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Kill a Mockingbird

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This is a story I originally wrote as an ending to my 'Word of One Syllable' 'At a Loss' words series, but it did not fit so I've decided to spin it into a fic of its own.

Sherlock's hair was so matted with blood it looked like he'd bathed in it. An arm hung at a bad angle, clearly broken, but the man wasn't writhing in pain and his eyes were open. John knew what that meant, but he pushed his way forward anyway. He had to check, it couldn't be, he'd been talking to the man just two seconds-

He got through the pushing crowd and grabbed Sherlock's arm. He couldn't get himself to grab the broken one. The skin was warm against his fingers, but too still. Death was so obvious – most people didn't know that. He held on to the arm too long but he couldn't believe it. He'd been talking to the man just ten seconds ago, proud of the man's brilliance.

There was no pulse. John felt his brain stutter to a halt as the crowd pulled him away. He had no doubt of it. There was no pulse. John let himself get pushed down to sit on the warm concrete before he fainted. It was the only reason in the world he'd let anyone take that body from him. He'd felt for a pulse for ten seconds and there'd been nothing at all. The paramedics were wheeling away a body, nothing more. Sherlock was that blood smeared all over the concrete that he couldn't put back.

"God, no."

The world blurred around his eyes and someone gripped his arm. He needed to breathe more.

Oh, god. He couldn't do this.

His Browning was at home. John started to get up but a hand held him down. He had to be sure, first. Sure Sherlock was – John closed his eyes as bile rose up in his throat. He forced it down. He had to know.

He sat on the concrete, utterly unsure of what to do or where to go, as the crowd slowly built up around the blood and slowly dissipated again when there was nothing more to see. It started to get cold and he had no idea where to go. He had a feeling he was waiting to see Sherlock come striding back out of those hospital doors. Ridiculous, and Sherlock would mock him for waiting.

Oh, god.

A black limo pulled up at the kerb beside him. John stalled, unsure what the hell he was supposed to do but stand in the middle of the street and break down. Sherlock had brought him raging back to life. John turned around, wanting to go back to the bloodstain, to double check. Sherlock couldn't be dead – it just didn't happen that way. The limo was idling, waiting for him. He got in and for once, no one was in the back seat with him. He was left alone and dropped off before the front of 221B. No doubt Mycroft had been informed. Anger cut through him for a moment, remembering Mycroft's idiotic involvement. This was why you didn't fucking negotiate with terrorists – you never knew what you were handing them.

John stood outside the door for too long and the limo idled again. He should call Ella. She was supposed to keep him from doing anything abrupt. She would be the only one who'd understand; it wouldn't be rash. It'd have been a long time coming, from long before he'd met Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock had just postponed it.

No doubt the driver was watching him, ready to report in to Mycroft. John cursed and fumbled with the front door. He needed to get inside.

"Here again, John? What's all this rushing about? What's Sherlock done now?" Mrs. Hudson complained, sticking her head out of her flat.

John closed his eyes and started for the stairs.

"John?"

"Call-" he swallowed. "Call Mycroft."

He started up the steps, hoping to hell she wouldn't say anything else.

"Is it Sherlock? Is he alright then?" she called.

John kept climbing.

Why did he jump?

"John!" Mrs. Hudson yelled and John slammed the flat door closed.

The flat wasn't quiet enough. He could still hear Mrs. Hudson scrambling around downstairs, the bus outside loudly announcing its route. Two people were laughing together below their window. It was just their flat and John found himself wanting Sherlock to get home so the man could scoff at the tragedy, tell him mourning was futile, an excess of emotion that by definition could do nothing to affect its cause.

John fell into his chair stiffly.

What the fuck just happened?

John pressed his fingers against his mouth, struggling not to start. Everything. Sherlock was everything. He gazed around the room blankly. Sherlock's belongings were everywhere here. He couldn't move them. He let his face fall into his hands but he couldn't cry. Shock, probably. He didn't want it to pass. It'd be worse, after. He couldn't imagine it being worse.

He heard Mrs. Hudson screech downstairs. He started to get up but the sound of sobbing followed. Right. He sat back down, trying to wrap his brain around what he'd been unable to say aloud. Jesus. John dropped his head into his hands again. Jesus.

He packed a bag of clothes before he went to the therapists' office. He couldn't stand straining every moment to hear Sherlock on the stairs, ready to berate him for not seeing through the marvelous scheme. He brought clothes, toiletries, and his gun. He sat in his therapist's office, knowing there was nothing she could do to make it better, and she made him say it aloud. He obeyed and didn't know what use it had been.

He went back to the temporary flats he'd wandered into his first day out of Afghanistan. He'd been grateful for the mattress, the seat, the desk back then.

That genius, that captivating man, had held everything that mattered. John dropped his bag in the closet and left the flat again. He couldn't sit ; he knew himself better than that. He walked to the park and wanted to visit Sherlock's grave but the man wasn't buried yet. It was just as well; he didn't want to see Molly. He sat down on a bench and pulled up Sherlock's number.

:How'd you do it?: He wrote and sent it before he let himself think too hard. He regretted it a moment later when he realized he was waiting for a response.

:Why'd you do it?: He sent next, to remind himself that he was texting a dead man. It was the right question, anyway. Why the hell had he jumped?

Sherlock didn't care about his public reputation; not really. And he hadn't been bloody remorseful. John cursed at the thought and pushed himself up from the bench to stride deeper into the park. No, there was nothing on this earth that could convince him Sherlock had pulled some conspiracy-theorist-level scheme over him and the world, pretending to be a genius in a world of idiots. Sherlock had needed everything to have a point and that didn't have one.

John stopped, resting an arm against a tree. He pushed his face into his elbow, trying to force his brain above his emotions again. He couldn't break down here.

John rubbed his hand down his face, trying to breathe normally. For once he knew what Sherlock meant by needing a puzzle to be solved. This one wasn't optional. Why did Sherlock jump?

He started back for the bedsit, knowing he was falling apart again. He needed privacy.

Okay, what do we know? He heard Sherlock repeating in his brain, staring off at the skull and listing the facts, telling him to shut up and stop thinking; it was distracting, what were the facts?

Sherlock wouldn't have jumped because of his reputation and he wasn't a fraud, John had no doubt of that. But Sherlock had jumped, knowing full-well the probability that he'd die at the bottom.

John forced himself to look straight ahead as he marched up the steps to his flat. Christ.

~~/~~

He'd lost John. Sherlock let his body scream in pain and focused on it. Molly was pushing his arm back into its socket before she set the bone. He felt it snap back into alignment and his pain lessened slightly before he focused on his broken arm. Molly worked on him quickly, knowing the stakes.

He made himself stare at the ceiling and ignore how it was blurred. He couldn't stop crying; that was evident, so it was irrelevant.

There was no way to go after Moriarty's men without risking John, and no way to return while the assassins still existed. It wasn't worth it if there was any chance at all he'd come back only to find John with a bullet in his brain, the back of his head sprayed out over the couch. He couldn't come back.

~~/~~

John sat up, blinking rapidly. Christ, he needed something to do. He wasn't going to fall asleep. He needed to get out.

John rushed putting his shoes back on and walked out. There was a dull quiet hanging over the street around the block of flats. 9:23 PM – too early for the bars and too late for most children to be outside.

John walked away from it, heading deeper into the city, toward the crowded strip of bars and shops he'd seen half a mile down the main road.

Sherlock. He'd go to the bar first.

Christ; stop. Just – stop.

He kept walking. As long as he was in public he couldn't break down, and his mind managed to stay above it all. He just had to stay out and keep walking.

Sherlock must have been coerced. That knowledge felt like it was set into his bones. Sherlock was not ashamed or a fraud; he must have jumped under duress. That would explain the telephone call, the lie that Sherlock had faked his own genius. But what could threaten the most brilliant man of his time? He was coming to understand just how little he'd known of the game Moriarty and Sherlock had been playing.

John cursed and ran his hands through his hair. Suburban London was endless, all shitty conjoined homes and tall blocks of flats, offices and shops. It hummed with traffic and footsteps and voices. He hated it, wanted it all to stop so he could think.

Is this how Sherlock feels, all the time?

John slammed his fist into the wall beside him. That genius brain was spilled over the concrete; he'd seen it happen. Why couldn't he even bloody remember what he was mourning?

Felt. How Sherlock felt.

Fuck.

If Sherlock had had the choice to jump or get shot he'd have chosen the gun every time. John was sure of it. He'd want his killer to do it for real, get his hands dirty, and would never give Moriarty the pleasure of watching him lose, watching him jump.

John stopped in the middle of the street, letting some teenager with an ugly handbag smash into him where she'd tried to cross behind him. The assassins. How had he forgotten? Mycroft had mentioned them, a whole gang of paid killers living in their street for no apparent purpose. And there it was, to make Sherlock jump. Had Mycroft seen that coming, when he'd asked him to take care of his brother?

John started walking again, slowly heading for the park. The snipers hadn't been trained on Sherlock, not if the goal was to make him commit suicide, but they could have been trained on anyone else, people Sherlock could see, a pregnant woman or a little boy. It wouldn't matter who, Sherlock would not hold any more sentimental value for the one over the other.

Still, John wasn't sure Sherlock would have jumped. He could just imagine the man sneering.

To save people so dull John? Would that really improve the world? People die every day; what would be the point?

But then.. maybe he would have, just to save a stranger. Sherlock could care so much sometimes and put such little value on his own life.

That was for the game though, some part of John's brain argued. Sherlock would sacrifice anything to play the game, but for the puzzle, not for people. John found a park bench and sank into it.

Nothing added up; it was too simple. Moriarty had already played that game at the pool, threatening him to control Sherlock.

And it'd worked, John thought. Moriarty would have known with absolute certainty that Sherlock would jump if he pointed a gun at him. John leaned his head back on his neck, resting it against the cold metal behind him. It was too simple, if he'd thought of it; Sherlock would have seen that move coming and he'd have planned a solution.

John started home, feeling exhaustion drag at his mind. He knew what to do with grief. He'd go to work the next day and insist on staying there until he was too exhausted for safe practice, and then he'd file paperwork in the back, and then he'd walk around the city until his bones ached and he could fall asleep without feeling that overwhelming need to throw up. Nothing had changed at all since the war.

~~/~~

John rolled over on his cot and picked up his vibrating phone.

"Yeah?"

"John, it's Mycroft. How are you?" his voice sounded polished, smooth, concerned. John felt hate lick at him. "Right," Mycroft answered, like he'd said something.

Enough puzzles.

"I have been wondering how involved you'd like me to be in arranging the funeral -" he started. John felt the tide rising up. They weren't doing this. He cleared his throat, cutting the man off.

"Right. Yes," he said.

"Should I handle it then?" Mycroft asked.

God.

"Yes," John answered. Mycroft didn't reply. The silence was horrible. John swung his feet down from the bed and sat up. He wasn't getting any more sleep. Sherlock Holmes, backing up, his eyes sparkling; welcome to London. John choked out a laugh.

"John?" Mycroft asked.

"Yes, alright," John answered. He wanted off the phone. "Goodbye,"

"I'll see -"

John hung up. He had to get to work.

~~/~~

"Christ, John, what are you doing here?" Sarah demanded as soon as he got to the front desk.

"I need to not think," he ordered. Her face softened. Yes, then. Good. He started for his office and she walked around the desk to grab his arm.

"Are you sure? I took you off the schedule for weeks," she said.

Give me work.

“No, John. I’m not sure you're safe to diagnose anything right now," she ordered.

Right. John nodded. Paperwork. He'd do paperwork. That was fine.

~~/~~

Molly dropped a padded envelope on his chest. Sherlock sat up from the couch, careful not to jar his arm or ribs, and peered at the package, the sound of Moriarty's laughter ringing in his ears, crowing that he'd been too slow to keep up yet again. Unlikely.

The envelope's address was typed in a classic font; no information there.

Mr Kennish, C/O Dr M Hooper, Flat 2, 5323 Little Hanging Road London SW4 7EV

The whole thing could have come from a bank, complete with a return envelope inside. If Moriarty had predicted his actions, he'd predicted them perfectly. Mycroft was more likely.

He poured the envelope's contents into his hand and felt himself nod gratefully. A mobile phone, passport, birth certificate, Spanish and French ID cards, a bank card, and £1000 cash. And a return address, already paid postage. Sherlock shredded the envelope in his fingers, leaving the bits over Molly's floor. She'd clean them up before anyone visited.

:I trust you'll make this quick? MH:

A/N: Please let me know what you think!

Chapter Text

~~/~~

He didn't kill for revenge. His commanding officers had pounded it into them. They shot down the people who were actively threatening them, not civilians, not potential enemies. The assassins had already done their damage and had moved on. They were no longer threats and he didn't kill for revenge. It wasn't easy to remember that, most nights.

:Did you do it for me?:

John cursed himself, fiddling with his phone while he watched the stupid animation of the message being sent out. He wanted to recall it. If he'd had the chance to say one last thing to the man, that wouldn't have been it.

:I loved you, you idiot.:

John let his head sink into his hands, still gripping his phone. Would he ever have confessed that, in time?

No. He’d seen Sherlock’s derision toward any romantic feeling. He did not need that focused on him. So Sherlock would always have died, not knowing.

Fuck, but he wasn't going to be the same man on the other side of this.

~~/~~

Sarah came to kick him out of the surgery every day at midnight, whether it was her shift or not. John walked the city afterward, leaving his gun at home and praying he'd get into a fight. Usually it didn’t work.

John got back to his flat to see Lestrade pounding on his door, a pile of duffel bags at his feet.

"Come on, then, Watson, just open the damn door," he was shouting, sounding resigned.

"I would, if you'd just..,” John started, holding his keys, but the joke didn't come out right. Lestrade glanced over and blinked rapidly before shifting out from in front of the door.

"Oh. Right," he said.

It's open, John remembered benignly, putting his keys in his pocket and doing his best not to think about anything else.

"Mrs. Hudson asked me to bring you some clothes," Lestrade said, glancing down at the bags near John's feet. John nodded and opened the door. He'd have to keep it locked now. He moved the clothes into the flat and turned around to face the man in his doorway.

"Yeah, right," John replied, trying to figure out what social thing he was supposed to be doing now. Thanking the man for the clothes, or shouting at him for not trusting Sherlock, probably. Neither sounded appealing.

"Look, I've done some thinking, and I do honestly believe Sherlock was inn-"

Right.

"Thanks for the clothes, then,' John managed as he closed the door. It shut with a definitive click and John rest his head against the chill wood veneer.

"Look, I'm going to prove Sherlock was innocent!" Lestrade's shout came through the door. "Moriarty's dead, you know. He shot himself before Sherlock jumped. It's over. It's the least I can do, clear his name. "

It really was. John went to take a shower. He wasn't dirty but there was nothing to do in the flat and he knew better than to stop.

~~/~~

Sherlock had killed himself to keep someone from being shot. Probably him or Mrs. Hudson. John wasn't convinced it helped at all to know that. He forced himself to concentrate on typing in all the medical files and blocking out the rest of the world. He needed something to do, to keep his mind off of it but still the thought nagged at him. Why did Sherlock jump? Something still didn't quite fit.

John slammed his hand down on the desk. The sound reverberated in the little, dark room and John was glad the file room was cut off from the rest of the surgery. But it was too simple. How had he missed this? He could practically hear Sherlock hiss at him, frustrated with how unerringly slow he was. There had been three snipers living in his street, with Moriarty trying to get the world to believe that Sherlock was a fraud, and Sherlock Holmes hadn't thought that maybe they were planning on bringing those two things together?

John stilled, barely daring to breathe as he stared blankly at the computer screen. Sherlock would have seen that coming. There was no way he would have been fooled. He would have connected 'assassins living near us' and 'Moriarty is going to try to coerce you into something' and not met him on the top of a bloody highrise. Sherlock would have thought of that, and John had a moment staring at his laptop, wondering if his best friend had been a fraud after all. John slowly pushed his chair back, his heart beating like a maniac. No. Sherlock had thought of it, which mean Sherlock would have planned.

Sherlock had had some goal, up on the top of that building. Had it gone horribly wrong or had this been exactly the idea? Moriarty had shot himself, Sherlock's name was being cleared; if only he were alive he'd have won.

And Sherlock had done so many things that had seemed desperately impossible before. John pulled himself out of his chair and strode for the door. He was getting the postmortem photos. And if he was wrong and a crazed man in denial, he was going to walk out of the hospital and shoot himself in the head.

John stopped, halfway through the surgery's sliding doors. Right.

He needed to return to the army. Now. His leg had 'healed', his arm was back to almost full motion, acceptable as it hadn't affected his marksmanship or his field surgery and he'd certainly kept both in practice living with Sherlock Holmes. But want it or no he wasn't going to survive the civvy life limping around with a wife in suburbia.

He'd needed Sherlock to survive here, and now he was at least better off with someone else's head to aim his SIG at.

He'd see the pictures and if he was wrong and Sherlock was gone, he was going back to Afghanistan.

~~/~~

He called Lestrade in the cab. The man would have had to make a call on whether or not it'd really been a suicide, with another man dead at the top of the building. The detective picked up on the first ring.

"John, I'm -"

"Greg-"

"I'm glad you called, I've had a few-"

"I need the pictures," John demanded, tipping his head back to stare at the soft cabby ceiling above him.

"What?" Greg asked, clearly lost.

"The photos from the postmortem. I just-" John felt his voice about to catch and stopped to clear his throat. "need them."

"John-" he said, and it sounded like a warning.

"Just -give them to me, yeah?" John demanded, staring at the uneven stain in the fabric above his head.

"Molly's got them," Greg said finally.

"Thank you," John said and swallowed heavily. His stomach churned horribly. He needed to get off this phone.

"Look, if there's anything-" Lestrade started and John felt himself nod firmly.

"Right. No. Thank you. For the pictures. Nice night, yeah?" John tried.

"Er – yeah, night," Lestrade answered and John hung up. He stared at the phone for a moment, cursing Sherlock. Of course they'd be in Molly's morgue; he'd jumped off her building. How could Sherlock have been so cruel?

As to not think of where they'd take my body, am I responsible for that? He heard Sherlock scoff in his head and John sighed and pulled on his gloves.

Yeah, Sherlock, you are.

John clenched his teeth as the cab stopped on a yellow light.

If you didn't want to be responsible for where you die, don't bloody kill yourself. Coerced or no. No one living was more bloody important than you. The arrogant sod should have known that. And why there? He'd picked the place; John had found the blog entry about it. Why the fuck would he choose Molly's building, when she'd have to see him rolling in on a gurney?

Fuck, Sherlock.

He paid the cabby in cash and opened the door before the car had completely stopped. He was starting to seriously doubt and he couldn't let that hope bloom.

There was one totally insensible thing about Sherlock's death. One thing that just didn't fit. Crowds didn't pull doctors away from men bleeding out on the concrete. They just didn't. Ever. They didn't pull friends away either, but he'd been forcibly removed from Sherlock.

And lord, even for jumping off a hospital, that medical team had arrived too fast, like they'd been waiting for it. It just didn't fit, like it didn't fit that Sherlock had been blindsided by someone going after his acquaintances. That he'd been blindsided by anything. Beaten, fine, yes. But blindsided? Not seeing why Moriarty would want to meet him on the roof that day, not planning for it?

~~/~~

Molly was back at work, he saw when he got to the morgue doors. He wasn't surprised that she'd needed to hide in menial tasks too. She was standing by the computer inside, typing something up, looking vaguely annoyed. John pulled open the morgue door. Molly jerked and whirled to face him.

"John," she greeted, running her hands down her lab coat to smooth it, visibly calming herself.

"Morning," he said, trying to keep his eyes on her.

Oh god, Molly. She'd had to work by Sherlock's body. He'd have quit, for sure.

"John?" she asked and he realized he'd waited too long.

"I need the postmordems," he said. It came out like a croak. She blinked at him, her eyes wide, looking like she'd figured out why.

"I just can't – uh -"

Too personal. John stopped.

"So they're not classified or anything?" he asked instead, knowing they weren't. Her eyes widened even more.

"Uh...no," she said, finally, turning to the drawers beneath the lab countertop. She fingered through the files and turned back, a manila folder in her hands. She glanced around the room like she was considering a way to escape. She handed the file to him though and stood staring at him, wringing her hands like she'd just done a horrible act.

"I – uh -thanks," he said and turned to leave.

"Oh! You can't take them out of here!" she called and John blinked, glancing at the open file drawers. Right. Of course. Government property, evidence policy. He knew that.

"Yeah," he answered her, putting the file down on the counter top. He exhaled heavily and decided it didn't matter that Molly was watching. He put his hand on the counter beside the file to brace himself and flipped the cover open. Pathologist's chart.

Extensive head damage, fractured skull, left arm, ribs. C.O.D: force of impact. John swallowed and skipped to the bottom of the page. Pathologist: Dr. Molly Hooper.

What the fuck?

"God, why did they make you do this one?" John asked, emotion licking at him. He could become furious, about this. He looked up to see Molly shrugging quietly, looking uncomfortable.

"I requested it. I -er – I wanted to see him. You know, one last time? Before -" she started, still wringing her hands.

God, Molly.

John pushed down his grief again and glanced down at the folder on the metal hospital counter.

There were two options. Either Sherlock was alive and Mrs. Hudson and he and god-knew-who still had snipers waiting to kill them and John was going to kill them all and hope Mycroft could keep him from a life sentence or Sherlock was dead and John was going to walk out of this building and find the closest recruitment office.

And hope the assassins keep their agreement not to kill us? John felt his jaw set. That was Sherlock's job; he solved the puzzles. John's solution had to be much more simple. An assassin had standing orders to kill Mrs. Hudson if Sherlock were alive; that was threat enough. He’d kill them either way.

John nodded stiffly to himself and flipped the pathologist's chart to reveal the next photo.

God. There was no doubt; it was Sherlock. John wasn't sure what he'd expected. Some close look-alike or a wax doll or what, but his breath was jerked out of him by what he got – a photo of his best damn friend in the world lying very dead on a mortuary table, with his face smashed in and his arm going the wrong way, blood flowing over Molly's table. He flipped through the next ones, photos of a tag punctured through a toe, postmortem bruising and catalogued fractures on a corpse that hadn't even gone cold yet. The colour was still there, blood that had not yet seeped away from his friend's skin. He was joining the army. Now.

Kill them first.

"I'm going back to the fusiliers," he announced into the quiet room as he flipped the folder closed.

"The what?" she asked and John had to swallow heavily.

"Army," he said.

His career was over. He was a public figure, now. He wouldn't shoot himself if it meant his comrades would have to find him.

"Oh!” she exclaimed, like she'd just realized something.

He turned to face her, feeling his back straighten into military style as he tried to school his face into something vaguely resembling composure.

"Do you have to? I mean, you rather belong here, don't you? I mean, not here as in the morgue. Oh my god- no, but -you know-"

John nodded swiftly, trying to get her to calm down.

"Yeah, I have to," he said firmly.

"But-"

"I don't -" he started too loudly and stopped, searching for words. "fancy ...shooting myself, is all," he finished. Right. Too personal. Molly's eyes widened yet again. She stared at him, looking about to cry.

"Right. Well. Now we've had that. Goodbye, Molly," he said. She nodded, hugging her arms around herself.

"Take care, John," she said softly as he pushed the doors open again, ignoring the loud squeak. He had a job to do, first.

~~/~~

John swallowed heavily and forced himself forward, trying not to shuffle or fiddle with his nametag or do anything but walk with the crowd of doctors entering the building for the afternoon shift, flowing easily past the banks of equally sleep-deprived regular staff. He could have flashed them a Tube monthly pass and they'd have ignored him, he thought, breaking off from the crowd toward the Psychiatric ward. That was where the real tranquilizers were.

~~/~~

:He went to see the postmortems MH:

:Reaction?:

:Belief MH:

~~/~~

He had to go inside. John started for the door of 221B, forcing himself to unlock the door without hesitation. He stepped inside the building, not pausing to think and clambered up the carpeted steps. He'd get the papers, the wall of contacts and connections Sherlock had built up on Moriarty, and leave. He needed nothing else, here.

John turned the knob on the flat door and almost smacked his head against the wood when he strode forward, expecting it to open beneath his hand. The knob didn't turn and John had to back up, blinking rapidly.

Locked. Of course. He pulled his keys out of his pocket. He’d never been able to take them off his keychain. He unlocked the door and strode forward, trying to regain the feeling of being on a mission; the emotionless efficiency that came with too many brutal assignments.

He walked inside and automatically wrinkled his nose against the musk of layered dust. He stilled, trying to shove down his emotions at the belongings scattered over Sherlock's desk; the coffee mug, the still-open laptop, the random papers and post-its and ballpoint pens.

Felt tips are hateful, John.

He'd forgotten how much paper there was. Papers and folders were piled on every available surface and strewn over most of the floor. John stepped around them carefully, walking towards what really mattered; the display of information on Moriarty taped up behind the couch.

He climbed up onto the couch, balancing a knee on the armrest to start carefully collecting the pictures, newspaper clippings, government files and Wikipedia pages pasted there.

There were piles of papers behind the couch. John blinked rapidly, his documents in hand, and got off the couch slowly to put the Moriarty files down. It wouldn't be unlike Sherlock to keep important files in the least accessible part of the house.

Especially given how much he was hiding from me, by the end.

Astronomy papers. Thesis about the makeup of the universe, from what John could understand from their abstracts. The studies themselves were pages and pages of math and diagrams.

John laughed again, shaking his head, and went to explore the piles left on beside the ugly lamp.

An entire stack too big to grip in one hand of constellations and their myths.

John moved from pile to pile, collecting them all on the coffee table, keeping them in the order Sherlock had subtly placed them in. Data on every topic John had ever found Sherlock to be ignorant in.

You were so obsessed with data.

John walked into the kitchen and his amusement died as quickly as it'd grown. The place was empty, stripped of Sherlock's trays of vials, his microscope, his boxes of clean slides and droppers.

Damn it. John braced himself against the kitchen table, the rough wood familiar against his hand. He had to get out of here.

John turned and grabbed the banker's box full of Moriarty’s legacy, moving swiftly for the door.

He was only halfway down the steps when he heard Mrs. Hudson opening her door. He moved faster, hoping he could get out before -

"John?"

Bloody hell.

John turned at the base of the steps, unwilling to walk away from her. She was Mrs. Hudson; the closest thing to a mother Sherlock had ever had. Sherlock would never forgive him if he just walked away from her.

She was done up in a coloured dress and dark stockings, unassuming jewellery and flat shoes. Nothing seemed to have changed at all, with her, but her smile was tight.

"Will you go with me to the grave this week?” she asked. John glanced down, into the pile of papers in his arms.

Of course. It'd been...awhile. How long? The funeral must have passed. A body wouldn't last that long, out of the ground. Had Mycroft called him about it? John didn't remember.

"I can't go alone again," Mrs. Hudson admitted. John nodded.

~~//~~

:This is taking too long MH:

A/N: I'm sorry I got this one up late! I'll update again on Wednesday to make it up to y'all! Let me know what you think - should I continue this one?

Chapter Text

He wasn't ready to do this. John stared at the grave, glad Mrs. Hudson was gone. He couldn't stand her stories, the gunshots in the morning and the body parts and the little abnormalities that had slowly set John back to actually caring about what people had done around him; the genius that had pulled him out of all that and made him laugh. ‘He was a bad cabby. You should have seen the route he took to get here’. John closed his eyes, feeling sick, hearing the crunch of a body hitting pavement.

He was supposed to say something. That was obvious. He wasn't coming back here for a long damn time.

"Hmm. Alright," John said, swallowing heavily. "You told me once," he started, trying to look away from the grave. He cleared his throat. God. "that you weren't a hero."

Jumping over rooftops. Telling Sarah 'it's okay, you'll be okay' so softly, like he was calming a terrified beast. Tearing the bomb off him without a care in the world for the sniper rifle pointed at his skull. Bullshit, not a hero.

"Um. There were times when I didn't even think you were human but -"

God, that was true. Sherlock snarling, not sleeping, shouting that he didn't have friends just to be left alone. Begging him back, only to be completely sidetracked by the solved puzzle.

"Let me tell you this; you were the best man, the most human – human being that I've ever known and no one will ever convince me that you've told me a lie. There. So."

He could almost see Sherlock squint at him for that, trying to figure out for a moment how anyone could really be that stupid, but Sherlock wasn't there to mock him and John could barely breathe. "There," he added. Done. Fuck it. It was time to go kill someone and join the army or shoot himself in the head.

John tried to walk away but he couldn't just go; he wanted to touch. God, but he missed how Sherlock had smelled. How badly John had wanted to touch him sometimes, run his hand through his hair, pull him close to his chest. John ran his hand over the gravestone and immediately felt like a fool, feeling the cold, useless stone beneath his fingertips. He pulled his hand away.

"I was so alone and I owe you so much," he said, before walking away. Sherlock wasn't alive. He knew that, he'd seen the body crumble against the concrete; there was no way to survive that fall. He had to move on, kill the snipers to protect the people that were left and let it all be done. But he couldn't just accept it.

John turned back despite himself, hating it, but if begging could bring him back he'd do it a thousand times.

"Oh and just one more thing. One more thing, one more miracle Sherlock, for me. Don't be -"

He still couldn't bloody say it, damn him.

"Dead," he forced. He wasn't going to cry, damn it. Not here. "Would you do that just for me. Just – stop it. Stop this."

And god damn it, it was useless. He was weeping. Fuck. John forced himself to attention, letting his mind fill in the sounds of chattering Arabic and English commands. His emotions shut down slowly, dragging themselves back under control. John turned away from the gravestone.

He had to find Sebastian Moran. He'd never done this without a paper trail before. He couldn't just call up his army contacts and ask if anyone knew the man before he shot him.

~~/~~

Sherlock watched John walk away from the grave.

Did Moriarty see this coming? Burn the heart out of him – by burning John's. Appropriately brilliant but Sherlock doubted it. Moriarty would never accept letting Sherlock Holmes live, not after he'd promised to kill him. No, the man hadn't planned it this way. He'd just won anyway.

His arm was mostly healed, now. His flight left in six hours.

~~/~~

John wrestled his way out of his sheets, grasping after Sherlock.

"Fuck," he panted, falling back to the mattress. Grief settled over him again and John pushed himself up to sitting, pulling his hands through his hair. He glanced at the clock and cursed again. 3:00 AM. Shite.

John walked across the room to flick on the overhead light and stood over his desk, staring at the maps and papers and names spread across it.

Sebastian Moran. Spanish military colonel and marksman, alleged history of kidnapping, assault, and murder. A string of girlfriends, ending in a failed marriage with Sylvia Moran, formally Sylvia Taylor. History of alcoholism, according to Sylvia Moran. No children, no known employment, no known address. Fan of rugby, American football, and a proponent of gun rights.

Nothing surprising. John sighed, flipping through the folder on the man Mycroft had given him. Useless information now when fuck, it could have saved his partner. There was nothing surprising in the folder but the reference to American football. Drug use and alcohol were common self-remedies for PTSD. Most of his friends abused to help moving on. Still, John ran his finger under the detail. Sylvia had called it 'alcoholism'. John focused on that, reminded of Sherlock insisting Why hound? Why say alcoholic? None of his friends called it that, even when their drinking slid over that border.

He had to call Sylvia Moran – he had to ask why say alcoholic? It was a thin lead, beyond meaningless, but he had no other way of finding his quarry so it would have to do.

God, he had no idea how to do this. This part was Sherlock's job.

He bought a pay-as-you-go phone on the west side of the city. The sun was barely lighting the road by the time he was walking back across his flat building's small car park. He felt better, having something to do. At moments it felt like he was going to pull out of this, until he remembered that none of this was going to bring Sherlock home.

"Hello?" a woman's voice croaked into the phone. In English, John realized, remembering belatedly that there was no guarantee of that.

"Hello, this is Detective Constable Darrell Hopkins. If you remember I was on the case concerning your husband Sebastian?" John tried, reading off the name on the case file.

"Ex-husband," the woman corrected, annoyed.

People don't like telling you things, John. They love to contradict you, Sherlock's voice muttered at him.

"I just wanted to confirm, you said he was an alcoholic but he didn't go to A.A meetings or anything that would get him professionally diagnosed-"

"What the fuck? Yes, he did A.A, he just went under a different last name. Who is this again?"

"Really? That's not in his file," John stated, flipping through the papers again.

"You didn't ask," the woman scolded. "Now I'm sorry, but it's the middle of the night, so unless this is urgent -"

Oh. Whoops.

"Yes, of course, Mrs. Moran. I'm so sorry to have bothered you," John stammered.

Crap.

"Yes. Good morning, then," she answered, and the line clicked off. John glanced at his phone, surprised, and realized he hadn't managed to get the last name Moran had been using.

It doesn't matter, he realized belatedly, closing the file folder. A.A meetings didn't exactly have searchable guest books.

3:45 AM. Nothing to do. John sat down slowly, staring at the desk top. There was nothing more to do. That was not good. He’d take a walk, continue to get to know London the way Sherlock did. Sometimes, when he found a new alleyway shortcut, he could practically feel Sherlock walking along beside him, smug and watchful. John threw on his jacket, trying to push the thought from his brain. Sherlock was dead, he was walking alone.

~~/~~

Molly knew she was breaking a promise Sherlock would never forgive. She was supposed to be taking care of John – had sworn she'd bring him food, 'make him eat or sleep, give him whatever would be 'effective for the shock'. As if 'shock' was the only thing John was going to feel. Molly had almost wanted to strangle the genius, except he'd looked so intensely serious about John's care, even as he'd woefully underestimated it.

Molly had needed Lestrade's help to find the doctor at all – he hadn't gone back to Baker Street. She'd found the flat, had visited four times but no one was ever home. Greg said he'd caught John there after an all-night shift, which must have been some time near 5:00 AM. Molly tried then, bringing shepherd's pie for the man, but no one answered. She left the tupperware by his door to get stolen.

~~/~~

:Update?:

:Grieving. MH:

~~/~~

He hadn't realized that Sherlock had saved him from this, John thought as he waited through yet another ex-drunk's story. He'd been in an almost identical beige flat when he'd come back from the war. Had nothing to blog about, no one to distract him from wishing himself back in a war where his skills made sense. There was no point in being a sharpshooter in suburban England. Sebastian Moran had taken the only open job position.

John scoffed out a laugh at the thought, only to shift as the audience's eyes caught on him for a moment. He didn't respond and they shifted back away.

Sherlock had been the only thing that'd kept him from the drink for real.

God, he missed the man.

It was remarkably easy to pretend to be an alcoholic. John walked into meeting after meeting and he didn't see a single counsellor look at him askance. He told each one that the place had been recommended by a friend – Sebastian – and had so far only been pointed to a scrawny, geeky-looking man in his forties that didn't match Mycroft's fuzzy picture of the shooter. Still, it would only be a matter of time before he found the man, if he was going to A.A in the city. There were only so many meetings.

~~//~~

Molly held her breath, peering down the street, thinking for once she'd caught the man. She breathed in relief as John Watson walked under a streetlamp, obviously on his way back to the flat.

He looked mostly okay, she thought, walking down the street to meet him. His skin was clean and shaved, his clothing loose but washed. He looked fine; he'd kept up appearances. He met her eyes and his gaze slid past her unnaturally.

He's not fine.

"Molly," he greeted, walking toward the staircase up to the second floor flats. "Thanks for the uh-casserole".

She nodded, trying to figure out what on earth she was supposed to say. John climbed up the steps and Molly followed quietly, trying to pretend she was helping.

John led her to his flat and opened the door without even touching a key. Molly blinked and glanced inside. The flat was almost entirely empty. Her tupperware sat clean beside a banker's box of papers on the desk, apparently the only items in the room that weren't bolted down by the landlord to keep from being lifted. Other than perhaps the desk chair.

John sat on his bed and didn't look at her. She waited for as long as she could stand, wanting to kill Sherlock for what he'd done to this man. John shifted slightly on the bed and she suddenly felt unwelcome.

"Okay, well-" Molly tried, unsure what to say.

John nodded. Molly wiped her hands down her trousers and glanced around the barren room for something that would start a conversation. How could there be so little in this flat?

John cleared his throat and looked at his lap and Molly knew she was being kicked out. She wiped her hands down her trousers again and said goodbye as she walked away, glad to be leaving the horrible silence there.

~~/~~

:He has joined A.A. MH:

:Why?:

:It's in the name, isn't it? MH:

~~/~~

He couldn’t keep doing this forever. John didn’t know how anyone could stand it, living a life so entirely without purpose.

Nothing ever happens to me, he’d said. Ella had asked why that was a bad thing. He hadn’t mentioned it again.

"I have to bring up your service record, please hold," the grim-sounding man ordered. John nodded quickly and shifted his phone over to the other shoulder. He stared at the damn beige walls, imagining Sherlock stalking into the room, glaring at him for finding anything more important than the work.

The game is on, John!

"Captain Watson?"

"Yes?" John croaked. He cleared his throat rapidly.

Damn it.

"Your honourable discharge says you have a shoulder wound?" the bureaucrat asked.

"Yes, but it no longer impedes much movement. I can shoot with it as well as ever," John promised.

You've proven that, I should think. Sherlock would smirk at the shared secret.

The man was too quiet on the phone.

"The psychosomatic limp has gone away completely," John insisted, gritting his teeth.

"That's good to hear," the man said simply. This wasn't going well. "Captain Watson; you know your shoulder damage was severe. You are not cleared for active duty."

"I'll be a field medic," John compromised.

"I'm afraid that is not feasible. You would be in danger, doctor,”

"It's a bloody war. What the hell do you expect?" John growled.

"Your vulnerability would endanger your crew. I’m sorry, soldier. You have done your duty, stand down," the man replied, his tone too soft.

Yes. Give me orders. Please.

"Please," John stated and cursed, almost throwing his phone across the room before he regained his temper.

"We cannot deploy you, Captain Watson. Given your qualifications, the best I can offer is that you apply for a post running medicals on new recruits."

"Thank you for your time," John replied.

"I'm sorry, Captain."

John hung up and tossed his phone onto the floor by his feet. He let his head sink into his hands and struggled to keep his composure.

He wasn't going to live through this one.

~~/~~

:He attempted to rejoin the army. I did not interfere. I'm not certain it was wise. MH:

~~/~~

"John?" Sarah called, ducking her head into the file room. John glanced up from his computer screen.

"Do you want to go back to working with patients? You're wasted back here."

John forced a smile. Apparently it'd been long enough to warrant him being safe with prescriptions again.

That's illogical. Nothing has changed, Sherlock snarled at him.

I know. Let it go.

John cleared his throat.

"I'm not sure that's wise," he replied honestly.

"Come now, John. It's been six months; you're living again – I know, I know, don't look at me like that. You're not...better. But you can go back to work," she replied.

She's an idiot.

John cleared his throat again.

"Sure," he replied. It would give him free time between patients – he'd read up on the latest medical studies. Anything to keep from thinking.

~~/~~

:It's been too long. You must come back MH:

:I am not coming back:

:That is not wise. MH:

~~//~~

A/N: Thank you all for your support! The comments totally kept me going. LadyLaran, Ms. Abibliophobia, JustLookFrightenedAndScuttle, Kate, Hellvelyn, WD Hawthorne and Constantly Cold, this one's for you guys! Also: JustLookFrightenedAndScuttle: Your account name made me laugh. I love that scene.

Chapter Text

The door opened halfway through some woman's speech about her dead child. John had no idea how but was almost certain he'd found his quarry. He wasn't Sherlock; he didn't have a soldier's gait separated and identified in his mind; he didn't have eyes in the back of his head. He just had a damn strong feeling so he only turned as much as the rest of the crowd and turned back with them, never glancing at the man he might be shooting. He turned back to the speaking drunk and waited, feeling old habits sink back into his bones. He'd always been stupidly good at looking harmless, but he was dealing with a man that had once had him in his sights. He'd have to be damn careful. He already felt a target painted on his back.

He stayed with the crowd as they got up from the damn plastic chairs and headed over to the overly brewed, cheap coffee. A.A was like a really bad singles event afterward, all wax paper cups and personal questions. He turned to see Moran so that he could know for sure. It was him; there was no doubt.

"So, how long were you caught in it?" a woman asked, looking sympathetic as she glanced over at him from filling her cup. He'd already learned to stay away from the coffee to avoid conversations like this but today he needed it, needed to blend in, needed someone to wait with him or to walk him out if Sebastian Moran left first.

He wouldn't kill tonight.

"Awhile," he answered, doing his best to approximate his old harmless closed-mouth smiles.

Next week he'd get Moran before the meeting.

"It's your first day here, isn't it? I'm sorry, there's just a look people get. You know, when they've got nothing left? It takes some time to build your life up again," she stated. John glanced back at her, surprised. She was smarter than Sarah then, apparently.

He swallowed heavily.

"Seven months," he answered. Her eyebrows shot up.

Eight now, he corrected himself too late.

"Wow. My mistake. But it does take a long time. Three years sober now for me and I'm only just starting to actually be glad to be away from it," she said, glancing back at her cup in the machine and pulling it away before it overflowed. She moved to stand in front of him, blocking his view of Moran.

Perfect.

It was a strange rule of A.A meetings that one could ask about the worst, most debilitating time of another person's life and talk about the destruction of families but no one ever, ever asked what got them to drink in the first place. Family history was acceptable to discuss but never to ask for and almost no one mentioned the partner's suicide that started the whole thing. A strange etiquette John was absurdly grateful for.

~~/~~

John had done a suspect retrieval before, but only just the once. Interrogation was a fundamental part of an urban guerrilla war – there was no getting around it. It was one of those things that had soldiers coming home and referring to 'the things they'd seen'. No details. You just didn't tell your civvy girlfriend about this.

After a certain point, training didn't matter. It just wasn't that hard to kill someone, even up close. A safe capture was harder but he didn't have any questions for the man; Sherlock was dead and he knew where the other assassins were. Sherlock had already found their permanent addresses. That would make it easier. It was simply safer to transport a living man and kill him at the dump spot.

John waited in the alley by the front door the next week, hoping Moran would arrive so he could be done with the nastiness.

The A.A crowd slowly trickled in, not even glancing at the alleyway where he hid.

Damn it, but it was cold and his shoulder ached with it. He blew on his hands, knowing he'd need them warm, and shoved them into his pockets, hating how the cold made each breath into a visible little cloud, even through the ski mask. That hadn't been a problem in the Middle East. He'd just have to not breathe, when it came time.

John squinted at his watch in the dark. If it came time. Surely Moran wouldn't bother showing up more than twenty minutes late to an hour-long session.

Twenty minutes later John was starting to think it was useless either way. He wouldn't have much time before the speeches petered out and the parking lot was flooded with alcoholic witnesses again. Then a silver sedan pulled into the lot.

John waited, feeling a grim determination settle over him as he watched Sebastian Moran walk from his car. The sedan beeped twice and its lights flashed, and John was grateful the alleyway was too far away to be lit by it. John stepped behind the man just as he moved to reach for the building's door handle and pressed his needle into the clean-shaven neck. Moran grunted and started to fight but the tranquilizer did its job. John caught the body as it fell and pulled the man into his arms, doing his best to look like a friend with a very unhelpful drunk man. John leaned the limp form over the sedan bonnet, propping Moran up with his knee and left arm while he searched the man's pockets for his keys.

Keys in hand, John dragged the man into the back seat, sickly aware that unlike in Afghanistan, the whole digital world was watching him here; probably in glorious 3D, HD, surround sound. Still, he'd seen all the tricks that had puzzled Sherlock and utterly stumped the police and at the end of the day, the trick was to avoid leaving clues with fancy-ass games.

Sherlock couldn't solve the crime variant where a ‘random masked man drugs a citizen, dumps him in his own car, and kills him’. He needed 'Rache' scratched into the floor, a damn cellphone password that made no sense at all. And Sherlock could still never give the police a 100% solved case rate, because there were simply too many murders, too many suspects, and too little evidence.

He just needed to make it take more than 48 hours to get them pointing at him and they'd never convict him.

He drove the body to the west, to the ugly part of the city where the tourists never went. He parked under a bridge and prepared a second vial of the tranquilizer. This wasn't going to solve the endless list of questions around Sherlock's death, but perhaps it'd keep Mrs. Hudson safe.

John found himself flicking the syringe and letting the drug dribble out to ensure against air bubbles.

How did it come to this? He wondered, reflecting on the prone body before him for a moment, though he knew he was not hesitating. Sebastian Moran would die in this car.

It’s elementary, John.

John shook his head sharply, dispelling the voice though not the idea. This man held a gun to Mrs. Hudson or Lestrade, and compelled Sherlock to jump. It would be a great relief to see him dead.

It’s not vengeance, he told himself. He was protecting Mrs. Hudson.

You’re lying to yourself, he thought, trying to imagine Sherlock looking up from the couch to snarl at him, as he’d done so often.

It doesn’t matter, John decided, and pushed the syringe into the man's arm. He waited a full forty five minutes, until he could feel the corpse start to cool, before he took off his mask and got out of the car. Death could be a hard thing to ensure with a tranquilizer.

He walked toward the train station, the ski mask in his pocket, and dumped the mask and syringe in the trash in the second underground station. It was going to take months to find the next body; he'd have to buy a new mask for the winter.

~~/~~

Chapter 5: Chapter 5

It didn't make sense, Sherlock thought, peering at the official photographs of Sebastian Moran. The man was clearly dead; livor mortis had long since set in and dyed the man's back the ugly purple of settled blood. Mycroft was searching for the killer, certainly, but he'd never find him. There was nothing to work with but a security tape of an average height, masked man that moved like a trained killer and drove the body away from any camera's sight. A hard feat, in London.

Two more and I could come back, he thought but cut it off. That was statistically impossible and he had to stop thinking about London, get used to New York, learn about the disintegration of cloth materials in the Hudson. But Sebastian Moran had had a powerful enemy in London. Somehow, he’d missed that.

~~/~~

He had the third shooter in his car, lying over the backseat, when he realized something was wrong. John stared at the empty syringe in his hand, trying to pick up on a faint thread of memory. There were too many questions surrounding Sherlock's death, far too many, and he had a feeling he'd just stumbled onto the last one.

The black-hair draped over the minivan's back seat, splayed over the side of the cushioning reminded him of the postmortems, Sherlock bleeding over the mortician's table.

Bleeding. Actively.

What the fuck?

He had to be wrong. This was the last one, the last kill and he could empty the rest of the tranquilizer vial into his veins. There was nothing left. He could not rejoin the army; there was nothing to keep him from it. Mrs. Hudson would suffer, that was clear and it made him want to break down screaming to think about it. He did not want Mrs. Hudson to suffer. However, he had always been a reasonable man and he knew, without a doubt, after this kill there would be nothing to stop him the next time he forgot something about Sherlock, forgot how he sounded or stood or smelled. The urge would come again and he had nothing left to fight it back.

Nothing ever happens to me.

But he had to see those pictures again.

~~/~~

Hope bloomed too damn quickly. John took a taxi to the hospital, cursing himself for the way the world seemed to rush around him. He was feeling hopeful. Thinking he could have his dead partner back by some fucking twist of fate and he couldn't take this blow again. He couldn't look at those pictures and see that he was wrong again.

Suicide, John? What's the point?

"Alright?" the cabbie asked, pulling over beside St. Barts. John glanced out of the cab, toward the five story building and swallowed heavily. He made himself breathe through his nose and forced his eyes open. He was fine. "Twenty six quid even," the cabbie announced.

John paid him and made himself step out. The cement was hard beneath his feet and John wanted to puke, glancing over at the large rectangle worked into the concrete to mark the bus stop. Eight months.

Fuck. Sherlock Holmes.

John started for the front door. He made his way down to the morgue, trying to figure out if he should do this. He couldn't take being wrong again.

It doesn't matter, he realized belatedly, staring through the doors into the empty morgue. He wasn't 'handling it' anyway. He wasn't healing.

Why not?, he wondered, stopping outside the morgue door. He could remember walking inside the first time, looking only for a flatmate to lower his rent. Stamford had described a friend of his, a scientist, and he’d hoped for a busy man who’d leave him alone. So, his friend had died. That had happened before. Why was his heart racing now, at this place he’d met Sherlock, at the thought that if Sherlock Holmes were truly gone, he wouldn’t take much time to follow? He’d lost friends before. What more was Sherlock that his death meant so much?

I loved you, you idiot, he remembered texting. John closed his eyes, his stomach clenching at the thought. Surely not.

One more miracle, Sherlock. For me. Don’t be dead.

John slipped inside and crossed to the cabinet Molly had filed the pictures in. She was nowhere in sight but he had lived with Sherlock for over a year. He knew how to pick locks, even if it did take forever.

Case # 135642585: White Male, 37 Years old, Sherlock Holmes

John skipped over the examiner's chart. It didn't matter now. If Sherlock was alive, Molly would have been in on it. She had signed the chart.

Don't try to think, John, it's not your area. This whole theory is asinine.

Actually, Sherlock, it's not, John thought, staring at the photos. Picture 17, time stamp 11:46:02. Sherlock's bloody arm, the bone sticking up through the skin. Picture 18, time stamp 11:46:54, The same arm, at the side of the picture, bloodier now, the bone sticking up through the skin. John flipped back and forth between the pictures, the bile in his throat starting to settle as his heart rate picked up.

Oh my god.

He was going to be like one of Elvis' sick fans, never believing in the actual death. But it was over; he'd never believe it now. That 'corpse' was still bleeding.

Molly, what did you do?

John felt determination flow through him. He had to talk to her. He had to know what the fuck had gone down on the top of that damn building.

Sherlock is alive.

John leaned a hand on the table and tried to breathe steadily.

Sherlock's alive. And I'm going to be furious when I calm down.

John flipped between the two photos again and starting searching through the others for any sort of greater evidence. Nothing. The man looked entirely like a corpse on a table. They'd managed it perfectly; but they couldn't keep him from bleeding.

They hid this for a reason, John remembered, flipping through the pages again and taking picture 17. He folded it up in his pocket quickly and filed the folder away.

He needed to talk to Molly, but first he needed to punch something until his knuckles bled, grab some food, and have a beer.

~~/~~

He couldn't talk to Molly, John realized, halfway through his second beer. If Sherlock was truly alive -fuck -if Sherlock was alive, they'd allowed him to mourn just to make the world believe Sherlock Holmes had died at the bottom of that building.

Which meant he'd just stumbled onto one hell of a secret. John leaned forward over the bar and nursed his drink. No. He had no proof, the pictures weren't that clear. There was a lot of blood on that table, more may have simply seeped to the appropriate side if the autopsy table were tilted and they sometimes were. But it made sense. Sherlock had seen the assassin threat coming, had planned on faking his suicide -fuck you Sherlock -and couldn't come back until the threat was eliminated. Which meant the rest of Moriarty's network, or at least the key players in it.

John smiled grimly around his drink. He had a whole folder full of them.

Wherever Sherlock was, he was fighting through the whole damn thing like a giant puzzle to unravel, when he could just cut his way through.

Best way to get proof, John thought, swallowing down another gulp. Cut through the folder and see if Sherlock Holmes comes back.

He couldn't do that. John stared at his drink, wanting to slam it down on the bar top. He wasn't a murderer; never had been. Most of Moriarty's contacts were guilty of extortion, burglary, destruction of evidence. He'd already dealt with the really dangerous players. If anyone else mattered, there was nothing more he could do, and if it'd only been the assassins, that job was done.

This is Sherlock's game.

John cursed himself and gulped down the rest of his beer. Sherlock was alive, he just had to wait.

And then kill him, John thought, turning his empty glass in his hand. Sherlock had faked his death, faked everything.

When did he start lying to me? John wondered, sighing heavily. He could barely remember the train of events that’d ended with Sherlock on that rooftop. But somewhere in there, Sherlock had guessed Moriarty’s plan and started circumnavigating it, leaving John very much behind.

So I wouldn’t get in the way, John guessed, slamming the glass down despite himself.

“Hard night?” the bartender asked. He was a short gruff man, and he looked concerned. John glanced up to see the quiet crowd staring at him.

“Sorry. Sorry,” John said, grabbing his coat.

“Sure,” the bartender answered and John left.

~~/~~

She was feeling guilty, Donovan thought, lying back in Philip's bed, listening to him shower. She'd always felt like shit about herself, that was hardly a change; she'd used Philip's wife's shampoo for God's sake, now that Sherlock wasn't around to sniff it out. Her life was the work, that was who she really was, so it didn't much matter to her what she did outside of it. But this time she felt guilty about her work and that bit deep.

But she had fuck all idea why. She hadn't done anything wrong. She was a good cop, and had proved that to herself those few months ago. Proved it to anyone who could ask that she'd put justice over her own career because god she hadn’t done herself any favors accusing her supervisor's only friend -if Sherlock had even been that - of kidnapping and assault. Internal investigations didn't do wonders for anyone.

And it hadn't been her damn fault the man had gone and played leapfrog over a building. The fraudulent creep had already been mentally unstable and she'd sacrificed her career to get a psychopath off the streets. It'd been the arresting officer's job to fucking arrest him, rather than let him run off the hood of the car into all of London to go kill himself. That was on the arresting officers and Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Christ, but Dr. Watson. The man had looked on the verge of collapse when she'd seen him, after. His eyes did not track through the world right, like he’d already decided there was nothing worth focusing on and he no longer bothered. That wasn't her damn fault either. Sally rolled over sharply and punched her pillow. She was going to sleep; she had no business feeling guilty.

Philip's shower stopped. Sally tried to sink into the bed and groaned to herself. God, but she was tired.

There was nothing else going on at work. The homicide unit had the same schedule for every case. They'd get called in for a murder, figure out if it was the spouse or a drug relation, or find out it was neither, work for 48 hours straight, call it a cold case and go home. And after just such a spree -it'd been the spouse and they'd only just caught up with him – she should be dead to the world, not lying awake ruminating about things that weren't her bloody fault.

"You need to stop feeling guilty," Philip said unnecessarily, looking over from where he stood in a towel in the doorway. Sally groaned and ran her hands down her face.

"You did the right thing. You are a good cop," he said and Sally felt something lift in her chest despite herself.

"Thanks," she replied.

"You shouldn't have to hear it form me. Sherlock Holmes was creepy; he always was, and if there's anything I've learned in forensics its that the world really isn't that exciting. There aren't these great puzzles and masterminds. Cold cases, sure, but no one's that damned clever," he said, walking into the room and turning to his dresser to fetch his pajamas. Why a grown man felt the need to wear pajama bottoms she had no idea. She'd asked him when they'd just started and he'd joked that he never knew if Sherlock was just going to come barging in, shouting about Swiss cheese. She'd laughingly agreed it was a fair concern, at the time.

"I suppose I do wonder," Sally admitted, turning over again to face him better. "I mean, how could Sherlock have set up all of them? Not the more recent cases, but the normal, bland ones he helped with, finding the drug dealer's abandoned car, finding the victim's body after an obvious shooting, that kind of thing. I mean five years of boring cases? That seems almost as far-fetched as him being that stupidly clever and having a 'nemesis'," she admitted.

Still, she'd thought that before and looked into that and made her decision – maybe Sherlock was smart enough to solve those crimes but he'd obviously gotten bored. The Richard Brook fiasco had been his crime, not the murders. Just the bombings and the forged paintings. That was enough.

"Nobody is that clever," Philip repeated, shrugging as if that answered all the questions. Sally growled and turned over again. She was going to find a new colleague-with-benefits. Anderson really did lower the intelligence of the whole street, even if he was usually kind about it.

"I don't think he faked it all," Sally replied finally as Philip turned off the light. "I just mean the Reichenbach and Richard Brook thing. I didn't mean to imply anything more that that, not that that isn't enough."

Sally blinked. Philip had gone utterly still, halfway through crawling into bed. She felt him roll backwards, getting his feet back on the floor and he flicked on the light. He was standing by the bed, staring at her, looking about ready to be sick.

"What?" she asked and he reached for his phone.

"I just – I gotta look something up," he said, pulling his smart phone off the charger.

"What?" she repeated, concerned. He glanced up and met her eyes.

"I think Reichenbach is Rich Brook in German," he answered.

Sally blinked.

"Oh bloody fucking hell," she said, sitting up.

~~//~~

John wrestled his way out of his sheets, panting.

Fuck, he thought, sitting up in his cot and waiting for the spike of grief that always followed sleep.

Sherlock's alive, he thought and blinked, running a hand down his face, unable to believe it again. He pulled the folded up picture off of his bedside table and stared at Sherlock's horribly broken arm, remembering the second picture.

Sherlock's alive.

He sank back down to his cot for a moment to stare at the ceiling, trying to process that. Somewhere in the world, Sherlock was slinking through an alleyway, his eyes lit up with brilliance. John inhaled, feeling like he hadn’t breathed in years, and swung his legs over the bed.

Fuck, Sherlock, I miss you.

And he was going to get back in shape, practice his sharpshooting, come alive again.

You made a plan based on the fact that I'm stupid? That turned out so well for you, you absolute dick.

I need to pretend to still be mourning you.

That was fine; John could still feel the harsh ache in his chest and throat he'd come to associate with Sherlock.

I'm used to mourning, now. It didn't feel like much had changed.

That's the shock. It'll pass. I want to feel this.

He went to Sherlock’s grave.

He had some trouble finding it; the plot had grown over with grass and looked like it'd never been disturbed. The cut stone had sunk into the mud and could have been sitting in its exact spot for a hundred years for all John could tell. It looked, in other words, like an utterly normal grave.

He sat down, his back supported by the stone, and tried to remember that his friend was alive in the world somewhere. It made the loss so much more bearable, to know the world had not lost such a man. Still, he was starting to think Sherlock wasn't coming back.

The assassins were dead. John had done all that he could and tried to pretend like he wasn't living every day like the man was going to be the next one walking into the clinic, the bar, the flat.

It wasn't working particularly well.

:I keep waiting for you to come home. Every time a door opens. I can't keep waiting, Sherlock.: John tossed his phone into the grass, knowing the man wasn't going to respond.

God, Sherlock. John closed his eyes and rested his head back on the stone. He felt like a madman, clinging onto a useless hope. He wished he'd taken both photos from the morgue; he couldn't prove it to himself with just the one. John pulled it out of his pocket and straightened it out carefully. The folds had become worn and soft with time and were threatening to tear. As always, there was nothing to see in the photo but the blood-covered fractured arm of a corpse. John sighed and folded it back into his pocket.

He'd have faith.

But he couldn't kill himself, if the man was alive to suffer for it.

Damn it, Sherlock, then come home. You can't have it both ways, John thought, pushing himself off of the dirt. Mourning wasn't any different closer or further from the grave. The sun was setting; it'd be getting dark soon. He'd go home and not come back again.

He took the fastest route, back to his flat. He wanted to change and go back to work. A badly-parked Crisco truck almost had him miss the alleyway between the mexican restaurant and the local pharmacy but habit made him turn. He'd only gotten halfway through it when the scrape of a foot behind him gave him pause. He started to turn around, concerned, and a blow to his knees threw him from his feet.

He went down hard, scraping an arm across the sidewalk. He rolled, moving to fight, when a kick landed in his stomach and a man leaned over him, pushing a syringe into his arm.

Right. John grabbed onto the leg as it kicked him again and punched up into its owner's bullocks with all his force, raising himself onto his knees as he moved. The man bent over with pain but another hand grabbed John's head by the hair and slammed him into the brick wall beside him. Pain smashed over the right side of his face and John wanted to roll around to protect his head but he resisted, twisting in the grip and letting his hair pull horribly to lunge at the man, getting his hand free as quickly as possible to reach for his gun. He didn't have long; his limbs were already feeling slow.

His stomach rolled. His head was summarily slammed into the brick again but he'd gotten the gun into his hand. He lifted it up and saw his hand wobbling horribly, worse than it felt.

Drugs, he realized and got his second hand up to help pull the heavy trigger.

The bang of the gun deafened him for a moment, and the man's stomach splashed outward over the wall. John tried to get his body to turn to the next man, even as his stomach twisted in his gut. He turned in time to see a gun pointed at his face.

"Drop it and lie down," the man ordered and John obeyed, feeling his stomach roll again as his eyesight started to narrow, like he'd stood up too fast and too early. His stomach rolled again and he fought to swallow, feeling feint.

Damn drugs, he thought as he obeyed the man's command and lowered himself to the concrete.

~~/~~

A/N: What do you think? How much does Mycroft know what's going on? I still haven't decided.

Chapter Text

A/N: Happy Friday! If you've been following the comments, you'll know where Mycroft is in all this :P Thank you Hellvlyn, Junkenmetal, FictionFairyTalesFantasy and JustLookFrightenedAndScuttle for your assist!

John woke up with his head pounding in pain and his arms pulled together in front of him, his shoulders aching.

Right. Tied up, then.

Probably not Mycroft's doing, John thought, wincing. Contrary to the opinion of popular television, people didn't go unconscious easily and they didn't wake up easily, not from blows to the head or drugs anyway.

This could be bad, John thought, tugging at the bonds at his wrists, trying to move as little as possible. The bonds cut into his skin; plastic wire ties.

Shit.

He breathed in and released it softly, doing his best to keep his body relaxed, still sleeping. The longer they thought he was unconscious, the more time Lestrade would have to find him before the torture started; if that was what they were planning. He'd count himself damn lucky if he were just a hostage.

Who is 'they'?

He thought Taliban first, out of habit, but it was ridiculous. He was in London. Or at least, he had been. God knew, now.

His second thought was Moriarty, but that didn't make much sense. Moriarty was dead, wasn't he? John had to fight to keep his breathing calm. God, if Moriarty wasn't dead either then Sherlock had jumped for nothing.

He was panicking, John acknowledged, forcing himself to calm down.

Just. Think, he ordered himself.

He couldn't feel any wind, but the air was too cool for June outside and his eyelids were dark in front of his eyes. No, he was inside. And something was dripping, somewhere to his right. His hands were tied down to something below him; his own chair, maybe?

"You're very good at faking sleep, you know," a voice mentioned blandly from in front of him. A man's voice; he sounded young and oddly...reasonable. John wasn't sure what he was expecting from his captor. Something similarly nuts as that 'Shun' woman who'd almost killed Sarah, sing-songing her words and talking to a non existent circus audience. That, at least, made a sick kind of sense. This man sounded like a bank teller.

Still, he kept up the sleeping act, praying the man was just trying to bluff him out of it.

Footsteps approached his chair softly. John kept up his act, trying desperately to keep his calm as he heard the footsteps settle next to him.

Pain slammed into the side of his face, blossoming over his cheek and eye. John's eyes flew open, only to clench shut against the pain.

John opened his eyes slowly, blinking away the tears that had burst into his eyes at the blow. He was in a parking garage; that was clear from the angled lines on either side of the floor and the numbered lots. It was a huge basement garage, lit up only by overhead lights.

How do you find a parking garage you know will be empty? Does he own it?

"Hey," the man greeted, walking away. He was a fairly short, blond man with a plaid blue jacket and jeans. Utterly ordinary, except for the ugly piercing he had in one ear, the hole looking rather red around the edges. Infection was setting in.

Where is the draft coming from? John wondered, turning his head to see an up ramp opening up behind him and to his right. He looked back at his captor who was sitting down on a chair in front of him. He had a trimmed mustache and green eyes, and smiled blandly at him like they'd just been left awkwardly alone at a cocktail party.

"I'm supposed to torture you into insanity," the man mentioned, spinning a pen in his hands.

John felt fear spike through him.

"Why?" he asked. His voice came out steady. John pulled gently against the plastic holding his hands. Even by cutting himself he wasn't going to pull his hands free. The parking garage was musty, smelling like dust and dry dirt. Unused for a long time, then, maybe. A parking garage should smell like oil and there wasn't a trace of it.

The man leaned back in his chair, considering.

"Don't really know, to the honest," he said, lifting himself up in the chair slightly to reach into his back pocket. He pulled out a folded slip of cream-colored paper and held his pen between his teeth for a moment, freeing his hands to unfold the thing. "Got a whole list here, very specific," he said, shaking the paper open and retrieving his pen.

American, apparently.

John felt his heart start to pound and dragged his eyes away from the list. First thing he'd learned about torture; using fear and anticipation. His C.O. had told him about this; told him not to look at what was going to happen, to allow his brain to predict the pain but not imagine it when it wasn't happening.

Good fucking luck, he thought, tugging slightly at the bonds around his feet. They cut against his ankles, feeling like ribbed plastic too. Fucking wire ties.

"I've never tortured anyone to a To-Do list before. Feels sort of -" the man paused, rubbing his two fingers together, "classless," he ended on.

"Well, god forbid it isn't classy," John commented, feeling himself blink rapidly, trying to catch up with this man who sat across from him.

The man chuckled and pulled a pair of glasses out of his shirt pocket to focus on the paper in his hands.

"Okay, so apparently this starts with a letter," the man said, glancing up at him as if to ask 'what the hell?' before refocusing on the paper in his hands. It was fine paper, made out as a handwritten note on stationary.

John had a feeling he knew exactly what was going on. Moriarty wouldn't just die and let all that building tension on him go.

Will this never be over?

"Hello pet," the man started, pushing his glasses up his nose with his index finger. "You know, when he was on his deathbed, Bach, he heard his son at the piano playing one of his pieces. The boy stopped before he got to the end and Bach rose from his deathbed, just to get to the piano and finish it before he died," the man read in a monotone before glancing up from the letter, his mouth quirked up. "Is that true?" he asked.

John rolled his tongue around his mouth, pressing at the warm areas he could feel bruising. He needed to keep this man talking.

"Right. I haven't a notion. It sounds like bullshit," he replied honestly. "But Moriarty would not have stood for a false metaphor, I think," he said, glancing around the room for anything resembling help. His pockets were empty; he could feel that, so that was useless. "Assuming it is a metaphor," he added, to keep talking. He regretted it immediately, as it drew the torturer's gaze back to the note.

"It is, yeah. I've read this over before," the man clarified, scanning the note. "Anyway. Bach, bla bla, ah yeah, here, I'm just like Bach, see? A composer. I can't stand to see it incomplete. You probably don't understand. You're mostly very stupid, but that's fine with me. You're not the point. Were you sleeping with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson? I always wondered that. Oh well, I'm dead now, so that's hardly important. Still, he was too good for you. You're so boring," the torturer looked up, stilling his pen where he was tracking the words, "that's in italics," he clarified.

Why would I care? John wondered, but he made himself nod quietly.

"Just the word boring or -"

"No, no, just the word," the man interrupted, glancing back down at the sheet.

"If Moriarty is dead, who is paying you?" John asked.

Maybe I can offer to pay him better? Mycroft owes me that much.

"Oh, it was paid in advance," the man answered.

What the devil?

"Then why torture me?" John asked, wondering if he'd come upon yet another sadist criminal 'mastermind'. Apparently they were as common as tourists in modern day London.

"I'm sort of a go-to guy, you know? I've done a lot of jobs and the people who work with me know I get my work done well so they ask to hire me again. I can't afford to just reneg on jobs, not in this economy," the man replied, grinning slightly to himself before refocusing on the paper. "Sorry buddy," he added, glancing up. "Anyway, back to this wackjob's note, shall we? Apparently you're boring enough to be italicized and..." the man's eyes flicked over the paper.

"I've always been one for contingency plans. Your lover never really got that, did he? That was his weakness, he always wanted it to be so damn complicated, such a good puzzle. Well, people aren't puzzles, Johnny Boy. They're boring, and really just not that hard to beat. All you need are contingency plans. See, I didn't have to wonder 'what if' – what if Sherlock didn't jump, what if he faked it, what if he killed me before I got to explain, because in the end I was always going to win. Do you see it now? I rather doubt it. I'll spell it out for you. It didn't matter what Sherlock did, Johnny boy, I was always going to torture you. I gave him options to see what he'd do, see if he was interesting, see if he was like me. Between you and me, though, I hope he faked it. Then he gets to come home, not when he planned, but when I call him back to me, to find you so very gone. I'm not going to kill you, Johnny, I'm going to burn you. Did you see that coming? I kept repeating it, hoping one of you would understand. I'm going to burn you – to be precise, Mike is going to burn you -" the torturer looked up, waving a hand slightly before he went back to the note "until Sherlock comes for you. Or alternatively, that pet D.I of his or that angry black detective he has working for him, but I hope it's Sherlock, because by the time you're found and you will be found, you'll be utterly mad. Whatever it is that Sherlock finds so endearing about you burned away forever. Do you see the poetry in that? I will burn his heart, by burning out your mind."

Oh my god, John thought, feeling ill. The torturer – Mike – glanced over the letter, flipping it back and forth in his hands as if checking if it had a back.

"Oh, and it's signed, 'with love, Jim Moriarty," he said, flipping it back to show him the front. "You seriously pissed him off, huh?" he asked folding the paper away and shoving it into his back pocket. He pulled out a piece of folded up lined paper to replace it. "So I have this list I'm supposed to follow, times and all," he said, checking his watch – an old black plastic thing that glowed slightly. "Got a few minutes," he said.

"What time is it then?" John asked.

"8:27," the man replied and John blinked, realizing he had no idea if it was day or night.

"Be right back," Mike excused himself, getting out of the chair and walking around the corner. "It's probably charged up now."

John felt fear clench at his stomach again.

Oh god, Sherlock.

"So what was this Sherlock guy like, anyhow?" Mike asked, walking around the corner again, holding a blowtorch in a gloved hand.

Oh god. John felt himself pull at his bonds despite himself and felt the plastic catch against his skin and start to cut. He forced himself still and tugged at the bonds, hoping he could get just the one hand out, something. Most of all, he knew he needed to stall. He wasn't likely getting out of this one alone.

Lestrade, you better fucking notice I'm gone. When had he last seen the man?

"Tall, dark hair, brilliant, funny," John answered. "Could tell where you'd been, what you'd eaten, just by looking at you."

Keep going, he thought desperately as the man strode toward him, checking his watch. His brain blanked with fear and he fought it, trying to think of anything to say about his friend. God, Sherlock Holmes.

"I can't believe you haven't heard of him. He was amazing," John stated. The man quirked a smile and opened his arms wide.

"American," he announced and John nodded. That at least, was obvious.

"Right. Yeah. He could be loud for hours, throwing a fit, and then just wouldn't speak for days. Wouldn't even really seem to realize I'm -"

Mike pulled the blowtorch's trigger, letting out a burst of blue flame. He nodded and cut the flame off, working a nail out of his pocket.

Keep talking, John told himself.

"He was uh – kind, sometimes, when he wasn't being an absolute prat. You know, could just really screw up and be actually sorry about it, which for him came as a bit of a -"

The man was heating up the nail head now, pinching it between two fingers.

I still talk about him in the past tense. Haven't gotten used to it yet – Sherlock's alive.

It was just as well, he thought belatedly. He had to hide that fact, through this. That helped, he thought.

"He really loved Mrs. Hudson, quite a bit. Not quite sure how he felt about Molly. He was always a cad to her, really," he babbled as the man stopped heating the nail up and approached him. John slammed his hands into the bonds, fighting like hell now. It was too late for subtlety. The bonds didn't give.

John woke, gasping for air, only to feel his body instinctively try to pull up as water flooded his mouth and nose. A hand kept him down and John's eyes flew open to see the bottom of a bucket, distorted through the water. His hands scraped against the concrete below his chest, useless. He kicked out behind him but met nothing but air. He couldn't get enough purchase on the floor with his feet, couldn't force his way back up. He coughed out the last of his air and tried horribly, desperately not to inhale again. His lungs rebelled, wanting to cough again and John tried to stay calm, tried to remember what he'd learned about surviving longer under water if you stayed still and didn't fight it. Still, that could only last so long and he needed air; god, he was dying and it hurt and he pulled at his hands, letting the plastic cut into him further, if it would help at all. He had no choice but to let the plastic rip at him.

"We're getting off our time table. Stop passing out," Mike complained as he dragged him back out of the water. John pulled in air desperately and his lungs rebelled again, coughing too much to breathe.

Breathe, just breathe, he told himself, trying to stay above the panic, trying to stay silent and sane.

"You know, this whole routine has been totally ridiculous, but at the end of the day I do appreciate the method," Mike commented.

John glanced down to see the metal hook attach to his bonds and tightened his arms. This, at least, the army had tried to prepare him for. If he could keep his arms strong and lift his own weight, he could avoid a good bit of the pain and permanent joint damage. So far, it hadn't seemed like Mike knew that – or hadn't particularly cared, as long as he followed the script.

Sherlock, you fucker. You better have left some way for people to contact you.

"Burning is just really damn efficient and people always underestimate it. If it helps at all, I'm only supposed to use other torture methods to wake you up," Mike commented, pulling on the rope set into the hook on the ceiling. John felt the rope jerk against his binds and set his jaw. Mike had wrapped rope around his arms – the only reason he was going to keep his hands, through this, but the man was smart about it; he'd yet to come close to John at all while he was awake.

The rope pulled at him, unyielding and John pulled back against it, letting his muscles engage and keep his shoulders firmly in their sockets as the rope lifted his arms above his head and steadily raised him up.

He heard the sound of the blowtorch again and felt his stomach roll. He pulled his tongue away from his teeth, afraid he'd bite it off in this next session. He was fairly sure Mike was writing something on his back.

~~/~~

"Well, apparently we're done," Mike said, suddenly shutting off the torch. "We're supposed to build up to it all, some today, more tomorrow, et cetera," he said. John tried to open his eyes and gave up, not caring. He was pinned down on his face, locked to two hooks drilled into the floor,. Mike unhooked the one at his feet, leaving John's hands chained to the wall ten feet in front of him. "So, you know, living arrangements wise, I'll grab you a water bottle and some food in the morning. There's a Brewers Fayre not far off. Feel free to pick a pee corner, try not to sleep in it and if you scream I will gag you with a rag soaked in comet cleanser, and trust me, I've gotten that shite on my hands and you don't want it in your mouth. Don't disturb my sleep. Nice day, yeah?"

John listened to Mike's footsteps trail off, trying to get himself to care which direction they went. Right, up that ramp probably, then too faint to tell. Other than that, there was nothing but the indistinct sound of water dripping. He'd heard it every time the blowtorch stopped or he'd stopped moaning.

One hour? How could that only have been one hour?

Dread poured through him, thinking about another day. He wasn't supposed to think about that. He was supposed to think about good things, when the pain had stopped. Things to stay sane for. He couldn't think of any. He pushed himself up, his arm muscles screaming at him, his back feeling like the hot nail was still on him. His vision swam when he stood and he quickly bent back down, deciding to hobble his way to the wall to sit down, keeping his back far away from it. He glanced over the room, desperately trying to find something helpful in it while he listened for Mike's footsteps. God, there was a lot of blood. Too much blood, for a burning.

John forced himself to swallow and figure it out, remembering the feint clicking sound every time the nail was pulled away. A pocket knife, then. Mike was cutting away the burned spots.

John swallowed bile down again and closed his eyes, just wanting to disappear but he had to force them open again. He had to wait to be found. There was almost nowhere in England where you could scream without being heard and he'd certainly done enough of that. Sherlock would use that, surely.

John brought his wrists to his teeth and started to chew on the plastic by his pinkies, where it couldn't be seen. He bent the plastic back and forth with his teeth, letting it pinch and cut into his wrists. He wouldn't last many more days before he lost the strength to get away.

~~//~~

:Lost contact. Standby. MH:

~~//~~

Chapter Text

A/N: Happy Hanukkah! Or Merry Christmas! I gift you with a new chapter, uploaded early! Been planning ahead for this for weeks :P Leave me a comment or an emoticon ? Happy Holidays across the Fandom!

~~//~~

It was cold, despite the summer. John was shocked that could bother him at all, with his back caked over with blood and wire ties cutting into his wrists and ankles, but the shivering hurt and time moved so slowly. He forced himself to stay awake against the freezing concrete as he ripped at the plastic on his hands. His teeth hurt but he had only this one chance.

He stopped chewing when he heard Mike walking back. Dread poured over him and John pushed back into the wall behind him, letting the skin on his back pull and scream. He doubled over to protect himself and his back ripped open. He gasped, trying to breathe.

Don't fight, he ordered himself when the footsteps stopped just out of reach. He'd need his hands; any move too soon would ruin his only chance and he'd die in this godforsaken parking garage.

Mike leaned down, grabbing him by the hair to keep his head still, and slipped something around his hands. John glanced down and fought, pressing backward, letting his hair rip while he watched a new wire tie wrap around the old. Mike pulled on the new plastic and it synched itself closed around him. Escape aborted, so very easily.

Mike cut the old one off and smiled grimly at the ripped up plastic.

"Good morning," he said simply. John did his best to breathe steadily, wishing he knew how to prepare his mind for what was coming. He wasn't getting himself out of here. "I've gotta beat the shit out of you today. Photoshoot coming up," Mike said, pulling the lined-paper list out of his pocket to gesture at it.

More today, John remembered, struggling to swallow.

~~/~~

Lestrade didn't know how to do the timing right. He took every opportunity he had to talk to Molly in person, pick up files and drop off forensic evidence, but he could be as friendly as he wanted; there was something about dropping off a desiccated disembodied foot for the morgue to identify that didn't set the mood for a dinner date. Apparently he was getting to test that one in person now.

Molly didn't seem to notice, though. She walked around the room, stuffing the evidence bag into one of the lab's refrigerators and typing it up a label, not even really appearing to notice if he was still there.

"So, Molly," he started, and she turned too quickly, her mouth already open to speak. "Go ahead," he offered.

"Oh! I -er -I was just wondering if you've seen John? Lately?" she asked, biting her lip.

Well. That killed that then, Lestrade figured, sighing.

"No, it's been a few days. Should I be worried?" he asked, feeling his eyebrows furrow. How long had it been since he'd last dropped in to sit across from the silent, desperate man? Three weeks?

"I don't know. He said months ago that he was going to join the army, I just thought – maybe – you know, he'd say goodbye?"

"I thought he couldn't, what with the bullet wound?" Lestrade asked, confused. Molly shrugged slightly.

"I don't know much about it. I guess he can. It might be good for him," she said.

"To get shot at? Afghanistan isn't good for anyone," Greg argued, thinking she might be a little naive at the end of the day. That could be a problem. He had two kids, for hell's sake; he needed a woman who could hold her own against them. Especially Jake. Strange concept; a naive mortician.

"He said otherwise he'd shoot himself," Molly replied quietly.

Ah. Not naive.

Greg glanced over her, starting to get concerned. She looked so diminished without the two of them running around the lab, pulling crazy theories out of nothing. It was all too quiet now. He knew the feeling; Scotland Yard was the same thing; all domestic abuse calls. He had three murders in, two almost certainly drug related and a new one, woman beaten in with an umbrella, that he knew they weren't going to get enough evidence for before the stepson fled the E.U.

It didn't matter what Sally and Philip pulled up on Richard Brook now; Sherlock was dead. He'd do his best to clear the man's name for John, and that was close to finished now, but John didn't seem to care much. About anything.

No, it was still too soon. Greg glanced around the room, looking for a good escape.

"Well. I'll – uh -visit him in a few days, see how he's holding up. I've got some questions about Sherlock's old cases," he said, turning for the door. "I never thought a blog was going to work so well as case files before," he joked quietly. Molly smiled but it slipped slightly at the edges of her mouth. Yeah, he knew that feeling too.

He left, deciding next time. Next time they'd be over it.

~~//~~

"So he really was your lover, huh?" Mike asked, when the torch stopped.

"What?" John groaned, pulling his head up. The words came out wrong, like he was talking around marbles. He had to keep the man talking. He'd do anything. His throat burned when he talked but it kept the torch off.

"Well, I wouldn't scream some random bloke's name, is all," the man replied conversationally, moving around to John's front and releasing the rope to lower him back to the floor. John heard the heavy crack as his knees hit the concrete but he didn't feel it at all.

"You scream Sherlock, when you scream," the man clarified, swinging his chain around to disconnect it from the hook on the ceiling. It fell onto John's back heavily and John cried out, falling forward. He sobbed, pushing his forehead into the concrete.

"Not intentional," the man said, as if it mattered. "My bad."

Yeah. God, John thought rolling heavily to his side. He still felt like himself. John Watson, only in too much pain to think. He was not mad yet, he thought.

"So, out of curiosity, is Sherlock really dead then?" the man asked, moving the chain around to lock John to the wall again. "I looked you two up last night. Great stuff."

Was this all leading up to that? So it sounded casual to ask if Sherlock is alive? John wondered, staring at the man. It would help, somehow, if this actually had a point.

"Why do you want to know?" John rasped out.

The man glanced over, looking surprised.

"You’d know, if you'd ever tortured anyone, that by day two they'll answer every question immediately, unless they've already decided to lie to you," he commented, reaching for the blowtorch from where it was cooling on the ground.

John scrambled back, letting his back scream and he rolled away.

"No, right, not a secret. He's dead. Been dead for a year," he promised.

"Do you really believe that?" the man asked, peering at him.

"Yes, please yes," John pleaded. God, he should have answered right away; if only he'd answered right away.

"Alright, then have fun biting at your leash," the man replied, picking up the blowtorch and striding away. They were done. John hung his head down, trying to get his muscles to relax. He'd be in less pain when he relaxed.

I need water, John remembered insanely, his body hot and sick with dehydration. He'd only make another couple days if he weren't bleeding buckets all over the concrete. He scooted back again and heard something tip. He looked back only to feel his heart jump as he scrambled forward, grabbing at the water bottle before it rolled out of his reach.

~~/~~

Captain John Hamish Watson had not returned to service. Greg put the phone down quietly, feeling dread wash over him. Something felt very, very wrong.

~~/~~

John tried to force his body backward, out of the water. He needed to breathe, but a hand was holding him down and panic was taking over. He kicked backwards but didn't land on anything, and he couldn't keep himself from inhaling, he needed air. He choked as he inhaled and tried to cough the water from his lungs even as it meant he choked further.

Oh god.

Heavy hands dragged him out of the water and John bent over, his stomach rolling up and he threw up over the ground, only to choke on it as he tried to inhale.

"Stop passing out," Mike repeated, dragging him back toward the hook.

~~/~~

"Hello?" Molly picked up the phone on the first ring. Greg was grateful.

"Hey Molly-" Crap. "Er- Ms. Hooper-"

"Molly's fine," she said cheerfully. That would have been so good to hear, once.

"Great. Molly, have you seen John lately?"

He heard the pause and knew the answer.

Shite.

"Not since he came for the postmortems, why?" she asked, sounding concerned.

"He's not enlisted in the army," he replied, swallowing heavily.

This could be bad. This could be really bad.

"Oh, god,' she said and he knew she was thinking the same.

"He's not picking up his phone," he added.

"I'll run by his place," she said quickly and he heard the noise of keys fumbling on the other side of the phone.

"I'm standing outside it," he answered, glancing around the empty, dank hallway. No one had answered.

"Oh, god."

"I'm going to swing by Baker Street. See if their landlady has seen him," he offered.

Not likely. Damn it John, don't do this to us.

"Oh, god," Molly repeated. Greg hung up.

~~/~~

John woke to a gentle shake of his shoulder.

"John?"

Oh, thank god, he thought, pulling himself from the dregs of his nightmare.

"Sherlo-" he started, but the name sounded strange on his lips and he opened his eyes. Mike was squatting in front of him, looking bemused. John shot forward, reaching his hands out for the blowtorch, ready to kill the man. His wrists caught against the plastic binds and he was rolled back by a blow to the teeth he couldn't dodge. He landed on his back and shouted before instinctively gulping down the blood that rushed from between his teeth.

"Welcome back, stop passing out,” the man said. John swallowed blood again and tried to pull away.

The man tugged him toward the hook with little trouble. John told himself not to fight but still his body lurched backward, desperately kicking at the man. Another fist slammed into his teeth and the man threw his chain over the hook on the ceiling again.

"Well, this is escalating quickly today," Mike commented, pulling his torch from his back pocket.

Oh god.

Still, the man hadn't replaced his wire ties, and as far as John could tell, hadn't noticed the small amount of damage he'd made to them. There was hope.

~~//~~

:J.W. location unknown. Suspected suicide. MH:

Sherlock reread the message and closed his eyes, feeling ill. He rarely hated his brain but right now, when it meant he didn't know his partner, didn't understand the emotions involved and couldn't hope to predict them, he loathed everything about it. He'd rather be dim than so ignorant.

What was the point? What could be gained in ending life? Sherlock's brain whispered at him and he pulled his hands through his hair, silencing it. He'd think about where John would have gone; every possibility and their associated probabilities dispassionately and he'd go down the list in order when he got back and he would find him.

"Sir, you have to put your phone away," the fight attended pestered him again.

"Fuck you, John is likely dead," Sherlock hissed at her, wanting to rip her limb from limb. How could she stand there like nothing in the world mattered but his bloody phone.

"I'm so sorry, sir, but you have to put your phone away," she repeated at him and he snarled but had to obey; they couldn't toss him off this plane. He needed to get back. She left him alone and Sherlock threw his head back on the seat behind him. He needed to think of all the places John could have gone. He'd have a 7 hour flight worth of options when he landed.

~~/~~

John woke up to a bright light flashing over his face. He blinked up at it, blinded for a moment, to see Mike holding a camera before the light flashed again. John tried desperately to think of any clue he could give and just rolled out of the way so the white line on the floor was exposed before Mike took another shot. He tried to think of some fancy clue, holding up four fingers to mean...something that Sherlock could use, but he still hadn't come up with anything when Mike stopped and walked away.

“Day three. You have forty minutes before we start," he said and John moaned and tried to press himself back away from the man, trying not to puke. Mike gave him the time just to make him dread it all, John knew, but he could not get his heart rate to slow.

Get angry, John told himself, but he could not hate this mysterious, cheerful man who treated torture like another day on the job.

Forty minutes, that wasn’t long. John closed his eyes.

Keep your eyes fixed on me. Please, will you do this for me?

Sherlock planned to jump, designed every second of that experience so he’d believe, likely because he didn’t trust John not to give away his trick. Fury rippled through him and John grabbed onto it, pouring his fear into the desire to rip someone’s body apart. Mike walked into the room shortly later and John was coated in sweat, panting, but still he pretended to have fallen back asleep, pretended to be difficult to wake up, pretended to be docile.

~~/~~

:Lestrade has a warrant to search John's flat. It is empty. He will discover that in an hour. MH:

~~/~~

Chapter Text

Sherlock spent the night crossing 37 options off of his list, including drug dens and alcoholic recovery centers before he started looking for a body. Mycroft would have already searched most of them, he knew, but there wasn’t much point in spending time locating a corpse. He had twenty most-likely options if John had committed suicide but he didn’t start checking them until the dawn. What was the point of having a body, once death was confirmed? - but Mrs. Hudson would want a proper funeral, he figured, and he pushed his way through the door to the familiar roof of Bart’s Hospital.

This was the last place he ever expected to come back to, but John may have wanted to die here. It was an arrogant thought, he knew that, but it seemed likely all the same. He opened the door to the top of Bart's hospital wing with a sickening feeling of expectation. He ignored it. This was by far the most likely. It would be a sick kind of justice.

The roof was empty. The wind blew lightly over his hair, kicking dust and dirt around him. He was wearing clothing fit for New York, loose jeans and a leather jacket. It kept the cold from distracting him. There was no sign of a body here.

His old phone was still there, lying by the far wall. Sherlock walked over to it, wondering how the police had possibly missed it, much less Mycroft's teams. It was exactly where he'd thrown it before he'd jumped so long ago. Two options: either Mycroft's team had found it and left it -likely, choosing to maintain the scene to hide their presence - or they were utterly incompetent. Sherlock picked up the phone, long dead after a year of rain. Idiots, either way. His new phone buzzed on; Mycroft.

:Missing Persons notified. Last spotted four days ago:

Sherlock stared at the message, feeling the wind tug at his hair. Four days. How had no one noticed John for four days? That happened to the impoverished elderly with no grown children and the homeless. Sherlock knew only too well what John’s corpse would look like after four days. His stomach rolled. John’s skin would be black and loose, sliding from his bones with little pressure. It was summer; his corpse would be riddled with maggots, bloated with gas, sitting in a pool of dark fluids, reeking of acetone.

He had to talk to Molly. He needed more facts, something to pin down what John might have done and where. Did John have any enemies? Sherlock tried to remember their conversations, surely, after their time together, he’d know. But Sherlock could not even say what John did in the army to learn his skills at sharpshooting, or how he’d put them to use. Who had John shot, before that telling night with the cabby? Who could have come for him now? Or was this case exactly what it seemed - a suicide by a markedly unstable, miserable veteran upon the death of his friend?

It didn't take long to sneak back through the hospital. With international plane-flight stubble and his poor attire all he'd had to do was steal a mop from a janitor's cart and walk. The inaccurately titled 'security guards' didn't apparently care that his mop was bone dry. Sherlock rushed down the steps to the hospital basement, knowing no one was likely to see him at six in the morning. He spared a glance through the doors to make sure Molly was alone and stopped short.

Damn it. Lestrade was talking to her. Apparently deciding to 'help'. The man needed to get out of the way. Sherlock had determined it safest that he not come back unless there was no possibility of John being alive, and there was still a possibility.

You have no way of calculating that dispassionately. Your numbers are flawed with sentiment. The grit on the lens.

Oh bugger it , he didn't have time. If John was dead it was all irrelevant anyway. If not, he needed to be found. Sherlock slammed through the doors.

"What do you know?" he demanded.

Molly turned, her mouth open – apparently halfway through a word with the man - blinked and licked her lips, likely thinking about how to answer him. She'd expected him. Lestrade jerked -startled by the door and turned to look at him. His face froze, looking vaguely sickened - surprise. His hand slowly opened around his coffee cup's handle, giving it time to slip. He tried to catch it but it fell and smashed to the floor, coating the tile with ceramic shards and brown liquid -coffee. The coffee flowed slowly toward the floor drain but Lestrade did not glance at it. He stared at his face, looking pale. Shock; Lestrade had not expected him – predictable. Molly licked her lips, apparently ready to talk, and Sherlock turned his attention to her.

"I last saw him months ago, when he came in for the postmortems. I gave them to him and uh – told him he couldn't leave with them. He looked them over, said he was going to join the army and left. He looked upset," she admitted, biting her lip.

She was shifting on her feet often and not quite meeting his gaze now; she probably thought herself guilty. She should have noticed something about John. Likely true.

"Hold the phone, you're alive," Lestrade said, apparently done gaping at him, but his color was still off. Too pale.

"Obvious," Sherlock said, turning back to Molly. She likely had less information but she was at least talking about the subject at hand.

"Mrs. Hudson hasn't spoken to him in months so she had no information. Gre- er- Inspector Lestrade spoke to Sarah -"

"Who?" Sherlock interrupted. Molly blinked. He'd broken some social rule. Irrelevant. She was standing on the same side of the work table as Lestrade; he was too close to her, interested in her then, but not acting on it. Irrelevant.

"And you knew about this?" Lestrade deduced, turning on Molly. Useless. He was looking less pale, that was promising.

"Er...John's boss. And ex-girlfriend?" she said, ignoring Lestrade as well. Right. The bossy woman who had helped in the case with the insane Chinese woman and her gang. Relevant only because she'd likely been the one that reported the missing person. But how had it taken four days?

"He'd called out sick recently?" he asked, turning to Lestrade.

"What are you wearing? And why are you holding a mop?" Lestrade asked instead.

Fuck off. John's body is likely so discolored liver mortis would be undetectable. Idiot.

"Why did Susan-" Sherlock started.

"Sarah," Molly interrupted. Irrelevant.

"Not contact missing persons after two days?" he demanded. Lestrade was still blinking at him like a demented fish but drew himself up, swallowing rapidly and nodding.

Just answer the bloody question. It'd almost be faster to ask Susan-Sarah himself at this rate. Almost, but probably not-

"He apparently worked all the time, almost constantly, after the uh-" Lestrade glanced at him, confused. Sherlock dug out his cellphone, getting ready to phone the clinic. The man was slow. God. He hated dealing with people; they were worse than old webpages.

"The fall," Lestrade continued, glancing at him askance again like he was going to just drop everything and explain. God. "but she said she was so used to his irregular schedule with er – with you -and he'd been so depressed that she didn't worry."

"Been depressed so she didn't worry when he disappeared?" Sherlock repeated, incredulous.

How fucking stupid could she be? The ugly cow. John's eyes would be eaten out by now, depending on where he’d killed himself. If it weren’t for the woman’s idiocy Sherlock could have seen the corpse sooner, when it still looked like him. Something twisted in his chest at the thought. Sherlock tried to shake the feeling away. He had to focus. Perhaps there’d be some clue, something that’d say it wasn’t suicide. Mourning preemptively would hardly help John now, if there was a man left to help.

Lestrade shrugged helplessly.

"Stupid, I know," he agreed. The room fell silent and Sherlock glanced between them. That was all the information? He'd already had most of that. No use coming out of hiding after all.

I could still keep it quiet, stay hidden, Sherlock thought but he had to admit – the likelihood of John being dead already was far greater than not and if he wasn't alive it was almost certain that he desperately needed all of Sherlock's help. It wasn't Sherlock coming out of hiding that was going to kill him. All of the assassins were dead anyway; the threat was almost entirely neutralized.

Unless this is a ploy to get you out and John's dead as soon as you're seen, he thought, uncertain. He should have investigated Colonel Moran’s death, should have followed up on the other murders. Idiot. His ‘ally’ in London may not have had the same motivations at all. When, though, when would he have done that? When he was taking down man after woman in Moriarty’s organization, investigating their pasts, meticulously laying their crimes out before the law enforcement’s feet while never surfacing to the light of day? Sherlock pushed his hands through his hair, feeling something like panic twisting in his gut. Yes, he should have done it then. This was John.

"I need all of the information off of this phone," he said, handing the dead phone to Lestrade without glancing at the man. Lestrade took it and Sherlock moved to leave. Lestrade was certainly going to return to Scotland Yard to assemble a team and Sherlock needed to find a way to eavesdrop.

"I'll declare him a possible victim of the Moriarty case, transfer it to my unit," Lestrade said as he left, sounding dazed.

Obvious.

"Are you okay?" Molly asked him. Utterly utterly irrelevant. Did she understand nothing? Sherlock left without answering. He had work to do.

Lestrade was waiting just outside the morgue, leaning against the wall with his neck down, as if he’d needed to put his head between his knees but couldn’t contemplate sitting on the hospital floor. He was breathing irregularly and his hands were gripping his thighs too tightly; he was probably dizzy.

“This floor is regularly mopped,” Sherlock commented. Lestrade picked his head up only to whiten further and stare back down at the tile.

“What?” the cop bit out. Sherlock pushed his hands into his pockets, feeling oddly self conscious about his reasoning. He threw the emotion away with the rest of them.

“You’re dizzy and struggling to maintain normal breathing patterns. You should sit, but you won’t because you fear the floor has bodily fluids on it. The floor, however, has been recently bleached,” he repeated. It didn’t seem to help. Lestrade shook his head, his jaw clenching, and glared up at him.

“You bastard,” he said. Referring to his false suicide or something more immediate? Sherlock frowned, uncertain, and Lestrade shook his head again. “You bloody bastard. Poor John.”

His false suicide, then. Sherlock swallowed. That had been necessary. He did not need Lestrade to understand or approve of it. It had saved lives.

John’s life? His mind poked at him.

“I had no evidence that John would become suicidal at my death, nor concrete evidence that it was my death that caused it, if he has killed himself. I can only make decisions with the data at my disposal, and I made the right call at the time,” Sherlock told himself. Lestrade stared at him, looking hateful, and shook his head again.

“You bloody bastard,” he hissed between his teeth, and pushed himself up to lead the way toward Scotland Yard.

~~/~~

John was awake when Mike came in this time. He tried to hobble away despite telling himself to be docile and the man simply grabbed him by the hair like it was nothing and clipped him to the ceiling chain.

"Photos again tomorrow, gotta get you bloody for them," the man explained.

~~/~~

"Okay everyone, today we are dealing with a missing person's case. I know it's not really our area but as you’ve probably heard, it's one of our own," Lestrade started as the projector warmed up. The detectives were still getting into their seats at the tables set on either side of the room. They were quieter than usual, more somber, no sign of carry out lunches and jocular gossip; they definitely already knew. Sherlock stood in front of a storage crate in the closet, concentrating on staying absolutely still as he waited for Lestrade to get to the point.

"John Hamish Watson, 39 years old, white male, living at 72 Whitehall Lane, Apartment GH17, formally employed as a consultant here. He was last seen four days ago by Sarah Sawyer of the London Clinic in Westminster. We have no concrete reason to believe that this is related to the god-awful Moriarty case we finished up last year but the connection should be explored as much as possible," Lestrade reported. The crowd shuffled, mumbling to each other. Discomfort, discontent.

He didn't live at Baker's street? Irrelevant, but still Sherlock wanted to think about it. He forced his mind back to the subject at hand. John could be dead.

"I know, it's uncouth to mention it that way, but here's what we've discovered since then," Lestrade started.

Sherlock was ready to strangle them all as they started on Moriarty again. Why were they so slow?; this was known, it was irrelevant. Missing Person's cases became almost impossibly unlikely to close after 24 hours, half that at 48 hours and it had been 102, assuming that John had left work on time that fourth day. And they were going over what Reichenbach meant in German? Who cared about his reputation – he was dead in their minds.

Why would they possibly care, the ones who'd condemned him in the first place?Misplaced guilt? At a time like this? It didn't make sense. He was 'dead', Moriarty was dead, his criminal network mostly dismantled; the connection was gone. Useless. The only fear left was that Moriarty had a contingency plan for his fake death off the rooftop but they weren’t talking about that, they were talking about the life and crimes of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock pushed his fingers against his lips, thinking. He had to admit; it was possible Moriarty had out thought him one last time, but if so, it wasn’t likely that John was dead. It didn't seem Moriarty's way; he wouldn't just shoot John. It didn't fit the game, it would mean Moriarty’s death was meaningless, that they were never matching intellects, just matching what the other one was willing to do, how far into hell they were willing to march.

You're boring. You're on the side of the angels.

Oh, god. If he'd misunderstood the puzzle the whole time? If there weren't any rules at all, Moriarty had simply been causing pain, almost randomly. How many times had John told him it wasn't a game? If he'd been right? The thought made bile try to rise up in Sherlock's stomach and he forced it down.

Lord, but he was grateful the idiot detectives had moved on from talking about his reputation. John was almost certainly dead. The question now was simply why and where and who he needed to throw off a rooftop.

"We've recovered this off of the late Sherlock Holmes' phone," Lestrade said, his eyes glancing to Sherlock’s closet. Two options, random chance or he'd figured out that Sherlock would be there. The man was smarter than he looked but he was still too slow.

What did you get off of the phone?

That would confirm it. If they got anything relevant off the phone, it had to be Moriarty. Sherlock felt his heart beating wildly, and forced it to slow down. He was hoping for a message from Moriarty, something that would show John was a captive, not a missing body.

"We got this sheet from the phone company. I’m not going to cut out the private correspondence, because we don’t know what could be relevant, but it's short," Lestrade said, attempting to meet Sherlock’s gaze through the crack in the closet door. Sherlock ignored him as the projector finally did its damn job.

Six texts to his phone from the same number.

15/6/2012 How'd you do it?

15/6/2012 Why'd you do it?

20/6/2012 Did you do it for me?

20/6/2012 I loved you, you idiot.

15/6/2013 I keep waiting for you to come home. Every time a door opens. I can't keep waiting, Sherlock.

Sherlock stared at the ceiling to clear his eyes. He couldn't read when they were fucking wet for no reason and there was one last text, from an unknown number. That last had sounded like a suicide note. And he needed to know.

God, no. His heart was pounding sickly.

20/6/2012 I loved you, you idiot. Loved how? That didn’t sound platonic. Surely he hadn’t missed that? Sherlock swallowed. Surely not. People were more dramatic when grieving. That was all. He would not take this hint of something more and drag himself mad with it.

"So it was all true, sir? Moriarty? Sherlock Holmes killed himself, but he was innocent?" one of the officers asked. Sherlock wiped at his eyes and glared at the screen until he could read it.

6/15/13 Come and find your pet, sexy. You should take better care of your things.

Unknown number. Sherlock inhaled sharply, too loud in his hiding place.

Thank god, yes . And they were asking about his bloody reputation again? Not a suicide, almost certainly not a suicide. Moriarty’s contingency plan. Which meant John was possibly alive.

And it’d never been a game. Moriarty had never left a way for Sherlock Holmes to win. No, he’d simply been about causing pain. Boring, and what John had seen all along. Given that, there was no way to say that John was alive, except that a man like Jim Moriarty would have wanted to cause as much pain as possible beyond his death, draw it out, send these texts.

Idiot. It meant one more puzzle to solve. He had to find John, before Moriarty’s trap was sprung. He could save John.

Unless it’s too late. Sherlock quashed the thought. He had to think.

The text didn't say anything about using or ignoring the police. And Moriarty had never had an issue with his police support before.

"Sir, if Sherlock Holmes is dead, how are we going to find Watson?" a male cop asked, not bothering to raise his hand. The rest of the room quieted, guilt thick in the air.

Lestrade looked uncomfortable.

"With the resources of the London police force, we should be able to narrow it down," Lestrade replied. Lying, clearly. They wouldn't get anywhere. Why lie? That was only wasting time. The assassins were irrelevant now; this was Moriarty's final play.

He'd never been so grateful to whatever hitman had taken out Moriarty's assassins one by one over the last year; he could save John with minimal risk. Sherlock had a strong feeling he wasn't supposed to be grateful for that, not when it required two men and a woman to be drugged to death in the back of a car. But Sherlock did not care about two men and a woman, he cared about John Watson, and as long as Moriarty chose to torture him, he’d have a chance. He had a feeling he wasn’t supposed to be hopeful for that either.

But he'll heal, and we'll be back.

Sherlock winced at his thoughts. They'd never be back. John still thought he was dead. John would never forgive that. Sherlock could feel that in his bones, knew that when he’d had John on the phone, just before he jumped. John would never forgive him.

Irrelevant. Find John. There is no way the police force would find John on their own.

Sherlock took out his phone and opened a text message.

:Wrong: He texted and the officer's phones buzzed and beeped and chimed.

"Sherlock Holmes,” a female officer commented quietly to the man beside her. The man was still staring at his phone, his mouth agape. Lestrade did not bother looking at his own, he was staring back at Sherlock's closet, his eyebrows raised.

“We never did find out how he did that," Donovan complained.

“You're not going to find him by looking for a missing person," Sherlock commented as he walked out of the closet. The door smacked some uniformed woman. Hardly pertinent. "The greater question is what's the motive? If I find John, what happens? How could he draw this out? Where’s his fun in this?” Sherlock asked, ignoring the sudden noise in the room, grateful when it suddenly went silent again.

What are they confused about? Sherlock wondered, glancing around at the officers still staring at him. A man in the corner had his gun unholstered and trained on Sherlock’s chest.

The officers all stared, many with their hands on their gun belts.

"Cheers, Sherlock," Lestrade growled. An officer pushed his head between his knees the same way Lestrade had in the hallway. Sherlock sneered at them. They were wasting time.

"If you're going to be sick, leave the room. It'd be distracting," Sherlock ordered, turning back to Lestrade. Didn't they see? This was had to happen now. Lestrade had a fist pressed against his mouth, looking almost as shocked as he had in the morgue hallway.

“You bastard,” Donovan bit out. Sherlock turned toward her, frowning.

“Why does everyone keep calling me that?” he asked rhetorically, before turning back to Lestrade. “What are we waiting for? If John is alive, it’s for a very limited time,” he pointed out, though he was sure the cop knew that. Lestrade ran his hand through his hair, looking harried, and glanced over his officers.

“Ladies and Gentleman, the genius prick is alive. I’m sorry, I know it’s a shock, but we have to move on. John Watson is one of ours, and he is likely in a very bad situation right now,” he pointed out. The officers started to lower their guns, still looking distrustful. Most of their fingers were still on their sidearms, half lifted from their holsters. That was probably the best they were going to get, Sherlock decided.

“Thank you. Now, think people, what’s Moriarty’s aim?” he repeated.

"Game? God, Sherlock," Anderson said, looking like he was about to get ill. His hair was different, longer now and somehow even more greasy. Sherlock sneered at him. This wasn’t complicated and they'd all worked the Moriarty case before. They knew how he liked to set up competitions. Still, the fool was at least on the right topic, even if he had misheard.

"So you just jumped, engineered it all, and never answered any of these texts?" Donovan demanded, pointing to the projector. She had cut her hair shorter, had it held back with a heavy clip. Her dog had died, or she'd finally given the neglected thing away. He couldn't tell if she still smelled like Anderson. The cop in the corner started taking notes, looking rather awkwardly about at his comrades. A new recruit, and a confused one. Sherlock glanced at the texts on the board.

20/6/2012 I loved you, you idiot.

"What possible relevance could that have?" Sherlock asked, praying she'd have some kind of reason behind her question. She'd seemed halfway intelligent when she'd accused him of kidnapping and murder.

"Relevance?" she asked, sounding choked too, now.

"Yes, relevance, or have you already forgotten the case here?" he snarled.

What could possibly be more pertinent?

And he was standing in this damn room with these idiots so they would help him find John, not slow him down.

"Okay, people, I know it's a tall task but we need to ignore our shock right now. Sherlock Holmes is alive and we have already determined that he's innocent so let us work with him. We have to get to work here. Quickly. I want a scouting between Watson's workplace and his home, Bart's hospital, 221B Baker Street, anything and everything people," Lestrade ordered, taking control, and the room finally started to empty.

"Donovan, Sherlock, anyone who doesn’t already got something to do, stay here, let's get something resembling a plan going."

"First of all, get a new phone set to that number; we're going to want to know the instant Sherlock is contacted again," Donovan suggested and Lestrade nodded.

A bright remark from her again, Sherlock noted.

There was nothing else to do but wait. He’d checked everything in John’s life and Mycroft had no doubt gone further. They could not check the whole city. So either Moriarty had a plan that was going to kill John or a plan that’d give him a clue. Sherlock took a seat at the long table at the side of the room, stretching his legs out to get comfortable. He didn’t plan to get up until he’d figured out Moriarty's move. Whatever it was, it had been arranged before he died. The officers stared at him uselessly and ran about making phone calls to determine where John Watson wasn’t.

Perhaps Moriarty had been using yet another actor to play his words again – that he was the ghost writer behind that short man's words? Sherlock blinked, considering that option before dismissing the idea. That had only really been a possibility up until the man and gone and shot himself through the skull. It was difficult to pay a man enough for that one and regardless – he'd been too damn skilled – faking gay, leaving every subtle physical hint without being obvious, just enough to be utterly boring – irrelevant, he'd thought this before. No, Moriarty was dead, they were just watching his last move play out.

He needed to get ahead this time, find John faster than expected, before this whole thing had time to unfold.

~~//~~

A/N: How do you feel about seeing what John goes through, before we get to the Hurt/Comfort & Angst? Do you feel more engaged with it because you see it happen, or do you find yourself skipping paragraphs to avoid it?

Chapter Text

John was sure something was getting written into him now. One letter a day. The last had been an 'a' or an 'e' or 'q', something horrible that looped. Didn't much matter; he couldn't get himself to stop shouting.

But he was getting sick. John lay on the cold concrete, staring at the bottle of water he'd been given for the day. He needed to clean his wounds, but he didn't have his hands.

“Do you ever wonder what you’re meant to do with your life?” Mike asked, leaning against the wall across from him and struggling to uncap an Orangina bottle. John looked up dumbly, wondering why the man had not stayed hidden back behind the wall where he clearly slept. The man looked up from his bottle and shrugged self-consciously. “I’m just never sure, like, you get into a routine and you wonder, is this it? The same day, over and over again, until I’m gone?”

John swallowed, wondering if there was any way to twist this conversation in his favor. He wasn’t sure what ‘in his favor’ could be - this man was capable of digging into his back with a scalding nail and still hold up a decent conversation. He was hardly squeamish.

“You could be better than this,” John tried anyway. He pushed himself up by his hands, surreptitiously checking his bindings. They had ripped a bit further from his tugging, that day. He didn't dare chew on them further, not yet. If Mike replaced them again he'd be dead before he had time to get through the plastic again.

Mike tilted his head, as if considering his words.

“No.. That’s not what I mean. It’s not a moral qualm. But I’ve noticed that every year time seems to pass faster and I’m like …damn. I think that’s what a routine will do to you, it’ll make time speed up. But then, without a routine I’m miserable, so I’m left wondering - is this what I’m supposed to be doing?”

John stared at the man, unable to respond. What kind of madness did it take, to torture a man and feel so unaltered?

“I think it’s why I like my work. It changes from project to project and helps me meet people,” Mike commented and grinned at John as if he should be in on the joke.

“Unbelievable,” John breathed, wishing Sherlock were nearby. They would have such a laugh, over this.

Sherlock is alive. Perhaps they would, after all. John felt as if hope had been poured straight into his lungs and he breathed and rubbed his hands down his legs to warm them. He would see Sherlock again, some day. Mike’s bottle hissed as it popped open and he walked away, chugging it down.

~~/~~

"We found a possible pick-up site," came over Lestrade's radio, two hours later. Sherlock jerked up from his seat, his chair flipping backwards, his eyes fixed on Lestrade's radio..

"Go ahead," Lestrade ordered and a detective rattled off the address, his voice grainy over the poor quality radio. Sherlock was out the door before he'd finished speaking, knowing there weren't two '17 Cottonfield Way's in London.

The crime scene was a back alley off of the Marylebone graveyard. There were bleach patterns burning most of the blood away, clean sections of concrete where there should have been years of grime buildup. Sherlock skipped under the tape, ignoring the officers' shouts of protest, wanting to growl at them all. Lestrade would have to deal with them. For now they were too busy taking photo shots of his face with their camera phones. Idiots.

The crime scene set up looked far, far too familiar.

"This was done by a cop," Sherlock said, whirling around the scene though there wasn't much to check. The crime scene had been cleared following police procedure but there were faint blood stains all the same, seeped into the crease between the concrete street and brick walls. Rain had not washed it away yet; this crime and its cleanup were recent. A man was attacked, fought back, a gun went off, someone died, and a bullet lodged its way into the opposite brick wall.

John killed or someone else? Murder was always the most likely scenario for missing person's cases but the text had seemed like so much more than Moriarty announcing that the game was done, that he'd already won. John Watson. Shot in an alleyway? It didn't make sense. Moriarty always wanted so much more.

"Donovan!" Lestrade shouted and Sherlock looked up to see the female cop walking toward him, her fist clenched and her eyes burning, clearly about to punch him. She stopped short at Lestrade’s call and stood fuming at him.

What? Sentiment, but which?

"It wasn't a fucking cop," she said and spat on him. Sherlock glanced down to see the saliva on his ugly bomber jacket. She'd confirmed it then, definitely sentiment. And she did still smell like Anderson.

"Actually, it was," Lestrade replied, sounding frustrated. Donovan whirled, looking shocked and disgusted.

Of course, she'd believe him, when he's wrong almost 30% of the time, Sherlock thought, before returning to the scene. There had to be something relevant here, something that could tell him which it was. Who had died? It was almost definitely the attacker.

"This is Charlie's murder scene from last week. He remembered that it was by this graveyard and let me know. I thought it sounded promising," Lestrade replied.

“Oh,” Donovan replied, glancing at the spit on Sherlock’s jacket.

Oh, Sherlock thought, stopping, feeling his heart slow down. The graveyard, John had been to his graveyard. Sherlock closed his eyes, cursing himself. He should have realized that as soon as he heard the address.

“Where’s the attacker’s body, then? Bart’s morgue?” Anderson grunted. Sherlock stared at the man, feeling as if he were going mad. Of course, they would have recognized John Watson’s corpse, so it clearly wasn’t his they’d found.

John had managed to kill one of the men capturing him, despite being caught by surprise. Somehow he always underestimated John, who could make himself look so harmless. He should have thought of that; where was the body then?; he'd missed an entire fucking body. He wasn't thinking straight, images of John were clouding his thoughts. If it didn't stop he was going to lose this race. And yet still he could not stop fearful images of a dead corpse he had not seen from blocking his mind, consistently getting in the way. Sherlock hissed and strode from the scene; there was nothing left here. Or if there was, he wasn’t finding it.

Damn it all.

~~/~~

Mike cut his shirt off of his body and let it drop to the ground. John stared down at it dumbly, watching the blue fabric soak his blood out of the pavement. A flash of light startled him, and he looked up to see a camera in Mike’s hands. So, dead Moriarty was sending images to a dead man's phone.

They’re all mad, John thought, struggling to keep his weak hands on the rough rope to save his shoulders. He left his index fingers up, in clear view of the camera, and prayed Sherlock Holmes would see him.

And they didn’t think me ready for combat, he remembered, choking out a laugh. Mike looked up from inspecting his camera and frowned at him, looking rather concerned.

Sherlock’s not dead, John thought desperately. Which meant Sherlock was going to get those photos soon. John gripped the rope tighter. Sherlock would be coming for him. He’d want his shoulders intact, so he could punch Sherlock’s face in, after they were far from here. Mike shoved the camera into his back pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, identical to the letter he’d read from Moriarty. John gripped the rope holding him up, bolstering himself for the drivel he was about to hear.

“Cosy, Little Johnny Boy?” Mike started, before glancing up from the top of the paper to ensure that John was paying attention. John waited until he’d looked away and rolled his eyes. “Do you understand your position yet? Tortured by a dead man, waiting on another. Is there anyone coming for you? Do you know? Do you see what this all means? You’re nothing, you’re not the point.”

John swallowed, grateful for Mike’s toneless reading. He sounded like a sixth grader droning out a book report. Unsurprising that Moriarty’s myriad of contingency plans didn’t take a paid tormentor’s skills at dramatic reading into account.

There was a purpose to Moriarty’s words. John saw it immediately. Torture hit harder if its victims had no cause, no faith, nothing to stand for. And Moriarty already knew John to be an atheist. The only thing left was to take away his enemy and his pride. An effect which was rather damaged by Mike squinting at the paper, trying to read the elegant cursive script.

“Don’t you wish you had someone to fight? Mike is not your enemy. He’s just a pawn. See? How he reads this even as it insults him? Surely, he is not the man you wish to kill. And alas, I am already dead,” Mike read out, his tone changing as he got to his name. He just sounded annoyed as he finished the letter.

“This man is an asshole,” Mike commented, slowly lowering him from the ceiling, careful about the rope this time. John had to suppress a laugh, and coughed instead. He heard phlegm rise up in his throat, the cough becoming only too real. That wasn’t good.

Mike walked away, still looking at the camera, and John curled into a ball by the wall, doing his best to look broken. The feeling of helplessness would add to psychological trauma more than anything else. If he were in Mike’s shoes, he never would have tied him with anything as weak as plastic. Not when the tiny dents he’d made in his binds could give him hope.

~~/~~

“You’re a monster,” Donovan spat.

Sherlock regretted standing up to get water. As soon as he’d reached the fountain he’d been ambushed by the woman. Deciding the damage had already been done, Sherlock leaned over the water fountain, pressed the side lever, and began to drink.

Sally Donovan seemed older than she’d been when he’d jumped, far more than three years older. She had wrinkles folding around her mouth and eyes, marking where she’d squinted over paperwork. Her curly mass of hair was starting to sprout with gray. She’d spent most of the last three years frowning. And she’d very quickly decided to blame him for it, Sherlock surmised. Apparently despite having spent a significant amount of time recently uncovering how he’d been summarily framed, harassed, and publicly reviled.

Sherlock stood up slowly.

“John Watson is missing,” he reminded her, and walked back into the conference room to continue to work. They got the postmortem photographs in for John’s dead attacker, labeled Homicide Victim 2491892: Unidentified and just for spite, he stole her desk when he sat down to inspect them. It seemed he’d unintentionally done her a favor, as she never left his side while he had access to them, though what precisely she thought he’d do with them remained unclear. Perhaps her intention was only to drive home the fact that she still didn’t trust him, as if he’d miss that. He just had to hope it didn't slow down their investigation or he'd struggle not to kill her after they found John’s body.

Maybe he’s alive, Sherlock told himself, swallowing grimly.

The postmortems didn't show anything. The attacker had taken a hit to the groin and a bullet wound to the stomach. He had already been on the ground when he'd been shot, but that had been fairly clear from the blood splatter at the scene. It didn't help to determine whether or not the shooter had been John and there was no way to determine height with a shooter on their knees. The shot had come left-handed, that much at least was pertinent. There just weren't that many left-handed people who’d disappear from around his graveyard in the last five days, but if the shooter had been completely unrelated, had just shot a mugger and walked home, they still had no information. The victim's body was useless and yet he searched the photographs, cursing forensics for not running wholly unnecessary tests on the body before it'd been buried to rot.

"Lestrade to Donovan," Donovan's walkie buzzed.

"Go ahead," she answered.

"Bring Sherlock back in. We've received...word," Lestrade replied, his voice tense.

Tense, what did that mean? Sherlock stared at Donovan, searching for clues. Her face looked worried, nothing more. Useless. He rushed toward the conference room.

Tense could mean news that John was dead, or some other sort of missive - likely a ransom note or an unpleasant photo, text, or audio file. There were two possibilities for defining unpleasant; physical or social. So news that John was dead, a ransom note, or evidence of him screaming in pain or doing something sexual that Lestrade would find awkward – the sounds of pleasant sex were unlikely - as far as he'd heard John was not loud, so a sexual audio file was unlikely. A sexual photo was just as improbable; who would send it and for what purpose? A ransom note made little sense – Moriarty wanted nothing from him. So likely a photo or the sound of John suffering, designed simply to taunt.

6/15/13 Come and find your pet, sexy. You should take better care of your things.

Sherlock threw himself toward the consulting room, letting the door slam open. It didn't make a noise against the wall and a man cursed; he'd hit someone again.

There was a giant photo of blood projected onto the far wall. Sherlock felt his brain clamp down on his rising emotions. He was thinking now. That was better.

John was lying on his side on what looked like concrete, but it wasn't clear from the amount of blood coating it. It had dried black, despite its quantity - roughly twelve hours of evaporation. There was another fresh puddle seeping out around where the victim lay - John had moved, rolled himself away from something.

Why?

The skin was alive or very freshly dead, too pink to be dead longer than a half hour. Freshly dead was unlikely – the pictures almost guaranteed that this was Moriarty's final move. It wasn’t his style to kill without leaving a puzzle to be solved.

So, John was alive and more, Sherlock was getting clues, there was data to work with now.

"Oh, good," he muttered quietly before his brain reasserted himself and he focused. What were the facts?

The victim was alive. He'd clearly been beaten – the round bruises on his face suggested a flat surface – he'd been beaten into a wall or some kind of board had been used against him. A non-pliable board -it hadn't curved around to hit the front of his nose. No, the bruises - likely made by slamming him against a wall -were deep purple and the bulging was receding – four or five days old - that fit the time frame for occurring with his alleyway capture.

The bruises on his nose and the fracture there had been caused after – they were blue and purple but still swollen beneath the blow. He didn't have lesions on the corners of his mouth -hadn't been gagged, then; he was somewhere he could scream. That almost guaranteed he was in the outskirts of the city or beyond it. He had bruises all across his arms and legs, but they seemed fainter as they approached his short sleeves – possibly made for show, then, but either way...

"Where's all the blood coming from?" Sherlock asked aloud. The picture was labeled at the side -8:07 AM, 1 of 3 in album. Did the others explain the blood? When would they receive the others?

"Jesus, Sherlock," Lestrade complained.

"The victim has had his face smashed into a wall, four or more days ago, possibly during capture. His nose was broken two to three days ago and beaten again yesterday or today – the picture isn't zoomed in close enough to be sure, but all of these appear to be obtained in capture or are for made for show; they're more concentrated where they can be seen, becoming less frequent by the sleeves and shirt collar," Sherlock spelled out, pointing over the projected screen, hating the cops all the more for slowing him down. "So where is the blood coming from?"

"The victim?" Donovan sounded choked. "You mean John? John Watson? Your flatmate?"

Sherlock ignored her, focusing on Lestrade who might actually give him answers while the officers were busy ranting.

The man was staring at him like he'd never seen him before, looking ill. He had not been acting uncomfortable minutes before; sentiment driven discomfort, probably. Irrelevant.

"You really are a sociopath," Lestrade declared, sounding dazed.

"Is that news to you?" Sherlock sneered before ripping himself back to the image. He was thinking; that was all.

"Actually, yes,” Lestrade answered.

John was looking pale, too pale. Starving, cold, dehydrated?

Stupid, stupid, he chastised himself, seeing the corner of the man's bonds now. John was rolled on his shoulder, facing the camera but there was a glimpse of his hands beneath his chest. The wire ties were coated in blood and at a strange angle, tightened into the skin too far. They looked like they cut into their victim's wrists, which would explain the blood on his hands. Why would he have pulled so damn hard on bonds that he'd have known wouldn't give? Torture, then, or desperately trying to get to someone else, or just plain out of his mind – which would again imply torture, of course. Torture seemed the most likely regardless, but then where had the blood come from? There was only old blood soaked into the chest of John's shirt; that hadn't soaked fully though -from the light look of it. So from the floor then; the outside. Was there a second person bleeding there or were there wounds the pictures didn't show?

"He's probably been tortured, look at his wrists. From struggling to get free," Sherlock said, in case they hadn't kept up.

"Jesus, Sherlock," Lestrade choked out again, from behind him.

“Leave, if you cannot be helpful,” Sherlock snarled, turning away from the precious photo to face the crowd. Lestrade stared into his eyes, looking stricken and Sherlock sneered.

“Let’s get back to work. Contact dispatch, keep an eye out for anyone seeing a man fitting John’s description getting pulled from a car or walking anywhere at gunpoint. They’d had to have gotten him there somehow. If you’ve got a lead, track it down. Let’s move, people,” Lestrade ordered, and the shuffling, useless policemen rushed to obey. Sherlock turned back to his photograph, deciding to ignore them. He’d spent most of a year tracking down Moriarty’s hired killers and setting up their capture. He’d cut off tangled financial structures, inserted himself into illegal organizations and torn them down, started wars between Moriarty’s factions and served them up to the authorities with their hands tied. He knew what they were capable of. Lestrade would not find any witnesses.

Lestrade seemed to know it too, for he sat down at the desk with a quiet sigh, Donovan beside him, and stared at the photograph on the wall without comment.

~~/~~

"Why do you scream for Sherlock Holmes?" Mike asked when the letter and photos were finally done. "I mean you have to admit, there's kind of a weird thing going on here."

The rope above him released and John tumbled to the floor, unable to catch himself.

"He was my friend," John answered, rolling his head as the man pulled a wrapped-up sandwich from a brown bag in front of him.

Day three, John thought sickly.

"Yeah, but I have lots of friends and I swear I wouldn't scream their names on my deathbed," the man said, tossing him the food. John saw it land by his head and scrambled for it, ignoring how his body spasmed as he sat up.

It was remarkably odd to see a common Brewers Fayre hamburger in his hand in the middle of hell.

I can use this, he thought desperately, opening the wrapper as fast as he could, hoping he was subtle when ripped the label off. Then he smelled the food and it was all he could do not to forget his plan as he tore into the meal.

"Also, I doubt you appreciate this, but I am really fucking bored," the man said, sitting down in his chair. "This is without a doubt the worst job I've ever worked."

John glanced up, not sure he was supposed to respond and went back to his food.

"Are you always this quiet?" the man asked him finally. John thought about it. He'd already decided he wasn't stupid enough to lie to his torturer about stupid shite and he wasn't starting now. He needed to come off as an open, normal bloke. A man with no secrets to find.

"Mostly, yeah," he answered, thinking about all he'd been after he'd retired from the army. He just didn't start conversation much. Or continue it for long.

Except with Sherlock, he realized, his mouth quirking slightly as he remembered going off on a tangent with the man, even shortly after they’d met. ' People don't have arch-enemies'. Mike watched him curiously and bit off another mouthful of his burger.

"I'm not actually into torture, by the way. And I don't do anything for free. I'm not going to hurt you just 'cause I'm bored," he said around his food, leaning back in his chair to stare at the ceiling. "They always get that wrong in movies."

John nodded gratefully. He was damn lucky, of the apparent myriad of sadists in the world, Moriarty had chosen – fucking grateful? Was this how Stockholm Syndrome developed then? Was he watching it happen in his own brain?

Fuck that then. He was going to stay sane. Mike was a man for hire and Moriarty was insane; he'd dealt with both types. And he would keep his mind, if it took force of will to do so. Still the question dug at him - did anyone know he was gone? He doubted he would be able to get himself out of this, not with his hands bound and a careful torturer staying so close.

"Do you want to play cards? We've got two hours before I start again. I've got a stack," the man gestured toward the ramp, where he disappeared after each session. John glanced over quietly, though he doubted he was going to come up with some brilliant escape scheme with it when he could barely walk.

"No, thank you," he answered, deciding not to flash the damaged plastic around his hands any more than he had to.

Mike shrugged and John did his best to push the wrapper into his blood-crusted jeans pocket without it making any noise.

Two hours until I start again.

He couldn’t help but let the words have their intended effect. Dread pooled in his stomach and he struggled to think about anything but the coming nail against his flesh. John closed his eyes.

Get me out of here, Sherlock.

~~//~~

A/N: So, what did you think? How much did you skip?

Chapter Text

Lestrade wasn’t surprised when Donovan took the chance to corner him by the coffee maker at the back of the room. He filled his cup again to give her time to gather her thoughts and waited. His officers had slowly filed back into the room as their leads had come up dry. They brought chairs in from their desks and sat together, a quiet macabre audience.

"Sir? I agree with you that Sherlock didn't set up Richard Brook, that he was innocent of that whole affair and I'm glad that we've cleared his name, but please, I don't think we should trust him, sir," Donovan whispered finally. Greg couldn't help but understand; at that moment Sherlock was the most terrifying example of inhumanity he'd ever seen.

The man was examining the photo of his tortured best friend, apparently more interested in dissecting the order the horror had taken place in than mourning at all. Hell, the man had muttered 'good' when he'd seen the photos. Lestrade prayed he was the only one who'd heard it. Assuming he was still on Sherlock's side anyway.

So much time had passed since he’d begun working with the scrawny, drugged out man with a penchant for brilliant deductions. For the longest time, he’d thought he was working to catch a madman in the act, until he’d come to understand Sherlock’s brilliance and from there, to trust in it. He’d put so much work into dragging Sherlock Holmes away from drugs, and he’d thought he’d found a friend in the man who’d emerged in John Watson’s company.

It’d been a year. Greg inhaled slowly, remembering the time it’d taken to recover from his failed marriage and the split custody of his children. He’d been just getting back on his feet when he’d gotten the news that Sherlock Holmes had jumped to his death. His reputation on the job had been in tatters. He was only now getting it back, through old fashioned police work and the help of friends on the force.

A chime on the tech’s laptop marked a new text coming in. Lestrade gulped down his coffee and tossed his cup away, preparing for the sight. Donovan crossed over to the table, quietly letting the conversation die.

"Show me the second picture," Sherlock ordered and Lestrade had to think for a moment before he nodded to his tech guy to project the text. He did not want Sherlock Holmes in his conference room, in Scotland Yard at all.

The second picture was almost the same; time signature thirty seconds later. Lestrade could barely make himself look at it but Sherlock flitted around the screen, blocking it with his body half the time, to peer closer at the damn thing.

Jesus, Watson.

"Brilliant," Sherlock muttered and Lestrade turned away to sit at the conference table, unable to watch the man anymore. He'd been so certain that Sherlock could feel; he would have sworn he's seen him hurt a few times, seen him peer at John with something like confusion in his eyes and something like want.

But he was muttering 'brilliant' now, asking the tech to zoom up on the concrete beneath John's bloody hands. Lestrade desperately wanted out of the room, just the image of Sherlock looking so pleased with whatever he'd found made Greg feel ill. Sherlock was making him doubt everything he remembered. Was this what time did, broke his friendship with the genius enough that he could see the sociopath behind it all again? How ironic, if after it all Sherlock Holmes was not the fraud Greg had jailed him as, but the sociopath he’d openly claimed to be so many times before.

"Are we sure we're not staring at the perpetrator now, sir?" Donovan asked him quietly. Lestrade couldn't answer her. For a moment, everything looked like it had a year before, when he’d stared at his friend and watched Donovan prosecute. Lestrade forced himself to look up at the pictures again and ignore his fear. Sherlock would not have tortured John, he knew that as well as he knew anything. “He was never cleared of charges,” Sally reminded him.

"Sorry, what?" Sherlock asked, finally turning away from the projected image. Greg met his eyes, feeling trapped. There was hurt clear in Sherlock’s gaze and Greg cursed himself; how was it that they could go through this again, when for so long he’d thought the fragile genius had killed himself to escape it?

"You're not even calling him by his name," Sally accused. Sherlock blinked owlishly, like it hadn't occurred to him.

"Would that help him?" he asked, sounding actually curious.

Christ.

"God, no," Sally answered, turning away, looking similarly sick. Anderson was still leaning against the side of the wall, watching the whole thing, but Lestrade had a feeling he thought whatever Donovan did – and in three minutes Sherlock had summarily lost their trust again.

He lost their trust a year ago, Lestrade amended sadly. They were dealing with a man that faked his own death for christsake. And Sally was right; Sherlock had never gone through the court appeals that would have exonerated him. Sherlock turned back to the photograph, ignoring them again and Greg tried to ignore the doubt that kept licking at him, watching this man who had once been his friend. Donovan met his eyes, concerned, and he had nothing to say.

Sherlock went back to his work, explaining his great deductions and Lestrade tried desperately to keep his energy up, to consider every possibility. They still had a good man to save. John's eyes were open in this picture, staring openly across the room at something out of the camera’s view.

"He's awake, rolling must have been painful but he did it between these two photos, see? He has moved his hands significantly, revealing this white line on the floor that is otherwise covered up by his body and the blood. He's smart; he thinks this would be helpful. Zoom up on his mouth. No, the edges of it. There, see? He still hasn't been gagged. He'd have upturned lesions on his mouth, from where it'd have been tied. His mouth has been punched, obviously, but not gagged. So if he's been tortured he's somewhere he can scream. That narrows the field down considerably; no one can avoid screaming during torture even under duress, so no, either he wasn't tortured or they let him scream. So it's vital, don't you see? Where did all the blood come from?" Sherlock explained.

God, back to that. Unfortunately Lestrade did understand, as did the other officers in the room and they all followed suit with Sherlock and peered at the revolting image.

"His back, maybe? He's asleep in the other photo; why isn't his back against the wall? Unless he's in pain," Donovan suggested and yet again Lestrade found himself impressed. She was such a good damn cop.

"Yes, added to the evidence that he usually sleeps on his back, it seems quite likely," Sherlock stated, sitting down at the head of the table and tenting his fingers in front of his face. He continued to stare at the photo, his blue eyes almost unblinking.

You know how he sleeps? Lestrade thought, frowning, and Donovan glanced at him, clearly confused. Greg could just imagine Sherlock sneaking in on John Watson to investigate, as well as he could imagine John turning his illegal gun on him before he’d fully woken up. He would never want to live with either of them.

"He's inside, that's clear from the lights, somewhere with concrete floors and walls, with a white line painted on the floor. An old factory, a parking garage, an airplane hanger, a traffic tunnel?" Sherlock demanded.

The room went quiet finally and Lestrade tried to think of anything the man hadn't already mentioned. Somehow in one sentence the man seemed to have exhausted all the possibilities he could think of at all.

"Bomb shelter?" Eugene suggested from his place by the water cooler and Sherlock didn't look up to mock him. So presumably a good idea – Lestrade had no idea.

"Uh, sir, we've got another text on that phone," the new tech guy – Darrell - interrupted.

Oh hell.

"Excellent, pull it up," Sherlock ordered, lifting his eyes away from the photograph for the first time in minutes.

Lestrade focused on Sherlock while the tech guy busied himself on his laptop doing god-knew-what. Sherlock's eyes were darting about the room but otherwise he was the picture of repose, relaxed against the back of the chair, his long legs stretched out and crossed beneath the table, kicking into Lestrade's space. It could be any other interesting case; Lestrade had seen that exact expression and pose on the consulting detective dozens of times.

Suddenly, though, Sherlock stilled, his whole body freezing though it'd seemed so still before. His face slowly lost its color, his eyes focusing on one point in the room and one point only.

The screen, Lestrade thought, turning his head.

Oh Jesus. John was hanging from the ceiling by his hands, his shirt off now. Just his back and blood-matted head of hair were clear in the photograph and his back – Lestrade had to look away to swallow rapidly. Oh hell; someone had been skinning him, writing 'She' – obviously they weren't done.

"That'd be where the blood came from," Anderson said quietly. Lestrade glanced at Sherlock but the man was still frozen, just staring.

"It looks like the beatings weren't only for display this time. They continue down his whole back," Donovan added and Lestrade forced himself to look at the picture again, where blood was seeping into John's jeans. He felt vastly unqualified for this type of investigation. The back of the photograph was nothing but a concrete wall, confirming nothing but that John Watson was inside.

"Sir, there's an audio file," Darrell mentioned quietly. Greg glanced at the consulting detective and sighed, unsure if he was seeing any emotion there or not. The man was just still, his eyes darting about the photograph for clues.

"Play it," Sherlock ordered numbly.

At first all they got was rough breathing and the heavy sound of dripping. Blood, Lestrade thought. Then the sound of a blow torch and very desperate moaning.

Hold on, Watson.

The sound of sizzling, like steak, before John screamed. And screamed. The sizzling stopped and the blowtorch started again – heating something up -behind the sounds of Watson gasping for air.

He was saying something, Greg realized belatedly, motioning for Darrell to turn it up.

"Sherlock. Sherlock, Sherlock," the man was begging. John thought that Sherlock was dead, and still he called for him. Jesus. Sherlock just stared at the picture on the screen, still not moving. The sizzling started again and John screamed Sherlock's name. The clip cut off.

Lestrade jerked back in his chair as Sherlock suddenly leaped away from the table, all motion again. He barreled about the room, talking under his breath, his hands up and ripping at his hair.

"Okay, allowed to scream, outskirts of London or rural basement somewhere. The building looked large, that concrete wall was thick enough for the fish eye hook that chained him and the ceiling could hold his weight. Big building also suggests outskirts of London. Somewhere abandoned, broken down and most likely nonresidential. The building's white line, that says something. Parking garage, factory, bomb shelter, traffic tunnel – not likely, the walls aren't curved and the white line is perpendicular to it," the man muttered, running his hands through his hair and ripping again. His eyes were wide, spinning about the room without seeing anything.

Oh, Sherlock.

The tension in the room dissipated. Lestrade swallowed and gazed around at his fellow officers. They were watching Sherlock’s frantic pacing, sympathy slowly creeping in around their suspicion as they understood; Sherlock Holmes hid in his head with his facts and he was losing it. He wasn't a sociopath, he was a genius falling apart. Greg inhaled, relieved, and pulled his head back into the job.

"Parking garage, bomb shelter, factory, which? We need more information, more clues, where are they? Stupid, these are the clues, just not enough to solve it, only to keep me interested while we wait. Moriarty is still playing his fucking games."

Sherlock stopped in the middle of the room and closed his eyes, looking utterly defeated.

"Wait, Moriarty is alive too?" Donovan looked offended by the idea. Sherlock opened his eyes but did not turn to face her.

"No, he shot himself. He'd already set this up. Presumably because he knew I was going to fake it or couldn't guarantee that I wouldn't," Sherlock replied absently, still facing away from the pictures, staring into the mostly empty room. "There are 352 abandoned factories or parking garages in the city. I have no number for the bomb shelters and they may not be in London," Sherlock announced.

No one needed to say it. That was far too many options. Greg leaned against the conference table, feeling ill. They were going to watch John Watson die, image by image, and only Sherlock had any hope of stopping it.

Donovan walked over to the conference table and leaned beside Greg.

"So what now?" she asked quietly. "We can't just wait."

"Play the screams again. Determine as much as we can," Sherlock answered, roaming around the room with his hands clasped under his chin again. Donovan met Greg's eyes, looking concerned. But they had to find John.

"Play it again," Greg ordered.

"What's that dripping?" Anderson asked as the clip started.

"Blood," Sherlock and Greg answered together.

"Presumably," Sherlock added, tipping his head back on his neck. "So he's being burned, obviously. But there were no burn marks on his body. Is this an old photograph, then?" Sherlock asked aloud as the clip continued. "No, no, stupid, look at the edges, they're cut off," he said to himself, staring up at the photo.

"Edges?" Greg asked, hating himself but needing to keep up.

"The letters. There are burns around the edges of the cuts. The letters are burned in first, before he's skinned," Sherlock answered, before stopping. "Burn you, skin you, Moriarty used all these threats in front of John, just never said them to him...Irrelevant," Sherlock muttered to himself before the sound of the flame broke off – the tool was hot – and Sherlock stepped backwards suddenly, as if he could escape it. The screaming started again, John Watson’s deep voice crying out for his ‘dead’ friend, and Sherlock walked calmly up to the side of the wall and started tapping against it lightly, walking down the room as if looking for a stud. Greg watched him, confused, and felt himself jerk back in surprise when Sherlock suddenly punched his hand through the drywall. The wall crunched in and Sherlock withdrew his fist slowly, staring at where he’d skinned his knuckles. For an insane moment Greg expected Sherlock to reveal some clue, some brilliance hidden in their conference room wall that he'd just exposed, but Sherlock just walked away from the hole, his fist bleeding.

"That chamber echoes. It's a big room," he commented, wiping his hand off on his fine pants. "The lighting in that photo confirms it. Play the clip again."

The officers left at nine o'clock, when Lestrade declared that after ten hours they weren't getting anything more off the ten seconds of audio. Sherlock stayed as they filed out and put the clip on repeat. Lestrade shuddered, thinking of a night spent in such company, and started down to the parking garage.

“I’ll never get this out of my brain,” Donovan muttered, catching up with him as he stepped into the parking garage. Greg sighed, frustrated and scared.

“None of us will,” he replied. There were too many cases already burned into his brain, but he knew this one would always turn his stomach. Dr. John Watson. Such a good man.

Donovan didn’t respond, but she stopped walking. Greg continued to his car, deciding not to comment. He shuddered again, thinking about John’s wrists and back, and pulled himself into his car.

~~/~~

Sally stood in the parking garage, watching Greg go home. She knew why she felt guilty, now. Sherlock didn't look like a psychopath anymore. He’d paced around the room in circles, muttering to himself and punching the wall every hour, like clockwork. He didn’t look guilty; he looked like was halfway through a damn breakdown.

Sally punched in the button to call the elevator, hating herself even more. Sherlock wasn't a sociopath and Moriarty was terrifyingly real. Or, at least, had been. She had been entirely mistaken, despite all the evidence on her side, through that entire trial, through Sherlock’s suicide.

Then why had Sherlock jumped? It grated on her now. Such an illogical decision from such a man, to care about his reputation so much. She'd destroyed his good name; was that why he'd jumped? Was it her fault? But then, why fake it? He'd lost Watson for that. It was obvious his friend had not known; John Watson had been destroyed that day. The thought grated.

It didn't matter why he’d faked his suicide. She owed him horribly. Sally pushed in the button for the second floor of Scotland Yard and started back up. She pulled herself tiredly out of the elevator and back toward the conference room, her sore feet dragging against the carpet. Sleep would come when John Watson was back at Scotland Yard. Or, at least, safe in the hospital. The screaming, sobbing clip was playing in the conference room. Sally shuddered and headed to her desk to pull up a plan of the city and a list of the condemned buildings. This was going to take a long damn time.

~~/~~

Sherlock brought his head up, his eyes widening. The dripping wasn't just close by. There was some of it fainter, further off from the mic. There was too much blood in the pictures for John to have left enough to be dripping elsewhere and still be alive enough to scream. No, this was different dripping, which was almost irrelevant because everything dripped; it'd rained three times in the last six days and there was no guarantee when that clip was made. John Watson might still be dead. It would be a fitting conclusion to Moriarty’s story, for Sherlock to chase after a friend and find a corpse to end it all.

Sherlock played the clip again. Useless. He slammed his hand into the wall again when he thought he might be panicking, cracking the stud he'd found. He'd have to find a different one, now.

He left the conference room, though he wasn't sure where he was going. He needed more evidence, that clip wasn't long enough; there wasn't enough there to work with.

God, John. His only friend. The doctor made him feel alive, like a man, more than a thinking thing. How many men could make him laugh, with such little effort? John was brilliant. Sherlock ran his hands through his hair, trying not to imagine what John would feel like, now, his swollen skin rough with cuts and scabbing marks. It made him remember how the man smelled and sounded, how he was supposed to be. That was a distraction he couldn’t afford.

"There's coffee hot," a woman's voice sounded out in the empty central room. Sherlock started, whipping around to locate the noise. He was never startled; what was wrong with him?

Sentiment.

He spotted Donovan sitting on the floor outside her cubical surrounded by maps, watching him curiously.

"Maps?" he mused aloud, trying to come up with the possibilities, to narrow them down. She was sitting by a stack of papers she kept referencing as she placed little stickers on the map. It was dotted with hundreds of little blue and red markers, throughout the map of London, mostly on the outskirts.

Oh.

"I'm mapping out -"

"Obviously," Sherlock cut her off, approaching her slowly, yet another thing he should have thought of. Should already have been doing. Where was his brain, when John needed it most? He sat down on the floor on the other side of the map and grabbed the next sheet of the list of condemned buildings and infrastructures within the Scotland Yard jurisdiction lines.

He'd like to just read down the list, make the map in his head but he was too slow, too blinded by sentiment; he was going to need the collective powers of Scotland Yard to get through this, and they needed the map. And there was nothing else to do. Lestrade was right; there was nothing more to find in the ten second audio clip.

"Red is abandoned buildings, blue's tunnels and infrastructures," he confirmed. Donovan nodded quickly.

"There's no database on bomb shelters and no logged information on whether any of these have basements," she said. Sherlock read down the list, updating the map he already had in his head.

"Thank you," he answered absently, glancing over the rest of the list sheets.

"We're not going to be able to find him unless Moriarty wants him found," Donovan said quietly, glancing up at him. Sherlock wanted to gut her. Irrelevant and hopeless. Obvious. But there was nothing better to do than talk, it didn't matter. There was nothing else to be doing.

"Your point?" he asked, memorizing the rest of the sheet.

"That it's no one's fault that he's there but the men doing this to him," Donovan replied. Ah. She was trying to be comforting. It was not his fault that John had gone four days without being reported missing. He could not have known the man was so alone in life. But he had known. Of course he had known; that had been made obvious by an expensive cellular phone ten seconds into their acquaintance and he had lived with John Watson. Anyone would have known. It was not him torturing the man, that was true, but Sherlock would hardly have thought that. He'd been in America at the time.

"Man," Sherlock corrected, not bothering to reply to the rest of the statement, as equally false as it was. He’d never told John there were assassins after him, never suggested he run.

"What?" she asked, glancing up from pushing a pin in.

"There's only one set of footsteps in the clip," he said, closing his eyes and resting his head against the back of his forehead as he thought. Donovan went silent, continuing on her map, and Sherlock grabbed a handful of pins to help. Donovan worked beside him, plugging in addresses and narrowing the options and staying silent, thank god.

~~/~~

Damn, but it was impressive watching Sherlock Holmes stick in tack after tack, never hesitating, never referring to the sheet again. He must have memorized it all, so casually, while talking to her about the number of footsteps in an audio clip.

Just sitting next to that machine of a mind was intimidating. Donovan focused on her work, trying to ignore the guilt and embarrassment that bit at her every time she checked the sheet to place each pin.

She didn’t know what time it was when they finally finished. Light was starting to flicker through the office windows again. Sally stared at the completed map, colored with hundreds of pins, a visual confirmation that they knew nothing at all that would save Dr. John Watson. She couldn’t pick out anything else, not that she expected to come up with any patterns. There was one dot in these hundreds that marked where Dr. Watson was located, if they were lucky, and until another photograph came in, they both knew that was as close as they were going to get.

“Thank you,” Sherlock said quietly, his voice sincere in a way she’d never heard. Donovan turned to see him sitting on the carpet, leaning against her cubical wall, his long legs spread out before him. He hadn’t moved during the course of their entire project.

“Just doing my job,” Sally replied, not wanting to think about her guilt. Sherlock’s mouth twitched in what looked like the start of a smile, but it faded quickly.

“Not this time,” he replied, meeting her eyes, and Sally blinked, looking away to escape the striking blue gaze that always saw right through people. She’d always hated that.

“You’re welcome,” she said, so he would look away, and pushed herself up to reach her phone. She wasn’t safe to drive, there was no doubt of that. She’d catch a cab. Hopefully she’d have a few hours to sleep before she’d have to come in to see the next gruesome photograph of a tortured colleague, but she doubted it.

“Goodnight,” Sherlock said politely. Sally nodded vaguely, too exhausted to respond or ask if he was planning to spend the night awake. She knew the answer anyway.

~~//~~

  A/N: Hello, all. I have some bad news to share; my grandmother died on Sunday. I'm having a really rough time of it. Do you think y'all could send me some happy things, good news in your lives or neat animal facts or other cheerful things about the world? It's gunna be a rough week up here in Cambridge MA.
     Love you guys, Gwen

Chapter Text

He usually focused on Sherlock, during the pain. On his partner rushing in, like with the Shun case, all drama and fancy facts about the curvature of the walls. He tried to keep his mind on how he'd help the man, what he'd do in every scenario Mike put him in. He concentrated on the feeling of Sherlock breaking the plastic ties, giving him a gun so he could blow Mike's brain out. On the sound that would make, on Sherlock's hands and voice and chest he'd missed so damn much, his eyes bright with some far-fetched possibility. Today he focused on not dropping the note, even as he screamed.

~~//~~

Lestrade and the other useless officers wandered in sometime later and wandered about for hours with nothing useful to add; most of them carefully keeping their attention away from the painful images before them.

Sherlock sat at someone's computer, looking up each of the red dots on Google streetview, marking the ones built up with brick. It was possible John's prison had concrete internal or basement walls but it was less likely. Someone was screeching in his ear about their private desk space but Sherlock was finally able to concentrate again, away from that horrible clip.

The facts kept circling around in his head, still not narrowing anything down. Concrete, inside, internal lights – had a ceiling, power was on, no window light, ceiling strong enough to hold up John – that was a modern ceiling, not rotted out, not an abandoned residence, then, or not abandoned for long. Straight walls, probably not a tunnel. Abandoned concrete building then, most likely a factory or parking garage, given the concrete walls and white line on the floor. 112 options. Still far too many. Sherlock asked for John’s possessions, out of wherever ’72 Whitehall Lane, Apartment GH17’ was. A bedsit, apparently. Presumably the same one John had moved out of, after they’d met.

The next morning they got another photo. One more letter. Sher, now. Sherlock, almost certainly. A letter a day, as expected. Four full days of captivity, then, definitely. And no way to find him.

He’d narrowed down buildings. 67 had concrete walls, implying a concrete floor and internal structure. Lestrade and the rest helped until the map was updated, and went home that night, saying there was nothing more they could do. The first was a valid statement but Sherlock couldn't get himself to leave, even with nothing more to get done. He set himself in the conference room with John’s possessions, which Greg had wisely ordered no one but Sherlock to look through. Given the strong likelihood of evidence of illegal gun possession, Sherlock figured.

Everything in John’s possession turned out to be very little. A change of sheets, two weeks’ worth of clothing, an empty tupperware, a kit to clean his gun, and a banker’s box of papers.

Sherlock recognized it immediately; everything he’d left behind concerning Moriarty’s network. Only one folder stood out, something he had certainly seen John come home with but had never questioned. He pulled the file open and scanned the pages. The profile of an assassin, a bald man with large muscles he’d seen loitering around 221B - likely the man who targeted Mrs. Hudson. A confidential profile and he’d know its style anywhere. This came to John through Mycroft, before the fall. Anger stirred in his chest. Sherlock ignored it, thumbing through the file.

What was Mycroft planning for John to do with this? There weren’t many options. And all of these assassins were dead. Each by a crackshot who’d never been investigated. Mycroft’s doing, Sherlock had suspected. His ‘ally’ in London. Through John. Did John know that Mycroft had planned ahead for these homicides? What had driven John to do it? Paying him would not work, but Mycroft could be far more subtle when he wanted. Had Mycroft goaded him? Told him about the threat that followed Sherlock’s suicide? Sherlock had his phone in his hand before he’d fully processed that.

“Yes?” Mycroft asked, picking up.

“Mrs. Hudson’s hired help,” he demanded. Mycroft paused, no doubt aware of the rest of the question.

“I gave your partner that file before any of this started. It was he alone who decided to use it afterwards. I’m afraid he refused all further business between us,” Mycroft replied. There was someone else in the room with him, Sherlock deduced. Useless, he thought, deciding to believe Mycroft’s answer. Mycroft would not stand in the way of this investigation; it would mean severing every connection they had and Sherlock was too valuable an asset. No, nothing on the dead assassins would help them find John Watson. He’d look anyway. At least he could be doing something while he sniffed around another dead end. Sherlock snarled his displeasure and threw the file back in the box. He looked up from the papers to see the image of John still projected on the far wall of the conference room, waiting his great deductions. Sherlock couldn’t pull his eyes away from it.

He was trying not to think about what would happen when they finished carving his name on John's back. Did they only have three more days, then? Sentiment and foolishness, to be running the same unanswered questions through his mind with no hope of addressing them. Such little time. He prayed Moriarty had planned to torture John longer.

"You should eat," someone said by his ear.

"John?" He called, looking up from where he was staring at the picture, to see Donovan standing at the conference room doorway. Sherlock felt his breath catch in his lungs.

Stupid. Sentiment is clouding everything.

For a moment, her mouth softened, looking pityingly at him. Sherlock grimaced and glanced away, embarrassment swamping him. He felt his cheeks heat and snarled at her to leave him be.

"Watson tell you that a lot, then?" she asked quietly. Sherlock turned his head to scowl at her, trying to find some weakness to attack.

"It's fine," he said instead, turning away. He didn't want to think about anything else. John was going to die, at this rate.

"He took care of you, didn't he?" she asked and Sherlock focused on the screen. "And you're a right wreck now."

Past tense, Sherlock noted. Donovan did not expect that they would win. Likely thought John was already long since dead. A distinct possibility. She was searching for John anyway, likely saw him as her sole chance at atonement now.

"Go back to your maps, useless as they are," Sherlock snarled finally.

"There's nothing more to be done," she replied. Correct again. "Come on," she ordered and Sherlock turned, surprised out of his focus. He glanced her over. What was going - "Food, you need it. Let's go," she ordered.

"I never eat while on a case. Digestion interferes with my thinking," Sherlock replied, wincing as he remembered John scoffing at him. How many times had they sat at restaurants together, John so quiet across from him, a pleasant evening without artifice? He’d wanted to kiss John, then. He would do anything just to see him now.

20/6/2012 I loved you, you idiot. He’d lost such a friend to Jim Moriarty. Could he have won? Was there something different he could have done? Useless to think about, but tragically tempting.

"Then it's best to eat while there is no new information," Donovan replied.

Reasonable argument. Flawed, but reasonable.

"Or, better, simply not to," Sherlock countered, turning away.

"Not if this investigation lasts for another week," she replied. Sherlock glanced up, catching her meaning. -L.O.C.K. H.O.L.M.E.S.

"I'll eat after we get to the K," he said, "Then it's irrelevant. John would likely already be dead and we'd have no new information forthcoming."

Donovan was quiet for a while and Sherlock felt his brain flitting around, nothing new to study at all.

"Yeah," she said finally. Sherlock settled himself back into staring at John’s picture and she closed the door. He wanted to run his hands over the image of John’s battered back, but it would block the projector and he’d lose sight of it. He’d guessed about John’s bulletwound, of course. Saw the way John covered it, guarded it. The same unassuming way John had hidden all of his secrets, and out of respect Sherlock hadn’t asked. It’d been obvious, anyway.

“That’s an entry wound in his back,” Donovan commented. Sherlock turned back to see her leaning on the closed door. There was no use trying to keep John’s secret now. He could see the conclusion haunting her. He hummed affirmation.

“Friendly fire,” he confirmed and her eyes widened.

“That explains why he never talked about it. I asked him once how he’d been shot. He replied he ‘got in the way of a bullet’,” she related. Sherlock grinned despite himself. He’d not met many men who could make him laugh like John Watson. John was as unconcerned with propriety as he was, even if he didn’t care to admit it. Sherlock sobered, missing the man and he turned back to face the photograph before them. John hung there limply, unresponsive, but for his fingers pointed toward the ceiling. Another message, but Sherlock couldn’t decipher it.

“He never told anyone,” Sherlock murmured.

“Does he know who shot him?” she asked, sitting down beside him. Waiting for the damn phone to give them more information, no doubt, though they both knew nothing would come until the morning. Sherlock frowned at her, realizing she’d misunderstood. Why would she think he had told him?

“I never asked, he never volunteered.” he replied. John never said anything about himself, no more than Sherlock ever had. John seemed to think Sherlock could guess everything in his life but he had nothing if he had no evidence, and John had summarily left his past behind before he’d ever walked into Bart’s laboratory. It had never grated, not knowing. It’d never been important. Now it bothered him, how little he knew of John Watson. Sentiment, clearly, now that he might no longer have the chance to ask.

~~/~~

John did his best to stay limp and compliant while Mike clipped the rope to his wireties again, though his body was screaming at him to fight or run. He had no chance, with Mike watching him so carefully; he needed his torturer to become complacent.

Still, a whimper escaped him when he heard the blowtorch heating up the nail once more, and his back arched away from it, his toes barely scraping the ground to support him.

Oh god.

His brain blanked on the pain, until Mike pulled the nail away again.

“Ugh, the smell is the worst,” Mike complained, and the blowtorch sounded again. “You’re starting to pus,” he said.

John swallowed. That was not good. But he could hardly have hoped to fight off infection in such conditions.

“Sorry about that. Got a sanitary wipe?” he choked out. Mike laughed, sobered, and pressed the nail into him again. John choked on his own saliva and coughed, jerking against the nail like a dying fish.

“So, you were a soldier?” Mike asked when he’d stopped, flicking at the chain around John’s neck that still held his dogtags. John nodded vaguely, feeling the metal plates scrape against his chest. “I always thought about doing that, but it never pays as much as contracting.”

John felt exhaustion and dizziness drag at his mind and sunk into it, ignoring the conversation.

“So, really, just between us, why Sherlock Holmes?” Mike asked, when he pulled the nail away again. John inhaled slowly, trying to gather his thoughts about him. He could not let anyone know.

Mike pressed the nail to him again and John shouted out in pain. He couldn’t keep himself from begging and wasn’t going to try; he’d do almost anything to get the nail to stay away from him.

“He’s brilliant,” John rushed to say, when he felt the heat approach his wounds again. “Was brilliant,” he corrected, and the nail touched him. John sobbed but it did not stop until Mike decided the metal was too cold and pulled it away again. John felt flesh tug and knew his skin had cauterized onto the metal.

“Were you a couple?” Mike asked idly, ripping the nail free.

“No, no,” he answered, trying to remember he was replying to a question. Mike hummed to himself.

“Did you want to be?” he asked. John swallowed, wishing not to answer, though he didn’t know why. “I’m starting to get less curious, really. Because to be perfectly honest, I’d never hesitate to answer that question about a buddy, don’t really need to think about it. There is no way I want a man’s penis touching mine. It’s just a ‘too many penises’ problem right there,” Mike rambled. John nodded weakly, understanding his point, though it was too late. He couldn’t go back and not hesitate.

“Will you stop, if I tell you?” he choked out. Mike grunted, sounding disappointed and started the blowtorch again.“No, can’t do that,” he answered. John coughed and tightened his grip on the rope holding him.

“Not much of a motivation system, there,” he said, and Mike pushed the hot nail to him again.

John screamed, but did not answer. He did not know the answer. Did he love Sherlock Holmes?

He was furious with Sherlock Holmes. That’s all he knew. John fought to keep his grip on the rope, his thoughts racing.

He couldn’t lie, not with a nail so close to his skin. He couldn’t get himself to risk this getting worse, couldn’t let this man touch the nail to him again if he could avoid it. John closed his eyes, frustrated with himself.

We’re not a couple.

Yes, you are.

How many times had he wanted Sherlock to make a move, only to walk out of the room to avoid the temptation? He’d thought it was because he’d wanted to disperse the tension between them, that he’d thought Sherlock might be interested in him and he simply wanted the answer. Now, he questioned that. How many times, after Sherlock’s death, had he wished the man alive to hold him? Why hold him? He’d never wished that for any of his dead friends, before. He’d wanted Sherlock physically when they were friends, a few times when Sherlock was standing in the window, almost seeming to glow with beauty. He’d never had such a thought about a man before, or at least, not often enough to count as homosexual.

“Wait, hold on, I’ve got to send a text. I’ve got to say, this Moriarty guy was seriously disturbed. I mean ‘little game’? What’s with that?” the torturer rambled, pulling away. He came back slowly, checking his watch for the time again. John tried to see the watch hands, but the florescent lights reflected off the glass face and blocked his vision.

How long have I been here? It hadn’t been long, he was sure of it. Mike shoved the watch back into his pocket, apparently not liking it on his wrist, and picked up the blow torch again.

“Yeah, well, I’m going back to the ‘screaming his name’ thing. That was weird, yeah? Why scream Sherlock?” Mike pressed, heating the nail again. John tried to climb up the rope, but his back raged against the movement, and he’d never be able to get high enough to get away.

“Because he’d always find me,” John sobbed, only to close his eyes. He was breaking down, he knew it.

But I’m not mad, he reminded himself. That was all he needed. He’d limp out of this hellhole and he’d go back to his life as a soldier and a doctor.

“Huh,” Mike grunted. “I guess that makes sense. Like screaming ‘somebody, please’ but a bit more sophisticated. Was he really that good?”

John nodded slowly, his teeth catching on his swollen cheek.

“Yes.”

“Well, he’s not going to find you this time,” Mike commented, and John knew the nail was almost hot. John shook his head but kept his mouth shut. He’d gain nothing from antagonizing the man.

“What’s with the faith? He killed himself. Don’t you feel like he betrayed you? Left you here?”

Yes, yes to all of it, please yes.

“Well?” Mike asked, when he pulled the nail away. John gasped for breath and tensed, expecting the sound of the blow torch heating up the metal, but it didn’t come. The silence stretched and John felt dread pooling in his stomach again at the changed routine.

John coughed out a breath, doing his best to concentrate on holding himself up by his hands and not giving in to the fear ratcheting through him the longer Mike hesitated.

“Holy shit, you really believe he is still coming for you,” Mike continued. John closed his eyes, hearing Mike moving to walk in front of him. “He’s alive,” Mike concluded. John shook his head numbly. He couldn’t fail with this, couldn’t give it all away. “So all that mourning was an act? Wow, you get an Oscar, man, the newspapers ate it up.”

John opened his eyes and continued shaking his head.

“You didn’t know?” Mike concluded.

People don’t like telling you things. They love to contradict you. He was already giving it all away.

“Wow, he really was a bastard,” Mike commented.

He returned to his work on John’s back in silence and John screamed, but it was worse with nothing to say to make it stop. He always knew when the burn was coming and he held his weight up on his arms, though he couldn't remember why. It'd had something to do with staying sane, he thought.

He emptied his bowels in his pants the first time, somewhere in that hour, and Mike stripped them off him. Mike threw water on him and took the pants away, cursing horribly and John came to want them back; he was too cold. It was September, and the concrete took everything from him. Still, Mike didn’t ever make a call, and John began to suspect that it really was just the two of them stuck here, Mike fulfilling an old contract and John the victim of it; the questioning was for curiosity alone.

Mike started on pulling his fingernails, inexpertly.

~~/~~

They got another photograph, that day, and for a brief moment the officers seemed hopeful. Sherlock doubted anything would come of it, but his breath caught when he saw the photograph of John hanging up like hooked meat again.

"Zoom up on his hand," Sherlock ordered, his hope rising. The tech obeyed, revealing a crunched up label in John's hand.

Data.

"Brewer's Fayre," Anderson said quietly. Sherlock glanced up, praying it was something actually important.

"What?" he hissed. The man hesitated and Sherlock stalked toward him. "What do you know?"

"John's er-" Anderson blinked at him, looking concerned and started speaking faster. Good. "That's Brewer's Fayre packaging in his hands, right? The ...fast food chain?"

Sherlock glanced around. People stared at him, but they were nodding. Apparently that was common knowledge. John was still trying to give them hints.

Unless this was some ruse? If so, they'd never find the man and he was dead regardless. They had to trust this. John was near a Brewer's Fayre and an open one. He'd have to research how many existed in England.

"I'll make the calls," Lestrade said, walking out. Sherlock followed. He needed that information.

~~//~~

Mike left and John spent his time chewing through more of his plastic bindings. He stopped after very little time, knowing he was not prepared to make an escape when his captor would be the most on guard, returning from an absence. He needed to find a way to deescalate the quiet times between the torture sessions, find a way to become more approachable. Mike walked down the car ramp when he returned, confirming what John had already thought; they were below ground. He threw John water bottle and another sandwich from Brewer’s Fayre, nothing John could use in the photographs, and sat down against the opposite wall.

“Have you ever wondered if you’re gay?” John asked as casually as he could, biting into his food. Three of his fingers were bleeding steadily. He ignored them. He’d gotten food today; he planned on eating it. Mike glanced up at him, looking amused and bit into his own sandwich.

“Not a chance,” he replied, smirking as if he knew the answer to John’s secrets now. John nodded as thoughtfully as he could, though it made the muscles in his back pull against their wounds. Mike let out a loud laugh suddenly and uncrossed his legs. “I had a girlfriend ask me that once. Didn’t learn until much later that she was looking for a threesome. Now, that, I might’ve done. You want me to be in bed with some bloke, hell, I don’t care, if it means I can bring in another girl on my turn,” he said, grinning. John nodded, doing his best to pretend he could relate to that.

“Unlucky,” John said meaninglessly and Mike grunted.

“Worse than that, damned tragic,” he replied, still chuckling, and pointed his sandwich at John’s face. “So, maybe something more simple. Did you like it when he touched you?”

John blinked. Images flashed through his brain. Sherlock leaning over him at the computer, grabbing his hand while they raced away from the cops, touching his fingers while he took his cellphone.

“Hmm. I know a ‘yes’ when I see one,” Mike grunted. John swallowed, wanting to explain.

“He wasn’t a very affectionate man. It meant - he cared about me. More than the rest of humanity, probably,” John replied. His torturer only smirked at him.

“Yeah, but why do you want him to care about you that much, eh?” he replied and John couldn’t answer. Sherlock brought everything intriguing about the world right into focus and ignored the rest; he loved that. There was no doubt about that; but that didn’t mean he wanted Sherlock to touch him.

“Well, then, Did you ever want him to touch you more?” Mike asked. John closed his eyes. He wanted to say no, but the word caught in his throat. He was terrified to say it. Why?

“You have career aspirations in relationship therapy?” John asked instead. Mike’s eyebrows rose in surprise and John found himself pulling back as if from a blow.

Damn it. His back raged as if a nail was burning into him again and John had to struggle to keep his stomach, to keep his mind in the present where he wasn’t currently being tortured.

Mike laughed easily.

“Maybe,” he said and John suspected that he meant it. John took another bite of his sandwich, hiding his smile. Someday he would tell Sherlock Holmes that he’d been tortured by a budding psychiatrist, and they’d giggle their asses off. Someday, when Sherlock returned and John escaped from this hellhole, and his world was righted. It felt like an impossibility but John clung to it and ate his food. Mike’s question resurfaced with his memories.

How many times had he wanted Sherlock to make a move, only to walk out of the room to avoid the temptation? He’d thought it was because of the tension between them, thought Sherlock might be interested in him and he simply wanted to know. Now, he questioned that. How many times, after Sherlock’s death, had he wished the man alive to hold him? Why hold him? He’d never wished that for any of his dead friends before. Why did he scream for Sherlock, knowing the man was unlikely to come? Why not scream ‘Lestrade’?

“Did you ever want him to touch you more?” Mike asked again, sounding more curious now. John let his head hang limply. “Have you ever heard of the works of Shan Yu?”

John blinked at the change of subject but didn’t not answer. Mike grinned, looking suddenly energetic again.

“Never watched Firefly?”

A fan, John thought tiredly. He shook his head.

“It’s something one of the characters said. Something I’ve been finding to be fairly accurate. He says, live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.”

John stayed silent for a moment, absorbing that.

“I’m not gay,” he said finally, shaking his head, but his tone came out wrong.

You’re lying to yourself.

Mike just grunted again and went back to his sandwich.

~~/~~

Chapter Text

They got another text.

:I only ever cut at 8:00. Aren't you going to save him, Sherlock Holmes?:

Useless.

Sally watched Sherlock sit at the conference table, staring at the latest photo of John's back, and knew what the man was thinking. Everyone did. They may have run out of time, without barely getting further in the chase at all; eight days – S-H-E-R-L-O-C-K written fully, and a text from Moriarty's man. They might be done. Their best hope lay in the three bleeding fingers on his right hand, his nails torn out of his flesh, a job left incomplete.

Sherlock had never left the station. Even Sally had left every night to sleep and shower before the new text came to haunt them through the following day. Sherlock had wandered around the police department, sitting, staring at walls, and occasionally punching through to the support studs, but as far as Sally knew he’d never left. His clothing was wrinkled and stained with blood from his knuckles, and he smelled. It didn’t seem to fit with his character that Sherlock Holmes could smell. He’d always seemed like such an ethereal man, waltzing into crime scenes and waltzing out with barely a footprint to mark his presence. It was why he was so easy to blame, without evidence, because Sherlock Holmes had always looked like a man who could go anywhere in the world without leaving a trace. Now, he smelled, and the illusion was broken, and he looked like a rich madman who’d taken residence in the conference rooms of Scotland Yard.

Lestrade sat down beside the consulting detective, and put his hand on Sherlock’s arm. Sally expected Sherlock to jump or twitch; there always seemed to be an impenetrable wall around Sherlock Holmes that no one could touch, but Sherlock did not respond at all.

“I’m sorry, Sherlock,” Greg muttered, lifting his hand away and running it through his thinning hair. Sally winced, not liking her partner’s timing. This was a chance to regroup, breathe, pray they had more time and know there was nothing more they could do. Not yet a time to mourn, when there was perhaps more fight left for them. Sherlock glanced up at the man, a tiny, almost imperceptible motion that proved there was still a man alive inside that frozen body.

“Why?” he asked. Lestrade seemed to crumple into his suit. He shook his head and ran a hand over his face.

“I can’t find him with this,” Greg admitted, waving a hand at the projection screen. Sherlock had the latest photograph up and the different layers of drying blood were only too obvious. Sally wanted to drag Lestrade away from Sherlock but he was her boss. They were all exhausted, none of them thinking clearly. But what use was this, telling the whole room of tired officers that there was no hope? Sally could see the few officers in the room watching the two, their little remaining energy visibly draining from them.

“Don’t worry, I never expected you could,” Sherlock replied and Sally wanted to kick him. He glanced up, finally, and saw the dispirited room. “Neither did Moriarty. Perhaps that’ll be an advantage,” he allowed and returned to staring at the photograph. A few officers straightened, trying to take the thin motivation.

The room settled into quiet despair again. Annoyed, Sally strode up to the exhausted, reeking genius.

"Come eat," she ordered.

"Busy," Sherlock responded, continuing to stare raptly at the picture of John hanging from the ceiling, dripping with blood.

"Then be busy eating," she ordered again. He didn't answer her. Lestrade gave her a sad smile and shrugged. "You said you would," Sally added finally and Sherlock looked up.

"What?" he demanded.

Did you hear any of this?

"You said you'd eat. Let's go," she ordered, stepping back. She felt her eyebrows shoot up when the man slowly pushed his seat back away from the conference table. She didn't think she'd seen him rise from it for half a day at least. Apparently he kept his word. Lestrade gaped at her and an officer rushed to get out of the way. Apparently Sherlock had gone without moving for longer than she’d realized.

Surprised as hell that the man actually obeyed, Sally led the way out of the conference room, relieved to get away from the horrible photographs. At least they hadn't gotten another audio clip. The entire team was going to need a paid vacation after this one; if not counseling.

She led the way to the slow diner across the street, having a feeling she wouldn't be able to convince the genius to go much further.

~~/~~

"We'll get him, Sherlock," Donovan said when they’d left the building, sounding confident. Sherlock glanced around the room, uselessly wanting John.

"Mmm. Likely not," He replied. He turned his head to face her so his eyes would stop scanning for John's face in the crowded place and caught Donovan staring at him, looking shocked.

"I don't understand you. Sometimes you seem so human," she said. He ignored the blow.

"I do not lie to myself. Is that a bad thing?" he asked idly, following the waitress to their seats. It was a booth by the window and Sherlock sat facing the entrance, too aware he was in John's seat. Irrelevant – the man was likely still hanging by a hook in an undisclosed location. A waitress handed him a menu and he took it automatically. It confused them when he didn't.

"It’s bad if it means you don't have hope. Do you know what you want?" Donovan asked.

"False hope is worse than useless and yes," he replied. The waitress looked to him for his order.

Donovan gestured to him to start. He gestured back.

"Your usual, then, Sally?" the waitress asked. 'Sally' smiled at the woman and nodded.

"The same," Sherlock replied immediately. Sally glanced at him, looking confused, before snorting suddenly into her glass of water. Apparently she'd figured it out.

"Just don't care?" she asked. He shook his head.

"Not one of my interests, no," he said, glancing out of the window next to him. The day had passed quickly, and it was already dark. John would wake up to another torture tomorrow, if they were lucky.

"Food isn't an 'interest' to most people. It's taste buds. Tastes good or bad; it's not like a hobby," she said.

"You devote brain power to processing that. It therefore interests you," Sherlock replied, knowing this was one of those moments when he just didn't quite 'fit'.

"You really don't notice what doesn't interest you?" she asked and Sherlock looked back at her. She sounded like John.

"Why would I?" he asked. Surely that was clear? Why would he process something enough to determine it not worth considering and then think about it further anyway?

Okay, so like, what's Anderson's first name?" she asked. Sherlock blinked at her. He could figure it out, remember conversations long past, try to see who was there, what names were said, narrow it down. Hardly worth doing. Anderson was an idiot.

"You don't know," she said, laughing and sitting back. "You've worked with him for five years? You notice a tiny pinch of dust at the side of the room looking different and don't know Anderson's name?"

"I could figure it out," he defended, "I'm just not going to."

"It's Philip," she said, still staring at him, open mouthed.

Why was it so strange? What use was the name if he responded to Anderson?

"Why would I care? All I care about is the work," he said but Donovan smirked at him, looking like she knew some secret about him. Proud and stupidly mysterious. Tiresome.

"And John. You can't tell me you don't care about John," she said, confident now. Apparently punching a wall had helped something between them. He should do it more often, when her doubts became problematic.

"Why would I tell you that?" Sherlock deflected, hoping she'd go off on some rant about his attitude. He didn't want to talk about John.

"Because you hide behind calling yourself a sociopath," she answered, smiling slightly as she leaned back in the booth chair. There was mustard there; someone had ordered the hotdog. It was still wet; likely the customer before them, who’d left such a large butt mark.

"I am a sociopath," Sherlock answered immediately.

From so comfortable that I'm a psychopath to so comfortable that I'm one of the angels.

"No you're not," she said confidently and she sounded like John again. "But here's one thing I can't figure out; I realized that fact by watching you see John in pain. Otherwise, you seem utterly devoid of feeling, and yet John never believed that act, did he? Obviously John didn't see you see him in pain, so how did he figure it out?”

Sherlock wished their food would come so she could focus on something else. He glared at the woman but she didn't back down.

"I don't know," he answered finally and shifted his gaze out the window where there was nothing to deduce. It was dark out, but London hid the stars, thank god. He’d never discovered the secret to that himself and he’d been too prideful to ask. Likely too late, now.

"He's a good man, John Watson," Donovan mentioned quietly. Sherlock ignored her. That would hardly help find him.

Their food arrived and he forced himself to eat. Some sort of pasta dish.

"If it helps at all, which given I rather doubt, I am sorry about not trusting you," she said finally. Sherlock looked up from his food, confused again.

This is tiring.

"Why? You were right," he said. Her eyes widened slightly and she started to breathe heavier. Nervous or excited and she glanced over him, searching for something – Why would... - Ah. "And no, I am not confessing," he said, rolling his eyes. "But you had far more solid ground to stand on believing I did kidnap those children than that I didn't. The evidence was clear and you followed it, unlike the rest of the idiots at Scotland Yard," he stated.

Donovan stayed quiet a moment, presumably thinking. Bored, Sherlock went back to thinking about abandoned basements, though there wasn't enough left to consider.

~~/~~

Sally thought she was starting to understand John Watson more and more. Sherlock was a prick; there was no doubting that, but in some ways it seemed like he didn't mean to be. Sherlock Holmes actually hadn't noticed Philip’s name, didn't find the value in something if it wasn't relevant to his puzzles, or in other words, was the self-serving asshole that she’d always known, but only most of the time. She saw him tip his head, looking out the window to check for stars. And god, she'd never forget seeing that utterly brilliant man darting about a room, pulling his hair, punching walls, gone half insane with fear for his friend.

Sherlock could be polite, could be disarming and friendly if he wanted. She'd seen him do it for cases before; it'd always disgusted her how he'd lied. No, who he really was was the arse that talked about his dying best friend in a totally clinical way, and then very carefully chose the section of wall to smash his fist through. An insane man of absolute extremes. And Sherlock didn't hide that, didn't lie about who he was; which meant in John Watson he'd been able to find someone who liked him for who he was, though Sally still couldn't figure out why John had wanted to spend so much time with the man.

"Why does John like spending time with you?" she asked finally when she finished her meal, knowing Sherlock would have thought about it and guessing he wouldn't even know that it was a rude question to ask; That or he wouldn't care.

"Mmm. Five possibilities. He craves danger, which I'm always in; wants his work to be important and values mine over his own; needs someone to take care of and I'm frequently a wreck by his judgment; finds me attractive and relates to my sense of humor. I know the last two are true, the rest are all equally likely and probably all true to a degree," Sherlock listed quickly before pushing his food away from himself, apparently done. He'd certainly thought about the question before, Sally noted.

And he definitely didn't understand the concept of a too-personal question, if he hadn’t been offended by that one. That explained a lot.

"Why?" he asked her suddenly, looking up from sipping his drink.

"Just trying to figure something out," she replied, wondering if John knew Sherlock was going around revealing that the doctor found him attractive. Given, he'd certainly done so before in front of Watson.

“Added to the evidence that he sleeps on his back...

Oh. My. God. Sally knew she was staring at the man.

"What?" Sherlock asked, his blue eyes suddenly looking onto her like she was the most interesting thing in the world. Sally felt her heart leap at that gaze. There was something incredibly powerful about a brain like Sherlock Holmes’ focusing on her, almost through her. Okay, she could understand why John was attracted to this man. Sherlock's eyes furrowed. "You're attracted to me now. You've never been attracted to me before. What changed?" he demanded, scanning her with his eyes. Sally felt her eyes widen, praying the whole diner had not heard him. They likely had. He was rarely quiet.

Okay, no, she still didn't understand how John could stand to live with the man, much less want to.

Oh my god. They were really together. They were openly together. She'd just been such an idiot. Did everyone else know? There were jokes about it in the Yard, of course, but were they not jokes? Had she just missed it entirely? She'd never imagined this man had any interest in such things at all, had always assumed it was a lie meant to serve some manipulative purpose.

“John was your partner,” she stated. His eyes furrowed.

"How was that not obvious?" he demanded and she ran a hand down her face.

"Because I'm an idiot," she replied and he nodded quickly, apparently needing no further explanation.

Oh god, Sherlock, she thought, her gaze darting over the man. His partner was hanging by that hook, and he couldn't even walk away; Sherlock Holmes was the only man in the world who could solve this one.

Jesus, Sherlock.

And John Watson was partners with this man. The tantrums, the silences, the hunger strikes.

"You're wondering why John puts up with me," Sherlock commented. Sally felt her eyes flick back up to meet his gaze.

"Well, yes," she admitted, glad for a moment that Sherlock did not seem to understand any social norms, when she was currently breaking all of them. But why had John Watson chosen this arrogant genius, of all people?

"Do let me know when you figure it out," Sherlock replied, taking out his wallet and counting out bills. He'd apparently calculated out the bill on his own.

Oh shit, Dr. Watson, Donovan thought, remembering John’s face after the fall, remembering how very broken the man had seemed. How he’d never truly recovered.

“And yet you treated him like that?” Sally asked and Sherlock's eyes flickered. He looked... hurt, for a moment and Sally thought over her words, cursing. His partner was hanging by a hook on a concrete ceiling, for shit's sake. She was an idiot. "I mean, say, don't leave eyeballs in the microwave, for example?" Sally rushed to say, to fix it. Sherlock drew himself up, arching his head proudly, back to being the smartest, least approachable person in the room. Sally was sorry to see it. Their first honest conversation, and he’d seemed to be almost approachable. And then he had looked so wounded.

"That was a useful experiment," Sherlock defended and he sounded like a child, whiny and utterly devoid of understanding. It was dizzying to watch his extremes. "which you ruined, by the way," he added.

How does Watson stand it?

“But I mean, how much did you ever try to know about him? You've known me five years and you don't know my name,” Sally said, trying to twist her words into something approaching acceptable to say.

"Sally," Sherlock replied, smirking at her, before throwing the bills on the table and striding for the door.

Sally felt herself blink as she stood up to follow him. It was definitely a heady experience, having that utterly brilliant, focused mind notice you. For a moment she could almost envy the doctor – to have Sherlock Holmes turn that gaze to him, full of passion. It had to be a heady sight. She followed behind the man, shaking her head as she remembered Sherlock's rants and tantrums and eyeball behavior and decided to leave well enough quite alone. She'd never be able to put up with the man.

But she could see why one would want to.

~~/~~

A/N: Woooh, we're through the toughest of the torture depictions. So, did you read it? Do you find it added to the continued story here? I'll ask again, later, when we're into the comfort part of all this hell.

Also, this chapter is dedicated to JunkenMetal who pointed out that season 3 named Anderson for us: he is now Philip.

Chapter Text

This Chapter Dedicated to Cyclamen, who suggested the scene in the bathroom. If you like it, all thanks to Cyclamen!

Greg woke up to find her cheek pressed into the conference table. He lifted his head up, his neck twinging badly, to see Sherlock tearing around the room, in and out of the conference room. John's screams were playing on repeat again – Greg was becoming disturbingly used to them - and John's pictures spun on the projector, one after another.

S-H-E-R-L-O-C-K -H-

The ninth day. And they'd gotten the H and a text.

:Are you angry at me, Sherlock? For breaking the rules of our little game? :

Oh, thank god. It was easy to ignore the taunt, when it meant they had five days more hope.

Still, no extra clues that he could see in the photograph. No great enlightenment, no saving grace of a madman's brilliant mind, nothing but concrete, dripping, echoes, straight walls and a white line. Not enough, for all of London and perhaps beyond it.

But they'd gotten the H, he reminded himself, forcing himself to look at John's torn back.

The police force trickled in slowly, no one talking to each other, and Sally stared at her map of blue and red marks spread over the conference table, saying nothing. Sherlock was staring at the photograph, his eyes bloodshot.

"Parking Garage," he declared finally.

"What?" Greg demanded, the words jolting him out of his daze.

God, let the man have figured something out.

"His hand, there," Sherlock answered, pointing. He didn't sound excited, but at least he sounded confident. Greg forced himself to focus on the mangled hand, held up from the ceiling by bloody rope. It held onto the rope in a stiff grip, keeping John’s body from hanging limply. “It’s morse code. He’s had his fingers up or down differently for each picture. Nine photos, now. Up down up down down up down up down. Don’t you see, it spells out car,” Sherlock replied.

"Or maybe he’s in driving distance?” Sally asked. Sherlock shook his head.

“How would he know? He was clearly dragged out of that alleyway, likely unconscious,” Sherlock responded and Lestrade nodded though he had no idea what that meant.

"Hopefully you’re right,” Sally responded, glancing over the map and stripping everything but the red pins.

A parking garage. Sherlock swallowed heavily.

"You don't seem excited," Charles commented. Greg looked back and wondered how much the stress was getting to him, when he hadn’t even noticed Sherlock’s subdued tone.

"67 options," Sherlock replied. "How long do you expect him to live, with that much blood loss?"

The officers went quiet and Lestrade winced, picking up his phone to order another pile of pizza boxes.

“Let's go over what we know again, now that we know more," Donovan suggested, taking out the last of the blue pins. Greg felt his eyebrows rise as the officers started moving again.

She was a damn good cop.

~~/~~

John kept himself carefully wrapped up in the blanket Mike had thrown to him and ignored the tugging on his back when the fibers got stuck; heat was more important.

He was getting better at chewing through plastic. He spent his time chewing and memorizing everything he could; he knew how long it took the man to come around the corner from where he slept, how quickly he could move despite his injuries and the cough that wouldn't go away. His teeth hurt constantly.

He wouldn't stop to sleep, that night. Mike hadn't replaced the plastic the day before, such a small oversight, but he was faster at chewing now; he'd have to pray he'd gotten fast enough.

John heard Mike start to putter around behind the wall in the morning, but there was no turning back; the wire ties were hanging by a thread.

Christ. If this attempt failed, he'd be too damn sick to try anything again.

If I'm not already, he thought, sighing as he desperately pulled at the binds at his wrists, clenching his teeth as pain shot across his back and arms. It would be appropriately ironic, he thought, to live through all of his military career, Sherlock's faked death, a campaign against professional hit men, and an escape from Moriarty's torture, only to die of the subsequent pneumonia.

The plastic broke with a definitive snap.

Oh thank god, he thought, pulling his hands into his lap and rolling on the floor to keep his back to Mike's hidden sleeping area. He hadn't felt so naked in the whole bloody ordeal; he had nowhere to hide the broken plastic.

Fuck, he thought, unsure if he had the time to hide it behind one of the walls and get back. God forbid Mike heard him.

I can't waste the energy.

He wasn't going to get away from this one running. His feet were bound with no good way of freeing them and he was too damn sick. Sweat coated his body despite the cold; he didn't even want to think about moving. Which meant he needed to move fast and buy himself time.

Mike's footsteps padded closer and John felt the rush of adrenaline and fear press through him at the sound.

Use that, he ordered himself, allowing his shivers to intensify as he lay on the concrete, doing his very best to look as utterly depleted as he felt.

Just one burst of power, that's all I need, he told himself, desperately trying to push energy into his muscles, preparing to spring.

The footsteps stopped at his back and John prayed the man wouldn't kick him awake, wouldn't deviate from his routine.

Just reach down, grab my head to keep it still, shake me, John prayed, listening to the man's clothing rustle behind him. Come on.

The touch didn't come and John felt his eyes squeeze tight.

Hell.

John felt something brush against his hair and waited, concentrating on his breathing. He'd taught the man that he didn't wake up easily, that he didn't fight and the man always leaned down, shook him.

What type of soldier is hard to wake up? No one ever read his military file.

The grip tightened. John rolled, letting his back scream in pain and his hair snag against the man's grip. Mike was leaning down, one knee almost against the cement and John grabbed his elbow and yanked forward and to the side, away from the man's point of balance. Mike recovered in time, pulling his weight back into his knees to regain his balance and John threw his bound legs into the man's knee. The knee cracked backwards and John let himself exhale.

The man tipped again and John pulled him, letting the man land on him. He had no choice; he was too damn slow to risk getting out of the way and losing the upper hand. Once he lost this advantage the fight would be done without question. John shouted as the man's weight slammed into his chest but he kept his grip on the chain that had bound him. Mike attempted to roll away and John wrapped the chain around his neck, praying the man would be too slow to stop him. The chain synched down around Mike's throat and the man slammed himself backward. John's head cracked against the cement but he held on, glad he hadn't lost his breath. John coughed anyway, the man's weight too heavy for him; he was too sick, too weak for this. His arms were shaking, trying to keep his hold on the chain as Mike reached for him.

~~/~~

The women’s bathroom in New Scotland Yard was one floor up, hidden on the opposite side of the building from the elevator. Usually, that fact could send Sally into a fury, spitting feminist arguments until an officer handed her a beer. Today, however, she was grateful for it. She at least didn’t need to listen to Watson’s screams while she peed.

Sally pushed open the swinging door and stopped short, her hand flying to her sidearm. There was a man leaning over the sink counter.

“Jesus, Sherlock.” Sally relaxed her hand away from her gun, her heart beating wildly. Sherlock was peering into the long bathroom mirror, staring at his own bloodshot eyes. There were thirty two women on the London force and only Sally was in homicide, which made the New Scotland Yard women’s bathroom the best place to escape from a homicide case. Sherlock blinked at her, cognition slowly returning to his gaze.

“Women’s bathroom. Right,” he said, pushing himself from the counter. Sally shifted to block his way out of the room.

She would have been so creeped out, once. Would have been furious to find him here.

I prosecuted you. Guilt weighed heavy in her stomach. Sherlock Holmes, once the most unapproachable man she’d known. Now hiding in a woman’s bathroom while he slowly collapsed. His pale face was drawn, his eyes haunted. His hair was streaked with grease, his dirty clothing limp on his thin frame.

“What’s going on, Sherlock?” she asked. Sherlock drew himself up and glared at her, his gray eyes flashing with life again.

“I’m fine. I’m not your mother,” he declared. Sally swallowed. Of course he knew. An alcoholic mother - apparently that history showed in her somehow, in her controlling attitude or disgust of addicts or her choice of sweaters, it didn’t matter. Of course he’d throw that at her now. He was such a prick.

“You’re not fine. You need to eat. Shower. Change,” Sally insisted. Sherlock pulled his ugly disguise around himself. A tight t-shirt, a battered leather coat, slacks that were stiff with filth.

“I’ll shower after the case,” he replied, starting forward.

"And if he’s dead, what will you do?" Sally asked quietly. Sherlock stilled, his eyes widening.

“I’ll be fine,” he declared. Sally held her ground. She let the swinging door close behind her. Sherlock sneered. “Don’t you see? Did you miss it all? I need him,” he hissed, leaning forward like he was planning to rip her limbs off right there.

Psychopath, she thought, uncertain again and Sherlock pulled himself back.

“I don’t know,” he amended, his voice soft again, and Sally exhaled, unsure when she’d started holding her breath.

"Let's go eat," she ordered and Sherlock shook his head.

“Five days," he answered. "And John won't live to the end of them regardless. Moriarty's man for hire is inexperienced. It’s obvious from the pictures, John is dying.”

Sally winced.

“Then get clean. Wash yourself in the bloody sink, at least. You’re shit for moral out there,” she said. As if she personally wasn’t affected by the miserable genius, brought so low. Sherlock glanced over her face, no doubt reading every secret there. Sally turned away, hating the feeling.

“Do you have a towel?” he asked. Sally sighed, rubbing a hand down her face.

“Use the paper,” she said, gesturing at the roll of paper towels standing on top of the broken dispenser. Sherlock nodded and she left.

~~/~~

This wasn't going to work. The chain was tied around the man's neck like a single knot; it'd never get tight enough and he didn't have time.

John pulled the chain tighter and held it with one hand, throwing out the other to grab the shortened wiretie that had held him. He got it with his fingers and grabbed the chain again. His vision tunneled suddenly and John forced himself to suck in a deep breath despite the force of Mike slamming against his chest.

He didn't have the energy for this. He had to take a risk. John tried to prepare the wiretie as best he could but there was only so much he could do. He held the plastic strip, still connected to the chain and waited, holding on and pretending to weaken worse than he already was. Mike took his chance, raising his hand from grabbing at the chain around his neck to reach back, prepared to grab John's hair. John dropped the chain and clenched his grip around the man's wrist, fastening the wiretie around it as the man began to spin in his arms.

He got the wiretie tightened just as pain exploded across his face.

He backed up rapidly, praying he'd done the binding right and he wasn't about to get grabbed. He scrambled backward over the too-rough concrete, blood pouring down his nose and into his mouth.

He saw the moment when Mike realized. The wiretie was woven through the chain as always and now connected to him. Mike pulled on his fastened hand and the chain knot around his neck tightened again.

That'll do, John thought as he tried to push himself up. He needed to get to the concrete partition that separated him from Mike's belongings.

His vision narrowed and John sank back to the concrete, his body shaking sickly.

He'd crawl, John determined, glad he'd not overestimated himself and tried to escape on foot. He got to the partition, feeling scabs split open all the way down his back, to find his soiled and bloody clothing thrown in a pile in the corner. A bag sat open by Mike's cot, revealing clean and folded clothing and his gun, practically waiting for him.

It felt like a ridiculous waste of time to get dressed but John took it. Shivers were wracking his body; he needed whatever heat he could get. He dressed beside Mike's cot, letting the pain in his shoulders and back keep him awake, telling himself not to lie down in Mike's cot unless he wanted to die in it. Still, he figured, he'd won either way. He was most definitively not mad. No one ever read his military file. He found his wallet and phone in Mike's bag and grabbed his gun, starting back down the car ramp.

Mike was at the bottom, desperately trying to bite at the plastic around his hand.

John shot him through the chest, the sound echoing painfully off the hard walls. Blood sprayed back from the man's corpse and started to drip downhill. John crawled after it, following the sign for the elevator. He had to call an ambulance for himself but he had to do it where he hadn't just committed a homicide.

~~//~~

A/N: How do you feel about the fact that Sherlock wasn't the one to save him? BAMF!John, but how do you think that will affect them?

Chapter Text

"Dripping, echos, concrete. What else?" Sherlock was muttering to himself, his head laying sideways over Greg’s desk. As far as Sally could tell, he hadn't yet slept. The mind couldn't do nine days without sleep. He had to have slept, but whenever it had been, it hadn't been for long. The man's skin was yellowed and sickly. The skin under his eyes was dark and baggy, almost bruised, and the man had only gotten quieter, more caustic as the days dragged on. "Data, data, data. Without mud how can I make bricks?" he muttered to himself.

Nothing happened, the rest of that day. Sherlock did not eat. Sally stayed in the main room because Sherlock was there, wondering if the unstable genius even peed like a normal man. She left Philip watching him when she went to eat and always came back to find Sherlock in the same position, sitting in an office chair, staring at nothing. As far as she could tell, he stayed there all that day, into the night, staring at all their utterly useless 'clues'.

Midnight struck and Sally wondered if she was supposed to hold Sherlock's hand, help him through this somehow, but she'd never been particularly touchy and he definitely didn't seem the type. He didn't even seem to realize she was there.

8:00 AM hit finally, and Sally watched as Sherlock slowly dug his fingers through his hair. John was getting tortured now. The next letter. Lestrade came in and stood by the case board, staring at the pictures. The other officers trickled in, one by one, in total silence, waiting for the next photo that always came at nine.

~~/~~

The officers on the case all wandered idly about, without any work to continue the case and without the heart to declare it over.

They hadn't gotten a photograph that morning. A photograph came every day at nine o'clock, like clockwork, and it was going on ten now. Sherlock Holmes was staring into space, muttering to himself, looking like some kind of disturbing broken doll. John Watson was very likely dead, killed by blood loss, dehydration and shock, and Sally wondered if that was going to finally destroy Sherlock Holmes. Ironic, after all the genius had done to come back from the dead, he'd do it only to watch his partner die. His lover. Christ.

"Nine letters. Jesus," Greg said, sighing as he ran a finger over the picture of John's back, pinned up on the case board outside his office. Sally heard a rustling and turned her head, curious.

Sherlock was frozen, his fingers halfway to his mouth, his face slowly brightening like he was stuck halfway through a high. Or an orgasm. The whole room of Scotland Yard officers stopped to stare at him, hope rising steadily. Sherlock raised his hand, his fingers pressed against his skull as he thought.

The officers froze, one by one, as they noticed. All except Anderson who slowly, silently turned around to face the opposite wall.

Sally felt herself smile at him, who could not see her now.

He's a good man, she thought, a twinge of guilt pressing through her again. The man had a wife. She'd have to find a different colleague to fuck.

Lestrade slowly took his radio out, ready to make a call.

Please, please, come on, Sally thought, watching Sherlock Holmes stare at the case wall, his eyes darting back and forth in his skull. Let this be over now.

Suddenly Sherlock was all movement, taking out his phone and striding toward the door, typing into his phone even as he grabbed his coat.

"1750 West Hamington or 15 Tarington Street, London. Hamington is more likely. Get everyone!" Sherlock shouted as he ran out of the door.

Oh, thank god, Sally thought desperately as she ran for her vest, obeying Greg's shouted orders.

Sherlock was pacing back and forth in front of Lestrade's car as they got out of the building. Lestrade didn't pause from talking to EMS dispatch, just opened the door for them and Sally climbed inside, leaving Sherlock to the back of the car.

"Want to talk me through it?" Lestrade asked once he'd gotten off the radio and was on the road, lights on and sirens blaring around them.

"Nine letters. Not eight," Sherlock replied grimly. Greg waited before sighing.

"So?"

"John disappeared at roughly 7:00 AM according to when that man was killed in your old crime scene. The letters are always, always cut at 8:00, he told us that. So Moriarty's man only had forty five minutes to get John captured, transported, tied down, and woken up before 8:00 AM or we'd only have eight letters. Not nine," Sherlock replied tersely.

Ten, now, if we're lucky, Sally thought, deciding not to correct the man. John Watson was likely dead and Sherlock would hardly have forgotten.

"True. Ten," Sherlock said quietly into the silence that had followed his words.

Sherlock stayed absolutely still at the back of the car, his legs crossed. Sally watched in the rear-view mirror. Sherlock just didn't move right. It helped her feel slightly better about having accused him. She'd had all the evidence on her side and the man could be genuinely creepy. He didn't even look worried, with his best friend-maybe-lover likely getting tortured to death only a few miles away. If anything, he looked excited.

"He'll be okay," she said quietly, wondering how he'd react. He met her eyes sharply in the rear view mirror, looking confused.

"Why would you think that?" he asked, his eyebrows furrowed. Greg darted his eyes away from the road to flash her a worried glance and Sally sat back in her seat, giving up.

"We have no idea what we're facing here. We are to do perimeter control only while the force firearms unit performs the building search," Lestrade reminded the force over his radio as they approached the first address. It was a large, concrete building rising out of the middle of a shitty suburban area, next to what looked to be an illegal tire dumpsite. The place had large windows, bricked up on the bottom floors, boarded up above.

"An old factory?" Sally guessed as she gazed out the window. The place was already surrounded by cop cars, the blue lights flashing off of the building's tall concrete walls.

"Old mall," Sherlock replied quietly. "Construction was never finished but the parking garage was mostly completed. All underground. Sound would be impenetrable,"

He climbed out of the car slowly and Sally made sure to stand beside him, ready to grab the man if he tried to enter before the police force secured the area. To her surprise, Sherlock just stood there, almost completely still as the wind blew his coat back behind him. He pushed his hands into his sleeves and waited, by all appearances willing to stand there forever. He knew they were picking up a body, Sally realized, wincing. They had not gotten another photograph that morning. Moriarty's man for hire had messed up his torture, killed him too fast. John had probably been grateful for it.

We only needed one more day, Sally cursed, wanting to cry.

They watched as the special forces unit entered the building and waited. The place was too silent, even with the barking dog they could hear off in the distance.

~~/~~

Sherlock waited by the car to get word. He wouldn’t gain anything from seeing John’s bloated corpse but a time of death, and Molly would give him a more accurate one. Sally Donovan stood behind him, apparently having decided to keep him from doing something stupid, like running inside to get killed when there was nothing else productive he could do. She did not understand him.

He'd always been a thinking thing, always trying to puzzle out how people worked from afar, trying to decide why they did irrational things like committing suicide or getting killed running into a fire to save their dead cat. That had never made any sense. He'd spent a month, at nine years old, obsessing over it to no avail. And yet at 37 he'd figured it out without ever realizing it. He was being swamped with sentiment, like he'd gone weeks without food and couldn't think for hunger, except this was twice as debilitating. He needed to know John was alive and he had no idea what his brain would do if he wasn't.

"He wouldn't want you to kill yourself," Sally commented from behind him.

"Why would you think that?" He asked curiously, turning to her. Sentiment still made so much sense to other people; they were all just used to it, processed it in that effortless way they didn't process anything else. Sally blinked at him like he'd said something incomprehensible.

"He'll be dead," Sherlock clarified, "by definition unable to care." She was only silent for a moment, like there was some logical way to respond.

"Lestrade says it was like John Watson had died too, when you jumped. Didn't eat or sleep. Moved out but didn't bring any of his things. God knows what he was doing before Lestrade brought him his clothes. Spent all day at work. His boss, Susan? Sarah? Whatever her name, said she put him on file work, and he'd be there without speaking for days on end, until even the backlogged work was done. That's what brokenhearted people do. He loved you. He'd want you to live," she said.

Sherlock clamped his emotions down again.

It was irrelevant how John had felt, over a year before. He'd probably been dead for hours now.

~~/~~

A force officer came out of the building, back through the kicked-in door, and approached them finally, looking grim.

Sherlock still didn't move, even as the man shook his head at them.

Damn it, Sally thought, knowing the answer. John Watson had been a great man. She glanced at Sherlock's face and saw nothing but waiting curiosity.

"I'm sorry sir. We found a body," the man said and Sherlock sneered.

"That's meaningless. Which body," he growled.

After all this he still has hope? Sally thought, feeling ill.

Leave the man alone, Sherlock, the answer is obvious, she thought, but wondered if perhaps it wasn't to Sherlock, if Sherlock really hadn't gotten his answer yet. She didn't want to see him learn that John Watson was gone.

"He was hanging from the ceiling, sir," the officer informed them. Sally closed her eyes.

Christ. Too much detail.

"I'm sorry, officers," the man said, glancing curiously at Sherlock, obviously recognizing the man but clearly astute enough not to question him or his return from the dead.

Two men carrying a full body bag on a stretcher walked out of the building, heading for the ambulance. Sherlock strode for them.

Jesus, man, Sally wanted to say, but felt a palm settle over her shoulder, stopping her from following the man.

"Let him be," Lestrade ordered. "He needs evidence." His voice was calm but Sally could see how tense he was. Lestrade cared for Sherlock Holmes. This wasn't just about John Watson. It wasn't for her, either, she figured, wanting to collapse to the ground at the thought that they'd arrived only to pick up a body. Dr. John Watson, a damn good man. And more, Sherlock Holmes had lost his partner. Jesus.

Sherlock strode up to the special unit officers and tore open the body bag's zip before either of the men had time to react. Sally watched as the men jerked backward in surprise.

There was nothing in the world as disturbing as Sherlock tipping his head back on his neck and practically crowing with success at the image of a revealed body. The man leaped up in the air, a grin stretched across his face, showing no concern at all for the disgust evident on the officer's faces.

"Sherlock, what?" Lestrade asked as Sherlock strode back to them, his stride strong. A smile was stretched across his face, a creepy look for a man Sally had never seen smile about anything other than a case.

"That was not John. And he’s been dead for over a day," Sherlock replied, pointing back at the corpse and pulling open the front car door. "Call the closest hospital. They have our missing person," he ordered.

Sally felt astonishment strike her and turned back to watch the emergency medical personnel load the leaden body bag into the ambulance. John had escaped? From here? She'd seen the pictures; how on earth..

Escaped and killed his tormentor, apparently.

Lestrade's eyes widened and he ran for the car. Sally followed, ignoring that Sherlock had taken her seat.

"Reports of human-inflicted injuries are always to be reported to the police," Lestrade cursed as they sped for the closest hospital, leaving the crime scene behind them. The sirens blared, lights flashing and reflecting off the cars around them.

"They likely were. You evidently have jurisdiction communication issues," Sherlock responded. Sally wanted to snark back, defend them; jurisdiction issues were difficult, but they'd spent twenty four hours almost certain John Watson was dead, and John Watson had spent twenty four hours in the hospital alone. Probably still dying. And from the tension still around Sherlock's eyes, the man knew it.

~~/~~

Chapter Text

John woke with a jerk, expecting to be struggling against the water, needing to breathe. He found himself restrained in a new way, his arms held at his sides. He opened his eyes, pulling backward, wondering what the hell Mike had shoved in his throat to make it hurt so badly. Something sharp pricked his hand.

An alarm started, blaring nearby him. John looked down to see broken I.V. tape flapping up on the back of his hand, only one half still adhered.

Right. He was dehydrated. That was smart.

John hesitated at the thought, taking stock of his surroundings. A scared-looking nurse was holding up both his hands in what looked like either submission or very ineffective self defense.

“Hospital, you’re in a hospital,” he promised. John glanced around, confirming it. He was in a private room, kept sitting upright by a pair of back supports avoiding his burns. His leg was bandaged, though he couldn’t remember it being damaged. His throat felt like it’d been torn out; he’d been put under, kept on oxygen. His lungs felt stiff, damaged. Pneumonia, probably. He’d ripped out his I.V and its machine was screaming.

“Yes. Pardon,” John croaked out and collapsed back into sleep.

~~//~~

He woke up with the I.V back in his right hand and the machines mercifully quiet. His right hand was bandaged, his arms pinned to his side by his elbows and he was unusually happy, for a tortured, mournful man. Opiates.

Right. John stared at his bandaged hand, remembering the parking garage.

What the fuck did I just live through? His biceps were restrained to his side by two restrictive slings, pinning him like a mental patient. He had a strap around his middle, attached with Velcro ties to keep his forearms pinned to his belly. Two dislocated shoulders, at the least. From hanging. John wanted to pull away from the thought and felt his bandages tug against him. He tried to keep his breathing even. He couldn’t move his arms. He could hear his heart monitor picking up. He didn’t know how to slow it down. He couldn’t move and his leg was bandaged over his knee, keeping it from bending. He fought the shoulder restraints.

He was worsening whatever damage there was in his shoulders. He didn’t care. He was going to kill whoever decided to strap him down.

No. Not going to kill them. John breathed in through his mouth and choked as his lungs protested. He coughed and bent over himself, trying not to choke. A nurse rushed in, looking concerned.

Hospital, he was in a hospital. He had to stop panicking.

“Tranq me,” he coughed out, but the nurse was already pushing a syringe into his I.V tube.

A warm feeling flooded his brain. John focused on it, continuing to cough, until his lungs calmed and the nurse helped him lie back. Exhausted, John slept.

~~//~~

The pain in his back and arms was a dull, distant feeling filtered from his brain by heavy pain killers, leaving him wanting nothing so much as to sleep again. The nursing staff tried and failed to get him to eat something and kept him propped up on the back supports. He was plugged in to a IV fluid and alimentation drip that woke him up beeping frantically every time he shifted, which he didn’t bother to tell the nurses about because he’d never met one of those machines that wasn’t faulty. They had reset buttons within easy reach for a reason.

The opiates kept him floating above the pain. His head felt heavy when they kicked in, and he knew from experience not to fight it. He let his head drop and focused on the sounds of the hospital to keep himself out of his fear. Sherlock would no doubt know the details of every patient around him. He tried to ignore that.

He knew it was morning from the light coming in from the window and the sounds of a nurse’s shift changing with its usual exchange of patient information and gossip. Lestrade was sure to find him soon, if he’d been on the case at all. So far he’d escaped any official debriefing of his injuries by being in surgery and then through the assistance of one very protective nurse practitioner. But if Lestrade were on the case, John wouldn’t have the heart to send him away without at least reassuring him. Lestrade had lost enough in the last few years. John had never found out if he’d ever gotten his position in the force restored. But if Lestrade had gotten Mike’s photographs in the mail? John sighed, staring at the door that led to the hospital hallway. He wouldn’t have the heart to turn him away.

And if it was Sherlock? John closed his eyes, exhausted by the notion. He dreaded their remeeting. Sherlock Holmes, truly alive, the most likely recipient of the photographs.

Why do you scream for Sherlock Holmes?

Because he’d always find me . John lifted his arm, wanting to rub at his face, and felt the I.V tug in his arm.

He didn’t know what he was feeling. Half of his brain was taken up with processing just how nauseated the antibiotics were making him. But he dreaded seeing Sherlock Holmes.

He’d idolized Sherlock. John hated admitting it. He’d hero-worshipped that man and everyone he’d known had seen it. His bloody tormentor had seen it. And he didn’t want the brilliant, pristine prick to see him brought so low, tortured with very little reason behind it, marked with his name, and dropped back into the broken life he’d never managed to pull back together. After that very same arrogant prick’s thoughtless, thoughtless death.

A nurse came in to poke at him, her eyes haunted from checking out his injuries. John did his best to smile at her. He felt like his head was floating, pulled away from his neck. Pain medication. He hated it.

He didn’t want Sherlock to see him strong either. To see Mike’s dangling corpse and the carpark full of blood and to come here to see John already sitting up, nausea or no. Anger fizzled through his chest at the thought of Sherlock thinking he was healed, done grieving and ‘fine now’.

"How do the burns look?" he murmured and the nurse returned his smile tightly, looking sick as she checked the monitors.

"You're doing fine," she replied meaninglessly and John felt his teeth clench and released them purposefully. More than anything, he decided, he didn’t want to deal with it. He was too tired to be frustrated; he wanted to sleep.

~~//~~

Sherlock strode into St. Barts, feeling panic lick at him. He wanted to scream and tear around the place but he made himself approach the front desk. It was fastest to follow their idiotic policies.

"Unidentified person, age approximately thirty five to forty, signs of possible torture including burns and lacerations, concentrated on his back. We're here to identify," Sherlock ordered. The woman behind the desk gaped at him, like he'd broken some social code. "Quickly," he demanded. She nodded and glanced back at her computer – she was used to such scenes, apparently.

She typed like John, pecking at the keyboard with her index fingers. Sherlock wanted to break her.

"Room 87, down the hall and to the right, visiting hours are until 6:00 PM except for family," the nurse answered and Sherlock felt himself suck breath into his lungs – symptom of relief. John was here. And alive, then.

Sherlock strode for the room, knowing the building plan. Room 87 was one of the smaller ones, further away from the nurse's break room; Mycroft did not know John was here either. Donovan and Lestrade followed him.

Sherlock stopped, irrationally, outside of John's door, before the windows that would let the man see him.

John had mourned him for a year.

Not good.

He’d known, back then, how he'd feel thinking John dead. John had lived that for a year. He would never forgive him. Sherlock was probably the last man John would want to see, now.

So don’t do it to him. Walk away.

"It'll be okay," Donovan said meaninglessly. Incanting – the common attempt to make a situation better by stating that it was. Useless.

"We'll wait out here," Lestrade said, likely thinking that was the reason he'd paused. Sherlock hesitated, thinking to accept, but what did it matter what Lestrade and Donovan saw of John's reaction to him? He had no pride left. And he was too selfish to walk away, not without ascertaining what chance he had of regaining John’s affections.

"There's no need," he replied and walked into the room.

~~/~~

John heard the ruckus in the hallway and knew Sherlock had come. He shifted on the bed, uncomfortable, feeling trapped with his arms immobilized in their slings and his leg still bandaged over the knee. The door handle turned and John forced himself to exhale. A reunion was inevitable, that was obvious. He watched Sherlock step into his hospital room, looking for all the world like a man going to his funeral. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin sallow and wrong – god when was the last time he'd slept? Eaten?

Sherlock stared at him, looking lost. John felt something unclench in his stomach, and nodded at Sherlock to enter the room. Sherlock waited for a moment before moving to the end of John’s bed. He stood with his hands pushed into the pockets of his worn leather jacket, the disguise hanging limply on him but his posture eerily familiar.

God, Sherlock Holmes stood before him, tall and handsome and whole. John forced his body to stay still, when he wanted to run his hands over the man, feel him firm, his skull whole and unaltered.

Fuck, he wanted to cry. He'd known Sherlock was alive, he'd seen the postmortems, but this..This was Sherlock Holmes, flesh and blood before him, not a memory, not a theory lost somewhere in the world where John would never find him. The same body, thin and tall and pale as porcelain. The same black hair and gray eyes, the same expression of anguish as when he’d said ‘Alone is what I have. Alone protects me’ and let him leave. It hurt to look at him. John inhaled sharply, the sound whistling in his lungs. He was too tired for this. He felt sleep tug at him.

“John,” Sherlock choked out. His deep voice grated. The silence stretched horribly and John waited for Lestrade to interrupt them, demand a statement, but the room was quiet. John considered holding his breath so the code blue alarm would sound, but he couldn’t be so juvenile. Lestrade and Donovan snuck in behind Sherlock, their expressions grim. Donovan stood by the door and clasped her hands, her face blank. Professional. Lestrade closed the door and moved to sit down in one of the chairs lining the opposite side of the room beneath the window. He kept running his hand down his face, staring at John’s bandaged, restrained shoulders.

“You knew,” Sherlock concluded aloud, sounding shocked. John dragged his eyes back to him. Of course Sherlock would be able to tell such a thing, with heart monitors and John’s face bare before him. John closed his eyes, not wanting to face it.

He waited for the explanation, the attempt to validate it all, but Sherlock stayed silent. No one spoke and at last John realized no one was going to, everyone but Sherlock likely thinking him asleep. He was too tired to open his eyes again. Finally, his exhaustion took over and dragged him from his consciousness again.

~~//~~

“I’ll come back,” Greg promised, pushing himself up from the hospital chair. Sherlock glanced away from John’s body to study the man.

Dark eyes. Deepened wrinkles. Heavy scent of dried sweat. He was keeping his arms tight to his sides - aware of his body odor. Currently thinking about it - likely going to shower. Why was he waiting, then?

“I’m glad you’re back,” Lestrade commented, clopping a hand on his shoulder. Warmth seeped through Sherlock’s thin shirt. Sherlock frowned up at him. They’d established that nine days ago, before the search. What had changed? “Too many unsolved murders, without you.”

Sherlock kept his eyes away from his ex-partner, prone on the hospital bed. He never should have jumped. Knowledge of that was evident in Lestrade’s dropped shoulders, his grimace, like he was expecting pain and resigned to it. Sympathy tinged with the idea that it was Sherlock’s own fault. Greg’s gaze shifted to John, confirming his thoughts.

“I know it’s my fault,” Sherlock snapped, glaring at the man. Greg blinked, obviously confused. Could he not see his own pity? Sherlock snarled. Greg patted him on the shoulder again, his gaze locked on John’s bruised face. Something like sympathy, again.

“Do you think he will forgive you?” he asked. Sherlock swallowed and stood up, hoping it would encourage the man to leave. Greg nodded, apparently taking that for an answer.

“It is good to see him again,” he said, straightening his filthy uniform and making his way out of the room. He hesitated by the door. “Let me know.. If anything changes,” he said, glancing at John.

“He’ll live,” Sherlock replied. Lestrade nodded, looking relieved, apparently trusting in his medical predictions over the doctor’s concerns. He left.

~~//~~

John woke up, aware he wasn’t alone. His lower back ached with returning pain. He could feel his wounds scrape against his bandages every time he shifted. He needed more drugs. He opened his eyes in a tight squint to see Sherlock in a chair beneath the window, his fingers pitched before his lips in his thinking pose. His eyes shot to John’s for an instant then looked away.

John didn’t know what to say. He pressed on the button for more drugs, but it would’t compress. He’d taken them too recently. The silence pulled between them again. Sherlock stared at something near John’s foot and said nothing.

He looked ill. Sherlock’s hair was weighed down by grease and dirt. His cheek bones were sharp and hollowed out with hunger.

“When was the last time you ate?” John asked, his voice rough from screaming. Sherlock’s head jerked up and he stared at John, baffled.

That was the first thing I said? John thought, blushing. He opened his mouth to add..something.. but he didn’t want to talk about pain. And he didn’t want to pretend that the last year had not happened at all.

Keep your eyes fixed on me.

John closed his eyes, disgusted.

“Tuesday,” Sherlock answered. John fought his eyes open to see Sherlock looking rather confused with himself, like his mouth had gone and spoken with no permission from his brain.

Sherlock swallowed and his eyes scanned over John’s blankets as if he could see down to the bandages beneath, inspecting every detail but avoiding his gaze. John stared back at him, unsure how to react.

He’d never thought he’d be the target of that captivated stare again. He’d thought he’d give anything for it back, once.

Don’t. Be. Dead.

He hadn’t realized that would entail sacrificing everything they’d been. Knowing that Sherlock had betrayed everything they’d been.

Keep your eyes fixed on me. Please, can you do that for me?

A farce. What did Sherlock see, looking at him now? The helpless fool he’d failed to protect?

I killed those assassins, Sherlock, John wanted to say, but he had no doubt the genius had already figured that out. Perhaps he’d predicted that, too.

“Excuse me,” Sherlock said, his voice sincere, and looked away. John expected him to get up and leave but Sherlock didn’t move. What was John meant to excuse, then? The stare? Sherlock had never apologized for it before.

His hand was starting to ache in its bandage, threatening to cramp. He stretched it out slowly, hissing through his teeth as the infected wounds pulled on his skin. A rope burn, cut deep into his hand. They'd had to pick out the fibers, John was sure, glad he'd been unconscious. Sherlock watched him, looking pained.

You’re not empathetic, John wanted to say, but even in his head it came out like an accusation.

Friends protect people.

You… machine.

John heard the words raging between them. He was grateful for the opiates, keeping his emotions vague. He stopped fighting the sleep dragging at him. They weren’t going to say anything anyway.

~~//~~

Sherlock watched John’s breathing slow, not any less shallow as he slipped back into sleep. Pneumonia, anemia from extreme protracted bloodloss, two dislocated shoulders, rope torn hands, and a skin graft from his leg to cover the newer burns on his back. There was nothing to be done but antibiotic salve and bandages for the later ones.

He would live.

And if he’s dead, what will you do?

Irrelevant, now. But Sherlock couldn’t keep from spinning the question around in his brain while he watched John breathe. John Watson. A phenomenal man - and incredible soldier. Moriarty had vastly underestimated him. Sherlock wanted to scoff in the consulting criminal’s face. And watch his teeth blown through his brain again. Moriarty had taken John to be nothing but a waiting victim. Moriarty’s man had made the same mistake. John Watson’s greatest asset, to be so wholly unthreatening. And Sherlock had forgotten that as well. He wanted to read his file, now, but John wouldn’t like it. A trained killer hiding in woolen jumpers.

And if he’s dead, what will you do?

Irrelevant. Sherlock tried to push the idea aside. There was a more troubling question to consider. What would he do now that they both lived?

I could have brought him with me.

He had underestimated John. Surely, John would forgive that, when it was his greatest strength to be so overlooked? Sherlock snarled at himself. He was lying to himself and poorly. Molly had said, before he’d jumped, that John would never forgive him. He hadn’t doubted her. He’d depended on John’s stupidity, not his strength. What would they be now, with so much broken pride between them?

Sherlock pitched his fingers beneath his chin, ignoring the nurse who’d come in to check on John. The hospital wing was named for his grandmother; they’d not bother him with visiting hours.

~~//~~

When he woke Sherlock was back to his thinking pose. Perhaps trying harder than he to figure out what to say, John thought, anger streaking through him for a moment, lying on his stomach while a female nurse painstakingly covered his back with antiseptic. He decided to leave it to Sherlock and concentrating on keeping still. His back burned and itched and stole his attention. His drugs were wearing off.

“You’re being very brave,” the nurse complimented him, drawing Sherlock’s attention.

“Thank you,” John replied. Sherlock’s eyes widened at the sound. His voice was no better than it’d sounded before.

“Of course, you were a soldier, weren’t you?” the nurse said, putting a gentle hand on the back of John’s neck, where the dogtag’s chain rested.

So, you were a soldier, Mike asked. John felt the man’s fingers brushing at the chain on his neck and swallowed, fighting the fear away.

I am a soldier, he wanted to protest, feeling his wounds sting harsher as the cream began to evaporate. The nurse began to wrap him up again, pulling the bandages around his chest without his help. John couldn’t see how much had changed from the army when he’d just spent a week? -more, less? He needed to ask. He didn’t know how long he’d been in hospital either, when he’d spent so much of it asleep. John struggled to remember what he’d been thinking about. The nurse strapped his arms back in place, careful with his joints though he could not feel them.

In Afghanistan he’d had a crew and a use other than killing. He’d gotten orders and followed them, gotten injured and ignored it for the sake of his patients and his men. For a moment John could smell the sand dust and coriander and he inhaled sharply, only to cough on the dry, bleach-infused smell of a hospital. Sherlock watched him. John wished he would go.

“Still coughing?” the nurse asked idly, taking out his chart to make a note.

“It’s not painful,” John replied, knowing that didn’t mean much with the amount of drugs he had in his system. The nurse nodded, noting that, and finished with his back. She left, dropping them into silence again.

Sherlock leaned forward and for a moment John was scared that he was going to leave with her. He could imagine that from Sherlock Holmes, waiting with him in silence, trying to fathom what more there was to say between them, only to determine that no words were sufficient and thereby disappearing again without a trace. Or perhaps Sherlock was not trying to figure him out, perhaps he had no regard for John at all anymore, or very little, and was waiting only for John to recover enough to give him more information on Moriarty’s men.

Mike is dead, the assassins are dead, there is no one else I can kill for you, John thought angrily. Sherlock sat back in his chair, looking thoughtful, and John relaxed.

Sherlock would have noticed that, would have seen how unwilling he was to have Sherlock go. In an instant John was angry, the emotion cutting through his drugged haze. Who was Sherlock Holmes, to cause so much pain only to think John wanted him there, watching him recover? Who was he to think John so dependent?

Fuck you then, Sherlock, John wanted to say, but he could not form the words. He watched Sherlock slowly settle back into his chair, and he wanted to punch him. But he could not move his arms. There were words left unspoken between them, that was all. That didn't mean John wanted anything from him. John closed his eyes, trying to think about anything else. His back still burned. He thought he could feel a twinge in his shoulders now that they were strapped in place.

“You think I miscalculated,” Sherlock announced. John opened his eyes to see Sherlock sitting at the front of his chair, watching what effect his words would have. John had a feeling he’d fallen asleep, because the room was darker than it’d been, what felt like moments before.

“What?” John croaked out.

“Moriarty. You are angry, ergo you believe I made a mistake. Where do you think my mistake lies: in jumping from Saint Bartholomew Hospital or in not protecting you from his contingency plan afterward? Or perhaps simply in not rescuing you fast enough?” he continued. John felt the words like a kick to the chest. Of course. He shook his head.

Do you know how close I came to suicide?

He didn’t know what he was angry about. Was he angry at all? He was tired. John glanced over his damaged legs, not wanting to think of all he’d lost.

No, really, just between us, why Sherlock Holmes? He could smell burning flesh. His throat constricted.

He killed himself. Do you feel like he betrayed you?

He felt sick. Too tired to fight, John closed his eyes and slept.

~~//~~

“John. John Watson, I need you to wake up,”

Greg’s voice.

John dragged himself out of sleep and slitted his eyes open to see Lestrade leaning over him.

“Lestrade,” John croaked out, closing his eyes again.

“I need you to tell me what happened, John. Then I’ll get out of your hair,” he said. John fought an eye open and saw Sherlock standing beneath the window, looking furious at the proceedings.

“Do you?” John asked, considering refusing. Greg held his hands up, signaling helplessness and John nodded. Paperwork. No doubt Lestrade’s career was in no position to be brushing aside due diligence in a case including prolonged torture and a homicide. Multiple homicides. He’d killed that guy in the ally, however long ago it’d been.

“How long?” John asked, swallowing. Greg frowned, looking concerned.

“Nine days, including capture and escape. Five days since then,” Sherlock recited. John blinked. Five days? How much was he sleeping? He couldn’t afford this much time in hospital.

“Just tell me what happened,” Greg repeated softly. John blinked. Right. He’d forgotten about that.

“I was tortured by an American who called himself Mike, no last name. He carried no I.D in his wallet. He said he was fulfilling a past contract and read multiple statements from Jim Moriarty-” John hesitated but Lestrade nodded, no doubt in his eyes.

“We found the letters at the crime scene,” Greg added, glancing at Sherlock, who would no doubt want to read them. John ignored it, deciding he didn’t much care if Sherlock read that long winded idiocy, as long as he never chose to do so aloud.

“At the first opportunity, I escaped, killed him, and called an ambulance,” John finished, his voice a damaged croak. He’d screamed too much. He hadn’t spoken this much since he’d escaped. Greg frowned, clearly wanting the missing details there.

“Did you feel you could escape without killing your tormentor?” Lestrade asked.

“No,” John lied. Lestrade looked up from his notebook, his eyebrows high on his forehead and Sherlock smirked. “I feared for my life,” John recited and Sherlock grinned outright.

“Right,” Lestrade said, shutting his notepad. “Thank you, John. The EMS released your wallet. I.D is gone,” he added, throwing the folded leather onto the table beside John, next to his tray of congealing half-eaten food.

It was going to be dumped with your body, John heard, seeing the two detectives exchange a grim look.

John nodded, more comfortable with his wallet near him. He could get a cab out of here, when the time came.

“We should grab a pint, after you recover,” Greg offered. John nodded cautiously. He’d wanted nothing to do with that while Sherlock was dead. Now?

“We’ll do that,” he agreed. Lestrade’s eyes lit up, his relief clear, and sat down. John hoped he was not staying for a social visit. He needed to go back to sleep again.

~~//~~

A/N: Well, that was certainly not the fluff y'all were calling for. Thoughts? Flames?

Chapter Text

“You have got to give him time, don't you?”

“Time? What would that change?” Sherlock scoffed. John concentrated on keeping his breath even; the last thing he wanted to do was debrief his latest living nightmare. The light strained against his eyelids.

“Well, he wouldn’t be pumped up on pain medication, for one,” a woman replied, scoffing.

“I believe those are working in my favor,” Sherlock replied and the woman laughed.

“He is a dangerous man, isn’t he? And think, the first time I met him I kept warning him about you. How the hell did he escape from there, sick and injured as he was?”

Donovan? John wondered, baffled. He couldn’t imagine Sherlock having a civil conversation with the officer.

“Look at the state of his wrists where his teeth scraped against his ulna. Plastic restraints, then, judging by the cuts, wire ties, almost certainly. He chewed them down and freed his hands, let this attacker come to him, surprised him - there was a struggle, he got the wireties around his attacker’s wrist, reattached him to the chain, bought himself enough time to walk - no crawl, his knees are freshly chafed - to the interrogator’s kit. Got his gun, crawled back, shot the restrained man, and escaped,” Sherlock listed. John opened his eyes to stare at him, his mouth agape in wonder.

Amazing, he thought, but did not want to say. It had been so long, since he’d seen the wonder of Sherlock’s mind. He’d once felt so blessed to be privy to it, even if Sherlock had mainly kept his own silence. And his own secrets.

Donovan was sitting beside the window, her chair angled toward where Sherlock was standing, like they’d always been civil colleagues. She was staring at John, her eyebrows high. John ignored her. He didn’t like talking about violence. Everyone always took it to be bragging, on a subject no one should brag about. Greg was snoring in a chair beside her, his head tipped back against the wall. Sherlock was peering out the window, apparently distracted by something going on far below them.

“What did you do in the military?” Donovan asked, dragging his attention back to the room. John turned his head back to face her. She was sitting forward in her chair, her legs crossed, her hands clasped on her lap. Like she'd been there for awhile.

“Sorry, why are you here?” John asked, confused, and Sherlock smirked. Donovan swallowed, suddenly looking rather embarrassed to be caught there. She glanced at Greg, as if hoping he'd give an explanation, but the man was still openly snoring.

“She helped me,” Sherlock explained, turning to face the room when she grabbed her purse, looking ready to leave. John blinked, surprised to hear Sherlock defending anyone. “Find you, that is,” he added.

John nodded slowly, watching Donovan sit back into her seat, and Sherlock flushed.

But I’d escaped, John realized.

“Hardly necessary, but thank you,” John replied, turning back to Donovan. She was glancing over his broken body, looking rather concerned, as if trying to decide if he'd be able to leap out of bed and attack her if he wished. He rather wished there was a newspaper at hand for him to bury himself in. Sherlock looked oddly pleased by him, like he was proud by association. Donovan glanced between them, her expression lightening.

“A couple of kooks, you two are,” she said. John waited for Sherlock to snarl some nasty deduction at her but he simply smiled and turned back to the window, apparently agreeing with her.

She helped me find you. Apparently that was enough for the man. John settled back down to sleep, deciding not to question it.

“Can I add that to your statement, Dr. Watson?” Donovan asked and John waved his fingers, doing his best to make the small movement dismissive.

~~//~~

John woke to a whispered argument.

“You told her?” That was Sherlock; he’d recognize that voice anywhere.

“I could hardly keep it from her!” Greg protested.

“You could do precisely that,” Sherlock protested.

“She’s his sister,” Lestrade replied and John felt his heart sink. The last thing he wanted to do was deal with Harry.

“You clearly know nothing more than that,” Sherlock replied and John couldn’t help but agree when he heard the door bang open, Harry and her drama arriving in force.

“Oh my god, John!” she exclaimed and John cringed, listening to her flutter around the room, no doubt scattering coats and scarves and bags around the room in a flurry. “Oh my god, he looks horrid. Look at his bandages. The man on the phone said he’d gotten into an altercation with another man, what does that mean, are you the doctor?” she demanded. John focused on inhaling slowly and keeping his eyes firmly closed. No one answered Harry, so he guessed she’d asked Sherlock.

“No, Ma’am, we are only friends,” Greg responded finally and Harry started making noise again.

“You should have called me right away. Why did no one call me? I swear it’s like no one thinks I’d even deserve to know, when he’s my little brother. It’s my job to take care of him, not that anyone will let me do that, and now look at him. Oh, John. Where’s the doctor then?”

John exhaled slowly and listened to Sherlock slowly retaking his seat, having apparently decided she wasn’t worth speaking to.

“Oh. My. God,” Harry announced and John knew she’d finally noticed him. “You were dead. How-“

Sherlock didn’t answer.

“It’s complicated, Ma’am. Good to meet you, my name is -“ Greg started.

“Yeah, yeah, all that but how is this man alive again?”

John could almost see Greg’s flabbergasted expression and fought back a wince. He was supposed to be asleep.

“Alive again, that’s your theory?” Sherlock sneered and the room settled into an awkward silence.

“I’m confused. I don’t understand,” she announced finally. Neither man answered her and John was tempted to open his eyes, just to watch the commotion.

“That’s hardly unprecedented, I assume,” Sherlock drawled and the room went quiet again.

“Why will neither of you explain? I don’t appreciate it. I thought you died. John was catatonic. I know more than people tell me, you know, so I don’t understand why you’re just standing there like it’s some big secret I can’t handle. I’m his older sister, it’s my place to know these things.”

He heard her throw herself into one of the side chairs.

“Oh my god, John,” she repeated and started to sob.

I’m so glad I’m not awake for this, John thought senselessly.

“He is recovering well,” Greg put out finally.

“He’s always been so strong. What happened to him?” Harry asked, her voice thin, and John heard Sherlock stand up.

“An enemy of mine,” he admitted.

“Do you sell drugs?” Harry asked. John heard Greg snort out a laugh at the blunt question. Statistically speaking, that was an apt question to ask.

An enemy of ours, John wanted to amend, but he couldn’t admit to being awake and he had a strong suspicion he was wrong anyway; Moriarty had never been the least bit threatened by him.

His mistake, John thought proudly and fell asleep listening to Harry cry.

~~//~~

“Can I get you something from the vending machine?” Harry whispered.

“No, thank you,” Sherlock replied. Greg must have left, John deduced from the silence.

‘You know, I don’t understand it, but I think you’re a bloody bastard for what you did to John, making us all think you were dead like that,” she replied.

“I gathered,” Sherlock drawled. John inhaled slowly, sure Sherlock knew he was awake but not caring. He was glad someone else would curse out Sherlock for him, even if it did have to be Harry.

“That officer told me he’d thought John had killed himself, when he went and disappeared. You’d have just deserved that too, for what you did to him. I saw him, afterward, travelled all the way here from Bath. He mourned you something fierce.”

He would have deserved it if I’d killed myself, really Harry? John thought but did not stir. He wanted to eavesdrop.

“I did not know he’d be so affected,” Sherlock replied, his tone haughty and detached. Perhaps he had not noticed him awake after all, John considered. He’d never heard Sherlock sound the least bit remorseful to a stranger before. That at least was something.

“You’re a daft prick,” Harry answered. John couldn’t help it; he laughed, and it set off a coughing fit and he had no choice at all but to open his eyes.

Harry sat on the chair furthest away from Sherlock’s. Her brown hair was in its usual curly, frizzy poof from a recent perm. She stared at him, her mascara smudged beneath her eyes. The IV drip machine screamed in protest, thinking his IV line kinked or dislodged, and he canceled its alarm, wincing as the movement stretched his back and pulled his arm from its sling. He settled back onto the bed and returned her gaze.

“Hello, John,” she said softly, rubbing at her finger where Clara’s ring used to sit.

“Hello, Harry,” he said, trying to sound pleased to see her. Sherlock smirked, unfooled.

“You look like shit,” she joked and John tried to smile. From her tense expression, he’d failed.

So do you, John wanted to say, but he didn’t think it’d be taken well. She rubbed a finger under her eyes, trying to fix the mascara, but it only smudged further. There was food next to his bed, John noticed, his stomach rebelling at the thought. The nurse should have woken him up for it. Perhaps she had, and he’d forgotten. It was dark outside the window, showing nothing but a reflection of their room.

“What happened, John?” Harry asked, taking his hand. The words landed between them like a deadweight. John glanced at Sherlock, who was glaring at the ceiling and looking spectacularly impatient.

He’d never stopped missing the way Sherlock never asked questions. It wasn’t because Sherlock was polite, John had no illusions. The intolerable genius just always preferred the puzzle to the answer. But it meant that Sherlock never asked ‘what’d you do in the army?’ or ‘how’d you get shot?’ or ‘what happened, John?’. So John had never had to answer. He’d never met anyone else in the world like that, and didn’t expect to.

“I was captured,” John said, in the same tone he’d once used when he’d faced Mike Stanford and answered ‘I got shot’. Harry frowned. Not good enough, apparently. “Got a tramp stamp,” John added, glancing at Sherlock. Sherlock’s expression lit up at the phrase, amusement dancing in his eyes. Harry just looked confused. “Or most of one,” John amended. Sherlock H. “Perhaps I should be grateful not to be Sherlock Ho,” he added. He definitely would have died before he got to Holmes. The amusement in Sherlock’s eyes died too quickly.

John craned his head over to look at the chart hung on the wall beside him. His vitals were fine; his temperature a bit high but then, he was healing. The antibiotics were working so far. But still, he hadn’t eaten many solids, due to his torn throat. That was apparently the next step. They’d brought him yogurt and jelly. Lovely.

“You’re going to stay with me when you get out of here,” Harry cooed, like it’d be a relief to hear.

Oh, am I? John wanted to snark but he hesitated, uncertain. Stress creeped into his mind, making his back tense. Post-op care was a complicated, horrible process to do alone. That he’d learned from his bullet wound. He’d need help bathing, walking, and eating. He’d wake up in the night screaming. Who else was he to call?

Lestrade, maybe. Greg had always worked hard to be a good friend, even if John had neither accepted nor reciprocated it after Sherlock’s fall. But if not Greg?

We should grab a pint, after you recover. That was hardly an offer of full time nursing care.

He had forgotten how very isolated he and Sherlock had been. How strongly he’d come to realize that, when Sherlock had died. It had been disturbingly easy to be alone, unfollowed, and unquestioned. To the assassin’s downfall first and his own second.

I’ve always been one for contingency plans. Moriarty must have noticed that John would disappear for days without problem, were Sherlock taken out of the picture.

“John,” Harry called and it sounded like an order. John pulled his attention back to her. “It’s good to see you again. Even if the circumstances are shite. You disappeared after he died, you know,” Harry said, jerking her head toward Sherlock. "I'll take care of you, this time."

John blinked away sleep, trying to figure out how to dodge the question. Harry would take good care of him for a day. She’d bring him tea and wash his back and keep him eating. But over months? Harry couldn’t keep a goldfish alive. She’d tried three times. The last time he’d visited her cat’s liter box was so caked with feces it’d formed a solid block.

Where am I going to go? John tried to keep his alarm concealed though he had no hope of keeping it from Sherlock. As if on cue, Sherlock pulled his head down from staring at the ceiling and scanned John’s body and hospital monitors, a rather perplexed expression on his face.

What did he expect? John wondered. Sherlock had seen first hand how John had few family members and even less familial support. He’d eschewed Harry’s care after returning from the war, what made Sherlock think anything had changed? And if Sherlock didn’t expect him to rely on Harry, who, then? Or had Sherlock not realized that John would require additional care than what a hospital could offer? At first glance, that looked the most likely - as far as John knew Sherlock had never experienced being truly injured. He certainly didn’t act like he had.

People didn’t just pop up after gunshot wounds. Of anyone, Sherlock should know that. John frowned, watching as Sherlock settled his elbows on his knees, his fingers pinched before his lips, his thinking pose. No, it made more sense that Sherlock would know precisely how long wound recovery would take and all that would be involved in it. But in that case, why was Sherlock acting so puzzled? Surely he didn’t expect John would ask him for help?

John gaped at Sherlock, who met his gaze defiantly.

“Well, we all know he’s not staying with you,” Harry snarked, turning in her seat to glare at Sherlock. John closed his eyes, exhausted. “You should’ve stayed with me, back then, when you got shot and everything. I’ve got the place to myself now, you know, got the couch and all,” she said, trying to look proud. John nodded tiredly and she deflated. “My neighbors are a couple of twats but what can you do?” she said and grinned. “I left used cat litter on their doormat, that’s what. Took a shit in it myself,” she said. John blinked at her, flabbergasted, and Harry tittered. She was right, he thought, deciding not to renew his meds. It had been a long time. He wanted his head finally clear of the damned haze.

“You really shat on your neighbor’s mat?” he asked and Harry laughed, banging her palm against the hospital cot.

“He wrote to management about the dog in 27C!” she crowed and smacked the hospital bed again. John nodded, doing his best not to look disapproving. By the way she slowly sobered, her expression growing frustrated, he thought he’d failed at it.

“Have I ever told you about the time Sherlock and I went to Buckingham Palace?” He asked, though he felt far too tired to tell the story. Harry’s face lit up and she leaned toward him. Sherlock stood up, moving to look out of the window again. John hesitated, uncertain, but Harry's hopeful expression won him over. “I arrived, having been escorted there despite my will and with all the pomp and circumstance you’d expect, to find Sherlock sitting, completely starkers, wrapped in a bed sheet. So, as you would, I asked him if he’s at least wearing pants-” John started. In moments, he had her bent over laughing again. Sherlock watched them in the reflection, his face blank, his gaze as measuring as ever. It was only when John stopped talking, his throat sore and his lungs torn up from coughing, that he remembered he wasn’t supposed to be speaking. His back burned and pulled, damaged by the coughing.

“To add insult to injury, I was never able to blog about that one, for it was quickly deemed classified information,” John explained, laying back on the bed, closing his eyes for some much needed sleep. He pressed the button for his morphine. He didn’t want to know what his nightmares would look like, if he went off the medicine now. He’d have to live with the haze.

“Tell me another one,” Harry ordered. John pretended he’d already slipped into sleep. For once, Sherlock didn’t inform the room of his dishonesty.

~~//~~

:You should have informed me when you found him. I have called off the military search:

Sherlock deleted the text, unconcerned. Mycroft had more than earned that when he’d sold their information to a terrorist. His phone gasped again; another text.

:I will upgrade his room to something more appropriate: Mycroft offered. Offered, and didn’t do it. Testing the water.

:No. SH: Sherlock replied. John wouldn’t like that. And he was going to live. No doubt they’d already been reassigned the best doctors in the country.

He was getting bored. That didn’t feel right. Hospital visits to tortured friends sounded like one of the events he was supposed to find fascinating regardless of their content, like human births and funerals. It wasn’t good to be bored at a funeral.

Sherlock ran his finger over the metal arms of his chair, warmed from his contact. He’d been waiting for days, agonizing about how furious John would be, how pained, and how they’d get over it. He still had no answer. John’s brain was too drugged out to constitute his friend, so he was left staring at a sleeping lump of flesh, watching it heal like he’d once watched wet soil dry. There was no content there but he couldn’t get himself to do anything else. He could just stare and be bored.

“It’s a bit creepy, you being here, in’t it?” Harry said, drawing attention to where she was knitting by the window.

“He does not want to be alone,” Sherlock replied, gesturing to the heart monitor, though it no longer showed how John’s pulse had risen at the suggestion of being left unattended.

“And you’ve elected yourself, have you?” Harry scoffed, shaking her head and digging in her purse for something. Sherlock kept his face blank, knowing it unsettled her.

“You leave every day at four to get dressed for dates. You follow the willing home, probably to avoid staying at the grimy motel you’ve let and to bolster your flagging ego. You’re drunk before you arrive, drunk in their beds, and you come straight here when you’re kicked out in the morning, and yet you don’t arrive until 10:30. You flirt at the nurse’s station. You should leave the brunette alone; she’s becoming uncomfortable,” Sherlock recited. Harry gaped at him.

“Asshole,” she made out finally.

“Prove me wrong, stay with John for his sake,” Sherlock returned. Harry shook her head.

“Oh, and keep you company?” she deflected.

Could I leave?

Sherlock smirked and turned away, trying to ignore the question. Leave John? Let him heal alone? Sherlock wasn’t sure he knew how. Did that make him a stalker, then? What would he become if John tried to send him away? He could be very skilled at keeping John from ever seeing him. Harry was watching him, her eyes too shrewd. Sherlock kept his gaze on his nails - supposedly the gesture indicated disinterest.

~~//~~

Harry was gone by the time John woke again, but her purse was still hanging off the end of John’s bed, so she hadn’t gone far. John was beginning to wonder at the best way to send her home. He had a feeling she’d gotten paid time off work to help him, if she was dragging it on so long.

Sherlock was still sitting in the same seat, apparently unbothered by those petty human things like food and drink and visiting hours. John was inclined to ask how he was holding up and when he’d last showered, but something held him back. He didn’t want to sound like he’d forgiven it all, John figured out, his shoulders falling with the realization. Sherlock’s eyes darted over to him, reading the motion.

He wasn’t going to heal. Not from losing him. He had nothing but a bedsit and an empty cot to return to, and he felt no true desire to change that. John closed his eyes, remembering the thought he’d had in his drug-addled state just that morning, hoping to go home to his couch. He didn’t have a couch, anymore. He’d been thinking about 221B. He was never going back there. Where precisely, was he going to go, then? He’d need nursing care for longer than a hospital could give him. John closed his eyes, imagining a homeless shelter and volunteer care. He would not be employable for months, if he was correct about the state of his arms.

Sherlock had gotten showered and dressed, he realized, finally noticing his normal slacks and buttoned shirt. Sherlock’s hair was dry now - he’d been back for awhile.

Did he leave the hospital? John wondered, too tired to ask.

“Lestrade brought me clothing unprompted,” Sherlock answered awkwardly. John nodded.

“Kind of him,” he murmured, and slept.

A/N: Coming Soon: There will be a podfic of To Kill a Mockingbird through the wonderful works of GetOffMySheets! I am ecstatic!

Chapter Text

John woke up, groggy with too little sleep, and opened an eye to see Sherlock sitting at his bedside, his hands covering his face as if caught weeping. John closed his eye again, too tired to be angry with the man and not wanting to deal with anything else. Just as he was starting to drift off again, he felt Sherlock cautiously touch his thumb, two fingers brushing his as if to check that he was, in fact, a solid three dimensional man. John twisted his hand to grab Sherlock's, caught for a moment by an urge to determine the same thing, that he hadn't been trapped in a particularly depressing phase of hallucinatory madness, that Sherlock Holmes was in fact alive and whole and in his hospital room. Sherlock's hand was warm in his, his long nails scraping the side of his palm and dragging him back into the reality where he was holding Sherlock's hand and they both knew it. But it felt good and to release it was to acknowledge it and John decided it would be all around easier if he gave up and went back to sleep.

~~//~~

When John was awoken again for another round of antibiotic pills, pain medication, and bandage changes, Sherlock was sitting in his usual chair, an empty cafeteria tray marking his last meal. He was wearing a purple shirt now and his hair was wet. He’d showered. John frowned, thinking back. He was fairly sure Sherlock had never changed or eaten while Harry was around. Didn’t want to leave him alone with her, perhaps. She never let him sleep. John sat up for the morning nurse Tessa and didn’t mention it. Sherlock met his gaze and quickly looked away. They weren't mentioning the hands thing either then, John accepted gratefully.

“Mrs. Hudson is doing well,” Sherlock announced. The Vicodin was too weak. He could feel his pulse in his back and shoulders and the nurse tugging at his bandages was not helping that. John pulled his attention away from his throbbing wounds.

“Have you..” He asked, unsure how to start. Sherlock hesitated, likely processing the almost endless possible questions he could have asked to narrow in on the most plausible. “Told her then?” John clarified, keeping his breath shallow, trying not to go off on another coughing fit.

He’d suffered so much, mourning. Surely Mrs. Hudson had as well. He didn’t much know. He’d been at the bedsit and killing people, not taking care of her.

“I told her I’m alive, that I faked it but not how, and that you did not know. She hit me with a skillet,” Sherlock recounted, sounding affronted.

John grinned and Sherlock's eyes shone with relief. John sobered, his mood dropping at the sight.

I don’t like seeing him happy, he realized, disturbed. The light and hope in Sherlock’s eyes died precipitously.

“I told her to come tomorrow at noon,” Sherlock added stiffly. John nodded, ignoring it. He could understand Sherlock's logic. The skin graft was healing nicely - supposedly he'd be able to lie on his back without the pillow supports that night. Mrs. Hudson need never know about his back. Sherlock leaned back in his chair, his pale eyes caught on John's.

"You never answered. Moriarty. My death. You are angry," he commented.

We're doing this now? John wondered, closing his eyes. The nurse hesitated, her soft fingers pausing in her work painfully removing his bandages. Sherlock scoffed at him.

“Why does it change so much?” he snarled.

“What?” John snapped, his eyes flying open. Sherlock pushed himself up from his chair.

"You've said exactly seventeen words to me since I arrived," he growled. John swallowed. Just like Sherlock to count.

"When was the last time you ate? What? Kind of him. Have you told her then? What?" Sherlock listed, sneering and wandering around the hospital room. He threw up his hands suddenly, his face contorting with rage. “Yes, I faked my death. Clearly, you mourned. Is that better than dead? I’m back and we’re both alive, why is that not the end of it?” he complained, walking across the room to shut the door in the face of another nurse who was just about to enter. He’d learned the check up schedule, apparently.

“So, I’m supposed to explain to you why being able to make me mourn for a year is damaging to friendship, is that it?” John asked, blinking. Sherlock scoffed. The nurse reached for the pile of dry bandages she'd placed on the bed. Sherlock's eyes flicked to her and flicked away, apparently unconcerned by what he saw in her.

“I was willing to give up London and break my arm to keep you alive. No, I don’t understand why that’s so hurtful to you,” Sherlock replied. John held his breath while the nurse lifted up his torn arms, needing to wrap beneath them. He’d had time to think about this, hanging on a hook with Mike.

“You’d been lying to me for months before you jumped. You didn’t tell me half of what you knew,” John hissed, hating how restrained he was. “You want to know why Moriarty tried to keep me hostage with only one inexperienced man? Because he thought of me exactly as you did,” John accused, wishing senselessly for a gun in his hand. Sherlock drew himself up.

“You were not my pet,” he pronounced. John snorted.

“I wasn’t your partner, not anymore, not by then,” he replied, itching to walk out of the room. Usually he’d slam a door between them, content himself with the last word, and go buy a beer. Now he was stuck in a hospital room with glaringly bright lights and a nurse mummy wrapping him and trying not to listen. Sherlock stared at him, his mouth opening and closing like a fish and sat down, collapsing into his thinking pose. Did he always do that after their arguments? John wished he knew. He certainly didn't remember Sherlock ever appearing to listen to him, but then he'd never stayed long enough to find out. John watched him, unsure what more to say.

"John -" Sherlock started, his voice thin.

“I don’t know -” John interrupted, only to pause. There were so many things about Sherlock he didn't know. “Why I'm allowing you in here,” he finished. Sherlock swallowed, his eyes dropping into that ‘lost’ expression he’d had in Baskerville.

“It stresses you, when I leave,” Sherlock announced. John clenched his teeth, wanted to push all of the damn monitors out of the room. But it wouldn’t matter. Sherlock was brilliant. He’d see it anyway.

"Get out," John snarled. Sherlock paused, his face draining. John ignored him, knowing he'd obey. He always did when it mattered. Sherlock got up quietly, his hands shaking quietly at his side, and left, closing the door behind him. Finally John could breathe.

“Ex boyfriend?” the nurse asked softly. John sighed. Of course there was a witness to that.

“I have absolutely no idea,” he answered honestly. Tessa chuckled.

“I know how that is,” she replied. John shook his head.

“We weren’t ever together, I think. But sometimes, back then, I wondered if he knew that and now I wonder if I did. I gave up so much for him, without a thought, just to be in his company..,” John trailed off, unsure what more to say, to explain their co-dependent insanity. The nurse hummed and John jerked, realizing how much he’d said.

Tie him up and hold him over a volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.

Apparently not, John reflected. Apparently you just had to have access to the opiates afterward.

“He’s never left the hospital,” Tessa said, layering a salve over his wounds. “All the nurses think it’s romantic. We’ve got a bet going, buying slots on when he’ll leave. Looks like Grace wins, if he’s left the building now,” she added. John held back a smirk, remembering Sherlock’s story. Mrs. Hudson had either brought a skillet to the hospital or Sherlock had already left, if only the once. It was just like the man to sneak out when he could walk through the front door. Perhaps he didn't like the nurse who’d had that time slot, John thought, though how Sherlock knew about the bet was beyond him.

John smiled grimly and shook his head.

“He’s in the morgue,” he guessed. The nurse’s fingers paused again. “Don’t ask,” he added.

“Does he have access?” she asked and John resisted an urge to shrug. It’d only hurt.

“He knows Molly Hooper,” he replied and Tessa hummed, starting in her work again.

“I don’t know her,” she admitted.

“Let her know I’m here, won’t you?” he asked finally and she cut herself another strip of medical tape.

“I’ll send someone down,” she offered.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, it’s in my best interest. I’ve got the slot that says Mr. Holmes stays until you leave. I’ve read your blog, you know. Always wondered if you two were together. Never did think he was really dead,” she replied. John sighed. It was inevitable they’d be recognized.

"Don't tell the press," he pleaded and she snorted.

“Like I need a bunch of idiots getting in the way of my job? No, thank you,” she answered and John thanked her again. "Get some sleep,” she ordered, finishing his bandages.

~~//~~

"How's he doing then?" Molly asked nervously.

"Epidermis is frozen at the toenails. Freezer is not evenly chilled," Sherlock murmured without looking up from the seam he was sewing into the corpse's chest wall. Michael Limon, Moriarty's hired goon 'Mike'. It was difficult to find an employee with no principles, much less one who'd uphold a contract. Michael Limon filled in the missing details of multiple crimes he'd uncovered in his investigation of Moriarty's network.

"Um. I meant John?" Molly murmured. Sherlock blinked.

"Oh." He paused in his sewing, unsure what to say. "He kicked me out."

Molly crossed the room with the corpse's information tag. She slipped the tag over Mike's toe and hugged his chart to her chest.

"Is he very injured?" she asked.

"Dislocated shoulder and a healing skin graft. Symptoms of dehydration and early stage pneumonia both highly diminished."

"Oh. That's not so bad," she replied. Sherlock cut away his extra thread with a flourish.

"That is not what I said," he replied, setting the skin sewing kit back on the gurney tray.

"Is it then? So bad?" she pressed, squeezing the chart tighter.

"I just described his injuries," Sherlock said, baffled. Molly reddened.

"No, it's just -" she started but stopped. Sherlock waited but she did not seem inclined to tell him what it was 'just'.

"Then… why'd he kick you out? If he's in pain?" Molly asked instead.

"Because I told him he couldn't," Sherlock answered. That reaction, at least, he understood. Pride was something his family had in surplus. Sherlock stared down at Mike's chilled face, wondering if he'd feel better if he'd killed him. Saved John. John would feel worse. Pride. John needed to have killed Mike himself.

"Maybe not… the best thing to say?" Molly stammered.

"I don't know the 'best thing to say'," Sherlock snarled, turning toward her. "In case you had not observed, I am not skilled at being gentle or subtle or kind. It is why I do not associate with fragile people."

Molly Hooper notwithstanding, he corrected himself, watching as the woman seemed to deflate. She put down Limon's file, biting her lip. She watched him quietly and Sherlock glared around the room for work to bury himself in. There was nothing. The morgue laboratory looked as it ever had.

"Maybe if you don't know what to say ... You should listen?" she suggested, moving to put Limon's body away.

"John does not express himself in words," Sherlock confessed, dropping himself into one of the lab stools. Life had become grim indeed when he was asking Molly Hooper for help relating to a man. John would laugh at him, if he weren't feeling so miserably taciturn.

"How does he?" Molly blurted. Sherlock snorted at the irony.

"Physically. He frowns, stares at the ceiling, clenches his fist -"

Flushes. Sweats. Inhales. Hardens. Moments Sherlock was not supposed to see, not supposed to notice.

"Oh. Well, all that must hurt right now," Molly commented uselessly. Sherlock smothered an impulse to slam his fist into Michael Simon's still face. It was freezer burned on the ears. He'd content himself with that.

~~//~~

Bach rose from his deathbed, just to get to the piano and finish it before he died. John fought to free his arms but they wouldn’t budge. He arched his back away. He was going to get burned again.

He started to wake up and flailed, feeling fingers tug against his wrist and elbow, keeping his arms at his sides.

Don’t fight. Don’t tear the I.V, he thought illogically, trying to stay still, but his head was in water and he needed to breathe.

An alarm sounded, followed by a dozen footsteps. John jerked awake, trying to pull away, to see nurses swarming his room. All of the machines on him were screaming. He inhaled and something quieted and blipped and the rushing nurses hesitated from where they were pulling out syringes and holding an oxygen mask to his face. A crash cart. Code blue. John exhaled slowly, understanding. He’d stopped breathing and somebody had noticed.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, pulling the mask away from his face and glancing between the frenzied workers. “Nightmares.”

The nurses nodded and reassured him and started checking his vitals and writing down notes. John blew out a heavy breath, frustrated, his conclusion obvious. Sometimes he stopped breathing in his nightmares, now. He wondered if he'd done that before the waterboarding. Less likely, certainly.

The last nurses filed out, leaving a very scared Molly Hooper standing in their wake, clasping her hands together tightly. She stood against the doorjam, out of their way, her eyes wide with fear. She met John’s gaze only to swallow and look away.

Picture 17, time stamp 11:46:02, Sherlock’s bloody arm, the bone sticking up through the skin. Case # 135642685, examiner: Molly Hooper.

“Hello, Molly,” John said, doing his best to sound calm and strong straight out of a nightmare that still had his heart beating wildly in his chest and his breath coming in uneven gasps.

“I-” Molly started and scrambled out of the room.

Well, that's another relationship gone , John thought, turning his head to look out the window at the tall buildings beyond the hospital room. There was very little he cared to do about that.

~~//~~

“He’s going to know.” Sherlock sounded frustrated.

He's back, John thought, hating his own deep relief. He exhaled slowly, settling back into his pillow.

“He’s fucking asleep,” Harry replied. John squinted an eye open to see her taking a drink from a brown paper bag half-hidden in her purse. He closed his eye again, deciding that this time he was most certainly not making her drinking his problem. He had enough problems, he’d say.

“He’ll know,” Sherlock replied, apparently deciding not to inform her that John was awake. John had no illusions that the genius had known the moment he'd started listening.

“What, you’ll tell him? Who stuck a beer up your ass? And why the hell do you care what I drink?” Harry scoffed.

“He'll care,” Sherlock replied.

“Yeah,” Harry scoffed. “I don’t get that either.”

John desperately wanted her gone now. That or to fall back asleep. Neither seemed particularly likely.

“No, I don’t either. You’re intolerable,” Sherlock replied, sounding like he was agreeing.

“Fuck you too, then,” Harry said, her voice approaching the door. It slammed closed behind her.

“Thank you,” John murmured, relieved with the quiet.

“Oh, any time, certainly,” Sherlock replied, sounding quite cheerful about the notion.

~~//~~

John woke up to see Sherlock and Harry sitting at opposite sides of the room, both looking furious. Harry was tearing into a bag of crisps like its existence offended her. Sherlock was glaring at the ceiling and muttering about the number of water stains in the ceiling tiles.

John turned on the television, strongly preferring not to engage with either of them. Sherlock glared at Harry, apparently deciding that was her fault. Harry huffed out a breath and grabbed her purse.

"Unbelievable," she scoffed, leaving the room. Sherlock opened his mouth to speak.

"Don't," John ordered. Sherlock, for once, obeyed.

~~//~~

Mrs. Hudson arrived that afternoon, walking through the open door with a basket piled high with tupperware of baked goods. Her face fell at the sight of the tower of uneaten snack crisp bags taking up two of their chairs.

“I brought some food,” she said apologetically and John did his best to smile. "Oh, dear," she said, glancing over his body.

John coughed out a laugh at the greeting. It'd been too long since he'd seen the woman. They'd gone to the grave and she'd left before he'd said a word. He much preferred to grieve and heal alone. But it was good to see the unflappable woman now.

“Oh! You must be Harry,” Mrs. Hudson cooed, walking forward toward where Harry sat in the corner with the crisps collection. Harry smiled but did not stand up.

“Do I know you?” she asked and Mrs. Hudson hesitated.

“I’m John’s landlady, dear. Landlady, mind. I’m a business woman,” Mrs. Hudson replied, turning to John, her eyebrows high. John remembered not to shrug his injured shoulders and settled for greeting her. Mrs. Hudson handed off her basket to Sherlock.

“Crumpets, banana bread, proper tea, and biscuits. Thank you,” Sherlock said without looking at the contents.

“Oh you, showing off,” Mrs. Hudson scolded. Sherlock started rummaging through the tupperware, checking his answers and Mrs. Hudson tutted at him, as if nothing had changed between them at all. She sat down beside John. Her eyes shone with pleasure at seeing her boys again and John's words got caught in his throat. “How are you, dear? You look a right mess.”

“Better,” John promised, watching as Sherlock tore into the basket of food. Mrs. Hudson looked him over carefully, her gaze falling over the healing wound on his leg, his bandaged hand, and bruised arms. John coughed, not wanting to talk about it.

“How long until you are discharged, then?” she asked, changing the subject, and John coughed again, stress taking its toll. Where would he go, then? Mrs. Hudson’s eyes softened, her forced enthusiasm falling away.

“Not long, probably,” he answered. Mrs. Hudson took his hand, wrapping her warm, wrinkled fingers around his palm.

“If the nurses wouldn’t stop pestering him every hour, he’d have been healed already,” Harry pointed out. Mrs. Hudson turned to John, frowning.

“You’re a doctor, dear. Should I talk to someone about leaving you to sleep?” she offered. John exhaled slowly, surprised by how relieved he was to see her. Mrs. Hudson was a lovely woman. He’d forgotten that, somewhere in his grief.

“I’ve offered that like three times. He won’t protest,” Harry commented. Sherlock frowned.

“No, that's false,” he said. Harry turned on John.

“Have I not mentioned how rude the nurses are here? You know I have,” she argued. John wanted to shrug but his shoulders would barely move in their bindings. He decided not to fight the point. Harry scoffed, digging in her purse for something and hiding it under her shirt. John ignored her and she left the room. Mrs. Hudson watched her go, her eyebrows high, and settled into the chair by John’s side. She squeezed his fingers again, gaining his attention.

“You’ll be going home with us, you realize,” she said softly. John started to shake his head but she pointed at his face. “No arguments, young man. You need someone to get you back on your feet, and there’s nothing in that bedsit of yours but bugs. I don’t care how many trollops you drag home, you'll be staying at Baker Street. That’s what family is for,” she insisted. John squeezed her hand, grateful for the sentiment, preparing himself to refuse her. He didn’t want to see what Sherlock had done with the apartment, having returned on his own. He didn’t want to see the place looking like it had, an abandoned flat housing all of his old nightmares. And if it’d changed, if Mrs. Hudson had finally rented it out and someone else was there, if Sherlock was staying in 221C? John didn’t want to know.

Mrs. Hudson gently turned his face with her finger, to gaze into his eyes.

“You’re coming home with us,” she ordered, glancing at the door with concern in her eyes. Thinking about Harry, John thought, wondering what Harry had done to create a bad impression so quickly.

“Excellent,” Sherlock said, nodding firmly, shoving the basket aside. John didn’t reply.

Excellent. Hardly.

“I’ll sign the papers,” Sherlock said, standing.

“We won’t press it, dear,” she said. Sherlock hesitated, glancing between them, frowning in confusion. Mrs. Hudson squeezed John’s hand again, her gaze sympathetic, understanding more than John really wanted her to. "Now, tell me you killed whoever did this," she ordered. John blinked. Sherlock looked thrilled.

"I did," John replied and Mrs. Hudson patted his hand.

"That's my boys," she said happily.

John glanced between her and Sherlock, unsure what to say. In barely two weeks he’d gone from mourning Sherlock and his life with the man, to having it all back but in shatters. That didn’t mean he could step back into the life he’d loved and pretend it had never changed. Sherlock stared out at nothing, his light eyes burning. John watched him until a harried nurse came in to give him his medicine, Harry walking in behind her.

“I have to say, I can’t wait until you’re discharged. You will not believe how smart one of those nurses just was to me. Hold on, I’ll tell you,” Harry started, dumping her new snacks in another hospital chair, ignoring the nurse checking John’s leg for signs of infection, who was now looking remarkably less patient. Mrs. Hudson watched her, her eyebrows high, and John turned on the television again, deciding it was better to deal with none of them at all.

~~//~~

A/N: I have no idea why, but Harry drives me up a wall. What do you think of her? Think I judge her too harshly, that Sherlock & John are being jerks, relate to her at all?

Chapter Text

My Book is Coming Out! See first pages and Preorder Here:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00U8CR1L6


~~//~~

John swung his legs over the side of the cot, ignoring how the swollen, stitched on skin on his back pulled, threatening to tear. He had been stuck in bed with nothing but newspapers, television and unpleasant company for over a week. At the very least he was going to stand up and get himself out of the horrible room. Sherlock was lying across all the chairs, his limbs woven through the arm rests. His eyes were closed, his breath coming out evenly.

"You're an idiot," Sherlock announced.

But not asleep. John sighed and ignored him, shimmying himself to the edge of the bed.

"You shouldn't be out of bed until the pneumonia has passed," Sherlock commented. John decided not to argue with him. He'd had transfusions for the blood loss and his minor case of pneumonia was left at nothing but a low grade fever and a cough. They wouldn't discharge him until the fever had passed but he could bloody well stand up. Even if sitting did leave him dizzy.

John pushed himself to his feet, groaning as the movement tugged at his burns. He should have waited until the nurses would allow him his next dose of drugs, but he was feeling remarkably impatient. But he was getting a strong refresher on how many muscle movements tied into his back.

"What is to be gained from this?" Sherlock complained. Dots blurred in front of John's eyes. He inhaled slowly, keeping a hand on his cot. He felt as if energy was draining through his body and out of his feet, but he took a step. And a second one.

Sitting now, John ordered himself, his vision spinning as he painfully struggled back onto the bed without the use of his arms.

Shite, John thought, closing his eyes. He was a long way from self sufficient. That was a problem.

~~//~~

Harry spent most of the next three days crying and fetching snacks from the vending machines. John mainly kept his eyes closed while she was visiting, except for the semi-regular count on the growing pile of unwanted food building up on one of the visiting chairs. Donovan came to visit again, oddly enough, but she’d barely stood inside the room for ten seconds before she was heading out again. John was puzzled but he didn’t ask and Sherlock didn’t offer up any explanations.

Sherlock spent most of the time sitting in the uncomfortable chair beneath the window, watching the streaks of light slowly move over John’s blankets until they faded with the day.

“Surely you are staying at 221B,” he commented out of the dull silence when Harry was once again buying vending machine snacks. John blinked at him, perplexed, and Sherlock stared into his eyes. “Mrs. Hudson is better care than most and you will be bored anywhere else,” he insisted.

John swallowed.

“Baker Street is…” he started and cleared his throat. “not my home.” That was an understatement.

John stared at his bandaged left hand. There was nothing left for him at 221B but a broken friendship and an old woman he hadn’t spoken to in nearly a year before he'd landed in hospital. It was rather telling of Mrs. Hudson's nature that she hadn't asked how he'd come to be tortured by an American stranger.

He’d avoided Baker Street intentionally, the one place more likely to kill him than Afghanistan. Able to rip his heart straight out of his chest and push a gun into his hand. It was the only place he’d ever felt so happy to be alive, with Sherlock in the living room and Mrs. Hudson banging around downstairs. Diffused, now, that Sherlock was ‘back’, never gone at all? He could remember the fine layer of dust coating the living room the last time he’d visited, before driving to Sherlock’s grave. To see Sherlock standing in the middle of it once again, like no time had passed at all? The kitchen restored to its general chaos, the lights on, the sound of a violin nearby? Sherlock stared at him, his gray eyes wide, expressing some depth of emotion John couldn’t fathom..

“You’re saying no. I don’t understand,” he concluded. John blew out a breath and forced himself to look at the man. Sherlock was sitting in the chair next to his bed, his elbows propped on the mattress beside John’s left hand, his expression darkened with confusion. His pale eyes were shadowed with too little sleep, his cheeks still gaunt.

This again, John thought, sighing.

“Are we friends then?” John asked, turning his head and meeting Sherlock’s wounded eyes. “Because you jumped off a building and I collapsed and I really don’t know what’s left from that.”

Sherlock turned his face away.

"I saved your life," he repeated. John swallowed.

"I didn't want it to be saved," he answered.

"You're an idiot. Everyone wants to be saved. Except for the minuscule number of true suicidal individuals but even they often seek help in the last minutes, even if it never comes," Sherlock replied, turning back to him, his eyes cold. "Irrelevant either way, as you were not one," he added.

"Jesus," John muttered, and shook his head. "No, Sherlock, but I would have rather died by your side than be so thoroughly left behind," he growled. Sherlock's eyes widened. With understanding, finally. "Got it finally, have you? I am a dangerous man. An active man. How the hell did that slip your massively inflated mind?"

Sherlock swallowed. The silence fell back between them heavily and John switched on the television. A cooking show about making bratwurst. Daytime television. John stared at the peppy woman, unsure what else he'd do to entertain himself.

"Stay at Baker Street. You'd be an idiot not to," Sherlock ordered.

John nodded slowly, keeping his eyes on the television, not wanting to acknowledge that he had very little choice.

~~//~~

“I’ve got your paperwork, Dr. Watson,” his nurse said, walking into the room. John struggled to sit up despite his bound shoulders, trying to remember the nurse’s name. Giving up, he jerked his head in Mrs. Hudson’s direction. She was sitting by Harry beneath the windows. Mrs. Hudson held out her hand, but Sherlock snatched the paperwork from the nurse and spun toward the window, already reading it. The nurse gave it up to him without complaint and left the room. John was grateful. He’d already had two recovery surgeons go over his continuing care with Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson and he didn’t want to deal with it again.

Harry shook her head sharply, realization settling over her face as she watched Sherlock cross the room.

“Excuse me?” she hissed. “You take care of him? The self centered twat who calls himself a genius?”

John inhaled slowly, feeling his heart rate picking up. They hadn’t told her, then.

“Harry,” he started, as calmly as he could.

“Like you think I can’t care for you better? Jesus, John,” Harry turned on him.

“Mrs. Hudson-” John started, but Harry threw out her hand.

“I do all this for you and still you think Sherlock bloody Holmes is going to take care of you? You’ll forgive him but not me? He jumped off a fucking building. I drank, that’s it,” she cursed, leaning over John's bed. Mrs. Hudson stood up and quietly pushed Harry out of the way to sit down next to John, inserting herself in the conversation. Harry had to back up to keep from being run over.

You cheated on your wife with my married best friend, he thought but that was hardly relevant.

“It’s not like you didn’t have to fuck off to bloody Afghanistan to keep yourself from gambling. You’re no better than me,” she snarled.

“And clearly this means he should trust himself to your care,” Sherlock commented, sounding amused.

“Shut up, Sherlock,” John growled.

“I’ll let you in on a bloody secret, John. Sherlock Holmes is a madman and a fraud, and the fact that you’d forgive him and not me is disgusting. You want to blame me for all your problems, fine, but don’t tell me that this fucking loser is better than me,” she continued, her voice getting louder as she pointed toward Sherlock.

“Harry,” John started, trying again, but she opened her mouth to yell some more.

“He forgave you, but even he is smart enough not to trust you,” Sherlock snorted. Harry rounded on him, her eyes flashing but Sherlock got there first.

“You have a practiced inability to think beyond yourself for longer than ten minutes at a time. How long did it take upon discovering Clara’s cancer for you to blame it for your return to drinking? A week? And how long after you started drinking did it take for you to ask why she did not focus all her chemo-therapy riddled attention on your problems, when they were so tragic? A month? No, less than that. It’s not about your drinking. I’ve spent most of my life addicted to opiates and nicotine and I’d rather spend an evening with a record of John’s screaming on repeat than another hour in your company,” Sherlock snarled. John pushed his head back into his pillow and closed his eyes.

From the moment you got in here you've used John's injuries for your own attention. You want to be well? Stop lying to yourself. Getting another cat will only make your home filthier. It’s hardly John’s responsibility to take care of you. Find a hobby, stop talking about your problems, do other people favors, ask for nothing in return, and laugh when they say things resembling jokes,” Sherlock ranted. Harry stared between them both, her mouth open, and finally she leaned down to grab her purse and jacket.

“For your information, I have friends. I don’t have to be here for this,” she announced, gathering her scattered belongings. “Assholes,” she added, leaving the room. The hospital room was silent in her wake, but John couldn’t help but find it a relief.

“I didn’t like her anyway,” Mrs. Hudson whispered, patting John’s hand.

“Laugh when they say things resembling jokes,” John repeated dryly.

“I know how to make friends,” Sherlock replied, sounding defensive.

You just don’t deign to do so, John completed for him. John snorted despite himself. Mrs. Hudson tittered and patted John’s hand again. Of all of the vitriol Sherlock could have spilled, that sounded remarkably like advice. John rather doubted Harry would listen to it.

Sherlock sat quietly for a moment while John absorbed that his relationship with Harry had worsened yet again.

“I don’t know what’s with the snacks,” he admitted finally, gesturing to the mountain of bagged food they’d collected.

“She was trying to hide her smoke breaks,” Sherlock replied.

“Not very well,” Mrs. Hudson complained.

"I didn't even know she smoked," John protested, glancing between the two of them. Mrs. Hudson shrugged.

“Not good?” Sherlock asked, looking at the empty doorway.

“Nothing I haven’t told her. She doesn’t care,” John replied. Sherlock huffed out a breath and settled back into his seat. If nothing else, John was grateful for the quiet. “Thank you,” he added finally and went back to sleep.

~~//~~

The taxi ride was destined to be painful. Sherlock got in first, though he’d always wait for John before, so John didn’t have to slide. John nodded to him, grateful, as the nurses helped him into the car. Sherlock climbed in after and ordered 221 Baker Street, as he had so many times before. The time stretched between them and every jolt of the taxicab pulled at John’s stitches and bruises until he was clenching his teeth to keep from making a sound and alarming their driver.

They reached 221B and the taxi jerked to a stop and rumbled, idling.

John stared at the back of the seat in front of him, anger churning in his stomach. He had two recovering dislocated shoulders, three severely pulled pectoralis muscles, recovering skin grafts on his back, dozens of third degree bruises, and two broken toes. He knew his limits and there was no way he was getting out of the car on his own. Sherlock had apparently already determined that, for he exited onto the street and walked around the car without hesitation. Leaving John to pay the cab fare as always, John noted, glad that Greg had recovered his wallet from the crime scene. He flipped open the leather flap only to growl under his breath. Mike had stolen his cash.

Unbelievable. Sherlock opened the door for him and John let him wait while he paid with his card.

Okay, John thought, shoving his wallet deep into his pocket and looking up at Sherlock. He couldn’t raise his arms over his shoulders, couldn’t use his back muscles and couldn’t twist at all. He slid himself around on his seat by his feet until he was sitting toward the sidewalk and waited. Sherlock's eyes darted over his body, noting every pain point.

"I don't know how to do this," he admitted. John nodded. It would hurt no matter what they did.

“Problem?” the tax driver grunted, wanting him out. Sherlock opened his mouth to reply.

“None, thank you,” John cut him off, before Sherlock went off on one of his deductive rants. John didn’t have the energy for it.

“I’ll pull you up by your hips,” Sherlock offered. John nodded, resigned, and planted his feet to help himself stand. Sherlock stepped close and lightly touched his hands to John’s lower back, as if expecting the skin there to burn him.“In three seconds,” Sherlock ordered. John nodded and stayed quiet, waiting for the man to start to count. The nurses had seen him into the taxi. John felt Sherlock’s warm touch against his waist and hesitated. Sherlock was alive. Flesh and blood and warm against him. For a moment John wanted to pull the man close and hug him. Then suddenly Sherlock’s grip tightened and he was wrenching him to his feet.

“Jesus, Sherlock,” John cursed, his back searing in pain. “What was that about a count of three, then?”

“That was three seconds,” Sherlock replied, blinking.

“You’re supposed to count,” John growled, getting his balance. His vision wavered. He had to sit again. Soon.

“Counting is never accurate,” Sherlock huffed and started toward the door to 221B. John squared his shoulders. 221B. Mrs. Hudson. Sherlock. He felt like he was going into battle. If he was going into battle, he didn’t want to wait around and think about it for long. John shuffled himself closer to the door and knocked.

“I hid all her skillets,” Sherlock blurted. John turned toward him, baffled, and Sherlock flushed. “Just in case.”

John grinned, just in time for Mrs. Hudson to pull open the door.

She smiled for a moment, obviously excited, and John tried to keep up his happy expression. Mrs. Hudson smiled wider for a moment, before she seemed to deflate. Her shoulders fell and her hand pulled away from the door handle.

“Oh, my boys, on my doorstep again,” she said before Sherlock stepped forward and kissed her cheek. There were tears in her eyes when he pulled away and Mrs. Hudson reached out a hand to John. He glanced down at the slings holding his arms to his belly and and Mrs. Hudson smiled slipped as she understood, her gaze fluttering down his broken body. John felt his smile fade and she straightened.

“Let’s get you inside and sitting down and I’ll put the kettle on,” she offered. John nodded and she moved her arm to clasp his shoulder John straightened sharply, doing his best to ignore the pain that shot down his arm.

“Couple of biscuits too, if you’ve got ‘um,” he added. Mrs. Hudson huffed out a laugh.

“I’m your landlady, dear, not your housekeeper,” she protested, stepping out of the way so Sherlock could help John come inside.

Getting up the stairs was agonizing. John kept his arms pressed protectively to his chest, praying he would not fall as he made his way up, leaning heavily against the wall. Sherlock walked behind him, no doubt ready to brace him should he fall. Mrs. Hudson walked ahead and unlocked the kitchen door.

“We’ll put him in your bedroom, Sherlock,” she ordered.

“No,” John corrected, leaning his weight on the wall and staring at the closed living room door.

“Well, you can’t very well sleep on the couch in your state and I don’t hardly fancy helping you up any more steps,” Mrs. Hudson argued, standing her ground. John’s shoulders pulled with his weight.

“We’ll discuss it later, Mrs. Hudson,” Sherlock ordered and stepped forward to unlock the living room door.

John breathed in the heavy scent of dust and pushed himself up from against the wall. He forced his way to his chair and stood by it awkwardly, having neither the strength nor the arms to help him balance as he sat. Sherlock helped him down and a plume of dust clouded the air between them.

Dust is eloquent.

Sherlock stepped out of the way and stood in front of the dirty mirror. His eyes flickered around the room, taking it in in his quick methodological way of looking at everything. John’s heart ached at the sight. Sherlock looked like a ghost, standing in these old rooms.

Sherlock’s gaze caught on something. John followed his eyes to a pile of papers on the coffee table. Astronomy papers, John remembered. From astrophysics to constellations and their myths. He’d collected them, in his grief, thinking Sherlock had started learning it because he could never be found ignorant, couldn't stand to be mocked. But he’d left them there, when he’d seen the empty kitchen and collapsed into his pain.

John glanced around the flat, a conclusion slowly dawning on him. The dust, Mrs. Hudson’s shock and joy, the papers. He couldn’t turn around, but he was willing to bet that the kitchen was still devoid of any microscopes, any questionable organic samples.

Sherlock had not come back here, yet. Had he lived at the hospital, then? John moved his head tiredly to catch up to where Sherlock was standing by the still-cluttered desk, his hands still clasped tightly behind his back. As if he could feel John’s curiosity on his skin, Sherlock whipped away from the window.

“You must be hungry. Indian?” he announced, just before he swept from the room. He’d never even taken off his coat and scarf, John realized, hearing the door slam behind him.

He watched the dust particles float in the air in front of the window. He’d need his next dose of antibiotics and pain meds in an hour. He rather doubted Sherlock would remember that. John fiddled with a loose thread on the armchair. He’d barely been back in 221B for a minute before he’d found reason to be annoyed with Sherlock Holmes again. And yet, he was back in 221B. After so much time. Mrs. Hudson certainly had a fateful way of getting what she wanted. John huffed out a laugh, imagining the doting old woman as a crime boss, arranging for Mike’s timely services.

"Yoohoo,” Mrs. Hudson called, not bothering to knock as she made her way into the room, a tray of tea and what looked like crumpets in her arms. John opened his mouth to thank her but the words caught in his throat when he saw her face. She’d been crying. Her eyes were still red from it, her face damp from being washed clean. He started to stand to embrace her, but moving hurt and he stilled. Mrs. Hudson smiled quietly, reading his motion, and set the tray on the small table beside him as she’d done so many times for him in the past. This time, though, she pulled the table in front of him and settled herself into Sherlock’s seat across from it.

“Well,” she said, glancing around the abandoned room. John glanced down at his restrained arms, unsure what to say. He joined her in taking in the empty place. It’d been such a home. “He’s a bit of a dick, isn’t he?” she said finally.

John coughed out a laugh.

“Yes,” he agreed. Mrs. Hudson smiled, mischief in her eyes.

“Shall I pour?” she asked, gesturing to the tray.

“For our uh- rant, then?” he guessed, puzzled.

“Well, we’ve got to commemorate something,” she joked and leaned forward to pour the tea.

They sat in silence for awhile, each watching their respective teacups cool, until John started to wonder how long Sherlock was going to be gone.

“You know, he promised me that he’d never involve me in his crazy antics, living up here. Not when it came to his work. Except for that time with that American boy, but his time on my bins sorted that right out,” Mrs. Hudson waved away her time as a hostage at gunpoint with an idle hand and pointed at John. “And you know, he kept to that. Never asked me to relay messages or any of that nonsense my husband carried on with. But this? Making me believe him dead? Thirteen bloody months, should have hit him harder.”

Mrs. Hudson sucked her lips into her teeth and shook her head. Finally, she reached forward to take a sip of her tea. John twisted his hand to undo the velcro restraining his left wrist and followed suit, his elbow tugging on its restraint. The tea was over brewed and tepid but he drank it anyway. He had to keep up his fluid intake for at least another week. Not that Sherlock was likely to be a help with that. Mrs. Hudson pulled a finger across a still-damp eyelid and John considered shooting him.

“But, you know, I could forgive him that. He’s such a funny little man. I think we caught him by surprise, mourning. So, I could look past it, just this once. Once, mind.”

John frowned, wanting to ask if she expected Sherlock to try that trick again. He wasn’t sure what could convince him that Sherlock wasn’t a fucking prick faking it, were he to die again.

Again. John huffed out a breath at the thought, sickly amused.

Mrs. Hudson sipped at her tea again, her eyes misty. John struggled to keep himself from contemplating the pain of the last year and focused on how his back was itching instead.

“But not telling you?” she said finally, putting down her tea cup. It rattled in its dish for a moment. John blinked, dragging his attention back to her. “Doctor Watson, there aren’t words,” she said.

There were footsteps on the staircase. Slowing down steadily, getting softer, someone perhaps trying to decide if they wanted to eavesdrop.

“These latest bruises? I know they’re little to what you’ve suffered this year,” she said.

John frowned, unsure if he should correct her that beneath his little bruises lay thick bandaging protecting a healing skin graft and permanently damaged shoulder joints. The footsteps stopped. He’d heard. John closed his eyes. Still, he wasn’t sure he couldn’t argue. Losing Sherlock, had that been worse than getting a name burned and peeled into his back? Beaten, waterboarded, left to exposure? Maybe. Probably. When it wasn’t so recent. He tried to remember the moment he’d stood at the base of the hospital, recovering from a slight concussion, seeing Sherlock’s body crumpled on the concrete.

“But John? You and I? We’re family, see. We’ll get you set to rights and it’ll heal. And that internal stuff, it’ll go on its way just the same, but give us time to tend to it,” she ordered.

John opened his eyes, unsure what to say. Family? When had Mrs. Hudson start feeling so much for him? He believed her. She would get him set to rights, at least when it came to healing his back and keeping him hydrated and remembering his prescriptions. But family? He didn't have anything to offer her. He wanted to thank her but the footsteps were approaching again and Mrs. Hudson had clearly heard them for she was moving to stand up.

“Eat,” she ordered, pointing to the crumpets, and left as quickly as she’d come. Sherlock stood aside for her and walked in, carrying a brown bag of takeaway. John rubbed his hand down his leg, straightening his slacks. This first day, if he was to judge, was going the best it could; awkwardly.

“You need protein to heal. I bought chickpea curry,” Sherlock announced, setting the bag down on the little table and taking Mrs. Hudson’s seat. John nodded.

“Good thought,” he replied and Sherlock nodded back. Sherlock peeled the takeaway cartons open and pulled two plastic forks out of the bag. Grateful again that his left hand still had its fingernails, John started to eat. It was awkward, lifting his fork up with his wrist, half bent over to reach it, but he managed.

He wasn’t sure what to do after he’d eaten as much as he could and there was still a half-full bowl of food in front of him. Sherlock was lying on the couch, long since done eating, stuck in his thinking pose. John had never just left dirty dishes about and certainly not intentionally, but he could barely stand on his own and he certainly wasn't getting up without help. Finally he settled on pushing the small table away from himself with his feet and painfully twisting himself around to grab one of the ancient newspapers off the floor beside him, where they’d clearly been since the year before. Surely there was something in the art sections that he’d missed.

“Take your pills,” Sherlock ordered. John blinked up from where he was staring at the bottom half of an article, and noticed the white pharmacy bag half hidden behind their food.

“Right,” he agreed, reaching for them. He swallowed them down dry.

He was startled hours later, having studiously ignored the Sherlock-covered newspaper headlines and started at the bottom of the dusty pile, to find himself reading an article about the Hickman Gallery’s scandal in housing a forged Vermeer painting, discovered to the great credit of Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade, with the assistance of a Mr. Sherlock Holmes. John was never mentioned. Better times, he thought, looking up at the room around them. Sherlock was still thinking, looking like part of the furniture, subsumed by the stillness. He'd been so destroyed, knowing Sherlock gone. Shouldn't he be grateful now, to have him back?


Probably one of the killers you managed to attract. Jesus. Jesus. She's dying, Sherlock. Let's go.


You go. I'm busy.

Busy?


Thinking. I need to think.


John exhaled slowly, shaking off the melancholy, and returned to the newspaper.

Recovery always felt anti-climactic. He remembered sitting in this same chair, slowly realizing that his post-war recovery really was going to happen while he sat in an armchair, drinking tea and flipping through a newspaper for a puzzle for Sherlock. This time it was apparently bound to happen next to congealing food while increasingly needing to pee.

~~//~~

A/N: Thank you all for everything you've done to support my career. I have the best job in the world. My book is coming out! See first page and Preorder Here:

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Chapter Text

The peeing issue was coming to a head and the silence between them was killing him. John wasn’t used to brooding in his anger. He wasn’t used to being angry for long at all.

Everything they said about me. I invented Moriarty. I'm a fake. The newspapers were right all along.

Christ. A shouting fight would be better than this, he thought.

“John,” Sherlock called, from too close. John jerked, tearing the newspaper he was pretending to read. Sherlock was standing at his elbow. He frowned, looking concerned. John could guess why - He never startled. He had always been too grounded, too aware of his surroundings, too aware of Sherlock in particular. John forced himself to meet Sherlock’s eyes. So, he could be startled now; a symptom of anxiety. Either it’d pass or he’d learn to live with it. That was the best attitude, he’d found, when dealing with his PTSD. Sherlock stared down at him, not looking nearly so accepting.

“You need to pee,” he announced finally. John shifted, his waistline uncomfortable against his bladder.

“Amazing,” he deadpanned, unsure what else to say.

“Meretricious,” Sherlock replied, his lips twitching in amusement. For a moment John wanted to see him laugh again, his gray eyes lit up with joy in that way that used to make his heart skip. Then Sherlock held out his hand, offering to help, and the moment died. John let him grab his hips, trying to ignore how uncommon it was for Sherlock to touch anyone. Then they were lifting him out of the chair and he couldn’t pay attention to anything but the pain.

Sherlock walked with him and John struggled not to brush him off. His pride churned in his stomach, worsening when Sherlock left him sitting on the toilet, aware that he couldn’t stand on his own, not for that long. For a moment he was concerned he’d have to call him back, fumbling with his bandaged hands to get his penis out of his pants. Finally oriented, John peed, holding back a relieved groan. Then he had the cumbersome process of checking its color for blood and flushing without standing up or twisting his damaged shoulders. Exhausted and limp, John cleared his throat, praying the idiot was still in the building. To his relief, Sherlock quickly opened the door and started toward him. Sherlock helped him up to wash his unbandaged left hand and followed him back into the living room.

It was only when John was seated again that he realized they’d done the entire convoluted routine without saying a word to each other. He’d missed that relationship so badly it’d felt like a missing limb, when he was mourning. Sherlock settled back onto the couch, returning to his intense pondering without comment. Trying not to care, John picked up his newspaper to block his sight of the man. He was in 221B for Mrs. Hudson’s care, that was all. He’d be gone as soon as his legs could carry him. John flipped through the newspapers for a remaining crossword.

The hours crawled past, his pain medicine slowly becoming less helpful, and the light in the room started to dim.

“Five letters, third letter ‘e’, for ‘Go Fish in a Basket’,” he asked, squinting against the fading light.

“Creel,” Sherlock replied. John blinked and looked up from his puzzle. He hadn’t meant to ask, hadn’t meant to talk to the man at all. From Sherlock’s closed off expression, the genius knew it.

John cleared his throat and returned to his paper.

“Thank you,” he added finally, filling in the word.

~~//~~

They ate leftover curry that night in strained silence and Sherlock helped him into the bed there, on dusty purple sheets that looked like they’d gone untouched for a year. John didn’t thank him and Sherlock left his pills on the table beside him without a word. He walked out, his stride quick and unhesitant, and swung the door closed behind himself.

John decided then that he’d gone to bed too soon. Dry-swallowing his amoxicillin and vicodin pills left him only too awake in the dark room.

He’d never handled being alone well. Not since the army. John stared at the shadowed ceiling, acutely uncomfortable. This was worse, much worse than it’d been before. His skin was crawling. He wanted a gun in his hand. He wanted to feel the strength of a wall behind him, not to be stuck as he was, jutting out into the room in Sherlock’s bed. He could hear dripping from the floor above. This was untenable. John pulled himself up by his abs, moving too quickly. He didn't know how the hell he was going to get into the living room.

The screeching sound of a discordant violin split the air. John sat at the edge of the bed, trying to slow his breathing, listening to Sherlock tuning his instrument in the living room. He’d forgotten how very helpful that sound could be, when it wasn’t waking him up and driving him barmy. There were no violins in Afghanistan, none in war zones or in torture chambers. Violins belonged to London, for when they were safe and Sherlock was feeling introspective. John waited for his heart to slow, gripping the edge of Sherlock’s bedframe and staring around the shadowy room. It was neater than the rest of 221B, no piled books and strange nicknacks. Nothing but a dresser in the corner, a closet, and a limp old poster of the periodic table. John exhaled slowly and loosened his deathgrip on the bed, just as Sherlock started to play.

Sherlock was clearly drawing the violin bow back and forth over the same strings, paying little attention to the pulsing sound it made, and John sighed, trying to concentrate on the noise. He was in London, 221B again, and he wanted to get the fuck to sleep. He lay back down, content to listen to Sherlock’s strange choice of activity, when the note dipped, slowing drastically, and continued in a deeper tone. It sounded mournful. John swallowed and stared at the ceiling, unsure what to think while he listened. He’d never thought about how Sherlock must feel, in all of this. Sherlock had broken his cover to join the missing person’s search, that much was obvious. Was that safe? And now Sherlock Holmes, by far the least likely candidate for nursemaid, was trying to help him back to health? John pulled the covers back over his body with his feet, uncomfortable with the mournful music. How much had Sherlock cared about their friendship, even as he’d ruined it? How much had he lost? John tried to ignore the sad song, not liking his answer. And what did Sherlock want now?

It wasn't his problem, John told himself, closing his eyes.

~~//~~

John woke too early, the room still dark, his shoulders spasming in pain. By the time he finished stretching and cursing, any hope of sleep had fled. He had to make his own way to the living room. He settled on the technique ‘bull it through’ and pushed himself to his feet. He quickly decided to forego any thought of brushing his teeth, and pushed himself straight toward the living room.

He felt feint with exhaustion before he’d gotten halfway through the kitchen and ended up collapsing into a kitchen chair, resting his forehead on the cool wood.

“You’re an idiot,” Sherlock declared. John looked up to see the man in the doorway to the living room, wrapped in a sheet, his hair mussed with sleep. John could see the glow of street lights in the window behind him.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“Four forty two,” Sherlock replied without checking. John nodded, remembering that trick. “You should have called for help.”

John supported his forehead on his fist and didn’t respond. There wasn’t much to say. Sherlock was right, but he still wasn't going to do it unless entirely forced to.

Fuck pride, John thought, remembering his past patients who’d been similarly stupid. But to be so pathetically dependent on Sherlock now? Sherlock stood by the doorjam, looking lost, his gray-blue eyes searching John's face for clues.

“What do you want from me, John?” he asked, wrapping the sheet tighter around himself. John rubbed at his face. He didn’t want to get into this now.

“What do you want from me, Sherlock?” he returned gruffly. Sherlock shifted, looking acutely uncomfortable. He never did like to talk about himself, John remembered.

“My partner. My.. friend,” Sherlock said awkwardly. He glanced around the small kitchen like he was lost.

I’d be lost without my blogger.

“I don’t know how to do that,” John replied, not planning on spending a lot of time figuring it out.

“Isn’t that what forgiveness is?” Sherlock asked, pulling his sheet tighter around himself.

“Is it?” John snapped. Sherlock blinked at him, his gray eyes wide with surprise at his tone.

“I am sorry, John,” Sherlock vowed, his voice deepening.

“For what, then?” John challenged. Sherlock hesitated. John wanted to punch him. Had planned to punch him, but his shoulders were still too damaged to repeatedly lift a loaded fork to his mouth without aching for hours afterward.

“I could have taken you with me. Moriarty would have believed me capable of it, killing you just so no one else could have you. I did not think you’d come with me, did not think you would give up your life for me. But clearly, you lost it all the same,” Sherlock confessed. John felt the information fluttering above his emotions, refusing to sink in. That was a solution he hadn’t thought of, another way he could have been alright, if Sherlock hadn’t lied.

“So you’re sorry you didn’t take me with you,” John confirmed, anger churning in his stomach. He’d be furious, he thought, if he could get his brain to work. Instead, he just wanted to stop talking and lie down.

“A thousand apologies, John. I never thought you’d be so affected -” Sherlock started, before cutting himself off. “That’s not why you’re angry. You’re not upset that I died…” he deduced, stepping forward into the kitchen.

“I am,” John corrected him.

“But what’s worse than that?” Sherlock asked, apparently baffled.

“Lying,” John replied, pushing himself back up to his feet and feeling his shoulder tug badly. Yet another one-liner he couldn’t walk out on. John pushed himself toward the living room, frustrated, and Sherlock got out of his way. John dropped himself into his chair on his own, ignoring how that tugged at his back and jostled his arms.

“I never lied to you,” Sherlock protested, pulling his violin off of his chair and flopping onto the couch.

“Withheld information,” John amended, not caring. He flipped through the newspaper, looking for the crossword he’d left unfinished the night before.

“And why would that matter to you?” Sherlock asked, his emphasis on ‘to you’ making John’s teeth clench together.

Yes, indeed, what use is information to a fool? John sucked at his teeth and ignored the jibe.

“What’s the name of an American squash … team, I guess?” John asked, finding where he’d left off.

“Pumpkin. No, really, why would that matter?” Sherlock repeated, refusing to be deterred.

“Four letters, first letter ‘m’, for ‘flat-topped elevation’?” John ordered, filling it in. Sherlock growled and flopped down onto his back.

“Mesa. And why would it matter?”

John dropped the paper to his lap, trying not to think too much about the painful conversation.

“It matters because we were partners, supposedly. Jumping off a bloody building -without me even knowing why - would never have been possible if you had ever been honest with me. If it hadn’t been for your exalted ego deciding nothing but your bloody cleverness could get us out of that situation. I was surrounded by a danger you didn't deign to tell me about. No, no, say I’m too stupid to have helped,” John listed before lifting the paper between them to cut off the sight of Sherlock stuck in his ‘oh’ revelation expression. “Gossipmonger. Starts with a ‘y’,” John demanded.

“Yenta,” Sherlock answered tonelessly. John nodded firmly and returned to his puzzle. “You think you could have prevented it all,” Sherlock accused. John closed his eyes, struggling to keep control of his temper.

“Possible, yeah,” he replied, not looking away from the crossword. He needed ‘ten C’s’. That sounded like a musical hint.

“Arrogant,” Sherlock scoffed.

“Yeah?” John replied, anger thick in his voice. His back was starting to sting again; he wanted his drugs back. He was supposed to take them when his pain reached a four out of ten, but he just wanted them to numb his emotions away. That was better, if he was going to need to sit in 221B again. Sherlock didn’t answer. It wasn’t like him to leave a topic behind. “There wasn’t much we couldn’t do,” John added, wanting his words to cut the man.

He desperately wanted to leave the room. John cursed under his breath and looked for a new crossword clue. Surrender, as territory. That, he could do himself, John thought, writing in “CEDE” down the squares.

“You’re right,” Sherlock said finally. John looked up, shocked, to see Sherlock sitting at the edge of his couch cushion, his hands clasped in front of his mouth. “Excuse me,” Sherlock pled, speaking quickly, and rushed across the room and out of the door, slamming it behind himself. John blinked after him, unsure what to think.

What do you want from me, John?

A place to stay while he healed? Was that it? He'd be in 221A with Mrs. Hudson, if that were true. John glanced around the empty room, his eyes catching on Sherlock's laptop, his violin, his coat by the door. Signs of life, brought back to 221B.

Sherlock had left in nothing but a sheet, he remembered belatedly, and wanted to rub a hand against his face. He coughed out a laugh, thinking of the people of London leaving for work, jolted by a naked man in a sheet racing down the sidewalk. Sherlock Holmes, truly, truly alive.

John felt like somehow he'd become the missing link. Sherlock, Mrs. Hudson, Greg Lestrade, all returned to their roles. But he couldn't slip back into his old skin and say he was healed.

A bus brake screeched outside the window and he jerked, pulling an elbow out of its sling. He wasn't scared of screeching noises. They weren't associated with anything.

Just anxiety. He was stuck in a chair without the use of his arms. John blew out a heavy breath, trying not to let his imagination run away with him. He was in a locked building - but that didn't matter; no one who came after Sherlock would be stopped by a residential door lock. John inhaled, trying to focus on the smell of the dust and the congealed food beside him, but he couldn't smell it. He couldn't see the door from where he sat.

He was breathing too shallowly. John inhaled sharply, feeling like ice was poured down his veins. He needed to get up. He needed to get the hell out of there but he was trapped. John exhaled and fought breath back into his lungs too quickly. His arms started to tingle - not enough oxygen.

Calm down.

Breathing. He was breathing. His lungs expanded but he didn't feel like he was getting any air. His eyesight was getting spotty - he definitely wasn't getting enough air. Panic. He was panicking. How was he going to run if he was panicking?

Fuck.

Breathing. He needed to focus on breathing. John closed his eyes, hating how it blocked his sight. It didn't matter; he couldn't stop anyone who came through there. But he needed to breathe.

Seven seconds in, ten out. Nothing else. John felt his mouth fill up with spit and tried to swallow. He choked and his eyes flew open again as he coughed, bent over and straining against his slings but he caught his breath and he could breathe again.

Adrenaline was pounding through his body, making his head feel light and his hands shake. John tipped his head back against the back of his chair, trying to calm his breathing and wait for his heart to slow.

Shite.

At least he'd found a new way to stop a panic attack - choke on his own spit. John pulled his other arm out of its sling, needing to feel it free, and stared at the ceiling above him, trying not to think.

~~//~~

“Oooh, trouble up here, is there?” Mrs. Hudson cooed, coming inside not long after, pushing open the living room door as if it weren't before five thirty in the morning. Seeing the tray of tea and food in her arms, John didn’t try to stop her.

“Well, he went out in a rush, didn’t he? Have a bit of a domestic?” she asked, sliding the tray onto the table beside him.

“No. Because we’re not together,” John replied sharply, dropping the newspaper onto the floor beside him. Mrs. Hudson pursed her lips, not happy. John ran his fingers over the chair’s frayed fabric. He still hadn't managed to get himself to restrain his arms again. They ached without the slings, even through the Vicodin, but he didn't care.

“How can I help you, then?” Mrs. Hudson asked, bustling in like it was the most natural thing in the world to be nursing her ex-flatmate back to health. John swallowed, uncomfortable.

“Turn this chair?” He asked and did his best to help her shove the chair around, albeit only pushing with his undamaged leg. Mrs. Hudson grunted with the effort, too old and too injured for such tasks, and collapsed into the chair beside him.

“Can I ask you something, dear?” she asked, picking a bit of lint from her pants. John swallowed, sure he wouldn't want to answer. Mrs. Hudson didn't wait for a response. “You never wanted to come back here. I knew it. You knew it. Why are you back, now?” She leaned forward to pat his knee, barely missing where the skin graft cut ended.

“I don’t want to be here now,” John replied, moving his leg away. “But I need care and Harry is - incapable.”

Mrs. Hudson frowned, obviously concerned.

“She’s bloody selfish, is what you mean,” she said. John didn’t argue. Mrs. Hudson leaned forward in her seat. “So when you’re well, you’re just going to leave him?” she asked. John focused on the couch behind her, where Sherlock had last been. He could hear the city bus announcing its route, loud enough to disrupt them even with the windows sealed up.

“I cannot stay here,” he answered.

“Well, that's your right. And he probably deserves that. But I don’t,” she declared, pointing a crooked finger at him. John refocused. “You will visit me, doctor,” she ordered. John sighed, trying to imagine visiting. Sitting in 221A for tea. It sounded painful.

He needed so much more than Mrs. Hudson to get through this. John cleared his throat, pushing the thought aside.

“I’ll be in touch,” he promised.

“Well, I’ll bet you this, dear. Ten weeks from now? You won’t be leaving,” she declared and poured the tea. John shook his head, unsure what more there was to say. He couldn’t think of anywhere he was less comfortable than sitting in the dusty remains of a life he’d mourned. Nor anyone who made him as angry and uncomfortable in his skin as the revived and unrepentant Sherlock Holmes. He’d need to start his life again, when he got his shoulders back. He wouldn’t be visiting; they could meet for coffee, Mrs. Hudson and he.

Mrs. Hudson smiled softly, seeming to read his disagreement in his eyes and not arguing. She sat back in Sherlock’s chair, making herself comfortable. They were taking shifts not to leave him alone for too long, John realized, clearing his throat again. Sherlock had noticed the night before after all. Of course he had.

“Mrs. Hudson, have I thanked you-“ he started but Mrs. Hudson pushed a cup of tea at him, cutting him off.

“Posh. We’re family, we are. Drink your tea,” she ordered. Cowed, John obeyed.

~~//~~

:I should not have lied to him. I should have brought him with me. SH :

Sally Donovan was an idiot. Most people were. Sherlock spun his phone around in his fingers, unsure she’d be clever enough to read the subtext there.

:That was a request for advice. SH: he typed out quickly, seeing that she was not typing a response.

Sherlock stared out of the cafe window, seeing nothing in the cars fighting through the traffic outside. He’d lost John, and for so little. Lost John to try to protect him. Ironic, he could see that plainly.

“Coffee?”

Sherlock glanced up at the middle-aged, balding man who’d approached his table. The man wore a wedding ring, but he dressed in too-long frayed clothing beneath his cafe uniform. All dark colors, though the Employee of the Month sign that hadn’t been replaced for ten months had him dressed in bright colors. He hadn’t bought new clothing, just wore all he had that wasn’t bright, regardless of it matching. And he’d lost weight. Mourning, probably.

For ten months, still barely willing to dress himself ? That was usually a family member or a lover. Not a mistress, or he’d have to hide it better. A child or a spouse? Sherlock couldn’t tell. The man was raising his eyebrows slowly, looking concerned. And his label said ‘manager’ - likely not stolen. Why send a manager to serve a man? Sherlock frowned. The cafe was expecting a problem. He’d sat too long without buying a new drink, presumably.

“Yes, pardon. I’ll have a large, two sugars please,” Sherlock replied and the manager smiled like there was no concern in the conversation at all.

“Very good, sir,” he said, walking away.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Sherlock replied and the man shot him an uncomfortable look. Sherlock growled, turning back to his phone. John always managed to give his condolences without unsettling people. He’d have to observe how he did that. His phone buzzed obediently.

:Am I your new friend, then?: Sally asked. Sherlock sneered at his screen and turned his phone in his hand for a better keyboard, prepared to type out some vitriol in return.

:You certainly need one, given your usual company: he started, but his phone popped up another text onto his screen.

:Apologize. Tell him you were an idiot:

Sherlock deleted his text.

:I did. SH: he wrote instead. A cafe worker delivered his coffee to the small cafe table. Not the manager, though there was no one else in the cafe. Not busy. Uncomfortable now, probably. His phone buzzed against the wood surface.

What’d he say? Donovan asked. Sherlock snarled, pushing the phone into his pajama pocket. He’d run away too soon for John to respond.

How was it that John had so thoroughly seen the worst of him? Just when he’d begun to want John to think the best of him. His phone vibrated against his leg.

:Try again.:

“Damn it,” Sherlock hissed. John needed his amoxicillin in twenty minutes. He needed to go back.

221B. He’d been happy, there. As a man who hadn’t known the meaning of the word. Now the silence was stiff with thinly veiled hate and he had no idea how to live with that. He didn’t want to live with that. But he needed John.

Sherlock grabbed his hot coffee off the table and started for the door. He threw it out in the trashcan on the corner and held up his hand for a cab.

~~//~~

Author's Note: Oh my gosh, so many of you have bought the pre-order. Thank you so much to everyone who Pre-ordered or shared it with their friends! This is looking like crazy success for a first novel! Let's get it noticed!

Find it here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/b00u8cr1l6

It will be now coming out in PRINT! Thank you all for your Pre-Orders that made that happen! It will (hopefully) be available to buy in print on its release date, March 20 th ! Thank you!

Chapter Text

Sherlock sidled into the room, still wrapped tightly in his sheet. John watched him, wondering what was about to change. Sherlock noted his new position, able to see the door, and fiddled with the corner of the bedsheet. ‘You’re right’ - when was the last time he’d heard Sherlock say that? And on such a subject.

Sherlock sat down on the couch, his fingers pitched before his mouth, posed like he was moments from solving a case. John and Mrs. Hudson watched him, thoroughly interrupted.

“You mourned me,” Sherlock stated, like it was the conclusion to some great puzzle.

“Yes,” John said, flabbergasted by the doubt. Sherlock nodded slowly, taking that in.

“You lost touch with friends, stopped caring about your appearance, struggled with alcohol, sought revenge, refused to live here. Because it… hurt,” Sherlock said slowly. John glanced at Mrs. Hudson, checking to see if she knew whether Sherlock was serious. She smiled back at him softly, looking sad.

I think we surprised him, mourning. She’d said that. Surely Sherlock could not be so ignorant?

“You were tortured,” Sherlock added, glancing at John’s bandaged arms.

“Yes,” John admitted. Sherlock nodded, surely not needing the confirmation. Sherlock sat in silence, thinking, and John pondered how he’d know if Sherlock ever truly lost it. Mrs. Hudson leaned forward and poured them tea, somehow making the moment a dozen times more awkward.

“I lied to you,” Sherlock added finally, folding over his fingers to leave only his two index fingers pitched before his lips. John swallowed, remembering their last months, so long before. It was madness to think it’d only been a year and some. It was September twenty eighth, now. Sherlock had ‘died’ in June. Such little time, for so much damage.

“Yes,” John echoed finally, lost in his thoughts. He waited, wondering how he’d feel, getting a genuine apology from Sherlock, for that certainly felt like what was happening. Once, he could have felt proud, like he’d been let into an even more coveted portion of Sherlock’s life. Honored for Sherlock to deem him worth apologizing to when he lived the rest of his life too case-focused to see the other people there at all, much less to care how he affected them. He’d drugged his PTSD-ridden flatmate with a fear enhancer, for hell’s sake. Like Batman’s bloody Scarecrow villain, with no apologies at all. Would the apology mean something more, make John more than a flatmate?

But why did you want him to care about you that much, ey?

“I never should have concealed the danger from you. It was arrogant. I wanted to make a show of solving it, and then I was cornered,” Sherlock said. John swallowed. It was an effective apology. No doubt Sherlock had prepared this, looked up all the advice he could find on the subject. But John didn’t feel honored. Sherlock watched him, looking scared, but he didn’t feel anything and the drugs kept him from even caring too much about that. He wasn’t Sherlock’s flatmate, anymore. He wasn’t Sherlock’s anything, anymore.

“That’s good to hear,” John said. That was true enough. It was good to hear, to be reassured that he hadn’t been such a pathetic fool, to have his life gutted by mourning a man who did not care in return. Sherlock cared. That was obvious in the gutted look Sherlock gave him now. Mrs. Hudson stayed silent, her eyes wide and sad.

“Can you forgive me, John?” Sherlock asked suddenly, shattering the quiet between them. John shifted in his seat, trying to figure out what he should say. It sounded as if Sherlock were asking if it were physically possible.

“I don’t know,” he answered and Sherlock nodded, not shifting from his seat. Good enough for him, then, John thought, wondering if a simple ‘no’ was all it’d take to never see Sherlock Holmes again. But he wasn’t healthy enough to want that. Mrs. Hudson hid her mouth behind a hand, her eyes wide.

Sherlock stood up and straightened his suit, pulling his bland dispassionate mask back over himself. That, strangely, kicked John into feeling something. He hated it.

“Well, then. You’re due for amoxicillin. Two pills, this dose,” he said, his voice clipped, moving to snatch the pill bottles off the table in front of John.

“I shall make us some dinner,” Mrs. Hudson offered quietly, pushing herself up from her chair.

We're all going to ignore that? John wondered, overwhelmed.

“Thank you, Mrs. Hudson,” he said. Sherlock didn’t look up from struggling with the child-safety lock.

“If I could find my bloody pans,” she complained, laying a hand on Sherlock's back and pulling the pill bottle out of his grip. She handed it back open. Sherlock looked enthralled by her for a moment and she held out a finger in warning.

“Ceiling. Third tile to the left through the kitchen doorway,” he said, rattling out two of John’s pills.

“I would hit him more often but we’d never eat,” Mrs. Hudson complained to John, leaving the room. The joke fell flat. John drummed his fingers against his chair, waiting for the sound of Mrs. Hudson closing the door to her own flat downstairs. Sherlock handed him the pills, dropping them into his palm at a safe distance. He heard Mrs. Hudson's door shut. Sherlock sat back down on the couch.

“So, you die, I’m tortured, you race to find me, I shoot the bloke, you apologize and nurse me back to health?” John listed. Sherlock nodded slowly, rubbing his thumb into his palm.

“I admit I’m not the best candidate,” he replied and John snorted. Sherlock smiled, a spark of hope lighting in his eyes. John watched it fade slowly, sadness finally catching up to him.

So when you’re well, you’re just going to leave him?

John swallowed, unsure what to do with himself. They could try to be friends, the two of them. Two lonely, ridiculous, broken men. He didn't know why he didn't want that.

Sherlock pulled out his phone and started texting, apparently moving on. John tipped his head back on the chair, a vague feeling of contentment settling through him as the drugs hit.

~~//~~

:He says he does not know if he can forgive me. Advise. SH: Sherlock glared at his phone until it buzzed with a new text for him.

:Good man: Donovan replied.

:Clarify SH: Sherlock ordered, tipping back onto the couch and holding the phone above him. He could watch John fall asleep out of the corner of his eye, this way.

:You pretended to be dead. I'd never forgive you:

Sherlock snarled at the words.

:You're not useful. SH: he replied.

:Was I trying to be? You almost killed him. It's his right not to let you do that again.:


Sherlock swallowed. That was fair.

:I chose to value his life over his friendship. That was good: he protested. He'd already had this argument with John.

I would have rather died by your side than be so thoroughly left behind.


His phone buzzed.


:Well, you made your choice.: Donovan replied. He could almost see her shrugging. He snarled at his phone. John shifted in his chair. Not good, probably, for him to sleep like that.

I chose wrong, he thought and pushed himself up from the couch. Right. Useless conclusion. What did the past matter? They were both alive; that was the outcome he'd planned for.

~~//~~

Just as John was starting to slip toward sleep he felt a shadow at his side.

“You should not sleep there,” Sherlock ordered. John opened an eye to see the man standing above him, holding out an arm. John stared at it for a moment, his mind dull with too little sleep. There was all too much touching in his recovery, he thought. Still, he couldn’t spend the rest of his life in the chair. He nodded and Sherlock began the painful, rather overly intimate process of grabbing him by his undamaged hips and helping him shove forward enough on the chair that he was able to help lift himself up with his legs.

He made his way to the couch, his head swimming, having to trust Sherlock to keep him from kicking anything in his way. Then he was sitting down again, and even better, arranging himself to lie down on the couch, the pain killers hitting too strongly for his back to twinge at all. Sherlock jerked his hands away as soon as John was safely settled, like touching John was violently against the law. Then Sherlock was blessedly leaving him alone again, beelining for the kitchen, and he could sleep.

He woke up to see Mrs. Hudson leaving a full casserole on the kitchen table and tiptoeing out again, apparently deciding to leave them alone. Sherlock was sitting at the kitchen table, staring into a microscope that even John could see had no slides. Sherlock didn't spare a glance at Mrs. Hudson or the cooling casserole dish.

The kitchen looked as bare as he’d expected, apart from a pair of salt shakers in the open shelves and the toaster. John didn’t know if the plates were still hidden in the lime green cabinets, but every trace of lab equipment was gone, which left John wondering where Sherlock had scraped up a teaching microscope to hide in.

John blinked away sleep, hating how he'd looked immediately for Sherlock before he'd even rubbed the dried tears from his eyes. Sherlock sat back from his microscope suddenly, as if called by some silent alarm. He stacked a plate with food, grabbed a fork, and brought it towards him. John pulled himself up to sit and swung his legs around to rest on the floor. Sherlock left the plate on the coffee table and grabbed a pastry before settling into the chair across from him. John pulled his arm gently from its belly strap and picked up his fork.

“Thank you,” he said and began the clumsy process of forcing himself to eat. He felt like his stomach was already bloated. Low appetite; a symptom of sickness and anxiety. Not surprising. No doubt Sherlock saw it in him. Frustrated, he ate.

Eating exhausted him more than he expected. John had barely finished half of the meal before he decided he’d be better off finishing it once he could successfully pick up the fork on his own again. He lay his head back on the back of the chair, slid his arm back into its sling, and settled in for an uncomfortable nap.

~~//~~

John woke up to the sounds of footsteps and male voices. He opened his eyes to see men in collared uniforms carrying boxes into the kitchen. Sherlock was squatting at the end of the couch, holding a steaming pile of pasta. John frowned; he had to have slept for long enough for the kitchen to be overrun by delivery men - his plate of casserole had to have gotten cold. Sherlock knew when he was waking up well enough to heat it for him? John pushed himself up to sit, his back and shoulders flaring in pain. He stopped to breathe, working his way through it, but Sherlock didn't move to get the pills. Not time yet, apparently. John forced himself the rest of the way up, glad Sherlock did not try to help, and unclenched his jaw.

“How-” John started, taking the plate. Sherlock smirked.

“Your eye movement changes approximately twenty minutes before waking,” Sherlock replied, handing him a fork. John pulled his aching arm from its sling and took it.

So you were watching my eyes move in their sockets this whole time? John wondered, glancing up at the genius as he forced his first bite. Sherlock flushed and started back toward the kitchen, answering him.

John watched Sherlock start to unload the boxes, carefully unwrapping glass slides and lenses with a gentleness he rarely saw. Sherlock moved slowly, his eyes on his task, and John forced himself to swallow down his food. Sherlock didn’t appear to have eaten or slept in weeks. What had the last ten days been like, receiving those photographs, unable to find him? His eyes had been so haunted when he’d first stepped into the hospital room. And then? To find their friendship gone and John so injured? To know he’d chosen wrong? John knew something critical must have happened if Sherlock was defending Donovan like a friend.

John huffed out a laugh, drawing Sherlock’s curious look. John matched his gaze for a moment, unsure what to say, and Sherlock moved on to unpackaging a box of beakers onto the kitchen table. Restoring it to how it’d been before. John didn’t know why he couldn’t stand the idea. He’d been happy, hadn’t he, living here with Sherlock Holmes? If he could have it again, the friendship, the cases, the kitchen laboratory, shouldn’t he want to grab it? He didn’t. He wanted to shove the whole idea away.

He was a changed man. He’d been a changed man before he’d ever been dragged up on Mike’s hook. That had only served to drag it out into the light and bring Sherlock rushing home to see it. He didn’t want to face Moriarty’s ‘puzzles’ again. He wanted to walk onto the top of that building with Sherlock and shoot Moriarty through the teeth and anyone else who’d so threatened them. He suspected Sherlock was doing all he could to force the broken pieces of their past life back together. And that was never going to happen.

Do you ever wonder what you’re meant to do with your life?

John tipped his head back down on the couch armrest, Mike’s words crawling down his spine, and lifted his plate onto the coffeetable, his arm shaking. Pain ricocheted into his shoulder and he dropped the plate with a clatter. Sherlock glanced over and away, unconcerned.

More nightmares. More anxieties. He didn’t want to get started fighting them yet. He watched Sherlock set himself to putting the beakers away, his shoulders stiff with a strain John recognized; too many people in the flat.

A year of mourning. He didn’t want to deal with that either. John pushed his arm back into its restraints, relieving his throbbing shoulder.

The delivery men finally left and Sherlock’s relief was palpable. John watched Sherlock walk back into the living room and prepared himself for another afternoon of strained silence.

John rubbed his nose into his shoulder, unable to scratch it. Sherlock searched his bookshelf for something to read. John remembered returning to this place, just the once, to see how Sherlock had left the living room, a bookshelf full of books he’d never touch again. The thought had been gutting, then. John shoved the thought away. Sherlock wandered around the room, picking up random books and putting them down again, fiddling with his nicknacks, and shoving things around without improving any sense of order. He glanced at John periodically, his blue eyes scanning down his body, cataloging everything, only to turn back to his taskless movements.

They could do this until he healed, John thought, watching as Sherlock flipped open his copy of London A - Z and pretended to read inside. Sherlock could do the minimum of care and John could pretend they were strangers and they could split up at the end of ten weeks with little to show for it.

That sounded more exhausting than talking to Sherlock Holmes.

Christ I'm lonely. He cleared his throat and Sherlock met his gaze in the mirror.

“Right. A break?” John suggested. Sherlock met his gaze in the mirror, already looking confused.

“Sorry?” he asked and John glanced around the too-quiet room.

“I’m furious and still in shock. You’re trying to reclaim a relationship you already know you ruined. How about we just .. Leave it, for an hour?” John suggested.

Sherlock turned around, frowning.

“What would that mean?” he asked. John resisted an impulse to rub at his face. He wanted to keep his arms in their slings for once.

“Cluedo?” John suggested and Sherlock smiled like he’d given him the world. John stared at him for a moment, thinking he was probably being an ass, giving Sherlock hope.

"Yes. Certainly," Sherlock said, as if they didn't both despise the game.

For Sherlock it was a simplistic exercise in narrowing down random chance. To John it was a cumbersome exercise in trying to recall what the heck he’d already seen, which was now made to be more intolerable given his limited use of a pen. Sherlock reached into the lower cabinet of the bookcase and pulled out an oversized bottle, apparently foreseeing the problem.

“I shouldn’t drink on paracetamol,” John pointed out. Sherlock nodded, peeling off the foil wrapper.

“I can,” he replied. John blinked, watching him walk into the kitchen for a bottle opener. Once again, he wondered what Sherlock had gone through in his year and some away. He’d certainly never drank before it.

To John’s surprise, Sherlock took a gulp straight from the bottle and set it on the coffeetable. He started setting up the game, unfolding the board and handing John four cards to put on the table, a system for having a ‘third’ player they’d developed two years before. John picked Professor Plum and set him near the billiard room. Sherlock, as always, chose Miss Scarlet and rolled the dice to move into the lounge.

“I randomly guess with no further evidence that it was Colonel Mustard, in the lounge, with the candlestick,” Sherlock began, already sounding annoyed at the system. John checked his cards. He showed Sherlock the candlestick and Sherlock took another gulp of wine.

“When did you start drinking, then?” John asked. Sherlock glanced at him from over the bottle.

“A year ago, in Prague,” he answered shortly, handing over the dice. John glanced at his slings and Sherlock threw the dice for him without a word.

“The hall,” John said and Sherlock moved for him. “Mrs. Peacock, in the hall, with the pipe,” John suggested, unsure what else to say. An hour break; he wasn’t going to ruin it by dwelling on all they'd lost. “Got any funny stories?” he asked instead. Sherlock had the hall card.

“I got pickpocketed six times in a week,” Sherlock admitted. John glanced up, his eyebrows high.

“You’re serious?”

Sherlock tipped his head and John coughed out a laugh.

“To be fair, I knew who was doing it,” Sherlock replied. John blinked.

“You knew who was stealing from you and you let him do it?”

Sherlock drew himself up proudly.

“She was in the clear sight of at least three cameras. I pointed them out and she spread the word among her friends to look out for a man for me,” he answered.

You blackmailed a homeless child. Of course.

“A new homeless network,” he concluded aloud and Sherlock nodded. “Did they find the man?”

Sherlock grinned.

“That they did,” he answered proudly. John shook his head, impressed despite himself. Sherlock passed his own figurine to the conservatory without rolling the dice, using the secret passage rule John had mostly forgotten. This was an atrocious game.

“How’d they recognize him?” John asked and Sherlock glanced up. “The man your Prague pickpocket network found - how’d they know who to look for?”

Sherlock’s eyes sparkled.

“He was a short man with hairplugs in the shape of a yamaka,” Sherlock replied.

John blinked at him, processing that.

“Right. Everywhere but the yamaka, then?” he asked. That was at least better than -

“Just the yamaka,” Sherlock replied and John laughed. Sherlock’s face lit up with cautious pleasure and John allowed himself to enjoy it, even if just for the moment.

“I didn’t mention in the briefing. You remember Mike?” he started. Sherlock’s smile tightened, tinged with violence. John smiled, doing his best to look casual. “Told me himself - wanted to be a therapist,” he said. Sherlock smirked.

“I got that from his corpse,” he replied. John frowned.

“How the hell did you get that from a corpse?” he asked. Sherlock leaned back in his chair.

“Lestrade brought me his effects, including a laptop. Internet search history gave away the school name and the psychology major. His actions with you showed no sign of an interest in mental research. Add to that a very obvious affinity for asking probing questions and the conclusion is obvious.”

John stared at him, absorbing Sherlock’s racing, excited tone. It had been so very very long.

Brilliant, he thought and did not try to say. A break, from all his anger and its reasoning.

How’d you know about his probing questions? He thought but did not ask. He didn’t want to know how much Sherlock knew. He didn't want to think about what Mike had asked, or the way his skin crawled at the memory of heating iron.

Why do you scream for Sherlock Holmes?

“Well, just think how many wealthy narcissistic fools wondering about the purpose of their lives you’ve saved from truly dreadful advice,” Sherlock replied, rolling the dice again.

“That’s why I shot him,” John agreed, nodding, and Sherlock laughed. Something tense uncurled in John's chest at the sound. Sherlock Holmes, alive and laughing again.

Right. A break.

“Mrs. White, in the Conservatory, with the rope,” Sherlock suggested and John checked his cards. Sherlock checked the cards on the table without waiting for him.

“Wait-” John started, glancing at his hand. He had nothing to confirm Sherlock’s guess. “How did you-”

“Clearly, I know what your cards are,” Sherlock replied and threw the dice for John. One bounced off the table out of sight and Sherlock bent to pick it up for him. He’d gotten snake eyes. Sherlock moved his figurine for him.

“Right,” John replied, flabbergasted, and Sherlock grinned. “So how did you catch the man with the hairy yamaka?’ he asked. Sherlock groaned.

“Is that what you’re going to title it?” he groaned and John smirked, letting them pretend he was going to start up his blog again just as soon as his fingers healed.

“Well it’s that or the Case of the Blackmailed Pickpocket, but we all know you’re the culprit in that case,” John replied, watching Sherlock play his turn for him. Apparently there was only one best move, and Sherlock assumed John would take it. He flashed John his 'revolver' card and rolled the dice again.

“So, the embezzler, what’d you do with him?” John asked, settling himself more comfortably on the couch. He was rapidly becoming too tired for a game he wasn't even playing.

“I got him arrested for hiring sex workers,” Sherlock replied. John looked at the ceiling, unsure he should put in the effort to move his head but wanting to stare at the man.

“How - how does that connect?” he asked.

“Moriarty’s organization was funded through a process of donation to semi-legitimate charities and pre-arranged embezzlement. The clients could even deduct their payments from their taxes. The embezzlement, however, was carefully designed - too well hidden for any usual audit to reveal it and I couldn’t come out of hiding to decipher it for them. Nor was it an efficient use of my faculties. I’m a detective, not an accountant. So I went around the problem, looked into the embezzlers themselves, and for each organization found that a person willing to steal from a charity to fund a secretive employer inevitably had other secrets. In one case, unpaid child support payments kept secret from a second family, in another, an expensive sex change operation the criminal could barely afford. In this embezzler’s case, an obsession with underage women. I got him caught and arrested with little trouble.”

John grimaced, not wanting to imagine it.

“What did you do for the others - if they weren’t acting illegally other than the theft?” he asked. He heard Sherlock take another gulp of wine.

“I threatened them. The Case of the Blackmailed Double Father, the Case of the Blackmailed New Woman, they’re all mine,” Sherlock confessed, sounding disgusted with himself.

“And they stopped?” John asked. Sherlock took another drink. John wanted him to stop, but said nothing.

“Most of them,” Sherlock replied. “Helped along by the fact that they’d not heard from their employer in months - not if I’d gotten to the middleman first.”

John nodded, trying to imagine the scale of the project.

“How many charities?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I started with the ones I’d already found. That added up to fifty one, I got through thirty of them,” Sherlock admitted.

Then I disappeared, John filled in, closing his eyes.

“Where were you then?”

“The United States. Boston,” Sherlock replied quietly. John nodded.

“Sounds exhausting,” John replied, feeling like he was expected to say something. He didn’t want to talk about how Sherlock had felt when he’d gotten that news.

“The weather was better,” Sherlock said, his voice clipped as it usually was when he was trying to hide an emotion.

John nodded, trying to stay awake. His shoulders pulsed with pain but that didn't help keeping his heavy eyelids open.

He opened his eyes to see Sherlock fiddling with his violin by the window. Two pills were waiting for him on the coffee table, beside the abandoned cluedo board. John pulled his arm out of its sling to grab the pills, swallowed them both at once, and closed his eyes again.

~//~~

Author's Note: The book has released, in kindle & print. It had 33 pre-orders at the time of its release, and has bumped up to 45 purchases so far today! It only needs two more purchases and it has paid for its printing!

http://www.amazon.com/dp/b00u8cr1l6

Chapter Text

John woke up to Lestrade and Sherlock arguing in the kitchen.

“I have nothing,” Greg growled, throwing up his hands. Sherlock scoffed, dismissing the problem.

“Give me anything,” he hissed.

John groaned. This was an inevitability he should have foreseen. Sherlock was the least patient man he knew. The man would get bored with an armed gunman after his life; nothing but changed bandages and cluedo and warmed up meals would be unconscionable. The genius was trapped trying to play nursemaid, of course he'd insist on taking on cases again. John frowned, his mind catching up to him. When was the last time he’d changed his bandages? Time ran together badly, but he definitely hadn’t had it done since he’d left the hospital. And he was bloody well tired of lying down.

John pushed himself up. He felt nothing from his back or shoulders. At least Sherlock kept him on schedule with his pain medication. But he felt disgusting.

A bath. Then bandages. John pulled his arms from their slings. He’d keep his bandaged hand out of the water and replace its gauze after. He pushed himself up from the couch, ignoring the ache in his arms that couldn’t bode well for the action. He needed to be clean and he wasn’t going to ask for a bloody escort. He forced himself to walk through the kitchen, ignoring the conversation that stopped halfway through a word as he walked into the room.

“Hey, Greg,” he grunted, keeping moving as his vision started to narrow. The last thing he wanted was to collapse now and make a bigger spectacle of himself.

“John,” Greg returned cautiously. John kept walking, ignoring how Sherlock followed him. "You look like shite, mate."

“You’re likely to fall,” Sherlock commented behind him.

“I’m fine,” John replied, pushing open the bathroom door and sitting on the toilet like it was commonplace for him to rest while he plugged the drain and turned on the water. He pulled off his shirt on his own, glad for the opiates that kept his shoulders from screaming at the action. He paused for a moment, thinking about getting up again to close the door, before deciding he had limited energy and privacy was a lost cause.

“Sponge baths are safer for your wounds,” Sherlock replied, appearing in the doorway.

“Thank you. I’ll log that away,” John snarked, unwrapping his bandages and listening to the tub fill.

“You should let me help you,” Sherlock ordered. John sighed and shook his head, trying to keep his eyes away from the florescent light on the ceiling without looking at Sherlock.

“Doctors and soldiers, the worst patients,” he commented, knowing he didn’t need to point out that he was both. He threw his shirt and torso bandages aside and started on unwrapping his hand. Sherlock didn't move to help, as he never really did unless told to, and John thought, oddly enough, he might have found the perfect nurse in the selfish man.

"Why them?" Greg asked, appearing beside Sherlock and blocking the door. Greg glanced away from the toilet immediately and his eyes locked on the mirror. The detective swallowed, looking ill, and John realized that with the way he was angled toward the tub, Greg could see his burns.

“Pride and grit,” John answered, but he could see no one was listening. Sherlock was watching Greg's reaction, looking puzzled.

"You already knew that was there. You've seen all this before," he said, pointing at John's back. John turned away from the tub to hide his back, too conscious of his pale skin and jutting ribs, the friendly fire wound in his shoulder and the new red scars beside it. His back had been torn up and ugly before he'd been wire tied to a chair in a parking garage.

"It's different in person. Jesus, John," Greg replied, swallowing and looking away from the mirror. John half-smiled, trying to look casual. Sherlock snorted, not buying it, and gestured at John's back again.

"So it's harder when he's not missing?" Sherlock asked, sounding dumbfounded. Greg growled.

"It's easier when I can't smell it, yeah. Sorry, John," he tossed out. John nodded. Wounds smelled. He knew that.

"You smell the anti-septic. The pus was gone weeks ago," Sherlock replied, stepping closer into the room. To smell him, presumably. Right. Enough of that. John turned back toward the tub to turn it off. He leaned over, smelling the hard water, only then realizing that the tub likely hadn't been cleaned in a year or more and god knew what experiment Sherlock had last done before he'd jumped.

He heard Sherlock take another step closer to him over the sound of the rushing water and felt his heartbeat start to rise, his breath come too quickly. Right.

Stop passing out.


Right. Enough water sounds. He reached over to turn the water off, the tub water churning below him, and a droplet hit his cheek.

He jerked back before he'd ever planned to, pulling back and up and onto his feet, the sound of the water roaring in his ears.

"Woah, there!" he heard Greg call out and he slammed back into someone's chest. His burns flared beneath the drugs keeping him groggy, keeping him slow - and he spun, ignoring the pain as he threw the first punch.

He dropped to his knees with his assailant and threw his fist across the man's nose. Sherlock's head swung with the blow and his nose crunched beneath his knuckles.


Sherlock.

John inhaled sharply, the smell of blood flooding his senses and pulled his hands up in surrender. Blood was trickling down his scuffed knuckles. Greg was in the doorway, crouched like he was ready to fight. John forced himself to exhale, pushing himself from Sherlock's knees and sliding onto the floor beside him. He pushed his hands into his hair, shame overwhelming him.

"Check him for signs of a concussion or whiplash," John croaked out, forcing himself to breathe slowly when he wanted to gasp at air. Another dose of PTSD, another round of useless therapy. And he was not in control of his violence, now. John glanced at Sherlock, still lying on the bathroom tile, and rubbed at his hair. He would have to limit who he was around, until he was in control again.

"Neither," Sherlock announced, pulling a rag from beneath the sink without sitting up, just in time for the blood to start flowing toward his mouth.

John ran his hands over his face. Steady hands, finally, for maybe the first time since he'd woken up in hospital.

"The fuck did you do in the army?" Greg asked. John pulled his hands away from his eyes to see Greg checking Sherlock's face.

"Punched people," John answered evasively. Greg snorted.

"You managed to turn off the tub before you rearranged his face, is all," Greg replied, glancing at the bathtub and grabbing Sherlock's chin to inspect it. Sherlock batted him away. John turned his head to see that the tub faucet wasn't even dripping.

Right. So he was never showering with a woman again. That was fine.

"Don't waste water," he replied, unsure what else to say. Sherlock coughed out into his bloody rag. It sounded like he was laughing.

"I'll get you an icepack," Greg said, heading toward the kitchen. John nodded, unsure what to think about Greg and Sherlock causally treating the violence like any other benign routine.

"Er.. Sherlock?" Greg asked, coming back into sight with an icepack in either hand. They had little notes pinned to them - one labeled 'For when John punches you. You deserved it, dear' and one labeled 'He didn't deserve this one, dear'. Sherlock held out his hand for the punching one without question and Greg chuckled.

"Got you two pegged, doesn't she?" he laughed.

"Well, put the other back," Sherlock ordered, holding the ice to his cheek.

"I'm not your bloody housekeeper," Greg joked, moving to obey. John watched the two of them, his adrenaline starting to drain. He tipped his head back on the tile wall, frustrated with himself. Sherlock moved to sit beside him.

"Sorry," John said, gesturing to the bloody rag wrapping the ice.

Sherlock held up Mrs. Hudson's note, apparently agreeing with the sentiment.

"Yeah, well, I'd have rathered punch you on purpose," John replied and Sherlock laughed again.

"I'm heading out!" Greg shouted and the front door slammed shut before they had a chance to answer.


Good man, John thought, glancing at the full tub. Sherlock stretched his legs out under the sink, apparently concluding they'd be there for awhile.

Fuck that.


"Sponge bath?" John suggested, deciding to deal with the fact that he couldn't face down a flooded bathtub later - preferably when he was alone and not currently pumped with adrenaline.

Sherlock jerked his head around to stare at him, visibly startled. John smirked, warm with pride. He'd forgotten what it felt like to have the arrogant Sherlock Holmes meet his eyes, completely flummoxed, and utter 'you just killed a man' like he'd forgotten about it.

I'm a dangerous man. An active man. John drew himself up enough to grab a hand towel from the hook above him. Sherlock pushed himself up and stepped over him to drain the bath. John listened to the water glug down the drain, hoping they'd have enough hot water. Sherlock hovered by the toilet, periodically blotting the blood from his face. His left cheek and nose were red where they were going to swell and bruise.

"Erm.." Sherlock started and John handed him the rag, swallowing his pride. There were too many places he couldn't clean. The last of the water was sucked down the drain and John pushed himself up on his arms, noting how they were shaking again. This bit of idiocy was going to hurt when the drugs wore off. He stripped off his trousers and pants as quickly as he could, trying to make it as clinical as he could. Surely, after Mike's photography sessions, he had nothing that hadn't been projected onto New Scotland Yard's station wall in full color.

"Wet it in the sink," John suggested, pulling himself into the bath and slowly sinking down to sit on his ass as the exhaustion caught up to him. The porcelain was warm from the water but too hard against his bones. He needed to get fatter.

Sherlock handed him a wet soapy wag and John started on his legs, avoiding the long square patch of pink skin where he'd been surgically skinned to help his back. He leaned forward to get his toes clean, trying to ignore how Sherlock sat on the closed toilet, carefully avoiding looking at him or the mirrors.

"You've seen all of this before," John commented, washing his genitals quickly before Sherlock could look back. Sherlock turned and John pushed the rag up his chest, feeling like the rag was heavier in his hand every time he pushed it over his chest. He couldn't lift his arms high enough to touch his shoulders or his neck. Physical therapy could improve that, some day, but it'd take awhile. He didn't want to think about it.

"I'll wash your hair, if you'll turn around," Sherlock offered. John turned in the tub silently, trying to pretend this was normal, but glad to have his countenance hidden from the man. Sherlock scooped water over his short hair and the droplets ran down his back, tickling at his healing skin.

Sherlock ran a hand over his hair, spreading the shampoo and John leaned back against the cool tub wall. It felt good to have those long fingers pushing through his hair. John closed his eyes, grateful to find he could have a man sit behind him without an anxiety response. Sherlock scratched his scalp gently and John fought an impulse to lean into it like a cat. Just a medical wash, he reminded himself, but with that thought his mind turned in another direction and he was naked with the genius Sherlock Holmes massaging his hair and his penis was hardening without his consent. Sherlock's fingers felt strong and sure over his scalp, pressing into his hair and rubbing down his neck. Such a captivating man. Surely he couldn't have gone so much time, believing himself straight and wrong about it?

John tensed, only to realize that that would tell Sherlock everything he was trying to hide, and sure enough Sherlock's fingers stilled and a hand snuck down his neck to subtly check his pulse.

"Sherlock -" John started, wanting to lie, to say it wasn't about him. He wished he could see Sherlock's face. He had no clue what Sherlock would think of this. He'd asked Mrs. Hudson once if Sherlock had every had any girlfriends, any..anyone, and she didn't know. Was he disgusted by it? Interested?

Did you ever want him to touch you more?

His arousal died and John exhaled, grateful for a moment for Mike's more disturbingly personal questions. It didn't matter what Sherlock thought of this, John told himself. He would be leaving regardless.

"We'll need a bucket," Sherlock announced loudly and got up from behind him. "Bucket shower," he muttered on his way out of the bathroom.

John stared at the grimy tile in front of him, humiliation pounding at him. He'd punched the man and been aroused by him in less than ten minutes. No doubt what all of Scotland Yard would have expected from him at Sherlock's return. He wanted to finish the damn bath and end it already, but he didn't dare turn on the faucet.

Sherlock returned, a cooking pot in his hand, and John scooted himself sideways in the bath. He tipped backward and Sherlock's hand settled under his scalp, supporting his head.

"John-" Sherlock warned, and poured the water over the back of John's hair.

"Yeah, sorry about that," John replied, trying to sound as gruff and normal as possible He wasn't sure if he was referring to the punch or the erection and decided to let Sherlock wonder.

"You don't want to talk about it," Sherlock announced, like he'd just come to a great realization.

"At the moment? No," John replied as Sherlock poured another potful of water over his hair.

"It happens to everyone, John," Sherlock protested. They were talking about the erection then, John thought, closing his eyes.

That wasn't a random erection, he thought, and sat up.

"Yeah, I'm clean," he ordered, dragging his legs beneath him.

"Your back?" Sherlock asked and John shook his head.

"Next time," he said and Sherlock pulled a towel from the shelf above the toilet. John wrapped himself in it as best he could, letting the edges get soaked in the water beneath him. He struggled to his feet. "Couch", he said, knowing he needed to lie down, and Sherlock helped him there.

Shite, John thought as Sherlock left for the kitchen, his face still steadily bleeding. John sighed, wanting to fall asleep and think about the whole afternoon later, not caring that he was only wrapped in a towel and the front door was unlocked. But a moment later Sherlock walked back in, his arms full of bandages from the hospital. John groaned and rolled over, seeing that Sherlock carried the sticky kind that he wouldn't need to wrap around himself. His back prickled in the cold air but Sherlock worked rapidly, pasting the sterile pads to his back and sitting down in the chair across from him.

"Reverend Green, in the ballroom, with the dagger," he said and checked the abandoned cards in front of him. John blinked, baffled, as Sherlock moved his figurine. Sherlock glowered at him. "Well you didn't want to talk about erections," he accused. John lifted his head to stare at the ceiling for a moment, gathering his patience.

"Right. Cluedo, of course," he agreed and Sherlock returned to the wretched game.

Mrs. Hudson walked in hours later, during their third horrid game with John too tired to do anything but watch Sherlock play his turn, to stop short at the sight of them. John was wrapped in nothing but a towel and bandages, his hair dried in an uncombed mess, still looking far better than Sherlock whose nose had stopped bleeding in favor of swelling up and reddening to a faint purple. There was blood on his shirt, John realized belatedly, recognizing Sherlock's favorite purple button-up. She pursed her lips, glancing at John's scuffed up hand.

"Cluedo, boys, really?" she scolded, coming inside with another casserole.

"We still have five eighths of the last one," Sherlock commented, glancing at the dish in her hand.

"John won't want to eat the same thing every day," she replied and walked into the kitchen. "My, but it's a strong relief, placing food in a refrigerator full of tupperware and eggs, instead of takeaway and body parts," she commented.

John frowned, surprised to hear that Sherlock had put away the previous night's dinner.

"We have eggs?" he asked instead and Sherlock smirked. Mrs. Hudson huffed and walked back into the room to start clearing up their plates.

"Well, you do now," Mrs. Hudson answered, smiling at him fondly and starting back toward the kitchen. "Oh, and there's a letter for you, dear," she added glancing at Sherlock. Sherlock frowned and stood up, abandoning the game.

"Fetch a paper and a glass of water?" John asked Mrs. Hudson, when she set a meal before him.

"No mysteries in it today, I'm afraid," Mrs. Hudson commented, handing him a newspaper and starting back toward the stairs.

The day ended slowly and John watched the sun set beyond the living room window, trying to prepare himself for another night of dreaming. His adrenaline spiked if he thought about what his trauma might bring to mind and he spent an hour on the couch, staring at his reflection in the dark window, feeling his heartbeat quicken and slow depending on the control he had over his thoughts.

He'd much rather sleep on the couch, but he didn't know what he'd say, if he muttered in his sleep or cried out. He tried not to think too hard about the questions he'd be answering. He heard Sherlock take another gulp of wine straight from the bottle.

The break wasn’t working, John reflected. He couldn't simply sigh and put the last year behind him, just because he was tired of grief and fear and anger. And now, to feel Sherlock staring at him, like he was planning to leap up from the couch and try to seduce him? The tangled emotions stretched in the air between them. John sighed, his eyelids too heavy to open again.

“How did you know Mike asked probing questions?” John muttered, shattering the illusion that Sherlock knew nothing of the tension between them. He heard Sherlock finish off the wine and toss the bottle into the bin beside his desk. John opened his eyes to see Sherlock sweeping his hand over the surface of his desk, brushing off the years of dust into a thick film on his hand.

“At the hospital. You spoke in your sleep, begging as you answered,” Sherlock replied finally, turning to face him.

Why do you scream for Sherlock Holmes?

John swallowed. That explained why he’d woken up to Sherlock’s probing gaze, so many times.

Did you like it when he touched you?

Did you ever want him to touch you more?

Yes. Yes. Sherlock heard him answer that?

It was irrelevant, John thought, not wanting to deal with any other questions about the matter. Anything he and Sherlock had shared had long since dissipated. They couldn’t even pretend to be the same two men anymore. What they could have been, had Sherlock wanted him in return, was certainly irrelevant.

Sherlock didn’t move, his gaze burning and John stared back into his eyes. He'd have felt so much from that gaze, once, when it felt like Sherlock could see straight through him and he'd reveled in it.

"Inconsequential," Sherlock muttered and turned away. He strode into the kitchen as if nothing was amiss, leaving John in the dark room.

Bullshit.

John pushed himself up from the couch, ignoring the pain, and followed him. Sherlock was buried in his microscope, fiddling with the dials as if he'd left the slide entirely out of focus. John sighed and settled into the chair across from him, only too aware that he wouldn't be able to stand through the whole conversation.

"Right. Sherlock, if it makes you uncomfortable, I have to know," he started awkwardly. "I cannot raise my hands above my shoulders. That will not be the only bath…"

Sherlock flicked off the microscope light with a dramatic sweep of his hand and looked up, his blue eyes glaring.

"I recognize that I must resign myself to the idea that Molly Hooper was correct on a subject," he snarled.

"She's good at her job," John corrected automatically before processing Sherlock's full sentence.

That's very off-topic.

"Also, what?" he added, blinking rapidly. Sherlock sneered.

"Molly told me before I jumped that you'd never forgive me," he replied. John straightened in his chair, annoyed.

"And what did she mean by that?" he asked, annoyed. He could just imagine Molly stammering out such a pathetic truth, while actively strapping Sherlock into his harness or whatever it was that'd saved him from that fall.

"I didn't ask," Sherlock replied, adjusting the slide again. Actually putting it into focus this time, John recognized, knowing Sherlock was slowly disappearing into his concentration. "You're maintaining minimal, maximally uncomfortable contact with me and planning to leave as soon as you can lift your arms over your waist enough to return to work. Ergo, you've not forgiven me under all but the most senseless definitions," Sherlock replied without looking up.

"How…" John started.

"You have not unpacked, you keep the key to your minuscule ugly bedsit in your wallet, and you get frustrated with your lack of shoulder mobility faster than any other current physical shortcoming. Why? Because the ability to lift paperwork is still a concern for being even minimally competent at your clinic. I did not lose my brain with everything else when I jumped," Sherlock replied, snapping a new slide in place and jerking his eyes back against the microscope lenses. John watched him, unsettled.

"Why is that relevant? We were talking about erections," he said finally, pointing senselessly at his crotch. Sherlock sneered again.

"It is relevant because it renders your obvious revelation of attraction towards me inconsequential. You are leaving, ergo it does not matter what state your penis is in when I touch your hair," Sherlock answered before snapping the microscope light back on. "And because you are wondering, yes, I will still aid in your recovery."

John swallowed. That was everything he hadn't asked for. Physical care and no further association. The understanding that the past was dead and not returning.

"Thank you," he said, unsure what else to say. His voice came out too deep. He cleared his throat and his vocal cords protested. He'd damaged them, screaming. Sherlock ignored him.

~~//~~

Chapter Text

They got through four days of almost perfect silence before Mrs. Hudson commented that they were both preciously in need of a wash. John couldn't guess what had kept Sherlock from it, but he didn't ask. He ended the waiting conversation by getting up from the couch on his own and painfully making his way into the bathroom to strip and deposit himself in the tub on his own. Sherlock came in less than a minute later, his jaw tightly set, and wet down a hand towel in the sink without a word.

What followed was the most clinical and tense bath John had ever witnessed, even within a hospital and a warzone. When his hair was shampooed and rinsed, Sherlock disappeared, evidently determining that John could get up on his own. John stumbled his way to Sherlock's bedroom and collapsed into bed to rest before he tackled getting dressed.

John struggled awake, throwing the restraining blankets off himself by his feet and pulling at his slings as he gasped for breath. That was it. He wasn't sleeping with the slings on anymore. Pain be damned. He could deal with pain.

Sherlock was getting dressed, absorbed in the laptop balanced on top of the dresser, like a man thrashing in his sleep was entirely beneath his notice. He'd needed to shower too, John remembered. And sleep, presumably.

"Side table," Sherlock murmured without looking up from his buttons. John picked up the toast the man had left for him. Cold, now - Sherlock had estimated wrong.

"Bought a new laptop?" John asked, glancing at the unfamiliar model. He decided not to ask what he was working on.

"Mmm.. Only fair. Myroft destroyed mine," Sherlock complained, snapping the lid down. "Useless," he growled, stepping away from the dresser and folding his collar sharply. John pulled his towel over himself, only to wonder why he bothered. He had no secrets to keep from Sherlock now. Resentment churned in his stomach at the thought.

What time is it? John wondered, glancing back at the dark windows. He couldn't hear any traffic outside, nor the shouts of drunkards headed home. Before six AM, after two, then. Was Sherlock never going to sleep?

He'd taken over Sherlock's bed, John realized, sitting up.

"I'm sorry - you need to sleep. Here, I'll stay on the couch," he offered hurriedly.

"Why? I took your room," Sherlock replied, frowning at him.

John paused, uncomfortable. He'd forgotten. He'd left his bed when he'd gone to the bedsit. He tried to imagine Sherlock upstairs, sleeping on a bed without sheets, surrounded by the packed up boxes John had never gotten around to moving. Cruel, just cruel.

"I'm sorry-" John started, vowing to sleep in the couch that night but Sherlock shrugged, unmoved.

Sherlock already knew they were ruined, John realized, staring at the silent man. Of course Sherlock could sleep surrounded by the rubble he'd left behind; it was no new data. He could face John's burns just as easily. Nothing but repeated data.

John sighed, looking at the toast and pills Sherlock had left for him. Did Sherlock even care? He regretted jumping without him; they'd established that. But that was a year ago; why would he still care?

John sighed, pushing his hands over his bare legs. By rights, that should be good news - if he wanted nothing from Sherlock surely he'd want Sherlock to need nothing from him. But he didn't want that. He wanted Sherlock to think about all that had broken and be miserable.

This isn't fair, John thought, watching Sherlock wander around the room looking for something to do. By rights he should leave the poor man alone. He'd healed from a bullet wound in a bedsit before. He would heal from this.

He could wash himself, if he ignored his hair. Painfully, and slowly, but he could do it. And he could afford the bedsit on his pension. But he couldn't afford it and food. Not without working.

The hell with paperwork and the hell with his hair, John decided, shifting in his seat. He'd get his head shaved. He'd ask for his job back and accept more of Sarah's pity. That was better than this.

"What was that?" Sherlock asked, spinning around from where he was looking at the periodic table.

"Pardon?" John asked, befuddled.

"Just then. You nodded to yourself, your shoulders straightened, you stopped rubbing at your legs - a sudden drop in anxiety. You've made a decision. What is it?" Sherlock demanded, stepping forward toward him.

"You're leaving today," Sherlock concluded aloud, his eyes wide. John closed his eyes. This was going badly. He'd been prepared to be the coward, to leave before he saw it hurt.

"It's not you, Sherlock," he started, pushing himself up from the bed through he didn't know where to go. He'd only just woken up, he didn't need to sleep again and certainly didn't want to; not with the senstation of Mike's fingers still sliding down his neck. Sherlock snorted and left the room. John followed.

Sherlock tossed his laptop onto the desk in the living room like it was entirely replaceable. Mycroft bought it, John remembered; of course Sherlock didn't treat it with any care. Irrelevant.

This looks like a break up. He'd never been good at those. John met Sherlock's eyes and recognized the pained amusement there - Sherlock had seen the same thing.

"It's not living with you. It's not the noise, the mess, the danger," John clarified. Sherlock turned away, apparently instantly busy with a pile of paper on the desk. The only pile of paper. John blinked, looking around the room. The mantle was clear, the bookcase organized and dusted, the floor free of its usual debris. Could it be, all of the shuffling about Sherlock had been doing was actual cleaning? The noise, the mess, the danger - they'd had none of that. They'd had casseroles and violin music and paper-free coffeetables.

"It's the .." John started, trying to regather his thoughts. Why was he leaving?

Sherlock moved into the kitchen, apparently not caring why. John followed him, still unsure what he was going to say. What the fuck did he want?


"I'm a miserable man, Sherlock," John confessed, lifting his arms as high as they could go before his shoulder joints screamed. He couldn't even surrender properly, John thought, huffing out a breath. He dropped his arms, disgusted with himself. "All I want from you is for you to be miserable, to regret your stupid plan leaving me behind to mourn you, and to regret so thoroughly lying to me."

Sherlock turned around from his place near the sink, his eyes burning.

"You've gotten all you want from me. You might as well stay to watch it. Leaving most certainly won't make it any worse," he snarled. John crossed his aching arms, ignoring the pain.

"You haven't said a single word of regret," he replied.

"I told you I'd lost everything!" Sherlock hissed, slamming his hand down on the countertop behind him. "Everything but my brain," he clarified, running his fingers through his hair. John opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't remember Sherlock saying anything of the sort. Sherlock curled his lip, looking disgusted. "I did not lose my brain with everything else when I jumped," he quoted himself, sneering. John swallowed. He'd missed that sentence. He'd replied with something about his ill-timed erection.

John let the silence settle around him, gathering his thoughts. Sherlock regretted it. That was good. Admitted it, that was better. Then why was he leaving?

"I don't want to make you miserable," John said, feeling his shoulders fall with the revelation. Sherlock frowned, visibly baffled.

"You just said you want me to be miserable," Sherlock said, his pale eyes darting around the kitchen like there would be some explanation written there. John shrugged, not caring about the pain it sent ripping through his shoulder into his back. He wanted to be in pain and he didn't want to think too hard about why.

"I don't want to be the one doing it," he said. Sherlock's eyes narrowed.

"You just don't want to watch," he replied.

Coward. The word hung between them. John swallowed. He could leave. He wanted to leave. He owed nothing to Sherlock Holmes.

"Goodbye, Sherlock," he replied and Sherlock's shoulders fell.

~~//~~

John packed a bag of clothes before he west to the therapist's office. He brought clothes, toiletries, and his gun, all still packed in evidence bags Greg had lifted from Scotland Yard.

The paparazzi were waiting for him outside. John had barely gotten the door to 221 Baker Street cracked open before the cameras started flashing. John closed the door again, bracing himself, and pushed his way out. He walked in a massive swarm of shouted questions and flashing cameras, keeping his expression neutral, until the crowd was finally left behind to avoid running with him into traffic. Sherlock's return had finally reached the papers. That explained why Mrs. Hudson had never encouraged them to leave the flat.

He stumbled back to the temporary flats he'd wandered into his first day back from Afganistan, wondering if his life would always go in cycles of this misery, in and out of a rented unit on 72 Whitehall Lane, paying by the week and mourning what he'd had before.

John sat down in the chair across form Ella, wondering what he was mourning this time. Nothing that he himself hadn't thrown away.

Why had he returned to 221B? He could have collapsed back into this flat and lived; he'd have been unwashed and at risk of infection, but he could have managed. What had he hoped? That Sherlock would pamper him, wash his hair, and suddenly all his pain would disappear? Had Sherlock hoped the same?

Ella folded her hands on her lap, waiting for him to speak. John pretended to look out the window, feeling awkward. Why had he made this emergency appointment? He could see Ella in the corner of his eye, waiting for him to speak.

"So, Sherlock, not dead after all," she prompted, her gaze flickering down to his slings in unvoiced curiosity. John nodded, sucking on his teeth. "He lied to you," she tried again. John closed his eyes. Of course Ella didn't doubt that he'd mourned; she'd been there.

"Wow, he really was a bastard." Mike had said.

"Why'd he come back?" she asked. John turned from the window, startled, and she looked triumphant. John shifted in his seat, his shoulders aching.

"To save me," he answered finally, only more uncomfortable. Ella frowned, clearly concerned, and John backtracked. "Not- not suicide." He cleared his throat. She relaxed and glanced at his slings again. "I was caught, captured. Tortured," he explained. Her eyebrows rose sharply and she lifted her pen from her paper, shocked. "I killed the man and escaped, before Sherlock -" John stopped, watching her face whiten. Perhaps Sherlock was correct and she was the wrong therapist for him. But he was familiar with her now.

"Why haven't I heard about this?" she asked, like something had gone wrong.

"Scotland Yard kept it from the press. Knew it'd be a firestorm fueled with the news of Sherlock's return," John explained. Ella nodded.

"I didn't think they could keep secrets like that from the press," she replied. John snorted, remembering how many press disasters Lestrade had faced. The fiasco that was Kitty Riley. Ella put her notebook aside and faced him again, her eyes sharp.

"But that's not why you're here?" she asked, sounding flabbergasted.

"No, I -" John hesitated, looking down at his slings. His surgeon had recommended therapy, the nurses even more so. He'd nodded and thanked them and never thought about it.

"You've not had nightmares? Anxiety? Flashbacks?" Ella asked, sounding disbelieving.

"All of that, but -" John paused, seeing his therapists eyebrows rise even further, threatening to disappear into her hairline.

"But that's not why you're here," she repeated. John sighed, frustrated. No, the anxiety, the nightmares? He'd survive. He'd done that before. Ella leaned back in her chair. "Let's start over. Why are you here?" she asked. John swallowed and looked out the window, feeling like she was reverting to that same tired exercise, making him say aloud what she already knew.

"I left him," he said. She picked up her notepad again and wrote something down. John felt anger start to build in his chest. He should never have come here. The last thing he wanted was to peel off more of himself at someone's questioning. Hadn't he learned enough of himself, by now?

"I shat my pants" John barked, turning to glare at her. Ella paused, her pen pressing deeply into the paper. She looked up at him and John groaned and tipped his head against the back of his chair. She still had water damage in the corner of the ceiling. "I meant, I was tortured, I answered sexual questions about him, 'Did you like it when he touched you?' 'Did you ever want him to touch you more'," John growled. It was much easier to say this to the ceiling he decided.

"And he heard you?" she surmised. John closed his eyes, remembering his erection.

"Worse," he replied and did not extrapolate.

"What did he do?"

"Ignored it, he knew I was leaving," John answered honestly, wondering why the hell he was talking to a stranger about this.

"Was that why he ignored it?" she asked. John swallowed, realizing he didn't know. What if he'd been planning to stay? Would that bath have gone differently? Would Sherlock have talked to him, reached down to touch him, waited to proposition him later? Would Sherlock have rejected him again, explained that he was 'flattered' and 'married to his work'?

"I don't know," John croaked, and shook his head. "But it doesn't matter. That's not why I'm here."

Ella didn't answer. John stared at the ceiling, waiting for a prompt.

"I left him," he repeated.

"And you came here?" she asked quietly. John blinked, only then thinking to be embarrassed by the dichotomy. He'd shat his pants, been tortured, shot a man, suffered increased anxiety, panic attacks, and nightmares, and nothing got him into Ella's room before he said goodbye to Sherlock Holmes.

"I need to put a new life together," he admitted.

~~//~~

Sherlock looked up from the same single slide of Mrs. Hudson's casserole when the room had gotten dark and all of the dust had settled back down again from where John's movements had jostled it.

He'll never forgive you. Molly's words rang in his ears. Correct, evidently. John had left. He'd underestimated the man again. If two wireties, a chain, pneumonia, massive infection, lung damage, two dislocated shoulder joints and nine days of torture couldn't keep John Watson captive, the need for post-op care certainly wouldn't. He never should have thought he'd have the time to slowly woo him back with touch and the taste of adventure.

Sherlock slid the slide out of his microscope and clicked off its light. Something felt constricted in his lungs, some emotion Molly would no doubt have a name for. Irrelevant. He'd lost and he wasn't going to get John back, however many desperate useless texts he wanted to send.

:I loved you, you idiot: Sherlock swept his microscope and all its slides onto the floor in one great clatter of metal and breaking glass. Stupid. It was an exercise in tedium to imagine what could have been, if Moriarty had not interfered, if he'd handled it differently, had told John anything at all. Sherlock stared at the wreck, furious with himself. Now there'd be glass on the floor and he'd have to step over it to move John's chair. He wouldn't have it there, reminding him of his irrational need for the man, when this was a perfect time to dive into his next battle. John was nothing to him now, he'd made that perfectly clear. An aberration in his life of rational thinking. He'd be better off this way, undistracted, when he took on his next project. The best way to ensure perfect control over the sphere of Jim Moriarty, after all, was to capture control over Charles Augustus Magnussen.

~~//~~

Chapter Text

This chapter dedicated to 666Neme666 for suggesting the scene with Sally & John

Sherlock tipped his head back and exhaled in relief. Invincible and focused - he could do anything. Joy tore through his heart; where had that been? He inhaled, flooding his nose with scents and the last of the cocaine. There was human urine and old sweat nearby but he could ignore it perfectly.

Charles Augustus Magnussen. He'd received a letter from Lady Elizabeth Smallwood. She was hoping to go after the newspaper baron and knew she would require protection. She planned to attack the man with or without his help; an incredible woman, orchestrating the demise of her own career. And the perfect cover to hide his own motivations and connections to Magnussen. John would not be happy to hear exactly how easy it was to manufacture a case that'd require the rapid return of his addiction. And he'd hear about it eventually, Sherlock knew. Mycroft was horrible that way.

John. He wouldn't chase after the man, not when John had clearly put so much thought into leaving. He'd rather be alone than look so pathetic. He would be nothing but a genius and a madman in John's eyes, but that was better than pining and useless. Sherlock pressed his nostrils together and sniffed again, hoping to get at whatever cocaine he'd missed. He couldn't think about John leaving. The brave doctor was a one-way street to a bad high.

Invincible and focused. He'd bring Magnussen to his knees. The triumph of his career. He needed nothing more.

And he'd start by learning where Magnussen kept his blackmail materials. Surely someone had to know. He just needed to find the blackmailer's victims and he'd be led to all he needed.

A crackhead was crying in the corner, great gasping sobs full of some sort of irrelevant misery. Sherlock pulled himself off of his mattress and shoved his hands into his pockets to warm them. He needed newspapers, legal documents, evidence of anyone important rapidly changing their public position on something without any obvious explanation. In those cracks between legal lobbying and petty blackmail, he'd find Magnussen.

~~//~~

Greg checked back at 221B for two weeks before he thought to check the bedsit. To his surprise, Donovan came with him every time, her frown deepening every time the kind landlady shook her head and sent them away. Something in his partner had changed in the week they'd spent listening to John's screams and watching Sherlock tear himself apart.

At the bedsit, the attendant didn't even ask for his badge before she started answering questions and giving out John's address. The unit number hadn't changed; apparently the room had never been filled between John's disappearance and his return. Sally noted the unchanged address too. He saw her frown and glance around the small office, as if waiting for Sherlock to appear from nowhere and reassure her.

Greg had to admit, he wasn't surprised that John had ended up back here. Sherlock had made a habit of testing John's boundaries to see where they'd break, and John Watson had never seemed the type to forgive when pressed too far.

"Did a tall, obnoxious man come here with him?" Sally asked finally. The attendant blinked dumbly. She was a thin, pale girl, surely under eighteen years old, and she didn't seem prepared to answer questions that weren't written in the occupancy books in front of her.

"Nevermind," Greg ordered. It'd be easy to tell; wherever Sherlock went chaos followed. He led Donovan to John's door and knocked, grimly recalling the time he'd come here to see John stumbling home, half killed by grief.

John opened the door from the inside this time, but looked no better. His face was rough with a day's unshaved stubble. His right hand, its fingertips still pink where nails should sit, shook constantly in its sling.

"Jesus, John," Greg cursed and John sat down on his unmade bed. John lifted his hands in impotence, the gesture only made stronger by the slings keeping him mostly pinned, and Greg winced. Sally glared at him.

"Yes, well," John said uselessly. Greg nodded, knowing the feeling. He'd been through divorce; he'd paid by the week not that long before. He sat down on the desk chair. Donovan hovered by the door. The room was empty of everything but a travel bag. There was no question; Sherlock wasn't here. John had left him. Which left a glaring problem - where was Sherlock? What would the genius do, when he'd lost the only stabilizing force he'd ever had?

He'd deal with that later, Greg decided. John didn't look any too healthy himself.

"How are things?" Greg asked. John smiled grimly.

"Good, good. I can touch my nose now, pick up seven pounds; things are better," John replied. Donovan shifted where she stood, clearly uncomfortable. Greg swore he would be able to blow off all of John's limbs and have the man still shrugging and saying he'd get by. Greg nodded, unsure what else to do.

"We should get that beer, now that you can lift it," Greg said and John coughed out a laugh.

"Yes, later," he agreed. After his payday, Greg understood. 'I'll buy', he almost said, but caught himself. Not with John.

"Sounds good," he said instead and stood up. John showed him out like he'd been there for hours. Unsure what to say, Greg played along. Donovan stayed inside, clearly wanting a word and Greg closed the door like he'd forgotten her.

"Shite," Greg cursed, glancing back at the door. They'd come full circle. John alone and failing to heal, Sherlock nowhere to be found. Hopefully this time it wouldn't take torture and a missing person's case to get Sherlock home.

Why the fuck did he leave? Lestrade wondered, wishing he'd asked. Still, he doubted John would have answered. Better worth his time to find Sherlock. The loon would be distraught.

~~/~~

"So, you've left him?" Sally asked. John pushed himself up from the bed, unwilling to look up at her.

"What makes you think he didn't kick me out?" John growled, annoyed with the assumption. Donovan didn't answer. She didn't need to. They both knew John could have set all of Sherlock's case notes on fire and the genius wouldn't have gotten rid of him. John pressed his hand flat against the wall beside the desk and leaned into it, letting his shoulder joint flare. The first of twelve repetitions for his physical therapy. It was always the least painful. He leaned in again.

"Why'd you leave?" Donovan asked. John turned his head to glare at her.

"Sorry, who are you?" he asked. Sally swallowed.

"You've followed that madman into warzones. You've killed for him. You've mourned him. Now, what? You walk away? Look, I've been divorced. Don't walk away if you're worse off without him."

I didn't know you were divorced, John thought but didn't say. He knew very little about her. The only bits he did know were what Sherlock announced about her sex life. John sighed and pushed his weight into his shoulder again. Pain shot up his joint and into the muscle but it felt good. Loosening.

"I'm not worse off without him," he lied. Donovan sucked at her teeth.

"You know, that's the most sense you've ever made and I don't believe you for a moment," she commented. "This is what your life is going to be like," she warned. John glanced at the dirty paper plate still on the floor from his dinner. He'd survive.

"I'll manage," he growled, finishing the repetitions on his left arm and switching to the right. He tried to ignore the throbbing tips of his fingers, where his nails were supposed to be. That'd take six months. Six months and he'd be back on his feet. That was what the surgeons told him. John tried to pretend he believed it. Even his therapist had trouble looking hopeful. Donovan just shrugged.

"Yeah. You'll have a job and find another man to love. If that doesn't sound tragic to you, maybe you chose right when you left him."

John frowned, distracted from the pain ripping into his shoulder and back. Another man to love? John stared at her, but Donovan didn't retract her words.

"What do you need from him, then?" she asked. John blinked, wondering what she was trying to do, and she shrugged. "Couples therapy. We've all done it. Might've worked if we'd listened to it," she explained. John sighed and pushed his weight into his shoulder again. His arm buckled immediately. John hissed and clenched his jaw and put less pressure on it for the next round.

What did he need from Sherlock? It was fairly clear Donovan didn't mean help cutting up food or lifting objects over five kilograms.

"Why do you care? You think he's a sociopath," he growled instead. Sally smiled softly.

"No, I don't," she said. John snorted. She'd been insisting so for years and she'd hardly seemed inclined to change her mind, even after Sherlock's jump. "Sociopaths don't care about people. He was out of his mind, trying to find you. He wouldn't eat or drink if you didn't put it in front of him, and every few hours he'd punch a hole in the wall, like clockwork. It was bloody obvious that he loved you, and he was terrified for you, and even if it's only you, he's no sociopath," she said. John nodded, trying not to imagine it. He'd wondered what Sherlock had gone through. Now he didn't want to know.

"I'm not the only one," John replied, thinking of how Sherlock had reacted when Mrs. Hudson had been threatened. He should have guessed Sherlock had been equally enraged and fearful for him. But he didn't know what that was supposed to change. They couldn't live together, not when Sherlock would lie to him and John couldn't stop hating him for it.

"I need not to be lied to," John said finally. Sally's face fell. No doubt she knew about Sherlock's theatrics. His mysteries. She nodded slowly, her understanding clear. John smiled grimly. They both knew Sherlock wouldn't change.

"I'll let myself out," she answered. John nodded and pushed his weight into his arm again, closing his eyes and waiting for the sound of the door to mark when he was alone. He needed to go to the store and spend the last of his paycheck on food.

~~//~~

Someday, Greg swore, he was going to murder Sherlock Holmes. The first time he'd spoken to Molly Hooper in weeks, since the search for John Watson, and he was calling to ask 'have you seen Sherlock recently?'. He could hear the woman hesitate on the phone, disappointed.


Damn it all, Sherlock.


"Erm. No. Is he alright?" she stammered.

"I'm certain he's fine. Just case stuff," Greg lied, trying to switch gears. He could ask how she'd been; was that inappropriate with John getting tortured and hospitalized so recently?

"Oh, well, um. Is there anything else or well, something I can do for you?" she asked. Greg ground his palm into his forehead. That sounded like an invitation. He needed to think of something. His cellphone beeped with another call. The pause was getting awkward.

"No, no that's…that's it," he said, cursing himself now.

"Oh, okay," she replied. He heard a click and to his shock, a dialtone.

Well, at least she was as socially awkward as he felt. Greg stared at his beeping mobile, trying to process that fiasco of a phone call, and picked up the other call.

~~//~~

John forced his head between his knees, ignoring his staring patients. Breathing. He was breathing and the tension in his chest was a symptom of anxiety and fear, not lung failure. Breathing slower would help. A drop of sweat dripped down his back in a cold path and John sat up, wanting to tear at the room around him. Sarah was looking at him over the front counter, clearly unhappy. She pursed her lips, apparently unsure what to say, and glanced over the three scared looking patients still sitting in the waiting room, left unattended while he'd collapsed against the wall, the sound of gunfire and blowtorches in his ears. His brain was tearing itself apart, combining his fears now. A panic attack, with no trigger at all. He was getting worse.

Sarah tried to smile at him, clearly unwilling to fire him. And he couldn't afford to quit. His pride cut at him. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyelids and concentrated on the feeling of his breathing against his bare arms. He needed sleep. True sleep. Light flashed against his closed eyelids, someone taking a picture, something more for the papers.

He'd waited for a full week before he'd submitted and bought a used cd of violin music and an ancient walkman. It helped at night, but not as much as Sherlock playing. He'd have done better with a cd of a violin screeching and getting tuned, if he could've found it. John pushed himself toward the bathroom. Rag showers were still all he could manage and he couldn't afford a shave yet. He'd spent that money on the walkman.

His phone rang through before he managed to finish wiping down his face and getting himself presentable. John picked it out of his pocket, his shoulder joints stiff with the restless night.

:32 Preston Ave, Croydon. MH:

John stared at the address, disbelieving. Could he never escape the Holmes brothers and their mysterious idiocy? Anger churned in his stomach. Three weeks, not nearly enough of a break. A new phone, the same damn unit in the same bloody bedsit, his pathetic job, could he never return to a life without the shadow of Sherlock Holmes?

Croydon. There were only two possible reasons to go there - Mycroft wanted one of his cryptic 'chats' or Sherlock was in trouble there.

Either way, John decided, he'd want a weapon. He crossed in front of Sarah's desk on the way to his office and she held up a hand, wanting a word. He ignored her and stepped into his office to unlock the drawer with his gun. She was waiting for him when he stepped out.

"John, we need to talk," she said. John nodded and left. He'd apply for new jobs when he got back. He'd figure it out, he vowed, holding up his hand for a cab he definitely couldn't afford.

~~//~~

A/N: My book is on goodreads! So, that's awesome. So whoever did that, thank you! Also, it just tipped 500 sales, so I'll be drinking some Sparkling Cider tonight (I don't drink alcohol), sip something for me at 8:00 EST, won't ya?

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25180524-spinster-s-gambit


Chapter Text

Preston Ave was a fairly well maintained, albeit poor, residential street. Number 32 was a white, stuccoed house with a remarkably well-maintained hardwood front door. John knocked, in case he had the wrong place, respecting the giant private property sign nailed to the front, but the man who opened the door left him in little doubt that he'd found the place and Mycroft Holmes was not, in fact, waiting inside for a cryptic chat.

"What do you want?" the man muttered. He was dirty, dressed in fraying clothes stained with what smelled like animal urine. Sleeping on the ground in a place infested with rats. John slammed the door open on the man, fury building too quickly to contain.

"Aw, no, you can't come in here," the man complained. The hallway beyond the door was dark and covered in graffiti, doorways missing their doors lining the walls. John strode forward, looking inside each of the abandoned rooms. The home was cold and clearly unconnected to any power grid. A hellhole.

"I'm looking for a friend. A very specific friend. I'm not just browsing," he explained, glancing through all of the doorways to ensure Sherlock was not easily in sight. Of course not. That would be too easy. John strode back towards the crackhead by the door, fury whipping through him.

"You gotta go. No one's allowed here," the man tried again. John cleared his throat, trying to restrain himself. He wanted to rip the man's arms off. For the first time in two months he felt like he could.

"Sherlock Holmes, you seen him?" he demanded. The crackhead pulled a knife on him. "I'm asking you if you've seen Sherlock Holmes and now you're showing me a knife. Is it a clue?" John asked, his heartbeat picking up. The crackhead jerked the blade toward the door. "You doing a mime?"

"Go, or I'll cut you," the man threatened finally.

"Oh, not from there. Here, let me help," John replied, approaching. His arms hurt without their slings. He had to hold back a grin. "Now, concentrate. Sherlock Holmes."

"Okay, you asked for it," the man whined, sounding nervous. John pulled the weapon aside, kneed the man's groin and kicked out his legs. The unstable, drugged-out man slid to the ground without a fight. Which was a blessing, given the state of John's arms. The crackhead groaned, looking shocked by the violence.

"Right, are you concentrating yet?" John asked, trying to ignore the niggling voice buried behind his anger saying how similar he sounded to an interrogator with a nail and a blowtorch in his hands.

"You broke my arm," the crackhead wheezed. John glanced up, checking for anyone else in the hallway.

"No, I sprained it," he replied.

"It feels squishy. Is it supposed to feel squishy? Feel that!" the crackhead complained.

"Yeah, it's a sprain. I'm a doctor, I know how to sprain people," John replied, hating the feeling that Sherlock would be laughing by now. He'd be scaring everyone else, John knew, if they could see. He'd always been grateful for the hidden edge to Sherlock Holmes. "Now, where is Sherlock?"

He'd leave without a word, he reminded himself.

"I don't know! Maybe upstairs," the drugged up man exclaimed, clearly not recognizing the name.

"There ya go. Wasn't that easy?" John mocked, slapping the man's leg and heading for the stairs.

"No, it was really sore. Mental, you are," the man complained as John trotted up the steps.

"No, just used to a better class of criminal," John drawled, turning the corner on the landing. It opened up into a musty sunlit room filled with mattresses and smelling like mold and rotting wood. A boy sat half naked across the room, pushing his fingers through his hair. An older man was hunched beneath a window, coughing. Most of the mattresses were covered with human bodies, only clearly alive by their retained bowels. Most of them, anyway, John amended, walking past a reeking girl on a couch. He didn't check her vitals. Sherlock was in here.

He found a man's long, mostly-hairless leg sticking out from a bundle of blankets in the corner by the half naked boy. Thinking it was his best guess, John placed his hand on the slender man's foot and shook it gently. The man groaned and pulled his foot beneath the tangled blankets.

"Sherlock?" John whispered, hoping it was anyone else. Let him find some other man's friend, drugged out and emaciated. "Sherlock!" he hissed and reached out to drag the blankets away from the man's face. Dark, curly hair, streaky with grease, popped into view. John sighed, convinced now, and pulled the blankets the rest of the way down. Sherlock sat up slowly, pushing the dark green covers from his chest. He was dirty, marked by more than one day out here. John felt his shoulder's fall, taking in the image of Sherlock Holmes in a stained sweatshirt with rat feces on his sleeves. Sherlock stared at him, his blue eyes wide and lost. His pupils were dialated correctly - not likely currently high. Sherlock opened his mouth to speak, only to stop short, and John knew he wasn't faking, wasn't in disguise on a case or whatever he'd planned to say. He was using.

Right. John pulled himself up. He needed to walk out now, before the anger hit. He'd be furious, he could feel that already. His stomach felt like it'd fallen entirely out of his chest cavity. Rage would fill that space, soon. He had to get out.

Sherlock drew himself up suddenly, his confident mask falling down to cover the lost look in his eyes.

"Oh, hello, John," he greeted casually, as if they were meeting purely by happenstance in a Tesco check out queue. "Didn't expect to see you here," Sherlock added, his voice deep with some second meaning. John wanted to reach out and kill him and never have to deal with the life of Sherlock Holmes again.

Too late, he thought, clenching his teeth as anger started to catch up with him.

"Come for me?" Sherlock asked and John wanted to punch him.

"Why the fuck are you here?" John asked. His voice came out in a whisper. Sherlock sneered at him and pushed the blankets off his knees. He's wanted Sherlock out of his life; this would do it. And quickly. "What, you didn't die enough the first time?" he growled.

"Oh, don't pretend to care," Sherlock sneered, getting up. John blinked.

"I do care. And you bloody well know it," he replied. Sherlock snorted and pulled his dirty sweatshirt tighter around himself.

"You left," he replied, walking toward the door. Going to find a more private crack den, presumably, John thought, wanting to tear the man apart.

"So, that means this is my fault, is that it? I leave and you collapse immediately into a bloody drug den?" John asked, ignoring the glassy eyes of the men around them as he followed Sherlock toward a boarded up door.

"It means this is not your business," Sherlock snarled, blowing out the door with a single punch and leading them out onto a rickety metal fire escape.

"Fuck you, Sherlock. I'm not the one who threw our friendship away," he shouted, following. He couldn't care to check if the rusted staircase was secure. Sherlock whirled around, his pale eyes burning.

"If you won't forgive me, bloody well leave me alone. I'm on a case," he snarled, trotting down the steps. Wind caught in his sweatshirt, revealing how thin he was. John could have pegged him for a drug user from fifty meters.

This escalated quickly. John followed him, too angry to feel his shoulder wounds or the tips of his fingers anymore.

"A month, that's all it took. One!" John shouted. He didn't know if that was why he was angry.

"I'm working," Sherlock replied, climbing over the railing to balance on a stone wall. John tried to ignore how the usually perfectly balanced genius wavered while they clambered down onto a dumpster and onto the street.

"Sherlock Holmes, in a drug den, how is that going to help?" John scoffed. That would hardly help Sherlock appeal to their clients. Something churned in him, thinking about the man lying to him, so cavalierly, after so much pain. Would nothing make it stop? And why the fuck was he here, then?

"I'm undercover," Sherlock growled, stopping short when he saw the black limo waiting in the parking lot. John sighed. Even he could recognize Mycroft's cars, now.

"No, you're not," John rejected, unwilling to go along with Sherlock's story even if it were irrelevant.

"Well, I'm not now!" Sherlock shouted, throwing his arms up, his gaze locked on his brother's care. He approached the limo slowly, already rolling his eyes. "You told him," he said, resigned. Mycroft rolled down the window from his place in the back seat.

"Well then, Sherlock, back on the sauce? The siren call of old habits. How very like Uncle Rudy. Though in many ways, cross-dressing would've been a wiser path for you," Mycroft drawled from within the vehicle. John rubbed at his face, exhausted. He'd barely gone a month avoiding this kind of theatric idiocy and it hadn't been long enough.

"Did you just compare cross-dressing to cocaine?" he asked, annoyed. Mycroft ignored him, keeping his eyes on Sherlock.

"Get in," Mycroft ordered. "We're going home."

John clicked his tongue, disagreeing. Sherlock frowned at him, obviously puzzled, but he got in the car. Mycroft's eyes widened in understanding and something that looked dangerously like amusement and slid over for them on the wide bench.

"We're not going home, we're going to Barts," John ordered, climbing in after them and slamming the door. "I'm calling Molly," he announced, shifting in his seat to get at his new cell phone. Sherlock's eyes widened, seeing it.

Of course he reacts to my changed phone number and nothing of what I've said, John thought, shaking his head and thinking he should have stayed at home.

"Why?" Mycroft asked, though he clearly knew. John glanced at Sherlock, wanting to see him react.

"Because Sherlock Holmes needs to pee in a jar," he announced. Sherlock grimaced but did not argue.

Someone tapped on the door and shoved their head in. John jerked, moving his arms up toward the man's neck, only to catch himself when his shoulder pain flared. It was the young crackhead, still cradling his arms like it'd been horribly maimed. John sat back, pretending he hadn't reacted, though he had no doubt Sherlock and Mycroft both had detailed accounts of it. The crackhead shoved his head further into the car.

"Please, can I come? I think I got a broken arm," the man whined.

"No, go away," Mycroft ordered immediately, lifting his hand to signal to his driver. The crackhead pulled his head back, no doubt expecting the car to peal away.

"No, let him," John caved, frustrated.

"Why would I do that?" Mycroft asked, aghast. Sherlock smirked, no doubt getting. John shoved over on the bench, forcing Mycroft to move to sit across from them.

"Yeah, just get in. It's a sprain," John ordered. Sherlock snorted.

"Anyone else?" Mycroft drawled as the man pulled himself into the car. The whole back seat smelled like urine and body odor immediately. Sherlock sighed and shoved over, bumping further into John. Mycroft smirked at him and Sherlock sneered back.

"All right, Shezza?" the crackhead asked.

"Shezza?" John demanded, only more confused. How long had Sherlock been here, to earn a nickname?

"I was undercover," Sherlock growled.

"Shezza," Mycroft pronounced carefully, rolling the name around on his tongue. Sherlock groaned and said nothing. John dialed Molly's number.

"Hello?" Molly picked up, sounding cautious, even for her. "I'm sorry I hung up on you! It was, well, I was hoping you were going to, um. Flirt."

John blinked rapidly, trying to wonder what on earth was going on in his life.

"Er. Molly?" he asked and heard the woman gasp.

"Oh, oh, John! Oh, my god," she stammered. He could practically hear her blushing. "I thought you were.."

"Someone else, yes, I caught that," John replied. Mycroft slowly raised an eyebrow at him. John was tempted to flip him off.

"What can I do for you?" Molly asked finally, composing herself. John sighed, glancing at Sherlock.

"Run a urine sample," he said. Sherlock rolled his eyes again. The phone line clicked dead. John pulled the phone away from his ear, frowning, to see that the call had ended.

Shitty disposable mobiles, John thought, deciding not to call her back and shoving the mobile back in his pocket. There wasn't much more to say than that, anyway. Sherlock crossed his arms and sulked, glaring at Mycroft. The crackhead kept moaning about the long term effects of broken limbs, which Mycroft responded to by tutting sharply and turning away, as if the whole scene were sullying him. John stared out the window behind the crackhead, trying not to think about any of it.

"I'll wait outside, shall I?" Mycroft asked when they got to the hospital. John sucked at his teeth, thinking about grabbing a cab home. What the hell would he gain, knowing if Sherlock were clean? Sherlock glanced at him, looking exhausted. John closed his eyes. He had to know.

He heard the door open and opened his eyes to see the crackhead slinking out of the car, apparently waiting for one of them to try and catch him. Sherlock got out and slammed the door behind him.

"Just go home," John told Mycroft. Mycroft caught his eye and his amused expression melted.

"Why did you leave?" he asked. It sounded like blame. John grabbed the door handle, deciding the he was finally finished with the man. Mycroft Holmes could have nothing more to say to him, not that he'd care to hear. "Or perhaps, more pertinently, why did you ever go back to 221B?"

John gripped the handle, feeling like he'd forgotten how to get out of a car. The metal was cold beneath his fingertips. He had no reason to answer that. He had no answer to that.

"It felt like home," he said, finally unlatching the door and stepping out. That was surely response enough. The door clicked shut behind him and the crackhead stared at the ground. Sherlock was looking up, at the roof John couldn't look at anymore.

John exhaled slowly, careful not to think too hard, and walked purposefully for the front doors. He would be fine, as long as he kept walking. He heard the two men follow behind him, still depressingly silent. The automatic hospital doors slid open, wide enough to fit a gurney, and John gratefully stepped inside the heated building. The sharp scent of antiseptic caught in his sinuses and John hesitated, fear crawling down his back. He needed not to stay here long. He pivoted and headed toward the stairs. The morgue would smell different. Sherlock followed, unquestioning.

Molly greeted John with a tense smile when he opened the morgue door. She glared behind him, presumably at Sherlock, and held out a tiny plastic cup without a word. Sherlock took it with a snarl, moving like a sullen teenager toward the men's restroom across the hall. Molly turned away, her eyebrows high on her forehead.

"Not polite," she murmured, moving away from the door. She glanced curiously at the crackhead but didn't introduce herself. She seemed to be intentionally avoiding John's gaze.

"Um, hi," the crackhead greeted her, shrugging uncomfortably and starting to wander about the lab. "Nice place."

Molly glanced at John in question and he cleared his throat. He still wasn't certain himself how they'd acquired the man. He was only just starting to wonder if it'd be worthwhile to ask the guy's name. It didn't seem worth it, he decided, moving to sit down on one of the lab stools. He didn't want to talk to anyone. Molly sat down beside him but occupied herself wringing her hands and glancing guiltily at the filing cabinet that'd held Sherlock's postmordem reports. John did his best to ignore her. He'd be walking away after this, he reminded himself. No Sherlock, no Molly, no Mycroft. If he was smart, no Greg Lestrade or Mrs. Hudson or Mike Stamford. No one who'd see his worn face and ask 'how's Sherlock Holmes?'.

How was Sherlock? John felt anger roil in him. He was a drugged up, miserable, remorseful lunatic. Hadn't they been good for each other?

"So, you two have a history, huh?"

John glanced up, startled, to see the crackhead watching them and Molly blushing.

"Oh, no, that's not right. Oohhh," the man breathed. John closed his eyes, inclined to walk out now. His arms were aching without their slings and he was supposed to be at work, even if it was only to receive his two week's termination notice. "She helped hide his body, didn't she? It was this building he went and tossed himself from, wannit?"

John stretched out his clenched fist, trying to calm himself.

"So, you really never knew," the crackhead concluded. "That must be really sore."

John met the man's eyes, glaring, and the addict lifted his supposedly broken arm in a fast surrender. Grateful, John went back to staring at the white plastic table top. Finally, he heard Sherlock heading back toward the room and he pushed himself to stand in the corner, crossing his arms to help support them. He didn't want to think about Sherlock's slow gait back to them or what exactly was driving Sherlock to come back at all.

He'd do almost anything for me, John thought anyway. He didn't want to know that. Sherlock placed the urine cup on the counter, moving slowly.

Molly started transferring the urine to a vial without a word. The cocaine test materials were laid out in front of her in a perfectly straight line, ready for use. Sherlock leaned against the counter in his misshapen blue sweatshirt, staring down at the linoleum floor in something that looked disturbingly close to true regret. She shoved the urine mix into the spectrophotometer's vial imput and pressed the mode button. She'd apparently calibrated the thing for a urine Benzoylecgonine test before they'd arrived. Molly barely glanced at the number. She apparently had the cutoff rate memorized.

"Well, is he clean?" John asked when she said nothing.

"Clean?" Molly scoffed, sounding more fervent than he'd ever seen her. Sherlock dropped his head lower and John had his answer. Molly walked over and paused in front of Sherlock, long enough for him to look up. Then she slapped him across the face, strong enough to let out a hearty crack. John felt himself jerking forward to action before he'd even thought and had to rein himself back from protecting the genius. Molly had barely let Sherlock process his shock before she was hitting him again. John gripped his forearms, restraining himself from pushing her out of the way and punching the man himself. He wasn't sure Sherlock would stop him. He wasn't sure he'd stop. He didn't know why he was furious. By rights he shouldn't care at all. Or perhaps he should be grateful Sherlock was miserable, as asked.

"How dare you throw away the beautiful gifts you were born with?" Molly hissed. John struggled to release his forearms before Sherlock noticed. That wasn't why he was angry. Why wasn't he angry for Sherlock's own good?

"And how dare you betray the love of your friends?" Molly yelled. Yes, that was closer. John felt betrayed. He grimaced, frustrated with himself. Sherlock would have known how much he hated drugs, knew how much it reminded him of Harry's manipulative tantrums and his mother's drunken rages. Sherlock had known he'd never come back to a drug addict but he'd become one none the less.

John shifted in his place, ready to walk out. That wasn't betrayal. He'd left Sherlock first. Surely he hadn't left purely beacuse he'd wanted the madman to chase him?

"Say you're sorry," Molly demanded.

John thought back on his miserable nights in the bedsits, always feeling like he was waiting for something but never sure what, unable to have his back to the door. He'd thought it was all anxiety. Pathetic.

"Sorry, Lestrade still hasn't asked you out - though I'm fairly grateful for the lack of a ring," Sherlock replied. Molly's eyes widened. John stepped forward to intervene but Molly snarled.

"Stop it. Just stop it."

John kept walking forward. One line, he promised himself, one sentence and he'd head for the door. He tried to think up something properly enraged.

"If you were anything near this kind of thing again, you could have called, you could have talked to me," he said instead, his voice low and urgent. Sherlock's eyes widened, darting over his face. John stepped back, disgusted with himself. Surely, he hadn't run only to be chased. Of all things, why would he be angry that Sherlock had not laid all his pain at his feet?

Damn it. He'd finally walk away, now.

"It's for a case," Sherlock scoffed, but he kept his eyes locked on John's, something desperate in his eyes.

"A ca - what kind of case would need you doing this?" John growled before he could stop himself.

"I might as well ask you why you're still at the bedsit," Sherlock replied, his voice strangely soft, not breaking their eye contact. His pupils were dilating correctly; not currently high. But he'd used in the last four to five days. Judging from Molly's reaction at the spectrophotometer, he'd used within the day.

"No, we're not playing this game," John said, shaking his head. Finally, he'd got his willpower beneath him and started walking toward the laboratory exit.

"Barely left it, I'd say," Sherlock called after him, sounding plaintive, trying to be a genius. Impress him. John hesitated and shook his head, ignoring how Molly and the crackhead were watching them.

"Not interested," he replied, trying to get himself to walk out of the room.

"I am," the crackhead commented. John closed his eyes, trying to remember all of the reasons why he'd left, why he'd wanted Sherlock to be in pain. "Is it the shirt?"

"I'm sorry?" Sherlock asked, sounding strangely captivated. Off-topic already, John noted, opening his eyes.

What the fuck do I want from him?


"Well, it's the creases, innit?" the druggie explained. John turned around to see him looking rather smug. Sherlock glanced between him and John, clearly startled. "The creases down the front? It's been recently folded by it's not new. Folded - why? Maybe because you don't own any hangers. Or arn't botherin' to hang 'um up. Probably living out of a suitcase," the man explained. John sighed. A new Sherlock.

A drug addict and an observational savant. What more could Sherlock want in an assistant and a replacement friend? John swallowed, finding it increasingly difficult to keep his arms relaxed. He wanted to both march from the room and never leave.

The fuck do I want?

"Not bad," Sherlock said, sounding pleased, and John felt like he was watching himself lose the last of his connection to the man. The last of a twisted friendship he'd quite fervently killed.

"And I further deduce -" the crackhead announced smugly, dragging out his words for his audience. Sherlock looked startled at the idea of something he'd missed. John felt threatened. 'The bedsit. You're on a shitty mattress - no hotel. You hold yourself like your lower back hurts. And you're in a crap neighborhood. You've been held and tortured, you have. Look at the scars on your wrists; held by something sharp. That's not botherin' to mention your nails. That's just nasty, innit? Not exactly living it up, are you?"

John pulled himself to attention, ready to leave again. He would not be deduced like this.

"No, his hands always look like that," Sherlock lied. The druggie blinked at him. John thought he had to look just as confused himself. Why the fuck would Sherlock bother to lie? Just to save him from needing to explain? It wasn't like Sherlock to be so considerate.

"Remind me, what's your name again?" Sherlock asked. John bit his tongue.

"They call me The Wig," the druggie announced.

"No, they don't," Sherlock replied without hesitation.

"Well, they call me Wiggy," the man hedged.

"Nope." Sherlock looked smug. John watched him. It'd been a long time since he'd seen Sherlock in his element. He had to admit, he could still captivate a room, dressed in a urine-stained hoodie and relapsed on cocaine.

I should leave.


"Bill. Bill Wiggans," the man said finally. Sherlock nodded.

"Nice observational skills, Billy," he pronounced. John frowned, wondering what he was missing. It certainly wasn't like Sherlock to start a power play, even if he did find an intellectual equal. With The Woman all he'd wanted to do was show off and play. But now Sherlock sneered at the druggie like the man was beneath him. Bill huffed and clutched at his arm, apparently remembering that it was supposed to be broken. Sherlock buried himself in his phone.

"Oy, is anybody gunna see to my arm here? Arn't we in a hospital. It's broken," he complained, glancing at John. John swallowed, hoping Sherlock wouldn't notice. But, of course, Sherlock's gaze leapt up from his phone to stare at the drugged out man, instantly engaged. Bill stepped backwards, obviously intimidated. John rubbed at his forearm, frustrated with himself. He hadn' t needed to hurt the lad; he'd known that.

"Yeah, somebody hit me," Bill muttered, shifting where he stood. Sherlock didn't drop his stare. Bill cradled his arm to his chest. "Just some guy," he lied, glancing immediately at John. Sherlock turned to stare at him, looking concerned.

Damn it.

"Yeah, probably just an addict in need of a fix," he said, unable to meet their eyes. Bill glared at him, noting the insult.

Why am I still here? He looked up to see Sherlock watching him again.

"Yes, I think in a way it was," Sherlock intoned. John clenched his jaw and looked away. He didn't want to talk about why he'd hurt Bill Wiggens. Surely they both already knew. He was a dangerous, damaged man who couldn't sit peacefully anymore. Sherlock dropped his gaze. John wished he knew what the genius thought of him.

He wouldn't live with Sherlock Holmes, left behind and lied to. The question was only what he would do when he finally got himself to leave the morgue. He certainly couldn't go about beating up drugged out tuffs every month or so.

One month, that's all it took. John rolled his stiff shoulders. He was healing, physically, but it'd be a long time before he could throw a strong punch. That was probably a good thing. He saw Sherlock approaching him and didn't move.

"It's for a case. Charles Augustus Magnussen," Sherlock whispered. John frowned. It wasn't like Sherlock to be discreet. And there didn't seem to be much need for it - Magnussen was a well-known public figure, at least among the generations that still read newspapers.

"What does that mean?" John asked. He shouldn't care. He shouldn't want to be anywhere near a Holmes relative again. That was better; safer.

"It means I'm taking a risk too big and dangerous for any sane individual to get involved in," Sherlock replied, talking in his ear like a lover. John closed his eyes, feeling his heartbeat pick up.

"You trying to warn me off?" he asked. That would be better too. Let Sherlock show him one more time that he'd rather John safe than sane. This time, John would know better than to wait for him to prove it.

"God, no. I'm trying to recruit you," Sherlock breathed.

Oh god, yes.


John opened his eyes. Sherlock was watching him intently. John rubbed at his forehead, frustrated.

To try again at 221B? Would he never learn?

"Can I come too?" Bill whined, lifting up a hand.

"Shut up," Sherlock snapped without taking his eyes off John. John cleared his throat and shifted where he stood, flattered by the attention.

"I can't-" John started but trailed off. He didn't know what he couldn't do. He couldn't lose Sherlock again, and he couldn't be disregarded and deceived again. What did that mean for them, then? That he'd return to Sherlock or that he'd leave him?

"Not a move-in, nothing more, just a case," Sherlock offered, before jerking his head toward where Bill leaned against the laboratory counter with Molly seeing to his arm. "It's better than prosecuting crackpots."

"Like Gaston," John mumbled. Sherlock frowned.

"What?" he barked.

"You don't know? No one takes cheap shots like Gaston, plans to prosecute harmless crackpots like Gaston…" Molly said, glancing about the room awkwardly. Sherlock stared at her like she'd started to strip on the morgue tables. Molly quieted.

"Who the fuck is Gaston?" Sherlock demanded, looking around the room for help.

"Disney movie," John explained. Sherlock shook his head, disregarding the tangent.

"Is that a yes?" he demanded. John sighed. He was an idiot. Sherlock smiled so widely his canines showed. He lifted his phone up in his hand like it was a ticket to heaven.

"I've got excellent news. There's every chance that my drug habit might hit the newspapers," he said, excitedly heading for the door. "Come on, John! The game is on!" he called after him.

What the hell am I doing? John asked himself, following.

A/N: Sorry this was late! I doubled the word count for you, 'cause of that, so back to no buffer. Let me know what you think and if there's any scenes you'd like to see before this ends!

Chapter Text

They took a cab in silence to 221B. John was quiet because he didn't know what he wanted and he was uncomfortable with the feeling that Sherlock would try to accommodate him, whatever it was. He didn't know why Sherlock was silent. The man stared out of the window like the passing city held answers for him. Finally, the cab pulled up to 221 B Baker Street, the residential building as quiet and unremarkable as ever. Or, at least, in John's eyes. Sherlock bridled at the sight and pulled himself out of the car, yelling something about his brother and leaving John with the tab.

Another cab he couldn't afford. He was going to spend this month eating at a shelter.

"So, I'll just pay this, shall I?" John grumbled, trying to get his wallet out of his trouser pocket. He'd been hours out of his slings. Too long. His joints were still and sore, his left shoulder in particular feeling like it was slowly pulling away from itself beneath the weight of gravity.

A hand jutted through the open door and threw a load of twenties at the driver in a little flutter of shimmering bills. John gaped at Sherlock but the man had already turned away.

"Come on, John!" Sherlock called, dashing toward the door to 221B. "He's straightened the knocker. He always corrects it. He's OCD. Doesn't even know he's doing it," Sherlock rambled, clicking the knocker off-center again. His hands were shaking, John noticed. The beginnings of withdrawal, nervousness or both? It was hard to imagine a proud man like Sherlock going through withdrawal, John thought, following the man into the dark hallway. But then, he figured, closing the door, it'd been hard to imagine himself shitting his pants in a car park before he'd done it.

Mycroft was sitting on the steps up to their flat, his hands clasped between his knees.

"Cabs are slow. I don't know why you insist on taking them," he gloated. John waited for him to get to a point. "Now save us some time; where would we be looking?"

"We?" Sherlock asked. Mycroft raised his eyebrows as if disappointed that Sherlock hadn't guessed. John glared at the man. He had better things to discuss with Sherlock. Mycroft met his gaze, looking just as surprised at him. For once, John thought he understood the message. Did he truly have something better to discuss with Sherlock Holmes? Did he have anything to discuss at all? He could understand why Mycroft would be surprised by the notion.

"Mr. Holmes?" a voice called from the flat upstairs. John grimaced, recognizing Anderson's voice. Now, that was just spiteful. Sherlock's face twisted in disgust.

"For God's sake!" he shouted, pounding up the stairs.

"Coming up?" Mycroft asked in that way he had of making everything sound like it held a deeper meaning. He pushed himself up from the step with his umbrella.

"Yes," John said, deciding that no matter how confused he was about his motivations, he wasn't going to reveal his doubts to Mycroft. Mycroft smirked and started up the stairs.

"It's good to see you're recovering," Mycroft stated, reminding John that they hadn't seen each other since Sherlock's jump. John started to wonder if Sherlock had seen him since then either. He rather doubted it. Sometimes it felt like Mycroft had the instincts of a shark, only showing up for Sherlock when there was blood to be found. Other times, the man truly seemed to care. A proper enigma for a Holmes brother.

"It's been awhile," John commented darkly, trying not to let the exhaustion leak into his voice as he started up the stirs. He was tiring rapidly.

"Hmm," Mycroft hummed and climbed slowly up the stairs, apparently aware of his injuries.

"Anderson?" they heard Sherlock snarl upon getting to the landing. Mycroft stepped inside and John followed him. Anderson was standing inside the kitchen, checking out the microwave. A couple strangers in sanitary gloves were going through their dishes.

"Oh, that's him, isn't it? He's said to be taller," a strange woman breathed, looking a bit starstruck. Sherlock dropped his keys on the kitchen table with a loud clang and stared at John like he'd brought it all about. John glanced around the familiar flat, wondering if he'd missed any signs that Sherlock was so close to relapse, when he'd left. He would have contacted Mycroft on his way out, had he known. But then, surely Mycroft was notified the moment he'd walked out of the front door, kicking his duffel bag in front of him. Mycroft cleared his throat.

"Some members of your little fan club, to be polite," Mycroft commented. "They're entirely trustworthy. Even willing to search through the toxic waste dump that you were pleased to call a flat."

Were pleased? When did he move out? Has he been living this entire time in that drug den?

John frowned at Sherlock, wondering when the man had left 221B, if he truly had. Sherlock curled up in his chair facing the kitchen, ignoring them all. He looked cold. He probably was, given how unhealthy he looked.

"You're a celebrity these days, Sherlock. You can't afford a drug habit," Mycroft scolded.

"I do not have a drug habit," Sherlock growled, sounding frustrated.

Bullshit, John thought, looking into his bloodshot eyes and wondering how long it'd be before he'd have his turn at shouting at the man. He was rather inclined to sit and wait, he thought, but his chair was gone. That stung worse than he wanted to admit.

"Hey, what happened to my chair?" he asked, glancing around in the hope that it'd simply been moved, but the armchair was nowhere to be found, nor was the union flag pillow he usually kept with it. Had Sherlock specifically hauled it down to the curb, or just thrown it out the window to fall on the bins like the American?

"It was blocking my view to the kitchen," Sherlock answered. John nodded slowly, trying to accept that. There was a reason he avoided moving in with girlfriends, and he was reminded of it now. It was this kind of thing that always cut him to the quick; the changed habits and discarded objects.

Discomfort settled in the room, everyone pausing but the strangers going through Sherlock's dishes.

"Well, it's good to be missed," John said as casually as he could, trying to brush it off, at least publicly. Anderson winced and turned away. John looked away from him to see Mycroft smirking, like he'd seen it all coming.

"Yeah, you were gone, I saw an opportunity," Sherlock replied. John blew out his breath, trying not to respond to the statement. Anderson was glancing back and forth between them like they were some kind of confusing tennis match.

"No, you saw the kitchen," John groused.

"What have you found so far? Clearly nothing," Mycroft scolded the strangers, taking some kind of strange pity on them. John kept his eyes pinned on the fireplace, thinking it better if it didn't get involved at all. He should go; he knew that. He'd told himself that a dozen times. But he wanted to yell at Sherlock first.

Yell, what? That Sherlock was exactly as miserable as he'd hoped, but wasn't reacting to it the way he'd expected? That was spectacularly unfair.

"Your bedroom door is shut. You haven't been home all night. So, why would a man who has never knowingly closed the door without the direct order of his mother bother to do so on this occasion?" Mycroft pondered, starting toward Sherlock's bedroom. Sherlock's head jerked up from his sulk.

"Okay, stop! Just stop!" Sherlock shouted, pushing himself up from his chair. "Point made," he said in a more calm voice, when Mycroft paused, his hand on the doorknob.

Drugs found, John concluded, some last bit of hope dying in him. Sherlock hadn't done drugs to make a contact on the street; he'd brought them home. To this home.

"Jesus, Sherlock," John breathed, the conclusion sinking in. Was there any stronger way for Sherlock to declare that this was no longer their home?

"I'll have to phone our parents, of course, in Oklahoma," Mycroft drawled, making his way back to them. "Won't be the first time that your substance abuse has wreaked havoc with their line-dancing."

He sounded remarkably smug. But Sherlock, for a moment, looked incredibly remorseful. He closed his eyes and dipped his head, looking like he was fighting off some memory, and John was reminded how little of his life Sherlock had ever truly shared with him. Then Sherlock just looked angry and he pushed himself up from his chair. John looked away, not wanting to argue with him about whether or not Sherlock had hidden his cocaine abuse under the guise of a case or if he'd just run straight for it without remorse. He didn't want to know. He just wanted to tear the whole flat apart, get back to his bedsit, and put his arms back in their slings.

"This is not what you think, this is for a case," Sherlock insisted, his eyes wide. Mycroft tilted his head toward John and smiled grimly.

"And what case could possibly justify this?" he asked softly, his smugness finally falling away. He looked tragically disappointed for a moment. For the first time John wondered if the man might actually like him.

"Magnussen," Sherlock said, like it'd end all arguments. To John's shock, the name apparently meant something far more than he'd understood. Mycroft's grim smile melted from his face and for a moment, he just looked furious. "Charles Augustus Magnussen," Sherlock enunciated, driving home the point.

Mycroft inhaled slowly, turning around to face the strangers still puttering about Sherlock's kitchen, now without a task.

"That name you think you may have just heard, you were mistaken. If you ever mention hearing that name in this room, in this context, I guarantee you on behalf of the British Security Services that materials will be found on your computer hard drives resulting in your immediate incarceration. Don't reply. Just look frightened and scuttle," Mycroft threatened. At one point, that threat would have been interesting, John thought, watching Anderson obediently usher the strangers out and close the door. Mycroft turned around and headed back toward them. Sherlock sighed and dropped his head to stare at the grody carpet, looking exhausted.

"I hope I won't have to threaten you as well," Mycroft commented lightly, meeting John's eyes.

What the fuck could you do to me now? John wondered, rolling his damaged shoulders."Well, I think we'd both find that embarrassing," John replied. Sherlock snorted and turned away to hide his laugh and John felt his lips twitch in a smile. Mycroft ignored them, his expression only getting more stern.

"Magnussen is not your business," he ordered. Sherlock turned around, looking intrigued and smug for himself now.

"Oh, you mean he's yours?" he asked. Mycroft stood his ground.

"You may consider him under my protection," Mycroft growled.

"I consider you under his thumb," Sherlock shot back.

What the hell is going on? John wondered. They'd apparently entirely forgotten about the drugs.

"If you go against Magnussen, then you will find yourself going against me," Mycroft announced, lifting his chin like that was the most formidable statement he could have uttered. It sounded like goading to John. Surely Mycroft knew Sherlock better than to say such a thing.

"Okay, I'll let you know if I notice," Sherlock replied cheerfully, starting to walk him toward the kitchen door. "Erm, what was I going to say? Oh yeah, bye-bye."

Mycroft turned around next to the door and sneered at John.

"It was for a case," he confirmed, as if that would suddenly convince him to stay. John nodded slowly, as if he cared, so that Mycroft would finally leave. Sherlock shut the door behind his brother and stared at it for a moment. John waited in the living room, unsure what more to do. He scratched at his forehead for a moment.

Keep your eyes fixed on me. Please, can you do that for me? He knew he should go. Nine days of torture, a month of recovery. What more was there between them now?

But he didn't want to leave.

"Uh, Magnussen?" he asked finally and Sherlock turned around to stare at him.

"Magnussen. Magnussen is like a shark. That's the only way I can describe him," he said, walking forward, sounding like he was trying to seduce him. John swallowed, hating the way he could feel his pulse in his throat, thinking about Sherlock going after a threatening man again. Surely, he could not do all this again. "I've dealt with murderers, psychopaths, terrorists, serial killers. None of them can turn my stomach like Charles Augustus Magnussen."

Sherlock walked into the living room, his pale eyes locked on John's. Truly trying to recruit him with this, John thought, sighing. And he knew he wanted it.

"You know Magnussen as a newspaper owner but he is so much more than that. He uses his power and wealth to gain information. The more he acquires, the greater his wealth and power…" Sherlock kept talking, his gaze darting about the room. He was nervous, John thought. That made sense. They both were. What the hell were they doing? He needed to leave. They hadn't even been in a relationship and he'd broken up with this man.

Keep your eyes fixed on me. When had that memory lost its power? Now he remembered Sherlock stepping into the hospital room, looking so harried and so scared.

"And I'm not exaggerating when I say that he knows the critical pressure point on every person of note or influence in the whole of the Western world and probably beyond," Sherlock said, glancing at John as if to check that he was still there. "He is the Napoleon of blackmail."

John swallowed and nodded, as if he were paying close attention to the information. He would have done, years before, during one of their case briefings that always felt like a tactical briefing before a battle. Now, he spent more time looking at how a month had stripped Sherlock of the last of his fat deposits and thinned his hair. They were in no position to start threatening 'the Napoleon of blackmail' now. Sherlock checked his phone for the time and growled.

"I'll be meeting him in three hours. I need a bath," he said, starting across the room. He hesitated by the door to the bathroom and looked back, something inscrutable in his eyes. John drew himself up to attention, unsure what else to do beneath that penetrating gaze. Sherlock nodded sharply, as if that had answered something, and disappeared into the bathroom.

John glanced around the room, unsure what to do with himself now that he'd landed here. He needed to sit down and rest his arms, that was certain, but he didn't even know where his chair was, now. And this was Sherlock's home now, clearly. Somehow, he had never imagined Sherlock moving on, after he'd left. Though he couldn't quite say what he had expected.

That seemed rather backwards, all told. He'd never moved on, when Sherlock had left. He couldn't lie to himself about that, not when he'd been stuck in a bedsit, attending A.A meetings to take out his assassins and seamlessly blending in. He'd been addicted to Sherlock Holmes and that had never gone away. Not until he'd learned that Sherlock was alive. There was something sick in that. But Sherlock had given up on him in less than a month. He'd imagined Sherlock appearing at his bedsit door, soaked with rain and desperate to be let inside. Or manufacturing crimes to try to entice him back to their games. Not bringing drugs home, when John would never stand for it, and shooting up where John would never find him.

He hadn't forgotten about those. John approached Sherlock's bedroom slowly, trying to think of where he'd hide drugs in the sparse room. Surely Sherlock would have thought of a dozen impenetrable places.

"And stay out of my bedroom!" he heard Sherlock shout over the shower, apparently as aware of his thoughts as ever. John paused, unsure whether or not he should ignore him. If this were his home, he'd be tossing every ounce of drugs he found into the trash bins without regret. But this was quite clearly not his home. As Sherlock had so quickly pointed out, he'd left.

Damn it.

John approached anyway. He'd throw out this batch. Hopefully somewhere deep down Sherlock would see that meant he cared. To his shock, the doorhandle turned. For a moment he imagined Sherlock stepping out, having performed some insane scramble over their roof to prove a point. But a woman opened the door and stepped out, wearing just a shirt. Sherlock's shirt, John recognized dumbly, knowing he was staring.

"Oh, um. Hi, do I know you?" the woman asked, pulling down at the shirt tails to cover where she was quite clearly not wearing underwear. John blinked rapidly, feeling like something in his stomach was twisting and threatening to climb up his throat.

"Uh. No. Erm. John, John Watson," he stammered finally and she smiled awkwardly, clearly not recognizing the name. John sucked at his teeth, trying to ignore how that stabbed at him.

Chapter Text

"Janine. Sorry, not dressed," the woman said, coyly biting her lip though she was quite obviously not shy about it. She pulled on the hem of Sherlock's shirt but made no attempt to hide. "Has everybody gone? I heard shouting," she asked, sliding past him to walk toward the kitchen.

"Yes, they're gone," John said, following her and doing his best to hide his shock. Surely this was just another one of Sherlock's machinations. Nothing real.

"God, look at the time, I'll be late," Janine muttered to herself, checking her watch as she grabbed the french press from its place by the sink. She looked comfortable there. He'd never known anyone to look comfortable here, not apart from Mrs. Hudson and himself. Sherlock always did an impressively good job at snubbing anyone else who entered. But this was definitely not her first visit. And not her last, John thought, wincing.

"Was it Mike?" the woman asked and John stopped short, his hands clenching into fists against his will. He'd seen enough insanity in his life to believe for a moment that his torturer had walked straight into 221B to begin shouting at Sherlock Holmes, still missing half of his head from the bullet impact.

"Mike?" John sputtered, before he'd thought further, only to shake his head. There had to be a Mike that she and Sherlock knew. Surely Sherlock had not shared intimate details about the identity of his torturer, especially given the fact that he'd apparently never mentioned John at all.

"Mike, yeah, his brother, Mike? They're always fighting," Janine explained, sounding like she thought he was rather daft. Not that surprising, given that he'd barely managed to put two words together since she'd appeared.

"Mycroft?" John asked finally. At least Sherlock couldn't be too serious with this woman, if she did not know his brother's name.

"Do people actually call him that?" Janine laughed. A fair question.

"Yeah," John replied, trying to wrap his mind around the image of a woman in Sherlock's kitchen, making coffee with all the ease of a girlfriend and calling his brother new nicknames.

"Oh, could you be a love and put some coffee on?" she asked, gesturing toward the stove as she started back toward Sherlock's bedroom.

"Sure, right, yeah," John answered before he'd thought, moving out of her way.

"Thanks," she said and John reached for where the kettle was supposed to be, in the cabinet over the sink. "Oh, it's over there now," she corrected, pointing toward the corner. John moved instinctively, only to realize that he could have refused the entire coffee enterprise and gotten the hell out of this flat. One month, and Sherlock had gotten on drugs and started whatever he was doing with this woman. So why the hell was John making her coffee? "Where's Sherl?" she asked and John scoffed out a laugh.

"Sherl," he muttered to himself, baffled. He turned around, trying to smile. "He's just having a bath. I'm sure he'll be out in a minute."

That reminded him. He had to get out of here. He didn't want anything to do with Sherlock's new case anymore.

"Oh, well, like he ever is!" the woman joked, heading back toward the bedroom. She knew about Sherlock's peculiar bathing habits. Of course she did.

"Yeah," John answered, looking for the kettle. It didn't seem to be anywhere in the corner where she'd pointed. Everywhere he looked was evidence that Janine had worked her way into Sherlock's life, meeting his family and rearranging his home. She was probably the reason for the missing chair. He heard Janine knocking on the bathroom door.

"Morning!" she called and snuck inside. John heard Sherlock laugh, light and almost flirty, and closed his eyes, his jaw clenching.

"Morning," Sherlock answered, his voice deep. John tipped his head back, attracted to the sound.

And he had me stay here, to listen to this?

John headed for the door, humiliated.

Why not? There was nothing between us. A friendship.

He hesitated by the living room door, unsure if he could leave. As a friend, he wasn't supposed to be bothered at all. Surely he was supposed to be glad for Sherlock, glad the man had found something for his future. A woman. From the looks of it, an ordinary woman. Perhaps she served the same function that John once had; she'd follow him around and answer texts and spew her awe around to all who'd listen to her.

John sank down on their couch and let his fingers slip through his hair. He'd thought they'd have more time, he realized. He thought he'd be able to leave and still come back. Mourn and heal and know that Sherlock Holmes was somewhere dashing across London, solving crimes and wanting him back.

John sighed and rubbed his hands down his face.

God, no. I'm trying to recruit you. Sherlock still wanted him there. But as a friend and a gun, now.

Wasn't that all he'd wanted?

Fuck you, Sherlock. I'm not the one who threw our friendship away.

Was he sure?

Damn it. John pushed himself back on the couch, letting his head fall back on the wall behind him. He needed to know what he wanted. All he knew now was he wanted to tackle Magnussen alongside Sherlock, without any girlfriends in the picture, with Sherlock missing him, and wanting to win him back, and trying to joke with him again.

John groaned, hating his thoughts. He wanted Sherlock Holmes to woo him. How many more hints would the universe have to drop before he admitted that anything they'd once had flickering between them was now long since dead and buried?

"God damn it," he breathed, just as Sherlock came striding out of the bathroom, sharply dressed in black slacks and pulling on a suit jacket.

"You saw her," Sherlock deduced immediately, his shoulders falling. John felt his jaw clench immediately.

He was trying to hide it. Perhaps that was better than Sherlock arranging for him to hear the girl with him in the shower. John glanced at the door. Why the hell had he not left yet? He had his pride.

Sherlock sat down slowly, watching the bathroom door as if a demon was about to crawl out of it.

"Just play along. Five minutes. I'll explain," he promised, turning to peer into John's face. John looked away.

"I should go. I should have left…awhile ago," he said instead, starting to sit up from the couch, careful not to use his arms.

"Five minutes, John," Sherlock demanded, glancing back at the bathroom door again. John licked at his lips, uncomfortable. He didn't want to play his cards, here, but did he really have any secrets left? Sherlock knew he'd loved him, knew he'd been attracted to him, knew that he'd screamed for him every day with Mike, known that he'd mourned him and never stopped. What more was there to hide?

"And what will five minutes do?" John asked, shaking his head and leaning forward in his seat. He had his pride. "I'm attracted to you, you idiot," he hissed and Sherlock's eyes widened as if he hadn't known. He had known, John knew that. Surprised that he'd admitted it, then. John snorted. Underestimated again.

"I'm lying to her, John," Sherlock blurted, just before the door to the bedroom opened. John opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out.

It's for a case, he'd said. Surely, Sherlock would not fake such a thing. Sherlock stared at him, waiting. John watched Janine walk out of the bathroom, also fully dressed for work, and head into Sherlock's bedroom. She closed the door behind him. Of course Sherlock would fake such a thing.

Sherlock, what are you doing?

"You have a girlfriend?" John clarified, though with any other man in the world that would hardly be in question any longer. John sighed, watching the man, unsure what else to ask."But you're lying to her," he asked finally. Hopefully. There was nothing not good in that but John couldn't bring himself to give a damn about the feelings of a woman he just met. He wanted Sherlock to be lying through his teeth with the woman.

"Yes, I have," he answered. "I thought that was fairly obvious." John felt his shoulders fall with relief and Sherlock smiled, apparently pleased with himself. So no, he hadn't lied to Janine the once. He'd probably been lying to her all month. Pretending to fall for her, pretending to care. The thought soured. John rubbed his thumb into his palm, wondering if they could somehow transition back into being friends, if he could somehow leave all his anger behind.

Sherlock leaned forward in his seat, his expression sobering.

"John, it's not -" he started, but then he was sitting back in his seat, all smiles for the woman walking toward him. John wanted to bodily toss her from the closest window.

"Okay, you bad boy, behave yourself," the woman cooed and draped herself over Sherlock's lap. Sherlock leaned back to give her room and wrapped his arm around her. John looked away, feeling sick, but a moment later he was watching her kiss at Sherlock's neck, unable to keep from staring while she showed off. Sherlock smirked.

This felt like an exercise in self-awareness. John grimaced at the thought. He'd liked that feeling, that he was the only one that Sherlock would want, if he wanted anyone in the world. That he knew Sherlock more intimately than anyone in the world. He'd liked Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson coming to him, because he was the closest person to Sherlock's distant heart - was that where this 'Janine' was now? Did they come to her, now that John had told them all off?

"And you, Sherl, you're gonna have to tell me where you were last night," she murmured, sounding like she was moments from bouncing on his dick.

"Working," Sherlock said shortly, the first time he'd sounded like himself with her at all. Janine smirked.

"Working. Of course. I'm the only one who really knows what you're like, remember?" she purred. John closed her eyes and turned away. It was like she was trying to cut him. Surely she remembered she'd only known Sherlock for a month or less?

I'd killed for him after less time.

"Don't you go letting on," Sherlock whispered, running a finger down her nose.

Right.

John stood up abruptly, catching both their attention.

"Kettle's hot," he said, rather meaninglessly given that he'd never found it. Sherlock frowned, clearly knowing that. Still, the excuse allowed John to disappear into the kitchen without further explanation.

"John, wasn't it? We should have you over for dinner really soon!" Janine called after him. John got out of eyesight, leaning against the counter, and listened to Sherlock laugh, his voice light and easygoing like John had never heard him.

I'm lying to her. Surely, that was true. Using her, most likely. John knew he was supposed to be entirely disgusted by the thought; angered for Janine, probably. Mostly he felt hopeful and relieved. John ground his palm into his forehead.

After all this hell, did he want Sherlock or did he just like the idea of Sherlock devoted to him? Did he want Sherlock to pine after him, just so he could refuse him? That wasn't right. None of this was. He had to get out of here. He heard sucking sounds, the wet patter of lips on lips, and something in his stomach rolled. He heard the front door close, likely Janine on her way to work, and waited to hear her footsteps pass before he moved toward the exit.

"Magnussen has created an unassailable architecture of forbidden knowledge. I've spent the last month tracking it down. It's name-" Sherlock started, walking into the kitchen with his open laptop balanced on one hand. "You're leaving," he said, stopping short. John sighed, one hand on the kitchen door.

"Dinner?" he scoffed. Sherlock frowned, obviously lost. "Me and Janine, together for dinner… with wine and…sitting," John described, wondering if Sherlock was so blind that he'd never notice the problem with that. John was just a platonic friend, after all. John wanted to punch something. He turned to leave instead.

"She's nothing, John," Sherlock promised, his voice deep. John turned his head to see Sherlock staring at him, like he was trying to peer through him.

Rather played my cards there, John thought, unable to even care anymore. He'd had every layer of secret stripped from him, including this one. Why not do it again?

"She's Magnussen's PA. That's the whole point. Look-" Sherlock slid the laptop onto the table. "Appledore. It is the greatest repository of sensitive and dangerous information anywhere in the world," he glanced over at John to see if he was listening. John exhaled slowly. "The Alexandrian library of secrets and scandals and none of it is on a computer. Magnussen is too smart. He knows computers can be hacked. It's all on hard copy in vaults underneath that house; and as long as it is, the personal freedom of anyone you've met is a fantasy." Sherlock glanced at him again, looking nervous. John sighed.

He was interested; of course he was. He didn't want to go back to his bedsit when he could be bent over a laptop learning that the Western world was run out of one house. He just had to accept that yes, Sherlock was that blind to 'what state his penis was in when he touched his hair'. It wasn't going to happen. A good fact, probably. John knew neither of them were in a healthy enough mindset to be doing anything with each other. A friendship, once again. Would he take that, now that it was so easily offered to him? Not a move-in, nothing more, just a case. John closed the kitchen door and approached the laptop. Sherlock tilted it toward him, smiling.

"And Janine has access to this," John concluded and Sherlock grinned outright, his relief palpable.

One case, Sherlock, John wanted to warn, but even he didn't believe it. Sherlock pulled a notebook out from beneath the laptop and started sketching something that looked remarkably like a blueprint. But not to the house they were looking at.

"Sherlock -what?" John asked and Sherlock smiled, excitement flickering in his eyes.

"Magnussen's office building. His personal office is on the top floor. Just below his private flat. But there are fourteen levels of security between the ground floor and him, two of which aren't even legal in this country," Sherlock said, finishing up the drawing and ripping it off the pad to start on another. "Want to know how we're going to break in?"

John rubbed his hand down his face, trying to act resigned rather than invigorated by the idea.

"Is that what we're doing?" he asked and it came out sounding remarkably tired. Sherlock snorted.

"Of course it's what we're doing," he said and threw down his pen to point to a little square on the blueprint.

"Magnussen's private lift. It goes straight to his penthouse and office. Only he uses it… and only his key card calls the lift. Anyone else even tries, security is automatically informed," Sherlock explained, pointing at different parts of the blueprint like they'd mean something to him.

"And how do you know this?" John asked and Sherlock shrugged like it was nothing.

"Janine, a few experiments, and a lunch date with the canteen cook," Sherlock answered rapidly, shaking his head like he could dispel the irrelevant question.

"Standard key card for the building. Nicked it yesterday. Only gets us as far as the canteen," Sherlock revealed, pulling the card from his shirt breast pocket.

John shook his head at the man's antics. Entirely unchanged.

"If I were to use this card on that lift now, what would happen?" Sherlock asked, tapping the ID card on the blueprint. John frowned, getting the distinct impression of being in elementary school with a teacher that desperately wanted to engage with him. They always defaulted to dumb questions.

"The alarms would go off and you'd be dragged away by security," John answered. Sherlock nodded sharply, apparently agreeing.

"Exactly."

"You'd get taken to a small room somewhere and get your head kicked in," John added, annoyed. Sherlock glanced at him, concern in his eyes.

I'm fine.

"Do we really need so much color?" Sherlock asked and John shrugged, letting his shoulder pull.

"It passes the time," he said, only too aware that Sherlock would never have asked him before. But Sherlock watched him carefully now. "I need action. You knew that before," John growled. "It's not news."

Sherlock looked away, back at the blueprints. Backing off.

"But if I do this," he said, rubbing his card up against his cellphone. "If you press a keycard up against your mobile phone for long enough, it corrupts the magnetic strip. The card stops working."

"Rarely," John protested. Sherlock shrugged.

"Well, I used a real magnet on this one," he confessed, holding up the card again and shoving his phone back in his pocket. "What happens if I use the card now?"

John glared at him.

"It doesn't read as the wrong card now," Sherlock continued without him. "It registers as corrupted. But if it's corrupted, how do they know it's not Magnussen? They have to check, which explains why there's a camera at eye height to the right of the door."

John nodded, still not following how this added up to Sherlock letting a woman into his shower. A woman who'd apparently spent the night. Sherlock pointed at the blueprint again, starting to look excited.

"A live picture of the card user is relayed directly to Magnussen's personal staff in his office - the only people trusted to make a positive ID. Depending on the hour, almost certainly his PA."

John was getting a bad feeling about the direction of Sherlock's newest plan.

"So, how's that help us?" he asked and Sherlock smiled at him, looking smug.

"Human error." He dug in his trouser pockets. "I've been shopping," he said and pulled out a small jewelry box. Sherlock winked, pulled the box up in front of his face, and opened it. A diamond ring. A real one, if John had to guess.

"Janine," John concluded, closing his eyes. "You're getting engaged to break into an office."

"Yes," Sherlock said easily and John shook his head. He opened his eyes to see Sherlock smirking, pleased by his deduction.

"Jesus," he scoffed out finally and Sherlock's smile melted.

"Sherlock, she loves you," John hissed, leaning forward into Sherlock's space. Sherlock stared off over his shoulder and answered flatly,

"Yes. Like I said - human error."

John stared at him, wondering what he was missing. Sherlock dropped his gaze to his finally, his pale eyes icy.

This should not be so complicated.

"What are you going to do?" John asked, for once scared by the man in front of him. What was Sherlock becoming? Or was it, what had Sherlock become?

I never should have left.

"Well, not actually marry her, obviously. There's only so far you can go," Sherlock answered brusquely.

"And that's your limit?" John asked, miserable.

I wanted you to suffer. To love me and to suffer.

"Well, I'll tell her that our entire relationship was a ruse to break into her boss' office. I imagine she'll want to stop seeing me at that point," Sherlock shrugged, snapping the ring box closed. He glanced back at John and his gaze narrowed. "But you're the expert on women."

John blinked, feeling battered. What the hell had happened? He'd thought Sherlock was trying to recruit him a minute before.

"You're not this cruel," John insisted, pointing toward the ring box. Sherlock shoved it into his pocket.

"You don't know what I am," he answered, his gaze cold. John swallowed, unsure what else there was to say. Just a case, not a move-in. He should go back to his bedsit, rest his arms and think about his life with Sherlock Holmes. If he even knew this Sherlock Holmes anymore. He'd never asked what Sherlock had been through, in their year apart, what he'd done in the nine day search for him. He'd asked what Sherlock had wanted, afterward. Sherlock had wanted it to be back the way it'd been, friends and partners. Or at least, a semblance of partners. John sighed, meeting Sherlock's quiet gaze. He wasn't sure if Sherlock wanted anything more than a friendly gun, now. He didn't blame him.

Chapter Text

A knock sounded, along with Mrs. Hudson's friendly 'yoohoo'. John glared up at the ceiling. He'd been hoping to get out of here before he went and got her hopes up. He heard Mrs. Hudson open the living room door and walk around to the kitchen to find them. She stopped short in surprise, seeing him, and she smiled, looking oddly nervous. She ran her hands down her skirts and tried to smile again.

"Oh, that was the doorbell. Couldn't you hear it?" she said. Sherlock blinked.

"It's in the fridge. It kept ringing," Sherlock protested. John bit his lip, amused despite his foul mood and Mrs. Hudson pursed her lips at them both.

"Oh, that's not a fault, Sherlock," she said, starting to sound scared. Sherlock frowned.

"Who is it?" John asked, though Sherlock clearly already knew.

"Magnussen, I'd suspect. Let him in," Sherlock ordered. Mrs. Hudson turned around and headed back down the stairs, still looking nervous.

"Wait, how does she know him?" John asked, befuddled, while Sherlock straightened his coat.

"Please, she used to run a drug cartel," Sherlock scoffed. They heard footsteps on the stairs and Sherlock led the way back into the living room. John held himself at attention, unsure what to expect. Two men walked into the room, both wearing suits. The first, a curly-haired rather acne'd man came up to John, clearly expecting to touch him. To frisk him, probably, John thought, trying to figure out why that was setting his heartbeat going wild. He just needed to keep breathing steadily and it would be fine. The man reached forward and John braced himself.

"Can I have a moment?" he asked, his teeth clenched and the man ignored him and knelt to start patting down his legs. "Look I.. Right. I should probably tell you-" John started as the man worked his way up. If the idiot touched his back, John was going to fight him, he knew that with a certainty that granted him no control over it. The man paused, pulling Billy's folding knife out of his pocket and held it up before pulling John's jacket open to reveal the pipe still held in his belt. The bodyguard pulled that out, still silent, frowning at him like a disappointed school principle. "Doesn't mean I'm not pleased to see you," John whispered, but to his surprise, Sherlock didn't smirk at his part in their antics like he used to do.

"I can vouch for this man, he is a doctor. If you know who I am then you know who he is. Don't you, Mr. Magnussen?" Sherlock said as another man walked into the room. John didn't think the stranger looked like a shark at all. More similar to a hawk, in his opinion, all straight lines and sharp features. A pinched air of disapproval. The bodyguard stepped out of the way, after his spectacularly insufficient pat down. "I understood we were meeting at your office," Sherlock said, sounding genuinely surprised.

"This is my office," Magnussen replied lightly and John bit his tongue to keep from snorting aloud. He could take down all three men even with his damaged shoulder. But apparently this man owned him and Sherlock all the same. Surely a power play was overkill. "Well, it is now," the man added needlessly, flicking his hand about as he sauntered into the room. The man picked up a newspaper and settled onto the couch. A second power play.

"Mr. Magnussen, I have been asked to intercede with you by Lady Elizabeth Smallwood on the matter of her husband's letters. She says you have them and you are planning to pressure her with the contents of those letters. She would like those letters back."

The suited man looked up from the newspaper but did not speak. Sherlock inhaled loudly, sounding nervous. Trying to put on a weak front, John thought, but he couldn't guess why. He doubted a man wanting so badly to show off his power would ever do anything but underestimate them. But then, psychological games were Sherlock's sphere.

"Obviously, if you are not planning to pressure her, those letters have no practical use to you."

The suited man kept staring at them but his gaze grew vague, unfocused. Then he huffed out a laugh and Sherlock looked even more unsettled.

"Something I said?" Sherlock asked. Magnussen shook his head.

"No, no. I was reading," he said smugly, tapping at his thick glasses. "There's rather a lot. Hmm. Redbeard."

With that word, Sherlock froze. John watched him, wishing he knew which emotions were real, if any. A wish that felt like an old wound peeling open. Sherlock blinked and opened his mouth to speak, but said nothing.

"Sorry, sorry, you were probably talking?" Magnussen asked, acting flummoxed himself. Just as much of an act, John guessed. Sherlock cleared his throat.

"I was trying to explain that I have been asked to act on behalf-"

Magnussen turned his attention away, looking to his bodyguards.

"Bathroom?" he asked lightly, like Sherlock wasn't there. Yet another power play, John thought, shifting uncomfortably. He'd known commanders like this.

"Along from the kitchen sir," a guard answered, clearly accustomed to the question. Magnussen probably didn't even need to pee that urgently, John guessed. Likely did this every time he had such conversations.

"Okay," Magnussen replied lightly.

"I've been asked to negotiate the return of those letters. I'm aware you do not make copies of sensitive documents-" Sherlock started.

"Is it like the rest of the flat?" Magnussen asked, his attention still absent.

"Sir?" the guard asked. So that was probably off-script, John figured. It was like being in a bad play.

"Yes, sir," the man answered, though they'd never checked. Been in the flat before, then. A well-executed threat. Subtle. John glanced at Sherlock. It would have been intimidating if they hadn't dealt with Moriarty before, he thought.

Dealt with and won, he realized suddenly, wanting to grin. They were alive and facing down Magnussen. Moriarty had lost the whole back of his skull.

"Maybe not, then," Magnussen sneered, inspecting the room again.

"Am I acceptable to you as an intermediary?" Sherlock demanded, sounding annoyed. Magnussen looked back at him finally.

"Lady Elizabeth Smallwood. I like her," he said and insanely started to make a small popping sound with his lips. John frowned, rapidly getting tired of the act.

"Mr. Magnussen, am I acceptable to you as an intermediary?" Sherlock repeated slower, like the man was stupider than he'd originally thought.

"She's English with a spine," Magnussen rambled, kicking the coffeetable out of the way. Power grab number four, John counted. "Best thing about the English, you're so domesticated. Always standing around apologizing, keeping your little heads down," Magnussen continued, walking up to them. The guard slipped behind John and moved the fireplace grate without being asked. Whatever next was part of the routine, John thought, turning to the side so he didn't have anyone at his back. If Sherlock was right, there was no point hiding his P.T.S.D. From the man and they were trying to look weak regardless. Magnussen walked up to the fireplace and unzipped his trousers.

Oh my lord, John thought, guessing where this was going. Power play number five. They could have played bingo with this nonsense. He unzipped his coat. They were going to take that pompous ass out of the political system. Sherlock smirked, apparently understanding the gesture.

"You can do what you like here, no one's ever going to stop you," Magnussen gloated, urinating. "A nation of herbivores. I've interests all over the world but everything starts in England. If it works here, I'd try it in a real country." He zipped up his pants. John held back a smirk. He'd been right; the man hadn't really needed to pee. Like a dog marking a fence. One of his bodyguards held out a sanitary wipe, apparently that accustomed to the routine. "The United Kingdom, eh? Petri dish to the Western World, he said, wiping his hands off with the wet towel. "Tell Lady Elizabeth I might need these for later so, I'm keeping them. Anyway, they're funny." Magnussen dropped the wet towel to the ground and walked out, his men behind him.

John shook his head, trying to process the audacity of the man. There wasn't much there to discuss, really.

"Jesus," he breathed finally, hearing the front door close. Sherlock turned his head to look at him, his blue eyes searching, appearing rather unsure what John was cursing about: Magnussen or Janine.

John rubbed his hands down his legs, wanting to collapse into his chair but the chair wasn't there. He settled for Sherlock's chair by the desk. Sherlock started pacing in front of the mirror, his hands pitched in front of his mouth.

"So, Janine?" John started finally. Sherlock whirled around, his eyes sparkling.

"Janine. She's the key to everything. If she lets us into Magnussen's office for me to propose, we have a chance of finding a real lead toward the warehouse of Charles Augustus Magnussen.

"No," John answered, pushing his chair back away from the desk. Sherlock scowled at him.

"You're a soldier, John. Surely you understand sacrifice," he scoffed. John sucked at his teeth, doing his best to keep his memories at bay. They were irrelevant here.

"I understand voluntary sacrifice. Not this," he answered finally. Sherlock tossed a hand, dismissing the idea.

"Her feelings will heal. And in the meantime we will have protected the freedom of the entire Western leadership. Without that, democracy can mean nothing," he explained.

Her feelings would heal. John turned away, not wanting Sherlock to read him like he always did.

"People don't heal the way you think they do, Sherlock," he said finally, rezipping his coat.

"Wait-" Sherlock pleaded. John turned, shocked to hear such a tone in the man's voice. Sherlock had a hand held out as if to grab him but pulled it back like a snake missing its strike. Sherlock pushed his hands through his hair, his desperate expression twisting into something angry. "The worse blackmailer in the world and you won't help, you'll leave, because one woman, who means nothing to me, loves me? I cannot do my job if I am concerned with the feelings of every human I meet in passing."

John snorted.

"You've done a bit more with her than meet in passing," John growled, jerking his head toward the bedroom door. Sherlock scoffed, walking over the coffee table.

"What difference does that make?" he asked, throwing himself onto the couch. John pushed himself up from the chair.

"It means you don't fuck her and leave her," he demanded, leaning over Sherlock's desk. Sherlock pulled his head up from the couch pillows, sneering.

"And that's why you're angry," he drawled, disbelieving. John dug his fingers into the desktop, trying to control his anger.

"I cannot list all the reasons I'm angry," he replied. Sherlock let his head fall back down to stare at the ceiling.

"Try it. Because of the two of us, I know precisely what I want. I have not changed," he gloated. John barked out a false laugh.

"Not changed?" he asked incredulously and Sherlock lifted himself up on an elbow to face him again.

"I made a mistake and learned from it. Is that bad?" he sneered.

"Learned from it? Tell that to Janine in about twenty four hours," John replied.

"I told you!" Sherlock roared, pushing himself up to sit on the couch, looking ready to leap up and kill him. John straightened, ready to fight, even if it did mean a return to surgery for his arms. "I gave you blueprints, plans, Janine and Magnussen in person. Every detail I had to give!" Sherlock growled, throwing his arms out to gesture at the room around them.

John hesitated, confused.

"You meant for Magnussen to come?" he asked and Sherlock stared at him.

"Of course I meant for him to come," he scoffed and John realized that for him, it was that obvious; he wasn't hiding it. The full plan; nothing mysterious but the extent of Sherlock's brilliance. "So why are you angry?" Sherlock asked, sounding frustrated.

"Janine-" John started and Sherlock tossed his head, throwing out the excuse before John could make it.

"Was unknown to you twenty four minutes ago," Sherlock protested. John settled back into his chair, unsure what more to say.

Chapter Text

"I was never your partner, when I should have been. You lied to me and left me behind, when you could have brought me," John listed, only to wonder why they were having this conversation again. Sherlock flopped back on the couch, apparently just as bored by it. John waited, wondering what more he was supposed to say or do.

"So Magnussen," Sherlock started and John exhaled in relief. They didn't have to deal with it, talk about their emotions and come to a great understanding. They never had before; they didn't need to know. "Did you notice the one extraordinary thing he did?" Sherlock asked, turning his face against the couch pillow to face him. John shoved his hands into his coat pockets.

"There was a moment that kind of stuck in the mind, yeah," John replied, deciding not to approach the fireplace in case he'd start to smell it.

"Exactly; when he showed us the letters," Sherlock said, pitching his fingers in front of his mouth and grinning to himself. John huffed out a breath. "So he's brought the letters to London - so no matter what he says, he's ready to make a deal. Now, Magnussen only makes a deal once he's established a person's weaknesses- the 'pressure point' he calls it."

Sherlock rubbed his hands in front of his mouth, his eyes glowing with energy. "So, clearly he believes I'm a drug addict and no serious threat. And, of course, because he's in town tonight, the letters will be in his safe in his London office while he's out to dinner with the Marketing Group of Great Britain from seven 'til ten."

John leaned back down on Sherlock's desk, brushing the man's papers aside.

"Hence the cocaine," he said tonelessly. Sherlock rolled his eyes dramatically. John shook his head, trying to accept that this time, it really wasn't his concern. "What are the letters for then?" he asked instead and Sherlock glanced at him, looking pleased with the question.

"We'll plant a GPS tracker on them, confirm the existence of Appledore, and we'll have a virtual road map into it," Sherlock explained, his lips almost brushing his fingers as he spoke. John nodded and ran a hand over the papers on the desk, all lists of names and drawings of shapes he didn't understand.

"How - how do you know Mangussen's schedule?" he asked and the excitement in Sherlock's eyes faded. John wanted to curse, realization coming too late. "Janine," he concluded aloud, his shoulders falling. Apparently that wasn't a subject they could ignore for long.

"Who cares if it was Janine?" Sherlock asked, throwing up his hands and standing up from the couch.

"I care," John replied stiffly, deciding that this time he wasn't backing down. Janine deserved more than that.

"You don't even know her," Sherlock dismissed, as if he'd read his mind. John sighed. He was deeply disappointed in the man. There was no getting around that. This was a lesson Sherlock should have learned before, when they'd lost all they'd had to it.

"She loves you," he said finally, and because he didn't at all know if that was true, pointed at Sherlock's pocket. "Or she'll think she might after you hand her that." Sherlock stood in front of the couch, his arms crossed and his eyes flashing.

"Human error," he repeated.

"And not yours to use," John replied, doing his best to keep the pain from his voice. Was this how little Sherlock had regarded his care? Human error, but fortunately a convenient one when it meant that John Watson would keep his eyes fixed on him and not the breakaway cable or landing board or whatever it was that'd fooled the world?

"Oh, don't try to make this personal," Sherlock drawled, walking over the coffee table like it wasn't there and starting toward the kitchen. "How does one clean urine from a fireplace anyway?" he mumbled on his way from the room.

Damn it all.

"I loved you and you used me!" John yelled after him, hating that he had to drawl the parallel himself. Sherlock spun around, hate drawn on his face.

"But not for my own purposes! Not for a case, not for Moriarty. To save you, because I would rather let Moriarty live to watch me die, would rather break every bone in my body and see you live to hate me, than see you shot in the skull. A mistake, I grant you, given your very twisted priorities, general desire for living on the edge of death and inability to move on from mine. A state of mind I was apparently supposed to deduce from the moment you grabbed Moriarty to your wired chest and told me to run, a year before and significantly before you ever felt you loved me," Sherlock shouted back, striding back into the living room.

"If you'd never lied-" John started before Sherlock had fully ended his sentence.

"I did not know you loved me!" Sherlock shouted, throwing his arms wide. "Congratulations, doctor, you remain the one man I consistently fail to predict."

John stopped, his heavy breathing breaking up the sudden quiet. Sherlock watched him and slowly let his arms fall back to his sides.

He didn't know. Of course he didn't know. John wanted to shrug back into their previous silent tension but he didn't know how. Sherlock glared at him, his blue eyes as bright as ever and just as unfathomable.

"Lift-brand cleaner," John said finally, shifting his feet, and Sherlock frowned. "For the fireplace. It says 'multipurpose'. Should do it," he clarified. Sherlock blinked. His mouth twitched in a small smile.

"Do we own that?" Sherlock asked and it was John's turn to blink in surprise. 'We'?

"Under the sink," he answered finally and Sherlock went to investigate. John followed him.

"I'll do it," he offered, doing his best to sound resigned to it as Sherlock pulled himself out of the lower cabinet, the cleaning spray in his hand. In reality, he wanted Sherlock to hand it over. He didn't want this to be Sherlock's home only. He wanted his bloody chair back. He'd wanted to piss in the hearth himself, seeing Janine wander about so comfortably here. Instead he took the spray from Sherlock, grabbed an entire roll of paper towels and the rubbish bin, and settled himself by the fireplace to start scooping out the wet coals.

Unsurprisingly, it smelled like urine and char. No doubt he'd smell the same, after this.

"We need to get a chip on those letters," Sherlock mused, lowering himself into his chair, apparently just as happy not to deal with that shouting match. John huffed out a breath and tossed out a soiled mass of paper towels.

He didn't know. John sighed to himself, trying to wrap his mind around a genius who could have missed how close they'd become, how dependent and how caring. But, it made sense. Sherlock had not used his love against him, hadn't even really betrayed their friendship, when in his mind there was very little relationship there at all. John scraped at the sides of the fireplace, not sure that made anything better. Except that Sherlock cared about him, he knew that. He could remember lying in the hospital room, when Sherlock held his hand, as if checking to see if he'd collapse into dust at the pressure.

I told you I'd lost everything!

"Janine," John suggested finally and Sherlock tilted his head, obviously lost.

"You just said-"

"We're not using Janine, I know. But have you ever thought of just asking her?" John asked, doing his best to spray half of the bottle of multi-purpose disinfectant into their fireplace.

"Ask her to risk her life and all of her secrets to a man who entirely outflanks her?" Sherlock clarified, sounding disgusted with his naivety. John sat back away from the reeking fumes.

"That man just urinated in our chimney. Do you really think he treats his secretary nicely?" John pointed out, careful not to touch his pants with his soiled hands. Sherlock raised his eyebrows, considering it.

"I'll call her back," he offered. John nodded sharply, grateful.

"Good," he said.

"Tonight then?" Sherlock offered, rubbing his hands together. John blinked, unsure what exactly had changed between them that made him now want to accept, want things to get better.

"Tonight?" John asked, surprised it'd be so soon. Sherlock always put things off, when he didn't want to do them. Poor Janine. Sherlock truly didn't care. Sherlock tented his fingers in front of his lips.

"Well, surely we should not call her at work. Magnussen would suspect," Sherlock replied, flickering his eyes between John and the peed-on fireplace. John tossed out another handful of wet towels and pushed himself up to his feet.

"Well, then. I should… bathe," John admitted, looking down at his damp hands. Sherlock smirked in understanding and gestured at the bathroom.

"Your towel is still there," he offered. John blew out a heavy breath, remembering the set up he had at home; the handheld shower head and the washcloths drying in the tub. He still woke up too often, dripping sweat and panting for breath. A month ago he'd been sitting on this flat's tile floor, surrounded by pubes and dust bunnies and wiping blood off his knuckles.

"No.. Erm." John cleared his throat. "I should get back. Go… get fired," he said and Sherlock smiled in good humor. "Tonight," John agreed and finally left. It wasn't until he got down the stairs that he realized his knees were soaked with urine.

~~//~~

Sherlock pushed himself back into his chair, listening to John make his way down the steps. He wasn't supporting himself with his arm against the wall, like he usually did, never trusting his knees. His arms hurt.

Something had changed. Progress, finally, and Sherlock had no idea why. He'd yelled at John, repeated what the doctor had clearly already known, that in their friendship there had been no mention of love at all, and in his faked death nothing but misplaced good intentions. That did nothing to change the consequences of what he'd done, it neither healed John's wounds nor erased his mourning. Sherlock despised such arguments when he saw them - needless repetition of facts in steadily increasing volumes - and he certainly did not grasp their function. But now John had smiled softly, when they'd agreed to meet, and he was coming back to 221B at least once more, and Sherlock's world was unquestioningly better for it. Perhaps he could earn John Watson's regard once more after all.

He had quite a bit to thank Charles Augustus Magnussen for, if that was so.

~~//~~

John had barely cracked open the door before the cameras were flashing off in his face and the paparazzi started screaming. Magnussen, of course, he thought. Showing off the damage he could do and making a side profit from it. And perhaps, showing off that he knew John's pressure point; all of the triggers of PTSD. John smirked, elbowing his way through the shouting crowd. Apparently Magnussen was missing a few facts. Crowds were hardly his problem. He couldn't be alone; not an easy thing for anyone to find out about him without being told. He'd never told his therapist. Magnussen might know everything about England but he wasn't inside their heads the way Moriarty had been.

He lost the press past the turnstiles for the tube; apparently his destination wasn't worth two pounds thirty. He went back to the clinic to get fired. It was only 1:30, after all that'd happened. He got to the clinic at the same time as a pizza delivery man. John greeted the man with an awkward smile, walking up the brick steps to the clinic's red front door with him. John opened it for the man, trying not to think too hard about Sarah, stuck at the clinic unable to take a real lunch break without anyone to hold down the office. The waiting room was packed with frustrated-looking patients, filling every chair and overflowing onto the bay windowsill. The pizza man glanced around the impatient crowd, looking for his customer, and rang the little bell at the front desk. A teenager in cut off jean shorts and a loose sweatshirt snorted at the action.

"Good luck," he snarked. The pizza man rang the bell again, looking worried. No one answered. John walked around to behind the desk and pulled out his wallet to pay for the pizza.

"Leave it there," he ordered, not trusting his arms to hold the box. He nodded at the desk beside him and delivery man scowled, apparently finding him rude. John tipped him better for it and scanned the appointment list to see who was still in the crowd.

"Mrs. Parsons?" he called, seeing the old lady still waiting, her purse clasped on her lap as always. Her appointment was two hours ago. Apparently he was staying, until his patients were seen to and Sarah had time to fire him.

~~//~~

That time came past closing, after John had seen the last of his patients that were still around and Sarah had dealt with her own. He waited at the front desk, knowing what was coming, and bid goodnight to the pregnant woman Sarah had seen last. The woman left, remarkably good-natured despite it all, and closed the door after her. As soon as the front entrance door latched, Sarah poked her head out of her office, her expression grim.

"John, could I talk to you for a few minutes in my office, please?" she called before disappearing behind her closed door, no doubt moving to hide behind her desk. John glanced at the cold, uneaten pizza, wondering if he should bring it in for her. He left it.

He knocked before he entered, though he wasn't fully sure why. He'd not gone back for his slings and his arms felt like they were pulling fully out of his sockets again. He wasn't doing his recovery any favors. But it felt polite to knock and he did, despite the pain. The English were domesticated. He entered without waiting and moved to sit in front of her desk, glad to rest his arms in his lap. Sarah straightened the folders on her desk, collecting herself.

"Today did not go well, John," she said. John sighed, hardly going to dispute it. Sarah met his gaze, her green eyes dim with sympathy for him. John wanted to snarl at her.

Feel bad for Moriarty and Mike; they lost the majority of their skulls from this whole thing.

He stayed quiet and Sarah blew out a heavy breath.

"You said you wanted boring, when you started here, but it's - that's just not true. You chose Sherlock and his antics every time. Now that he's back - and you have to believe, I'm so happy for you, I really am -" Sarah inhaled like she'd forgotten to. "You're not a good employee, when you're his friend." She let that sit. John took the time to formulate his last ditch protest.

I'm not his friend anymore. That era is over. He jumped and I broke and maybe Sherlock wants to put it all back together again but I can't.

He opened his mouth, only to hesitate. None of that rang true. Surely, they couldn't do it all again, running about at odd hours, solving crimes and skipping work.

Why not? Something whispered at him. He licked his lips, unsure what to say and Sarah clasped her hands on the desk between them.

"I have to think about my patients. I have to let you go, John," she said and John forced his breath to stay slow. "It's not about the panic attacks, it's really not," she assured him and instantly made the whole thing worse. John rubbed at his knee, embarrassed, and she leaned forward in her seat. "It's just that Sherlock's back and now that you're healthy again, well," Sarah stopped and collapsed back in her chair. "Today didn't go well."

John did his best to smile, knowing not to start thinking about how he was going to pay his bedsit's meagre rent until he was out of the clinic.

"I understand. Thanks for - well, thanks for everything," he said, shaking her hand. Her hand was soft and familiar in his, a reminder of another thing he'd lost to his love for Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps that was the answer to the niggling little doubt making him want to pick it all up again; he'd never been healthy in his life with Sherlock Holmes. But then, he thought, watching Sarah smile ruefully back at him, that had never stopped him before.

A/N: A light at the end of the tunnel. What do you think?

Chapter Text

John arrived at 221 Baker Street significantly after Janine, judging from the shouting he heard before he'd gotten up a single step from the landing. Mrs. Hudson popped her head out from her flat, evidently having heard his arrival, and scowled at him like the fight upstairs was his fault.

"How do you get on, lettin' Sherlock go and have a girl like that? I swear, the only thing she likes about him is his name. Fame, and all that," she complained, only to startle at the sound of a clanging pot upstairs. John sighed, trudging up the steps. It didn't sound like delaying was going to calm anything. "He should have seen right through it, I think!" Mrs. Hudson called after him. John quickened his pace, not wanting to hear what Mrs. Hudson had thought when he'd left them both for nothing more than a bedsit.

He walked inside to see a laptop flying across the room to smash into the smiley face still painted onto the wallpaper. John winced, watching the computer fall unceremoniously behind the couch.

"Oh, hello. I've met you, right?" Janine greeted him, smiling politely as if she didn't hold their kettle in her hand, poised to throw at Sherlock's head.

Where'd she find that? John thought inanely before she let loose and the kettle smashed into the bookcase and sent Sherlock's books tumbling to the floor. Sherlock himself stood in the middle of the mess, dodging her missiles with remarkable skill. He was fully dressed in his creased black slacks and gray shirt, unbuttoned at the collar. The fine clothing helped hide how thin he'd become, but John could still see it in his face and how his adam's apple stuck out from his neck.

"Pleasure," John murmured, watching Janine go for the tea mugs next. He'd never particularly liked them, he mused, seeing one fly past Sherlock's head to shatter against the windowpane.

"You fucking humiliated me!" she screamed, throwing another. Sherlock caught it gracefully and used it to smack the next mug out of the air.

"By rights, you should have seen it coming," Sherlock replied calmly, mirroring Mrs. Hudson's sentiments. John hoped he got hit by one of the projectile mugs.

"Excuse me?" Janine snarled, stopping, and Sherlock let the broken mug in his hand clatter to the floor.

"Why did you like being with me, really?" he asked and Janine hesitated, pausing in her destruction. Sherlock smirked. "I'm not especially muscled or well proportioned. I'm not wealthy. Not your usual type. Nor am I not funny or kind, what uglier men use to be charming and sell themselves as better husbands. I'm impressive but not endearing. So why me? It's not subtle. Mrs. Hudson sees it. I'm a prize to be brandished about and dropped. You did not plan for a moment for me to become your husband. I'm a one-up card, to show your prowess. You're offended because I dropped you first. Look at the word you chose - humiliated, not 'hurt' or 'used'," Sherlock gloated, glancing at John as if to ensure that he was following, that he understood what Janine and he had been, that month. John swallowed, caring despite himself.

Only Sherlock would so proudly brag about being treated like a trophy.

"So, if I should have seen it coming, that you're such a brilliant asshole you'd never let yourself get used, why stop? Why tell me now?" Janine asked, shoving the last mug back onto the countertop.

"John," he answered, like that would end the entire conversation. Janine scoffed.

"Who the fuck is John?" she asked, throwing her arms wide. Sherlock glanced at John, looking unsure how to respond. John lifted his hand to wave. She had the good grace to blush, but she didn't apologize.

"Oh, right. But, who the fuck are you?" she asked instead. John scratched at the back of his hand, unsure how to answer.

"He's my ex-something," Sherlock said, waving away the question. John blinked at the term, something like hope nudging at him. Janine glanced his way, her gaze suspicious, before her eyes widened.

"Oh. My. God," she pronounced slowly, before turning back to Sherlock. "Watson. He's an actual person. I thought that was just like, your writing style or something, making up John," she said. John tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling but not before he saw Sherlock's face light up with delight at the new theory. "So you really are lovers, then?" Janine asked, suddenly sounding much less offended.

"Wait, a second ago you didn't think I existed and now you think we're lovers?" John growled, turning on her. She shrugged.

"Well, it's one of the two, innit?" she replied and Sherlock frowned at her, clearly confused by the statement, before turning back to John.

"Told you she was using me," he announced happily.

This is ridiculous.

Janine pointed a finger out at Sherlock.

"I'm going to make so much money off of this," she vowed. She drew herself up. "I'm buying a cottage. Nothing hits the spot like revenge with profits."

Sherlock scowled, clearly grasping her plan. John glanced between the two of them, dumbfounded at how she planned to take a nasty lover's feud and turn it into a downpayment. Sherlock groaned and dropped into his chair.

"You're not going to sell it to Magnussen, are you?" he complained, clearly expecting it, and Janine smirked. John raised his eyebrows, catching her plan. Even he could imagine the headlines. A day in the bed of Sherlock Holmes. It would be disgusting and it would have even more reporters staking out their front door.

"God, no, one of his rivals," Janine replied, sounding malicious. That caught Sherlock's attention. The man locked on her, his fingers coming up to tent in front of his mouth. He glanced at John and smirked, like that would pass on some complicated message. If so, John didn't get it. Still, he understood the redirected anger in Janine's eyes, and he could guess what Sherlock had concluded; they had an ally. Janine stepped into the wrecked living room. "Sherlock Holmes, you are a backstabbing, heartless, manipulative bastard," she cursed.

Or not an ally, John thought, wincing. They needed her. Sherlock smirked, unfazed. "You, as it turns out, are a gasping, opportunistic, publicity-hungry, tabloid whore," he replied, biting out the words as they came. Janine leaned on the empty bookcase beside the television and observed the two of them.

"You lied to me. You lied and lied," she said and this time, she sounded hurt. Sherlock smile faded somewhat, faced with that. He ran his hand over the empty mantle, where his pinned bug collection used to be.

"I exploited the fact of our connection," he said, like that was better. John decided it was better not to get involved, though he wanted to argue the point. Janine scoffed, plenty capable of tackling that on her own.

"When?" she asked instead and John blinked, unsettled by the strange question. Sherlock stopped his fiddling, clearly confused as well.

"Just once would have been nice," she said. John shook his head, unsure what she was possibly talking about. Surely not sex - what woman would say it would have been nicer to have gotten used and fucked for it? But then, Sherlock pulled his hands behind his back, like he did when he felt awkward, and John wasn't so sure.

"Oh," he said and John could see that he was rubbing at his hands behind his back. "I was waiting until we got married," Sherlock joked and John knew they were talking about sex. Sex they hadn't had, apparently. John grabbed the zipper on his coat, unsure if he should leave but wanting to look like he was planning on it. He wanted to stay, to hear it confirmed once more that they'd not had sex, that Sherlock had not done that to a person, to himself, for such disingenuous motivations.

"As you've said, that was never going to happen!" Janine protested and Sherlock mouth twitched, a badly hidden smile. A triumphant one, John guessed, watching Janine's shoulders fall when she realized what she'd confessed. She pulled herself up, her disgust and hurt falling away.

"So, we're good then?" she asked lightly and Sherlock smiled.

"Yeah, of course," he said quickly, and moved to grab his notebook off of his desk, stepping over the broken pottery chips without a concern. "So, you want to get revenge on Magnussen, do you?" he asked, turning away from her before she had the chance to answer. He unfolded the notebook to the right page without any need to shuffle through them and handed it to Janine. The blueprint, John guessed, walking forward to sit down on the couch. He missed his chair, but that was little to lose, if it meant he and Sherlock were beginning to function again.

They never had sex. That wasn't supposed to be important. But it was. Janine inspected the blueprint in front of her, clearly recognizing it.

"You need me to get you through the elevator," she concluded, drawing a long nail over the paper. Sherlock tipped his head in acknowledgment. Janine smirked and looked up from the notebook. "I'm going to say you made me wear the hat," she announced. Sherlock groaned dramatically, sounding pained, but John knew he was ecstatic; they had her help.

"No," Sherlock intoned, catching both of their attention. John waited, knowing the man wasn't done, but Janine opened her mouth to respond. "We don't need you to get us through the elevator," Sherlock clarified, picking his box of pinned bugs off the ground and returning it to the mantle. He pulled a tiny bit of metal from his pocket and held it up against the light. "We need you to plant this," he announced and tossed it to her. Janine caught it deftly and pocketed it, not looking particularly curious about the tiny device.

"Where did you get that?" John asked and Sherlock shrugged.

"Come on, John, surely you know how often Mycroft tries to bug this place," he replied, gesturing vaguely at the ugly lamp by the couch. John laughed quietly, acknowledging that.

"Do mention my drug addiction to the press, won't you?" Sherlock asked dismissively, taking back his notebook and throwing it onto his desk.

Janine left, flashing John a strangely friendly smile and flipping Sherlock off at the door. Sherlock smiled back, like that was some secret handshake between them, and finally she was gone. Sherlock made his way across the room and started shoving at the couch until John got up from it and moved to help him.

"I've arranged a meeting with Magnussen to discuss terms for Lady Smallwood's letters. Not that it wouldn't be quite counter productive to get them back," Sherlock commented, occupied in digging his laptop out from where it'd fallen. John moved to lean on Sherlock's desk, watching him.

"So what's the meeting for, then?" he asked, picking up a torn up rag from the kitchen off Sherlock's desk to start fashioning a sling for himself. Apparently he wasn't going home anytime soon. Sherlock straightened, his laptop in one hand, and shoved the couch back into place with his knee.

"To convince him that I've nothing for him. He'll judge me incompetent and mainly harmless, and send the letters back to their safe keeping, for later use in blackmail," Sherlock explained, opening the laptop in his arms. John hoped it still worked; he much preferred Sherlock to use his own. "He has clearly anticipated Lady Smallwood's case against him, to have gotten the letters out of his vault. Now, he must decide there is no use keeping them on hand, as she is clearly informed of his power and I am useless."

"So assuming Janine has gotten to the letters first…" John followed and Sherlock snapped the laptop closed again.

"We'll be able to track them, yes," Sherlock replied. "So the next step: find a way to look incompetent," he said, striding over to his desk like that was a task worth researching.

"Other than the drugs, presumably," John drawled, flipping the loose piece of fabric over his shoulder and Sherlock nodded, apparently missing the judgement there.

"Yes, precisely. This will require something more," he agreed, sitting down at his desk and tenting his fingers in front of his face. His thinking pose, John recognized, holding one end of a knot with his teeth and pulling it closed with a painful jerk of his right arm. "Indian?" Sherlock offered suddenly and it took a moment for John to parse that he wasn't offering a solution to the Magnussen case. John spat out the sling fabric, recognizing the taste of cleaning chemicals on the rag, and nodded. He didn't want to think too much about what he might have ingested.

"Sounds good," he answered and Sherlock nodded back, like there wasn't anything unusual about making dinner plans together. John finally zipped up his coat, happy not to talk about it.

~~//~~

Chapter Text

"You should eat," John commented, feeling like he was sliding back into old habits before the words fully left his lips.

"I never eat on a case," Sherlock said, leaning an elbow on the vinyl-covered table and John snorted.

"Yes, you do. On long ones like this," John argued and Sherlock looked back at him, his gaze flickering over his face for longer than usual. Pondering something.

"I'll have what you're having," he said finally and John wished he knew what had changed the man's mind. Sherlock returned to studying the night outside the filthy window.

"So, Janine. That went well, looked like," John started, not wanting to sit in silence. Sherlock didn't respond. "Well, except for the mugs, or the books…or the kettle," John admitted, wondering when his idea of 'gone well' had become so dramatically skewed. "No bullets," he summarized and Sherlock huffed out a laugh and turned away from the window.

~~//~~

'You should eat,' John had said and Sherlock answered automatically. He wanted to kiss John. He wanted more than that, he was certain, if he'd let his brain go that far. That was a problem. It was too soon to even think about such a move. Sherlock forced himself to calculate the tire pressure of the cars going by, but it didn't distract him enough.

This was his chance to win John back, he knew it. Something like their old friendship, more careful than the one before. He could do that. If he could just stop thinking about the muscles in John's chest and concentrate on the things John liked: the case, dry humor, greasy food. He turned back to face the man again, gathering his control.

"I'll have what you're having," he promised and John looked pleased. John was worried about him; that was good. It felt good. But thanking him would be uncomfortable so Sherlock didn't know what to say.

I like your scars.

That definitely wasn't appropriate.

"So Janine, that went well," John prompted and Sherlock nodded, pushing his brain to think about the case. He needed to include John in the case, his partner in full or not at all. That shouldn't be difficult, this time. John had already simplified the Janine solution beautifully. He was starting to think he should just picture John shirtless next time they were in Magnussen's presence; that was sure to make him look incompetent enough. He'd waited too long, thinking. John was looking at him queerly now, wanting a response, and he still had nothing to say.

~~//~~

"I need to look incompetent. Surely that's something you can help me with," Sherlock said, as the waiter arrived. The waiter hesitated and John smiled tightly, thinking about the time he'd sent a bullet through the cabby's skull. Incompetent, really? Sherlock swallowed heavily, his eyes wide, and John knew the man had not meant the comment as it'd sounded. He was a genius that needed to sound normal. John's brain was mostly still normal. John rolled his eyes, hoping that would put Sherlock back at ease.

"Can I get you something to drink?" the waiter asked, already half-turned to move away from them. Strangers tended to react to Sherlock this way. John smiled at him as reassuringly as he could.

"Just water, please, but we're ready to order. Two chicken tika marsalas, please," he said. The waiter smiled at them, still looking uncertain, but finally walked away.

"So we need to make him think he's fooled you?" John asked, to truly calm Sherlock down, and the genius finally leaned back in his chair.

"Yes. Something he thinks he's being clever about," Sherlock replied, spinning a knife between his fingers.

"Other than peeing in our living room?" John complained and Sherlock's mouth twitched, threatening one of his rare smiles.

"Something a tad more subtle, I think. Presumably he expected us to notice that," he replied. John tipped his head, acknowledging the point. Sherlock's mouth lifted in a subtle smile. "Something that legitimately fooled you," he concluded, his eyes suddenly focusing on John's like a hawk spotting prey. "Tell me what you know about Magnussen," he ordered and John wanted to laugh. They were doing this again. After so much hell, the game was back on. He leaned forward to start listing his amateur deductions.

Then he just felt paralyzed, trapped in his seat. They couldn't do this again. He couldn't do this agin, strapped on Mike's chair, on his hook, waiting for a nail to heat up again. He could smell flesh for a moment and held his breath, his stomach tightening like it was preparing to hurl. He couldn't risk himself again. Sherlock watched him steadily, waiting for his answer, and John inhaled through his nose. He needed to answer him. They couldn't not do this again, he couldn't not live again, or he'd be better off going to his bedsit shower with a gun, like he'd thought of so many times. He had to live. He had to bring down Magnussen.

But more, he realized, he had to become him: get access to his vault, get access to the secrets of Jim Moriarty and every person Magnussen had ever met. Finally they'd have answers to who stopped Moriarty from shooting Sherlock at the pool, who pulled Irene Adler's strings. And they'd have that power over every other 'archenemy' that wanted to come after them. A pressure point, on all of the western world.

Two years ago, he'd have wanted nothing more than to shoot Magnussen and go home. Now, he understood Sherlock's reasoning, lying to Janine. He'd have considered doing it himself: just the one time, hurt one girl, and no one would dare come after them again. Safety from the big criminals and he and Sherlock could go after whoever they wanted. Never be tied down again.

John swallowed, getting control of his stomach. This wouldn't change his bathtub, the panic attacks, or the night terrors. But it'd answer the real fears.

It was a damn good thing for Janine he had not figured this out until after he'd found a new solution. He met Sherlock's gaze and Sherlock nodded, surely having seen his fear and his answer to it. Once more it was an incredible relief to have his mind known without having to form the words.

"He clearly needs to show off to everyone looking at him. And he needs to feel like he could make anyone look at him. Like an emperor at court in the bloody subway," John commented and Sherlock nodded, knowing he was warming up with the easy things. They'd done this before. "He's about forty or fifty years old. Has incompetent bodyguards, more for show and as an audience than any real security. Probably because he always feels safe, a threat to match anyone who'd be after him. He's probably a skilled hand fighter. You can tell from the way he walks; he's trained to balance well if nothing else, and it explains his shitty security. He dresses well. He doesn't wear a wedding ring, not that he'd be likely to give away details of his family," John continued, knowing from how Sherlock's gaze stayed on him that they hadn't found anything suitable yet. Either John was correct about everything - doubtful - or just not well enough fooled. For once Sherlock didn't give any indication of whether or not John was right in his conclusions - it didn't much matter this time and Sherlock wasn't trying to train him to observe. Sherlock stayed motionless, waiting, when John stopped to think. Their food arrived and they both ate, and John decided he wouldn't say anything until Sherlock had at least some food in his belly. It was moot anyway; he didn't think of anything useful to say until they'd nearly finished their plates and Sherlock paid the bill.

John was just pulling on his jacket when he remembered.

"Reading. He did this weird thing, interrupting you, saying he was reading," John said. Sherlock paused, only one arm in his coat sleeve, the rest of the peacoat dangling awkwardly.

"And what did you conclude from that?" he asked.

"He adjusted his glasses, when he said that. I was thinking, perhaps they're something like Google Glass? A projection," John offered, trying to ignore that they were going through this exercise because his deductions would make Sherlock look inherently stupid. A fact made lightly more palatable by the way Sherlock's face broke into a triumphant grin.

"Brilliant, John!" he shouted, shoving his arm in the other half of his coat. John zipped up his own, watching as the other patrons looked over in annoyance only to recognize them and start to pull out their phones. "Let's go, John!" Sherlock exclaimed and John was just as happy to run out after him.

~~//~~

They went to 221B, which made all of the rushing look fairly superfluous. Still, Sherlock threw himself into the couch and tore at his hair like the were still halfway through this puzzle and not at the end of it. John sat at the desk, unsure where else to go.

"So, what's wrong then?" he asked and Sherlock pulled his hands out of his hair enough to turn his head.

"We need Christmas," he growled. John blinked rapidly, wondering if he should bother asking. Sherlock started tearing at his hair again.

"What?" John asked finally, thoroughly lost.

"It's the only way to get the police into Appledore," Sherlock replied, rubbing his hands over his face.

When was the last time he'd slept? John wondered, thinking back to the drug den. Surely Sherlock had not been stupid enough to actually sleep there. Then again, Sherlock had always acted like he was invincible.

"I still don't follow. Christmas?" John prompted. Sherlock inhaled slowly, like he was bracing himself for something, and sat up from the couch. "It's the only time Mycroft's laptop is ever in my presence without his usual surveillance measures. Mother wouldn't stand for it," Sherlock explained. John frowned, no less certain that Sherlock hadn't finally gone mad. "Christmas! We need a warrant. Don't you see? Any evidence will have to get tossed out if there's not a reason for entry," Sherlock exclaimed, gesturing madly with his hands. Getting frustrated, John noted, but he understood now.

He'd never seen Sherlock care about legal arrests before; Sherlock must have had the same thought he had - probably long before. Magnussen - if he could be arrested with his collection intact - could keep them safe for the rest of their lives. John stared at Sherlock, blown away.

"That's why you're going after Magnussen. That's why the cocaine and… Janine. You thought of this from the start - Magnussen will protect us," John concluded. Sherlock sighed, the urgency falling out of his movements.

"I discovered his influence during my attack on Moriarty. It'd keep you safe, no matter what else happens," Sherlock admitted, dropping his face into his hands. "A trump card on all of the Western World."

John nodded slowly, his resolve settling. They could do this, fix all that they still had to be fixed, and then they could see what they had left.

"But we need a warrant. Okay. What's your plan then?" John asked and Sherlock groaned.

"We poison my family, take the laptop while they're temporarily incapacitated, go to Appledore, wait until my brother sends in the cavalry to arrest Magnussen for possession of his laptop, and we reveal the Appledore vaults to Mycroft, solidifying his power doing whatever it is he does," Sherlock listed, sounding like the plan had already collapsed. John rubbed at his nose, wondering how, after so much time, he could still get shocked by Sherlock's insanity.

"So what's the problem then?" he asked. Christmas was three weeks away; that sounded perfect. This time it was his turn to surprise Sherlock. The man stared at him, apparently dumbstruck.

"I say 'let's poison my parents' and you ask 'what's the problem?" he asked.

John cleared his throat, unsure what more to say. Surely Sherlock did not think he'd undergone ten days of torture without having any of his innocence stripped from him? He looked down at his hands, thinking he'd quietly become a worse person without anyone noticing, when Lestrade had hoped so much that Sherlock would quietly become a better one.

They would never face Moriarty without a recourse ever again. Or they could spare a family a single overdose of a soporific. He'd had his answer before the question was fully formulated. Sherlock rubbed a hand down his pants, looking uncomfortable and sad, and John gratefully deduced he didn't have to put the change in words.

"Well, to be fair, all I heard was 'lets poison Mycroft'," John joked. They would have to trust Mycroft in this; he knew that. Trust Mycroft with their lives or hand Sherlock Appledore and let him try to use it, surely less effectively. No, they needed total protection, a kind of legal and criminal immunity. Only Mycroft could manage that.

"Yes, that is a perk," Sherlock replied, standing up from the couch and grabbing his laptop, apparently done with the conversation. He started toward the kitchen and John stood up from the desk.

"But we tell Mycroft," he ordered. Sherlock paused, halfway into the kitchen. "Total honesty," John demanded. Sherlock continued into his kitchen without a word and started setting up his microscope.

He didn't like it, but he'd do it, John concluded, letting out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. Sherlock pulled out something vaguely flesh shaped from the freezer drawer and sawed off a sliver with what used to be their bread knife. He pushed the flesh back into the freezer and settled down at the kitchen table with his sample to study. Cataloguing the effect of frost on something, John guessed, and did not ask.

It was time for him to leave, he knew that. The case was pushed forward, Janine had agreed to help as he'd suggested. He'd done his part, and now Sherlock had to focus on the tiny mental machinations that would lead Magnussen into their trap. There was nothing more he could do. Still, John did not want to spend the evening in the cold solitude of his bedsit and he did not want to have to manufacture an excuse to get back here, to see the next development.

He crunched across the broken mugs and scattered books and lay down on the couch without a word. Sherlock noticed it, he could see that from the tiny way Sherlock's shoulders relaxed back into his seat, but neither of them mentioned it. Finally, Sherlock got up to go to the light switch, flipped off the lights, and sat back down at the kitchen table. The microscope lit up Sherlock's face, throwing the angles in his cheeks in sharp relief. He looked sickly, too hungry and too pale. John doubted he looked any better himself. They'd gone through too much in the last year, John thought. It was time for some quiet. This time, however, he did not want to leave.

~~//~~

Three weeks, Sherlock reflected, staring at the crystallized flesh beneath his microscope. Three weeks until Christmas and he had no idea what to do with them. He couldn't even figure out why John was still in the flat, lying on the couch like he planned to stay the night. Sherlock adjusted the magnetization focus, noting that he needed to oil the dial again. He needed John to stay. And for that he needed Magnussen. 'So what's the problem then?' John had asked, like he hadn't seen it. John would leave the flat the next morning, go to his infested bedsit and remember that he didn't even have a job to occupy him - Sarah had fired him, that was obvious. That, at least, was to Sherlock's advantage. John was miserable everywhere; 221B couldn't be that much worse. Sherlock just had to give him a reason to stay, to get used to it again, rediscover whatever it was that'd made him stay the first time, beyond the need for adventure. John didn't want to be so very adventurous anymore. That was obvious from the way he tensed with every suggestion of it. But perhaps there was a chance, however minute, that if Sherlock could just make him laugh again..

Sherlock pushed himself away from the microscope, disgusted with himself. The flesh had thawed without his having watched it. He didn't have a reason for John to stay. And in three weeks it'd be Christmas and their last case would be over all the same.

A/N: Three weeks and I have no idea what they will do with them. What do you think?

Chapter Text

John woke up, the screams of his men in his ears. He inhaled heavily and opened his eyes, expecting to count water marks on the drop ceiling like he always did to calm himself of the empty bedsit.

Plaster ceiling. The gray dots Sherlock attributed to an old tenant's champagne. The burn mark they'd never been able to get out after Sherlock set fire to a curtain. Scratches where the window glass had once exploded into the room. He inhaled slowly, wrapping himself in the familiar smell of dust and formaldehyde. 221B.

"What are you doing, Sherlock? Sitting here with that old thing?"

Mrs. Hudson was in the kitchen, nagging Sherlock. Sherlock huffed.

"It's a compound microscope, Mrs. Hudson," he protested and John smiled, hearing Mrs. Hudson sniff.

"You have him here and you're working on a case?" she whispered too loudly. "You're not going to get a thousand chances, Sherlock."

John's smile melted.

"I have one thing to offer him, one reason he's here, and that's the work," Sherlock snapped.

"Oh, Sherlock," Mrs. Hudson cooed. John exhaled slowly, trying to stay out of Sherlock's awareness, at least for long enough for the conversation to change.

"Do not expect for an instant that, were it not for Magnussen and the allure of violence that John Watson would be in my living room," Sherlock hissed.

Three weeks until Christmas. And no excuse to keep them together. John inhaled again. Dust and formaldehyde. He didn't want to leave. Why did he feel like he had no choice? What kept him locked into that crappy little bedsit?

He couldn't move in. They both knew that. He just couldn't be sitting on Sherlock's floor, naked again. He'd had every shred of pride peeled from him. It was time to start growing it back.

He wouldn't move in. But he wouldn't run away. And he could bloody well accept that he'd wanted Sherlock Holmes in his arms since he'd met the man and just leave it at that. It wasn't going to happen. But he wasn't going anywhere. They could bloody well make up why not if they needed an excuse.

Decision made, John tugged his sling tight with his teeth and sat up with a groan. Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson were having a whispered argument in the kitchen. Or more accurately, Mrs. Hudson was still berating Sherlock while the man steadily ignored her.

"I gathered that," Sherlock drawled finally. Mrs. Hudson straightened, a hand on her hip, and frowned at the back of his head.

"You are missing what's right in front of you. Compound microscope," she scoffed, turning to leave. She caught John's eyes and pointed a finger at him angrily. "Both of you," she accused.

He knows what I wanted, John thought sadly.

"I don't own a microscope, Mrs. Hudson," he said instead and she threw up her hands, discarding them both as hopeless. Not disagreeing, John let her go.

He grabbed the now-dented kettle and approached the kitchen, nervous Sherlock was going to ask why he was still here. He certainly didn't have a comfortable answer.

"Found the kettle," he joked. Sherlock lifted his head from his work and stared at him, clearly missing the joke. "Janine - er - hid it," John explained awkwardly, turning to the sink to fill it. Sherlock blinked and returned to his microscope. John started the water for tea, trying to figure out if he left a toothbrush here and if it'd be too weird to go find it.

The water took too long to boil. John wandered around the kitchen, drumming a beat on his leg.

I have one thing to offer him, one reason he's here, and that's the work. That hadn't been true before. They'd had plenty of conversations, John remembered. Though he didn't want to do it all the same as before. He didn't know what the hell he was trying for anymore.

"Tea?" he asked and Sherlock grunted in the way he knew meant 'yes'. He only then remembered that Janine had killed all the mugs but the strangely shaped purple one an elderly client had presented to them as a gift for working without pay. He grabbed a surviving beer glass, knowing Sherlock wouldn't care what shape he drank out of, and poured for them both. All of their plates were in shattered pieces at Sherlock's feet. John decided not to mention it.

They'd had plenty of silence too, John remembered, wiping at the dingy cabinet where the mugs were supposed to be. Sherlock stayed glued to his work but John could feel him watching him.

John grabbed a newspaper from the pile next to where his chair was supposed to be and settled on the couch, knowing it'd be easier to turn the pages one-handed with the help of his knees.

~~//~~

He had nothing. He'd spent the entire night staring at the uselessly thawed scrap of flesh and had nothing to show for it. No case and with the national media firmly moving on from his 'miraculous return from the dead'; very little chance of one. Nothing would keep John here and once he'd left, what would bring him to the family home for Christmas, to end the case with Sherlock? No, once John walked away again, he'd be gone. Sherlock knew that with more certainly than he'd felt for any case. But he didn't have anything he could do about it.

He kept his eyes on his fake work. He couldn't live with how it'd be otherwise. He wouldn't run after the man, begging for his friendship.

~~//~~

John waited until the quiet awkwardness in the flat had a couple hours to settle down. Then, with a full bladder and fuzzy-feeling teeth, he decided to push the envelope.

"Got - uh - got a new toothbrush around here?" he asked without looking up from a paper.

Christ. He sounded like a new lover. He'd said the same thing to Janette, the first time he'd stayed over.

"Under the sink. But your old one's in the vanity cabinet, on the bottom right," Sherlock replied.

Right. He hadn't ever brushed his teeth in 221B after the surgeries. He'd forgotten all about it. How had he forgotten?

Well then. John got to his feet and moved to the bathroom. The whole thing smelled like flowery soap when he walked through the door. It was still thick in the air, as if Janine had only just showered here. John coughed, looking around for the source. There was a whole pile of shampoos, body washes, and candles in the bin by the toilet. When Sherlock had ditched them all John wasn't sure, but he was grateful for it all the same. Janine was nothing to them, he could believe that. Just an ally, now. John dug around in the vanity for Sherlock's toothpaste and sat on the toilet to brush his teeth.

~~//~~

Chapter Text

Chapter 31


John walked out minutes later to see Sherlock bent over the desk on his laptop, writing an email. A sure sign he was looking for a new case and had solved one without needing to leave the flat. Feeling rather desperate for Sherlock to find one, John hid in the kitchen and started microwaving his very over-seeped tea.

He got hopeful when he heard Sherlock mumbling.

"Elite guard. Why this particular grenadier? Curious."

John swallowed down a gulp of bitter now-scalding tea. He thought Sherlock was faking his interest but decided not to mention it. He'd fake his own if it'd give them a case, a semblance of normalcy. Sherlock turned around, his posture stiff and ran his finger over the surface of the desk next to him as if checking for dust.

"A private in Her Magesties' household guard. Forty enlisted men and officers. Thinks he's being stalked," Sherlock listed quickly, suddenly brushing off his finger and moving to grab his coat. He hesitated by the door, his coat in his hand and his pale eyes nervous. "Coming?" he asked.

John blinked rapidly. He wanted to ask what was odd about the case but then, he didn't want to mangle their flimsy lie. Instead he tossed back another gulp of the nasty tea and left the mug in the sink.

~~//~~

They walked in silence at a slower pace than John expected. They took the Jubilee line, a strange change from Sherlock's usual habit of hailing a cab every time they needed to travel for more than two meters. It looked like Sherlock was drawing the case out as long as possible and wasn't managing to be at all subtle about it. Given that, again John didn't question it, and they rode in relative peace to Westminster Station. From there they walked at a remarkably slow pace until John was grinding his teeth, ready to berate the man for testing his limits so openly, and worse for underestimating him.

They arrived at the palace finally and Sherlock strode up to the officer of the guard apparently undeterred by the armed soldiers shouting to stay back. John obeyed them, remaining by the tourist fence until the officer recognized Sherlock and shushed his soldiers. Sherlock gestured to John to approach as if they'd agreed upon this mode of entry from the start.

"We're here to see Private Steven Bainbridge," John announced, pretending they had an appointment and handing over his military I.D.

"He's on duty right now, sir," the soldier replied, visibly mollified by his rank. John waited for a better answer as he was trained to do with subordinates. "But I'll certainly let him know when he's free," the guard added.

"And when will that be?" Sherlock demanded and the guard drew up in pride. He recognized Sherlock but he was still talking to a civvie, John thought.

"Another hour," the guard replied. John blew out a breath, knowing what that meant. Waiting in more of their damned endless silence.

"Thank you," he said as patiently as he could and they retreated. Sherlock led him to a park outside one of the entrances and they sat on a bench conveniently overlooking the on-duty guards. It didn't take long to get awkward. John fiddled with his makeshift sling, deciding it was passed time to do away with the bloody thing and trust in his strength training. Sherlock clasped his hands on his lap in that oddly schoolboy way he had.

"Do you think they give them classes?" Sherlock asked out of the blue. John looked at him but found no clues forthcoming in Sherlock's stiff expression.

"Classes?" John asked finally, glad to be talking.

"How to resist the temptation to scratch their behinds," Sherlock clarified without looking away from the stiff, silent guards. Small talk, John recognized, though he didn't at all know what to do with it, coming from Sherlock. Surely the man was beyond miserable to be trying.

"Afferent neurons in the peripheral nervous system," John commented. Sherlock frowned and turned his head, clearly confused. John didn't blame him; he couldn't figure out what he was attempting to add to the conversation either. "Bum itch," he reiterated. Sherlock's face cleared as if that'd helped.

"Oh," he said.

This was horrible. It was better when they weren't trying to talk.

"So why don't you see him anymore?" Sherlock asked and John was only more confused. He must have looked it, for Sherlock added, "your ex-commander Sholto". John swallowed, guessing that in the absence of a case Sherlock was finding a different deduction to show off. John didn't know how to express how this time, when it came to Sholto and the war, John desperately wished he wouldn't. Another loss, another tragedy. Now, apparently, Sherlock knew about all of them. Not a thing to show off, if that was what Sherlock was attempting.

"He was decorated, wasn't he? A war hero," Sherlock asked, sounding uncertain about that conclusion. Maybe a guess, maybe just a push for more information. John sighed. James Sholto. A vastly respectable man, crushed by his losses in war. Perhaps Sherlock did have a greater point to this.

"Not to everyone," John answered honestly, letting go of his sling. He cleared his throat and Sherlock looked away, staring at the palace. John was grateful. "He led a team of crows into battle-"

"Crows?" Sherlock asked quickly and John clarified.

"New recruits. It's a standard procedure to break the new boys in, but it went wrong. They all died. He was the only survivor. The press and the families gave him hell. He gets more death threats than you," John recounted.

"Oh, I wouldn't count on that," Sherlock replied grimly. John decided not to argue. Sherlock was likely right, when it came to strict numbers.

"Why have you suddenly taken an interest in another human being?" John asked and Sherlock's jaw clenched.

Crap.


"I'm… chatting," Sherlock pronounced uncomfortably. John felt his eyebrows rise at the admission and turned to look at Sherlock Holmes, who had always held such distain for chatter. "Won't be trying that again," Sherlock drawled.

"No, I mean… how do you know about him? I don't think I've ever mentioned him," John backtracked, shaking his head.

"Oh," Sherlock said, only looking more uncomfortable. "You said it in the hospital…Screaming," he explained. John closed his eyes. Small talk. They were pants at this.

"Changing the subject completely…" John started, unsure what to change it to. "They are fully operational soldiers, not just ceremonial," he answered finally, jerking his head toward the guards on duty.

"Hmm," Sherlock grunted. John nodded, waiting a moment for the awkwardness to pass. To his surprise, Sherlock had disappeared from the bench entirely. John stood up and glanced around him, entirely perturbed, only to spot Sherlock rushing up the grass back to him. "We'll go in to meet with the sergeant, sneak around a bit, and meet with Bainbridge as privately as possible."

John nodded and started down the hill with him, trying to pretend like it was perfectly normal for Sherlock to turn around and explain himself to anyone.

"Sounds good," John croaked out, as if he didn't sound entirely ridiculous and likely to end both of them in jail. Sherlock grinned, obviously excited, and started back down the hill.

Chapter Text

Sherlock was trying. John didn't quite know what to make of it. He'd never seen the man look so cautious. Surely it was supposed to make him more comfortable, to see Sherlock proving that he understood the enormity of his previous lies, that he wouldn't hide a case from John again. John followed after him, wondering if he was thinking too much. He was grateful to Sherlock, glad to see what their partnership could be. But he hated seeing Sherlock Holmes walk on eggshells. A fake case and a fake partnership.

John got the guard's attention, easy now that they had a real appointment with Major Reed, and they were escorted to a waiting room outside the major's office. No sooner had they been left alone than Sherlock split off to 'sneak around a bit'. John waited behind, doing his best to look like he'd expected to conduct the interview alone. By the time he was called into the meeting his nerves had settled and he could greet the major inside with a salute and no further explanation. The major asked for his I.D and he gave his military card, knowing how it'd helped him before. The major took it and gestured him to sit.

"Can I ask what this is in connection with?" Reed asked, looking up from the I.D.

"Private Bainbridge contacted us about a personal matter, sir," John explained, doing his best to leave out all useful information. He was almost certain this appointment was for nothing more than getting them inside the barracks walls. Now he just needed to stall.

"Nothing's personal when it concerns my troops," the major replied. A normal attitude when it came to the military. Privacy was a privilege of the brass. "What do you really want?"

"I'm here on a legitimate enquiry," John replied. There, that had no content whatsoever.

"You press? Digging for some bloody royal story or something?" the major pressed, looking annoyed.

"No, sir, I'm Captain John Watson of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers," John stated, listing what the major had already ascertained from his I.D. He was starting to have fun.

"Retired," the major interrupted. Truly irritated, now. John bit his tongue, deciding not to correct him. Medical discharge. He'd tried to reenlist; they'd denied him. The major glanced down at his sling, no sympathy in his eyes. "You could be a used car salesman for all I know."

John met the man's gaze, trying to decide how much of his anger he could show without getting kicked out of the office entirely. Major Reed stared back, his expression slowly clearing.

"I know you, don't I?" he asked, squinting.

"Hmm?" John hummed, trying to look uncertain. The major tossed his I.D back to him dismissively. John leaned forward to grab it and return it to his wallet. Painlessly. He was getting better.

"I've seen you in the papers hanging around with that detective, the one with the silly hat. What the hell does Bainbridge want with a detective?"

"I'm not at liberty to say," John stalled, pushing his I.D into his wallet. He was definitely going to get tossed out.

"Not at liberty to say? He's a soldier in my regiment. I'll be damned if he's going to get up to cloak-and-dagger nonsense like this," Reed growled. The door slammed open, against any kind of deportment training. A soldier rushed in, looking scared. A fully grown man with the marks of a sergeant; he should know better. The sergeant stopped short, seeing John.

"Sir-" he started.

"What's going on?" Reed demanded.

"It's Bainbridge, sir. He's dead," the man announced loudly. Not news to be given in front of a stranger, John noted. Reed pushed himself up from his desk, not wasting time to fuss about comportment. John rushed after them. The major didn't seem to notice, focusing on finding his dead soldier. The duty sergeant led them down a wing of soldiers quarters and into a shared loo. There was a body on the floor, lying half out of a shower stall in a watered down puddle of blood.

"My god!" Reed exclaimed, rushing in. John moved to approach the body but the major stopped him sharply.

"No - let me take a look, sir, I'm a doctor," John ordered automatically, hovering near Bainbridge. Reed's eyebrows snapped together.

"What?' he bit out, looking incredulous. "Sergeant, arrest this man."

The duty sergeant reacted quickly, apparently expecting the action. He wrenched John's arm behind his back without hesitation. John let out a strangled shout and let himself get pulled backwards, not daring to fight. His shoulder would redislocate itself for sure. The sergeant released his arm quickly, shifting his grip onto John's shirt and neck.

"Oh, you're a doctor now too?" the major asked, angry. The door banged open behind them and John tensed, too ready to fight. He needed to let himself be arrested. He had no idea how to do that.

"Let me examine him, please!" John yelled.

"Sir, caught this one snooping around," another sergeant said, walking into John's eyeshot with Sherlock in tow.

"Is that what this is about? Distracting me so that this man could get in here and kill Bainbridge?" Reed shouted.

That's not good.

"Kill him with what? Where's the weapon?" Sherlock asked but his gaze was on John, inspecting his shoulder and meeting his eyes. John nodded and Sherlock turned his glare on Reed.

"What?" Reed asked, blinking.

"Where's the weapon?" Sherlock repeated, slower now. "Go on, search me, no weapon."

John shifted. They needed to let him go. He was too aware of the hand on his neck, the fingernail digging in beneath his hair line. He needed to get his back to a wall and he needed to examine that body. For god's sake, no one had even checked the Bainbridge's wounds yet, as far as John could see.

"Bainbridge was on parade. He came off duty five minutes ago. When's this supposed to have happened?" John growled.

"You obviously stabbed him before he got into the shower," Reed accused.

"No," Sherlock drawled.

"No?" Reed spat. This was taking too long.

"He's soaking wet and there's still shampoo in his hair. He got into the shower and then someone stabbed him," Sherlock replied, glancing at John. John nodded again. He was okay. He was in control of this.

"But the cubical was locked from the inside, sir. I had to break it open," the duty sergeant replied, his voice too close to John's ear. That was interesting; how had the killer gotten inside? John focused on that - Sherlock would be thrilled. He liked locked-door mysteries. They always had deceptively simple solutions.

"Must have climbed over the top," Reed proposed and John snorted - not that simple.

"Well then I'd be soaking wet too, wouldn't I?" Sherlock snarled, impatient too now. They had to look at that damn body. John was done with it.

"Major, please. I'm John Watson, Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers. Three years in Afghanistan, a veteran of Kandahar, Helmand and Barts bloody Hospital! Let me examine this body!" John shouted. The man could still have a steady pulse for all he knew. The major looked down at Bainbridge, obviously unhappy with his options. He nodded finally, looking ready to spit, and the duty sergeant released him.

"Thank you," John replied, deciding not to take off his coat when it'd been so much effort to get it on in the first place. He walked around the body until he could see everyone in the room and knelt down, trying to regain his calm.

"Suicide?" the major suggested, speaking softer now. John couldn't make out a pulse. Damn it all.

"No. The weapon again, no knife," Sherlock replied. John ran his hands over the bloodiest part of Bainbridge's bare torso and found a slit in his side. Sherlock squatted beside him.

"Here we are. There is a wound to the abdomen, incredibly fine," John announced.

"Man stabbed to death. No murder weapon. Door locked from the inside. Only one way in or out of here…" Sherlock mused. John ignored him, keeping his hand in front of the victim's mouth and nose.

"Sherlock-" John said sharply and Sherlock looked up, like he always did when John took that tone. John felt over Bainbridge's throat, hopeful now. They could save this man. "He's still breathing."

"Oh my god," Sherlock exclaimed, his breath catching. The major moved to leave, hopefully to call an ambulance. John wouldn't trust in it after this show of incompetence.

"What do we do?" Sherlock asked, sounding nervous now and John ignored that too.

"Give me your scarf," he ordered without waiting to check if Sherlock had it. He always had it.

"What?" Sherlock asked and John ignored that too. He had work to do. It wasn't his problem if Sherlock loved that scarf.

"Quickly, now!" he shouted before looking over at the waiting duty sergeant to focus his command. "Call an ambulance now!" The duty sergeant hesitated, confused by the chain of command. He'd been arresting John moments before. "Do it!" John shouted. The shouting worked too well for both sergeants ran to obey. Damn it.

"Nurse, press here. Hard," John ordered, thinking the damned scarf would have appeared already.

"Nurse?" Sherlock protested and John looked up. Right. Not in the hospital. Irrelevant.

"Yeah, I'm making do. Keep pressure on that wound!" he ordered. "Steven? Steven, stay with me," he called to his patient, pulling down the man's lower eyelids to check for anemia. His eyes were pale pink beneath their whites, no longer red with blood. Not good, but not dead and there was nothing to be done for it. He'd need a transfusion if he made it that long. John examined him for more wounds and called 999 himself to give dispatch a full analysis of the patient. The duty sergeant came back and John sent him off for Bainbridge's military file; it'd list his blood type for the transfusion for sure. Then there was little for John to do but encourage Sherlock to apply pressure and hope the Private's heart didn't stop.

This wasn't a fake case. John felt something relax in his chest at the thought. An attempted murder - and if they were very very lucky, a thwarted one. That damned unit sergeant had almost let Bainbridge bleed out alone on the floor. They hadn't even called a bloody ambulance. John met Sherlock's gaze and saw his anger reflected there.

"Incredible incompetence," John growled. Sherlock nodded, his pupils dialating.

"He'd just come off guard duty. There had to be people watching, nothing apparently wrong… No weapon here, only one way in or out and a guard at that door. There was a puzzle, where is the murderer - or if it's suicide, the weapon? I got caught up…" Sherlock muttered. "I missed this." He glanced down at the wound beneath his hand, bleeding into his scarf. His eyes met John's again, full of wonder. John sighed, nodding. They both knew they were likely to lose this patient. Not their error, but it would have been Sherlock's. He'd have discovered it at the autopsy, how long it'd taken for the tiny wound to take its toll. "You caught this. You'd never miss it," Sherlock breathed. John blew out a heavy breath and nodded. Too much sentiment. He didn't have the energy.

"Yes, Sherlock. Beyond being a crippled, vaguely intelligent source of milk and tea for you, I actually know how to do stuff," he growled. Sherlock laughed, a brilliant light-hearted sound that made John's heart sore.

"Vaguely intelligent source of milk and tea? I said that, did I?" Sherlock guessed. John sighed again, glaring at him.

"It might have come up, yes."

Sherlock tilted his head, considering that, and smirked.

"Fairly accurate," he congratulated himself and John huffed. Sherlock smiled, his eyes sparkling, and John shook his head, amused despite himself.

They waited for the EMTs and let them take over. The major let them leave with his thanks and his personal number. It was more than a gesture; they had a major in Her Majesty's guard that owned them one hell of a favor.

"Was it the duty guard?" John asked when they were back in the privacy of their flat.

"No," Sherlock replied, throwing his coat onto its hook and falling into the couch. John washed the blood off his hands in the kitchen sink and settled into Sherlock's chair. Sherlock groaned, obviously frustrated. John didn't have to ask why. There was nothing more to do with the case but see if Bainbridge woke up with more information. Not the distraction they were looking for.

"I had fun tonight," John offered, taking off his shoes. Sherlock groaned again.

"Bored!" he complained and John smiled. It'd been too long since he'd heard that word. A year of absence and mourning, nine days of torture, six weeks of recovery. John pulled off his sling and walked over to the fireplace to start his physical therapy reps.

"Find another case?" he suggested, watching Sherlock in the mirror.

~~//~~

Sherlock observed John in the mirror. The man wanted to stay; he just needed an excuse. Cases would make them leave the house. That was the exact opposite of what he wanted. Useless. He took out his phone.

:I want to stay home. Advise. SH: he ordered. His phone buzzed almost immediately. Donovan was likely waiting in public transit or lonely at home. Perfect. Sherlock held his phone in front of his face and opened the message.

: Avoid the door at all costs.:


Damnit. Why was everyone so slow? And they thought he was laughable?

:With John. You're stupid. SH: Sherlock replied. His phone buzzed again. She was getting accustomed to insults.

:Is he there?: she asked. Sherlock rolled his eyes. Why would he have said 'stay' at home with John if he weren't in the building?

:Yes. SH: he typed out instead. John was on his second set of exercises, already building up a sweat from the pain. There wasn't much time.

:He'll leave when he's bored: he added, desperate enough to spell it out for the daft woman. At least she knew him and she knew men. And she answered her phone.

:Drink beer? Get Pizza? Poker, 'Who Am I', Parcheesy ???:

Sherlock stared at the suggestion, wanting to tear at the woman.

What in the hell is Parcheesy?

Surely the internet would know. For now, unimportant. Apparently they needed beer. If this didn't work, he was going to mock Donovan for a week.

Chapter Text

John had only just finished his second set before the mad genius was rushing out of the flat, his mobile phone clenched in his hand.

Another case, probably. There wasn't much else that could make Sherlock run like that. John pushed his weight back into his right shoulder, wondering at himself. They were doing this again. Cavorting about town, solving mysteries. He'd saved a life today, if Bainbridge lived.

You'd never miss this. There'd been such a look of wonder in Sherlock's eyes. True respect, unhidden. There were so many things that expression healed. John ran his hands down his dark slacks, still damp with shower water and blood.

He had to bathe while he had the flat to himself. Sherlock would no doubt see the wet bucket and rag and understand but at least he wouldn't have to see how badly his back had healed, wouldn't have to watch. There was nothing attractive in a fear of water. John pushed his weight into his other shoulder, frustrated with himself. He could already feel the anxiety crawling up his spine. He was alone in this flat. That wasn't wise. He could bathe any other time. He could wait.

John pushed his shoulder again, letting it buck in pain. He could say that all day, not bathe because he was alone, not bathe because Sherlock would see him and he had his pride.

Damn it.

John let his arm drop from the wall, exhausted, his shoulder still throbbing steadily. He'd start by getting the bucket into the bathroom. He crunched over the now pulverized mug shards, hoping Janine didn't move the bucket from beneath the sink in her not-so-subtle push for territory. It was there, and like a man walking to his gallows, John trudged into Sherlock's tiny bathroom and closed the door.

It was too empty. Too white. He pushed the door open immediately, struggling with his panic. Then there was an open doorway behind him and John sank down the wall to sit across from the sink, trying to get a grip on his breathing.

Damn it all but nothing had changed. John pushed his head between his knees and inhaled as steadily as he could. He'd done this before. At least once a week he'd managed this. John threw the bucket into the tub.

Fuck it. He was doing this again. Even if he did have to strip with the door wide open.

The flat was too quiet, too empty. He wanted his gun. He wanted to keep his back to the cold tile, where no one could approach him. John cleared his throat, feeling sick to his stomach, and tried not to think about puking in the toilet, his face down towards the water. He failed and his stomach rolled. Damn it, he should do this later. John pushed himself across the floor and pulled the handle out to start the water flowing.

The water rushed into the tub in a cacophony that drowned out the quiet of the home. John felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He couldn't hear if anyone was coming, wouldn't see them if he faced the tub. He turned around and smacked the door closed. He struck too hard and it slammed, making the small bathroom seem quiet again.

John turned around to see where the hot water was flowing down the drain, no where near the bucket.

Fuck.

Bucket first, next time. John sank back down against the bathroom wall. He was too smart to try and rearrange the bucket now, so far down in the tub. He'd wait for the whole damn tub to fill.

He waited and his stomach slowly settled. The room was filled with the splashing sound of filling water, blocked off from the rest of the flat. Bright and enclosed and nowhere anyone could enter. That felt better now.

But the tub filled and threatened to overflow. John watched it, hating Mike and the ridiculous PTSD nine days had given him. Fucking unbelievable. How long was this going to last then? All his adrenaline up and his breathing tachycardic, waiting for a bloody tub to fill.

The water spilled over the edge and slowly dripped down to pool on the floor. John sighed, watching another small spill work its way down the tub wall.

Bloody scared of water. Anger was helpful. John pushed himself across the tile and slammed the faucet closed. He jerked himself away to sit with his back to the tub, staring at the closed door. He didn't know how much time had passed or when Sherlock was planning to come home. But he still hadn't even gotten his hands wet.

John ran his fingers through his greasy hair. He wanted to get out of here. So he pulled the hand-towel off its hook by the sink and tossed it into the tub behind him. It was easier if he wasn't looking at it. He fished the rag out of the water with one arm, staring resolutely at the door and hoping his molars didn't crack between his clenched jaws. He wet himself down, sitting on the hair-covered tile, and soaped up his hair, ignoring how it was barely damp at all. He rinsed himself with the ringed rag until there was a small puddle around his naked legs and started scrubbing the rest of himself until the small puddle turned brown and he needed to rinse himself off again.

He left the tub full and the bucket bobbing in it. Mrs. Hudson would drain it eventually, or Sherlock would. There wasn't much to hide from them. John poked his head out of the bathroom, the towel wrapped around himself, listening for Sherlock. The flat was silent but that didn't mean much. Again, little to hide, John told himself, and started up the stairs to his old room.

His room was a shock. Swept, dusted, and packed up in boxed labeled in Mrs. Hudson's tight script. John sat down on his bare mattress, sadness washing through him. Why was this what made him regret leaving? He didn't understand it but for a moment John wished he'd never stepped foot in that bedsit - wished he'd stayed here and waited while he'd mourned for Sherlock Holmes to return. What would it have been like, if he'd never left, if he'd never been captured, when Sherlock returned?

He wasn't ever planning to come back, John remembered, cutting into his fantasy of an undamaged friendship picking up where it'd been. And Sherlock would still have jumped. No, better to fantasize that Sherlock had never jumped at all. But that fantasy had lost its splendor after a year's use. John pushed himself from the bed to tear open the box labeled 'Pants and Socks'. He got dressed slowly, disliking the idea of facing the empty flat with nothing to occupy him. He could hear the cawing of crows on the roof, reminding him that he was above ground. He could smell the heat working in the radiators.

Better than the bedsit. But still he could feel his ears straining to hear anyone beside him and for a moment the toasted metal smell of the radiator shifted to the burnt gas of a propane torch.

Fuck.

John rushed down the stairs, making as much noise with his feet as he could. He'd make some tea.

He was just opening the door to the kitchen when he heard the outside door creak open downstairs. John froze, clenching the turned doorknob in his hand to keep it from clicking. The outside door shut heavily.

"It's raining, Mrs. Hudson!" Sherlock shouted, sounding like he expected her to fix it. John relaxed his grip and let himself exhale. Sherlock pounded up the stairs, making even more noise than usual. Being careful not to startle. John was grateful despite his pride. That would keep them both safer. He walked into the flat through the kitchen and moved to sit in Sherlock's chair. He wanted to know all about Sherlock's new case.

Sherlock walked in carrying a pizza box and an entire case of beer.

"So, what happened then?" John asked when Sherlock set the items between them. He'd lived with Sherlock for too long to dare assume there was anything edible in the bar. Sherlock clasped his hands behind his back, looking uncomfortable.

"Pizza? Beer?" he said, as if asking if that's what he'd brought. John pointed at the steaming box.

"That's fresh? You haven't done anything to it?" he asked. Sherlock grimaced.

"Donovan," he said, as if that was an answer, and sat down on the couch. Then, to John's shock, he flipped open the box and grabbed a slice with his hands. Sherlock almost never touched his food and when he did, it was inevitably with a washcloth nearby. He was finicky about that. But Sherlock bit off the tip of his slice without any apparent concern, only to swallow rapidly and glare at John.

"Not hungry?" he accused, obviously knowing he was famished.

"Just… surprised," John answered honestly and went to get a plate and silverware. "So where were you?" he asked, walking back with his cutlery. He didn't mention that his bath had taken almost an hour. He was sure Sherlock already knew.

"First place wouldn't sell to me. A problem with blood, apparently," Sherlock explained, holding up his clean hands. It took a moment for John to process.

"You… you left with Bainbridge's blood all over you, didn't you?" John realized aloud, rubbing at his forehead. Sherlock shrugged and John laughed.

"Now. Poker," Sherlock declared proudly, slapping a brand new deck of cards beside the pizza box. John shook his head immediately, not needing to consider it.

"Sherlock, you know I'm not going to play that with you," he swore. Sherlock scowled.

"Why not?" he demanded and John scoffed.

"You'll bloody well read my mind, that's why. It's a game of math and observation; do you really expect me to compete?"

Sherlock glanced down at his phone, looking lost. John watched him, only more confused.

"Sherlock, what?" he asked, gesturing to the pizza and playing cards and beer, only to understand. A night in. Pizza and beer and stupid games. Healing. John smiled, grabbing the cards and using his teeth to break their plastic cover. "Poker for spoons it is," he agreed and Sherlock's expression cleared.

John started shuffling and Sherlock went into the kitchen and came back with a bottle opener and their tray of silverware. He cracked open a couple of beers and handed one over.

"To being off drugs," John saluted. Sherlock hesitated for a moment, obviously thinking, and clinked his beer. That was enough of a promise for John. They drank and John dealt for them. He'd decided the best way to enjoy the evening was to drink like a fish, and he quickly discovered that Sherlock had decided to keep up with him. Sherlock read every hand like he knew the whole game in advance and only became more merciless as the hands progressed and he inevitably counted cards. Still, John enjoyed watching Sherlock match him drink for drink, comfortably acknowledging the irony in celebrating sobriety by drinking themselves into a stupor.

Finally, when Sherlock had collected every bit of silverware they owned on his side of the table and they were both quite a bit too drunk to wield any of it masterfully, John decided to broach the subject that'd been nagging at his mind all month.

"So, why'd you start drinking? A year ago, in Prague?" John asked, trying to sit up in his seat. Sherlock glanced at him over their last hand, his eyes badly focused.

"Crack helps me think more. I'd left .. London. Needed the opposite," he explained simply, waving a hand generally in John's direction. "Why did you?"

John blinked, surprised. He hadn't thought about A.A meetings in months.

"You knew about that?" he asked and Sherlock shrugged.

"Mycroft gave me updates," he explained. John swallowed. A favor from Mycroft. John wondered how much that had cost. Sherlock had cared. John cleared his throat. Sherlock waved his beer at him. "So, drinking. Slowing your mind - what's the point?"

John huffed out a laugh at the insult and shook his head.

"I didn't," he replied. Sherlock frowned.

"Didn't?" he mumbled before his beer-glazed eyes hardened. "Idiot," he hissed, rubbing at his face. "Sebastian Moran."

John nodded and Sherlock glared at his empty beer bottle. John leaned forward to solve that by handing him another.

"You kill people. I like that," Sherlock slurred. John blinked, wondering if he shouldn't have handed him the extra beer. "Well, not too many people. It's got a good moderation to it really," Sherlock added helpfully. John nodded and cracked open another beer of his own.

"Well, you own the household utensils,' John declared, folding his last hand. Sherlock smirked and threw his cards face up. Bluffing. Of course. Nothing to lose. John gulped down another mouthful of alcohol. He'd never seen Sherlock drunk before. He had to admit he was curious how the night would go.

"You're pants at poker," Sherlock said.

"Yeah, well, I kill people. It's a different skill set," John joked and Sherlock smirked again. John watched him openly, thinking for once he'd actually gotten Sherlock too far gone to notice. Even hammered Sherlock managed to look graceful. Those long limbs managed to drape everywhere. Attractive. John didn't know what to do with that, other than steadily ignore it. That seemed to work well enough. As long as they didn't get this drunk too often. Although it had its benefits; John was fairly sure he couldn't get an erection if Sherlock leapt across the table and gave him a naked lap dance. He laughed at that thought and Sherlock looked up from sorting out all the spoons and forks to put away. John gestured at the cards, covering for himself.

"Well, at least I'm not any poorer," he complained. It had the opposite effect than he was hoping for; Sherlock's gaze shot up and sharpened.

"You're not poor," he accused, slurring less now. John wondered if he was putting it on before.

"Tell that to my creditors," John replied, taking another gulp of beer. He didn't want to talk finances.

"I died. You got the whole estate," Sherlock stated. John blinked, his beer bottle still halfway to his mouth.

"Uh, beg to differ," he joked finally, taking another sip. "On both counts."

Sherlock's expression darkened.

"Mycroft" he spat and John didn't argue. He had a more important point to contend with.

"Wait you.. You left me something?" He asked. He'd never noticed that no lawyer had come; he'd never expected anything, though perhaps he should have. Sherlock just didn't seem like a practical enough man to make a will at all. That was probably Mycroft's doing, John thought.

He could just imagine Mycroft sneering at his little brother, saying that if Sherlock could not show the least inkling of sense about his own wellbeing the least he could do was make it easier for everyone else to clean up after him. Apparently Sherlock had answered 'give it all to John'. John could see that too. Just as he could see Mycroft agreeing to do so, and holding out when he suspected Sherlock hadn't truly died. Whenever it was that he'd suspected that. Sherlock scoffed at him, like John should have guessed all that on his own.

John shrugged, deciding not to worry about. He hadn't thought of it while Sherlock was 'dead'; it seemed vastly inappropriate to worry about it now.

"Why did you think I was living at the bedsit?" John asked, happy to move the conversation along.

"It was familiar to you," Sherlock ventured and John snorted.

"So was the parking garage," he answered. He expected Sherlock to grimace, the joke too dark, but to his pleasure Sherlock tilted his head in acknowledgment of the point. John relaxed a bit further into his seat and sipped at his beer.

"Yeah, but it's a bitch to get to," Sherlock replied, his eyes twinkling in humour. John choked on his drink and sprayed beer into his lap. He looked up to see Sherlock grinning and chuckled at the thought.

"Not worth the commute, no," John agreed and Sherlock gathered up the poker cards to put them away. This felt good, John thought, lazily wiping the beer off his pants. Like old times.

~~//~~

Chapter Text

"Who am I?" Sherlock asked. John stared at him, remembering how he'd once thought that he'd never know if Sherlock truly went barmy.

"Sherlock?" he guessed, still trying to understand the question.

"No. 'Who am I' the game. Do you really go around asking people for your own identity?" Sherlock growled. John shrugged, trying not to blush. "Do you know how to play?" Sherlock asked.

"Yeah, we did that in Uni," John replied and Sherlock nodded and sat forward on the couch.

"Excellent. How do you play?" he asked. John shook his head at him, dumbfounded.

"You just suggested it!" he exclaimed.

"Yes, and?" Sherlock drawled. John sighed, giving up, and leaned back in his chair to grab a pen from Sherlock's desk.

"Got some sticky notes?" he asked and Sherlock stood up. Too quickly, apparently, for the man threw out his arms for balance and wavered for a moment, looking like he was trying to choose between falling over and throwing up on the floor. He steadied finally and started across the room toward the bookcase. John got up to get some heavier spirits from the kitchen. If they were going to get good and wasted, he wasn't drinking his way through an entire case of beer. He found the bottles safe in their cabinet, and grabbed an open bottle of brandy. They were both too drunk to bother with glasses. "Okay, write down a name you know. Someone real or fictional, doesn't matter, but don't show it to me," he instructed, working his way back. The floor was a little unsteady beneath his eyes, his vision not quite keeping up with the motions of his head. Drunk, but not hammered yet. Sherlock seemed much worse off. John hesitated with the bottle, heading back, and decided to keep it to himself. Even if he did look like a tosser drinking straight from the bottle on his own.

Sherlock held up the card, safely settled back on the couch, and John sat back in his chair. The coffee table had been shoved aside and his chair moved closer. John glanced at Sherlock suspiciously but didn't want to ask. He didn't know what he'd do with the answer.

"Okay, now stick it to my face," John ordered, leaning forward. The room spun a bit with the motion. Okay, perhaps he was more drunk than he'd thought. It was a pleasant feeling, spinning around in his brain, and he wasn't going to fight it. Sherlock sputtered at him, laughing, but John didn't move.

"Are you serious?" Sherlock asked finally, holding up the sticky note on one finger, and John nodded.

"Yes, Sherlock, stick it to my face," he ordered like they were halfway through a gunfight and Sherlock obeyed. John laughed, sitting back. It was a good feeling, seeing Sherlock obey so quickly. "Give me your face," John ordered next and Sherlock obeyed. John laughed to himself, remembering their misunderstanding, and wrote "Sherlock Holmes" on Sherlock's sticky note. He leaned back, proud of his cleverness, and grabbed his bottle of brandy.

"Alright. Now. We only answer questions with 'yes or no', and we ask questions about our character, trying to guess who it is. You get unlimited questions, but when you get a 'no' in response, it's my turn. Whoever guesses their character first, wins," John explained. There, that was concise enough. He wasn't that drunk. Sherlock nodded heavily and leaned back in his chair.

"So it's got to be someone you know. That narrows it down considerably," Sherlock replied and John glared.

"Not as much as it does for you. When was the last time you bothered learning someone's name?" John asked. Sherlock hummed, apparently thinking.

"Sally Donovan," he replied, taking another sip of his drink. John felt his eyebrows rise, surprised. "Or am I supposed to answer 'no'?" Sherlock asked, pointing at the card on John's face, and John shook his head.

"No, sorry, right. Game begins. Am I fictional?" John started. Sherlock squinted at his card, as if trying to remember what it said.

"…No," he answered finally, not sounding quite sure himself. John wondered if that was a clue or if Sherlock really was that drunk off of four beers. The man was skinny as a twig.

"Right, your turn," John replied, gesturing widely and Sherlock nodded heavily.

"Am I fictional?" he asked and John smiled, liking his choice of character.

"No, you're not," he answered and Sherlock scowled.

"This is a terrible way to discover a mystery identity," he growled and John shook his head.

"Don't care," he replied, drinking from his brandy again. He was starting to think he'd underestimated how many beers he'd had before he'd gotten out the bottle. His whole brain felt like it was pushing through a pile of warm squish to get any thoughts out. Definitely drunk. But pleasantly so. He'd go with it. He sipped at his drink again. "Drink more, you'll enjoy the game more," he offered. Likely terrible advice but for once Sherlock listened to him. Sherlock took the brandy from him and gulped it down, his eyes twinkling with the intended insult.

John laughed too loudly and cleared his throat. Sherlock handed the brandy back and sat back on the couch, apparently deciding to wait until it kicked in.

"Am I a vegetable?" John asked, peering at Sherlock.

"You or the…" Sherlock joked, gesturing vaguely at his face. John snorted, finding that unusually funny for the man and Sherlock laughed along.

"Funny," John complimented and Sherlock smiled to himself.

"Thank you," he replied, oddly softly. Sounding almost touched. John paused, wondering for a moment if Sherlock was going to be a soft-hearted drunk. One of those that always took the excuse to share too much. He certainly hoped so.

"Come on," John asked, getting back to the game and Sherlock shook his head.

"No, you're not a vegetable," he replied.

"It's your go." John sat back in his seat, starting to feel a little frustrated. Perhaps Sherlock had been right about this game. Then again, perhaps he'd been right that it just required more alcohol. John grabbed his bottle and took a sip, only to sputter at the taste. Beer didn't mix with brandy at all. He put the beer bottle down further away and glanced at Sherlock.

"Uh…" Sherlock mumbled, turning his head in circles, apparently experimenting with what it did to his vision.

"Am I human?" he asked. John nodded slowly, remembering too much.

"You go. I'm busy."

"Alone is what protects me."

"I didn't know you loved me!"

"Sometimes," John answered seriously. Sherlock shook his head and awkwardly tried to push himself to a straighter position on the coucher.

"Can't have sometimes. Has to be, um…"

"Yes, you're human," John cut in, doing his best to return to the game.

"Yes, I know. And am I a man?" Sherlock pressed. John leaned back in his chair, resting his heavy head on the squishy back. Sherlock succeeded in sitting up and watched him steadily.

"Yep," he answered easily.

"Tall?"

John threw out his hands a bit to widely, clinking against the brandy bottle, but it was too heavy to tip.

"Not as tall as people think," he answered. Sherlock hummed in thought.

"Nice?" he asked and it was John's turn to hum.

"It is relevant because it renders your obvious revelation of attraction towards me inconsequential. You are leaving, ergo it does not matter what state your penis is in when I touch your hair. And because you are wondering, yes, I will still aid in your recovery."

"Ish," John answered.

"Clever?" Sherlock asked and John smiled. Of course Sherlock asked that, to narrow the population down.

"I'd say so," John replied and Sherlock nodded, tilting his head as he thought.

"You would," he said and John couldn't tell if the tone was insulting or not.

"Am I important," he asked next and John winced.

I would have rather died by your side than be so thoroughly left behind.

"To some people," he answered as casually as he could. Sherlock nodded, his head bobbing like a dashboard figurine.

"Do 'people' like me?" Sherlock asked. John pushed his drink away from himself. He'd definitely had enough.

"Er, no, they don't. You tend to rub them up the wrong way," he answered.

"Okay," Sherlock accepted easily and John snorted, pleased with the game.

"Am I the current King of England?" Sherlock asked seriously.

"We.." John started, before he fully processed the sentence and he had to laugh. "You know we don't have a king."

Sherlock stared at him, apparently interested.

"Don't we?" he asked and John shook his head.

"Your go," Sherlock replied, sitting back, apparently unembarrassed. John envied that. Sherlock was so confident about what he did and didn't know, as long as only John was mocking him for it. He couldn't handle anyone else's censure but apparently he was perfectly comfortable with John's. John smiled, enjoying the thought. He tried to push himself up from his seat, thinking he was risking slowly sinking out of it, and got to the edge of his cushion. The world wavered badly and John threw out a hand to catch himself as his butt bonelessly tipped off of the seat, threatening to deposit him on the floor. He got himself back up on the seat, thinking he'd definitely drunk too much, only to realize he'd caught himself with a hand on Sherlock's knee and it was still there, warm against Sherlock's leg. He looked up to see Sherlock still looking at his hand and he pulled himself away, lifting his hands as if in surrender.

"I don't mind," Sherlock reassured him quietly. John glanced up, wishing he was sober enough to take that one in. Sherlock met his eyes, something sad smoldering there.

"You stopped wanting me," Sherlock said, blinking owlishly, and shook his head. "You don't want me," he clarified. John glanced down at his penis in his trousers, half hard despite all the brandy running through it. "Relationship," Sherlock clarified again. John swallowed. That was true. Sober that was true. Probably. He sat back. Sherlock watched him thoughtfully.

"Maybe," John said, holding up his hands again, and Sherlock nodded slowly.

"Maybe," he agreed. John swallowed, wondering where they were going to go with that. Nowhere, from the sound of it, nowhere yet. But what did that mean for right now when they were sitting on the couch staring at each other?

"Am I a woman?" John asked. Sherlock's eyebrows furrowed and he looked almost offended and John jerked a finger up at the sticky note on his own forehead. Sherlock chuckled, though what at John couldn't determine.

"What?" John demanded and Sherlock smiled.

"Yes," he replied, simply, returning to the game.

"Am I… pretty?" John asked, propping his head up on his fist. "This," he said, trying to flutter his eyelashes. Probably not a good move for a drunk man, he thought, and laughed. Sherlock looked horrendously uncomfortable. John started to wonder if either of them were talking about the characters on their faces anymore.

"Err.. Er, beauty is a construct based entirely on childhood impressions, influences and role-models," Sherlock dodged rapidly.

"Yeah, but am I a pretty lady?" John pressed, amused. Sherlock squinted at his sticky note.

"I don't know who you are. I don't know who you're supposed to be," he admitted finally.

"You picked the name!" John exclaimed and Sherlock waved a hand at some undeterminable part of the room.

"Ah, but I picked it at random from the papers," he explained. John slumped in his seat, giving up.

"You're not really getting the hang of this game, are you Sherlock?" he asked. They didn't really need the game anymore anyway. Sherlock rolled his eyes in his sockets like he was trying to read off of his own forehead. John relaxed in his chair, letting his socked feet brush up against the couch. His heart was beating excitedly but that was common for him when he got drunk.

"So I am human, I'm not as tall as people think I am. I'm nice-ish, clever, important to some people, but I tend to rub them the wrong way," Sherlock listed, slurring heavily, before his eyes lit up with delight.

"Got it," he affirmed.

Of course that last thought led him to the answer, John thought, amused.

"I'm you, arn't I?" Sherlock asked, laughing happily. John stared at the man and shook his head, his brain warming happily in its slow thoughts. Human, nice-ish, important to some people, some other…things, clever. Sherlock thought he was clever. John smiled. Or thought he thought he was clever, but John quickly decided to ignore that.

"Mmm..no," John replied warmly and Sherlock's eyebrows lifted in surprise.

"No?" he repeated and leaned back in his seat. "Oh, so I am me, like I thought," he said, looking quite pleased with himself. John scoffed out a laugh, unsure what to say, trying to go over the conversation to see if he'd said something rude. Of course Sherlock had seen right through it.

"You're very clever," John complimented and Sherlock smirked and pointed to his sticky note.

"So you've said," he replied, smirking, and John pulled the note from his own face. He was 'Madonna' apparently. To be fair, he couldn't remember what Madonna looked like these days either. He looked up to see Sherlock folding his sticky note in his hand. John ran a hand down his pants, remembering his bare mattress upstairs. He'd sleep with it unmade; he was far too sleepy to care.

Sherlock was watching him, he could feel it. He looked up but Sherlock was tossing the note, now an origami bird, across the room to land somewhere behind his desk. John watched him, noting the easy movement of his muscles beneath his shirt, even drunk.

"Well then," Sherlock said and John jerked his head up to see the man watching him now. It occurred to him that he had a rare opportunity. A chance to see Sherlock unguarded. But then… it didn't seem right to abuse that, to get answers to questions Sherlock would keep private, if sober.

"Yes," John said and pushed himself up from his chair. "To bed," he said, just as Sherlock asked 'What the hell is Parcheesy?'

They blinked at each other for a moment, John trying to push his sluggish brain to make sense of that, and Sherlock struggled up to his feet.

"No, you're right. Certainly," he said and John nodded and pushed himself toward the steps. They could throw out the left-over pizza in the morning.

A knock at the door sounded too loud in his ears. John moaned and sat back down in his seat, not bothering to get the door. Mrs. Hudson opened it for herself.

~~//~~

Chapter Text

"Client!" she called too loudly. Sherlock groaned in protest. John turned around to see whoever had come knocking. The room tilted unpleasantly. He was definitely drunker than he'd intended.

He'd only just spotted the short complaisant-looking girl hovering in the doorway when he realized why he'd had to turn at all. His seat. His seat was back. He patted his hands down on the arms of the chair and turned to see Mrs. Hudson smiling softly at him, her expression full of hope.

John sheepishly turned toward the client, thinking he should send her away until they were both sober. She was starting to look concerned.

"Hello," John greeted.

"Hello," Sherlock echoed from behind him. Mrs. Hudson turned and started making her way down the stairs.

"Which one of you is Sherlock Holmes?" the client asked and John turned around to look at Sherlock.

"A client! Perfect!" Sherlock exclaimed, popping up from his seat and letting his computer crash to the floor at his feet. He sank back down immediately, holding his head, and John gestured to the client where she could sit while he dragged himself out of Sherlock's seat.

"Grab a kitchen chair," he suggested, moving to the sofa to face her. Sherlock followed suit, sitting down beside him. Too close to him, John thought, feeling Sherlock's hip slide against his own but he didn't comment.

'Maybe', they'd said. What the hell did that mean? Did Sherlock want him then? Was he going to wait? Wait for what? Wait before doing what?

"Splendid. Tell your…thing?" Sherlock requested, flapping a hand at her. John watched him, wondering if Sherlock knew what maybe meant.

"Oh," the woman said, clutching her small hands in her lap. She looked monstrously uncomfortable. Sherlock leaned back in his seat, brushing John's shoulder.

"I don't a lot," she started senselessly and John crossed his arms. "I mean, I don't date all that much and… he seemed nice, you know?" she picked at her nails. "We seemed to automatically connect."

Hell, John was tired. They'd been drinking for hours. Sherlock rubbed a hand down his face, evidently feeling the same thing.

"We had one night - dinner. Such interesting conversation! It was… lovely."

John smiled and looked at Sherlock. Sherlock was propped on his fist, his eyes closed, apparently unaffected by the description. They'd never be that 'lovely', and John dared say their usual topic of conversation would quite scare this woman away. But maybe…

"To be honest, I'd love to have gone further but I thought, no, this is special. Let's take it slowly, exchange numbers."

At that Sherlock seemed to liven, rearranging himself on the sofa and glancing at John as if to check that they were both still there. Sherlock had always been uncomfortable about sex, John thought, wondering about that now. 'Maybe', they'd said. What the hell did that mean?

"He said he'd get in touch and then… maybe he wasn't quite as keen as I was but I… I just thought, at least he'd call to say that we were finished," she explained, almost in tears.

After one date? Not likely, John thought, thinking Sherlock was sure to kick her out with little more explanation than how boring it all was. Sherlock looked oddly stricken by her words for a moment but the expression melted off his face unnaturally quickly. An especially clumsy attempt to look sympathetic, then. Sherlock stared at the client emotionlessly and John stopped worrying.

He woke up to Sherlock complaining predictably.

"Boring, boring, boring," Sherlock was repeating and John closed his eyes again, trusting Sherlock to get her out of the flat, when Sherlock exclaimed: "No! Not boring! Fascinating,"

John groaned softly. Must they do this tonight?

"John! John! Wake up!" Sherlock protested, holding his neck and shaking him softly. Avoiding his shoulder, even plastered drunk. John opened his eyes and tried to look awake, deeply unhappy with the idea. "Apologies about my, you know…" Sherlock started and cleared his throat.

No, Sherlock. What am I to you? John wondered vaguely, blinking at the man and wishing the client would ask.

"Rude. Rude!" Sherlock scolded him and John obediently kept his eyes open. The client didn't look happy.

"I checked with the landlord and the man who lived there died," she pronounced dramatically. John blinked, trying to catch up. Whose landlord? Which man? How did she know him? The guy she went on one date with? "Heart attack. And there we are having dinner one week on. And I found this thing online. Sort of a chat room thing, for girls who think they're dating men from the spirit world," she added, fishing a folded up piece of paper from her purse. John frowned, wondering when ghosts had entered the conversation. He leaned over to ask Sherlock but the man was already leaping to his feet like he had no alcohol in his system whatsoever.

"Don't worry. I'll find him in minutes," Sherlock promised, moving across the room like he was readying to go out. "What's your dog's name?"

Something was wrong with that. John couldn't quite remember what, but he thought he might have missed something. Some little detail…whose dog?

"Yeah, I'll be there if you want," John mumbled, unsure why he was promising to go along with his mad roommate when they'd bother be better off falling into bed.

"John, wake up!" Sherlock ordered, gripping John's neck again. It felt good. Warm, comforting. "Meant to …the game is…something," Sherlock rambled, starting away. John opened his eyes again, unsure when he'd closed them. Their client was watching them rather worriedly.

"On," he supplied.

"Yeah, that. That," Sherlock agreed and followed their client from the room. John accompanied them, hating the whole arrangement. They got into a taxi with the nervous looking woman and it wasn't until the taxi driver was honking to wake them up that John realized how much they'd just trusted her. Still, she'd brought them to a relatively nice section of the West End and John wasn't too uncomfortable about following her to meet the landlord and get shown up to their 'haunted' flat.

Once there, however, he had to admit that he was entirely out of his depths. Still drunk and definitely missing details from the case, such as why they were in this flat at all. John leaned against a support beam in the middle of the room, doing his best to look like he was paying attention. Sherlock seemed to be doing much better, checking out a round plate set vertically in the middle of the flat. Perhaps Sherlock could deduce what its purpose was, he thought, and giggled.

"Ooh, it's nice," he said, to cover up the laugh. "Nice place."

Sherlock seemed to flop onto the sofa randomly and John giggled again. The client and the landlord looked unhappy. Grumpy, maybe. They shouldn't do this in the middle of the night. It hit John then that he was incapacitated. Drunk and in public and there were two strangers here. The alcohol kept his heart beating steadily, without any fear at all, but John knew that was wrong. He should be scared. He'd be scared any different day.

"See anything?" Tessa asked. Sherlock seemed distracted. That was bad. They shouldn't distract Sherlock at his work. "Any clues, Mr. Holmes?"

John gazed around the flat, looking for intruders.

"I'm just gonna whip this out," Sherlock announced proudly and John was pleased. Perhaps they could get out of here, when Sherlock was done. He didn't like open spaces. He didn't like strangers or being alone.

"You alright?" someone asked him. A woman. John jerked and turned his head and the room spun. Not good, too drunk around this…client. What was her name?

"Yeah, he's clueing," John reassured her.

"What?" she asked and he spoke louder.

"He's clueing for looks!" he explained, almost yelling. Sherlock was on the floor with his bum in the air. Asleep, maybe. That was smart. It was the middle of the night. But then, John was alone and that was a bad idea.

"I can kill you," he told the landlord, trying not to slur. It was important the man understand that. "What does 'maybe' mean?" he asked.

"I'm calling the police," the landlord answered and John smiled. Lestrade was a good man. Then the landlord pulled Sherlock up from the floor and it wasn't good anymore. John started forward. He'd kill anyone who touched Sherlock; he remembered deciding that…sometime before. Sherlock flailed in the man's grip, shouting.

"This is a famous detective. It's Sherlock Holmes and his partner, John Hamish Watson."

Damn it. She'd given their names. She knew them. Not a great idea to kill in front of her. John grabbed the support beam, almost falling. Too drunk for this.

"What d'you think you're doing? Don't compromise the integrity of the -"

Sherlock threw up and John hesitated, unsure if people were still fighting. It didn't look like it.

"Crime scene!" he supplied and looked at their client. He thought to high five her but then.. He didn't like touching strangers. Not anymore, not since.. But it probably wasn't good to think about all that, drunk. That wasn't the point.

The landlord was on the phone. John gestured to keep quiet with a finger over his lips and the client glared at him. Still, it sounded like a call to the police so John gestured again.

~~//~~

The police coming for them. There was something wrong about that. Something bad. Something about John. Sherlock pried himself up from the white carpet, avoiding the vomit there, and tried not to fall asleep. John arrested. Bad. Why? Shoulders? Something about cuffs and men behind…

Problem. Big problem. Sherlock fumbled in his pocket for his phone and pulled out his wallet. Wrong thing… He threw it on the floor and tried again. He called Lestrade.

"You've got Greg," Lestrade answered. Sherlock relaxed, glaring at the landlord still on the phone.

"John," Sherlock said.

"No…Greg. Is this Sherlock?" Lestrade answered senselessly.

"John arrested. Drunk," Sherlock explained, closing his eyes. Christ he was tired. "Bloody…handcuffs," he cursed and Lestrade was finally silent. Sherlock lay back down on the carpet.

"Oh..shite," Lestrade cursed. Understanding. Good, Sherlock could sleep. "Where are you? Sherlock, where are you?"

"No idea," Sherlock answered honestly and stuck his phone in the air, his face still smashed against the carpet. "Police, tell them where we are," he ordered. Someone took the phone.

"You called the police too? Why?" the client complained.

"Tell them where we are!" Sherlock shouted, trying to sound scary but his mouth got full of lint from the shag carpet and he had to spit.

"Oh, my god," someone complained. Landlord, most likely.

"Someone died here. Bad for rent," Sherlock explained and heard the client stammering out an address to Lestrade.

~~//~~

"Wakey Wakey!" someone shouted nearby. John groaned. He could feel his heartbeat in his brain. Water. He needed water. But it didn't sound even possibly worth moving his head, which would probably result in throwing up all over himself.

He shouldn't have reached for the brandy. John let out a pained groan and squinted his eyes open. He could see some familiar man - the landlord of somewhere? - standing next to Lestrade. Greg was in uniform. That was odd.

"Oh my god," he moaned, miserable. He never should have fallen asleep without water. He never should have gotten drunk at all. Lord but he was never doing it again. Not worth it. "Greg. Is that Greg?" he asked. He'd fallen asleep on a sofa. Not their sofa.

"Get up. I'm gonna put you two in a taxi. Managed to square thing with the uniforms on duty out here."

John decided not to try to understand that and focused on the 'getting up' part of the sentence. He rolled off the sofa onto his feet and felt his brain spinning. Definitely not worth it. He didn't even know what time it was.

"What a couple of lightweights! You couldn't even make it to closing time!" Greg laughed, just as John stepped in what was definitely a dried pile of vomit. At least he'd passed out with his shoes on.

"Can you whisper?" John asked, getting close to Lestrade and the inspector turned on him.

"Not really!" Greg shouted in his ear. John's headache spiked horribly but he smiled. Lestrade was no man for kid gloves and John knew he couldn't take that treatment from him. "Come on," Greg ordered, softer now, and led them out of the flat.

They got to the ground floor and Lestrade called them a taxi, explaining that he'd not yet had a drunkard hurl in his new car and he wasn't starting now. He walked away from them to talk to the landlord and left John and Sherlock sitting on the sidewalk to wait.

"Well, thanks for a … you know… an evening," John said, shoving his head between his knees.

"It was awful," Sherlock replied. John didn't argue but he wasn't sure he agreed. 'Who Am I' was amusing and… 'maybe'.. Maybe that'd look like a good moment, once he was sober enough to understand it. "That woman, Tessa," Sherlock started, holding a hand to his temple. Even Sherlock got hungover, John observed, gratified.

"What?" he prompted.

"Dated a ghost. The most interesting case for months. What a wasted opportunity," Sherlock hissed, sounding suddenly furious. John lifted his head from his knees, his heart sinking at the words though he wasn't quite sure why.

"Okay," he said simply and waited for the cab.

~~//~~

They got back to the flat and stumbled up the stairs in silence. The living room was still dark, the night outside quiet.

Oh thank god, John thought, pushing his way inside. He could probably get away with drinking a couple gallons of water and sleeping his hangover away. He pushed himself toward the bathroom, following Sherlock and his mouth began to water, preparing to hurl. Shit. He swallowed vilely, hoping his stomach kept itself under control, and pushed Sherlock forward down the hall until he could get into the bathroom.

He laid his head sideways to drink directly from the tap. It was cold against his cheek and teeth and woke him up but soothed his headache. He swallowed until he thought any more water would upset his stomach for sure, and started the horrid trek back to the scratchy bed upstairs.

~~//~~

Sherlock woke up with his head pounding. Light was filtering through the curtains in his bedroom. Morning.

Brilliant deduction.

He spun his head around, making his headache spike, but his vision tracked normally. Sober but hungover. His thinking would be affected all day. Horrible. He dragged himself to his bathroom to piss and wash his face, ignoring how his body ached. He wanted his brain to work again. John had touched him the night before, different than usual. Hesitant. John said 'maybe'. That'd seemed to make sense last night; seemed like an exciting promise. Now he had no idea what they'd meant. 'Maybe'. That could mean a hundred thousand things. More.

He pushed himself into the kitchen, determined to figure out the Tessa case. He had a distinct goal - keep John from leaving without the use of physical restraints or coercion, specifically with 'fun' - and they couldn't spend every night drinking themselves into a stupor. Even if it had worked before he'd been forced to look up parcheesi.

John came downstairs before long, holding his forehead with one hand and murmuring unintelligible complaints. He settled onto the couch and Sherlock decided the case wasn't particularly necessary. John didn't look like he was planning on moving for the rest of the day. Still, the case was a good one. And John liked to see him work.

"Why did you get up?" Sherlock asked, turning on the kettle. Tea. John liked tea. John grunted without opening his eyes. "Why is that couch better than bed?"

John groaned and licked his lips.

"No sheets," he grumbled and threw an arm over his face to block his eyes. Right. Mrs. Hudson must have packed up John's stuff, once she'd finished happily unpacking Sherlock's. The kettle whistled and Sherlock growled at it, vowing that they'd only ever buy appliances that didn't squeal. John groaned in protest at the sound and Sherlock shut off the stove and poured them both a cup. John usually took milk with his but they had none in the house so Sherlock fixed it with sugar and brought it over to the coffee table. He sat down where John had sat before. He pulled out his laptop to begin researching their client and John started to snore.

~~//~~

John woke up, feeling almost human, and saw a mug of tea waiting for him on the coffee table. Sherlock sat in his chair beside him, a beer glass with a teabag floating at the top balanced on the leather arm rest. Mrs. Hudson would never have put up with that.

"Thanks for the tea," John whispered, pushing himself up to sit and grabbing the mug. The tea was cold but he didn't care. The sweet liquid was precious.

"Anytime," Sherlock replied easily, still focused on his laptop screen. John sipped at his tea, considering that.

Perhaps it was time that they just lived, and let the rest fall out as it would.

"Drinking," he grumbled, only to hear Sherlock snoring. He turned around to see the genius propped up on his own fist, his laptop still carefully balanced on his knees, sound asleep.

John pushed himself up to fetch more water.

"Do you ever wonder why the hell we drink?" John complained, heading back from the kitchen. "Because I'll tell you, this is not bloody worth it," he mumbled, his head pounding a bit sharper from the effort.

"S lonely otherwise," Sherlock slurred into his fist. Apparently awake again. And maybe still drunk. John considered him for a moment, surprised at the sentence, and made his way back toward the man. Sherlock was snoring again.

He looked gorgeous. John ran a hand over his forehead, trying to organize his scattered thoughts. They weren't going there; he wasn't going there. They needed calm. They needed to be friends.

And he needed to get something to eat. Surely there'd be nothing in the house, with Sherlock living here alone. Hopefully Mrs. Hudson would be home. It was… some day of the week? He couldn't remember if it was a weekend or not. How many days had it been since he'd been fired? Not many. Two, probably? John shook his head at the insanity that was life with Sherlock Holmes and started down the stairs toward Mrs. Hudson's flat. His rent was probably due, sometime soon. He'd have to go back to the bedsit.

Never again.

He ignored the problem for now and knocked on Mrs. Hudson's door, deciding that if he was going to actively ignore all of his problems in a drunken stupor, he might as well give up trying to look like a competent adult about it.

Mrs. Hudson answered and ushered him in with her usual excited hospitality, speaking softly for the sake of his light headache and pushing him into a seat in her kitchen. She had a little breakfast nook set up at the back of the room, much more civilized than their collection of dirty laboratory equipment no one bothered to clean.

Mrs. Hudson puttered about the room, toasting breakfast breads and cooking sausage and making a seltser water 'to help with his head'. He took it gratefully.

"How are you feeling?" she asked finally, cracking an egg into a pan and John sipped at his drink, trying to decide if he'd answer honestly or just talk about his hangover.

"Mmm," he stalled, when he had to say something.

"It's just like old times, having you here," she said and John set down his glass, deciding there wasn't much in his life that she didn't somehow already know. "Thought I'd make your favorite, to celebrate," she said, putting down a full breakfast plate in front of him. John hummed, remembering the many mornings Sherlock and he had given her breakfast orders, like living in a diner.

Mrs. Hudson sank down in the seat across from him, smiling warmly at him. John smiled back awkwardly, unsure if they'd ever been in a room alone together before.

"So are you? Back then?" she asked as he cut into his first link of sausage. John looked up to meet her eyes and quickly took a bite of his food. A cowardly way out but it served its purpose. Mrs. Hudson eyed him knowingly and John swallowed and cleared his throat.

"I don't know," he answered and she nodded.

"Well, you see, I'm just asking because it's not kind to get his hopes up, if you're set in your mind to leave again," she explained and John pushed his plate away, his appetite extinguished.

"He's hopeful, then?" he asked and Mrs. Hudson's lips twisted, like that didn't merit answering. John cleared his throat again. "Yes, well, I am. Hopeful," he said and she smiled softly.

"Well then, no pressure, dear. You give yourself time. If you know what you want, it'll pan out in the end," she promised. She must have read something in his face for she leaned forward and covered his hand with her own. "Even if all you want is to figure out what it is you're hoping for. Give it time, dearie," she cooed. John swallowed, not sure he was reassured.

"I'm not gay," he said, like it was programmed into him to say and Mrs. Hudson smiled softly.

"You are sometimes," she answered and winked. "And you know, if you've found the right one, the person that you click with, it's the best thing in the world," she professed and John leaned back in his seat, uncomfortable with the feelings washing through him. The feeling of something tragic to lose being lost. Slipping away from them.

"What about you?" he asked, to change the subject. He didn't want to think about Sherlock, sleeping upstairs.

"Me?" she asked, sounding scandalized.

"Did you think you'd found the right one when you married Mr. Hudson?" he clarified, suddenly wondering if Mrs. Hudson was also 'gay sometimes'. Mrs. Hudson crinkled her nose.

"No!" she exclaimed, sounding almost happy at the confession. "It was just a whirlwind thing for us. I knew it wouldn't work but I just got sort of swept along. And then we moved to Florida. We had a fantastic time but of course, I didn't know what he was up to. The drugs." She whispered the last word, like it would shock him.

"Drugs?" John asked too loudly and winced at his own noise.

"He was running, um.. Oh, God, what do you call it? Um..a cartel. And got in with a really bad crowd," she explained and John supported his aching head with his fingers, enjoying the story. Mrs. Hudson's past; how had he never asked before?

"Right," he said, like it was all normal so far.

"And then I found out about all the other women. I didn't have a clue. So, when he was actually arrested for blowing someone's head off, it was quite a relief to be honest," she said.

"Right," John answered, like he'd heard a dozen such stories before. That had to be a solid indicator of a mistaken relationship, he thought; when murder and arrest was a relief. No matter how betrayed he'd been by Sherlock and how badly he'd wanted the man to suffer its consequences, he'd never really wanted to be separate from the man, not until it was his own hate he'd had to escape. But he was far too hungover to decide if that meant Sherlock and he had something better together than Mrs. Hudson had had, or something far worse.

"It was purely physical between me and Frank. We couldn't keep our hands off each other. And um, there was one night.." She started and John held up a finger. He definitely didn't want to hear the rest of that story.

"Oh, is that Sherlock?" he lied, pretending to listen for the stairs.

"Is it?" Mrs. Hudson asked, sounding confused. Then John actually did hear footsteps upstairs and he pushed himself out of his chair. "Oh, John?" Mrs. Hudson called and he turned around, looking guiltily at his untouched plate. "I do hope you and Sherlock get back together. No one makes him laugh like you can, no one at all," she said. John nodded slowly, propping a hand against his sore back.

"Me either," he admitted and she smiled warmly, like that answered everything. John turned around and made his way upstairs.

Chapter Text

John got upstairs to see Sherlock leaning over the couch, surrounded by laptops.

Where are those from? John wondered but didn't bother asking. Probably stolen from the neighbors. 'Obvious, John', he thought and wandered up to stand by his friend's shoulder.

"Not you, not you, not you," Sherlock was muttering, closing down windows on each of the computers without any seeming order. He was in a bunch of chatrooms, from what John could see.

"Gail," he muttered, for a chatroom's BlackWidow98. The chat didn't even have any words in it, much less a name, but John trusted Sherlock's information. 'Gail' it was. Then Sherlock switched to another window on another laptop. He quickly googled another screenname HorseR1DEr and started sifting through online surveys, facebook likes, and neighborhoods, until he was running a background check on a Charlotte Windsor.

John watched him work, fascinated, as Sherlock discovered names and addresses and occupations before he'd even greeted these online clients. Then he confirmed their names, ignoring when they lied, and got started.

How did you meet? Sherlock typed, to only four of them. He looked puzzled by their answers and leaned down to type again.

Name? He asked. Gail's laptop screen chimed in first.

Told you, she answered and Sherlock scoffed.

His name, he corrected and John noticed that Sherlock hadn't drunk his tea. Sherlock kept his eyes glued to the screen, apparently unbothered by the hangover still plaguing John.

"Four women in four nights. He must have something special," Sherlock muttered, still typing.

"You okay?" John asked and Sherlock's hands froze. "Let your tea go cold," he pointed out and Sherlock scoffed.

"Not now, John," Sherlock growled and unbuttoned his coat to sit down at the desk. "Different names, different addresses," he muttered again and John stole his tea. He'd make the idiot more when his own headache subsided. "He's stealing the identity of corpses, getting their names from the obituary columns. ALl single men. He's using the dead man's flat under the assumption it'll be empty for awhile. Free love nest," he muttered. Another laptop chimed and Sherlock perked up and moved to answer it, smiling with pleasure. "He's not a ghost, John. He's a mayfly. He only lives for a day," Sherlock corrected loudly, as if John had spoken. John smiled, watching him, remembering how unsettled he'd been to learn that Sherlock spoke to him when he wasn't around. Now if felt like something important had slid back into place.

Then Sherlock was moving from computer to computer, typing in a familiarly frantic way, only to stop short; a disappointing answer. Then all the laptops were making the whistling sound of a screenname logging off and Sherlock was shouting.

"Why? Why would he date all of these women and not return their calls?"

John glanced at the laptops, embarrassed for him.

"You're missing the obvious, mate," he pointed out and Sherlock stopped slamming laptop lids shut to stand up and face him.

"Am I?" he asked, sounding unconvinced, and went back to closing laptops. "Why would he change his identity?" he growled. John shrugged. That didn't sound like a difficult puzzle.

"Eh, maybe he's married," John suggested and Sherlock stood up again, slower now, his eyes wide open as realization struck.

"Oh," he said and John smirked. Well, that hadn't exactly been the best case in months. Sherlock stayed still, obviously unsure what to do with himself. John's smile faded, worry about the genius's ego seeping in, but Sherlock started to smile. "Case closed. Brilliant," he said, snapping his own laptop shut and John relaxed. Sherlock turned on him then, that same inscrutable look of wonder in his eyes. John smiled softly, focusing on that look, until Sherlock finally cleared his throat and turned away.

"Brilliant," he muttered again and John finished off his tea and went to go put the kettle on again.

~~//~~

Sherlock followed John into the kitchen, feeling out of sorts. That was supposed to be the perfect case, a good puzzle to send them on a dynamic hunt. Instead they'd found evidence of a creative adulterer and no legal action to take if they bothered catching him. Still, Sherlock had seen John take pleasure in solving this one, knew what it meant to see John take pleasure in solving this one, knew what it meant to see John's spine straighten that infinitesimal degree, and that was worth an empty hunt. Perfect, probably. And John was making tea and not even glancing at the door.

It'd occurred to Sherlock before that John could be avoiding leaving, avoiding some unrevealed evil somewhere else. But he'd had no reason to think John wanted to stay, that anything had changed from the day he'd left. Except that Sherlock had proven that he'd go back to drugs without provocation, should he have no reason not to. Hardly a revelation that would encourage John Watson to stay. Sherlock hissed to himself, frustrated.

He pulled out the last two beer mugs for their tea and set them by the stove in front of John. John raised his eyebrows like he was expecting something more and Sherlock frowned. There didn't seem to be any pressing need to speak but apparently he'd missed something.

"We should buy more mugs," he blurted.

Stupid. They'd yet to sweep the floor; surely John was as often reminded of their need as he was. Then again, John was not trained in observation. Sure enough, John glanced down at the pottery around them as if surprised. He met Sherlock's eyes then, like something important had just occurred and smiled softly, that lopsided smile he used when emotional and awkward about it. Sherlock did his best to mirror it, as if he understood and John nodded.

"I'll buy more online. Free delivery coupon came this week," John replied and Sherlock inhaled, finally catching up. John would buy mugs because they'd both need them, if not living alone. Subtle. But John was staying. Or thinking about staying. Thinking about being around enough to need mugs.

Happiness. Too much happiness. Sherlock broke his gaze away unable to handle the emotions pouring into his brain. Relief and something a little like pain. Love, maybe. He didn't know. He didn't want to be touched. Or to talk. He wasn't going to talk anymore.

"I'll hoover," he announced sharply, heading downstairs to steal Mrs. Hudson's. Clever of him, surely. Vacuums were loud.

~~//~~

John did his best to sweep up the loose glass before Sherlock sucked it up in the hoover tubes and tore them to shreds. Sherlock arrived in the kitchen while he was binning the last of it, holding up a hoover like he'd figured out the perfect response to John's offer to stay. Still, it meant John didn't have to clean up the remnants of their mugs. So he didn't mention it. Then Sherlock began hoovering the kitchen floor and John went into the living room to find something to read. He'd barely cracked open one of Sherlock's London history books when Sherlock got bored and left the house, shutting the door behind himself without a word.

It was time for him to go home, John knew. It was that or start cracking open more of the clothing boxes upstairs and he'd already decided not to move in.

He wouldn't live with Sherlock Holmes, left behind and lied to; he'd decided that. Now John hesitated, idling in the living room.

I would rather let Moriarty live to watch me die, would rather break every bone in my body and see you live to hate me, than see you shot in the skull. A mistake, I grant you, given your very twisted priorities, general desire for living on the edge of death and inability to move on from mine. A state of mind I was apparently supposed to deduce from the moment you grabbed Moriarty to your wired chest and told me to run, a year before and significantly before you ever felt you loved me.

I told you! I gave you the blueprints, plans, Janine and Magnussen in person. Every detail I have to give!

I made a mistake and learned from it.

John exhaled, something in his heart untwisting. A lasting bit of hate he'd never gotten out. He picked around the room's worn furniture, dragging his hand over the dusty mantel and noticing scratches in the bookcase he'd never seen. There was something vital in this place, something he hadn't been able to leave despite all his fury. A fury that was settling, now. Losing its edge.

~~//~~

Sally Donovan's address was written on her personnel file. And, as far as Sherlock could tell, approaching the ill-kept townhouse, it was still accurate. Broken blinds hung in the undressed windows lit from behind. Lights were on. The second story had deep blue curtains and windowboxes; a very different tenant. A rental then, and Sherlock guessed Donovan lived on the bottom floor.

He knocked and waited. She was home; he could hear her approach the door and saw her peer at him through the slit in the broken blinds. He knocked again, to show he would. Sure enough, Donovan jerked the door open, wearing only a robe and a towel twisted in her hair.

"There better be a corpse," she growled. Sherlock blinked, unsettled, and she slammed the door again. He stiffed the air. Sex. He knocked again.

Donovan ripped the door open.

"You are such an asshole," she complained but stepped aside to let him in. Target acquired. That technique did tend to work. Sherlock stepped onto the dirt and hair covered floor, looking for any evidence of who was here. Short blond hairs on the back of the couch. Could be a cat's, but they looked thin for that.

The flat door opened into a small living room and kitchen without a dining table. There was dust on the countertops and to-go boxes in the paper recycling bags by the trash. She didn't cook. Ate at the T.V., judging by the crumbs. One hook by the door, no room for extra coats. Lived alone, planned on continuing doing so. Large shoes by the door, bigger than Donovan's. Smaller than Anderson's. Man definitely still here. Sherlock noted that; he could mock her with that, if she was unhelpful. She'd be less useful in the future if she hated him again. Probably unwise.

"Want a beer?" she asked, turning her back on him to head toward the fridge. Sherlock accepted, to see if she was serious, and Sally led him into the kitchen. She handed him a lager, almost friendlily, and leaned against the counter. Probably guessing he knew she'd just had sex on the couch and wouldn't want to touch it. Sherlock nodded, grateful. "How's John?" she asked, cutting straight to the bone and Sherlock cracked open his beer though he didn't want to drink it.

"Better. Less angry. Pretending to be more stable than he is. Possible a good thing, psychology is a subjective field fraught with untried guesses and over generalizations. Nothings obvious about what he'll do next. Too many options," Sherlock complained, leaning against the counter to mirror her body language. She relaxed a bit, listening now, like he didn't have a man currently hiding in her bedroom. Good. "Buying mugs," he added and Donovan raised her eyebrows at him as if that didn't make sense. Sherlock ignored her.

"Staying with you then?" she asked and Sherlock had to remember what she knew. She'd seen him search for John, seen him find John, gave him an idea so John would stay.

"What the hell in Parcheesy?" he growled and Donovan stared at him. Too quick a change of topic; she was wondering if he were crazy, probably. "Yes, staying with me," Sherlock corrected sharply. "Probably. Again," he added more accurately. Donovan raised her eyebrows.

"Probably again," she repeated dully and Sherlock rolled his eyes. Talking to people was always so slow. Shame Mycroft had to be a useless twat.

"He left, came back," he explained, frustrated. Sally frowned. Surely that wasn't too complicated for her excuse for a brain?

"Why?" she asked. Sherlock grimaced.

"I'm a miserable man, Sherlock. All I want from you is for you to be miserable, to regret your stupid plan leaving me behind to mourn you, and to regret so thoroughly lying to me," Sherlock quoted, doing his best to get John's inflection right. Sally's eyes widened.

"What'd you say to that?" she asked. Sherlock hesitated. He didn't like sharing. But he needed help.

"I told him I'd lost everything," he replied and Donovan's eyebrows rose even further. In disbelief, by the look of it. "He said he did't want to be miserable. I told him he just didn't want to watch," Sherlock added, feeling his shoulders fall with the memory. Broken pride, he acknowledged, watching her frown at him. The kitchen was quiet, just the hum of the refrigerator interrupting them. The man in the bedroom was probably listening.

"Why'd he come back?" she asked finally.

"I did drugs, gave him a case that'd likely get us killed, took his chair, and introduced him to my girlfriend," he summarized. Donovan took a gulp of her beer, processing that.

"Girlfriend?" she asked first, sounding concerned, and Sherlock brushed away the topic with a flick of his hand.

"Using her for a case," he whispered, aware of their probable eavesdropper.

"But that's-" she started, looking disgusted.

"Over. John," Sherlock interrupted, not wanting to have that whole damn conversation twice.

"And you did drugs and took his chair," Donovan repeated, fortunately moving past the 'girlfriend' thing. Sherlock took a sip of his beer to look like he was enjoying it. Unhelpful choice of beverage when he wanted to think but at least it gave him a fairly trapped audience.

"Not an intentional scheme to lure him out but in retrospect an effective one," Sherlock agreed. Sally rubbed at her forehead.

"You're so fucked up, Sherlock," she commented. Sherlock ignored her. Certainly information he already had.

"He makes excuses and sleeps on the couch. Ergo, he wants to stay," Sherlock summarized. Donovan nodded slowly and sipped at her beer.

"So what's the problem?" she asked. Sherlock leaned his head against her kitchen cabinets, thinking he shouldn't have come. Pathetic. A lost cause, anyway.

"It is relevant because it renders your obvious attraction towards me inconsequential. You are leaving, ergo it does not matter what state your penis is in when I touch your hair," Sherlock quoted, trying to ignore how his face tingled in a developing blush. Donovan opened her mouth as if to speak, only to wait and think with her face agape. She closed her mouth finally, apparently understanding something, and bit her lip.

"And now he's not leaving," she summarized and Sherlock lifted his head to knock it lightly against her cabinets. "And you came here to ask me what you should do about John Watson's erections," she added and Sherlock closed his eyes. Pathetic. He opened his eyes to see Donovan gulping down the last of her beer. He sipped at his so she couldn't kick him out. "Do you have to do anything?" she asked and he stared at her, baffled. She sighed heavily and tried again. "Do you want to do anything with his erections again?"

'Again'. She still thought they'd been together before. Irrelevant. Did he want to touch John? Not all the time. But sometimes he felt the irrational need to grip onto John and hold tight, when his penis would lengthen and harden and he'd want to feel John's face, his chest. Smell him.

"On occasion," he answered uncomfortably and Donovan smirked, tossing her bottle into the full bag by the sink.

"And from that massively disturbing hair quote, I take it he wants you?" she asked, straightening. Sherlock swallowed. He could remember moments, before he jumped, when John would watch him, his pulse rising and his legs crossing to conceal his penis. And his whispered confessions in the hospital, hair-raising pleas that he wanted Sherlock once, had wanted Sherlock Holmes's touch. Could remember John's erection in the bath, his embarrassment confessing that it'd happen again.

He heard someone rustling in the bedroom, the clink of a belt. Getting dressed, maybe.

"On occasion," Sherlock answered. Donovan approached him quickly.

"Easy. Then spend a lot of time looking into his eyes, watch him when you want to, and wait," she said, pulling the beer from his hands and tossing it loudly into the sink to spill down the drain.

"Wait for what?" Sherlock asked, reaching to save his beer.

"No idea. It'll happen or it won't. His call. Nope," she protested, pulling him away from the kitchen. "That's the best advice I've got. You're leaving," she said, pushing him now. Sherlock obeyed to keep her from touching him again. She stopped him by the door with a hand on his arm, defeating the purpose. Sherlock noted not to bother obeying next time. "Best advice I've got. Really," she repeated.

"Wait," he mocked, snarling. He hated waiting. Sally nodded.

"Yup. And meet his eyes a lot," she agreed and Sherlock growled. "Bye bye," she insisted and ushered him out of the door. She shut it in his face and Sherlock had started back home, wondering how much eye-staring constituted 'a lot', when his phone buzzed with a text.

:Bug landed:

Janine.

~~//~~

Chapter Text

Sherlock got home to find John conspicuously absent. He had a moment of lurching panic before he heard John on the stairs and dashed to his computer to boot it up and pretend he hadn't noticed the man was missing.

John moved toward the kitchen, presumably to start more tea, and Sherlock started on writing his email, a grin starting across his face.

Tell John, he remembered, almost too late. He had to wait for John. It sounded like a soul-crushing restriction but he found himself excited. Perhaps John could come with him.

"The tracking device is planted. Now to convince Magnussen I'm a fraud as well as an addict," Sherlock announced as grandly as he could. John set a beer glass of tea by his hand and sipped at the last mug.

"Shouldn't be tough," he commented. Sherlock looked up at the snark but John looked only darkly amused. He was attractive. Distracting.

"I should meet with him alone," Sherlock decided aloud. John shifted uncomfortably, clearly trying to determine why. Sherlock tried to think of something better to tell him than 'I like looking at your thighs'. "I'll need someone to track the letters. And, if the GPS cuts out, to check it out," he realized. There, that was actually true. John nodded easily. Sherlock tried to think of something normal to do to take his pulse and see if John was prepared to track a man alone.

He grabbed John's free hand quickly, almost sloshing tea out of the other. People held hands. John frowned at him but didn't tug his hand away. Only slightly elevated pulse. Under control. Rising now, actually. And John's eyes were just starting to dilate. Attraction. Right. He knew that. He let go. John's eyebrows rose but he couldn't determine if that meant John had understood his intention or not. It didn't much matter, probably.

"I'll challenge him then. Tell him he has something I want and I know something he needs to hide. His Modus Operandi; he won't be able to resist showing me who's boss," Sherlock explained, as if he hadn't already written the email, and hit 'send'. Now they just had to wait. Again. John was rubbing at his wrist, still holding his tea. Thinking about their touch. Sherlock blushed, unsettled, and looked around for a distraction.

"So, you haven't panicked today," he said, the way Molly usually tried to start a conversation. John put down his empty mug, not even trying to engage with that. Sherlock couldn't blame him.

So that…didn't work. He'd tried the conversation style of a woman who'd once walked up to an intern and asked So how's your dead Mum? Of course it hadn't worked, damn him.

Ask a question. He knew that. People liked talking about themselves.

"How's your back? Arms? Shoulders?" Sherlock asked, waving a hand to indicate the majority of John's injuries. And John looked touched by that. He smiled crookedly that way he did when quietly pleased, and answered.

"The new skin still itches, but the leg graft spot has healed fully so that's a damn relief. Shoulders have returned to seventy five percent mobility with very little lifting strength. I'll start on small weights soon," he summarized casually. To Sherlock's relief, this was easy to respond to. It was relevant.

"How much weight can you handle now?" he asked and John looked even more pleased. He sat on the arm of Sherlock's chair.

"My gun but not milk," he answered and smiled ruefully. "And I shouldn't fire it," he added. Sherlock winced, picturing the shoulder ripping itself out of its socket all too vividly. "Speaking of, I was hoping to get to the library. Books don't tend to have kickback," John put in. Was that a request to go with him? John never told anyone where he was going. Libraries were quiet and books weighed more than a pistol.

"May I join you?" Sherlock asked, just in case, and John relaxed. Yes, a request then. Sherlock's email dinged, cutting off the moment. Sherlock barely needed to turn; he knew what it'd say.

No subject, just the words 'we'll meet'.

Perfect.

"So… that's the worst way to set up an appointment," John complained over his shoulder.

"He'll be watching me. He'll show up when I don't expect it," Sherlock explained.

"So… we wait?" John asked and Sherlock smirked.

"No, we pretend not to understand," he answered and typed out when and where into the email. John snorted but didn't protest and Sherlock sent it out.

~~//~~

"Now what?" John asked and Sherlock huffed out a frustrated breath.

"Now you contact my brother to ask permission to put his laptop in the hands of Charles Augustus Magnussen," Sherlock growled, pushing himself back from the desk.

And thus jeopardize the entire operation, John heard, swallowing heavily. The only case that could so thoroughly protect them, protect Sherlock.

He'd never be in that parking garage again. He thought now he'd be capable of anything to avoid that. His cowardice screamed to agree. The cut of a knife, pulling burned skin from his barely-healed back. If it all returned? He'd pray for death. Pray for anything.

God. He felt choked at the thought. So he'd drug Sherlock's family?

Yes. What relationship could they have then? John cursed under his breath, looking out the window, pretending Sherlock was not watching him. The answer was clear; it was always going to be obvious what he should do. Morality dictated. He must ask for Mycroft's consent.

That didn't mean he would. For the first time in his memory, as soldier and doctor, he believed he'd turn his back.

There was a burning nail at his back. There always would be. He needed to know no one could so pin them down again. They'd have the upper hand. They'd be safe.

John walked past Sherlock to lean against the window frame, looking down on the crowd loading onto the bus below. John Hamish Watson. A good man. He'd never thought anything was a important to him as standing by his word, by his obligations. He gripped the wood frame too tightly, hating feeling Sherlock behind him but unwilling to turn and reassure himself.

There'd always be a burning nail at his back. John felt like he was collapsing, realizing what drugging Mycroft would do to him. He'd be running from that fear, would know he'd always do anything to run from it. The last bit of his prideful innocence, stripped away. John Watson - a broken man. He didn't think he'd recover from that. But he didn't think he could avoid it.

To risk having no great weapon, no Appledore to keep them ahead.

Goodbye, Mycroft.

Violin notes dragged behind him, near the other window. John relaxed, hearing where Sherlock had gone in the room. Not music, just the same notes, back and forth. Sherlock was still watching him, his mind too focused to play. John sagged, knowing Sherlock would see his answer as soon as he turned around. Would pretend to rejoice in his acquiescence, would never mention it.

He couldn't watch. John closed his eyes, feeling trapped by the window. He would feel ridiculous, backing his way to the door, keeping Sherlock out of his sight. And then what? Running home? Leaving Sherlock to do the rest with Magnussen. Picking up a gun.

That urge wasn't gone. John heard the window frame crack beneath his grip but didn't release it. Let the wood snap - Sherlock would never care. John turned around, made himself meet Sherlock's eyes. That cool gray gazed back, waiting. Nothing but curiosity in his eyes, waiting to discover who John Watson had become, not judging it. John inhaled softly.

"I'll call him," he said simply and Sherlock nodded, something dark in his eyes.

~~//~~

I love this man. Sherlock stared at the short, stocky doctor who'd so captured him. The bravest man he'd ever met and the best by far. A moral compass like none other. He'd never yield. Sherlock smiled, hoping his thoughts didn't show themselves too keenly. John still had one foot out the door. But he knew, with a staidness he didn't know he could feel, that he'd found the best human London could produce, and he wanted him for himself. To have and to hold, until some idiot criminal shot them.

~~//~~

God he makes me better. John stared at Sherlock, unable to look away. It was unintuitive for such an unstable man. Sherlock Holmes, the amoral madman who kept John Watson whole.

I could do anything for you. In Sherlock's eyes he could find his life again. He needed to be the man he was with Sherlock. Needed to laugh and breathe and fight whatever evil plagued them. Solve silly puzzles and take huge risks. Show Sherlock a moral way and know it for himself. It was what had kept John stuck here, one foot in the door, come hell and grief.

I love this man.

The realization fell with a crushing weight. He looked away. So much pain had hit them. So much more threatened. He met Sherlock's soft eyes again, unsure what he was looking for but finding it immediately. That excited, easy calm of a man who would figure it all out in time. And John would be a good man. A healed man. And hopefully Sherlock would never know how close it'd come, but he probably would. Probably already knew, and didn't have a damn clue how vital he'd been in it. John exhaled slowly and stole Sherlock's phone off the desk. Mycroft was on speed-dial, not that Sherlock would ever admit it.

"Don't!" Sherlock cried out sharply and John jerked. "Magnussen will know," Sherlock warned. John froze, realizing what that meant - he'd never had any choice to warn Mycroft? Another experiment? His fist tightened, ready to break the phone, and Sherlock held out his hand for it. "We'll meet for Christmas, no drugs," he said and John relaxed.

I'll trust him again, he promised himself and Sherlock smiled apologetically, taking the phone.

"So, now we wait?" John grumbled and Sherlock nodded.

"Yes," he said, for once not complaining of the tedium of such cases.

"Christmas," John grumbled, secretly glad he didn't have to plan some type of holiday.

"The best," Sherlock grinned, clearly excited at the coming showdown. John snorted. Excitement would come for him when they won, he figured. Sherlock moved to grab his coat and scarf, thoroughly confusing him.

"I thought you said we wait?" he asked and Sherlock tied his scarf around his neck, looking extremely self-pleased.

"We're looking for novels with very little kickback, are we not?" he announced and John grabbed his wallet, surprised and grateful. "Not the military library then, I'm thinking. Oddly concentrated collection of violent tomes, I've found."

John followed him.

~~//~~

A/N: This is a short one, this week. My health took a turn for the worse. We're still in the 'wait and see' stage - my ultrasound is scheduled for the fourth. I'll let you all know how it goes, but for now I wanted to thank you all for being so patient with this story, for coming back time and again. This year has seen the best of my career so far, with the release of Spinster's Gambit, and the worst, with my sickness and the death of my grandmother. You all have been a constant light and I'll respond to all of your comments as soon as I am able. With a little luck and some grit, that'll be by the end of next week! Thank you all and see you soon! If you want updates on my Fanfiction and original Fantasies and Romances, sign up to my newsletter. A prettier one will also be coming soon, once my cyst surgery (hopefully not!) is off the table...so to speak.

http://eepurl.com/bs0Z1j

Gwen

Chapter Text

"And that one?" John muttered on the tube back home, gesturing subtly at a woman reading on a kindle in the bench opposite.

"Reading porn. Look how small she's set the font," Sherlock whispered back, leaning over to speak into his ear. His hand grazed John's leg, pulling away, and Sherlock met his eyes. It was like the man had lost something behind John's cornea and thought staring at him with every opportunity would return it to him. John felt like prey in the glare of headlights. He searched for another victim to refocus Sherlock's mind, until he replayed Sherlock's last sentence.

"How can you see her font?" he hissed. Too loudly, apparently, for the woman blushed and pressed on her screen, likely searching for tamer literature.

"The reflection," Sherlock replied at his normal volume now that discretion was futile. John blushed. The woman glared at them and returned to her book. "Man with the stroller," Sherlock directed, leaning to whisper in John's ear again. The man could not know how distracting that was, John decided, trying to think of anything but erections. Sherlock would definitely notice that.

"Well, he's got a baby," John started, familiar with the sensation of looking incompetent in Sherlock's cutting observation. "Looks a bit homeless, really," he added, noting the man's ragged clothing and the severe diabetes rash on his hand. "Smells bad, like something's rotting - untreated diabetes. A smoker, on and off. Got a cup with him, probably a beggar," John filled in. "Spends a lot of time in the sun," he added, noting that he was only repeating 'homeless' over and over but Sherlock nodded sagely like he was doing well. "Probably always on the run from child services," he added.

Poor kid.

"What else?" Sherlock muttered. John squinted, looking for track marks, athleticism, anything more he could spot beside the ragged clothing and much-cleaner blankets.

"What else is there?" he gave up finally.

"That's not a baby," Sherlock hummed and John jerked his head around to observe the homeless man again. Not even close to subtle, he regretted immediately, when the homeless man flashed two fingers at him.

There were a bunch of blankets in the carriage, nothing more. No face poking out, no moving hands. Just a ploy. John laughed quietly.

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts," Sherlock lectured and John grinned, inured to it. The homeless man snarled at them.

"Got milk?" he barked and John stared. An American homeless man. That was even more odd. Surely Sherlock had noticed some tiny detail, revealing that.

"Uh, no sir," John answered awkwardly and looked away. Sherlock was laughing at him. John shook his head, baffled, and Sherlock only appeared more self-satisfied.

"Hello Martin," he greeted and the homeless man shrugged heavily.

" 'Lock Holmes," he grunted back, pretending to tip a nonexistent hat. Was that what he thought the British were like? Sherlock would know how long the man had lived in the country, from his accent alone.

"Shall we?" Sherlock asked, standing up and lifting the heavy bag of books onto his shoulder. John waited until the tube carriage slowed and got to his feet. Sherlock met his eyes again, holding his gaze until the carriage stopped and the doors opened.

~~//~~

There wasn't always something to cause it. Sometimes he could wake up in his bed in a peaceful room and panic.

John pushed himself into the far back of his room, sucking in air. Fuck but he couldn't get it to stop. He was in his old bedroom in 221B. There was no one coming here, no one that could be expected to check on him, find him missing.

I can lose. The innocence that'd kept him brave was shattered. He could lose, thoroughly, and Sherlock might never find him. John tried to get his breathing under control but he was failing and apparently he was going to cower here until he passed out or something changed.

He heard footsteps coming up the stairs, which did not help at all, but Sherlock's voice followed, murmuring something unintelligible that sounded like a question. The doorhandle turned and John focused on releasing his grip on the chairleg he'd ripped off for a weapon. He'd owe Mrs. Hudson for that. He doubted she'd care. The chair tilted on its stump beside his bed, barely upright. Sherlock pushed the door open slowly and poked his head around it to see him. John stared back at him in the dark, wheezing. He wasn't going to try to hide it from Sherlock. It wasn't worth the effort with a man who'd seen close-up photos of him naked and covered in his own blood and urine. Sherlock slipped inside and sat down against the door. He closed his eyes as if preparing to fall asleep while he waited, wrapped only in a sheet.

Black patches bloomed in front of John's eyes, blocking his sight, but he ignored them, knowing there was nothing he could do about his breathing that he hadn't already tried. That thought gave him control, knowing he was just going to wait, and his painful gasps began to slow.

He stayed quiet, focusing on relaxing the muscles in his feet. Sherlock stayed still, a bit of frozen company, and the sun slowly diffused the room with light. His teeth ached in his jaw but he ignored that too, focusing on getting his heart to calm.

Sherlock was, without a doubt, the best friend he had left in the world. John reflected on that while they waited for his body to release control of itself back to his brain. Dead friends and old lovers, times in the war when he'd thought he couldn't mourn harder, only to have another IED explode, another three comrades lost and one maimed beyond repair. He would never be a soldier again, not with his shoulder and his trauma. He didn't mind that anymore.

"What time is it?" John asked finally and Sherlock opened his eyes, as alert and aware as if he'd spent the whole night awake and listening for him to speak.

He probably did.

"Eight," Sherlock answered. John nodded. They both knew he was now significantly late for his interview at City Medical - West End. They sat, ignoring that together, until John could breathe and think again.

Sherlock watched him getting dressed and John didn't ask him to leave. Nothing left to hide from each other. John liked that. He stripped his pants, thankfully unsoiled, and grabbed his towel knowing his hair was stiff with dried sweat.

He stepped out of the shower to find Sherlock in the kitchen, making toast, still dressed in only a sheet tucked around his waist, his chest bare to the cold air.

"Toast?" Sherlock offered, holding out the plate and a half empty jar of strawberry jam from before Moriarty. John took it, securing his towel with one hand and noting that Sherlock had just made him food.

I just got an erection from toast.

And of course, when John noticed Sherlock did. John swallowed heavily, unsure what to say.

"I don't mind," Sherlock reassured him softly.

"Splendid," John replied, hurrying out of the room with his toast and his jam to get dressed. They'd have to deal with that later, if he was going to get to the interview at all. Probably, they'd just let his attraction stand there, understood and unacknowledged, until he found someone else. Getting out of the flat had a striking affect on his fraying emotions. The air smelled thick with petrol and road salt, crisp against his face, and the day finally smoothed out again. He rushed to the subway and made plans to stay out late that night at whatever bar Lestrade chose. He wasn't sure if Greg responded out of interest or friendship but by the time he'd finally gotten his tense jaw to unlock he didn't much care.

For once, Sherlock's text came when John was already leaving the interview and had the day free. It was curt, as always.

:Incoming:

Magnussen. He had to check the letters. He ducked into a Wi-Fi cafe with his laptop and pulled up the GPS tracking map. The letters were exactly as they'd always been, somewhere in Magnussen's office building. The GPS couldn't determine height. How long would it take Sherlock to convince the blackmailer he was a fraud and an idiot? And how long would it take Magnussen to send the letters off for storage?

He paid for a drink he couldn't afford and settled into a corner to wait. They'd better get friggin paid for this one.

~~//~~

"Shouldn't you be at home? Isn't that dear doctor waiting for you?" Magnussen drawled as he approached the table. Obviously deducing what had happened upstairs from the dirt on Sherlock's arms from the bedroom floor. Sherlock ignored the jibe. Magnussen was dressed in a perfectly tailored black suit, his hair perfectly in place.

"I am at home. This is the kitchen," Sherlock replied, to point out that this time Magnussen came to him. Like that was a point of pride, when Magnussen had been willing to come up to the flat just to pee in the fireplace. Sherlock considered asking if Magnussen planned to urinate here but decided not to antagonize him. He was supposed to be acting affected by that. Frightened, probably.

"Is it?" Magnussen asked sharply, as if to say he knew Sherlock didn't eat here often, that this breakfast had been a ruse to draw him out and he'd accepted. Damn. No - wait - probably good. Magnussen was 'winning'. That was better. He was supposed to lose until Magnussen lost interest.

What would have happened if Sherlock had refused to fight Moriarty on the small things, early on, as John had told him to? If he'd accepted Moriarty's disappointment? Would the man have left to find a better target? That was painful to think about and too late to change. Sherlock pushed the thought away, all but its conclusion.

Trust John.

"In my opinion, yes," Sherlock answered meaninglessly. "Have a seat," he said. He was supposed to be an idiot fighting for control.

"Thank you," Magnussen replied magnanimously, like he was above such power plays.

"I've been thinking about you," Sherlock purred. He was trying for a child's version of menace but it came out a bit overly sincere. Magnussen frowned, genuinely surprised. Did that sound like he was flirting? Sherlock had to blush and look away.

"I've been thinking about you," Charles cooed back to mock him, his voice soft like they were courting.

"Really?" Sherlock said, hoping to regain the somber tone they'd shared before. Magnussen smiled tightly, seeing right through it. This was going well. A good time to push too hard. "I want to see Appledore. Where you keep all the secrets, all the files, everything you've got on everyone. I want you to invite me."

"What makes you think I'd be so careless?" Magnussen asked. He looked alert, maybe even nervous. The opposite of what they were shooting for. Perhaps he shouldn't have mentioned Appledore by name. Too late now; he had to go for the 'cocky and inquisitive but effectively incompetent' role. John had been indispensable in designing it.

Stop thinking about him.

"Oh, I think you're a lot more careless than you let on," Sherlock drawled, giving the word a slow inflection like it meant so much more than was obvious. Magnussen shifted. Interested, now. Maybe nervous - more likely expertly faking it. No man could rise so far as Magnussen had done if he were that easily manipulated.

"Am I?" Charles drawled. Probing, only. Sherlock met his eyes. He needed to look intense, prideful, confident. He thought of Mike, hanging by his neck, most of his head splattered on the concrete behind him. He could imagine the scene perfectly. The paramedics had barely managed to keep the head attached in their clumsy attempts to get the corpse on the gurney. Almost nothing could take down John Watson. Certainly not Magnussen.

"It's the dead-eye stare that gives it away," Sherlock said. His voice rumbled deep in his throat. "Except it's not dead-eyed, is it? You're reading." He removed the man's glasses from his face, giving it as much drama as he could. This was humiliating.

Magnussen wasn't reading. But he was certainly accessing incredible troves of information at a moment's notice. More than even a brilliant mind could withhold without intensive training. A mind-palace, but with something truly interesting inside - a delivery speed Sherlock lacked, a fault Sherlock resolved with the use of his smart phone and a search engine. Had Magnussen developed a better technique, a brain…search engine? Truly perfect recall? Sherlock moved slowly, stalling and hoping it'd look like melodrama. "Portable Appledore," he breathed, some of his true admiration slipping through. "How does it work?" he asked, wishing Magnussen would answer his true question.

Careful. He dove further into his character. "A built-in flash drive? 4G wireless?" he asked inanely and donned the spectacles. Charles Magnussen appeared far more cocksure now. Perfect. Sherlock fiddled with the glasses, inspecting them, letting false confusion take over his countenance. Mortification next. "They're just ordinary spectacles."

"Yes, they are," Magnussen said, triumph leaking into his tone. He starting picking at Sherlock's long-finished chips, getting ketchup on his fingers. "You underestimate me, Mr. Holmes," he announced. He sucked ketchup off his fingers and rinsed them in Sherlock's water glass. Sherlock buried a flash of disappointment in pretending to look at the glasses one last time. Another rude power grab? Boring. Magnusses snatched his glasses back.

"Impress me then. Show me Appledore," Sherlock goaded. That was hardly a motivation for the tycoon.

"Everything is available for a price. You making an offer?" Magnussen said. Predictable again.

"A Christmas present," Sherlock said to imply he was giving more than Magnussen had to give.

Your downfall.

Amusement stole over Magnussen's face, hidden too late. Magnussen had read that thought off his face. Sherlock didn't regret it; he could watch Magnussen grow more confident, now that an ulterior motive was identified and labeled.

You're foolhardy. He let Magnussen see that too.

"Then what are you giving me for Christmas, Mr. Holmes?" Magnussen asked. Sherlock allowed himself to look as self-pleased as he felt.

"My brother," he announced and Magnussen's eyebrows jumped up. No subterfuge there. Pure ambition. So he didn't have Mycroft in his pocket yet. Perfect.

"His computer, in return for the location of your vaults. I will never be your equal, for I can never learn all that's within them, but give me access and in return, you can take Mycroft down. We will be the most powerful men in the world," Sherlock offered. Magnussen's mouth twitched. Political dominance, if he could defeat Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. He was going to accept.

"I'll have a helicopter meet you then. Christmas. How very quaint," Magnussen agreed. Already planning to betray them and leave them without an exit.

"Meet me where?" Sherlock pressed, as if he still hadn't learned that lesson. Magnussen sneered. He was probably laying it on a little thick. "Happy Christmas," Sherlock added, smirking like the last sentence had been some shared joke. Magnussen smiled again. Better.

"Yes," the man replied and stole another cold chip for his way out, likely just to show he could.

~~//~~

John tracked the letters on their path, writing down where the GPS movement paused and when it restarted. It made logical progress for a car moving through traffic, steadying out as it exited the city and drove down the curving roads of the English suburbia, into the countryside. At that point, there was little reason for John to follow it, for there was nothing he could do if it did blip out, but still he watched it until it stopped. The tracking became intermittent then, blipping in and out of service only long enough to confirm its location. The same, over and over. John watched it for hours, a task which occupied his brain enough to keep the shadows at bay in the public cafe. He couldn't be bored. He was learning that. There was always that nail at his back, waiting for him to notice it. When the tracker finally disappeared for too long and his skin began to crawl, John escaped to meet Greg at the bar.

They met by Lestrade's flat for once. Lestrade was already there when he arrived, sitting in his work suit in a corner booth. They could both sit with a wall at their back. The bar was starting to fill with the after-work crowd of well-dressed people that would drink and socialize and leave after a few hours. It was a well-lit place, discouraging heavy drinking and hookups but there were a few couples well on their way to both. Greg waved him over to his booth and John joined him. Greg pushed a beer across the table for him. John lifted it in thanks.

"It's good to see you," Greg said in way of greeting, a bit too sincere.

"How are things?" John asked so Greg couldn't. Lestrade grunted and shifted in his seat. The table was sticky. Lestrade rubbed at his lips, apparently discomfited by the question.

"Got a girl on my mind," he confessed, not sounding particularly happy about it. John took a sip of his beer, waiting. Greg's lips twisted. Wasn't sure he wanted to talk about it, maybe. He sighed finally, like John had battered him into it. "Molly Hooper, from the morgue laboratory. She's a good woman. Sweet. If socially…uncomfortable." Lestrade shrugged in his suit jacket. "Doesn't lie. That's the thing with cops. We're just waiting for everyone to lie."

John nodded slowly. He could understand that. Sherlock was constantly scanning people while they talked, just waiting for the deception.

"She refused you?" he guessed, judging from the detective's dejected demeanor. To his surprise, Greg shook his head.

"No. It's never a good time. I didn't ask her while the force was out searching for you because I thought 'wanna catch a bite while our mate's getting filleted' lacked something of romance in a pickup line," he explained into his drink, looking up only long enough to smile apologetically. John huffed out a laugh at the description, appreciative of the dark humour that left trauma out of the conversation. It was the way of soldiers - the only war stories that were real were the ones not talked about in anything but jokes. "Then, when I called she thought it was just to catch her up on you and Sherlock…" Greg continued and John groaned, sharing his embarrassment.

"And now?" he asked when Greg stayed silent for too long. Greg rubbed at his neck ruefully.

"Now… I don't call her," he replied. John snorted as Greg took a hearty gulp of his drink.

"Call her anyway," he suggested and took a drink of his own. Greg nodded. Predicting that advice, probably.

"It's not that simple," he protested and John raised his eyebrows doubtfully.

"You want to be together?" he asked and Greg didn't answer. Probably knowing where he was going with that. "She want you?" John pressed and Greg started sliding his beer glass back and forth between his palms.

"I've gotten that impression," he hedged.

"Ask her," John ordered. "Then it's on her to figure out what she wants." Greg paused at that and huffed to himself.

"Just to stop fucking around about it?" he asked. That logic seemed to appeal to him. John stayed silent, watching him think about it for a moment more only to pull out his phone. Molly's number was apparently the last one called.

"Molly! Hi, it's Greg. I was wondering - would you like to have dinner with me sometime?" he asked smoothly. John smiled into his drink, hearing Molly's squeal from the phone speaker, followed by apologetical babble. "A date, yes," Greg confirmed and John had to be careful not to laugh before he swallowed. Greg's face lit up. "Thursday?" he suggested and Molly squealed again. "Goodnight," Greg said, only to look at his phone. Apparently Molly had already hung up. "That's going to drive me crazy," he confided, shoving his phone back into his pocket.

"Brave," John congratulated him and he relaxed into his seat.

"Thanks," he said, clearly for more than the compliment. John raised his glass in a toast and Greg joined him. John did his best to look happy for them. He failed, evidently, for Greg sobered. "How're things?" he asked and John didn't know where to start. "With Sherlock," Greg clarified. John blew out a breath. That was almost an equally loaded question.

"I have no idea," he said, leaning back in his seat. That wasn't entirely true. He knew they were calmer. The hate was gone. Their friendship was starting to shine through the mud of it all. That something more was there too, somewhere in that 'maybe' they'd so drunkenly shared. "We're friends," he added. That part was certain. Greg looked impressed.

"Then what's uncertain?" he asked. John didn't know how to answer that. Apparently his hesitation answered for him. Greg's eyebrows shot up. "Right," he said slowly, giving John time to deny it. John stayed quiet, fighting off a brief wave of embarrassment. After so many years of denying any attraction, to admit he'd been full of shit… but he'd been full of shit for years. For all he knew Greg had heard everything he'd screamed in that hospital too. John didn't have any secrets left; it was time to get used to it. "He's not interested?" Greg asked, looking doubtful even as the words left his lips. John drank his beer to hide. Sherlock had never indicated he was interested. The most he'd ever said about John touching him was the overwhelming 'I don't mind' and their enigmatic 'maybe'. That hardly stood as a definitive declaration. But there was something in his eyes, something that'd always been in his eyes… Greg snorted.

"Yeah, I knew it too," he commented. John shook his head, still uncertain.

"He's never said it," he pointed out. Greg snorted again.

"He's never told me he cares about you either, but you couldn't tell me shit against it." Greg leaned back in his chair, getting more comfortable. John shook his head.

"Hence uncertain," he replied and Greg tipped his head, acknowledging the point.

"Ask him," he shot back, smirking at the turn around. John sighed. He should have seen that coming.

"We've been through so much. I don't want to add more to it, mixing sex in," he admitted. Greg grimaced. He'd apparently managed to go through the whole conversation without thinking about anal sex yet. John smirked and Greg took another gulp of beer.

"Sex has a way of sneaking up on you," Greg grunted. "If you don't talk about it, it'll come up anyway."

"I'm not a teenager," John protested. Greg looked doubtful.

And I don't like being touched.

"Good luck with that," Greg joked. John nodded gratefully and finished his beer. Following his lead, Greg drained his own. They'd barely sat down yet but Greg didn't protest. John was grateful. He couldn't abide silence and he couldn't be bored. It'd take awhile, before he'd be able to sit down for more than a beer. That would come in time. For now, Greg waved down a waiter and closed his tab without complaint.

"Have a good date," John said. He picked up his laptop with a pained grunt and Greg glanced at it meaningfully. Guessing he was going to Sherlock's now? John couldn't see how but Greg smiled knowingly and shoved his wallet into his pocket.

"You too," he said. John decided not to grace that with an answer.

~~//~~

Chapter Text

John stalled in front of the door to 221B, unsure if he should knock or let himself in.

"Come in John," Sherlock called from inside. Of course. John walked into the kitchen, where he'd heard the voice, to find Sherlock sitting at the table looking at a map of the western London countryside. Where the letters' tracker had died. Sherlock had a readout of the tracker's transmissions open in another tab and he flicked back and forth between them too quickly to follow. He looked unbelievable, standing in old clothing, his brain working at full speed. "Two options. They found the tracker and took their time disabling it, to make it look like it was slowly going out of range, or the tracker is underground."

"A vault?" John guessed, walking into the living room to put down his bag. Laptops were heavy. On the edge of too heavy. If he was wise he'd leave it here. The idea didn't bother him.

Sherlock hummed doubtfully.

"Bigger than that. A catacombs," he announced, leaning back from his map. A zoomed up image of the tracker's last positions. It had been moving, just very slowly compared to a car's travels. Someone walking and getting slowly out of range. Going down steps?

"The entrance, then," John said aloud, entranced by the simple map of an unmarked field of untended land. "Now what?" he asked and Sherlock shut the laptop lid, already looked bored.

"Now we wait. Again," he growled. "I abhor trying to fail. There's no audience," Sherlock added, sounding thoroughly frustrated now. John scratched at the back of his head, wondering if he should go. Then Sherlock looked up, his expression brightening. "How's Greg?" he asked. John smiled in appreciation of the deduction and shrugged in answer. The motion only ached now. Progress Sherlock clearly noticed.

"Dating again. Molly Hooper," John replied. There wasn't much point in avoiding gossip, with Sherlock Holmes.

"Finally," he grunted, rolling his eyes and standing up from the table.

"He's been trying for awhile?" John asked, going to the sink to put on some tea. Sherlock snorted.

"Really, John, I'd only been back from Russia for six hours and I knew," Sherlock boasted, heading into the living room to sit down. John flicked on the stove and followed.

"Really?" John asked. He settled into his chair with his laptop, prepared to spend the evening job hunting. His interview hadn't felt promising. He'd been asked 'do you have any experience with PTSD' and had been halfway through answering before he'd realized they were talking about his bedside manner with patients and not his frequency of panic attacks when bathing.

"Where else did you think I concentrated my time? The majority of Moriarty's network operated out of Sochi," Sherlock said, picking up his violin and falling back on the couch. He started playing, the violin held awkwardly into the air.

"No, I meant really, Lestrade has liked her for that long? I couldn't tell," John clarified.

"The man can't go two minutes with the woman without staring," Sherlock replied, switching his song to a faster beat.

"And that's your idea of flirting, is it? Just staring at her?" John asked, amused by the image of Sherlock trying to glare a woman into attraction.

"Is that wrong?" Sherlock asked, stopping his bow with a squeal. John blinked. Sherlock looked genuinely concerned, his eyes wide and boring into John's… oh. Oh. John didn't know if he should look away or not, feeling like he was supposed to make some flash decision. To date Sherlock or to refuse him? They'd only just started cases again, surely it was too soon…

Do you want to be together?

John cleared his throat to stall. Sherlock kept staring. John cleared his throat again.

"No, no. It gets the message across," John said finally and Sherlock relaxed back into the sofa, looking much relieved. Apparently that was all he'd wanted. John watched him replace his bow on the string and start to play again, picking up the quick beat as if he'd never stopped.

Message received.

John opened his laptop, prepared to spend the rest of the evening pretending to look for jobs. But he'd barely opened the search engine before he had to pause again, struck by another of Sherlock's blatant subtleties. His chair. He was seated in his chair. John ran his hands down the rough fabric arms, gobsmacked. Wherever the hell Sherlock had tossed his chair, he'd gotten it back. Sherlock smirked, without seeming to notice him. John wasn't fooled. He refitted the Union flag pillow at his back, happy to have his place restored.

Message received. He stared sightlessly at his open search engine. The kettle screamed, finally, and John got up to make them tea, fitting Sherlock's with sugar without needing to ask.

~~//~~

Christmas day dawned foggy and chill. A limo parked imperiously in front of 221 Baker Street and for once Sherlock got in it without complaint. He usually opted to let the poor driver sit for hours, until a cop issued a ticket for standing illegally, before he acknowledged Mycroft's car. John got in after him. He was starting to become legitimately excited about the whole enterprise.

He'd always pegged Sherlock for a rich boy, likely raised by nannies and generally ignored. It accounted for his deeply ingrained loneliness and aversion to touch and the way Sherlock always seemed to question friendships long after they were established. He pictured a grand stone estate, a fully renovated historical manor, complete with lintel engravings and a bust of its founder. Instead, the black limo pulled up to a converted farm house, complete with red brick and unadorned front door.

Mycroft exited the house, followed by a gray-haired couple John had to assume were Sherlock's parents. They threw their arms wide and insisted on a hug from Sherlock before the man had fully exited the vehicle. Sherlock embraced them stiffly and pivoted away to introduce John. John shook their hands before they could insist on a hug and maintained his distance. To his relief they didn't protest. Instead they turned on Mycroft, pestering him to greet his brother properly.

Mycroft bowed his head like a posh lordling and turned awkwardly to John. They hadn't spoken since the drug den debacle.

"Welcome, John," Mycroft greeted, sounding remarkably sincere. Even Sherlock's parents reacted to the tone, turning from their salutations with Sherlock to listen in. John shook his head firmly and pushed his fists into his pockets, unsure what more to say to the enigmatic man. "It's good to see you," Mycroft tried. John hesitated, listening for any hidden meaning and hearing none. He couldn't return the sentiment but he could hardly say that aloud. Though judging from Sherlock's mother's tight expression, the lack was palpable. "I hope you've been well?" Mycroft asked carefully.

Hardly. John thanked him as politely as he could and Mycroft relaxed perceptibly, clearly withering under his parents' frowns.

Oh this is going to be fun.

Sherlock's mother was a kindly-looking woman with smile lines and heavy earrings. She wore colorful, unpretentious clothing and held her hair back in a loose knot. She fit in this rural, barn-style home. Sherlock positioned himself beside her, so much like a proud little kid that John had to smile. Mrs. Holmes beamed back at him, her eyes glittering with affection.

"Well, what are we all standing outside for?" Mr. Holmes ejected suddenly, clapping his hands together. He was dressed like a rather doddering old professor, complete with a red bowtie to celebrate the holiday and a pair of bifocals hanging on a string around his neck.

"John, it is absolutely lovely to meet you. I'm Wanda, and that's my husband Tim," Mrs. Holmes greeted again, ignoring him entirely. John smiled as warmly as he could, trying to decide how he'd avoid a hug now. Mrs. Holmes really did look that happy to meet him. What had Sherlock told them? Sherlock was holding his hands behind his back, his expression taut as it always was when he felt guilty.

"House. House is decorated," Sherlock burst out suddenly and Mycroft smirked, gesturing at his brother to lead them into the house. John lingered to follow behind. Fortunately the Holmeses didn't seem to notice that touch of PTSD, though Mycroft's sneer slipped before he lead the way in.

The front door opened into a cramped, dark entryway. There was barely room to swing the door without hitting the lowest step of a staircase leading to the second floor. A tight passageway led back to the much brighter kitchen. The hallway was decorated with a woven leaf garland that smelled strongly of fir trees and sap. Mrs. Holmes led them back to the kitchen, chattering happily about Christmas bringing them together in a tone that indicated to John that this was not their usual routine. The house smelled like candle smoke and ham. The kitchen was large and well lit. Most of its floorspace was taken up by a gray table covered in tacked bowls and cutting boards. White Christmas lights were taped up above one window in a bedraggled bunch, the cord awkwardly stretching around a picture frame on its way down to the electric socket.

"Can I do anything to help?" John asked, hoping to hide in a task. Unfortunately, Mrs. Holmes immediately waved him to sit down and started puttering about the kitchen. Sherlock settled into a dining chair with the newspaper without a word, apparently leaving John alone to the task of asking the Holmeses if they could thoroughly interrupt the holiday to go chase down a famous blackmailer. Mycroft claimed another chair and dragged out his laptop, clearly planning to avoid the strange festivities by burying himself in work. John sat in the chair across from him, feeling bereft of any such distraction. Mrs. Holmes smiled at him every time she looked his way, clearly trying to make a welcoming impression.

"So, I'm afraid Sherlock never fills me in with the details. How long have you two been together?" she asked finally, setting the water on for tea. Sherlock tore himself up from his reading, sputtering.

"Mother!" he growled and Mrs. Holmes startled, sloshing the water out of the kettle.

"What? Have I stepped in it then?" she asked, looking distraught, and John blushed. Sherlock looked at him, his own cheeks pink and Mycroft smirked again.

"How terribly romantic," he drawled. "I may be ill." Mrs. Holmes smacked him on the shoulder and awkwardly returned to making tea. John escaped finally, hearing Mr. Holmes putz about the living room beside them. He walked down a couple steps into a warm family den, covered now in garlands and mistletoe. Mr. Holmes was bent over the fireplace hearth starting a fire. Sherlock had grown up here, John could feel it; this family had been in this home for decades. Had the family always been so…quaint? Mr. Holmes turned around and pushed his char-covered hands into his tweed pockets.

~~//~~

"I do wish you'd give up the Magnussen business," Mycroft commented, looking out on the neighbor's farm. They still hadn't fixed their septic issues. Continued marital problems, then. Sherlock didn't mention it, sure Mycroft saw.

"Do you?" he asked, doubting him. Mycroft wanted control over the world. He didn't have control over Magnussen. Unless…

"I'm still curious though. It's hardly your usual kind of puzzle. Why do you hate him?"

Sherlock spun around, aggravated. Magnussen surely had something on John by now, something to hold over them.

"Because he attacks people who are different and preys on their secrets. Why don't you?" he spat.

"He never causes too much damage to anyone important. He's far too intelligent for that," Mycroft warned. A clear message - don't antagonize men you can't beat. So no, Mycroft couldn't control Magnussen. "He's a businessman, that's all. And occasionally useful to us. A necessary evil. Not a dragon for you to slay."

Sherlock smiled at the unintended compliment.

"A dragon-slayer. Is that what you think of me?" he goaded.

"No. It's what you think of yourself," Mycroft replied predictably. The door opened behind them. Oh, hell.

"Are you two smoking?" Mother screeched.

"It was Mycroft," Sherlock lied just as Mycroft denied it outright. Their mother glared at them, unfooled, and closed the door. They'd hear about that later. After the holiday, surely. Sherlock let out a long puff of smoke.

"I have, by the way, a job offer I should like you decline," Mycroft added. Easy decision - Sherlock had enough on his plate with Magnussen and wooing John.

"I decline your kind offer."

"I shall pass on your regrets," Mycroft answered, sounding genuinely grateful for his usually easygoing response.

"What was it?" Sherlock asked curiously.

"MI6. They want to place you back into Eastern Europe. An undercover assignment that will prove fatal to you in, I think, about six months." Mycroft sounded serious. Not a challenge then. A true death sentence, regardless of wit and tenacity. Interesting.

Sherlock frowned, feigning confusion.

"Then why don't you want me to take it?"

Mycroft smiled, in that tight lilt of his that was, to all evidence, the best he could manage.

"It's tempting but on balance, you have more utility closer to home," he answered. A bad excuse, worse than usual. They both knew Sherlock was going to take on Magnussen when Mycroft preferred to do otherwise.

"Utility. How do I have utility?" Sherlock scoffed at the weak lie.

"Here be dragons," Mycroft admitted, giving up their thirty year dance at underestimating each other. And why? Sherlock hesitated, trying to catch up. He couldn't see the motive.

"He's pretending you've won him. Surely that's a call for optimism," Mycroft baited him. Ah, there was the motive. Asking for an update. Sherlock took another drag at his cigarette.

"Probably," Sherlock agreed, effectively admitting that he had no more to report. Mycroft coughed.

"This isn't agreeing with me. I'm going in." Mycroft turned to head back to the house. Sharing his own weakness, now? Attempting to reward him. It worked. Sherlock scowled.

"You need low tar. You still smoke like a beginner," Sherlock laughed, accepting the riposte. Mycroft hesitated behind him. He could hear his footsteps slow and finally stop.

"Also… your loss would break my heart," he pronounced. Sherlock choked on his cigarette and coughed, painfully struggling at air. What the hell?

"What the hell am I supposed to say to that?" he asked, turning. Mycroft was still facing the house. He turned finally and lifted his hands, giving up. All their antagonism, apparently, for he did that smile thing again. He looked like a happy potato. Sherlock decided not to mention that, if they were supposed to be sharing some family bonding moment.

"Merry Christmas?" Mycroft suggested.

"You hate Christmas," Sherlock threw back suspiciously.

"Yes. Perhaps there was something in the punch," Mycroft answered. Sherlock hesitated, struck by the sentence. Mycroft had known of his plan to drug them? How the hell? Sherlock peered at him, fascinated. Surely he was not that predictable?

"Clearly. Go and have some more," Sherlock said, stalling for time. Mycroft smiled at him. Trusting him now, now that he was listening to John? That was disturbingly possible. The hell would that mean between them? Brotherly concern or something feigning it? Mycroft went inside.

~~//~~

A/N: I just got my health news – the cyst is shrinking and my symptoms are reversing very quickly now. I'm back on my feet, thrilled to be writing my fantasy book and finishing up this fanfiction. Thank you all so so much for the support! I'll liiiiiiive!

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Chapter Text

"Well, my boy, so I can tell the missus I asked, tell me about yourself," Mr. Holmes ordered. John chuckled obediently, unsure what the man wanted him to say. Mr. Holmes sat down, prompting him to follow suit. "Doctor of what?"

"Erm…people. I'm an M.D. First an army doctor, then private clinic when I got back from the war," John summarized, unsure if he was talking to a genius or not. A remarkably unusual question to ask someone, and potentially quite rude, so he kept it to himself.

"Sherlock never tells us anything about himself. Ridiculously private, that boy. Always has been," Tim complained. John nodded understanding.

He tells me things now, he thought proudly but didn't say. Then he had to wonder if Sherlock's parents had known about the falsehood surrounding his 'death' or if they'd mourned as well. That hardly sounded like small talk though, so he said nothing.

"Iraq?" Mr. Holmes tried again and John became aware too late that the man was trying to get him to talk. Right.

"No. Erm. Afghanistan," he said and the man nodded as if that meant something.

"That must have given you a useful skillset, for dating my son," the man said and John squinted at him, trying to determine if the man was being derisive or not. now John really wanted to know what Sherlock had said about him. Mr. Holmes waved him down, in a reassuringly casual gesture.

"Oh don't worry, he's not spreading anything about you two. It's just..Sherlock has never brought anyone home since his college lover, so it's easy to fill in the blanks," the father reassured him. John shifted in his seat, questions building up faster in his mind than he could ask them, and he was fairly sure it'd be prying to ask any.

Male or female? Did Sherlock love them? Was it serious? How'd it end? How'd Sherlock handle it?


Tim's mouth curled up, clearly following his thoughts. "A boy named Victor something. I can never remember last names. A nice enough lad, but we always thought he was a bit too happy to use Sherlock's insecurity for his own purposes. Sherlock was forever doing favors for the boy. We weren't displeased to see him go," Tim explained, unprompted. John nodded shortly, unsure if he should explain that Sherlock and he weren't lovers. He didn't wish to. He wanted this. He wanted all of this. Every year at Christmas. Every moment between.

"Oh, dear God. It's only 2:00. It's been Christmas Day for at least a week now. How can it only be 2:00? I'm in agony," they heard Mycroft moaning from the kitchen. Mr. Holmes settled back into his chair, as if comforted by the sound.

"Mikey, is this your laptop?" Mrs. Holmes's voice followed, sounding annoyed. Tim's eyes glittered with amusement at the sound.

"Upon which depends the security of the free world, yes, and you've put potatoes on it," Mycroft answered. John let out an exasperated snort at the same time as Mr. Holmes chuckled and they shared an understanding glance, listening to Martha scold her son.

"Complete flake, my wife, but happens to be a genius," the man related, looking remarkably self-pleased.

"What'd she do?" John asked, picturing the middle-aged woman rushing through the London sewers, chasing after criminals, covered in muck.

"She's a mathematician. Gave it all up for children. I could never bear to argue with her. I'm something of a moron myself. But she's…unbelievably hot," he said and John grinned, trying to remember the last time he'd seen a man look as happy with his wife. Mr. Holmes appeared to be utterly content with his life in this farm house, despite the strange nature of his sons.

"I'm never bored," John replied, glancing at the fireplace as if he could see Sherlock behind it.

"No, we weren't either, raising them," Tim replied, shaking his head. "Sherlock would go a week without saying a thing, only to disappear for a full day and arrive on our doorstep flanked by two policemen, all agog about some experiment or the like. Half impossible to get him attending school," Tim complained.

"That doesn't surprise me at all," John said and Jim nodded, looking pleased by the statement.

I want this.


Hell but it'd been too long. A real relationship, a family, a friend turned lover?

Sherlock walked into the room, just as Mr.Holmes opened his mouth to reply.

"Oh, sorry, I just…" Sherlock started, jerking to a half. John glanced at his lap, only too aware he had just been talking like Sherlock and he were long established lovers. Mr. Holmes glanced between them, noticing too much.

"Oh. Do you two need a moment?" he asked and Sherlock glanced at John, clearly asking do we? They were going to need to attack Magnussen - the helicopter was going to arrive soon. Yes, they needed a moment first.

"If you don't mind," John confirmed and Sherlock swallowed heavily.

"No, of course not. I'll go see if I can help with something or another," Mr. Holmes said, levering himself out of his chair and leaving them alone. Sherlock stayed standing.

"You're not contradicting their assumptions," he noted. John blinked. He'd been planning on starting the conversation about Magnussen and their plan of attack but Sherlock was watching him curiously.

"Neither are you," he reflected and Sherlock tilted his head, acknowledging that. "You never have done," John added, trying to get himself to finally ask 'why not?'. They heard the shuffle of people outside the living room door. Probably close enough to hear inside. John stayed still, waiting for them to move away.

"Those two. They all right?" they heard Mr. Holmes ask. John closed his eyes in mortification. He shouldn't have deceived the man.

"Well, you know, they've had their ups and downs," Mycroft replied, not revealing them.

Sherlock's eyebrows lifted in surprise at that and they heard the two men walk away.

"I don't understand. What are we doing?" he asked softly, his voice deep. John lifted his hands up from his lap, indicating helplessness.

"I have no idea. I'm not asking you for anything," he answered. Sherlock sucked at his tongue, like that was sour news.

"I wish you would," he said finally before turning around and cursing to himself. "No, damn it, I'm supposed to wait. 'Until something happens'," he sneered, clearly quoting someone. He spun back, his eyes flashing in frustration. "Damn it John, I can't abide uncertainty. Tell me truly, are you attracted to me?"

John swallowed, reminded Sherlock's family could probably hear.

"I don't like being touched," he replied in lieu of answer. Sherlock scowled.

"Neither do I. Not my question. Do you want me or not?" he demanded. Now that was a whole separate question, John thought desperately, rubbing at his eyes. Sherlock waited for him, his eyes blazing, his shoulders stiff as if expecting a blow.

He still expects me to say no, John realized. That didn't seem right. He'd kept Sherlock at a distance with all his strength, yes, but Sherlock was there for his tortured confession, saw his erection in the damn bathtub, knew now that John wasn't leaving again whether they admitted it or not - what else was so obviously in the way? John ran his hands down his pantlegs, wiping off sweat. He was going to stay at 221B. As friends or as more? That suddenly seemed entirely in his control.

"Sherlock.." John started and Sherlock deflated at just the one word. The most intense attractive man he'd ever met, who'd give his life and his reputation for him, who'd slow down his work for him, help him bathe and watch him panic without fear or ridicule, and not expect a thing in return.

Goddamn it yes, I want him.

John got up slowly, blowing out a heavy breath to join Sherlock standing in front of the staircase. Sherlock stared down at him, waiting to be crushed.

"I don't like being touched. That's been true since Kandahar. It's hardly better now," John announced.

"Obvious," Sherlock sneered at his confession. "You dated. You never had sex with them. The futon, the lilo, the sofa with Sarah-Susan, wasn't it?" Sherlock listed obnoxiously.

"Sarah," John corrected automatically. Sherlock shrugged. John pinched the bridge of his nose. Not the point. Sherlock cut him off.

"I can't handle boredom. Or quiet. I usually don't like people touching me or trying to tell me things I know or acting unpredictably just to feel special. I did drugs when I was alone so my brain was occupied. Then did drugs when you left so I could say it was convenient to have you gone," Sherlock listed. Trading admission for admission? John could do that.

"I don't want to say I'm attracted to you, only to panic when you touch me. I don't like water or fire starters or anything around my wrists. I don't like people behind me," John replied. Sherlock shifted uncomfortably.

"I don't like feeling held down or contained," Sherlock replied. John huffed out a laugh. That one was easy.

"Me either." he said. Sherlock glared. Apparently that didn't count. "I don't want to accept that I can't live alone," John replied. Sherlock frowned.

"Is this better? Ignoring it?" he asked.

"I doubt it," John admitted and Sherlock looked pleased with himself.

"What does that have to do with me?" he asked finally and John laughed, shaking off the tension between them. Of course Sherlock was thinking about himself.

"I have too many problems to get into a relationship," he admitted finally, angry with himself more for that pathetic truth than for admitting it. Sherlock didn't look appropriately scared off.

"So do I," he replied easily and John blinked. The underlying point was obvious - how long would they wait, trying not to be broken, before they tried being broken together? They'd been close to that, before Sherlock had jumped. Why not go the rest of the way now, as far as they could go?

"Most of me wants to kiss you and the rest wants to back away," John admitted. Sherlock smirked at the word 'kiss' and shrugged.

"Me too," he said and waited. John stayed where he was. What the hell was he agreeing to?

"Move back in with me," Sherlock ordered.

"Okay," John agreed immediately, something tight in his stomach easing.

"Touch me when you want to," Sherlock added. John swallowed. He wanted that.

"Okay," he agreed again.

What is this going to look like? There were too many emotions rushing up in his chest, now. Hard memories and too much fear. He didn't want to touch anyone.

"You…do that too," he said finally. Sherlock smiled widely, the expression practically splitting his face. John shifted, starting to think that uncomfortable bubbly sensation in his chest was actual happiness rising once again.

I love you, he thought but did not say. That would come out in its own time, he was sure.

"Excellent," Sherlock declared and spun on his heel. "Let's ask Mycroft to let us steal his laptop 'upon which depends the safety of the free world'," he joked, starting toward the kitchen. Yes, John thought, following after him, they still had to do the whole exciting part of the day. It felt rather droll, coming after this. He wanted to sit down.

"Did you bring your gun as I suggested?" Sherlock asked just as they walked into the crowded room. John closed his eyes.

"Why would I bring my gun, which I cannot shoot, to your parents' house for Christmas dinner?" he asked into the sudden quiet.

"Why would you bring your gun if you could shoot it?" Martha asked primly. John opened his eyes to see Sherlock smiling at his mother. The woman frowned at them for interrupting her holiday, apparently anticipating them.

"Is it in your coat?" Sherlock asked and his father cleared his throat.

"Sherlock, do you want to fill us in?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.

~~//~~

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Chapter Text

John watched the English countryside fly by below, unable to remember any landmarks that'd tell him if they were nearing their letters' catacombs. Judging from Sherlock's comfortable posture, they were right on target.

The Appledore Estate house was as intimidating and opulent as promised. It stood on farm country, carving out a large section of the local fields to surround itself with grass and professional landscaping. Its modern design complete with huge windows and stained-glass front door reminded John of celebrity homes, meant to impress visitors and deter trespassers. They landed on the front lawn and Sherlock hopped out, vibrating with excitement.

A man dressed sharply with a speaker in his ear - some mix of butler and security guard - opened an arm in a wide gesture toward the house's front door. Another man, posed on the gleaming mahogany staircase inside, gestured them to the left.

How long has he been standing there? John wondered, eyeing the servant as they walked past. The servant followed behind them, apparently paid to stalk them through the house. John was sorely inclined to vandalize something, just to see what the man would do. Sherlock fulfilled that urge by swiping a crystal ashtray from a sidetable as they walked through a doorway and out of the man's sight. He slipped it into his jacket pocket with a devious grin and John started giggling. Another servant joined them, a pale man with his pale hair pulled back in a low ponytail reminiscent of an 18th century wig. Then John was laughing for real and Sherlock giggled behind him, his gaze stuck on the man's overly tailored coat. They sobered at a glare from the servant and John avoided looking at Sherlock, knowing he'd laugh again.

The servants escorted them into a large atrium decorated with white tile, white paint and glass walls. Magnussen sat poised for them on a white couch, holding a glass of hard liquor on his knee. The servants left through another door behind John and he could finally focus on the real villain in front of them.

"I would offer you a drink but it's very rare and expensive," Magnussen commented, taking a sip for himself. John was starting to get tired of the calculated boorishness. Sherlock had to be exasperated. Sherlock sat down on the sofa beside the man, bouncing slightly and leaning back with a huff. He glanced up and made a feigned 'huh' of surprise.

"You got these," Sherlock commented, looking toward the side of the room. John wasn't sure if Magnussen as supposed to recognize the fake tone or not, so he stayed quiet. John turned to see a screen playing a slideshow of Mike's photo stream. Picture after picture, like a flipbook, all chronologically ordered to show with each successive image John's body hanging from the ceiling, his crumpled body, his urine splotches, then his nakedness, his blood. John turned away to focus on the white sterile room. He wouldn't break now. He focused on Magnussen, standing ready to take him down. Perhaps Magnussen had no way to guess what adrenaline did for him, that it kept him sane when inanity would kill him. He'd probably meant to put them off-center.

"Yes, of course. It's very hard to find a pressure point on you, Mr. Holmes. The drugs thing I never believed for a moment. Anyway, you wouldn't care if these were exposed, would you?"

Then the projector started making noise and John turned in time to see a security video of Scotland Yard's conference room, where Sherlock was pacing around, theorizing desperately about the victim's injuries and possible location - the picture of John's supine tortured body on the screen behind him. Sherlock turned suddenly and punched through the precinct wall. A mad genius, distraught.

"But look how you came about John Watson. Your damsel in distress," Magnussen continued. More boastful than a man who'd simply procured some photographs. John turned around, rage filling his head before any true deduction. Still, he knew this one was true. He could see it in Magnussen's smirk.

"You had me tortured… for leverage?" he bit out. Sherlock's eyebrows jerked up. He hadn't thought of that or hadn't thought John would get it too.

"I suggested it, only. I admit, I expected Jim would not be so careless as to let you go before the end. Just think of the poetry, a madman in love with another. I wouldn't have let you get ill. I'm not a murderer, John," Magnussen said. "Let me explain how leverage works, Dr. Watson," the man started, standing up and moving to shut down the projected movie. "For those who understand these things, Mycroft Holmes is the most powerful man in the country. Well, apart from me. Mycroft's pressure point is his junkie detective brother Sherlock. Sherlock's pressure point is his best friend John Watson. John Watson's pressure point is his need for privacy and pride. You're a stoic, arespectable man, Doctor. I own your privacy, I own Mycroft. He's what I'm getting for Christmas."

Magnussen sat down again. Sherlock's face had barely moved during the blackmailer's spiel. Before Moriarty's torture, before Sherlock's reappearance, John could easily imagine what such a threat would have done to him. His pride had been the last thing about himself he'd hold to his chest as worth defending. He'd have been struggling to outwit Magnussen now, to find some way out of such exposure, his bloody soiled body no doubt shown on every screen in the country. Maybe the world. And no doubt Magnussen had the exits sealed and their attempt to outflank him would destroy them. Now, they didn't need to try. John stood comfortably, watching Magnussen smirk at Sherlock, wondering if Sherlock was aware how much had changed in the last two months.

"It's an exchange, not a gift," Sherlock clarified, pushing Mycroft's laptop over toward Magnussen's waiting hand. Magnussen tipped his head, looking rather doubtful of that claim.

"Forgive me but… I already seem to have it," he boasted.

"It's password protected," Sherlock sneered. "In return for the password, you will give me any material in your possession pertaining to John."

He was brilliant to watch, like this. Self-possessed and confident, laying their trap. A legal sting - they just needed Magnussen to demand state secrets, under the threat of blackmail. The threat they had well established, now they just needed him to officially accept the bloody laptop.

"You don't want to watch it? You might enjoy it. I enjoy it," Magnussen said, glancing at where the video had been projected.

"Then why don't you show us?" Sherlock asked, goading him.

"Show you Appledore? The secret vaults? Is that what you want?" the man asked. Mocking them, but John didn't quite understand how.

"I want everything you've got on John," Sherlock said.

Making it sound like they were narrowing their scope beneath his threats. That they only wanted John's safety, not Appledore, now. This was going well. Magnussen started to chuckle.

"You know, I honestly expected something good," he said, sounding disappointed.

He thinks he won.

"Oh, I think you'll find the contents of that laptop…" Sherlock started.

"Include the GPS locator," Magnussen filled in.

Shit.

"By now your brother will have noticed the theft and Security Services will be converging on this house. Having arrived, they'll find top secret information in my hands and they'll have every justification to search my vaults. They will discover further information of this kind, then I'll be imprisoned. You will be exonerated. Restored to your smelly little apartment to solve crimes with your catatonic not-yet-boyfriend."

Sherlock's face was expressionless while their blackmailer ran down the entirety of their plan. John was almost at the point of asking why when he realized that the arrest would work the same, even with Magnussen aware of it. There was nothing the man could do, now, even if they never got an official acceptance of state secrets. Security Services had their probable cause for a search of the premises, and they'd find the vaults beneath the building, and Magnussen would be in prison all the same.

"Mycroft has been looking for this opportunity for a long time. He'll be a very proud big brother," Magnussen added. A damned observant man, to have cut to the quick of that relationship without ever seeing the two in a room. Sherlock just looked puzzled.

"The fact that you know it's going to happen isn't going to stop it," he pointed out. Magnussen put his empty drink down, still looking smug.

"Then why am I smiling?" he asked.

You're not, John wanted to answer. The man's face had barely tightened at all. He could be an attractive man, John thought, if he showed any expression beyond his dead-eyed stare.

"Ask me," Magnussen ordered but Sherlock didn't budge.

Fuck it.

"Why are you smiling?" John growled.

"Because Sherlock Holmes has made one enormous mistake which will destroy the lives of everyone he loves and everything he holds dear," Magnussen answered.

We've been through that before. Try it. Magnussen got up from the couch yet again. Either the man couldn't stay still for two minutes or he thought it added drama.

"Let me show you the Appledore vaults," he offered, closing the buttons of his suit jacket. John frowned. That was…unexpected. Would it be the man had anticipated their GPS tracker on the letters, had buried the letters with their contents and left them empty handed?

Instead, the man led them through his home to a pair of closed doors and introduced the entrance to his vaults while he presented them with an empty white room containing nothing but a chair.

"There are no vaults beneath this building. They're all in here," he explained, sitting down and touching his temples like Professor Xavier. "You know about mind palaces, don't you Sherlock?" How to store information so you never forget it by picturing it. I just sit here, I close my eyes, and down I go to my vaults. My memories. I'll look at the files on Dr. Watson."

To John's surprise, the more Magnussen talked the more Sherlock looked genuinely scared. The man pretended to be leafing through files with his fingers and John had to clear his throat to cover a laugh.

"This is one of my favorites. Oh, it's so exciting," the man gloated.

What a ridiculous man.

"All those whack jobs for the USA. I can really see why you like him…" Magnussen drawled. John swallowed. Sherlock didn't even bother to feign surprise.

No secrets.

Magnussen opened his eyes.

"So there are no documents. You don't actually have anything here," John summarized.

"Oh, sometimes I send out for something if I really need it but mostly I just remember it all."

That's it? That's why he thinks he's won? We'll just believe that and the Special Forces will quickly abandon their search for more and he'll still be on top of world?

"I don't understand," John admitted.

"You should have that on a t-shirt," Magnussen drawled.

He's trying to drive us to do something rash, John thought. There was nothing the man really had to threaten them with, not if the vaults were real and the letters were in them. A likely bet, given how the megalomaniac had not gloated about finding them. Strange for a man not to mention the one detail he'd need to expose to truly defeat them. But Sherlock was looking very nervous. Genuinely, now.

"It's all about knowledge. Everything is. Knowing is owning," Magnussen philosophized.

Beautiful.

"But if you just know it, then you don't have proof," John replied, to stall. Sherlock's face was blank with fear. Beyond acting. True fear. What had happened?

"Proof? What would I need proof for? I'm in news, you moron. I don't have to prove it, I just have to print it."

Bullshit. Surely Sherlock knew that. Without proof, the newspaperman would be slammed for libel. He'd have been imprisoned years ago. No judge would believe his 'mind palace'. Magnussen walked past, heading out toward the large porch on the other side of the room.

"Sherlock, do we have a plan?" John asked and Sherlock didn't appear to be listening, thinking. Thinking too hard about this, really. "Sherlock?" John headed after Magnussen without him.

~~//~~

So close. He'd come so close to ruining all this again. It would have been so easy, so logical: propose to Janine, try to find Smallwood's letters - they wouldn't have been there; the tracker made that clear - drug his family, steal the laptop, end up here… guilty of the theft of state secrets, without the vaults to redeem them. They'd both be arrested and with Magnussen set against them… they'd never get out of prison. And all of John's pictures would be spread across the world, their enemies handed their names, prison numbers, descriptions. They wouldn't last for long. No - John would, even with his injuries, but not forever.

Damn it.

So close. Except for John.

God but he loved that man. Sherlock closed his eyes. He wanted to grip John to his body and never let go. Kiss him, feel him bare, feel him hard. They'd come close to that, before. In their small stolen moments when they could stop thinking and feel.

Meet his eyes a lot and wait.

Touch me when you want to.

Fuck that. He wanted to. He followed after John, who was currently slipping outside. He'd said…something. Sherlock had missed it. It probably didn't matter. Nothing could stop them now. John had brought Magnussen to his knees. The man just didn't know it yet. This would be fun to watch.

~~//~~

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Chapter Text

They stepped out onto a granite slab porch, lit by the floor to ceiling glass walls behind them. The grounds spread out in front of them, perfectly cut grass and low ground landscaping. Stone walls broke up the estate into attractive terraces, spreading out to the forest beyond. The dim foggy day had settled into a soft, chill dusk.

"I still don't understand," John said, waiting for the sound of a helicopter approaching. No doubt it was landed nearby, waiting.

"And there's the back of the t-shirt."

Yes, piss me off.

"You just 'know things'. How does that work?" he asked.

"I just so love your little soldier face. I'd like to punch it. Please, bring me your face."

Magnussen ordered. Sherlock looked distraught but needed for him to obey. They had to stall for backup. Then Magnussen could let everyone in the country watch him shit a brick for all he cared. As long as Magnussen was in jail and Mycroft controlled the contents of his vaults. John had no doubt that if Magnussen ran now, they'd never find him.

"Lean forward a bit and stick your face out," Magnussen ordered. John tried to contain a smile.

I could rip you apart.

"Please," Magnussen mocked him. "Now, can I flick it?"

Sherlock looked horrible, standing by the window, staring at John like he'd lost him.

He'd be willing to lose Magnussen to protect my pride.

Magnussen began to flick at his face, like that would mean something.

"Oh, I just love doing this. I could do it all day," he gloated. "It works like this, John. I know who you've hurt and killed. I know where to find people who hate you. I know where they live. I know their phone numbers. All in my mind palace, all of it. I could phone them right now and let them know where you live and you'll be seeing that carport everywhere you go, whether I post it or not. And I will," he explained, flicking him while he spoke. "Unless you let me flick your face. This is what I do to people. This is what I do to whole countries. Just because I know. Can I do your eye now? See if you can keep it open."

John watched him, trying to hide his fury. He could see why people cowered before him, gave him all they had in supplication in the face of such threats.

But I already see that carport everywhere I go.

It was a more simple problem than defeating Magnussen's knowledge. Knowledge wasn't everything.

By Magnussen's own confession, every judge in the nation would have personal motivation and political pressure to ensure Charles Augustus Magnussen never communicated with anyone ever again. A blackmailer in isolation, no threat at all. He heard the buzz of a helicopter, approaching from the side of the house. He pointed his gun at Magnussen's face and stepped away.

Magnussen's eyes widened in the barest hint of surprise. He smiled softly, like this too he had planned for.

"Hands in the air," John ordered sharply and Magnussen obeyed, sighing as if bored.

"You'll ruin your shoulder for good if you fire that gun. You'll never be useful to your precious genius again. And you can't hide behind heroism this time. All this fuss is to protect you. Your life, your reputation, your pride," Magnussen laughed. John didn't waver. He had no doubt the man could talk his way out of a jail cell. Not much use if no one was listening. Magnussen sighed again.

"I really don't see why you keep him around. So childish," he commented to Sherlock. Sherlock was leaning against the side of the house, comfortable now. "Threatening me will do you no good. You don't think I have a …contingency plan?"

John flinched at the term but controlled it. Magnussen smirked. Sherlock pushed himself up from the side of the house to approach the man, looking confident now. John stood up straighter, enjoying the feeling of his eyes on him.

"You have men watching. They'll send out those photos of me shitting myself under torture and they'll try to encourage my enemies to find me, but here's the mistake you made: We will always have enemies who know who we are. Everything you're threatening to take I've already lost. All my friends, the whole of Scotland Yard's Homicide and Search and Rescue divisions have seen those photographs. Sherlock has seen them. Show them to the country, give them to newspapers, twitter and wherever else. You'll have lost anyway. So here are your choices: put your hands in the air or I'll shoot you."

"I could make it so your genius would never get a client again," Magnussen whispered. Another tactic - he was retreating now. John leveled his gun at the man's face. "His mind will rip itself apart like an engine without work. A beautiful metaphor, really."

John snorted. They'd faced that before. Magnussen was resorting to old threats now.

"Doubt it. People need him. I really will fire this."

The helicopter was getting nearer. John could tell the moment Magnussen heard it - his eyebrows furrowing in concern and worry, no doubt wondering why his security force was not responding immediately.

"You'll find no vaults here. You'll go to jail and I know men who will ensure you're never paroled," Magnussen tried again and this time John smirked.

"Not likely. This is a legal sting, under the express direction of Mycroft Holmes," John crowed. Magnussen frowned sharply, disbelieving it. Sherlock never worked with Mycroft. John enjoyed watching the realization hit - that he'd focused on Sherlock, considering Sherlock's every action, and never thought about what would happen if John just said 'we tell Mycroft'.

"Put your hands behind your head and get on your knees," John ordered, recognizing security services' helicopter in his peripheral vision as it landed.

"Also, we tracked Lady Smallwood's letters. That way, is it?" Sherlock piped up finally, pointing off into the open yard before them. Magnussen closed his eyes, looking like he knew exactly what would happen to a blackmailer without his vaults, put before a judge he'd no doubt 'influenced' before. Mycroft would make sure of that.

"Goodbye, Magnussen," John added, pushing his gun into his pocket. He'd never even taken the safety off. He stepped away from the man to let a security services officer take his place.

Mycroft strolled up, looking exceptionally pleased. He was almost smirking.

"I must say, Sherlock, this is a remarkably legal arrest for you. I'll barely need to postdate anything," he drawled.

The closest he can get to a compliment, John thought, rolling his eyes.

"John, thank you," Mycroft said, his voice deep and sincere, holding out his hand. John shook it, wondering how many layers of meaning that 'thank you' was supposed to contain that he was missing. Judging from Magnussen's snort, many.

"What a touching reunion," Magnussen drawled like that'd mean something nasty.

"Lets open those vaults, shall we?" Mycroft asked, clasping his hands together in front of his waist. Sherlock handed his phone off, with the tracking data, in a casual gesture John had never seen. Sherlock never shared his phone and surely he wanted to delve into Magnussen's catacombs. An underground trove of information with all its mysteries? John thought Sherlock would have been diving in before the vault was safely unlocked.

"Let's get out of here," Sherlock said. John blinked at him for a moment. Mycroft smiled at them, taking the phone. "My mother will be out of her mind if we miss Christmas dinner," Sherlock added. Mycroft scowled at the words. He was probably going to be late, John deduced, huffing out a laugh at their quick reversion to antagonism. He followed Sherlock to Mycroft's helicopter, deciding that since they'd apparently just handed Mycroft's reins to the United Kingdom, they could bloody well steal his ride home.

The copilot helped them into their seats without protest. Apparently Mycroft had already cleared it for them to take the flight home. That rather cut into their enjoyment of it. Sherlock pouted and the helicopter engine started up. Mycroft waved, smirking and Sherlock turned away.

"What a ponce," he grumbled into the headset mic. John laughed, guessing the pilots could hear and that Sherlock was already fully aware of that. Sherlock switched the input settings on his mic so it'd transmit only between them and showed the setup to John. John obediently fixed his as well. Sherlock caught his hand in his own and held it for a moment, only to drop it, and then pick it up again.

His nails had almost fully grown in, John noticed, inspecting his own hand and Sherlock smiled.

"John," he called and John looked up from his damaged cuticles.

This was important. Sherlock had a storm brewing in his eyes, something that couldn't come through in the gravelly transmission of a helicopter headset, barely audible over the roar of wind and engine.

"Wait," John said and heard Sherlock's teeth snap together over the mic pickup. John smiled softly, as reassuringly as he could, but Sherlock pulled his hand away. John grabbed it back and gripped it strongly, watching for any signal that this touch was too much. It didn't come and John knew what Sherlock was going to say. "You're going to say that that 'maybe' was as stupid as it looked - two men wanting something and running away from it, right?"

He waited and Sherlock's eyes smoldered. Such a light blue to be filled with such intent. Sherlock swallowed heavily and nodded yes.

"I just -" John cleared his throat, uncertain if his voice was still getting carried over the microphone. "Just want to do that when I can hear you. Maybe after you help me bathe," he said. Sherlock's eyebrows furrowed in open bafflement. He stared at John, his hand twitching a bit in John's grip, until John realized.

But now I just said it.


He cleared his throat again, trying to recover, and closed his eyes.

"Damn it," he cursed and Sherlock's face broke out in a happy smile, amused at his expense. Sherlock reached his hand out slowly to touch his face, cupping his cheek with his hand only to leave it there, taking each experience in stride. John waited as Sherlock shifted in his seat to free his arm from the seat harness, so he could run his hand down John's face, over his jaw and behind his neck. His fingers felt warm against John's skin, a comforting pressure. He tugged then, rather abruptly, and John obeyed, leaning forward, only to realize that Sherlock was going to kiss him and he'd somehow missed that entirely.

Fear hit him hard, bringing with it all the voices of his past telling him not to be gay and teasing him for the close bonds he'd formed with his comrades. Harry especially, mocking him for his crushes one moment and accusing him of homophobia the next. Maybe she was right; maybe he'd delayed this because he hated what it'd mean. Sherlock pulled back, watching him.

"You're a bit gay, John," he said easily and John laughed. That made it easier. This was something they could joke about, homophobia in all its forms.

"So you're..you've been..this whole time?" John asked and Sherlock stared at him as if affronted by his idiocy.

"Yes," he answered simply. "And in love with you," he added as an aside, shrugging.

Whoa. John wasn't ready for that.

"I…uh.." He started and Sherlock kissed him. The man's mouth was stiff against his own for a moment, too aggressive and too fast, and the mics caught in the way, but then Sherlock retreated, his mouth softening around John's and the hand on his neck moving to tangle in his hair. John shifted in his seat, his erection getting quite rudely pinched off by a safety strap, and leaned over to run his hand down Sherlock's side to feel his solidity, the muscle and soft skin just beneath his shirt.

I don't like being touched. Apparently not… entirely true. And not for Sherlock either, judging by the way Sherlock leaned into his hand like a cat. Sherlock pulled away from him, scowling at his body's need for air.

"Breathing is boring," he said and John laughed.

"So, what, we solve crime, we make out, you help me bathe, and we figure out how our different kinds of crazy intertwine?" John asked and Sherlock smirked.

"Unless you want to take that desk job. They called, by the way. Some job offer," he said and John groaned. He needed a job. And they had flexible hours.

"I'll take it," he said and Sherlock smiled like he'd lit up his world - taking that to mean the whole life, evidently. John didn't correct him. He'd take that too. They didn't talk about feelings much. Probably good to do it now, when they were already doing it and the microphones could muffle their tone. "Also..I don't like erm…we're partners? Just us, just.. together?" he asked and Sherlock stared at him, looking rather confused at why he'd say such a thing aloud - too obvious, probably, and John rubbed at his face, pushing his mic out of the way so they could make out again.

We're doing this. That was incredible. He was in a relationship with a man. A healthy one, when he could never have said that about his life with Sherlock before.

Sherlock was first to pull away, a fact that John noted with great satisfaction. He could enjoy the sensation of Sherlock's hand playing at the back of his neck without a hitch in his thoughts.

He was free. Or he would be, with enough time. And that was bloody well enough for him. Sherlock stared at him, his eyes wide with admiration, and John pulled himself back into his seat. Sherlock looked excited and self-pleased and John had to grin at that.

"Well, this was thoroughly satisfying," Sherlock congratulated himself, adjusting his safety belt. John rubbed at his lips, quietly agreeing.

~~//~~

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Chapter Text

They got back to 221B at eleven o'clock, long past time for dinner. John ordered take-away and read over Sherlock's shoulder while Sherlock wrote to Lady Smallwood that her husband's information was safe and that Magnussen was currently in custody. Sherlock sent the email without hesitation and stood up from his desk, his posture tall and proud. John sat down in his chair and observed the man push all of Magnussen's information off his desk into a messy pile beside it, trying to remember how long it had been since he'd seen Sherlock look so confident. The realization hit like a splash of cold water; it'd been since before Sherlock jumped.

I told you I lost everything.

He hadn't noticed its lack, he realized. He should have. Since the first day John had seen him sidling into the hospital room, Sherlock had held his shoulders checked, drawn in self-doubt. He'd kept his mess contained, vacuumed up Janine's glass and watched the world, waiting for their displeasure. John propped his chin on his palm and rubbed his fingers over his cheek, feeling the wrinkles carved into his face. He should have noticed.

But Sherlock was better now, rubbing his hands together and darting about the living room, seeking out his next puzzle with his old fervor in place. He was confident again, and John took pleasure in it. He wanted Sherlock to revel in his own brilliance. With remorse, but not pain. The hate was gone.

Right in time for him to decide he wanted to bone Sherlock Holmes. John snorted at the thought and Sherlock shot up from beneath the table like a prairie dog. Sherlock tilted his head curiously and John shook his head. Nothing. There was time for that later.

There was time for anything. No girlfriends, no dates or denial. Sherlock Holmes, his everything, safe and alive and his now. He couldn't be more happy.

And I'm sitting in an armchair waiting for take-away, John laughed at himself.

~~//~~

Sherlock's phone buzzed before he was finished shoving Octopus Card subway passes under the falty table leg to even it. They were a good width and had an excellent Poisson's ratio for such a task. Janine had idiotically undone the whole system, leaving a rocking table and a more 'attractive' kitchen. Only to pocket all the Octopus Cards, of course. At least she was efficient in that.

He finished perfecting the balance before he fetched his phone, guessing it was Mycroft begrudgingly congratulating him on their Magnussen take-down. He was disturbingly pleased to see the name on his phone. Donovan. What had he done to make the woman befriend him?

:Well? How's it going? I'll deny ever asking but I'm curious:


Sherlock scoffed to himself, writing back immediately.


:And now I have written proof. You're an idiot. SH:


:You're an idiot. Tell me.: she replied. That was a child's argument. He should seek out replacement friends.


:Too many possibilities. How is What going? SH: Sherlock replied, only to grab his phone to add another text before she could respond.


:Imprecise language is the trademark of an idiot. SH:


There. But his phone buzzed again, undeterred. The woman was getting used to him. Horrible.

:Likelihood he'll sleep with you, 1-10?:

Sherlock paused. Was he supposed to know that? That sounded like something he was supposed to know, the idiotic scale system notwithstanding.

~~//~~

Sherlock walked into the living room, staring at his phone.

"What is the likelihood you'll sleep with me, given a scale of one to ten? I accept that it's impossible to create a scaling system without an arbitrary quantity at either end, but I suspect you'll understand the phrase all the same. Your mind is appropriately imprecise," Sherlock asked without looking up from his screen. John rolled his lips together, trying not to laugh.

"Er.. Who's asking?" he replied and Sherlock looked up, clearly unsettled by the response.

"Would that change the answer?" he asked and John shook his head.

"God, no," he replied and Sherlock frowned. Probably trying unsucessfully to determine which question that answered.

John scratched at his knee, nervous.

"Is ten high or low?" he asked, just as Sherlock blurted "Donovan." John blinked rapidly, trying to picture Sally Donovan asking about the details of their sex life. That didn't sound right at all. But then, neither did Donovan visiting him in the hospital room, brief though that'd been, and trying to give him a relationship pep talk in the doorway of his bedsit. Sherlock turned back to his phone, presumably typing out his question.

"High," he answered finally and John rubbed the back of his neck. What a way to announce his intentions. But then, he'd hardly hoped for a normal beginning with Sherlock bloody Holmes.

"Ten. 100%, if you're willing," John answered, smiling as reassuringly as he could at a man who probably disliked touch as much as he did, most of the time. But Sherlock buried himself in his phone, muttering to himself, and finally looked up, only more baffled.

"How did you know the scale is in a percentile?" he asked and John stood up from his chair, walking over to him to pull the phone out of his hands.

"I didn't. We're idiots - it's not a strict system," John explained and Sherlock's face lit up in understanding, only to cloud again. John wrapped an arm around his waist to tug at Sherlock's shoulder blade, pulling the man closer.

"Then why use a scale at all? It's rendered meaningless," Sherlock complained and John pocketed the man's phone and kissed him. Sherlock froze in his arms, John's words finally registering, and John smiled at the fact that even Sherlock Holmes could be predictable.

"If you're willing," John reminded him softly and Sherlock looked down at him, swallowing audibly. Sherlock cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable, and John started to pull away, only for Sherlock's grip to lock down on his arm.

"I've -erm. I've never done that before. Homosexuals are rare enough, a requirement for even passing intelligence makes a suitable partner nearly unattainable." Sherlock's words started to speed up as he grew more nervous and John ran a hand down his back.

"Fantastic. I haven't since my first tour," John admitted. Sherlock's eyes widened. That was longer than he'd deduced, apparently.

"So we'll both be detrimentally bad at this," Sherlock concluded and John felt his heart speed up with excitement. He hadn''t planned for this to happen yet. But it looked like it was happening now.

Thank you, Donovan. He certainly hadn't seen that thought coming. He maneuvered Sherlock gently backwards. Sherlock complied readily, no doubt knowing how to traverse the entire apartment blind.

"That was the plan," John said, as if this had all been a set up. Sherlock's eyes lit up at the idea.

Note to self: conspire for sex, John thought, doing his best to hide his amusement. It was no great surprise conspiracies would be a turn-on for the detective. The man certainly spent enough time being accused of it. For once, kissing and walking toward a bedroom didn't devolve into an awkward mashup of teeth and mashed toes, as Sherlock managed to keep perfect step with him while avoiding every table and countertop corner in their way. The man even managed to reach behind himself to open the bedroom door at the appropriate time.

He'd be an incredible dancer, John thought, logging that away for a future time. For now, he closed the door behind them - one never knew when Mycroft was watching - and drew down the blinds, leaving Sherlock with what looked like a customary check of every surface for Mycroft's bugs.

~~//~~

They were called into a crime scene two weeks later, the day John's fingernails stopped being painful. He could type now, if he was careful, and he looked around the crime scene more carefully than he'd ever done with Magnussen, considering restarting his blog.

They were led in between two highrise apartment structures, behind a line of skips and recycling bins to a little shed that'd clearly once been bolted closed. The lock was on the ground now, having clearly been cut off, and the whole place was covered in crime scene tape. That didn't keep the flat residents from leaning out of their windows to gawk at the scene below, fortunately out of earshot.

"A standard pop and drop," a policeman told them, stepping out of the way of the shed door. "Good to have you back, fellas," he added and Sherlock waved a hand dismissively, more as a request to shut up than an acknowledgment of the pleasantry. John accepted disposable gloves from the man with gratitude.

"Oh, well this is boring," Sherlock said, looking down at the twisted body of a highschool student dropped on the shed floor. There wasn't much blood; the body had been dropped here. The victim was male and dark-haired, his long locks extending past his shoulders. A new-age hippie, John thought, seeing the boy's tight jeans and tie-dye bag. He'd clearly been beaten first; deep bruises had risen up around his arms before his death. John squatted to pull up the boy's shirt. Deeper, wider bruises there. The boy had been held down and kicked. John swallowed. He was starting to get better at this. "Why are we here?" Sherlock's voice echoed inside the shed and John heard Greg scoff just outside the door.

"We found the shooting site - just inside London University's campus. But there's no motive. Nor do we know how many people did this," he reported.

"How many people have two different size feet and can kick and hold someone down at the same time?" Sherlock replied. Greg's eyebrows furrowed at the information.

"You can tell that from the bruises?" John asked, mystified and Sherlock shook his head.

"There are bloody footprints near the gutter, on the way into this alley. The kid bled on them," Sherlock replied. "The four of them," he added.

"Definitely four?" Donovan asked, poking her head in around the corner. John busied himself checking the body for more clues. He doubted he'd be much help in this one, if it was as simple as Sherlock implied. And he trusted that it was.

That didn't feel lonely, like it had. He didn't need to be useful here. He was here to be outside, to keep his PTSD in check, to keep Sherlock in check when it was necessary.

"It's a hate crime. Do you want me to spell that out in letters? Hint, it starts with an "h" and then goes "a, t, e, c, r,.." Sherlock drawled. John looked up from checking the body for signs of missing jewelry.

"Don't forget: Mrs. Hudson thinks I'm going to hit you again," John warned him jokingly. Sherlock scowled at him.

"And that I won't deserve it," he complained and Donovan raised an eyebrow.

"Abusive much?" she asked and John blushed, seeing Sherlock glance down at his crotch in the most obvious response to an erection he'd ever seen. Donovan raised a hand up, already protesting. "Nevermind, I really don't want to know," she growled and Sherlock started to smirk. Donovan's face fell immediately, clearly seeing too late the weapon she'd just handed them. John wanted to rub at his eyes, but his gloves were covered in corpse excretions. He steeled himself for years of their dirty laundry getting aired out in front of the woman, probably literally, just to scandalize her. Greg pinched his nose, clearly seeing the same future.

"A hate crime. For being a white rich man?" Donovan growled and Sherlock pushed himself out of the shed, clearly finished.

"For being a Muslim. Or did you think he was a middle-eastern man with traces of fabric softener in his hair because he thought it was conditioner? His dastar is shoved down his pants. Probably, with traces of their DNA. Not that they should be too hard to catch, as this is unlikely their first example of xenophobic harrassment," Sherlock explained. John pulled off his gloves, glad to get out of the reeking shed. The body had not begun to decompose but it had definitely released its bowels.

"What's a dastar?" Greg asked and John threw his dirty gloves into the nearby wheelie bin. Sherlock was already halfway down the alleyway.

"It's like a turban. He was a Sikh," John explained, gesturing vaguely toward the crumpled body in the shed beside them. Greg nodded his head, gesturing for his forensic mortician to go back inside. John started to move away but Greg stopped him with a hand.

"It is good to see you back," Greg said, holding out a hand and John shook it, grateful for Greg's careful grip.

"It's good to be back," John replied, and moved to catch up with his partner.

~~//~~

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Chapter Text

"Sherlock, why are there fishsticks in here?" John asked, carefully swishing around the canning jar of what looked like formaldehyde. He walked into the living room with the small jar to find Sherlock staring at the ceiling, obviously bored.

"Those aren't fishsticks. Obvious, John," Sherlock drawled and John put the jar down on the coffeetable before moving to wash his hands. He definitely didn't want to know. "What's the purpose of marriage?" he mused and John paused en route to the kitchen. It wasn't like Sherlock to muse about such human decisions, putting most actions up to the irrationality of more idiotic minds. John leaned on the kitchen doorframe, watching as the man ground his teeth in his jaw over the question.

"People want to know that they'll stay together," John replied, shrugging casually. That had never seemed like much of a mystery to him but Sherlock had only recently come to the conclusion that there were people in the world worth sharing space with, so it was perfectly possible the wonder of marriage was new to him.

"That's a motivation for staying together, not for saying it aloud beneath a flowery curved thing," Sherlock growled. John shrugged again.

"Maybe it's like going to the gym. If you tell all your friends you're going to do it, you're more likely to follow through," John replied. Sherlock turned his head, his eyes wide.

"Is that true?" he asked, apparently horrified. John smiled.

"We're idiots," he said. Sherlock nodded, accepting that, but still seemed a bit revolted. "And we're afraid of being alone," John added. That was likely a large bit of it, too. Sherlock nodded slowly, accepting that too.

"Words change nothing," Sherlock said, staring at him like that meant something deeper than it sounded.

"Okay," John said and shrugged to show he didn't fully understand. Sherlock scowled.

"Do they change something for you?" he asked seriously and John sighed, pushing his hands into his pants pockets.

"I don't know. I don't tend to tell people what I'm planning," John replied and Sherlock smiled strangely.

"Me neither," he said and John smiled. He had the striking impression Sherlock had just asked him if he wanted to get married, and he'd turned it down. Or, they'd turned it down. It didn't seem to matter. Sherlock was rarely one for sentiment and really, a black-tie ceremony would point out exactly how many of his friends were too dead to be there. Hardly inspirational. This was greatly preferable, a quiet understanding between lovers. At home.

John rubbed a hand through his hair, only to remember that it was just holding preserved not-fishsticks, and immediately wanting a shower. Still, this seemed important, so he waited, holding his hands as far away from himself as he could.

"John Hamish Watson -" Sherlock started, only to freeze, his whole body going tense and still. They were starting again, John could feel it, just from that look. They weren't staying home. "Hamish. She was in your hospital room," Sherlock breathed.

"Sherlock?" John asked urgently, needing to keep up, and Sherlock returned to him, his eyes wide with barely suppressed concern.

"The Mayfly Man," he whispered, understanding starting to spark in his eyes.

"The..The Bainbridge killer?" John asked, only then remembering that they'd never actually caught the man who'd stabbed the lad. He'd wash his hands later, apparently.

"It's the only time your middle name is ever published; you made sure of that. The Mayfly Man only saw five women, but Tessa saw your hospital tags. For one woman to be in both groups..she's a private nurse..could be a coincidence.." he rambled, slowly sitting up from the sofa to stare at the door where Tessa had come in. John shifted uncomfortably. Where was this going? Who was threatened? Him? His family? Mrs. Hudson again?

"The Mayfly Man went to great lengths to find out about your hospital stay, probably was waiting there throughout it. They lied, assumed false identities..Who? Too many options," he hissed. "The staff, the patients, their visitors…Too many, too many, too many!" he yelled at the door, slapping a hand down on the coffee table and John almost covered his ears before he controlled himself…he'd need to hear this, to help with this, and his shoulders twinged when he raised them that far. He moved to Sherlock's side, waiting for the man to run through his logic. "Murder," Sherlock said finally, following some leap of logical John couldn't follow. "No!" Sherlock shouted and slapped himself. John grabbed his hands to keep him from hurting himself or convincing Mrs. Hudson to come upstairs and complain. Sherlock opened his eyes, looking triumphant now.

"You, it's always you. John Watson, you keep me right," he swore.

"What do I do?" John asked, nervous. There was nothing he could do, with his shoulders as they were.

"No, you've already done it. Don't solve the murder. Save the life. They didn't kill anyone you knew in that hospital or we'd have heard of it. Ergo, it was someone who could have been expected to show up at your bedside but didn't. In a hospital? Most people you can kill any old place. Lestrade's so easy to kill it's a miracle no one's succumbed to the temptation. A hospital gives you the worst chance of success. So who could you only kill there? Clearly it's a rare opportunity so it's someone who doesn't get out much. Someone for whom a known location is an exception. Has to be a unique opportunity. And since killing someone in public is difficult, killing them in private isn't an option. Someone who lives in an inaccessible or unknown location, then. Someone private, perhaps, obsessed with personal security. Possibly someone under threat," he said and trailed off. John waited only to realize Sherlock was waiting for him.

"Oh, you're asking me?" he asked and Sherlock glared.

"Isn't that what it means when you lift your tone at the end of a sentence?" he complained and John waved him off.

"Sorry, sorry."

Sherlock turned in his chair to stare into his eyes. John looked away, too distracted by the colors there to think.

"Who did you want at your bedside but didn't come? Who did you hope for, think was a possibility?" he asked and John knew immediately. Someone under threat. Someone who hid their address.

"James Sholto," he said and Sherlock's eyes widened still further.

"Your commanding officer," he breathed, though John was sure he'd never said Sholto's name before. Sherlock must have remembered enough from his story, told so long ago, waiting on a bench with nothing but small talk while Bainbridge began to bleed out.

"We must warn him," John said and Sherlock nodded, though John was sure he once would have used Sholto as bait. They'd do the same now, John guessed; with James's permission this time. Permission that'd be easy to get, John had no doubt. Sherlock pushed himself up from the couch to stand by the desk, the laptop up and running before John had realized that going to Sholto's home would lead his killer there. They would have to rely on coded email. Fortunately, Sholto was just paranoid enough to have taught John a system, in case any of their old comrades were stable enough to be getting married one day.

Sherlock stepped aside, the email client open, the short missive already written. It was signed Will you be bait? Sherlock and John Watson . John didn't bother changing it; it was high time that James met Sherlock Holmes and this was certainly an effective way of doing it. He coded the message and sent it out, praying that the Mayfly Man would not somehow have access to its key. Sherlock clearly guessed not, and that'd be good enough for him.

"What were you going to say, before?" he asked and Sherlock waved a hand at him, like it didn't matter, still looking at the now-blank laptop screen.

"Love is an irrational urge that overrides more productive cognitive fuctions," he said, his brain obviously elsewhere. John turned his face with his hand so Sherlock would look at him. Sherlock drew himself up and scowled. "I love you, John. I want you to stay" he added and John smiled. He had a strong feeling Sherlock hadn't said that before, likely since childhood. He blew out a heavy breath, absorbing that, and ran a hand down Sherlock's back, wishing he could raise his shoulders enough to tug on the man's neck. Someday.

I can do this.

"I can do that," he promised and Sherlock nodded, clearly ready to disappear into thought again. "I love you, Sherlock," John added awkwardly and Sherlock refocused.

"Are you attracted to toast?" he asked and John froze, his mouth a bit agape. "You had an erection, before, and -" Sherlock started and John closed his eyes in embarrassment. At least they were vaguely alone. Though with his luck, Mycroft's flunkies were recording every word of this.

"No, Sherlock," he answered and Sherlock nodded like that was an acceptable choice of two reasonable options.

"Just checking," he grumbled and John pulled his hand away to pinch the bridge of his nose. This was going to be an interesting life.

"And if I always got a hard-on from hot bread?" he asked and Sherlock shrugged.

"Yes, pity, that would have been convenient," he complained, throwing himself back onto the couch and settling in to think about darker things.

The game is on, John thought and watched Sherlock tent his fingers in front of his lips, impatient to receive Sholto's reply and race to their next case, to capture a murderer and save a life again.

The End

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Thank you all so very very much for making this story what it became, your reviews & comments were immeasurably helpful and I adored talking about writing/Johnlock/everything else with you. It helped me get through this tough year and I'm so excited to be starting my new fantasy book with all the energy & encouragement you've given me. And a thousand Kudos to Cyclamen, for copyediting Every chapter of this, I'll be fixing it all and posting the final versions here on AO3 and on my website GwendolynnThomas.com ! Thank you again!