being honest, he's the best of a bad bunch."

Her words pulled a smile to his face.

"And if you're keeping score, that's best of a bad bunch, even after he pretended to be in love with me so he could break into an office," she added.

"Erm—"

She rolled her eyes, let out a sharp little laugh. "Oh, please, I've got over it. He's forgiven, mostly. I made a lot of money out of the whole thing, so that helped."

John laughed softly in agreement. He flexed his hand, looked down. He did not like to think about that time. It was tied up in—other things. Unpleasant things.

"This is bothering you," she said, after a long moment had passed.

He jerked in his seat, caught off guard. Met her gaze. Frowned. "What do you mean?"

"This," she said, waving her hand vaguely at the room. "Me. Being here. With him."

He swallowed. His mouth was dry. "That's not—"

"I haven't—you know. Taken your place, or anything. If that's what you were—"

"I didn't think that," he said, too quickly.

"Right from the start, from that first day that Sherl told you about the case," she shifted so she was leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, studying him. Her gaze was uncomfortably keen. "You were unhappy. I thought you were—well, I thought it was me, that I brought back bad memories, after everything with Mary. And I wouldn't have blamed you if—but—but it wasn't that. Not really. Was it?"

"Janine, if I've given you the impression that—"

"Sherl thought you'd be jealous," she said, and huffed a laugh.

John could not think of a single thing to say. The silence that fell between them felt solid, heavy. Impenetrable. The room was too warm.

"Oh, don't make that face! He didn't say it in so many words. He just—well, he said you were grieving. That your priorities had changed but you might still feel—left out. That he tried to involve you when it seemed appropriate, but he knew he couldn't just demand things of you anymore."

"Things?" John asked faintly. "What things?"

"Your time," she said. She shrugged. "You know, with the wee one and all. It's why he asked me to help him with this. And, I mean, let's face it, it's not like I had much else going on."

John thought of the afternoons he'd spent at Baker Street while Rosie was with the sitter. How sometimes there would be a client, and he and Sherlock would go off together without hesitation. And how Sherlock never bothered to text him about the other cases, the ones that came up while John was at home.

Out of sight, out of mind, he'd assumed.

He'd thought he was being left behind.

He pressed a hand against his mouth. Exhaled, warm damp breath stuttering through his fingers.

"That's not really it either, though, is it?" Janine said.

"Hang on," John said. He shook his head. "He said that? He told you that?"

He thought of Janine telling him he's a good listener, the way he'd immediately dismissed it.

"He's got it wrong," Janine said, her voice slow, considering. "You are feeling left out, but not because of—not because of Mary, or Rosie or all that rot about changing priorities and missing the past. You're not jealous of the case. It is me. It's—"

"Look," he said, holding up a hand. "Just—"

"You're in love with him, and you never told him," she said. Her eyes lit up. "That's it, isn't it? He thinks you're angry because you can't tag along on cases the way you used to, but that's—"

"Erm," John said. His voice sounded faint to his own ears.

She paused, looked at him. Blinked. "No," she said. "No, you did tell him. Oh my god. You did." Her face wrinkled up in mock outrage. "Really? The night before my wedding?!"

It startled a laugh out of him, a genuine one. He leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes. His face flared hot.

"Sorry," he said, not really feeling sorry at all.

"Don't be. At least one of us is getting some," Janine said.

"Christ," John said. He barked another laugh.

"He's in love with you, too," she said. The teasing lilt had gone out of her voice and she regarded him with serious eyes. "Desperately. In case you didn't already know that. He's been—struggling with it. For a long time."

"I—" John's throat felt tight. He swallowed, hard. Nodded.

He's a good listener, she'd said. It seemed as though she'd done some listening of her own.

A horn blared somewhere outside. Janine stood up, leaned over to peer out the window.

"That's my taxi," she said. She went into the kitchen, lifted the garment bag off of the table.

John turned in his chair, watched her over his shoulder. She was lovely and bright-eyed, like any happy bride should be on her wedding day. In a few hours, she was going to put on that dress, and she was going to stand at the altar with Sherlock and they were going to fool everyone into thinking they were madly in love.

He hated it. He hated it.

She wasn't Sherlock's lover, not the way he'd feared, but she had become his friend. And oh, it wasn't rational, and it wasn't fair, but he hated her a little bit for it all the same. For the way that she knew what had taken him years to realise.

She paused in the doorway, cradling the bag against her body. "Well. Suppose I'll see you later, then. Be glad to have this over with, to be honest."

She looked awkward, a little anxious, and he was struck with a flood of self-loathing over the way he'd treated her. The way he was still treating her.

"Janine," he said.

She looked at him.

"Be careful," he said. "I know this bloke only goes after the grooms, but he is a serial killer, and he might not take kindly to having his plans interrupted. So. Keep an eye out."

"Oh, don't worry about me," she said, and there was a surprising amount of warmth in her voice. "I'm tougher than I look."

She hesitated for a moment, then turned and went down the stairs.

John watched her go.

The flat fell silent around him. He flattened his palms against his thighs, flexed his fingers. Thought about standing up, climbing the stairs to his old room.

He'd felt wrong the night before, all wrong, rushing out into the cold. Leaving Sherlock behind while still half-stunned and giddy over the enormity of what had passed between them. Putting Rosie down in her cot and then settling alone in the bed he used to share with Mary, exhausted but wired, his heart a tangled, sparking mess of yearning and joy and guilt and loneliness.

There had been an ache, a sense of incompleteness, the feeling of something important left unfulfilled.

The bed had been cold and empty, and he'd fallen asleep longing for the warmth of Sherlock's skin, for the faint odour of cigarettes in his tangled hair.

Upon waking the memory of the night before had lingered, so perfect and surreal it could have been a dream.

But it hadn't been a dream. He knew that.

John stood up, squared his shoulders. Thought about the way Sherlock's face had looked in the moonlight. Thought about everything he'd wanted to say, everything he'd wanted to do. Thought about what he had said, what he had done.

He went up the stairs, moving slowly, very conscious of the sound of his footsteps, of the throb of his own heartbeat in his ears.

The bedroom door was slightly ajar, a thin beam of morning light falling across the scuffed wood on the landing.

The floorboard beneath his foot creaked, giving him away. He hesitated, then stepped forward, pushed the door open.

Sherlock was sitting at the edge of the bed, his feet on the floor, watching the door. He was still in his pyjamas. His hair was mussed, half-wild.

"John," he said, his voice level. His brows lifted. It was a puzzled expression, mildly surprised.

John swallowed, looked around the room. At some point in the wee hours of the morning, Sherlock had tidied, had straightened the piles of papers, had swept away the cigarette butts by the window.

"Busy night?" John asked, keeping his tone light in spite of the dread pooling in his stomach.

Sherlock blinked at him, said nothing.

"You—erm. Told me to be here before nine," John added.

"Yes," Sherlock said. He cleared his throat, stood up. His posture was oddly stiff. "Thank you."

"Right," John said. He took a step forward and hesitated, uncertain of his welcome. Chose to lean against the doorframe instead.

Sherlock made an aborted motion with his hand. Swallowed. "Lots to do," he said.

He moved to brush past John, to slip through the open door, and John caught him by the arm, his fingers skimming across soft skin.

Sherlock stopped.

John kept his grip light, his fingertips sliding up to dance at the edge of the faded t-shirt sleeve. He could not quite bring himself to meet Sherlock's eye.

Desperately, Janine had said.

"I'm sorry—" John started. The words burned hot in the back of his throat, difficult to force out. He never seemed to find the right words when he needed them.

"No need to apologise," Sherlock said, his voice bright and much too loud for the small room. He spoke quickly, as if he'd been saving his words and simply waiting for the proper moment to deploy them. "Error in judgement. Happens to the best of us."

"No, you absolute cock," John said, and smiled, because that was a bit easier. It was how they had always been, insult and affection in turn. He breathed out, let his fingers toy with Sherlock's sleeve. "Let me finish. I'm sorry that I—that I didn't get to wake up with you this morning. Would have liked to. That's all."

"Oh," Sherlock said. He blinked. Blinked again. The frozen, mechanical expression slipped from his face, leaving him looking painfully uncertain.

John thought about the way Sherlock was when he was distressed or unsure, the perpetual motion, the nervous bursts of energy, the defensive petulance. Thought about the bedroom, messy and lived-in the night before, now tidy and organised. Thought about the way a long night could play tricks on the mind, about the way that hushed declarations in darkness could sour in the cold light of day.

Sherlock, watching the door. Looking almost surprised at John's arrival.

Desperately.

"Can I—?" John started, and then thought: fuck it, I'll just—

He put his hand on the back of Sherlock's neck, pulled him down with a confidence he did not quite feel. Sherlock's lips were warm and dry, his breath stale. The tip of his nose was cold against John's cheek.

When he pulled back, Sherlock's eyes were closed.

"Can we start over?" John said, a bit breathless. "Good morning. It's a nice fucking day outside, yeah? Let's go catch a killer."

Sherlock opened his eyes. Frowned. "Is that normally how you greet your romantic partners?"

"No," John said, and then he grinned, emboldened. "Probably should have been."

Sherlock scoffed, turning his head away slightly, all forced nonchalance that did not fool John in the slightest. "I doubt anyone would have appreciated it."

"Mm, definitely not," John agreed, his hand playing at the back of Sherlock's neck, fingers teasing at the soft edges of rumpled curls. "Just you."

Sherlock swallowed, said nothing. John watched the pulse jump in his neck.

"You should go," John said with some effort. He licked his lips. "Go take a shower. Don't want to be late to your own wedding."

"Better than being late for my own funeral, one would assume," Sherlock said. He sounded a bit more like himself, his tone crisp, his eyes sharp.

"That's what we're trying to avoid," John said. He let his hand fall away from Sherlock's neck. "In spite of your best efforts to the contrary."

Sherlock rolled his eyes.

"You really have no idea who it is? Who it might be?" John asked.

The dark expression that twisted Sherlock's face was fleeting but telling. "I'd hardly be going to all this trouble if I had."

"Oh, I don't know. A fancy party where you get to be the center of attention? Sounds right up your street."

Sherlock made a scoffing noise, but some of the stiffness seemed to go out of him.

John studied him, took in the dark-shadowed eyes, the creased brow. Wondered how he had not noticed, before, how much this seemed to be taking out of him.

"Keep your eyes open," Sherlock said, voice sharpening as he brushed past John to lift his suit out of the wardrobe. "With any luck, our killer will strike during the ceremony and save us the tedium of dinner."

*

John waited in the sitting room, listening to the shower gurgle. He'd changed into his suit, was careful not to crease the fine fabric.

He took his phone out of his pocket, looked down at the screen. The little red notification of Pete's friend request hovered there, still unanswered.

He felt foolish, now, for how long he'd let it sit. He'd got to be quite friendly with Pete during their dance lessons. Under other circumstances, he'd have accepted the request long ago.

It had been the look on Pete's face that one night that had put him off. That pitying expression as he'd danced with Sherlock, both of them uncomfortable and hopelessly out of step. That look that had said: You're not fooling anyone and I know how badly you're hurting. He hadn't wanted anything to do with that look. It had left him feeling exposed, hunted, all of his pathetic impossible desires dragged out into the light. He hadn't even wanted to think about it.

He thought about the photos Janine had showed him from her hen party, her and Pete clinking glasses under vivid pink lights. Wondered if she would follow through on asking him along to Majorca, assuming the case wrapped up satisfactorily.

He probed around for any lingering discomfort, was mildly surprised to find there was none. Pete had simply been perceptive, had seen something that John had not yet been ready to face.

He tapped to accept the friend request.

There was a creak in the stairwell and then Mrs Hudson was calling out her usual greeting, bustling in through the door with a tea tray.

John slipped his phone back into his pocket, stood up. Smoothed his suit jacket. Went into the kitchen.

"Oh, John," Mrs Hudson said. Her face fell as she looked at him.

He frowned, looked down at himself. "Something wrong with the suit?"

"Oh, no, you look very nice dear," she said. She pressed a hand against her mouth, sighed. "He's decided to go through with it, then? I'd thought perhaps—"

He glanced at the tray on the table. In addition to the teapot, she'd brought up a little plate of scones.

There was a warm surge of fondness in his chest. He smiled, shut his eyes, thought about Janine saying she's barely been up here since I moved in.

"Silly of me," Mrs Hudson said. She turned around, began fussing with the tea.

"It's all right," he said carefully.

"I know a thing or two about hasty decisions, you know," she said. She set a teacup down on the table with a bit more force than necessary. "And I'll admit that I'd hoped—well—"

John could not quite meet her eye. He took a scone. It was still warm.

"Delicious," he said.

She folded her arms, looked at him. He was a bit horrified to see that her eyes were damp.

"I want the best for him, John," she said. "If this is what will make him happy, then so be it, but—"

John put down the half-eaten scone. Cleared his throat. "Look, Mrs Hudson—"

The bathroom door creaked open, steam billowing into the hallway. Sherlock poked his head out, hair damp and sticking up in all directions.

"What are you doing here?" His tone was suspicious.

John smothered a smile, looked away.

"Just bringing up some tea," Mrs Hudson said. She paused, sighed. "And wanting to wish you luck on your special day."

"Tea?" Sherlock slammed the bathroom door.

"Oh dear," Mrs Hudson said.

The door swung open again and Sherlock emerged from the bathroom, dressed this time, in his suit trousers and crisp shirt. He slipped a dressing gown on over his shoulders. "Thought your kettle wasn't working."

Mrs Hudson smiled sweetly. "Oh, no dear, what ever gave you that impression? It's working just fine."

Sherlock frowned.

"Well," Mrs Hudson said, before Sherlock could speak. "I best be off. Lots to do before the wedding. You boys enjoy your tea."

She squeezed Sherlock's arm on the way past. Her smile was warm but it did not reach her eyes.

John listened as she made her way carefully down the stairs. Then he turned to Sherlock, who had helped himself to a scone.

"Couldn't you—" he started.

"No," Sherlock said.

"But—"

"One more day, and then you can tell her whatever you like."

"She's going to be furious at you."

"Mm," Sherlock agreed. He took a prim little sip of tea, set the cup down on the table.

John sighed. He looked around the kitchen, at all the little signs of Janine's presence. The kettle in a different place. The table, cleared of clutter. The sink, devoid of dirty dishes.

"Suppose this place is going to go back to being a tip once this is all over, yeah?"

Sherlock made a noncommittal noise. "Depends."

"Depends on what?"

"Too many variables to say," Sherlock said, and stood up. He slipped off his dressing gown. "We should go. I'll want to have a look at the venue before someone attempts to murder me there."

"Right," John said, uneasiness settling into his gut. He watched as Sherlock put on his suit jacket and fussed with the tie, his movements careful, precise.

Sherlock lifted his head, met his gaze. He looked oddly young in his bowtie, John thought. Not quite himself.

"Just—" John swallowed, shook his head. "Just don't do anything stupid today, all right?"

Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Please, John. It's me."

"Yeah, that's what I'm worried about." John smiled at the mildly offended expression that flitted across Sherlock's face. He put his hand on Sherlock's arm, let it linger there for a moment, the warmth of his skin bleeding through the fine fabric of his jacket. Squeezed. Took his hand away.

Sherlock stared at him for a moment, his face unreadable. He looked down at his arm, at the space John's hand had just vacated. Blinked.

"Come on," John said. "Let's go."

*

There were flowers piled up by the entrance. Pink roses.

John looked at them, thought about the nightmarish day spent picking them out. The heavy floral aroma in the air, Sherlock's arm around Janine's waist. The endless sniping, the fighting, the making up.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. Sighed. At least there weren't any lilies.

Sherlock breezed past them with barely a glance, coat flapping behind him.

There were a handful of people working efficiently in the ballroom—moving chairs, unfurling table linens, arranging the centerpieces, transforming the cavernous empty space into the vision that Sherlock had paid for.

Even half-finished, he could tell it was going to be lovely. A proper fairy tale wedding.

The last wedding he'd been to had been his own.

He could not really recall the details. Time had seemed to operate at an accelerated pace. He'd been whisked from table to table, greeting guests, posing for photographs.

Individual moments stood out with stark clarity. Glimpsing Mary in her dress for the first time, that lovely cascade of vintage lace. He did not remember what his meal had tasted like, or if he'd had white wine or red, but he'd never forget Sherlock's odd, heartfelt speech, and the rush of emotion that had had him stumbling to his feet to pull his friend into a hug. Dancing with Mary for the first time, her face radiant in flickering candlelight, carefully tracing the steps that Sherlock had taught him.

It had been a beautiful night.

He'd had no real idea how much work had gone into it. Not then.

He knew now. And he was starting to understand just what, exactly, all of it had cost.

I would do anything for you. Surely you know that by now.

He swallowed hard.

"John," Sherlock said.

John jumped, feeling inexplicably guilty. He glanced up. Sherlock had reached the other side of the room, was waiting for him at the doorway.

"Coming," he said. He crossed the room quickly, noting the way the workers eyed Sherlock with some degree of suspicion. Evidently his reputation had preceded him.

"Two guest exits, there and there," Sherlock said, dropping his voice low as John approached. "Side door that leads to the kitchen. Ceremony will be held in that room to the left—they've already set up the chairs. Guests will funnel through here—" he pointed, "—and will take their assigned seats for the reception."

"Right," John followed his gaze. He supposed he should consider it a small mercy that Sherlock had elected to arrange the entire affair in one place, rather than attempt to hold the ceremony at a church. "Well. My money's on the kitchen."

"Oh?" Sherlock sounded amused.

"You've been vocal about the strawberry allergy from the start. Seems the most obvious choice."

"You believe a proficient and careful murderer who's been coaxed into making a move on the most observant man in the world would make the obvious choice?"

"All right, no need to be a dick about it."

"Just pointing out the flaws in your theory."

"Fine," John said. "If not the kitchen, then where? And—for the record—you're not actually hiding any deadly allergies, right? Because now would be a very good time to let me know."

Sherlock rolled his eyes, went through the side door. John followed.

The kitchen was empty.

Sherlock had crossed the room towards one of the large industrial refrigerators, stooped to examine the contents. John peered around him.

There were trays of seasoned chicken breasts, steaks swimming in marinade, bowls of chopped vegetables ready to be roasted. Nothing seemed out of place.

Evidently Sherlock felt the same, because he made a frustrated sound and let the fridge door swing shut.

John went to the second refrigerator, opened it.

This one housed the wedding cake, tall and resplendent. White fondant and buttercream flowers curled in a delicate pattern along the towering tiers.

"Looks nice," John said. He swallowed, thought about Janine's hands on the knife, Sherlock's pale fingers covering hers as they sliced together into the cake.

Sherlock said nothing, moved past the fridge to scan the gleaming stainless steel countertops, bending to peer into one of the ovens.

"No strawberry," John said. He frowned down at the cake. "At least, not that I can see. Suppose it could have been snuck into the filling. Want me to cut it open?"

"And ruin the surprise?"

He looked away from the fridge. Across the room, Sherlock had leaned against the counter, was watching him with sharp eyes.

John let the refrigerator door swing shut. Shrugged.

"We usually have something more to go on by now," he said, finally.

Sherlock said nothing. Just went on watching him.

"Look," John said. Frustration bubbled hot at the back of his throat, making him feel small, ineffectual. "Just—"

Behind him, in the fridge, that lovely wedding cake with its carefully decorated tiers. Sherlock's fingers in the frosting, the guests cooing and tittering as he offered the first bite to Janine. Perhaps she'd dab a bit of frosting on his nose, would laugh as their lips met for a sugared kiss—

"Just don't drag this out any longer than you have to," John managed. He clenched his fist, released it. Breathed out hard.

"Elevated pulse," Sherlock said.

"What?"

"Elevated pulse, rapid speech, tension in your shoulders, clenched fist—in anyone else, I'd assume nerves. Understandable, we are attempting to bait a serial killer," Sherlock said. "But that doesn't fit. Not here, not you."

"Sherlock," John said. He clenched his fist again, shook his head. "Don't—"

"Nerves of steel, I said once," Sherlock said. He smiled, a faint, unhappy thing. "You're typically quite calm in stressful situations, you enjoy them, which means this is something else. You—"

"Leave it," John said.

"You're still jealous," Sherlock breathed. He sounded at once triumphant and bewildered.

"Yes, you tit," John snapped. He looked away. "I'm not—I realise that it's not rational."

"Then why—?"

"Because the thought of watching you marry someone else makes me sick," John said. He dug his fingernails into the meat of his palm. Anger bubbled hot and violent in his chest, threatening to rip free, to spill out into the quiet darkness of the kitchen where he could no longer take it back. "And I don't care that it's fake, I don't care that Janine was the perfect choice for this—and she was, I know she was—I don't care that we've—that we—" he paused, helpless, and shook his head. "None of that matters. It should matter, but it doesn't, because I still can't bear the thought of standing there while you—"

Sherlock took two hasty steps forward and kissed him.

John staggered back like he'd been punched, his head thudding hard against the refrigerator door. Sherlock's lips were harsh and insistent against his own. There was no trace of the morning's hesitance.

"Christ," John groaned into the kiss, bringing his hands up to clench at the lapels of Sherlock's jacket, crumpling the fabric.

Sherlock made a low sound of protest, pulled back. He was breathing hard.

John liked the way he looked, trembling but restrained, something wild fraying the edges of his tightly wound composure.

"I won't ruin your suit," John said. He brought his hand up again, smoothed it over the lapel in apology. Part of him wanted to wrench the jacket down over Sherlock's shoulders, split the seams, tear the expensive fabric, trample it into the ground.

Instead he let his hands fall to his sides, pressed his palms hard into his own thighs. His heart, thundering against his ribs, began to slow. Behind him, the refrigerator hummed.

"I am—sorry," Sherlock said. His voice was strange, stilted, as if he were uncertain of his words. He did not step away, his breath puffing warm and intimate against John's face as he spoke. "I had no idea this would be so. Difficult. For you. I'd anticipated a degree of professional jealousy, of course, but—"

"Sherlock," John said, shaking his head. "Look, I—"

"I never thought—"

"You did it for me, Sherlock," John said, his face hot, his eyes prickling. He took a deep breath. "All of this. You did it for me, and it was real. I think I can manage to pull myself together long enough to do the same for you, yeah?"

Sherlock's eyes were very pale in the dim light. He blinked once, then nodded slowly.

"Good," John said. "I—"

The kitchen door swung open, hinges squealing.

John jolted, panic spiking through his gut. Sherlock took a hasty step back, turning towards the door.

"Sorry!" a waiter in a cheap tuxedo held up his hands. "Didn't realise there was anyone—I'll just—"

He disappeared back through the door.

"Shit," John said, letting his head fall back against the refrigerator. "Well. That will be all over Twitter in the next few minutes."

"Good," Sherlock said.

"Good?"

The smile that curled at the edge of Sherlock's mouth was mischievous. "If I'd known you were amenable, I'd never have bothered to manufacture an affair with that tedious bridesmaid."

*

Sherlock had managed to terrorise the staff into changing the table linens twice over by the time the guests began to arrive.

John finally herded him out of the dining room to take their places by the door. He kept a bland smile plastered to his face as he greeted person after person.

He did not recognise all of the guests.

He supposed that was only natural. Some of them were there for Janine, and Sherlock had almost certainly padded the head count with members of his homeless network.

Sherlock stood quietly at his side, looking over the guests as they approached. He'd managed to compose his face into an expression of aloof disdain, which seemed to be serving well to keep well-wishers at bay. Most settled for congratulating John, instead.

Mrs Hudson hugged him. Lestrade slapped him on the back.

"I can't believe it," Lestrade said, a baffled and genuine grin on his face. "Never thought I'd see the day. Sherlock Holmes. Married."

"Not yet," John said. He smiled tightly.

A dull headache had set in behind his eyes. He'd been holding himself at high alert for too long, scanning every face for a sign of ill intent.

Sherlock, at his side, silent and resigned.

Accidents, John reminded himself grimly. The deaths had all looked like accidents. He needed to be less focused on the possibility of a madman leaping out with a knife and more attuned to loose light fixtures and broken floorboards.

He pinched the bridge of his nose, looked down at his watch.

"Almost time," he said.

Sherlock looked at him, said nothing.

He could be nervous, or he could be thinking, or he could be taking a bloody nap inside his mind palace for all John knew.

But then Sherlock shifted, his shoulder bumping against John's, their fingers brushing together, the contact fleeting but intimate.

"Into battle," Sherlock murmured.

Chapter Text

*

The guests took their seats. John took his place next to Sherlock at the altar, shoulders straight, muscles tensed. He very determinedly did not look at Wiggins, dark-eyed and somber in his vicar's robes.

Music crackled over the speakers—something traditional. He wasn't quite sure of the name. Canon in D, he thought. Possibly. Sherlock would know.

John swallowed. His mouth had gone dry. There was no going back now. They were going to see this through.

High alert. Senses sharpened. Eyes open.

He angled himself so he was facing slightly away from Sherlock, swept his gaze around the room.

He looked up at the ceiling, studied the light fixtures. Nothing seemed out of place. Being crushed by chandelier would be overly theatrical, he decided. And worryingly imprecise. There'd been very little risk of collateral damage in the other cases, with the exception of the very first.

The first case. Christine Thomas and her horse. She was a confident rider and had kept her seat while her inexperienced new husband had been trampled under the hooves.

There was something there. Something they were missing.

The killer hadn't targeted anyone but the grooms. The brides had never been in danger. Except—except for Christine Thomas. All it would have taken was a moment's inattention. Just a slip, and she'd have been the one crushed into the mud, experienced rider or not.

It didn't fit.

Movement to his left. The bridesmaids, beginning their slow procession down the aisle. The dresses were lovely, flowing chiffon and—

"Pink," John said.

Sherlock glanced at him. His mouth quirked. "Well. I had to make some concessions to Janine's wishes, or no one would believe she'd still marry me."

"Still pushing the bounds of credibility, to be honest," John said.

Sherlock looked away, still smiling.

Evie was first. Then Lily. Behind them, Victoria, tall and gorgeous with eyes only for Sherlock.

Sherlock winked at her. She smirked, looked down into her flowers.

John elbowed him in the side, not particularly gently.

Sherlock cleared his throat, craned his neck to peer down the aisle. The crowd murmured and rustled as the guests got to their feet.

Janine.

White satin and lace. Radiant smile behind a gauzy veil.

John's hand cramped and he looked down. His fist was clenched tightly at his side. He breathed out through his teeth, willed himself to relax. Flexed his hand. Now was not the time for some sort of ill-advised possessive display. He had a job to do.

Janine drew closer.

John looked at her, at the bouquet clutched in her manicured hands. Roses, no thorns, just as Sherlock had requested. Nothing seemed amiss.

He glanced at Sherlock, then hastily turned away. Sherlock was smiling. His eyes were soft. It looked far too real.

Flickering candles along the aisles cast the room in a golden, romantic light. John fixed his attention on them, but they appeared properly contained and in no imminent danger of setting the curtains ablaze.

Accidents. The deaths had all looked like accidents. The wrong flowers, the wrong cake, a drunken tumble down the church stairs. And one nervous man on horseback.

"Christopher Thomas," John muttered.

He felt Sherlock's eyes on him.

"What about him?"

Janine stepped up close. John forced a smile onto his face. He could smell her perfume, the cloying scent that had slowly but surely taken over the rooms at Baker Street.

"There's something—something's not right," John hissed through his teeth.

"Not exactly the best time," Sherlock said. He moved forward, took Janine's hand.

John could not bring himself to watch. He turned to scan the crowd, his gaze skimming over rows of avid faces. No one seemed particularly murderous. Well—apart from Mrs Hudson. But he felt fairly safe ruling her out as a suspect.

Wiggins cleared his throat. It was loud, and not at all subtle.

John closed his eyes, took a breath. Opened his eyes. Turned his attention back to the front of the room.

"Welcome," Wiggins said. He hesitated, then smiled. The effect was a bit unsettling. "We're gathered here today to celebrate the union of—are we celebrating? Everyone looks a bit grim."

"Don't go off script," Sherlock said.

John threw what he hoped was an encouraging smile in Wiggins' direction.

"Right. Well. We're gathered here today to celebrate the union of Sherlock Holmes and Janine Hawkins in holy matrimony. Or whatever."

A murmur ran through the crowd.

"They're very happy," Wiggins added hastily. He tugged at his collar. "I mean, they will be. Very happy. Hopefully. Well. Maybe not. Does anyone today really still find marriage all that necessary? I'll bet for every person here who thinks marriage is important, there's another who can't help but feel the chains wrapping ever tighter around their throat—"

"Jesus," John said. A laugh threatened to bubble up in his chest. He tipped his head back, looked up at the ceiling.

"I like to think there's a reason that the ball and chain has become synonymous with marriage. Think about it. It conjures up images of captivity. Imprisonment. Incarceration. Despair. Despair can lead to death. To murder. And Sherlock Holmes likes murder. So, as his protege, I'd be remiss in—"

"The script," Sherlock hissed.

Wiggins sighed. Shuffled his pages.

Someone in the crowd coughed. John pinched his brow, waited.

"Can I get a glass of water?" Wiggins asked.

John smiled tightly, stared at him.

"I'm a bit parched."

"Can it wait?" Sherlock asked.

"Sorry," Wiggins said. "Bit nervous. I've never done one of these before."

Sherlock made a pained sound.

"I mean—no. That's not what I meant. I've done loads of weddings. Every day. Sometimes three or four. Yesterday I did ten."

"Then you should have no problem continuing," Sherlock said.

Wiggins cleared his throat. Shuffled his papers again.

Janine patted Sherlock's hand. The light sparkled prettily where it caught on her ring, drawing John's attention. He looked at their linked hands, pressed his lips together. Looked pointedly back at Wiggins.

"Welcome, family and friends," Wiggins said, his voice flat, clearly reading from the sheet of paper in his hand. "We are gathered here today to celebrate the union of Sherlock and Janine. You have joined us to share in their formal commitment so that Sherlock and Janine may begin their married life together surrounded by the people nearest and dearest to them. Now for the vows, do you Sherlock—"

"Breathe," John said.

Wiggins stopped. Looked at him.

"You can't just—look, just take a breath, mate. You can't just rush through it."

"It's on the page."

"Yes, but—"

"For God's sake," Sherlock cut in. "Just—"

Janine let her breath hiss out through her teeth. Behind her, the bridesmaids had started to shift restlessly.

"The vows," Wiggins attempted again.

"Yes, fine," Sherlock said.

"The vows," Janine agreed, nodding. "Yeah, good. Do that."

"No other ties are more sacred than these you will now share," Wiggins read woodenly. "Repeat after me. I Sherlock, take thee, Janine, to be my wife, to have and to hold, and—other stuff. I Janine, take thee, Sherlock—"

"Wait," Sherlock said. "We're supposed to repeat it."

"For fuck's sake, that bit's not on the paper," Wiggins said.

"I thought it would be obvious once you uttered the words repeat after me," Sherlock snapped.

"I shouldn't have said 'fuck'," Wiggins said, glancing guiltily out at the crowd. "Sorry. That was rude."

John turned away, scanned the audience again. He saw amusement, and impatience, and confusion. Lestrade had his head in his hands. His shoulders were shaking with suppressed laughter. Molly was staring up at the ceiling. Mrs Hudson was crying.

No one looked out of place.

Wiggins was reading the vows again, slower this time. He paused, looked expectantly at Sherlock.

"I, Sherlock, take thee, Janine," Sherlock repeated dutifully. He was smiling, looking into Janine's eyes. Her hands were clasped in his own.

John breathed out through this teeth, fought the urge to shut his eyes and wait for the whole mess to be over.

"—to have and to hold—"

He'd said the same words to Mary. Sherlock had stood next to him at the altar and listened to him make the very same vows. And then, later that night, Sherlock had made a vow of his own.

"—for as long as we both shall live—"

He thought of Sherlock as he'd been when they first met. Brilliant and aloof and strange. Almost otherworldly. He'd been captivating and charming and John had liked him immediately, but he certainly hadn't seemed the sort of man to say things like I would do anything for you in between frantic moonlit kisses.

Sherlock felt more than he let on, of course, John had known that from the start. But clearly he'd failed to realise exactly how much.

Desperately, Janine had said.

Janine slipped the ring onto Sherlock's finger. That lovely, simple platinum band that John had helped him choose.

Wiggins was speaking. John did not register the words. He stared at Sherlock's hands.

Sherlock brought his left hand up to cup Janine's face as they kissed. The band stood out starkly against his pale skin. John could not take his eyes off of it.

Cheering. The guests were cheering. Clapping. Happy. He was supposed to look happy. Right.

John forced a smile onto his face. He thumped Sherlock heartily on the back as he and Janine passed by. Tried to look the part of the pleased best man.

Sherlock did not stumble on the carpet as he and Janine made their way back up the aisle. Nothing fell on him, and no one leapt from the crowd of jubilant guests with a sharpened blade. The tail of his suit jacket did not ignite as it trailed past a poorly-placed candle.

Their exit was entirely ordinary, unremarkable.

John did not know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

*

"Christopher Thomas," Sherlock said, slipping his arm from Janine's and whirling to face John as they stepped into the private room reserved for the bridal party.

"Well. That's the romance gone," Janine said wryly.

John blinked at him, his brain taking a moment to catch up.

"Christopher Thomas," Sherlock said again. Impatience had crept into his voice. "You said his name. What about him?"

"I—" John said.

"You're not in the habit of blurting out the names of murder victims at weddings," Sherlock said. "So whatever it is that you've remembered, it must be important."

"Right," John said. "It's just—in all of the cases, the grooms were targeted."

"Ye-es."

"Shut up," John said, holding up his hand. "Just. Just think about it."

"I assure you I've done little else."

John rolled his eyes, ploughed on. "They were targeted specifically. The allergies, the stairs—those were specific, individualised attacks. There was never any danger to the bride or anyone else. But Christopher Thomas died on horseback. Bit risky, that, yeah?"

"His bride—"

"An experienced rider, yeah, I know, but—look, Sherlock, it was her wedding day. She'd have been distracted. There were photographers about, crowds of people, it can all get to be a bit much."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying—" John blew out a frustrated breath, looked up at the ceiling. He thought about the grieving partners left behind, the endless Facebook posts he'd scrolled through while seeking anything at all that might connect the cases together. "I'm saying that it was a risk. That as good a rider as Christine Thomas is, she still might have been caught unawares when her horse spooked. And—I mean—death by horse? Really? Come on. Nine times out of ten Christopher Thomas winds up with a face full of mud, an embarrassed bride, and a hefty drycleaning bill."

"You're saying it was an accident."

"No," John said, and then he stopped. Thought about it. "Yes."

Someone knocked on the door.

"Go away," Sherlock said.

Evie poked her head in, clearly not deterred. "Janine? Sherlock? The photographer—"

"Just a minute," Janine said.

Evie smiled tightly, shut the door.

"You're implying that Christopher Thomas wasn't actually the first victim," Sherlock said. He sounded thoughtful.

"Please tell me that we didn't go through all of this for nothing," Janine said. She leaned against the door, expression strained.

"Happiest day of her life, and she makes it sound like an ordeal," Sherlock said.

Janine took a step towards him. John slipped in between them, held up his hands.

"Just—" John said. "Hold on."

Sherlock turned away, rubbing at his chin with the tips of his fingers. His eyes were distant.

"You're right, of course," he said, finally.

"I'm—right," John said. "Good. Yeah."

"Death by horse. Too many variables to be certain."

Another knock at the door. Sharper this time.

"Not now," Sherlock snapped.

The door creaked open. Evie peered in again. "We really need—"

"Oh for—" Sherlock whirled around. "Janine?"

"Right," she said. She fluffed her hair, went towards the door, herding Evie out. "Come on, we'll do the bridesmaids photos first, how about that?"

The door shut behind them, leaving John and Sherlock alone.

"If he wasn't the first victim—" John started.

"No," Sherlock said, and there it was in his voice, that slow bloom of realisation. "He was the first victim. Just not the first intentional victim."

John thought about that for a moment. Nodded. "All right, yeah. So—so, what? A cruel prank gone wrong?"

"Something like that," Sherlock said, a slow smile spreading across his face. "Gone wrong, or . . . gone right."

John folded his arms over his chest, waited.

"John," Sherlock breathed. He spun around, clapped his hands together. "Christopher Thomas was a difficult personality. Not particularly well-liked."

"Yeah, well. His wife liked him well enough," John said.

"Yes," Sherlock agreed. "And our white knight didn't like that. A cruel prank—you've got it, John. An impulsive decision. He didn't plan it, just saw an opportunity and went for it. A loud noise to startle the horses. He knew Christine Thomas could ride well, he knew Christopher Thomas could not. He wasn't looking to kill, just to humiliate. To humble."

"And then—" John winced as he thought about the horror of that moment, of Christopher Thomas tumbling under lashing hooves. The chaos, the confusion that must have followed.

"He got so much more than he'd asked for," Sherlock said. "Instead of a quick laugh at a romantic rival's expense, he got to play the hero, rescuing the damsel from the cruel tyrant." He paused, smiled. It was a sharp smile, predatory. "And then he got a taste for it."

The door rattled in its frame.

"Sherlock?" Victoria's voice this time, high and flirty. "Sherlock, you can't keep hiding in there!"

"Her friends," John said. "It has to be one of her friends."

"Check it out," Sherlock said. "Anything—anyone we've missed."

"What are you going to do?"

"Photographs, John," Sherlock said. He adjusted his suit jacket, strode towards the door. "Can't keep the bride waiting."

*

John leaned against the door after Sherlock had gone, pulled his phone out of his pocket.

He looked down at the screen. Blinked.

Pete's face stared back at him.

Christ, the friend request. He'd been accepting it just as Mrs Hudson had come up the stairs at Baker Street. In the flurry of activity that had followed, he'd not so much as glanced at his phone again.

"Sorry, mate," he said. "You'll have to wait a bit longer."

He swiped away from Pete's profile, tapped to log out. Logged back in with Alice's credentials.

There were unread messages piled up. Olivia St Clair. He looked at the notifications, brushed aside a pang of guilt. Ignored them in favour of navigating to Christine Thomas's profile.

It had all started with her.

Her friends. It had to be one of her friends. An ex, perhaps. Or someone with a crush. Someone who felt the man she'd chosen to spend her life with was undeserving of her affections.

There had been someone—

He frowned, thinking. Someone had commented on her post about the anniversary of Christopher's death. The tone of the comment had been off, not particularly sympathetic. He remembered that, remembered noting the name. He had thought it to be the first visible sign that some of Christine's friends had been secretly relieved that Christopher was out of her life.

He'd looked into it. It had seemed like a dead end at the time, but perhaps upon a second look—

He scrolled hastily through her posts. His heartbeat thudded in his ears. His suit felt too hot, his collar too tight. Sweat trickled down his back, between his shoulder blades.

He skimmed over the heartfelt words, the encouraging messages of support.

There.

just remember everything happens for a reason…thinking of u…be well <3

The commenter was a woman. Someone named Julie. He'd looked her up months ago, when he'd first started his research. A solicitor, he recalled. Not someone anywhere near the wedding industry, but perhaps he'd missed something.

He wondered if she ever worked with prenuptial agreements. If she had encountered the couples that way, it was possible—

Christ, he was reaching. The comment was not particularly warm, but she wasn't exactly celebrating the bloke's death, either.

He sighed, pinched his brow. Scrolled slowly through the other comments.

He was missing something. He was certain of it.

He stopped scrolling. Pete's face smiled up at him, the tiny photo terribly familiar from how long it had spent in his friend request notifications.

John blinked, shook his head, momentarily thrown. He was logged in as Alice. He shouldn't still be able to see the friend request from Pete, so why—

"Jesus," he said, and the world tilted sideways.

Pete.

Pete had commented on Christine Thomas's post.

Thinking of you on the anniversary of this terrible day. I'm here for you if you ever need someone to talk to, or even just a shoulder to cry on.

John stared at it, his mouth dry.

He'd left another comment shortly after.

And you are doing so well! I know Chris would be happy to see how far you've come this past year!

"Jesus," John said again. His knees buckled and he stumbled, putting out a hand to catch himself against the wall. "Jesus."

He scrolled up through the other posts. Photos of Christine with her new coworkers, her friends. Pete was not in any of the photographs.

But he'd liked them. All of them.

John scrolled back down, reread the comments. Pete seemed supportive. Friendly. Familiar. Not just a passing acquaintance, then. Someone she knew. Someone she knew well.

He went back into her photos, back, back, before Christopher Thomas had died. Posts of the couple together, posts about wedding plans. Pete had not liked any of those.

But photos of Christine alone, or of her with friends—

John pressed his hand against his mouth.

Pete had been right under their noses the whole time.

Sherlock had declared him unavailable at the very first dance lesson. Unrequited feelings for someone unattainable, he'd said.

John hadn't thought anything of it. Pete was hardly the first bloke to deal with a broken heart, after all. And he'd had other things on his mind.

That pitying look Pete had shot him, the night he'd danced with Sherlock. That expression that said, so clearly and uncomfortably, I know what you're feeling.

Christ, Sherlock. He had no idea.

He pushed away from the wall, bolted through the door into the crowded reception area.

"Sherlock!"

Several people looked up at him. None of them were who he wanted to see.

The cocktail hour was in full swing, guests milling about with glasses of champagne and little plates piled high with expensive cheeses. There was a bloody string quartet set up in the corner, filling the air with sweet, delicate music (and John supposed he ought to be grateful that it wasn't Sherlock himself serenading Janine with his violin).

"—terrible that she wouldn't even let John bring his little one—" Mrs Hudson's voice drifted through the air. It sounded as though she had already downed a few cocktails.

He brushed past her without stopping.

There was no sign of Sherlock, or Janine, or her bridesmaids.

He pushed through a group of people helping themselves to prawns, went through the side door and out into the weak sunlight.

"Oh, John!" Janine called.

She and the bridesmaids were posed in front of a stone fountain, the photographer crouched in front of them. She waved, beckoning him over.

"Sherlock," he said, crossing the grass to reach them. He was breathing hard, his heart hammering against his ribs. "Where's Sherlock?"

"He was just here," Victoria said. She had a glass of champagne in her hand, a red strawberry bobbing hypnotically in the golden liquid. She did not look particularly happy.

"He went to the kitchen," Janine said.

"The kitchen? Why?"

"Some kind of complaint about the champagne," she said. "I don't know what—"

He turned, bolted back towards the building without waiting for her to finish.

Back through the side door, into the crowded room with the string quartet and the steady hum of conversation. Plates clinked together. Someone laughed, the sound overloud and startling.

He crossed the room, pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, twisting out of the way of a tuxedo-clad waiter balancing a tray of nibbles.

"Staff only," a man in chef's whites barked at him.

"Sorry, just looking for the groom," John said, plastering a smile on his face. "Think he's got cold feet. Trying to talk him down, you know how it is. He's—erm—tall. Dark hair. Shockingly unfriendly. Have you seen him?"

The man rolled his eyes. John took that as a good sign. Sherlock tended to inspire that response.

"Through there," the man said, pointing behind him.

John went.

The door led to a staff hallway, poorly lit and dingy compared to the bright opulence of the ballroom and event spaces.

His shoes whispered across a threadbare carpet. Down the hall, past staff bathrooms and a small locker room. It was quiet, the sounds of merriment distant and indistinct.

He breathed lightly, evenly, listening for anything out of the ordinary. His heart was a steady thump against his ribs, his gun a comforting weight at his back.

He hesitated at a doorway on his left. The door was slightly ajar.

The room was not empty.

He pushed the door open slowly with the back of his hand, peered inside.

The space had been outfitted as a break room. A small refrigerator hummed in the corner. Several mismatched chairs were arranged around a scuffed wooden table.

Sherlock was sat at the table, his hands folded primly in front of him.

"Ah John," he said, lifting his head. "Excellent."

John swallowed down his relief at seeing Sherlock whole and unharmed. He looked to his left. Pete stood against the opposite wall, a gun in his hand.

John sighed heavily, looked back at Sherlock.

"I tried to tell him his invitation must have got lost in the mail," Sherlock said. "This seems like a bit of an overreaction."

"Pete," John said. Nodded in greeting.

Pete looked at him. Something flickered on his face, something that might have been regret. "Come on in here, John. Or I'll shoot him."

John stepped through the doorway, moving slowly, hands held out in front of him. He glanced at Sherlock. "You all right?"

"Oh, fine," Sherlock said. His voice was flat, but John thought he could detect a trace of irritation.

Well, he would be irritated, John supposed. Pete hadn't been on his radar at all.

He hadn't even been a part of their investigation, really. He hadn't been on the list of vendors they'd approached, hadn't had anything at all to do with the other weddings in an official capacity. They'd encountered him entirely by chance.

Easy enough to overlook. Even for Sherlock Holmes.

"The greatest detective in the world, so all the papers say," Pete said. He kept the gun trained on Sherlock. "But you had no idea."

Sherlock, the great idiot, actually managed to look bored. He raised his brows, favoured Pete with the kind of condescending look that John thought might well get him shot. "Oh?"

"I thought it was over, you know, when they called you in on the Teller wedding. Maybe you remember it? Groom, dead among the flowers?"

"Rings a bell," John said.

Pete ignored him. "But you had no idea. You called it an accident. All this time, I've been working, and you had no idea."

"Actually," Sherlock said.

"Sherlock," John warned.

"Then I heard you were getting married. Hard to resist, when I found out you were just like the others. Boorish. Undeserving. Taking love and affection for granted. Why should you get to be happy?"

Sherlock sighed. "A white knight after all. Dull. You were right, John."

"I'll be sure to note that in the blog," John said.

"What?" Pete looked between them. He did not loosen his grip on the gun.

"Sorry," Sherlock said. He did not sound particularly sorry at all. "Were you under the impression that no one had noticed what you were up to?"

"Christine Thomas," John said. He glanced at Sherlock, who raised his brows.

Pete looked stricken. "What?"

"She was the first, yeah? Friend of yours? Maybe you wanted more? You certainly spent enough time looking at her pictures on social media."

"I—" Pete said. "You—"

"She rode horses," John said. Anger had started to creep in. All of that grief. All of that terrible, weighty, unnecessary grief. "And her new husband didn't. I'll bet you didn't even intend to kill him. Any loud noise would have done it, yeah? Startle the horses—she keeps her seat and her husband ends up on his back in the mud. A nice dose of humiliation for someone you thought needed to be taken down a peg, yeah?"

"But it didn't turn out that way," Sherlock cut in. "One kick to the head and Christopher Thomas leaves the ceremony in a body bag. Tell me—why take it further? You'd got away with it. No one had reason to suspect you."

"She was happy," Pete said. He looked a bit lost. "I mean—she was grieving, but she was getting better. He was a monster. You have no idea. The things he said—he—he held her back. She would have been miserable. I saved her from all of that."

"You traumatised her," John said. "You hurt her."

"I—"

"And the others?" Sherlock interrupted. He still sounded bored. "Winston and Robert Crane were—oh. The bakery."

John looked at him.

"The bakery where the Cranes ordered their cake is just around the street from your studio. We first encountered you there, you must frequent it. You'd have seen them arguing, of course. Winston Crane had a severe peanut allergy. He was cautious. You heard him mention it, and an idea was born."

"I think—" Pete swallowed. "I think you'd best shut up now."

"Oh, no, I'm just getting started," Sherlock said. He brought his hands up to his lips. "Reginald Teller, now, he was killed by his flowers—"

"Slaney's," John said. His mouth had gone dry. He thought of the photographs from Janine's hen night, Janine and Pete clinking glasses beneath vivid pink neon. The photo had bothered him. He thought knew why.

Mine wasn't even the only hen do there, Janine had said.

"Jennie Teller went to Slaney's for her hen night. She'd put photos online. It's a popular spot for that sort of thing," John said. "Janine went there too. It's how I recognised it—the pink neon. I didn't put it together until now."

"Ah," Sherlock said. "Well. There you have it."

"She talked to you," John said. "Hm? She would have. She—I spent a bit of time on her Facebook page, and she's a bit of an oversharer. She was angry about the flowers. She got a few drinks in her and found a sympathetic ear, yeah?"

"You've been hunting me, so you say," Sherlock said. He leaned back in his seat, eyes not wavering from Pete's face. His voice had gone dangerously low. "Yet it never once occurred to you that you might be walking into a trap. Dull."

"Seems like you're the one who walked into a trap," Pete said, though he looked uneasy. "I'm the one with the gun."

"Strawberries in the champagne," Sherlock said. "Did you really expect it to be that easy? I came looking for you, not the other way around."

John sighed again. "Sherlock—"

"Getting a bit over-reliant on anaphylaxis, aren't we? Boring. Where's your creativity? The horses—now that was inspired. Too bad it was just an accident."

"The stairs—" Pete said, and froze.

"Ah, yes, Vincent St Clair," Sherlock said. "Wouldn't want to forget him. Any other murders you'd like to confess to while we're at it?"

"The dance lessons," John breathed.

Sherlock glanced at him.

John edged a little further into the room. "Olivia St Clair signed up for dance lessons, but her husband didn't want to do it. So she cancelled. It was your studio, wasn't it? That's how you—"

"Shut up," Pete said. His face had gone terribly pale.

"Not so clever after all," Sherlock said. He smiled.

"You—go over there. Move." Pete shook the gun in John's direction.

John held his hands out, placating, and stepped closer to Sherlock.

Sherlock sat very still, breathing slowly and evenly. John studied him for a moment. He did not appear particularly concerned, though he did not exactly have the world's greatest track record when it came to self-preservation.

"Maybe stop running off to confront serial killers on your own, yeah?" John said.

Sherlock looked at him. His expression was inscrutable, but his eyes were sharp. When he spoke, his voice was far too casual. "What for? I knew you'd catch up eventually."

An apology, John thought. Or, at least, the closest he was likely to get.

"You know, I felt sorry for you," Pete said, looking at John. "I understand heartbreak. I understand loss. I know that it can be—unimaginable. To stand silently by while the love of your life prepares to marry another."

John shut his eyes.

"And the way he so callously disregarded your feelings. Him. The most observant man in the world, ignoring the look on your face every time he kissed her."

John opened his eyes. He could feel Sherlock's gaze on him. He did not turn his head.

"Janine is—she's a remarkable woman. So sweet. Clever. Beautiful. She deserves better than the insults, the casual disregard, the infidelity. And you, John, I—" Pete shrugged, a helpless oh well gesture that might have been charming under different circumstances. "I don't want to see you in pain. I like you. I want—I wanted to help you. He was hurting you both, and he wasn't worthy of either one of you."

"You don't get to decide who's worthy," John said. "That's not how this works."

"Sure it is. I'm the one with the gun," Pete said. His expression was troubled, a bit sad.

He stepped sideways along the wall until he was blocking the door, keeping the gun pointed in their direction. His grip was awkward, clumsy. John thought it likely that his only experience with weapons came from films.

"You should have just had the champagne," Pete said. He looked from John to Sherlock, chewed his lip. He looked miserable. "It would have all been over. Now you've got John killed too. I didn't want—I—I can't let him go."

Sherlock laughed. "You're still persisting in the belief that I'm allergic to strawberries?"

"Aren't you?"

"For Christ's sake," John said. "He was trying to catch a serial killer. He wasn't about to go around advertising an actual weakness."

Well, he hoped not, at any rate.

Pete looked like he wished he could be anywhere else. His hand shook.

There was a difference, John knew, between arranging someone's death and being the one to pull the trigger. Pete had managed to stay fairly removed from his messy handiwork until now. Even when he'd shoved Vincent St Clair down the stairs, he hadn't followed him down to have a closer look.

"It will have to be a murder-suicide, I suppose," Pete said. He swallowed, looked from John to Sherlock. Nodded. "The best man, lovesick and heartbroken that you've left him behind, decides to leave this world and take you with him. Ought to make for very good headlines, don't you think? Seems you both like that sort of thing."

"Bit lurid for my taste," Sherlock said, waving a dismissive hand. "Where did you get the gun?"

"Wasn't easy," Pete said. "It's not traceable, if that's what you're thinking. And I don't think it will be too hard to convince anyone that it belonged to John when they—when they find you."

"Oh?"

Pete smiled without much humour. "It's a neat little story, isn't it? Invalided soldier misses the excitement of combat. Takes up crime fighting as a side hobby. Gets himself an illegal handgun to ease his way."

"It sure is," John said, drawing his gun. "Very believable, yeah."

Pete opened his mouth, shut it.

"Uncanny," John added. "Really."

Sherlock stood up, the chair legs scraping against the floor.

"Don't move," Pete said. His hand shook wildly. "I'll fire."

"You'll miss," John said. His own hand was quite steady. "But I won't."

"Now, please," Sherlock said, directing his gaze over Pete's shoulder.

Behind him, Janine swung a frying pan, connecting solidly with the back of Pete's skull.

Pete let out a soft gasp of air and slumped forward. The gun tumbled from his fingers.

"He hadn't even taken the safety off," Sherlock said, wrinkling his nose.

"Fuck," Janine said, sitting down heavily on the ground, her frothy skirt pooling around her. She looked at the frying pan in her hands.

"Thank you," Sherlock said.

"Cheers," Janine said, sounding anything but cheerful. She set the frying pan on the floor next to her, looked at Pete's crumpled form. "Seriously? Seriously, Sherlock? It was him?"

"An unfortunate oversight."

"I liked him."

"I know."

"I was going to take him to Majorca."

"I did tell you he was unavailable."

She put her head in her hands. Groaned.

Sherlock had his phone in his hand. "I've texted Gavin," he said.

John shook his head. "I know you know his name is Greg."

"Who?" Sherlock asked, quirking his lip.

John looked down at the ground to hide his smile. He reached out a tentative hand, clasped Sherlock's arm. His skin was warm through the fabric of his suit jacket.

Sherlock looked down at his hand. Swallowed. "You put it together."

"He was friends with Christine Thomas on Facebook. I should have caught it earlier."

Sherlock frowned, said nothing.

John rubbed his thumb in a slow circle on Sherlock's arm. Sighed. "I came looking for you."

"You always do."

John's face went hot. He could not quite meet Sherlock's eye.

One day, he thought, it would not be enough. One day he would not get there in time.

Mary's bullet had been fired before John had even entered the building. She'd been gasping, dying, by the time he'd dropped to his knees at her side.

And Sherlock—

Christ. There had been too many near misses.

"Strawberries in the champagne?" he asked, changing the subject. His voice emerged sounding thicker than he'd have liked.

"Not sure how he expected me not to notice."

"Counting on you being distracted, I suppose," John said. "Too busy terrorising the staff. Or—" he stopped.

Sherlock looked down at him. "Or?"

"Or he wanted you to notice. Wanted you to find him."

"Wanted me to appreciate him," Sherlock said. He huffed, looked away. "Well. Not much danger of that."

Pete shifted on the ground. Groaned. Janine snatched up the frying pan. Eyed him.

John let his hand fall away from Sherlock's arm.

"Here," Sherlock said. He withdrew a pair of handcuffs from his jacket pocket, tossed them to her. Then he frowned. "Not a word."

"I wasn't saying anything," she said. She snapped the cuffs into place.

Pete made a muffled, pained sound.

Janine stared at him for a moment, put her head back in her hands. "Oh, Jesus, I'm a bad judge of character. Always have been. Absolute rubbish. I should have seen this coming. Of course it would be him."

John looked at her. His throat felt tight. He swallowed, took a step towards her. Hesitated. Dropped down to sit next to her against the wall.

She lifted her head.

"So what?" he said. He kept his voice light, but he did not smile. "So what if you are? Sherlock's a terrible judge of character—"

Sherlock opened his mouth. John held up a hand. Sherlock shut his mouth.

"—and so am I," John said. "You think you're a bad judge of character because you didn't see Mary for what she was. Well, neither did I. Neither did Sherlock-bloody-Holmes, the most observant man in the world."

Janine held his gaze. Her eyes were damp, but they did not spill over.

"Sherlock's always going on about—" he dropped his voice in a halfhearted impression "—'seeing but not observing' but. But I think. Yeah. I think sometimes you don't see anything at all because you just don't want to look."

"John," Sherlock said. His voice was soft, hesitant.

John shook his head. "And maybe sometimes you do look, and you decide to carry on in spite of what you find."

Janine barked a laugh. She sniffed, looked away, a smile pulling at her mouth. "Stop trying to cheer me up. You're rubbish at it."

John smiled, looked down at his hands.

"Down here!" someone shouted.

There were footsteps in the hall, moving with some urgency.

John stood. Offered a hand to Janine and helped her to her feet. She smoothed her hands over her rumpled skirt, blew a strand of mussed hair out of her face.

Lestrade appeared in the doorway, looking flustered and pink in the face. Two uniformed officers trailed behind him.

"What the hell is going on?" he asked.

"I've caught you a serial killer," Sherlock said.

"You've—you've what?"

Sherlock nodded down at Pete, cuffed and writhing on the floor.

"And I'm just supposed to take your word for that?" Lestrade asked incredulously.

"It would be the most efficient use of your time, yes," Sherlock said.

"Sir?" one of the officers had crouched by Pete, was looking to Lestrade for direction.

"Oh just—just do what he says," Lestrade said. He ran a hand through his hair, stared up at the ceiling. "Explain."

"The man you now have in your custody has made a habit of murdering grooms on their wedding day," Sherlock said. He smoothed his hands down his suit jacket, managed to look at once offended and proud. "Naturally, I was to be the next victim."

"Going to need more to go on than that, but it's a start," Lestrade said. He shook his head, looked from Sherlock to John. "For God's sake, this is the second murderer I've had to arrest at one of your weddings. What are the odds?"

Sherlock looked at John. John tried, and failed, to suppress a giggle.

Lestrade paused. "It's—" his face fell. "None of this was real, was it? You're not actually married."

"Well done, Lestrade," Sherlock said, smiling. "You've figured it out. Entirely too late, of course, but—"

"Oi—" Lestrade said. "You—you're a right bastard, you know that?"

"He knows," John said.

"I'm taking my gift back."

*

It was late by the time they made it back to Baker Street.

They made a strange trio, John thought. Two men in matching tuxedos, a rumpled and exhausted bride. Passerby turned to gawk at them as they stepped from the taxi to the pavement.

John unlocked the door, stepped inside. The hallway was warm, and it smelled like home.

"Aren't you going to carry me over the threshold?" Janine said.

"Why would I do that?" Sherlock asked.

John laughed, scratched at the back of his neck. "I see all of your extensive research didn't extend to the wedding night."

"Why would it?"

John shook his head, utterly charmed. He reached out before he could stop himself, touched Sherlock's cheek. Sherlock closed his eyes.

"Just—" John said. He breathed out. Let his hand drop.

"Don't let me interrupt," Janine said, starting up the stairs. "It's my wedding night, someone ought to get laid."

"That's—not—" John started.

"Yes, actually, it is," Sherlock said.

John laughed in spite of himself. Looked up at Sherlock. The laughter died in his throat.

Sherlock was staring at him with unabashed affection. His expression had gone soft, his mouth curled in a fond smile, his eyes warm and crinkled around the edges.

Desperately, Janine had said.

Somehow he still hadn't quite realised what that meant.

"I—" John said, pinned by the force of that gaze. The fondness in it was staggering.

"If you are still amenable," Sherlock said, his voice quiet. "I would very much like to wake up with you tomorrow morning."

"I—yes. Amenable. That's the word." John nodded, swallowed. He could not look away from Sherlock's eyes.

Sherlock lifted his hands and, with slow, careful movements, cupped John's cheeks.

John shut his eyes, breathed out. Sherlock's fingers were trembling against his skin.

"This is—" Sherlock said, and stopped. He did not seem to know what to say.

John lifted his hands, rested them carefully over Sherlock's on his own face. Interlaced their fingers. The quiet intimacy was almost overwhelming. He could smell Sherlock's shampoo, the soap he'd used that morning, the faint odour of sweat from a long and exhausting day. Sherlock's breath puffed unsteadily against his lips, near enough to kiss but not quite closing the distance.

John shifted his right hand where it covered Sherlock's left, his fingers brushing up against warm metal.

He opened his eyes.

The ring. Sherlock was still wearing the ring.

His preoccupation had not gone unnoticed. Sherlock withdrew his hand, looked down at it. Began to work the band off of his finger.

Something dark and possessive flared in John. He placed his hand on top of Sherlock's, stilled his movements.

"Leave it on," he said. He almost did not recognise his own voice.

Sherlock glanced up at him, startled. Whatever he saw on John's face made his eyes darken. His pulse jumped in his neck.

"All right," Sherlock said.

John crushed the lapels of Sherlock's suit jacket in his hand, tugged him forward. Their mouths bumped together, Sherlock slightly off-balance. He quickly regained his footing and groaned, melting against John.

His lips were soft and his nose was cold and John loved him. John loved him.

"Upstairs," John mumbled. "Mrs Hudson is going to be seriously pissed off at you when she finds out what you've done, and I'd rather save that for tomorrow."

"Yes," Sherlock said, his eyes wide, looking flustered and rumpled and apparently unable to think of anything suitably snarky for the moment. "Yes—up. Upstairs. That would be. Good."

John started up the stairs, Sherlock at his heels.

As they reached the landing, Sherlock bumped their shoulders together, a tentative hand snaking out to capture John's own.

John smiled, looked down at the ground, feeling a bit like a smitten schoolboy. His eyes stung and his chest ached, an onslaught of emotion threatening to claw free. He squeezed Sherlock's hand, let the pad of one fingertip roll over the wedding band.

An idea—fleeting and impossible. A terrible idea. Not something Sherlock would ever go for. Not something he, himself, should even dare consider.

But still, John thought, letting his finger trace the band against Sherlock's skin. For one night, it would be nice to pretend.

Chapter Text

*

John opened his eyes.

The sun had not yet started to creep over the horizon. The room was dark and still.

He was warm. Too warm. He was on his stomach, blankets twisted and tangled around his legs. His arm was draped across Sherlock's chest, his skin sweaty and slick where they were pressed together.

He smiled down into the bedding.

Sherlock's chest rose and fell beneath his arm. They were steady, even breaths, but shallow.

He was awake.

John shifted, stretched. Lifted his arm away from Sherlock's body and savoured the draught of cooler air against overheated skin. Rolled onto his side and tipped his head up to get a look at Sherlock's face.

Sherlock's eyes were open. He looked as if he had been awake for some time.

"Hi," John said.

Sherlock wrinkled his nose, said nothing.

John scrubbed a hand over his face, yawned. "What time is it?"

"Just past four."

"Mm," John said. He hesitated for a moment, not entirely sure what to make of Sherlock's quiet tone. "You're awake."

"Well observed," Sherlock said.

John huffed a small laugh. "Did you sleep at all?"

Sherlock was silent for a long moment. John listened to his breathing in the dark.

"I've been—" Sherlock said.

John waited, but he said nothing more. Outside, a lorry rumbled past.

"—thinking," Sherlock said, finally.

John frowned, the last vestiges of sleep falling away. He propped himself up on his elbow, studied Sherlock's profile in the shadows.

"About?"

Sherlock did not answer. Just went on looking at him, pale eyes gleaming.

"Are you all right?" John asked, worried now.

"Go back to sleep," Sherlock said. A small smile curved at the corner of his mouth, softening the dismissal.

John hesitated, then leaned forward to brush his lips against that smile.

Sherlock sighed, shifted back against the pillows. When John pulled back he was still smiling faintly, and his eyes were closed.

John slid a little closer, ignoring his vague misgivings. He let his arm drape back across Sherlock's chest, burrowed his face into his pillow. Sherlock's skin was still very warm. He did not move away.

*

When John opened his eyes again, the sun was up and Sherlock was gone.

He sat up, uneasy. The sheets next to him had long gone cool.

He stood, looked for his clothes. His wedding suit was on the ground, twisted and crumpled.

He sighed, scrubbed his hands over his face.

Opting for a pair of Sherlock's pyjama bottoms seemed—oddly intrusive, too intimate given the unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach. He settled for attempting to salvage the tuxedo trousers, hopelessly creased as they were, and a white t-shirt.

He shook out the jacket and the dress shirt and left them draped across the bed, made his way downstairs in bare feet.

Sherlock was in the kitchen, microscope in front of him. He did not look up as John entered.

John stood for a moment, studying his back. He was in pyjamas and a dressing gown. That, he thought, could be a good sign. Or a bad sign. Who knew, really.

He weighed his options, the seconds ticking by. Sherlock did not acknowledge his presence, though he surely had noticed him by now.

"Good morning," he said, finally.

Sherlock turned around. His gaze swept up and down, and John found himself wondering what Sherlock made of his decision to wear his wrinkled trousers. Sherlock's face gave nothing away.

"They went to university together," Sherlock said.

John blinked. "Sorry?"

"Pete," Sherlock said, "and Christine Thomas. An acquaintance set them up on a blind date, but she felt they didn't really click—" he brought his hands up and made exaggerated air quotes, "—and should remain friends. Apparently he'd carried a torch for years."

"Ah," John said.

"Lestrade rang about an hour ago with updates."

"Right," John said. He swallowed, looked down at the ground, at his own feet against the lino. Thought about the expression on Pete's face that night in the studio. He thought it might be a long time before he got that look out of his head. "Tea?"

"Please."

"Okay," he said, grateful for something to do with his hands. He went to the counter, filled the kettle.

"You were right about the rest."

John turned around, surprised. Sherlock had lifted his head, was studying him from across the kitchen table.

"He encountered Robert and Winston Crane at the bakery, purely by chance. Stopped in for a croissant, overheard their argument and felt—compelled to intervene."

John rubbed at the back of his neck, leaned against the counter.

"Jennie Teller shared a drink and a dance with a handsome man at her hen party. He was all too keen to hear about her fiancé's failings, and she was all too keen to tell him." Sherlock folded his hands under his chin, went on watching John with sharp eyes. "And Olivia St Clair—"

"The dance lessons."

"Precisely. She'd booked a class at Pete's studio. Apparently her fiancé found the idea disagreeable and insisted she cancel, so she did."

"And for that, he had to die," John said. He thought of the messages he'd exchanged with Olivia St Clair, the bleak despair in her correspondence. He wondered if the news of Pete's arrest would bring her peace or further anguish.

The kettle clicked off.

John turned away, unsettled by Sherlock's unwavering gaze. He poured the tea, taking his time. When he finally turned back, Sherlock had returned his attention to the microscope. John stepped forward, set a mug on the table next to his hand.

"Thank you," Sherlock said.

John nodded, picked up his own mug. Leaned back against the counter.

"I need to pick up Rosie by noon," he said. He ought to go home first, have a proper shower and change his clothes. He ought to call Harry, too. She'd have seen the news coverage of the arrest by now and would undoubtedly want to shout at him a bit.

Sherlock's breath caught, but he said nothing.

John took a sip of his tea, swallowed hard.

Sherlock's bedroom door creaked open. John straightened up, set his mug on the counter.

Janine came down the hall, pulling a wheeled suitcase. She left it by the door, came back into the kitchen. Stood smiling with her arms folded.

"Well," she said, after a moment. "I'm off, then."

"Oh," John said, when it appeared that Sherlock would not be responding. "Well—it's—been fun."

She raised her brows.

He cleared his throat. "Off to—Majorca, was it?"

Her smile widened. "Don't suppose I could interest either one of you in my extra ticket?"

"No," John said, too quickly. He laughed at himself, looked up at the ceiling. "No, I think—I'm fine right here."

"Yeah." She winked at him. "I think you are."

"Thank you for your assistance," Sherlock said, not looking up from the microscope.

"Oh, no," she said, shaking her head. She went over to the table, right up close. "Thank you, Sherl."

She bent, kissed him on the cheek. He sat quite still, endured it without complaint.

John looked away.

"And thanks for the kitchen," she said, straightening up.

Sherlock scoffed. "Sell the cottage, your talents are wasted in Sussex Downs."

"Oh? And what should I be doing, then? Solving crimes? Doesn't look like you've got a vacancy."

Sherlock wrinkled his nose. "God no. You're terrible at this. You nearly invited a serial killer on holiday."

"Shut up," she said. "It's not like you did much better."

"No," Sherlock said, throwing a searching gaze in John's direction. "Not this time."

John cleared his throat. "Well. Erm. If you're ever back in London—"

"I'll be sure to pop in for a visit," she said. She smiled, a crooked smile, genuine and appealing. "Though maybe I'll arrange for a hotel next time."

"That would be best," Sherlock said. "You're utterly appalling to live with."

There was an odd affection in Sherlock's sharp tone that seemed to imply he thought quite the opposite.

John felt a pang as he thought about it, about the weeks and months that Janine had resided at Baker Street. She'd made herself at home, and Sherlock had enjoyed her company. There had been no romance, but they'd got to be friends. Actual, proper friends. And, he thought, Sherlock was going to miss her a little bit when she was gone. Even if he'd never admit it.

"Well, here's hoping that I meet someone tall, dark, and handsome," Janine sighed. "I think the universe owes me one, don't you?"

"Do a background check first," Sherlock said.

She smacked his arm. "Enough of that. I'll probably wind up spending the week by myself on the beach. There are worse ways to pass the time."

"Are there?" Sherlock looked appalled at the idea.

John smiled down at the ground.

"But—" Janine shrugged her shoulders, "—first things first. Victoria's already got a bit of a head start on me, you know. Out there telling anyone who will listen that she played an 'instrumental role in a murder investigation' and all that rot."

"Seriously?" John lifted his head, feeling a spark of outrage on Janine's behalf.

"'He had to keep Janine in the dark, of course,'" Janine said, pitching her voice high in an eerily accurate impression. "'But he needed someone to confide in, and so he turned to me.' Blah, blah, blah."

"Use that. Better to be seen as pitiful than devious," Sherlock said, looking back down at the microscope. "Play on their sympathies. It pays more."

"It's like you read my mind," she said.

"Mm," Sherlock said. He glanced up, frowned. "Oh. Don't wear the waterproof mascara. You'll be wanting it to run for the camera."

She laughed, the sound low, indulgent. "Don't worry about me. I'm an old pro at this by now."

She turned back, aimed a catlike smile at John, and then she was gone.

He listened to her heels clicking down the steps, the sound of the front door opening and shutting.

The flat felt strangely quiet. Empty.

"Kitchen?" John asked, finally. "Did you pay for a new kitchen?"

"Nope," Sherlock said. He popped the 'p' with some degree of vigor.

"Then what—?"

Sherlock lifted his face away from the microscope, slid his gaze towards John. His expression was difficult to read. There was a bloom of red on his right cheek, a perfect imprint where Janine's lips had pressed.

John's hand twitched. He clenched it, pressed it against his thigh, held it still.

Downstairs, a door shut. Mrs Hudson's careful steps began to ascend the stairs.

"And—waterproof mascara?" John asked, bewildered.

Sherlock hummed, his lip quirking. He turned back to the microscope.

"Sherlock," Mrs Hudson said, coming through the doorway. "I've just passed Janine on her way out—she seemed so upset. And after last night's excitement! Is everything—"

"Don't worry about that, Mrs Hudson," Sherlock said.

She huffed out a breath, frowned. "I brought up those papers you wanted—"

"Just leave them on the table," he said, not looking up. "I'm in the middle of some very delicate work."

John rolled his eyes.

She set the papers down, looked over at John, caught his expression. She gave him a worried smile. He smiled back, and the motion pulled strangely at his face.

"Anything interesting?" Sherlock asked, not looking up.

John shifted where he stood, watching closely.

Mrs Hudson flipped open the first newspaper. "Oh," she said, and her voice had gone heavy with disappointment. "Oh Sherlock."

Sherlock smirked, his lip curling upwards. He did not turn his head, but it was quite clear in the line of his shoulders that he was paying close attention to her.

Mrs Hudson opened the next paper, tutted to herself. Put her hand over her mouth. Gave Sherlock another disapproving look, which he ignored entirely.

John stepped up behind her, craned his neck to see.

221B HEARTBREAKER STREET, the headline read. There was a photograph of Janine and Sherlock in their wedding finery, a cartoonish broken heart slapped over it.

John groaned, looked at the other paper.

FOOL ME TWICE…

"Oh, Sherlock," Mrs Hudson said. "How could you? That poor girl—"

She'd switched allegiances rather quickly, John thought. He took another paper from the stack. HEARTBREAK HOLMES, it read. The one beneath that had run a photograph of Sherlock smirking in his deerstalker under the headline BAD BOY ON BAKER STREET.

The laugh forced its way up through his throat, a sharp bark that seemed entirely too loud. He put his hand over his mouth, shut his eyes. Snorted.

He heard Sherlock exhale, an amused rush of breath, and that was all it took. He started giggling, properly giggling, his shoulders shaking, his hand pressed against his mouth. Sherlock leaned away from the microscope, laughing now too, doubling over with it.

Mrs Hudson looked scandalised.

"A new kitchen?" John asked, between hiccupping giggles.

"Mm. The one in her cottage was terribly outdated, or so she told me. She'll likely be able to afford an extended holiday, too," Sherlock said. "Or several."

"That was the plan, then? All along?"

"Well obviously I wasn't going to actually marry her," Sherlock said, his voice hitching as he laughed.

John snorted again, shook his head fondly. Sherlock looked utterly pleased with himself, his smile genuine, his face creased with mirth. The red lip print on his cheek stood out in sharp relief against his skin.

John hesitated for a moment, his heart kicking. Then he squared his shoulders, went to Sherlock. Pressed a gentle thumb to his cheek.

Sherlock went still and quiet at the touch.

John wiped the lipstick away. Let his hand slacken so he was cupping Sherlock's face, his thumb moving gently against his cheek.

"You had—" John said. He cleared his throat. "Lipstick. Just there."

"Ah," Sherlock said. He swallowed. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down. He did not blink.

"Boys," Mrs Hudson said, her voice stern. "While I appreciate that you've worked things out, I do wish you could have done it a bit more kindly. Janine had mascara all down her face when I saw her, poor dear, looked like she'd been crying for hours."

John snorted again, shut his eyes. Felt Sherlock's cheek curve under his hand as he smiled.

"Clever girl," John murmured. Poor dear, indeed, he thought.

"Oh yes," Sherlock agreed.

John was distantly aware of Mrs Hudson's frustrated huff, and the door shutting a bit harder than necessary behind her.

"You ought to go apologise to her for that," he said.

"Mm," Sherlock tipped his head to the side, leaning more fully into John's hand. "No need. I estimate she'll figure out within the hour that Janine was in on the whole scheme and then she'll be back up to shout at me."

"My sister is going to be furious, too," John said.

Sherlock frowned at him. "Why would she care?"

"Ah. I—" John shook his head, embarrassed. "I might have misled her. A bit. About all of this."

"You—" Sherlock trailed off, still looking bewildered. "Spoke to your sister about the wedding?"

"Yes, well, as you've already pointed out," John said, shifting in place slightly. "Jealous."

"You—complained to your sister about the wedding?"

"Might have done, yeah."

Sherlock blinked at him.

"She'll be happy for me," John said. "I think. Once she's done being pissed off, that is."

More than happy, he thought. Relieved. Proud. Present in his life in a way she had not been for many years. He found himself surprisingly eager to speak to her.

Sherlock opened his mouth, shut it again. Blinked. "Best brace yourself, then. Mrs Hudson's likely to start in on you once she's done with me."

"Fair enough," John said. He laughed a little bit, shook his head, feeling uncomfortably pinned by Sherlock's gaze. "You're being awfully generous today, yeah? Calling Janine clever, letting Mrs Hudson sort out this little plot of yours. Finally recognising you're not entirely surrounded by idiots?"

"No, you're still an idiot," Sherlock said.

John stopped stroking his face.

Sherlock rolled his eyes, stood up. "Took you ages to figure it out, and I told you the truth right from the start."

John took a half step backwards and clasped his hands behind his back. Frowned.

Sherlock looked down at him. Sighed, a bit theatrically. "Oh, you want to talk about it."

"Well," John said, his face heating. "Not really, no. But I think we ought to—"

Another sigh. "Yes, I would like you to move back in. As soon as possible. Immediately, in fact. When can you put your house on the market?"

John blinked, torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to shout. "Hang on, don't you think that's a bit hasty?"

"John, this is the absolute opposite of hasty. The pace has been positively glacial."

"A few days ago, I had no idea that this was something you wanted."

"And, as I've already pointed out, you are an idiot."

John huffed, shook his head, looked down at the ground. Fought against the urge to smile. He cleared his throat, lifted his gaze to meet Sherlock's. "You literally married someone else. Yesterday!"

"On the table," Sherlock said.

"What?"

"On. The. Table." Sherlock spoke slowly, dragging the words out. He rolled his eyes, pointed back towards where he'd been sitting.

John looked at the table.

There was a small ring box sitting next to the microscope.

"Oh for—" John picked up the box, brandished it at Sherlock, fought the urge to throw it at his head. "You didn't let her keep it this time? For Christ's sake, how many times are you going to give her this thing and then take it back? Let her sell it and be done with it."

"John."

"Hanging on to it, just in case?" John continued. "Never know when you might need to get fake engaged again. Third time's the charm, right?"

"John."

"Maybe you'll make it a regular annual thing."

"John."

"Who knows, maybe next time it'll be a murderous vicar, or—or—you'll need to break into another office building—plenty of those around, yeah?—or—"

"John!"

John stopped talking. Stared at Sherlock.

"Open it."

He let out a sharp laugh, shook his head. "I've seen it, mate."

Sherlock made a frustrated sound, lunged forward with his hand outstretched to snatch the box out of his hands. John yanked it back out of reach.

"All right, all right! Fine." John opened the box, held it out. "Happy?"

Sherlock raised his brows, said nothing.

John looked down.

"Oh," he said, because the ring he saw was not the one he'd expected to see at all.

Instead of the diamond that had gleamed so prettily on Janine's finger, there was the elegant curve of platinum that he'd admired first in a jeweler's case and then again against Sherlock's skin.

Against Sherlock's skin—and—trailing against his own, last night.

"This is yours," John said. He swallowed. His mouth had gone dry. He was suddenly tired, half-sick with longing for something he could never have, not really. "I'm not—I'm not taking it back to the shop for you, you know. You can do that yourself."

"John," Sherlock said.

John looked up.

Sherlock lifted his left hand, waggled his fingers. John's eyes were drawn to the band of smooth metal still gleaming against his skin.

John looked back down at the box in his hand, at the twin ring to Sherlock's band. His head felt light, far away. He sat down at the kitchen table. The chair legs squeaked against the lino.

"What—?" John said. He could not lift his eyes from the ring.

"I think it's fairly obvious," Sherlock said. His voice was steady, but John thought there was a bit of an uncertain edge to it.

I've been thinking, Sherlock had said to him in the hazy pre-dawn hours. Had he been thinking about this? Had he been turning it over and over in his mind, exploring the idea from every angle?

"It's—"

"Typically this sort of question demands a yes or no answer," Sherlock said. He cleared his throat, tucked in his chin. Bounced slightly on the balls of his feet.

John swallowed, hard. Thought about Sherlock's face had looked in the moonlight. Thought about the way he'd pretended, looking down at that ring on Sherlock's finger, that it was real.

"You'd promised me a week," Sherlock said.

John stared at him, uncomprehending.

"After a period of careful consideration, I determined that a week was insufficient," Sherlock said. He spoke staring at the ring box in John's hand.

"You—"

"Only a lifetime would suffice," Sherlock said.

John rocked forward in his chair, his eyes stinging, his chest tight. Only Sherlock, he thought. Only Sherlock could just go and say something like that, matter-of-factly, like it wasn't the most momentous thing John had ever heard.

"John," Sherlock said, and now the edge of uncertainty in his voice seemed to have dropped into full-blown panic. "I apologise if—"

"No," John said, and the twist of Sherlock's stricken face had him shaking his head. "No, I mean don't apologise—yes. I'm trying to say yes. Of course, yes. Of course."

He breathed out, his heart hammering in his chest. It was a terrible idea, of course. It was also the best idea he'd ever heard.

"Oh," Sherlock said, and he took a step forward, then froze. He did not seem to know what to do.

"Come here," John said, something wrenching in his chest at the sight of Sherlock's expression. He lurched to his feet, took two hasty steps forward, and pulled Sherlock roughly into his arms.

Sherlock seemed to melt into his embrace, stumbling a bit as if the tension had been punched out of him. He breathed out, the sound shaky. Turned his face into the crook of John's neck.

John thought: desperately, and he thought: I would do anything for you, and his throat closed tight with emotion.

"It's not just as easy as saying 'yes'. There are things I need to consider," he said into Sherlock's hair, his hand sliding in soothing circles on the back of Sherlock's soft t-shirt. "Rosie. She's—"

"Welcome here, John. You know that."

"There's more to it than that," John said.

"She's a part of you, and I love her," Sherlock spoke quietly, plainly. "You must know I would never see her harmed."

"I—"

"Stop punishing yourself," Sherlock said. "That is what you're doing, isn't it? Penance? Remaining on in that house. You can't tell me you're happy there. I know when you're lying."

"You make it sound so obvious."

"It is obvious."

John shook his head, amused. He went on rubbing Sherlock's back, absorbing the warmth of his skin through the thin t-shirt. He did not know how he'd spent so many years resisting the urge to touch, to hold, to claim.

He shifted slightly so he could look past Sherlock into the sitting room, at the morning sunlight filtering in through the windows and slanting across the scuffed floorboards. Thought of Rosie there, comfortable and happy in the best home he'd ever known.

He wanted it. He wanted it badly.

"You're right, of course," John sighed. "You always are."

"Good," Sherlock said faintly. "That's—good."

"You really want me here. All the time. With a toddler."

"I believe I've made myself exceedingly clear."

John stepped back slightly. He slipped one hand behind Sherlock's head, guided him so their foreheads met. Sherlock's eyes were very wide.

"No giant wedding, with the—the serviettes and the cake tasting and the flowers, all right? I've had enough of that to last a lifetime."

Sherlock smiled, a genuine thing that crinkled the corners of his eyes. "God, no. Besides, none of the shops in London will have anything to do with me after this."

John wanted to kiss him, to taste that smile, to capture his surprised inhale. So he did.

Sherlock kissed him back softly, carefully. He kissed, John thought, like he couldn't quite believe he was permitted to do so. It was sweet and just a bit heartbreaking.

"It'll be more than just the shops, you know," John said when they drew, reluctantly, apart. "You might have caught a killer, and Janine might be getting rich—again—off this whole scheme, but your public image is bound to take a hit. The press is going to paint you as an absolute bastard"

"Mm, I think I'll recover."

"What makes you so sure?"

"Because there will always be a need for a consulting detective. And I'm the only one in the world."

"Modest," John said.

"Not at all," Sherlock smiled. "Besides, they'll come around."

"Oh?"

"Everyone loves a wedding."

John laughed, shook his head fondly.

Downstairs, a door slammed. Seconds later there were footsteps on the stairs, Mrs Hudson's unmistakable tread. She appeared to be stomping.

"Ah," Sherlock said. "Quicker than I thought."

"And that's my cue to leave," John said, leaning forward to press a hasty kiss against Sherlock's lips.

"Go get your daughter, John," Sherlock said. "And come home."

And so he did.