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An Average Man

Chapter Text

The bench wasn't either comfortable or uncomfortable. Perfectly average. The day was neither sunny nor very cloudy. The traffic was neither light, nor heavy. Everything was just in the middle, just normal, just... average.
He was average. Maybe less than so in height, maybe more than so in charm - if he remembered to apply it. His face was that specific kind of typical, vaguely handsome, slightly worn that never attracted particular attention. His clothes were neither shabby nor overly chic, and the only distinguishing feature of them was the general soldierly feeling one may have when looking at a man dressed in blacks and greens that don't actually flatter his complexion, yet suit him perfectly nevertheless.
The heavy cane held between his knees was well-worn and the steel cap that probably clicked with his every step was showing the signs of scuffing. Everything was slightly faded - his clothes, his cane, even his eyes. Yet, when the clouds temporarily gave way to the sun, there were tiny points of glinting brightness dancing on his chest, and as he turned his face to the warmth, pulling the knit cap away, his hair shone of silver and gold.
Even with his eyes closed, he noticed a change in the pattern of traffic on the street in front of him, so he decided to open them just at the right moment to see a black car sliding to a stop in front of him. A door closest to him opened invitingly.
He smiled.
"I have grown out of this habit" he said with voice slightly hoarse with disuse.
"I'm afraid I can't get out all that easily, Captain" a man's terse tone made him raise his eyebrows. "But I will, if you wish..."
A pair of crutches on the floor drew his attention.
"No... But we will keep the door open."
"If you prefer. However I assure you, we will all be much more comfortable if you come with me. At least I'll be able to stretch this... inconvenience."
Mycroft Holmes sounded rather annoyed.
John Watson got up from the bus stop bench and slowly, deliberately, made the few steps to the car. He leaned slightly to have a look inside, but, to his surprise, it seemed to be an actual real article this time.
"Hello, Captain Watson" said his... whatever Mycroft was.
"Doctor" he corrected softly. "And not much of that, either, these days."
"Please sit and let's go, Captain" the minor representative of the British Government said. "I think... I'm quite sure, actually, that these days, it is Captain Watson that will be needed. The country needs your services. And your presence is, ah, requested and required. If you please."
He shrugged.
"Not sure how a pensioned veteran can help... someone with a Navy" he snorted softly. "But, why not. As long as I don't have to march in step with some bigger boys."
"No, Captain Watson. The task you'd be ask to perform is much less of a team effort and much more of a... solo."
The passing buildings are replaced by greenery.
"Sounds ominous."
"Sounds, I'm afraid, dangerous, to put it plainly. However we don't have any choice, but to ask you to return to active duty. There is a task of particular character that will require both a resourceful operative and, most probably, a medic."
The car turned to an entrance that John had predicted and he climbed out of the car, leaning slightly on his cane, watching as a burly man helped Mycroft Holmes up and out of the car and supported him until the crutches got correctly sorted out.
"Let's get in, Captain Watson" the taller man said tiredly. "The sooner we get this one done, the quicker I'll be able to go home and follow my doctor's orders. Sleeping, eating dairy and positive outlook on life."

#

"An operative of the Crown had got cut off from his support network and was taken prisoner by local criminal element. Of the organised kind. Unfortunately we do not have the same type of coverage on the ground as we have at home, and even local government seems to be lacking in resources. We have located the operative with the precision of two by three blocks of buildings, however due to it being a seaside town, many of the cameras mostly show general crowd. Therefore we cannot obtain any better information. Locals are also unwilling to allow foreign power to operate on their area in any manner."
John nodded in sympathy, but placed the offered folder back on the table.
"What do you need me for?" he asked finally. "I'm not in any type of special services, or..."
"Captain Watson" the man in front of him said slowly. "Please do not assume that either your 'off the books' training or 'off the books' missions were in fact off everyone's books. There are always records. Especially for trained marksmen, hand-to-hand combat experts and scouting aces."
John frowned at Mycroft, who, however, seemed even a bit interested, suddenly.
"You've been keeping secrets, Doctor Watson."
"I haven't been keeping anything secret that I hadn't sworn to protect with my own life. I never got into details... because I had no idea of the security clearance of people involved."
"Quite correct, Captain. But at this point Mr Holmes needs to share certain details and whether you can contribute, based on your experience, or not, may change the character of this discussion. We - my employer and me - would like to ensure that you do, in fact, take this case. We will offer all information we have, all network contacts and all resources, if you are amenable to taking this case. At the same time, here, in this room, you are allowed to allude, quote and describe any of the relevant facts from your previous missions. Whichever experience they may actually be related to. Mr Holmes does, after all, have a higher security clearance than either of us."

#

"An operative. Missing, probably taken by hostile foreign powers? Stuck behind and at risk of... what?"
Mycroft sighed.
"Of death. They aren't allowing him to recover from his wounds, so we can be rather sure the infection will set in soon, and, untended, he will die. He holds information so vital enough to the Crown that we want to send our best, Captain Watson. I would have gone myself - I actually had, but due to unforeseen weather change..."
"You slipped and broke your leg?" John summed it up shortly.
"It was a tad bit more complicated, but yes, that is a correct description. However, due to insularity of society in that region, we cannot send anyone else who could be interpreted as a government representative. They wouldn't be able to use my network of contacts - they are not linked to me in my official capacity."
John played with the handle of his cane for a moment.
"How can I help then? I don't have access to your contacts, either."
"But you do have yours, Captain."
There was something in the tone of the man next to Mycroft that made John bristle slightly.
"I don't even know which region we are discussing - and what forces are stationed in the area - what type of society..."
"Kotor Bay" Mycroft said with disgust. "And please, John, don't try to convince me that you don't know the language - languages - and that you have no idea who is stationed in that area."
The thinner, more aristocratic man glanced at Mycroft quickly.
"I have informed you, Lord Thomas, that I know Captain Watson personally. I also know most of his military record, excluding the parts that I have intentionally ignored. I'm sorry, John" he nodded towards the soldier. "I had to know."
"Which parts?"
"Pardon?"
"Which parts did you intentionally skip?"
Mycroft sipped his tea in silence for a few seconds.
"Which parts."
"The details of the so called off the books trainings and operations. I was going to check them one day, but... It became irrelevant."
"You mean I became irrelevant" John said calmly. "No longer of interest to the Holmes' family, until you need a wind-up soldier to be taken out of his quiet, well-padded box and used in some secret, underhanded operation. Very well. Let's assume I agree. What kind of support can you offer me? From where will I be on my own? If I manage to procure the operative, how do you expect me to get out of there? What do you know about the organisation that is holding him? How do you know his current health status? Details, Mycroft. And even if I have these" John stood up and stretched a bit "you will still have to convince me that I want to do this. Not because the Crown needs me - the Crown probably doesn't even know. After all, we are not meeting in any official location, just three blokes having a nice tea in a secluded part of the Palace. I don't see either military officials or anyone who could be interpreted as a special ops command. This means you need my consent to run this mission, you can't just order me to do it. Which means this is not fully, officially sanctioned unless I actually agree. So, Mycroft. Convince me. Sell this mission to me."
"Just saying that the man is a British citizen and we have an obligation to take care of our own is not enough, I suppose."
John pursed his lips and blinked slowly.
"I understand your military pension is not a substantial amount" the taller man said slowly. "But you are still waiting for proper processing of your... additional records. I could expedite this, if you wish. All the medals that are waiting to be officially..."
John actually smiled and Mycroft shook his head minutely.
"This is not the approach which will work with Captain Watson, I'm afraid" he half-grinned. "That much I know from experience."
"That would mean adjustment of your rank, Co..."
"No" John said simply. "Mycroft?"
"That man will die if you don't help, John. They are keeping him chained, tortured - using physical, chemical and psychological stimuli. At this point they are not torturing him to make him talk. They are just killing him in stages."
"Chemical and psychological?"
Mycroft swallowed and adjusted the placement of his broken leg.
"They have induced a deep dependence on one of the drugs they distribute and now are withholding it. They are also..." he closed his eyes for a moment. "Holding an associate of our operative. And torturing her, too, in a manner that you will be able to discern as soon as you guess who that woman is."
John turned to look out of the window and stood there, silently.
"Dear God" he said finally. "Poor sod. And poor her. I'm assuming their methods have everything to do with her... profession."
"Indeed."
"And they hooked your guy on their local product, which is probably either some very high-quality designer shit or, conversely, street crap cut with baking powder, talcum and pipe cleaner?"
"Unfortunately, the second one. And it's not pipe cleaner, but close enough. The toxicity is high, but so is also... the high. People buy it and die, but new ones come and buy more. Our... operative has higher tolerance than others, but he succumbed and will require long treatment, should he survive the next few days. And that depends on you."
"You will be given all resources, transport, equipment, medical supplies including basic overdose treatments. There will be air support and ground support waiting just outside of direct zone of Kotor and Dobrota. You will have to stabilise him and get him out of there."
"Them" John corrected calmly.
"Excuse me?"
"Them. I hope you didn't consider the possibility of me leaving Ms Adler behind, sir. Whatever else I am, I am mainly a British male" John smirked. "An officer. Maybe not a gentleman, but definitely a doctor. I will not be leaving Irene Adler in hands of someone who is using her to torture someone else. Also, she may be really bloody useful if she owes me a favour. One day."
Mycroft nodded slowly.
"She would also be owing a favour to the British Government, so it is in your own interest to help me with her, too."
The aristocrat frowned, but nodded.
"Does this mean you accept the mission?"
John smiled blandly and kept his eyes on Mycroft.
"I will..." the 'minor official' paused for a breath. "I will owe you a favour, John. If you agree. A personal favour."
The soldier nodded and Lord Thomas started pulling out documents.
"Reactivation, with full supplies, support and funding of anything that you will have to pay in a manner of bribes or regular payments for services rendered. You get full combat pay from the moment you leave the Palace until the moment the man in question - and Ms Adler - are safely on British soil, including any required stay in hospitals closer to their current location, should the need for immediate treatment arise. There is a British military command that you'll be officially assigned to, in order to give you a 'location' in the ranks, but the commanding officer will be informed of the special character of your mission and any orders he gives will be superseded by your mission brief and your own decisions regarding next steps. You only have to inform him when you start and when you are expecting to be needing support. Your temporary promotion will make you a Major, bringing you to the same rank as the local CO. These folders contain full description and photographic documentation that we had obtained. Also the contacts that Mr Holmes had made and that have showed willingness to cooperate with someone else than him. They are however not very reliable..."
"If they are willing to talk to others, they may be talking to everyone."
"Indeed, Captain. How long do you need to prepare...?"
"Have the airplane ready" John smiled and turned back towards the window, hands in his pockets. "I need a transport home, twenty minutes to gather my personal supplies and then a ride to the airport. I will accept basic pay for the duration of the mission, according to my current rank. Anything more please have donated to the veteran fund. Won't be much, but hey, it may actually double their budget for this decade. I will also need medical assistance during the flight in, and a team ready at any pickup point. Including at least one female medic in each of these."
"You are sure you will need...?"
John snorted and shrugged.
"I am rather certain I will be also bringing Ms Adler with me, yes. And I'm also reasonably sure she will not be willing to undergo treatment at my hands. Considering her profession, whatever they did to her will leave her with enough trauma to not allow herself to be touched by a male medic. I am being reasonable, yes."
"Thank you, Captain" the taller man said stiffly. "As of this moment, you are reinstated, with temporary promotion to Major, to be reconfirmed at the end of your mission. The country is grateful for your service."
"Very well" John nodded curtly. "Please have a car ready. Preferably staffed with someone I will recognise. I really did grow out of that stupid reflex."
"Anthea will accompany you" Mycroft said softly. "Is that acceptable?"
"Anthea will be fine. Until... until the next time, then, Mycroft."
"Thank you, John. I owe you."
"Yes, you do."
"John?"
The soldier turned quickly from the door.
"Your cane."
"Keep it, Myc. You will need it more than I."
"I will make sure you have the needed support on the plane. I hope it will be enough."
John shrugged.
"It will have to be. It's a three hours flight, make sure it's someone competent."
Lord Thomas looked between them in confusion.
"I was invalided out, sir" John pointed out calmly.
"I thought it was your leg..."
"Common mistake. It's my shoulder."
"There is an experimental treatment that Cap... Major Watson can try. Even applying first round may bring promising results" Mycroft supplied. "I will be sending one of the doctors who are running the trials, John."
The soldier nodded stiffly and strolled out of the opulent, bright room.

#

"Are you sure..."
"Perfectly."
"And he will do it?"
"He took the mission, Thomas. He is, after all, an officer. Above anything else, John Watson is a soldier."

Chapter Text

The House was silent and empty, which wasn't the natural state of a place where seven people of varying genders, characters and needs shared a common space. Still, the only person John met between the entrance and his own room was Bill, who was just exiting the kitchen, garbage bag in hand. The taller man raised his free hand in greeting, but a cheery "Hello" died on his lips as he froze mid-movement.

"Cap... Your cane?"

"Don't need the ruddy cane anymore, Murr. I..." he breathed deeply. "I'm fine now. I will be working abroad for the next few days - maybe up to a month, really - so please, collect all my mail and look for anything that looks like bills. Pay them from the house account, if you could, I will top it up when I'm back."

Bill's body tensed immediately.

"Ah... Travelling?"

"On the Crown's dime, yes. I'll need your input on that, too. Rudy in?"

"He should be back in a moment, just popped out to fetch some cigarettes."

"I'll pack and talk then. Come on, the garbage will wait, and I need to be in the car in twenty."

The moment he opened his wardrobe, he faltered.

"What the hell am I supposed to take?" he asked into the empty room.

"Do you have any plans? Any idea at all?"

He shrugged and picked a bunch of t-shirts.

"I have to retrieve two British operatives. Seems all the locally stationed military is already well-known to the local populace, so they can't even go near the place where the agents are kept. And one person who could have gone there had broken his leg. Now they don't have anyone at the same time skilled, unknown to locals and yet with usable contacts in the area."

Bill snorted.

"Sounds like a little secret clusterfuck."

"Exactly. The captives kept in one of the houses near the waterfront, and by the scarce surveillance they managed to get it down to two blocks, more or less. Locals aren't happy with some damned Brits bossing them around, and I'm kind of completely not surprised."

"Who could be? So what, city? Small town?"

John grimaced.

"Dobrota."

Bill whistled quietly.

"You are going back there? Geez, Cap. OK. Waterfront, check. Lots of old buildings, check. Local crime syndicate - more than one. Well, sand camo won't work. Who captured them? Local government, local crime, international?"

"Supposedly local crimelord with aspirations. Who knows what kind of connections they have. I will see the intel on the plane."

He pulled out one of his infamous jumpers.

"You're taking this?"

John shrugged.

"Who knows. May be chilly. Also, John Watson, the bumbling tourist..."

"Definitely. Oh, take the jacket, too" Bill handed him the brown checkered tweed from the hanger. "And the bow tie. And the shirt!"

"Hm, I should have the brown courdroys somewhere, too. I remember I've patched them with suede, that will make them match the tweed."

His companion snorted.

"Brown shoes then, too. The scuffed ones."

"We shouldn't be having fun with this one. A man's life depends on it."

"That only means you have to prepare accordingly, and not that you have to be dead serious about it!"

The front door opened and closed and Bill was downstairs in a second.

"Rudy, Cap needs your input..." John lost the track of their conversation as he reached under the bed for the box holding his brown brogues.

He very carefully moved another box, a box he didn't wish to open or even think too deeply about, and fetched the needed one. Yep, here they were... now socks, appropriate... argyle, brown and wine, or black and blue? Both, just in case.

A shaving kit, a set of fatigues, an additional pair of combat trousers and some tougher boots completed the needed luggage.

"Cap? You need contacts in Boka?" Rudy seemed unnerved. "You are going back there?"

"Very nice vacation spot, they say" John shrugged. "Picturesque and all that rot. Blue sea, white wharfs, blah, blah. What do you have for me?"

"There is this guy, local, who can do magical tricks with electronics. He always kept current list of all CCTV cameras, be it government or private. Used to maintain a "dark map" of the coastal towns."

"Useful, I suppose. Anything else?"

"Try to avoid the local specialty, Cap."

John zipped the duffle and cocked an eyebrow at the lanky redhead.

"He means a knifed kidney, Cap. Served to all suspiciously-looking foreigners that annoy someone" Bill clapped his hand on his arm. "Here, take this. Passcode is my service number, so exercise your memory and you'll have all the data you need. Contacts, passphrases, local gun dealers, whatever you need. We'll send a message or two to the ones who do communicate electronically, but most of them require a face to face meeting."

"Also, local cash" Rudy dumped a fat folder next to the duffel. "I expect you to replenish it with similar content before you get back home - properly worn-out middle value notes, adequate for bribes, shopping and paying street kids for their services."

"I will try, definitely. Ta, boys. I think I have everything."

"Your uniform?"

John rolled his eyes just slightly.

"I have my beret and my fatigues. Quite sure they won't have a parade for me there."

"Cap, really."

"Really. In, do the job, be a doctor for a few weeks, out. Hopefully with the captives, of course."

"Do you know who they are at least?"

He stuffed the beret in the side pocket of the duffel and shrugged on his leather jacket.

"I know the woman. No idea who the guy is. Holmes didn't give me either name, but he dropped a pretty heavy hint for her identity, so whoever the bloke is, he is probably rather well connected. Well, involvement of 'Mr Government' already says he is kind of important, but the most they told me is that I will be easily able to recognise him by the fact that he is being extensively tortured. Her, too, so I feel a pressure to hurry."

"Ah, nothing better than being a proper British gentleman. Now, Cap, I hope you are not letting your heart rule your head, really. Where do you know that woman from?"

"My... previous career. She was a client, of sorts. At some point."

"How well do you know her?"

Shouldering the duffel and grabbing his laptop bag allowed John to smother a chortle.

"As well as I could without actually knowing her in the most explicit sense. I could, if pressed, identify her body if someone had decapitated her."

Bill grimaced with a tiny twitch.

"Really, Cap. Such nice things you say. What the hell were you doing with that detective?"

"Investigating a domina, in this specific case. Be good, boys. Make sure the House is still standing when I'm back. Ah, and if anyone asks, I was called away by my sister. That is, unless it's my sister asking, then tell her I'm on vacation in Norway and trolls ate my mobile."

"Will do, John. Good luck."

Bill enveloped his much shorter commander in a tight hug.

"Boys. Good luck was what I had in the park that day. Everything from that point is sweat and tears and hard work. I used up my good luck quota on that meeting, so I can't count on it helping me anymore."

"I say we were just as lucky as you on that day."

Rudy handed John the holster with his gun, which the diminutive Captain - Major - wrapped securely around his hips.

"Tell the rest where I'm going. In case any of them comes up with something helpful, let me know on my second mobile, using the rolling cypher. I'll call you on a secure line from the base for details."

He trotted down the small lane to the waiting, quietly purring, black car. He waited calmly for the door to be opened and peeked inside.

"Yes, Major Watson. You can get in safely."

"Well, if you say so, Anthea."

"I can only guarantee that this car will get you to the airport and not to another warehouse" she smirked at him, but as he dumped the bag between them and fluidly joined her on the wide seat, her eyebrows rose slightly. "You are prepared. Well, here's the file Mr Holmes asked me to hand you. CCTV shots are there, too, and a memory stick with all the recordings we managed to collect" the distaste in her voice was rather saying. "It's not as much as we would have liked. I hope you can make this work, Major Watson. Oh, by the way" she reached into her tiny purse and handed him a small, wine-red box. "No official decoration ceremony for you, I'm afraid, but I suppose you do know what to do with these. I do hope you have at least one uniform packed. You will need it on base."

"I hope I won't be spending a lot of time on the base, actually. Considering the way the situation was described, I'd much rather get started as soon as possible. I'll need a reasonably civilian car to move around there, and a room in one of the hostels outside of the direct area, to make me a believable tourist. May be a nice cosy B&B, something just for a middle-aged bachelor with no particular requirements other than convenient access to a parking area. I'll be making a research on my ancestors. You see, my grandmother, Aneza, was apparently from the area, as she always told us - in broken English - how she remembered the Boka from her childhood..." he smirked. "I will be walking around, trying to match the palazzos from her stories to what I'm seeing."

She actually blinked.

"We've managed to make a provisional estimate which group it could be, based on the location of the potential houses, the interior which was visible in the video of Miss Adler and the way the man torturing her spoke."

"Is this recording on the stick, too?" he asked tensely.

"Yes, in folder marked appropriately. I understand you know Miss Adler personally, so I didn't want you to..."

"In a manner of speaking, yes. I'd like to hear the man speaking, actually. And it could potentially help me make a general judgement as to her state, too. There is only that one recording?"

"Yes. One of them apparently is less than proficient in usage of internet and instead of copying it somewhere inside, as he intended, had managed to synchronise it to his cloud account and left it there long enough for one of our spiders to collect it and parse the image and sound for key features. Face of The Woman is on our hot list."

"I'm sure it is. Very well, I'll check it on the plane then. Is there anything you can tell me that is not in the file, but could affect the way I should approach the situation?"

She looked at her Blackberry for a moment.

"Mr Holmes wishes you success. He really hopes you can pull this one off, Major. Oh. The current commanding officer of the local unit is someone you will definitely recognise."

He opened the file and looked at the top photo showing a long, black-wrapped figure of a man being dragged by two others from a car.

"Hm?"

"In times of crisis, people get rehabilitated" she hinted with a tiny smile. "Especially people with experience in the local situation."

He frowned at the next photo.

"Yeah, definitely her. Dear Lord..." he cringed. "Whoa. This is what, four days old?"

"Yes, Mr Holmes flew the very moment we got this, but the freeze..."

"Yes, yes. We will need medical attention for her, definitely. Antibiotics, full range, who knows... Ouch. Do we have any photos of the guy?"

"No, everything we have on him is what was caught by the city cameras. Her photos are simply stills from the video clip. We don't have even confirmation that they are actually doing what they told her they are, but we have to assume they are. Words 'we will skin your loverboy just to make our boss happy' and 'we'll see how long he lasts now that he's hooked on Blast' were used. Blast being..."

"Their newest product. I see. So they are torturing her just for the fun of recording that and, as we infer from what they tell her, are showing this to him, just for the fun of torturing him... for fun."

"That would be the situation as we see it. There is no chatter coming about any group in that area, no hostage exchange expected, no movement of forces, no particular change of balance. They are not preparing any action that could be based on information gained from an MI6 operative. They are just keeping him for the sole purpose of killing him slowly. As of today morning we are still nearly sure they are both alive, as there was no report of a body dump in the direct neighbourhood."

"Heartening" he murmured. "Well, Irene, I hope this time it will be less dramatic than the last one."

Anthea frowned at the glossy photo of Irene Adler's bruised face he held up.

"Here we are. The plane is waiting. You should be landing in three hours in the US base just on the Austrian border and then you'll be transported by a heli to the British one closest to Kotor. From there you can proceed with your mission at your discretion. As per the documents in this folder" she handed him another plastic envelope "you are authorised to draw from an allocated MI6 budget for any reasonable reason. In case of unreasonable, please do keep the receipts."

"And if unreasonable doesn't have an accountant?"

"Make sure you take the printout from the ATM then" she smiled thinly. "The base personnel is at your disposal, also in reasonable timeframe. Again, unreasonable will have to be coordinated with the local c.o. I wish you... achieving your aims."

He stepped out and pulled his bag up.

"John?" she said finally, making him turn sharply back and look at her in surprise. "Good luck. And try not to get killed. Mycroft..."

"I know. I will. Adrianna."

She rolled her eyes.

"Be careful. This mission is crap, you know."

"That was obvious from the moment I saw Mycroft in that cast. Apparently even the elements are against us."

"Major Watson?" a man tapped his shoulder. "Will you come aboard, sir?"

"Thank you, yes. Adrianna? Tell Mycroft to make sure Irene is treated properly when she comes back. I won't cart her home just to see her rot in prison. And I will know if he lies. Even by e-mail."

"I will make sure he knows it."

Chapter Text

He was trying to avoid parks, but it was hard in London to go for any distance and not find yourself in one. From the tiny bedsit he had managed to find - uncomfortably close to his first one, but more depressing - he saw one that looked reasonably abandoned by throngs of people filling the other ones.

Finally, he gave in.

At least he had a better cane this time. The previous one was much too short, but this time he got properly measured and it was much more comfortable - in the limited way that it could.

The park was quiet. It was soothing, in a way. He needed to not be around people. To not be asked, every second awake, how he was, whether he needed anything or if there was anything they could do for him.

Shitty.

Sherlock.

Fuck off.

These were the simple answers. He didn't have any resources left to provide bigger, more complex, more informative ones. At least when he met Mycroft - from time to time, simply because Mr Government felt the need to check on him on irregular basis, usually meeting him somewhere in public - he didn't have to say anything. Mycroft looked about as shitty as John felt, and he did have to go to work everyday. After all, if he didn't, what kind of world would they have woken up in the day after?

Not that John cared, not in particular. But Mycroft had something that made him pull through, forced him to carry on. John didn't, at least not something that would make him connect to other people. After... he shied away from from that thought. He didn't like to define that day in any details. It was That Day. After That Day he found himself unable to go to work. Or to eat, or to even get up. He found himself sleeping three days straight - after which his phone was full of messages, and one of them informed him of his breach of contract and that the next salary would be the last one. He couldn't care.

When Mrs Hudson came to wrestle him from his bed after these three days, he understood in sudden flash of enlightenment that the simple reason he had been unable to move himself out of his bedroom was that the rest of the flat was still full of Sherlock. He couldn't bear to look at the living room. He had to pass through it every time he walked to the bathroom though, which made it tough to take a shower. He managed to cross it only when absolutely pressed - and in darkness, if he could hold that long.

Looking around the kitchen - the forgotten experiments, the abandoned collection of weirdness - he found his left hand shaking at the thought of making tea. He couldn't even reach up to the cupboard where he had stored the boxes himself.

The Army pension was still there, trickling into his account. He had savings - quite a lot, actually, from the bigger checks he and Sherlock had collected over the years. Still, he would have to be reasonable. Rent a flat at the rate he could sustainably pay with his basic income and try not to use the savings until there was an emergency.

He moved out in a month, after two more bouts of drinking combined with panic attacks which he had triggered by forcing himself to sit in the living room and look at Sherlock's chair. After he had almost shot the innocent piece of furniture, he gave up. He packed everything he reasonably could find - some of his clothes had gone missing, probably appropriated by Sherlock for some fantastic reason, and some of his things were in places he didn't dare to look at, so he just left them there. Books from the shelves... He could go back for them later.

Mrs Hudson was honestly surprised and obviously disappointed, but she hugged him and asked for his new address "should anyone come asking for your help, dear boy". He provided it, not expecting much. And that was exactly what had happened. Day after day, nothing was happening at an alarming rate.

He watched his small telly, tracking the drama of Greg Lestrade unfold - and then, suddenly, crash into a halt when "new evidence" came into light. He didn't smile with satisfaction, but he knew very well who had arms that long and touch that deft. Mycroft managed to grow a pair apparently and was clearing his little brother's name like crazy, which, coincidentally, helped also the DI.

John spent his days documenting their old cases from memory, enriching them with the scant documentation he had taken from Baker Street. He never published them on the blog, but sent the content to one of Mycroft's secure-ish e-mail accounts. He felt vindicated - just a bit - every time another wave of "Sherlock true facts" hit the news and it was all over the telly. Usually he could see the slant, or the detail, or at least an appropriate background picture. He knew Mycroft was reading the e-mails - the short "Thank you, John" showing up in his e-mail few days after each file was sent. And then he saw the same seeds blooming slowly in the information presented by the media. Witnesses came forward - ones he had dragged up from the bottom of his memory. Facts, photos, recordings and medical reports were located. Missing statements were found. GPS locator log was published - for certain days, when crimes he had been accused of were committed, Sherlock was proved to be in a completely different place. People that had contributed to Sherlock's downfall in the public eyes had disappeared suddenly, and some of them were found to have never really existed before.

From the bedsit, John felt he could contribute. He found out that the soothing, bland surroundings made his brain work better, find the memories faster. He played out the events - the cases, the interviews - on the pastel screen of the wall opposite his bed, recalling faces, names, places and simple facts, like weather. He typed them raw, first, then compared to the case descriptions from his blog and went over them again, matching the timelines and locations. If this was even a fraction of what Sherlock's mind palace worked like, he could understand why the man was so focused on it. It was a perfect recall tool, and he was moderately glad to be able to use it so.

Until the night came and the same pastel colours made him wake up screaming, thinking the last three years had been all false, that he had dreamed about it all, that he had been just recently discharged and he had nothing to look forward to. There were no mad detectives coming to pull him out of his depression, no fascinating men to listen to as they built the most fantastic logical chains in the world, no devoted companions who would... He choked on the thought, each time the same.

Would it have been better to never have met him? To never know what it was like to finally soar above the average, above the grey and pastel? To never leave the safe and sane confines of his well-ordered and terribly dull life?

Would he had been better off, had he never met Sherlock and never known how it feels to be drunk on someone else's brilliance?

He usually lay awake for the rest of the night, trying not to let his eyes sting with the tears this thought brought into his eyes.

No. It wouldn't have been better. I wouldn't have been better off. I had him for the scant time that I was given. I had someone special, I saw him in a different way than anyone around us. I knew him, and he knew me. If I never met him, I wouldn't be here at all.

After one of such nights he found himself unable to walk without a cane. His old one long gone, he set out on a mission to find a cane to end all canes. He dug into his savings and found the perfect one, custom-fitted to his height and hand. It wasn't as good as walking unaided, but at least the limp stopped being so obvious. And he knew he was not going to get any better. His sleeping habits were certainly not helping.

Nights were bad. Lying in bad was bad. Even falling asleep in his chair was bad. He wasn't sure what he could do, but sleeping became an elusive thing to be chased and at the same time, feared. He never knew how long he would have gone like that - too little sleep, too much nerves, too little food, too much coffee.

He was holding a coffee cup when it happened.

He was sitting on a bench, trying to relax in the trace amount of sun that filtered through the clouds, holding a cup of not-so-terrible coffee and thinking about the last two cases he had planned to write for Mycroft.

The war had been almost won. There were people coming forward volunteering information. There was the homeless network finding new witnesses that would have never approached the likes of Mycroft otherwise. There were even a few stupider criminals who had been outraged by the idea that they were pictured as being Sherlock's puppets. The smarter ones kept their cool, counting on the possibility of retrial, but still a few of the minor crooks had managed to mouth off to their guards, dismayed at being treated as less than self-sufficient.

Idiots.

People are idiots, John.

Stop it.

Small battle after battle, spilling onto the streets. At least his current neighbourhood escaped being tagged - maybe the members of Sherlock's network had something to do with that, as the only place he saw that had a large "I fight John Watson's War" was the windowless wall opposite the grocery store he visited twice a week. It was comforting, in a weird, otherworldly way. He had never meant to start it - "the War" - but the journalists were too insistent and too stubborn, and he was too hurt to consider his words carefully. He had flung his "best man I've ever known" and "misunderstood genius" and, sometimes, "man who saved so many lives, including mine" in the faces of these vultures. They had hounded him whenever he emerged, at least for the first months. It gave him something to focus on, but at the same time, forced him to remember . He found his own face staring at him from the tabloids, his words misquoted in myriad of ways, his behaviour analysed by TV psychologists, his aggression pointed out as possible symptom of something more dangerous. Mycroft - through Anthea - had reported one day that he had managed to stop an industrious young lady from digging into John's military records. He only nodded in thanks, but the next case he described was much more detailed, with various valid elements added over the three days he kept awake as he furiously kept away from the thought of someone looking at his past.

It became one of the key examples Mycroft put it to use when, at the same time, MI6 managed to pull the fake Richard Brook identity into the daylight, stripping the layers of lies that Moriarty wrapped himself in.

There were just two cases left. Minor ones, a two and a three in the scale of Sherlock's nicotine patches, but still, might have proved useful for Mycroft, in case additional strengthening of the walls was needed.

John didn't particularly like Mycroft. He was an annoying, overbearing, stiff git.

John, however, liked working with Mycroft and appreciated the man, on a professional level. The Ice Man was scrupulous. Perfectly punctual. He never discarded even the tiniest information as unimportant. Used John's input to the best outcome.

And now, only two cases left. So, a walk in the park. Far from anything that could trigger him. He had made a mistake of visiting Bart's once. It hadn't ended prettily. Park, far away from the city centre, was good. Soothing.

He sipped his coffee. It wasn't bad. It wasn't very good either, but it wasn't bad. Just average.

"Captain?"

The man in front of him was tall, at least as tall as Sherlock.

Funny how things defaulted to him. People were stupider than him, shorter than him, slower than him.

"Captain? Captain Watson?"

He looked up and grabbed for his cane.

"Bloody hell, Cap... how are you?"

"Murray?" he asked faintly. "What are you doing here? I thought you were..." 'somewhere, getting shot at' "still deployed?"

"No, Cap. Finished another tour, my box of medals still as empty as it was, so I told myself, why bother. We got together with Rudy, Gianni and Elena and decided we're going to do better back home. And now, look at you, you are just what we needed."

"Murray, what the fuck are you talking about?"

"We need an actual doctor, Cap. And you are the best, so..."

"Murray, either you start making sense, of I'll shoot you."

"First you'd have to go and fetch your weapon, sir, with all due respect."

John felt a small smile tugging at his mouth as he shrugged slightly and let his jacket fall just a bit open.

"Wow" his former second in command whistled. "Professional. You have papers for that thing?"

"Good enough to allow me to walk in public like this."

One thing John had asked Mycroft for, and the Ice Man provided, after only a token resistance.

The shoulder holster modelled to his frame and specific needs was a bonus, Anthea said. To make sure he can actually use it as intended, and not shoot off his own ass, which was sure to happen should he keep sticking the stupid thing in the back of his trousers.

"Now, Murray. What is this all about?"

The taller man sat next to him on the bench and leaned back.

"We're putting together a small team of, well, specialists. We have a great place - and judging by the way you're sitting here, all alone, I'm guessing you live in one of these" he nodded towards the flat complexes on the other side of the street. "We did, too. Three weeks and I was ready to shoot the walls just to make sure there was something breaking the beige."

"It's just been a few months. I used to live... somewhere else, but I had to move."

"We read the papers, Cap. We've kind of guessed what you went through. We even through of contacting you earlier, but Elena hit me for suggesting it and said it was not done. She was always the sensitive one, that gal."

Elena was six feet five and had arms as thick as John's calves. And she always joked she should have became an anaesthesiology nurse, so that the department could make savings on the medicine used - she could hit a man hard enough to knock him out and measure it so that he didn't sustain any lasting damage.

"So, what do you need from me?"

"First, Cap, I need you to take your things from whatever pastel hellhole you're now bunking in and come with me. The House has just one opening for a new flatmate now, and I feel you will fit right in. Then I need you to pick yourself up and come with us to the Vet centre. We are all helping as volunteers now, and there are people coming everyday who could have used some of Doc Watson's tough love."

"And?"

"And then there will be jobs. Consulting stuff. Maybe some action from time to time."

"Foreign or domestic?"

"Well, depends on the pay. But" Murray smirked and nodded at the buildings around him "I can assure you we'll be having much more fun than you're having here now."

"Bill" he bit his lip. "I don't have much to contribute. Just my pension. I can't really work right now. My tremor" he brought his left hand up.

It was steady.

"Bloody hell" he rubbed his face. "Again."

"We have one more thing, Cap."

"Yes?" he mumbled.

"We have a shrink. But, no, listen" he saw John's head fly up. "He's good. It's a vet. He did his major in psychiatry, specifically war-related trauma. A Scottish guy, perfectly reasonable. No pamby-namby group therapy, holding hands, talking through it and making sure we listen to soothing music or go outside or bare our souls. He talks, he listens, or he sits with you if you can't speak. Rudy, you remember what he did? When he jumped at every sound? Well, Thompson found out that it's not an actual PTSD - it is, well, but Rudy simply has hearing oversensitivity. Everyone thought it's him overreacting to shots, but it's purely physiological. The guy has ears like a bat, so it's obvious every louder noise affects him worse than others."

"Rudy always heard the choppers coming earlier than everyone."

"Like that Radar guy."

"Like the Radar guy, exactly."

"So. The part that comes with joining our little crew is that Thompson comes twice a week and has a session with everyone who needs it. There is a group hour if anyone wants to - some actually make use of it, if they have common problems, like Elena and Claire, after that shootout in the village, and some just pop in if they are needed. Especially if someone is suffering from partial memory loss and someone else can contribute. And all of us are, right?"

John snorted. He had white periods in his memory, just like the others.

"So. Captain Watson. What do you think?"

"Who is the boss of the outfit?"

"There is no boss, as such. We go by our rank, we take jobs that fit, and there is a democratic vote on jobs that could potentially affect us all. If you join, you'd be the ranking officer, but all it gets you is the priority in the queue to the coffee machine. Everyone shares the chores and the shopping fund, girls do the shopping because they just can't stand us buying them the cheapest tampons, we do the cleaning, the throwing out and everyone cooks, up to their skill level. Which means Elena is allowed to pour milk into cereal, and only her own."

John sighed and sipped his coffee.

"Sounds tempting. But, why me ?"

"You are here. You look like you're missing something to do. We trust you, Captain. We need a doctor. These poor guys in the Vet centre need you, too. And you are a celebrity."

"I see. And what are you going to use my wonderful status for?"

One corner of Murray's mouth moved slightly up.

"Publicity. If people know we have you on the team, it will look better. You won't even have to join in on the action - if someone needs medical perspective or consult, they can come to us. And, putting it brutally, we need an actual doctor on the team. And you still have an active civilian licence, right? You can write prescriptions and be our GP and everything?"

John nodded slowly.

"Then you'd get paid from the House budget for that, too. Blokes have their problems, girls have theirs, but in general, we are all just a bit broken or a bit poorly put together. In exchange for volunteering at the vet centre as nurses and aides we get free physiotherapy and we can use the facilities, including the gym. You could probably show your shoulder to the nice boys there and they could do something about loosening up these muscles."

"That would be nice" John said with a slight smile. "What would I be doing? Apart from writing tons of prescriptions for routine ailments?"

"There are some guys - and gals, and others - who got medicines from their doctors out in the field, but now have trouble fitting into normal system. Or the GPs don't want to continue the same therapy. Or they'd have to go to a hospital to get more and they are afraid to. They trust army doctors. If you could take a few of them every day, review their treatment, write the meds for whoever likely needs just a repeat and talk to the ones who need more - hospital or another specialist - that would be a huge thing. Rudy managed to convince some poor guy with diabetes to go to a civilian GP with him to get a paper for diabetologist, and it saved his life, I'm sure. Sometimes we drive with them to the specialists and help them with the civilian procedures, or sign them in to the hospitals and visit them there. They... We, all of us, tend to shut down and stop caring for ourselves when the structured army care disappears. Some forgot how to do shopping, some can't cope with using ATM. And some had never learnt how to make a doctor's appointment. We teach them by going with. Some who had already been re-trained and found themselves doing better outside are becoming mentors and supervisors for new ones."

"So, basically, you're preparing them for the reintegration into the wilderness" John smiled, draining his cup. "I'm in. And I'll take you up on the appointment with your lovely-sounding shrink. Who knows, maybe he'll be the one to crack this" he patted his skull.

"We'd rather have this kept whole and uncracked, Cap. But I'm sure he will see it as a personal challenge to unscramble the contents. So, when can you move?"

"You up to carrying some boxes?"

"Why not."

"And I'm assuming that since you seem to have absolutely no business in this part of town at all, you've come here specifically to look for me, so you have a car?"

"Not a moving van..."

"A sedan will be enough. Three boxes of files, one laptop and two bags of clothes. I can carry the bags, but the boxes require two hands."

"Shall we, then? I parked on the corner, so I'd have to move closer to your door, wherever it is."

John smiled thinly and shook his head.

"Sure. Why not. But I am still working on one thing right now, so I won't be able to pull my weight immediately."

"Does it pay?"

"Not in money" John stood up and leaned on his cane. "But it's a case... a case of honour, in a manner of speaking."

Murray fell in step beside him.

"Is this about that fellow you used to work with? I saw stuff on the telly, once we came back."

"It used to be worse. They were slandering him just before he..." John sucked in some air. "His brother is working on having his good name restored. And I'm helping him, remotely. A bit of idee fixe, but I can't just let go. I have two more reports to write and it will be done. Then I can join you and see if that physio will get my left hand back into working order."

Murray smiled and led them to a large car he had parked on the corner.

"Lead on, Captain. And I can tell you, you're going to like it with us."

 

#

 

John had to admit Murray had been right. Being useful in the vet centre was not as exciting as his life with Sherlock, but it was wearing, fulfilling and challenging. Once the last communication to Mycroft was sent and he had began his sessions with Donald Thompson he felt as if he had turned a new leaf. Opened a new book, even. He had sat down on one session with all the inhabitants of the House in order to inform them - in general terms - of his most likely problems, expectations and trigger points. They shared theirs in turn, which Murray had explained to be the protocol for everyone. They were taking no chances, so no blue lights were allowed in the house, no raw red meat, no floral scents and, in deference to John's wishes, no violin music. Nobody was to approach others from behind or to touch them without being acknowledged, which was also perfectly fine with John. Each trigger was explained - haltingly or openly, but each was given at least a token background, to ensure better understanding of the point.

When he described, in slightly broken voice, his issue with violin music, Donald had nodded and simply written a note, but the others patted John's shoulders in compassion. The line was added to the general list of rules pasted on the interior of the kitchen door, where everyone could have a look at it when taking the coffee.

"A cheat sheet" Murray explained. "It will help you, too. It also helps when making shopping lists, we check if someone hadn't added one of the risky products by accident."

"This... sounds like a specialised safehouse" John sighed. "Like nothing bad can happen to us as long as we're inside."

"And following the rules. Remember, Cap, rules are important for Army people. We don't have orders and regulations now, but we have out own internal rule book. Which melts down to 'don't harm and don't let others come to harm by overlooking something', the rest is just footnotes, to make sure we remember what is what."

 

#

 

John's room was bare and bright. Eastern window made for early morning awakenings, which suited him perfectly. He unpacked the bag and placed the file boxes on empty shelves, then sat in the desk chair and surveyed his new domain. It was different. Different from the bedsits, much cleaner and more open. Different from 221B, much... much less Sherlock.

He had almost no personal effects to put around the room, but that would have to wait.

"It looks empty" Bill leaned on his door. "That's all you have?"

"Some of my stuff is still in the old flat, but I don't think I'll ever be able to collect it" he brushed his slightly grown out hair away from his face.

"Do you need help?"

He chewed on it for a moment.

"It's all mixed up with my old partner's things" he explained finally. "I couldn't..."

"But I know perfectly well you sign all your books, so these will be easy to pick" Bill raised his eyebrows. "If you can't just do it, Elena and me could do the actual packing and you come with to make sure we're let in."

John nodded slowly.

"That would work. And yes, I still sign my stuff. I could do with some help collecting my textbooks and documents..."

 

#

 

221B was almost as he had left it. Mrs Hudson assured him in teary voice that Mycroft had been paying the rent and asking her to keep the flat as it was, as he didn't have heart to deal with Sherlock's things yet.

"And you hadn't been by, John, I was worried. You can't just do things like this, dropping off the face of earth!" she said with reproach.

"I'm sorry, Mrs Hudson. I came by to collect the rest of my things and to give you my new forwarding address. In case anyone comes with... the old business, send them there, too. And if someone from Sherlock's network needs anything, please give them my number. I don't want them going without, if I can help."

"Billy comes by from time to time, and I let him do some chores. He sleeps in C when it's colder, and he's actually kept is cleaner than it had ever been."

He nodded, sipping his tea.

"Let me know if anyone comes asking, too. In case they don't come to me later, just to make sure I know there is someone needing help."

"Of course, John, of course. But... will you be alright? Who are your friends?"

Elena and Bill were upstairs, carefully sorting out the living room and he was actively not thinking about Sherlock's things being picked up and touched. At least these two knew what the loss of Sherlock had meant to him - as much as he could put it into words - and could be trusted to treat the contents of 221B with due respect.

"My old medical team" he explained, combing his hair back with his fingers. "I'm moving in with them into a shared house, in the suburbs. They offered to help me pick my things as I can't really..." he tapped his cane against his leg.
"Ah, poor boy. Did you get hurt again?"

"No, it's just..." he sighed. "Just the old thing. Came back. I suppose running all day was keeping it quiet and it doesn't like me sitting too much."

"Well, I do hope you find a nice place for yourself, John. And, maybe, you know. At some point you could consider..."

He frowned, looking at her in suspicion.

"I mean, I know you two were... Doing a lot together. But, maybe, at some point, you will decide to move on. Nobody will hold it against you, darling. You can make some nice boy very happy."

"Mrs Hudson..." he put away his cup. "I... I can't. I couldn't. Sherlock and I, we were..."

"I know, you always said you weren't a couple. But don't try to trick me, young man. I know these things."

"Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, but I couldn't really, anyway. I'm not a good relationship person. I don't do relationships."

"Well, with Sherlock..."

"And we both know how it ended" he said bitterly. "I feel responsible for this, I missed the signs, I allowed myself to be distracted. I can't afford to lose another person."

"I absolutely understand that you feel like this right now, John. But you can't deny yourself human contact just because you're afraid you'll lose them. Not everyone is Sherlock Holmes."

John sighed and nodded. This was exactly the point. Not everyone was Sherlock Holmes. Or, rather, right then, nobody was Sherlock Holmes, at all.

Bill came stomping down the steps.

"We've picked all the books that had your name on them, Cap" he said. "And I've looked through the main room for clothes your size, just in case. Elena is upstairs, still packing the wardrobe. Good afternoon, ma'am" he nodded to Mrs Hudson and went to the car, carrying two hefty boxes.

"I will go up" he said after a moment of silence. "I think it's time I said goodbye properly."

 

#

 

The flat was covered with sheets now - probably Mycroft's doing - and there was a heap of boxes where Bill had packed his medical journals and references. A few smaller books were waiting on the table for John to check them. His chair was covered, too, but he dragged the sheet off and sat in it, for the memories' sake.

He could picture everything where it was, under the cover of white. The books, the lab equipment, the power tools, the skull and the pillows on the sofa. He could picture the long, lithe body lain prone on it, inky curls around his head like a demented dark halo, lips drawn in half-smile, fingers steepled together.

It didn't hurt this time. He felt prickling in the corners of his eyes and the tears fell, but it didn't hurt. It was just so damn sad. Such a waste of human potential. Such a terrible, terrible waste of mind and heart and soul, ground into dust by public opinion and a consulting criminal.

Such a waste, but, Lord, what a glory before. What a place to have been, what a time to have lived in, to share a bit of his limelight, to breathe in the greatness. It was pure adrenalin and testosterone and endorphines. He knew perfectly well he would never have a chance for someone like that to find him again. There was only one Sherlock Holmes and he had left John behind.

Elena was coming down the stairs, dragging two large duffles and carrying a gym bag.

"Anything else, Cap? Bathroom? Any meds you need to pick up? First aid kit, stuff like this?"

He steeled himself and nodded. He needed his leather case, but until now he couldn't force himself to fetch it.

"I'll take it. And my things from the bathroom. Thank you, Sergeant."

They both smiled.

"My pleasure, Cap. I emptied all your drawers and shelves, pretty randomly, so you'll have some sorting to do, I suppose. I'll bring down the garment bags with your uniforms in the next go."

The flat was silent for a moment, so he looked around and found the violin case. Undoing two clasps he inhaled the faint smell of rosin and smiled. It wasn't a normal scent to go mushy about, but it was a non-sad smell so he could finally say his piece without his throat constricting.

"I wish we could have had more, Sherlock" he whispered. "I with I could have convinced you to stay and to keep this up. To live for us, even if public opinion was against you. I don't give a fuck for the public opinion. I don't care. I never did. If they called us frauds and fakes we could have moved into the country and found ourselves some nice, cosy village murder from time to time. I'd have bought you the damned hives, even. I could have a practice, with old ladies coming to talk about their long-dead husbands and spilling the most crucial secrets of the neighbourhood as asides and then we would go and investigate cold cases of long-forgotten village outsiders. Nobody would care if we were fake or true if we helped people. We would have had so much to learn. I wish I could have made you stay and see that I needed you and I never doubted you. You were true and that is what mattered to me."

The violin never replied, so he carefully plucked at the strings, making them tremble quietly.

"I wish you could have seen yourself with my eyes, Sherlock."

The clasps again closed and the sheet replaced, he walked to the mantle and lifted the cover off the skull. The skull stared at him in reproach.

"You too?" he sighed. "Well, anyway. Here, keep an eye on it. Or at least a socket. Mycroft will... He will find it one day."

A small cube of black wood joined the skull and the slipper. He couldn't imagine a better place for it.

 

####

Chapter Text

The airplane was almost empty, barring a huge cooler case and a pleasantly familiar rotund figure of Mike Stamford in a seat by the table. He had a newspaper spread on the table and a pencil twirling in his fingers, ready for the crossword just in front of him.

"Come on, John" he patted a place beside him. "Let's get started on some stuff before they can take off, hm?"

"How did you...?"

"Someone had a lot of influence at St Anne's. They asked for me specifically" Mike opened the bag. "Now, first. When was your last phy... ah" he looked at the tablet handed to him by John. "Good. So, did you read anything about that treatment?"

"Absolutely nothing. I just learnt that there is any about an hour ago."

"So, let me introduce you to the wonders of twenty first century neural repair..." Mike pulled out a hank of cables. "First, recording."

 

#

 

The relaxants applied locally had already done wonders to his arm, giving him a much better range of movement than even the physio done at the vet centre had provided him. Comparing left and right shoulder he could find no discernible differences and he watched in amazement as he easily moved both hands in complete symmetry.

"Incredible" he nodded with a smile. "If the neural rebuild part works like that, I could..."

"Let's not jinx it" Mike grinned. "But you are responding to the first part very well. I need now to put these back on you and record your mobility in half-hour intervals since injection."

It was tedious and boring and, at the same time, absolutely fascinating. He repeated the same set of activities - from shrugging to jumping jacks - again and again, as the plane flew over half of Europe.

"Does it change anything that we're in the air?"

"No, it's just the relative position of your hand that is being recorded. You are anyway an off-program case. Everyone else is still in the double-blind, but apparently someone had meddled and moved the money around and you've been accepted as early human trial volunteer for the next test round."

"That doesn't make me feel less like a guinea pig, at all."

"Guinea pigs don't join the army and get shot, so we can't make reasonable experiments on them."

"Who else is in on the trials?"

"A few kids with sport injuries, one or two vets with bullet holes - but neither as bad as yours and none after infections - and a few victims of domestic abuse, girls that had been cut up by their boyfriends or fathers. Some women with varied injuries from different types of abuse. A guy who got mauled by a dog. All of them have been suffering of limited mobility and now, as far as we can say, the treatment is showing nicely for the ones we're guessing have received the actual treatment and not the placebo."

"So you already have observable progress and differences, good. And I'm what? An early bird edition?"

"You are my second PhD" Mike said cautiously. "If all goes well, you will become J001, case study. Of course, pending your consent."

John leaned back on his seat and looked at his old classmate in surprise.

"There are many who wouldn't have even asked."

"That's because they don't choose homicidal army medics as their subjects. I would be afraid of you coming after me, should I use your data without approval."
"It's nice to feel appreciated" John smirked slightly. "Rare thing for me."

"Who wouldn't approve of a man who can first shoot an enemy and then patch him up?"

John felt his heart twist.

"Most of my family, for one. They always said I should make up my mind whether I want to heal people or to shoot them dead."

 

####

 

The heli flight to the British base was cramped, with Mike and his luggage taking majority of space onboard. Fortunately, it wasn't very long, and before it became actually uncomfortable, they were circling the main camp and approaching the pad by the hospital structure. There were people waiting for them on the tarmac and John - having changed into his fatigues when still on the plane - felt his spine stiffening into the proper posture yet again.

When they jumped (or, in case of Mike, slowly descended) to the ground, a young-looking marine private approached them and saluted.

"Major Watson, sir!"

"At ease, Private" he said and watched her relax just minutely.

"Sir, Major Sholto sends his apologies for not meeting you here, but there has been a SNAFU with some ammunition delivery, sir. He asks you to join him in thirty minutes, if amenable, sir."

"Thank you. I will. Please escort us to a place where we could dump the luggage, Private..."

"Forster, sir. Annabelle Forster."

"Private Forster, then. This is doctor Stamford, he will be assisting me."

"Sir. Doctor. This way" she turned towards the buildings and set of at brisk pace.

"We'll get it all to your office, doctor" one of the assisting soldiers assured Mike. "You can leave it in our hands."

 

####

 

Major Sholto, bloody hell.

James, how did you manage to pull this ?

Apparently, the Crown still had use even for damaged and disgraced soldiers, as long as their disgrace wasn't their own active work. With Sholto mostly responsible for the enormous cluster fuckup during the mission, but definitely not one to kill his own people, he had been still a potential candidate to re-enlist, if higher-ups decided someone had to take a shitty post. James did, as was obvious by him managing one of the most idiotic places Britain had put their bases in - another European country. Placement like this sucked in more than one way, and the main that John could see right now was that locals weren't very happy about the base being there, despite the fact that it was, supposedly, a part of NATO agreement. Local criminal element didn't like soldiers showing up unexpectedly the most seedy areas of nearby cities when, for example, securing victims of yet another earthquake. They definitely didn't like soldiers pushing their noses into anything that brought a profit. Slight hostility from basically everyone made for a tough situation and being a CO of a place like this... Well, exactly why some people were pulled out of their "retirement".

Mike had been escorted to his new office - where John would be the only patient - and John himself had been rather reverently guided to the CO's rooms.

"Major Watson, sir."

"In, in" the slight slur didn't change Sholto's pronunciation that much. "Major Watson" he smiled crookedly at John. "I'm glad to see you. Thank you, Private."

"Same to you, Major Sholto" John's smile was much more symmetrical than James', but both carried the same mix of bitterness and cynicism.

"How can the Forces help your mission, Major?"

"James" he sat heavily on the chair in front of the desk. "You can help me understand the level of shite I got myself into by agreeing to this mission."

"John" the man behind the desk acknowledged. "It really is good to see you, no matter the mission. The level of shite... did you bring a spade?"

John snorted.

"Fine, fine. I don't have a full brief of your mission, but I know you have to deal with some local fucks in Dobrota. This is both good and bad. The town is relatively small and you know it already. The bad part is, we have absolutely no presence there. Anyone coming from the base stands out like a sore thumb. Basically, everyone stands out."

"So..." John raked his hair up and away from his face, making them stand up messily. "Let's make sure I stand out in the right way then."

 

####

 

Another session with Mike brought him to the gym, where they tested the newly reacquired strength of his damaged arm. There were soldiers gathered around them and watching in silent awe as that small, mild-looking man tackled the obstacle course aimed at people at least four inches taller than him. They counted breathlessly as he made one-handed push-ups and one-handed pull-ups and then winced in sympathy as he attacked a boxing bag with unexpected, symmetrical ferocity in his punches.

John felt alive. There was no throb, no weird wrongness of how the shoulder moves, no unexpected weaknesses, no pulling, no pain, no stiffness. Even at the best of times, at the very height of their life as the consulting detective and his blogger, when Sherlock had him running around London day and night, he always had that little something in his step, that fear, that waiting, incipient stab of paint that threatened to blossom into agony if he only gave it a chance.

Now, they were all gone.

He wasn't mourning them. He had mourned enough in his life, he wouldn't give a thought to the happily lost pains. No matter what kind of memories they brought up.

 

####

 

"Your mobility is now almost equal in both arms" Mike said slowly. "There may be a slight hiccup in how the left shoulder joint will work, but you'll simply have to learn it again. What I'm seeing, however, is that you've also gained a better mobility in both legs, which means - preliminary diagnosis, of course - that despite the fact that the injections are local to the shoulder injury, they affect, to some degree, is systemic. This, at least partially, confirms my previous observations."

"Which were?"

"Well, some of the subjects reported feeling better in some other area of the body, but we couldn't confirm definite change. With you, I know already that you have a limp which comes and goes, but even when superficially gone, it still affects your posture. Now you walk in a much more relaxed manner and you don't cushion every step carefully, like you used to do. You use..." Mike frowned for a moment. "It looks less deliberate."

John hopped from one leg to the other.

"It looks like you may be right" he confirmed, a bit anxious at the analysis. "Was it really that visible?"

"Remember - I saw you still with the cane? And then many, many times since? And, once I thought about it, I still do have the video clip from our diploma ceremony. I dug it up when I first considered contacting you for the next phase of this research" he smiled, satisfied, and John's eyes widened.

"Oh. So you..."

"Well, when I compare - as much as the old recording can be trusted - the way you walked then, the way you walked once returned, then... when you stopped limping, and now; then I see that 'now' is closest to the 'before army' one. When a person without any disabilities walks, they just... walk. They don't think about the way they place their feet, they don't consider the point when they change balance from one leg to the other, etc etc etc. Once someone is injured, they start, even unconsciously, moving around that injury. Sometimes..."

"Even when the original injury is no longer an issue, the brain still treats it, and the accompanying pain, as a possibility, and thus the patient way of moving is permanently affected, which leads to strain and, sometimes, secondary injuries and, or problems with mobility."

"In your case the injury didn't actually clear for so long, your muscles are permanently tense against it possibly flaring up, correct?"

He nodded uncomfortably.

"Did you ever go to a specialist for at least a relaxant, or worked with a physio to regain mobility and test it against pain in controlled surroundings?"

He cringed.

"Yeah, since I moved to the House" he nodded "I've been seeing the therapists at the Vet centre. They give us full body massages, relaxing and straightening. At least I got out of my problem without affecting my spine. Some weren't that lucky."

"But you should have been doing this since you came back" Mike pointed out kindly.

"Better late than never" John shrugged, revelling in th range of movement. "And, actually, they tried it when I came back. Nothing worked, no amount of massages or walking on a treadmill or stretching. Until..." he jerked his head to the side.

"Yeah. Well. You should have gone then to chase out whatever was left. But I get it. We suck as patients. I try not to wander around the cardio floor at Bart's or at St Anne's because they tend to ask uncomfortable questions."

"As in 'Mike, what the hell?' or 'Mike, have you seen your latest EKG?'"

"Or 'Mike, why are you eating that mayo sandwich', yes" the larger doctor calmly provided. "So, you know and I know that we make lousy patients. That's why you never came back to check your leg once... once you started walking without the cane, and definitely when you had to pick the cane up again. Um. What happened to it, anyway?"

"I left it with Mycroft Holmes" John answered, looking away. That was not something he wanted to go into details on. "If I need it again, I'm sure it will make its appearance."

"Oh, definitely not. Not with this cocktail" Mike tapped the cooler case with a proud smile. "This baby will let you run, lift, throw and jump. What we need is to create a timeline for the first course of therapy and then the sustainable treatment, so that you don't have to take this stuff daily. It is a tad expensive for a long-term drug. But at least for now, we're going with the daily dose and hour by hour observation."

"I will have to be in meetings at some point" John reminded him and pulled out the tablet with his schedule. "So some we'll have to miss."

"As long as I get to check on some of the full hours, it will be fine" Mike waved that away. "And it will be mostly recording of you stretching and moving both arms in circles from now on. And of walking ten steps. Also, something that you can wear anyway, the heart monitor" he pulled out a slim, black band. "It's like these fitness watches, but a bit smarter of the health side. Doesn't record your GPS position, but will give me a full day or heartrate, hourly pressure checks and your breathing patterns - don't ask, no idea how it works. This way I will be able to check if this isn't affecting your general state, by monitoring how you are just after the injection and during the day. What I would have loved is to have a recording of your day from before the treatment, but we can't have everything, can we?"

John affixed the small not-watch on his left wrist and smiled.

"I actually tested one of the watches" he provided. "I could dig in my e-mail and see if the recorded day is still available. Didn't want it at the end, the plastic was annoying. This one is silicone, much better."

"If you find it, that will be great. But no hurry. We need at least three days of recordings to see if there is an actual pattern here. So, you can go and have your meetings safely, just make sure to show up here every time you can. We'll make a quick recording of the changes and off you go to your planning sessions or whatever it is that you need to do."

"OK. OK, I can work with that" he nodded, relieved.

"Now" Mike pulled out another sheet of paper. "Diet."

 

####

 

Fortunately Mike's "diet" turned out to be "eat most everything you like, avoid alcohol, try not to overdo on fatty meat", which was quite possible to be covered by the base kitchen. As he collected his appropriately composed meal - no less and no more interesting than the other options - a small group of younger soldiers gathered at the end of the room, watching him in what they assumed was a discreet way. He rolled his eyes at their lousy attempt at being cool and inconspicuous, picked up a bottle of water and another of apple juice and sat at one of the free tables, by a window.

"Major Watson, sir."

It was a girl. He looked at the young Lieutenant and couldn't see anything but a kid.

Dear God, we used to be that young.

"Yes? Lt... Stevens?"

"Yes, sir. I just wanted to say, sir, we've heard all about you, and it's an honour to meet you, sir."

He slowly lowered his fork.

"'All about me'? What do you mean, Lieutenant?"

She smiled, just slightly.

"Elena is my mother's cousin, sir. She wrote us letters from the deployment, and she described you. And she called me today, on the base secure line, to look out for you. So, if you need anything from supplies, the storage is managed by me and the ladies there. Anything you need, let us know."

He cocked an eyebrow at her.

"And what about Major Sholto?"

"Major Sholto gave us 'all he needs'. No questions, no bans, no limits. But Elena said you'd need to have it spelt out, sir, so she called me to ensure that I do. No disrespect meant, sir, just quoting my aunt."

He snorted and sipped his water.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. Tell Elena the same if you talk to her before I do. I will probably show up soon, but if you could prepare a few things for me, that would be great."

"Sure, sir. Just leave the list with the duty guard at the stores and we'll put it together for you."

Ah, youth. They could get by on four hours of sleep and still be wide awake the next day, ready to serve the old veteran who needs some...

"Actually, Lieutenant, if you could find me a few small items..." he smiled at her obvious eagerness "I'd need a week worth of t-shirts and the like. It seems that exercising and the treatment I'm going through makes me use up my own way too quickly."

"Not a problem, sir. I'll put a request in the moment I'm back at the stores and you can come pick it up by the lights-out."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. I will come by about half past nine."

She nodded, stood smartly to attention and turned away, herding the team - probably all storage clerks then - out of the room.

He picked up his fork and speared a bit of chicken, but before he managed to bit into it, someone was standing by his table.

"Major Watson, sir" this time a male Lieutenant, but still, looking like a kid.

"Yes, Lieutenant...?" he couldn't see a name tag.

"Herman, sir. Second cousin of Bill Murray. It is an honour, sir."

I wonder if I'll manage to eat this before it's cold.

 

####

 

The street map of Dobrota was printed and hang out for him to use in the small room Sholto had assigned to him. Another, less detailed, map of the whole part of the coast, hang on the next wall. He spread the files received from Anthea and started pinning up the photographs. Red marker rectangle surrounded the blocks listed in the file. Blue areas designated landing sites out of the city that were "usual" for the base helicopters to use, so they could assume nobody would pay attention to an additional heli or two.

He scribbled a note to check with Sholto what was the normal frequency of the base excursions to the area and to ensure their additional flights don't seem overly so.

Another folder, his own. Private.

Great-gran Aneza. Montenegrin and Italian. Married an English soldier, never really learnt to speak proper English, but told her children, grandchildren and great-grand-children all about her home town in her broken, Italian-rich language. Not all of the Watsons wanted to hear her stories, but John was more than happy to, that one winter when he had broken his leg - his first serious injury - and he soaked up all the little facts about the family she had left behind, her father the merchant - she always winked when she said that, and he could never be sure how much of a merchant and how much of a pirate her father was - her sisters, her cousins, the Boka, Kotor and everything around, the white sands and the long beaches of the Adriatic Sea.

When he was first deployed, he had spent half a year on the local base, as part of the military presence in an "unstable region", providing the medical care to both the base and the locals. He tested his knowledge of languages - Serbian and Croatian as spoken by great-gran Aneza, which gave him a rather good basis for learning both Montenegrin and Bosnian, as they were, at the core, the same basic language. He sampled the local culture, cooking and women - not necessarily in that order, but usually in some combination. He learnt all he could about the area - Kotor and Dobrota, the waterfront, the historical centre, even the local psychiatric hospital, as they were a few calls for their support from that institution. He compared the stories he had heard with the reality in front of him...

Well, now he would just have to do the same, just fifteen years later.

A middle-aged man digging in the past, off-season, to make it cheaper and more breathable for someone with a slight weight problem. He just needed to find a good, cheap and English-speaking staffed accommodation and rent a car.

A ping on his tablet heralded a new e-mail.

Anthea seemed to be reading his thoughts.

 

A reservation from the day after tomorrow, in Muo, cozy, full English breakfast, the concierge thinks he's speaking like a pro, but at least he's understandable. I explained I'm looking for a nice room for my uncle, who is a bit of a technophobe but wants to explore the country of his ancestors.

Don't use their wifi for anything . I didn't even have to break in.

Your room has a balcony with full view on the block in question.

A car with will be waiting in Kotor for you. Dealership details in attachment.

Let M. know if you need anything else organised. There is a secure phone waiting for you in your quarters.

 

A.

 

####

 

The storage was impressive and the girls there even more so. They had a stack of necessary items ready for him, already bagged. The young Lieutenant who had spoken to him in the cantina had already a requisition form prepared for him.

"You can request anything, up to, but excluding, the anti-tank missiles."

"Why not anti-tank missiles?" he frowned in surprise.

"We don't have any."

The whole staff snorted in unison and he joined them, suddenly transported back in time fifteen years.

"So you think you're so smart, Lt Stevens?"

"No, sir, but I think I may be funny" she answered cheekily.

"She may be funny, she may" one of the others chirped in. "She just doesn't know how, poor thing!"

They laughed again and he simply had to join them.

God, were we ever that young?

 

####

 

A knock to his door came when he was putting together his file on the observations of the houses so far and retyping them to be sent to Mycroft, just in case someone back home managed to see something he omitted.

"James" he greeted his old CO shortly, letting him in. "It is a bit late..."

Sholto nodded, sighing and sitting at the paper-covered table.

"John, I need to know how sure you are that this is important enough to tangle with the locals."

"Is your presence here that shaky?"

His guest pursed his lips and looked away.

"We are not liked" he said simply. "It's not specifically about us - large military presence in any area causes problems. Unfortunately, the dispute about joining or not joining NATO is very divisive in the society, and so we are seen as a symbol of the whole problem. Americans have it even worse, actually."

"I think that whatever I'll have to do should not affect your situation" John ventured cautiously. "The target I am to retrieve is an MI6 agent who had gotten himself caught in local gang conflict, most probably. Unfortunately, together with him they have captured a British civilian. Even worse, the civilian is also an important asset to the Crown -- despite the fact that some would contest this."

"And if you manage to get them out?"

"If the organisation was identified correctly, then the gang will have two prisoners less, but they won't retaliate, especially if the rescue is performed in such a way that it will not be easily connected to any specific group. They aren't keeping them for any specific purposes - not for trade, not for information."

Sholto rubbed his temple.

"So why are they keeping them?"

"Apparently local druglord was annoyed with the agent for some reason - maybe they managed to mess up some deal, taking down a customer. No suggestion from the intelligence yet, but the general consensus is that the agent made some kind of personal blunder and their plans are mostly taking their ire out on him. The civilian is his associate and they are torturing both, and I quote, 'just for fun'."

"Sounds shitty" Sholto uttered finally. "Two of our own men, kept to be, what? Whipped to death?"

"A man and a woman" John corrected with a small tremble in his voice.

His guest looked at him searchingly.

"A woman? The agent or the civ?"

"The civilian. She's... capable, but they are doing things to her that aren't conductive to her prolonged mental health."

"Shite, John. You know her? You're doing a personal thing?"

"It's not about her, at least not only" he stood up and looked out the window. "It's about who asked me to do it. She is just an incentive to do it quickly. I don't plan to blow up the whole blocks with US-branded dynamite or fly the Queen's flag from my shoulders when going in, so don't worry, I shouldn't tip the balance in the region too much. And these two may actually know something useful."

"Fine. Fine. What do you need from us?"

John unfolded the list he had compiled on board the plane and during the day of research.

"Any kind of satellite imagery, as recent as possible, of the whole Kotor and Dobrota waterfront. And I'll need some of your soldiers to play stupid tourists. Who from the base has rarely been seen outside? I'd need them to hire a boat in one of the marinas on the other side and just... take a trip around Boka. And make sure they take a lot of photos."

"Photos...?" Sholto frowned. "There is any number of photos of the waterfront."

"But none in the evening and using thermal imagery" John smiled slightly. "I'll need them to scan me a block of buildings."

"Ah..."

 

####

 

Next morning found him again in Mike's office, standing on the scales and being carefully photographed from all angles. The movement markers affixed, he went through a series of exercises yet again, with Mike recording every repetition carefully. The injections that came after that were much less fun than jumping jacks, but by now their results seemed like a gift from heaven, so he wasn't going to complain about needles. The effect apparently diminished in time, but still, he was better now than the day before at the same time.

"I'd say thirty percent down, in total" Mike pushed his glasses up. "This little program takes your baseline from the first day, takes the hourly measurements and converts it into improvement trend. During the day, you reached a peak and then started to slowly descend. After two-three days we'll be able to say if every day you start the morning a big higher, or if you'll always be going down to the state as it is today."

"And what would be the point at which we can say we've reached the level from which it's only sustain?"

"Two-week period of no new gain in mobility. Of course, to do this, we'd have to test you in clinical conditions, so that would be no earlier than when we're back in London and re-established the measurements routine. From that moment, we'd reduce the injections to every other day, then to every four days and check if there is any significant change. We allow for loss of ten percent of the gained mobility, as counted from the baseline to the top condition. If it goes any lower, we'll have to re-intensify the treatment and again reach the two-week stable period. And so on, until either the trial oversight decides that this is not sustainable - and then we'll have to slowly wean all the trial subjects off the serum and hope for the best. At least, if the improvements do not hold, people will retain the muscle mass they had built and, in some cases, this may lead to actually helping them even without the injections themselves."

"Like my leg, of course. If I re-learn to walk normally, there is a chance that even after going off this magical fairy nectar I will walk like I used to, because my body will get used to the new, painless way of stepping."

"And so it will become painless, because you will not be tensing your whole body so much. And you will still have all that upper body mass that you'll have built when training now, with less blocks on your movement..."

"So I'll be able to compensate for limited mobility with better strength" John nodded slowly. "That's... promising, actually. Even in failure, we will have some positive outcome."

Mike smiled and tapped the syringe.

"Now, for the painful part" he said apologetically.

Chapter Text

The cosy little hotel Anthea had booked for him was just perfect. The room was small, but adequate for a week stay, a dresser, a fridge, a wardrobe and a bed. And a desk, set just in front of the wide window, overlooking the bay. Exactly opposite the block of interest.

He pulled on the curtains from the left a bit to cover what he was setting up on the desk and quickly unpacked the heavy set of night vision equipment. The set with standard camera was second, set in such a way that the curtain had to barely be moved when he would need to record.

He found the phone in the room safe, the code having been e-mailed from Mycroft's secondary address to his base account. Turning it on was a matter of seconds, but waiting for it to boot, connect and download the secure messages took long enough for John to unpack his "elderly uncle" persona. The car he had driven from Kotor was only reinforcing that image - small, rather worn, but sturdy. Just like himself.

Now, into the breach. Or town.

 

####

 

"God bless local kids" John said with a feeling. "There is a group of youngsters in Dobrota who has a number of interesting characteristics."

Mike made a vague 'go on' sound as he attached yet another marker.

"One, they watch a lot of American movies and so their English is pretty good. Two, they are local - and I mean, local for generations - and they hate outsiders. Three, they think I'm less of an outsider than the fucks who had taken over one of the palazzos and promptly fired the cleaning crew. Four, three women of the crew are the kids' mothers and a sister. Aforementioned fucks are, apparently, from out of town and with no claim of ancestry around here, so with my great-grandmother being from Dobrota I seem much more like a local. And they like the way I speak."

Mike raised his eyebrows.

"They watch a lot of Bond" John explained, blushing. "They asked if I was a spy, because spies speak with Scottish accent, and this is what I used when I went to town. I pointed out that there are many other Scots out there, starting with David Tennant, so they asked if I'm a Timelord. God help me."

"Even though Tennant doesn't use his natural accent in the series" Mike reminded him.

"He does, but just for a moment. OK, what now? Jumping jacks?"

"To start with, yes. Then some weight lifting, pull-ups and push-ups. I need to see the whole range today."

"God, I wonder how women do it" he grimaced and started stretching. "I always looked at the ladies who did the morning exercises and thought I'd die of boredom if I had to do the same bloody thing every day."

"And then you joined the Army."

"And then I joined the Army, yes. And now I'm playing an overgrown guinea pig."

"Maybe a lab rat" Mike corrected. "You're too lean and mean for a guinea pig. They are cuddly and soft."

"Are you saying I'm not cuddly, doctor Stamford?" John jumped a few times, slapping his hands over his head.

"Not my type" Mike snorted. "But I bet if you asked the girls, they would tell you I am cuddly, and you are more on the... deadly side."

"I'm sure if I made an effort, I could be both cuddly and deadly" John smirked. "You know. Dangerous package - all soft on the surface..."

"...and all killer inside. Like the Monty Python rabbit."

"Oh, so now I'm a rabbit? Thanks."

Mike pressed a few keys and motioned him to the weights and the bench.

"Isn't rabbit better than a lab rat?"

John picked up two small dumbbells and started lifting them above his chest.

"May be. Rabbits I meet tend to be weirder than norm. One actually glowed in the dark."

 

####

 

"So you made some friends in the town?" James raised a cup and John nodded.

"Yes, some nice kids decided they like me better than these idiots who had rented the palace. I think this will be the right place, by the way. No other house had changed hands or was rented long-term recently, and all the others are either empty or have temporary workers inside. Also, these clever men had fired a cleaning crew, comprised mostly of local women."

"Which means there are families in the town now that are simply looking for someone to hear their story."

"And I have provided the right type of ear to have it all related to me. In detail. Also, the cleaning ladies know the house in detail, from cellar to the attic. It's not as good as a blueprint, but they are precise enough. And the community is happy to tell me their woes, because, apparently, I have the right accent..."

Sholto choked on his tea.

"Wait, what?"

"They watch a lot of Bond. Don't ask me. Don't even ask."

"So they think you are an agent...?"
"No, they allowed themselves to be convinced I'm a tourist who speaks with a nice, trustworthy movie accent. I tried not to go too 'grandpa Watson' on them, because that would have been a mistake, and apparently I had hit just the right register to be compared to Sean Connery. Stop laughing, James, this was a perfect stroke of luck."

"So, what are you going to do?"

John pulled out the large printout of one of the waterfront houses.

"I have to get inside, knock the personnel out, fetch the two targets and get out. I have contacted a friend from our last location" he paused and drank his tea in silence for a moment. "He has a perfect solution. The Japanese had developed a compound used to subdue panicking passengers in the underground. It's tasteless, scentless and apparently doesn't have any known side effects. Can be carried in containers the size of a thermos flask and doesn't require high concentration to start having effect. And they gave me a handful of masks that filter it."

"But how are you going to distribute it? It's not like they are going to quietly gather in one room so you can flood it with the gas."

His mouth quirked in a half-smile.

"That would be where the cleaning ladies' intelligence comes in."

 

####

 

"I'll need some more stuff, starting with heat detectors..."

The young soldiers in the storage unit watched him in awe as they took their notes.

"Will you need some climbing equipment? Grappling hook and so on? You need to get to the palazzo on the seaside, right?"

He sent them a withering glare.

"Yes, but I won't be scaling the waterfront, I'm not the bloody Spiderman"

They actually giggled. Like schoolgirls.

Dear Lord, he was much too old for that.

Just this once, Mycroft. This once, I save your hide and the hide of your agent and I hope I can find some adequate way for you to pay me back. A month in some nice, sunny and possibly uninteresting place will be a good start.

 

####

 

"OK, so three days worth of injections go into this cooler case" Mike held up a small insulated bag. "The movement trackers are here, and I've installed the needed recording software on your laptop. Injection every twelve hours, no more than half hour of delay. Nine and nine, that should be easy. No alcohol. No other medicines. No drugs. You can take painkillers, normal daily dose of ibuprofen. Nothing else. Record movement range every time you can. If you are stuck in the room longer, do it hourly. If you go out, just do it any time you can. You know the routine. Record each injection time and reactions, if any. Anything, including smallest twinges of pain, heat, tension. You know the drill."

"Perfectly" he nodded, picking up two boxes and the bag. "I'll be back in three days, or I'll let you know that I'll need another set."

"No problem. I can entertain myself analysing whatever we've managed to collect by now. If I find any definite trend, I'll let you know what you should take into account."

"Let me know in case these trends say that arm is going to fall off without warning. That would be a downer."

"Were you climbing at that point, in more ways than one."

"Ha bloody ha."

 

####

 

He sat at the desk overlooking the bay and observed a group of bumbling blonde haired ladies laughingly tripping all over themselves on the board of a small boat. The girls were all rather lovely, fit and slim, well-padded where needed and dressed in appropriately skimpy costumes.

They were also equipped with earpieces and were happily manoeuvring the boat exactly where he needed it.

"The white-fronted building with seven large windows on the ground floor" he instructed.

"Have it, sir" one of them giggled and ran down to the cabin.

The image on his screen changed, finally showing him the thermal imagery of the house he had been focusing on.

Ah.

"Thank you, ladies, please keep this position, or, if you have to move, keep the focus on that same building. We need recording of as much of their movement as possible."

"Yes, sir. Not a problem. We've got the boat for three days. We could try moving closer, if needed, too. I've observed several more boats just like ours, including one full of what seems to be..."

"A stag night on water, Sesse. Sorry, sir, but she tends to go on so. We can move at least half a click towards the target, if you need better quality."

"Keep at it, ladies, and yes, get closer if you can. Record all the time. Sometimes even the most impossible detail becomes a key. I need as much as I can of that house. Will let me know where to expect everyone. The more we can tell..." he trailed off. "Keep the picture as steady as you can, now. Dear God."

They were consummate actresses, these girls. Only the one at the instruments was showing any kind of thought on her face, and that could have been attributed easily to her being responsible for their not getting thrown into the clear waters of the Boka. The others presented a believably vapid, absent countenance and continued to sun themselves and drink alcoholically-looking liquids from the variety of bottles, just like any other group of out-of-towners barely smart enough to get out of the port.

"Sir, what is it?"

"Go closer and to the left, keep the camera trained on the house, steadily. We will need the ground team to confirm it, but I think we have our man. See the figures on the screen, one of them is spread in a rather unnatural position..."

She made a dismayed sound.

"Sir, I see him. They have him tied to something. Maybe a bedframe? Looks like he is hanging a bit over the floor."

"That would be it, yes. Bedframe or something they had cobbled from whatever discarded wood they had. I suppose the guy is not in any state to try to free himself. Yes, that looks more and more like it. Can't make out the others, but they are all up and about, so I'd guess none of them is the second prisoner."

"Sir, there is one more signal, on the upper floor. I saw it when I was adjusting the position. We are too close to catch all three floors at the same time, but, see, now I've pointed it at the attic."

There was a source, immobile in the middle of the day. By shape, curled up.

Irene.

"Thank you, Lt Stevens. Keep at it until dark, give me as much footage as you can. I have software putting it together into a heatmap of their activity, so the more you can give me, the better."

"But won't our moving around disturb the map?" she was worried, and he felt thankful for it.

"My friends from the US contingent had given me this smart little piece of software that reads your position and adjusts the outcome according to it. If you were closer and moving just outside the house, it could have given us a proper 3D map, what with the floor plan we have would have been even better. This will suffice for now, however. I need you to keep this focused on the ground floor and track if and when they go upstairs. This will give me the window of opportunity to get inside the house, so please do pay attention."

"Yes, sir!"

"Does this mean you'll be climbing into the attic, sir? We can still requisition that grappling hook, if necessary."

"No, I will not be climbing using a hooked rope, like I'm besieging a medieval fortress. Or rescuing a damsel from her tower. No. I will manage this with the equipment I have. Now, you six, good luck."

"Good luck, sir!"
"You know what to do if you get spotted?"

"Sure!"

He fretted at the lack of details but he hoped they really had been properly briefed. They were not in any manner agents or experienced operatives, but they were coping well enough and their input in the surveillance part of the task was enormous. They would be later joining another group, and together they would be hitting the area on foot. Anthea had provided them with a full set of new identities and they played the role of bored, idle socialites to the hilt. They were, supposedly, on a pre-wedding trip for one of them, a prolonged hen-night in a manner of speaking. They were drinking, driving around the tiny city and, as of today, sailing in the bay. The day after they were scheduled to do some walking and photo-shooting, and nobody would be able to recognise that two out of seven cameras carried by the "bridesmaids" would be somewhat more advanced than what a normal tourist would be sporting. They were planning to wear slightly more sophisticated clothes (definitely more than they were wearing right now) and would be posing in different combinations of ladies and supposedly cute objects, using a variety of buildings as their background.

Nobody should notice that one of them would be actually using her camera to record their surroundings constantly. And nobody would know that she was not, in fact, recording their surroundings, but the interior of one specific building.

 

####

 

The best came out of paying attention (and a fortune in small change) to the few disgruntled youngsters whose mothers were in the cleaning crew that had been fired from the mansion. With that one simple action the gang had almost ensured John's success.

The boys had access, due to their mothers' profession, to unused houses all around the area. That included the palazzo two up from the house in question, and that one was sporting an attic and a small tower. When on the next day the women went through that house on their monthly scheduled cleaning, the boys helped them to carry their equipment and cleaning solutions and then scaled the stairs to the tower and, quite blatantly, watched the town from that slightly elevated point. There were four of them in the tower, but at any given time only three were visible. The fourth was busy installing the surveillance equipment according to John's instructions. Once they were satisfied both with the steady picture - from a new angle - and they were reasonably sure the camera was well-hidden, they traipsed down to join their mothers and help them remove the carpets for cleaning outside, thus justifying their presence in the house.

This input was the final piece that John needed. The person at the top of the house had to be Irene. At that proximity and with a stable position, the software could do much fancier things than just adjustments of the distortion to create a heatmap. It could try to assign certain values, like height and weight of person observed, and it was suggesting the person kept upstairs weighted no more than a hundred pounds. Since they had started the surveillance, she had barely moved, but never when other people entered. He had "witnessed" one of the visitors touching her - and more than touching, judging from how he raised his arm repeatedly. He ground his teeth and waited.

Soon, Irene. Soon.

The photos taken by the girls mapped the downstairs in pretty detailed 3D, giving him a good map of their movements during the day. Nobody left the ground floor except whoever was going upstairs to Irene. They were not using the second floor at all, only the ground floor and the attic. Which was very, very good. The fact that nobody was going downstairs, to the cellar, was just perfect.

During the night he got a confirmation of the sleeping arrangements, and they repeated the pattern from daylight hours - all in one place, except for a lone guard on the top floor and one in the kitchen, which had the door facing the side alley.

He was most interested in finding out whether any of them had been using the old and broken bathroom (from the report of the cleaning women, broken longer than they remembered). It was the only room in the house that would be hard to fill with the gas, as it had rather good and heavy door.

All was good. Now was time to plan properly.

And to finally go out there and do the planned walk down the waterfront, talking again to the cafe owners and comparing the pictures from great-gran Aneza's album to the reality. He had to dress properly.

 

####

 

"Mister Anderson?" the boy knocked on his door, whispering throatily. "Mr Anderson, they say there will be a big thing coming later this week. There is another gang that wants to deal with these idiots and they are willing to trade for access to the prisoner. They have an old thing about him, they say."

"He must have pissed of an enormous numbers of people."

"Nataliya from the bakery says the other gang had tried same other thing before, but now they got smarter and they want to trade instead of shooting their way in."

"Good for them" he grumbled, letting the boy in. "When is it going to happen?"

"Natalia didn't hear it, but they said something about waiting for some delivery. Not sure what it was, but they want to make sure the deal is agreed before and they want to pick the guy up after that delivery arrives."

"Did they say anything about the new place they'd be moving him to?"

The boy shook his head.

"But she said they... they said that that man takes it like a girl and so they are planning to see how well he can do that. And that their boss was going to sample that ass."

Argh.

"Thank you... Vitia, right? OK, Vitia. Make sure everyone has their eyes and ears open. I need to know who the new guys are and where they come from, and I need information the moment they seem to be getting any package."

"Sure will, Mr Anderson, sir. What else?"

"Keep out of sight, all of you."

He felt bad for using the kids, but there was no other way. If there were any creatures more ignored in the city than pigeons, these kids were. As long as they didn't loiter in big groups, one or two kids more in any area wouldn't get noticed. And these boys were already skipping school anyway - to help their mothers in their cleaning jobs. The money offered by John for any piece of information had probably by now more than offset the loss they had incurred when they were removed from the palazzo, and he tried to focus on that.

And hopefully if the gang vacated the palazzo, they would have their jobs back and there would be a lot of cleaning to do.

 

####

 

Injection. Temperature check. Local temperature check around the wound. Synchronise the wrist tracker. Put on the tracing markers. Run the software. Do exercise. Record outcome.

Update Mycroft.

He picked up the phone and chose the first number saved.

I've got new intel. Going in tonight.

The second phone, issued on base.

Today, pattern three. Remember to have the female medic ready.

There was no need for confirmation or other explanations.

 

####

 

He spent the evening putting the gear together. Minimising the risk of something slipping, lashing the straps all about him, packing the gas container and the needed tools in their appropriate compartments. He ate a light dinner and sat on the balcony, smoking a pipe (like a proper middle-aged Englishman), watching the colours of the sky shift slightly.

A slight breeze brought the smells of food from nearby eateries and the salty smell of the sea as a background to all of them. It was quiet, but still fascinating.

Boring!

Ah, there he was, yes. Still, after a year and a half, sometimes, when the mood was just so.

Well, hopefully he wouldn't be bored of this one.

Wonder what he would have said about the way I collected the intel. Probably would have logicked out the guard patterns from the way they walk and their using or not using the cellar from their power bills.

Don't be an idiot, John. It's not the power bills, it's the echo on the cellar stairs.

Ah. I stand corrected.

He grinned like a loon. It was time to move.

Chapter Text

It felt good. It felt correct to be able to do this. The Sig Sauer obtained through the channels made available by Rudy and Bill rested comfortably on his back, paired with his own old one - both equipped with silencers. He had concealed a number of other smaller and bigger weapons on his person, not eschewing the Glock handed to him at the base. He didn't want to waste time switching to a different set of movements than the perfectly practised ones, but once he had used up the Sigs, he would have to switch, which could be easier than reloading, if circumstances were bad.

Other contacts among the local "specialists" provided him with means of managing the key parts of a good escape plan, starting with one kid who simply loved manipulating CCTV footage and was more than happy to play with several of the cameras in the vicinity of the building in question, including one that had apparently been already hacked by the criminals themselves. The explanation of what he did - delivered in a rather fluent English - was very detailed, very specific and very much over John's head. The important part was that he had shown up at the appointed spot, at the agreed time and did his magic, allowing John to slip in unnoticed.

The recordings made of the house had provided John with various interesting facts about the inhabitants. They kept the windows tightly shut - how nice of them. They never left the house after ten in the evening. They had one specific van used for deliveries, arriving at regular periods. Even better, his own attempt at direct contact with them went unnoticed and brought him additional intelligence he was putting into use that very evening.

 

####

 

There was someone in the darkened room with her.

Unlike her captors however, the man wasn't moving as if the universe both belonged to him and was rebelling against him, so he had to punish it. He moved with a practised grace, something between a cat and a dancer, not touching any of the objects littering the room.

She didn't move when a gloved finger was placed on her lips.

"Can you walk?"

The voice was soft, the accent unmistakably British. There was something like a feeling - or a general idea - that he was actually interested in her state, not only for practical purposes. She nodded slightly, then shrugged.

"Did they break any bones?"

She shook her head minutely.

"Can you breathe comfortably?"

She presented the state of her respiratory system and winced when a flash of pain ran up her shoulder.

"Ah. So, bruises? Lacerations? Burns?"

She nodded to all three.

"Stay here and let me find something to cover you."

Soon he was helping her up and there was a large, mostly clean sheet being wrapped around her, akin to an ancient Greek dress.

"Can't find any clothes for you, I'm afraid, Miss Adler" he whispered. "But we can remedy this as soon as we get out of here. Now, if you could look here..." he flashed a tiny light in her eyes. "Follow my fingers... very well. I need to check your skull..."

A pair of dexterous hands swiftly combed through her unevenly shorn hair, touching lightly.

"Bone intact, no signs of potential head trauma" he said in low voice, as if narrating findings for hospital notes. "Lacerations on the skull, I'm guessing mostly from blades..."

"They didn't hit me on the head" she finally answered, as softly as he spoke. Her throat burned. "The blades you've guessed correctly."

"Had to make sure" he explained, checking her fingers and wrists, now in silence. "Very well. You can take this" he handed her one of the handguns she had just noticed tucked into his belt. "It has a few rounds left, but do try not to waste them, Miss Adler."

"I think you can safely call me Irene. After all, you have seen as much of me as there is to see."

She tried banter. She needed banter. She craved a bit of levity. Normalcy. Relief from the oppressive silence that marked the days of her captivity between the sessions which she would have rather forgotten, if she could. As he looked up at her, she saw his eyes meet hers and one of his eyebrows went up - which she could now see even in the dimness of the room, as he had removed the band covering his forehead and was using it to wipe the sweat off the exposed parts of his face.

"If so, then I could have started calling you so from the moment I first visited your parlour in Belgravia."

This brought her thoughts to a halt.

"Who are you?" she asked softly, placing a hand on his wrist, as he went through a bag of what was clearly medical supplies.

"Today? Your driver out of hell. But conditionally, I'm afraid. I'll need your help - and so, first I have to help you."

She nodded slowly, watching as he pulled out a package of bandage and bowed to bind her left wrist.

"Why..."

"You're left-handed. They managed to do a number on your hand and I need you to be able to shoot and, when time comes, to help me with the man downstairs. No idea what state he is in, but they were pretty sure he won't be able to walk. I don't have an orthosis that I could give you to stabilise that wrist, but if I wrap it up, you shouldn't be in much pain for the next few hours."

She looked, fascinated, as he clasped the bandage closed with tiny steel-and-elastic closures.

"And after that?"

He shrugged.

"After that we'll either be safely on a military base or so dead we won't care."

"Who are you?"

He sighed in annoyance.

"An army major. British. A medic. And a person who collects favours. At this point, I'm raking up a fortune in IOUs from some really interesting people."

She watched cautiously as he put band-aids on the most obvious lacerations.

"So... someone is paying you to retrieve me?"

"No, they are officially paying me to retrieve the MI6 operative downstairs. You... well. Let's say I'm counting on the reputation of The Woman in a way. If, one dark day, I need your help, I might just turn up on your doorstep."

She snorted.

"You don't sound like someone who would need my brand of services. But, should you ever seek it..."

"I will know who to call. But don't worry. I'd rather not use it, actually. Just having it and knowing that you know... Good enough for me."

She frowned and tried to follow his line of reasoning.

"You feel it will be better if I owe you... even if you don't actually mean to collect?"

She felt him shrug and then he pulled her to her feet.

"Exactly that. Now, this blanket is a bit darker than that sheet, so you can throw it over yourself - less visible in the shadows. Not much we can do about your feet, so let's hope I haven't left any broken glass lying around. Now. Your gun, here. Try to actually make use of it, but only when you are perfectly sure you can hit them. And stay close to me, we are on a deadline."

"What deadline?"

He looked back at her and sighed.

"The guy downstairs? We have no idea how long he will stay well enough to be brought back. Also, if we don't hurry, our carriage will turn into a pumpkin, and I don't think we can pull off wandering to the next pickup point with you in a sheet and him... in whatever we manage to find for him."

"You have a getaway car, but it will have to be removed before... what?"

"Before their delivery van is planned to arrive. Or they will notice how I've buggered their CCTV. The looped footage only works when whoever is watching it is not actually expecting something to show up. We've checked their movements over the last days and the corner I chose was the best from both the distance and the security point of view, but it doesn't mean it can be used forever."

"You've been spying on them for how long?"

"Five days in total. Two before we identified the right building. Being able to play a completely oblivious, bumbling Scottish tourist helps. Recruiting local boys' help, too."

"They are rather wary of new faces..."

"If someone is looking for suave, sophisticated, internationally known dominas. Not if the face is attached to short, plump, badly dressed, limping, middle-aged blond dimwit with a heavy accent and penchant for jammy toast. One of their guards spilt my coffee all over my favourite jumper and had to help my very distressed self over to the next cafe - apparently ran by his aunt - to help me clean up. I managed to slip a number of little trackers and microphones onto him in the process. He is still carrying five of them right now."

She felt her heart skip a beat.

"Doctor Watson" she hissed and he turned to her again, his eyes crinkling as he probably smiled under the face mask.

"Very well, Miss Adler. Now, should we proceed?"

"By all means, sir. But... major?"

"Field promotion. To trump the local guys. Anything else?"

"Do you know who is downstairs?"

"Ten guards, two mid-level operatives of the local gang and, by my guess, at least two from competition who are bargaining now for access to their prisoner."

"I meant, do you know who the prisoner is?"

He shrugged.

"Someone for whom Mycroft Holmes now owes me a pretty big personal favour. I still can't think of when I'm going to collect on it, but I'm sure it will come to me one day."

She swallowed, the feeling of dread making her fingers go a little numb.

"Doctor... John. If I'm correct..."

"It is someone you know, right? I more than understand what it means to see your loved ones or friends hurt. Don't worry. I bargained for your relative freedom and they had guaranteed all kinds of medical treatment, so if you need help coping with this... well, you are kind of a professional in a similar field yourself, but still. I'm sure the Crown will provide you whatever is needed."

"No, John. I mean, this may affect you, too."

She really tried to make him understand, but he was looking at her with these bright, wide, blue eyes and just wasn't getting it. And there was no way she was brave enough to just tell him right then and there.

Oh, my. Sherlock, what have you done?

"Well, my shrink will be happy to earn his money, won't he? He managed to put me together after..." he swallowed and closed his eyes for a moment. "After Sherlock. This shouldn't be that hard this time 'round. After all, I don't really know any MI6 employees, so it's not that probable that I know the guy, unless he's someone I met by accident when I visited Mycroft's offices once or twice all that time ago."

I hope we get you out of here alive, Sher, so I can have a chance to throttle you myself.

I'm also not sure about your brother's continued existence once your sweet John learns he had been manipulated.

 

#

 

The corridor outside of "her" room was deserted, where she felt it should have been littered by hastily-killed corpses.

"I couldn't leave him just lying around, now could I?" he shrugged, tracking her glance. "There was only one, and he is secured, don't worry. If he is lucky, he will stay alive long enough for someone to come and collect him. Now, we have about an hour and a half before the scheduled van is supposed to show up on the cameras, so let's be efficient and move."

Still, as they descended, he didn't, to her surprise, immediately enter the ground floor corridor, but kept going lower, not meeting anyone on their way.

"I don't want to do anything that would be visible from the outside, and we must shoot only as a last resort. But I have a few surprises they will not be prepared for..."

A small door just under the stairs opened into a tiny room that seemingly contained mostly a range of semi-transparent tubes with hinged openings. She pulled the door closed behind them at his request and watched as he unpacked another section of his bag.

"We know that this mansion was deemed 'modern' at some point - and one reason was this wonderful little system that goes all around the house. Pneumatic post. With a bit of appropriately applied gas and a small change of pressure..." he handed her a mask "...we can put them all to sleep without even touching them. We don't have a perfect way of verifying how it went, so we'll have to count on our luck and some of the gear I got equipped with. Saturating the system with something I got from my Japanese friends will take a minute or two, but then it is an extremely fast-working product, so they should all collapse almost at the same time. Unless they are wearing masks - and they shouldn't be, they are not prepared for that option, at least judging by lack of marks on their faces - we should be OK in three minutes. Upper floor will be less saturated, of course, but as the tubes go to every room..."

He quickly opened a capped cylinder and fitted a long hose to it. Pushing a lever somewhere on the small control board, he fed the hose into the system of tubes.

"Now, turn the red lever ninety degrees to the left, please" he nodded to her. "I have to keep the stupid thing steady and tape it up to make sure it stays in place when we leave."

The cellar was quiet and the hissing of escaping gas sounded almost deafening to her. She shivered and pulled the blanket tighter around herself.

"How are you feeling?" he asked, not even turning to look at her.

"Bit shaky" she admitted. "I may be running a fever."

"You are. I'd say around thirty nine-ish. You're dehydrated, judging by the state of your skin, and some of the skin damage is probably infected. Do you have a history of hallucinating when feverish?"

"N-no...?"

"Good. I knew people who were absolutely rubbish when sick, just because they saw stuff. You're lucid enough, and I hope we can get you into the car before you collapse. Until then, I have to count on you keeping up and being a stubborn..."

"Bitch."

"Well, you said it. Still, even with fever and your wrists, I'd say you're better off than that guy they are keeping. From what MI6 told me, they've been feeding him local candy and interspersing his highs and lows with showing him scenes of you being tortured. That's how they knew you were here - someone actually uploaded one of their sessions outside by accident."

"Idiots..." she mumbled.

"Not that incompetent, if they managed to capture both you and someone from our own MI6. Still, they aren't prepared for everything... Please, take the goggles that are in my front pocket and put them on me. I'll check what are the heat signatures upstairs."

She quickly complied, bringing the more-than-just-goggles to rest on his nose and pulled the elastic back. He turned slowly, looking up and down, as if watching through the ceiling.

"I see nine... no, ten bodies down. One still up, and I suppose that may be our prisoner - he is strung up on some kind of rack, from what we could see. Two still sitting up, but they look as if they slumped over... Uh-oh."

"I hate uh-oh."

"Quite right, too. Two are still moving. And it seems like they are moving towards my target. OK, time to move. Take this" he handed her one more mask. "I'll deal with them, you put it on the prisoner and try to untie him, or unchain, whatever it is that they did to keep him there. I'll be on a lookout in care there are more mobile ones. Don't take off your mask, under any circumstances, until we are safely outside. Maybe not even then, who knows what these two were prepared for."

"Ah. You assume that they also have protective gear, so they must have been planning something similar?"

He shrugged and finally placed the gas cylinder on a small shelf by the tubes, having used up half a roll of isolation tape to ensure the hose stayed in position.

"Now that it started working, we can leave it like this. It should be enough to make sure it stays in the system. We need to intervene before these two take our prize. Follow me."

As they slithered up the stairs, she observed.

The figure in front of her was mostly bone, sinew and muscle, obviously. Dressed in clinging, stretchy matte black, laced with smaller and bigger belts, two small bags and a backpack, he was compact deadliness. The range of weapons he had armed himself with seemed a bit random, but she could guess he had collected some of them from the bandit he had incapacitated upstairs. The way he moved was nothing like the slightly stiff, very milk-in-his-tea British GP she had met - and even if at the time she had detected slightly more than just his Doctor Watson side, she only expected a bit more depth in what was so obvious - a retired soldier, an injury, a fascination with his flashy younger friend. He hid in the shadow of Sherlock Holmes' brilliance, providing a comic relief, a Greek choir, an everyman to Sherlock's genius. He was the blogger, the storyteller, the... she stumbled and was caught by a strong, albeit not so big hand, supporting her shoulder.

"Tell me the moment you feel even a bit faint, Irene" he growled and a shiver ran through her.

The saviour, apparently, too, now.

With more layers than she had ever expected.

Apparently she had been as distracted by Sherlock Holmes as he was by her at the time. That could have been dangerous. She would have to rethink all her interactions with the small medic from that perspective.

The ground floor looked like the Sleeping Beauty's castle. There were men draped over various pieces of furniture - even a gun rack in one case - and Watson quickly collected all the visible handguns, handing her additional one and placing as many as he could on his own person. She partially expected him to start clanging on every step, but - probably magically - he strapped them in such a way that they didn't make a noise. From time to time he pulled the goggles back to his eyes and checked the situation around them.

"They are trying to untie him, but I think the gas had managed to hit them at least partially, they are moving slowly and with obvious lack of coordination. Now, I will get rid of them - can't do much about that - and you secure the guy's breathing. Once he has a few lungfuls of clean air, he should start coming to, unless they managed to do too much damage."

The room where the prisoner was kept was an absolute jumble of various electrical implements, knifes, electronics, handguns, whips and other accessories she knew quite well - although the ones she used in her work were much cleaner, much better kept and, in case of an array she saw in front of the large flat TV - much smaller in calibre. She shuddered in revulsion at the thought of someone using part of that array on the detective.

The TV was on, but set to DVD, which was apparently empty, as the screen was blue. The light it threw on the scene in front of them was eerie, bordering on creepy. The two men, faces covered with big, unwieldy military style masks, were trying to cut the prisoner's ropes, but apparently had less luck than needed for such operation. Their coordination was, in fact, shot to hell, so Watson's guess about them being affected by the gas must have had some truth in it.

A small, snappy sound of a silencer-fitted gun made the two fold down quietly, if not entirely without adding to the general ghastly decor of the room by enriching it with spurts of blood. Despite that, and her slightly wobbly legs, she scurried forward and slapped the mask on Sherlock Holmes' face, bringing the elastic around his roughly-shaved, lacerated head. Picking up the knife from one of the assailants was the obvious next step, and as Watson guarded the door, she made short work of the ropes holding the prisoner in place. As the prisoner slumped forward, she grunted with effort to keep him up. A strong pair of hands joined hers and soon, the capable doctor was holding the emaciated body and she cut the ankle ropes.

"OK, they should be down for at least... bloody Christ. They did a number on him, definitely. Let's put him on something softer..."

Fortunately, there was a bedspread thrown carelessly over one of the sofas, and it seemed dry and clean to touch, so they pulled the man flat onto it, cushioning his body from contact with the ground. Watson started with the abrasions on the prisoner's wrists, so she did the same with the feet.

"His legs look weird" she commented, blinking away the unladylike sweat dripping from her short-cut fringe. "They might have cut something in his calves, but he's just so covered in blood, I can't say. He isn't conscious anyway, so walking is out of question."

"I'd say. Blood loss" he tsk-ed. "This room looks like a butcher's shop and that was even before we came here. We're lucky we're in the masks, I suppose. All right. Let me check the ribs. If they broke these, and we get a lung puncture..."

Watson's hands were quick and efficient. After checking the ribcage, he carefully touched the skull, checking for bumps, murmured at the cuts on the shaved scalp. Slowly, slowly, he traced down the spine.

"All OK here" he sighed. "At least until we can get him to the base and into a CT, I'd say I don't see a risk of spinal injury. Both wrists broken. Multiple fractures of both hands... clavicle, two places. Fingers. Goddamn, this guy is not going to play violin any time soon."

Irene stiffened.

"He a musician?"

"Amateur, but really good."

"Will need therapy. Rebreaking of half of these and setting them right. Then exercise, a lot. Physio. Months. At least the joints look fine, well, not wrists... and ankles, either. Fuck. Knees look fine. Hips... damn" he inhaled and turned away, clenching his fists for a moment.

"Did they..."

"Definitely. I'd say, if he survives and remembers, I hope whoever is waiting for him at home is patient and kind, because this guy is going to need serious help."

"I'm sure once he gets home to his loved ones, he will be cared for."

"M-hm. Well, people tend to forget... PTSD, you know. Not a piece of cake to deal with. Poor guy."

"Can we stabilise him somehow right now? Anything to do to make sure he doesn't get worse?"

Watson was already unrolling a piece of bandage and wrapping the poor, damaged wrists.

"This, ankles, and a shot of wide spectrum antibiotics. They could have infected him..."

Their eyes widened.

"Antiviral, too" she added quickly. "They were..."

"And one for you, Irene. Should have though about that earlier" he cringed and picked two more pre-prepared syringes from his small flat kit. "Your arm, it will be the best."

They quietly completed the wrapping of their rescue's joints and Watson sprayed basic disinfectant on the bigger wounds. However when it came to an injection, the man seemed to be covered with needle tracks, so they had to roll him over and administer the set to his abused backside.

"They had whipped him" Watson swallowed with an effort. "And..."

"And everything. Everything. They were happy to share. Delighted in their cruelty. Not very proficient in English, but 'show and tell' worked well enough for me to get the gist. They were..."

"Well, at least I'm not seeing any signs on internal bleeding or of an overdose. Blood loss and exhaustion would be my bet for now. He probably is on something, but if so, the dose was reasonable, thankfully. His heartbeat is strong and he is breathing, so I'm guessing they weren't planning to simply off him just yet. Help me to cover him, because what he will have problems with is body temp, soon."

They rolled him up in the duvet, using bits of rope to hold the cocoon together and Irene had collected pillows from scattered bedrolls on the floor, pushing some around his head to cushion it.

Watson raised a small communication device to his lips and pressed a side button.

"I have the agent and the associate. And we have about fifteen minutes until the next guard change. Have team ready at the base, and we will be heading to the heli number four" he turned it off without waiting for a response and stood up, stretching. "Time's almost up. Come on, Irene, let's not be heroes."

She propped up Sherlock, hoping quietly he would not wake up and say anything.

"Why not?"

"Heroes tend to wind up dead. It's the scoundrels that end up with a pretty girl."

"I'm all for being a live scoundrel then."

"Then up, OK, take the second one, with the silencer, I will take that supposed professional, and let's git."

One doesn't simply walk out of the front door of a mafia house, but it seemed that the side door was guarded by a CCTV camera Watson had meddled with. They marched out through the kitchen, the 'prisoner' carefully placed over Watson's shoulders in an effortless, almost no-hands carry. There was nothing and nobody directly in front of the door - this time she was handling the night vision goggles - so they marched quickly towards the corner where the car had been parked.

She rarely prayed, but at the sight of an armoured (discreetly) SUV she felt the need to praise some gods, if there were any available to be praised. She forcibly repressed the thought and helped Watson to place their rescue on the backseat of the SUV, secured by the seatbelts and the pillows she had scavenged, and climbed into the passenger seat. Watson shortly joined her and started the engine, rolling away on low gear. He threw a bag in her direction and she pulled a pair of sweats and a long-sleeved t-shirt from it. Without pausing to think she pulled both on, kicking the sheet and the blanket to the floor in front of her, burying her bare feet in them.

"Now, we have only to leave the town and there will be a helicopter waiting" he said with a gust of air.

It had been apparently a very bad thing to say on a night like that one, because the moment they took a corner, something behind them exploded with shots and their car made an unexpected swerve.

"What the fuck was that?" she asked, looking over her shoulder at Sherlock.
"That was someone in a better-aired room. Or the canister running empty. I'll have to report this to the guys who gave me that prototype. Very efficient, masks work perfectly. Delivery method sucks."

"Can we get away?"

"I'm trying to!"

The ride was an absolute nightmare. There seemed to be an unending supply of small, terribly old cars following them, even up to the last minute, when they burst into an airstrip where a nondescript helicopter was waiting, engine warm and the blades slowly circling. The way Watson drove she actually expected to be almost thrown directly inside the heli, but she managed a dignified jump out of the freshly immobile car. She posed herself at the head of their passenger and picked it up together with the pilot's second, just as John freed his feet from the seatbelt.

"I hope we didn't add concussion to the whole mess" he said, pulling the man into the tiny cabin. "Could be hard to treat in his condition..."

The second pilot jumped back inside, shutting the steel door at the last minute and they were in the air. A few shots clanged into the undercarriage and the heli jumped a few times in the air, but in minutes they were outside of range of petty handguns.

The prisoner moved and Watson held his head higher, frowning.

Then the eyes opened and she saw the kind doctor quietly shrinking into the wall beside him.

The eyes closed again and John curled up on himself, side pressed into that wall, face ashen and hands curled up at his chest in a curiously pained manner.

"Did you know?" he asked hoarsely at last.

"I tried to warn you" she said simply. "I know I wasn't clear enough, but, John..."

"Did you know all this time?" he demanded.

"Ah, no. I only learnt three weeks ago, when we met at one of the clubs in Zagreb. I must confess I slapped him. At least three times."

"I would have punched him, if it was me."

"Well, his head snapped backwards in a very satisfactory manner when I slapped him. It felt good."

"I wish I had seen this" he whispered, voice breaking on the last word.

"John..."

"Please don't talk to me right now, Miss Adler. We have twenty minutes to landing and I will have to switch to the surgeon mode then. I need all my resources."

She pursed her lips as he sat with his head hanging between his knees, breathing deeply and slowly. After a few minutes he straightened and started to massage his left shoulder, grimacing.

"How are you feeling?" he asked finally, voice devoid of any actual interest. "When we land and someone can check you in more detail, they will give you something for the fever, but until I'm sure you don't have internal bleeding, I don't want to risk giving you aspirin - or anything stronger."

She nodded, her head pounding by now, but she knew better than to take something that would make her blood even thinner.

"Water?" she managed to ask finally.

A bottle from his pack was rolled towards her immediately and she caught it in unsteady hands. Uncapping was slow and challenging, but the blessed feeling of moisture in her mouth was like a small orgasm.

"Him?" she asked, nodding towards Sherlock and his head lolling loosely.

"IV in ten minutes. If we tried to give him water, he'd choke now."

"Wash his face?"

"Can't say what is what. Better have a nurse and an antiseptic for it. Wouldn't want to wash dirt into his..." he breathed hard. "Into his eyes."

"They look inflamed."

"We'll need to make sure they didn't... basically, whatever we can think of, they already did. You saw the..."

"Yes."

"You, too?"

"Yes."

He swallowed hard.

"And you allowed me to touch you...?"

She shook her head minutely.

"Different. They did... You didn't start by hitting me."

"I suppose it didn't cross my mind to hit a woman who had undergone torture."

"Improvement over them."

"Nice to hear that."

He reached out and stabilised the detective's free movement. Removing the mask was a moment and they could check the bruised and bloodied face they both knew so well.

"Thinner than ever" he said.

"Looked better three weeks ago."

"Mycroft said they weren't torturing him to get intel, but just to kill him. Probably withheld water, too" he assessed clinically. "Knocked out a tooth. And he has... What the fuck is that?"

She shuffled up towards him, looking down at where he pointed with his tiny flashlight.

"Pinpricks... around his eyes. They..." he swallowed with effort.

"They injected something into his eyes" she grimaced and pressed her own eyes shut as they itched with sympathy.

His hand on her shoulder, pulling her closer and into his chest, didn't feel oppressive or demanding. It felt like an open offer, which she took. They sat huddled on the floor of the helicopter, ignoring the pull to one side as it approached the landing spot and small shudder of the actual landing.

"Major Watson?" someone opened the door and was shouting to be heard over the still-working blades. "We have medical teams ready for both of your patients. Miss Adler? Are you able to walk on your own? Doctor Piotrowska will take you to your room."

She felt Watson nod and reluctantly let go of Sherlock's hand.

"I will check on you as soon as I'm done with him. Maria will take care of you until then."

"Did you have a female doctor found specially for me?" she asked quietly, inching her way towards the helicopter door.

"That was one of the conditions" he said simply, helping her down the stepladder. "Captain, Miss Adler is mobile, but running high fever" he said to the small brunette waiting at the bottom. "She needs fluids, antibiotics for the skin infection and..."

Irene nodded and shrugged.

"Internal check-up and whatever else I can think of" the other doctor finished smoothly, her accent obvious, but not affecting Irene's ability to understand. "Would you accompany me, Miss Adler? I have everything ready, based on Doctor Watson's prediction..."

"If I could just..." she looked as a pair of aides with a stretcher approached and helped Watson move Sherlock from the heli floor to secure position, snapping long belts over his thin frame. She saw his head roll back and his eyes open, and even over the noise of the blades she heard his weak, surprised cry. Seeing Watson squeeze his eyes shut, she was at the stretcher in a blink. "Sherlock? Sherlock, can you hear me?"

"...ene?"

"Yes, Irene. Sherlock, we are in a military base. Taking you to a hospital. Do you understand?"

"pital"

"Yes, hospital. Very well. Do you remember when they gave you the last dose?"

He shivered and from the corner of her eye she saw Watson breathe in and finally turn towards them.

"fore. clients."

"Before the clients came? The ones from the rival gang?"

"mhm"

She looked up and met Watson's gaze as he finally undid the mask - he had apparently forgotten he had it on all that time - and unwrapped the layers of black scarves keeping his neck from exposure. He nodded and briskly walked away, the aides with the stretcher following him.

"Miss Adler?" doctor Piotrowska was at her elbow. "What was...?"

"He still has the drugs in his blood. If they take a sample quickly enough..." she wavered in her step. "Oh."

"Let's get you in the car" the woman steered her towards a small jeep on the side. "You need a shower, a checkup, an IV with fluids and" she looked up "a haircut. Which order would you prefer?"

"Fluids and checkup" Irene said morosely, folding herself into the seat. "Then I can take that shower. If it's hot."

"That much I can promise you. Hot water we have in abundance."

"Haircut sounds nice, too."

The younger woman smiled and started the car.

"There is a hairdresser in town who can go magic with her scissors. I'll call for her to come tomorrow."

"I think I may just fall in love with you."

"Oh, we'll see what you say once I get your fever down."

"I may actually propose."

"I may actually accept."

She needed this. It wasn't high quality, it wasn't anything near to her usual standard. But doctor Maria was smiling, so Irene smiled, too. And the promise of a painkiller, a shower and, especially, antibiotics, was making her a bit high on endorphins.

And doctor Maria was the nice kind of not-so-slim, not-so-tall, sandy-blonde and maybe-interested that somehow seemed rather attractive to Irene right now.

Chapter Text

There was a voice in his head, telling him to stay with them - them who? - and that he was going to be fine - what was wrong with him? There were hands holding his, strong, stocky, warm hands checking his pulse and slowly opening and closing his fists for some reason. There were slim, slightly cooler hands that sometimes held him, too, touching his wrist and very slowly stretching his fingers.

The voice sometimes changed. He preferred vastly when it was a tenor - the tenor that sounded like a spoon dipped into a jar of honey, like cold water being poured into a cup, like crispiness of a freshly toasted slice of bread. Like a woollen blanket all around him.

The alto that sometimes replaced it brought the memory of swish of leather, of a tapping of a high heel on a concrete floor, of a silk stocking snapping in strong fingers. Alto didn't encourage him, but berated.

Voices were playing 'good cop bad cop' with him, obviously.

He really wanted the tenor to come back. It had been much too long. Alto was again cutting him into shreds with its reproachful tones. He must have done something very wrong for the voice to be that angry at him.

The tenor was back. It was telling him to be brave, to come back, to take another breath, to move his fingers - there was a hand pressing on them, but he had no strength to push against it. The tenor wasn't surprised, but it still insisted. It told him that he had to try and that there were people waiting for him. Then a warm hand touched his cheek. A rough pad of the thumb traced his cheekbone, then his upper lip.

He found it a bit disquieting that the tenor was there and was telling him all these sweet things. He felt he deserved punishment, like the alto said. There was something he did, something terrible, but he couldn't remember what it was.

 

#

 

People were talking on the corridor. He tried focusing on the source of sounds and stretching a bit at the same time. The way his hands were tied over...

Wait a minute.

Beeps. Someone breathing.

His hands were free, and down, and covered by some kind of coolant.

Experimentally, he tried moving his fingers. They hurt.

Everything hurt, more or less. From his eyes, which seemed to be swollen and hot, to his toes. He tested the toes, and the did seem to be moving. Fortunately.

"Sherlock? I've notified the nurses that you were waking, one had just left to inform the doctors."

Woman's voice. The alto. Hand holding his fingers. He tested the fingers again, tapping each against her wrist separately.

"Ok, can you talk? 'Yes' for a yes, two taps for a no."

He tried, swallowing a bit, his throat dry and inflamed.

He tapped twice.

"Hurts? Or you just can't talk? One for hurt, two for can't speak."

He tapped once.

"Problems breathing?"

He tested and although his ribs smarted and it seemed as if he was unable to fill his lungs to full capacity, still, he could breathe almost comfortably.

Two taps.

"Do you want me to tell you where you are?"

One tap.

"We are in a military base, on the border between Croatia and Italy. We've been... transported from Dobrota by the British military. An... operative had liberated us from the place where we were held, and took us out of town. We are waiting for your results now, and he..."

The door opened somewhere, with a resounding crack, and he felt her jolt.

"Not acceptable! They took the samples the moment we landed, how the fuck could they have gone missing?"

That voice.

"But, major..."

"I. Don't. Care. Search for them. Or you can try sending a team to that house and retrieving a sample of the drug itself. Oh, wait. You can't. Because some abysmal idiot ordered the house to be stormed by even bigger idiots and fucking managed to have the whole thing burnt to fucking ground!"

It had to be John. The amount of sheer vulgarity, combined with that special only-John-Watson way of holding his breath and expelling it when enraged. The little pauses between sentences when the fury switched into a higher gear.

"Now, either you find out who managed to bugger the simple task of properly storing the fucking samples and get them to find the lost ones, or you go back to that benighted town and dig some new ones up yourself from the ruins, and pray they will help us in any way to judge his condition!"

"Yes, sir."

It couldn't be John. The way he spoke, the way the others were addressing him. It all screamed of wrongness. It had to be John, but it couldn't. John was in London. John was sitting in his chair, with his tea and stupid TV shows or mindnumbing car chase movies. John was milk, and biscuits, and jumpers and the smell of laundry detergent.

This place stank of disinfectant, with undertone of blood, pain, fear and unpalatable food.

He couldn't accept the reality in which John was not at home. John wasn't supposed to be in danger. John wasn't supposed to be in the army ever again. John had already done all and more than was asked of him. John had sacrificed his health for others. This time it was supposed to be the other way round. It was supposed to be him for John.

"He carried you out" Irene said in a momentary lull, as the voices at the end of the corridor were reduced to very angry muttering. "He first made sure I could walk abd I helped him get you and then he carried you on his own shoulders and drove us out to the heli."

Carried him? John?

Shoulder s ?

Suddenly the voices in the corridor changed their tone.

"...you are here. Perfect. I will be leaving with the next transport."

"But, the treatment, major?"

Mycroft. No. I want John.

John can't leave.

"The doctors here can continue it, and then you can move him to the facility in Zurich. They have great results dealing with... This kind of crap. Here, we've been keeping him doped up to make sure he doesn't seize, but who knows what that shit was cut with and what kind of prolonged damage it might have done to him. And someone managed to bugger sample storage, so you can probably use your power to light fire under a few seats, because right now we have no idea what the ingredients really were - unless you have collected samples of their goods from before. If he managed not to develop direct psychological link to that specific substance, replacing it with less toxic ones will obviously help with alleviating the direct dependence, once he is fully up - like we are doing right now with morphine. And from there it's again the same old road. You know that just as well as I do, Holmes. You also know that I may be a surgeon and a GP, but I've never been good at treating addictions. Including my own. So don't try to make me responsible for treating someone else's. Especially not in this situation. Not with a patient who can't trust me, rather obviously. No. No discussion, you can read the records. I am barely awake and I really wish to finally sleep in my own bed today. You can inform Miss Adler that should she wish to have my company on the flight to England, I will be leaving in three hours. It's not like he would want me to be here anyway. I know perfectly well I can't be trusted with life-changing secrets, unlike people he really feels close to. I'm not going to bother him anymore. You can tell him as much."

"John..." he heard his brother cry out, but he could envision the tight posture and the mutinous set of John's shoulders as he marched away down some unknown corridor, so fast that he left a long-legged Holmes man behind, unable to catch up.

He tightened his hold on her fingers.

"I can't stay, Sherlock" she squeezed back. "The local authorities accept my temporary... presence, as I'm held on the military base, but they will soon demand my removal to the local prison. If I go to London, MI6 will take me in and..." he felt her move and he guessed she shrugged. "At least some comforts are guaranteed. I prefer my prison guards to at least speak proper Queen's English. And the locals make really lousy tea."

He licked his lips and made an effort.

"John."

She squeezed his fingers again.

"He won't talk to you now, Sherlock. I'm afraid you... you might have actually broken him. Physically, he's better than I've ever seen him - live or on surveillance - but inside... If you weren't so sick, I'd have slapped you again for doing this to your sweet doctor, you know? He had spent the last three weeks sitting with you - unless I kicked him out so that he showered and changed. Talked himself hoarse, too. He oversaw all thirteen of your surgeries in the first week. I've heard him say a lot since, and you, Sherlock Holmes, are in for a good trashing, once you're up to it."

He knew. Tiniest of nods used up his all energy.

He broke John. He knew, obviously, that his "death" would affect John, but somehow, hearing Irene of all people talking to him, scolding him, made it much more real, brought it into light. He broke John, plain and simple. John was here, and John had saved them - her words were an involuntary confirmation of his guesses. But John didn't want to stay - wouldn't stay, was going to leave the minute he could. And Mycroft showing up gave John all the justification he needed. John was handing him over to his true family, to the person that John felt Sherlock trusted. And it was all his own fault.

Well, Mycroft's too.

Brother, you have the worst timing in the world. Couldn't you have waited one day more?

"I will stay with you until the plane is ready to leave. I'm afraid that going with him is the only guarantee that I will actually receive a proper, honest treatment. Your brother will make sure you survive this shit, but I need Watson to make sure they don't stick me in the Tower, or extradite me to some unpleasant place."

"Go" he whispered finally, seeing the truth of her fears.

"No, I'm fine now, here. John will be back to fetch me before he leaves, I'm sure."

"He will, Miss Adler."

He felt her tense.

Piss off, Mycroft.

"Please leave us for a moment, Miss Adler. I need to speak to my brother alone."

He held her hand tighter.

"He doesn't want me to leave."

Mycroft sighed and moved a chair closer to the bed.

"How are you, brother?"

"He can't speak. His throat hurts too much."

"Ah. A perfect occasion then. Brother, as soon as the doctors are sure of your continued progress, you will be transported to a secure facility in Switzerland. I know it's rather cliche, but they do have a great program of mental and physical rehabilitation, and they don't enforce the idea of group sessions being applicable to everyone. Also, they do not preach twelve step or other programs you had so openly scorned over the years. You see the benefit of that approach, I suppose. You will have to spend some time here, still, but once you are properly stabilised and able to survive flight, they will airlift you to Zurich and your treatment will be continued there. I hope you will not make the life of everyone there harder than necessary. I will have your things sent from Baker Street as soon as Anthea can tear herself away from the current mini-crisis in the City. I suppose having your books and violin may help alleviate some boredom that is to be expected in a place like that."

He forced his lips to curl up in a grimace.

"Eyes" he whispered hoarsely. "Can't see."

They were silent, for just a moment. He could imagine them, Irene sitting - probably in some kind of military getup, since her own things had been part of the trap set for him - and Mycroft standing, playing with his umbrella, and both of them exchanging a quick glance.

A chair was moved and his brother sat down, rather heavily.

"They were sticking needles in them" Irene said finally. "You have swelling everywhere around your lids, and inflammation in the vicinity of the optic nerves. The doctors are pumping you full of various kinds of antibiotics, and counting on the fact that the nerves themselves seem undamaged. Once they get the swelling under control, you should be able to see again. It's been long, I know, but you've had some setbacks in that time, and saving your life took precedence over..."

"Needles?" he swallowed with revulsion. Needles close to his brain, not so good. Needles were fine in veins, in arms, basically, everywhere possible, but never around his brain. He would agree to an occasional shot of analgesic in case of a more intensive dental work, but that already seemed way too close to his centre of operations. Needles - maybe dirty, maybe covered with the product they were selling - stuck in his eyes, that seemed like the stuff of nightmares.

"You are on three different IVs of highly potent antibiotics, each of rather wide spectrum, and also one antiviral. Just in case, brother dear, until they make sure the needles were only simply filthy. The test results are fine, for the time being, but there is always a risk..."

He swallowed, his inflamed throat an agony of dryness. Irene's hand left his and he felt a straw touching his bruised lips. The water was cool, but thankfully not icy cold.

"John?"

Again, the silence. The same silence of looks being exchanged and Irene and Mycroft sharing something without him being able to observe. The most hateful type of silence he could think of.

"Doctor Watson has deemed his job to be done once he saw me. I must admit, I'm not perfectly sure he should have, but on the other hand, I do understand his reticence. He had been very accommodating and had handled your rescue in an incredibly efficient fashion. The subsequent explosion in the house had, unfortunately, brought the case into the public view, but we've managed to cover it, in cooperation with the local government, as a case of a drug preparation incident. Criminals eliminating themselves, as it were."

"Sherlock, John wants to go back to London and continue his normal work" Irene again, touching his hand. "He did seem willing to talk to you after the helicopter ride, but I'm afraid that was only as long as you were... I've texted him a moment ago that you're awake and he just texted me back to go and collect my things, because he's heading to the airstrip in an hour."

And he hadn't visited. Which meant, most probably, John Watson wanted nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes, ever. It meant that John Watson didn't even want to look at him if there was a risk he might answer.

"'rene" he grasped her hand and pulled her closer. "Tell. Him" he breathed deeply and focused. "Everything."

"You want me to tell John everything? Everything you told me in Zagreb?"

One tap.

Again, the bloody silence.

"Please, tell him as much as you deem necessary, Miss Adler" he heard his brother sigh and his chair scraped the floor again. "Anything that will make him more... give him better understanding of the situation."

Irene's thumb was making a slight, calming circle in the middle of his palm.

"I will" she said, and paused. Again! "I will tell doctor Watson - major Watson - everything that I know. I will tell him everything, related to the problem on hand, that Sherlock told me. I will not try to manipulate him by giving him partial, skewed data."

One tap.

"And I'm not doing it because you asked" he felt her turning to him, again. "I'm doing it because I owe John Watson that much. I owe him honesty. What he does with that information is up to him, completely."

He wanted to correct her. He wanted to feel that she was wrong, saying these things. He wanted to rant in self-righteousness and to tell her that her human feelings were petty and insignificant. He wanted to deride her need to honour John's sacrifice. He wanted to point out that she lived for manipulation, she strove to control everyone around her, to move the pieces as she wished, so why would she be allowed to change the rules?

She wasn't changing the rules, however. It was the game that had changed. The game of Sherlock-and-John apparently required some re-writing of the rule book, and Irene had appointed herself as the editor of that correction.

One tap.

Let John hear what Irene wanted to tell him. Let John see and understand what led to the moment on the roof, and the moments on the pavement, and to the terrifying, ugly, desperate phone call.

"I think I should leave you two alone for a moment, Sherlock. Your brother is sitting on this abysmally uncomfortable chair and looking at me with reproach. He is wearing an absolutely dashing grey-silver three piece with a matching stone-grey tie, he has his favourite umbrella, of course, his shoe is absolutely spotless - probably got here from the airport by a rented car and a driver. He also weighs about two hundred and... three pounds, but you'll have to calculate the gain yourself. The cast on his right leg seems rather uncomfortable. I'll nip over to my room and collect the things dear Maria had procured for me and say my goodbyes. I will be back before we fly, darling. See you later, Mr Holmes."

"Goodbye, Miss Adler. Major Watson will take good care of you."

"I'm sure he will."

 

#

 

They sat in silence for a few minutes until Mycroft shifted in his seat.

"Cast?" Sherlock managed to wheeze out.

"I broke my right leg two weeks ago."

He frowned.

"Koto'?"

"Of course, in Kotor. There was a sudden temperature drop and I lost my balance getting in the car. It's not very complicated, but terribly inconvenient. That's why, upon arriving back home, I've arranged for another solution of your predicament. Which is how you came to be here."

He sighed.

"I'm sorry we couldn't get to you earlier, but we followed your footsteps to Serbia first. Only when you dropped off the radar the agents hurried up and found the trail leading to Montenegro. Someone hadn't included local small-scale idiots in their calculations."

Sherlock managed to groan.

"Fortunately your... John's skillset perfectly matched the situation. He has been on the base for two days and then in the nearby towns for three, gathering information. I thought it would be at least a week more, so I must admit I was slightly surprised to receive his signal that the mission was moving forward so quickly."

Mycroft really sounded pensive. Very much unlike him.

Sherlock honestly hated his loss of sight. Hearing didn't compensate, considering he had no knowledge of the room - size, object placement - and he couldn't supplement it with touch.

They sat in silence some more.

"Mor...ine?" he breathed finally.

"High doses. Lowered slightly at the moment, trying to see what will start to respond with pain first, in case there is something wrong they didn't manage to identify under all the other things that are obviously wrong. Remember, this is military hospital. Solutions to some problems are... crude. They also used it to dampen your body's response to withdrawal from that substance you've been dosed with."

"S'us?"

"Your overall status... Apart from the eyes, of course, you have lacerations on most of your body - most did not require stitches, but you are glued together with a tonne of butterfly bandaids, so you do look a bit like a primary school art project. These people had shaved off your hair, which was in a way fortunate - you have several head wounds and went through at least one concussion unassisted in your time there. As it is, the hospital didn't have to spend additional time shaving you here. Obviously, needle marks everywhere they could get to a vein, which made finding a spot for an IV port a challenge. You won't loose any of your toes. Your fingers were broken, and had to be rebroken and set again, so you will still require some physio before you'll be able to touch your violin. They had been kept exercised to ensure blood flow. The knees and ankle joints were dislocated and then pushed into place by someone less than professional, so this will require some work, too. Cuts on various muscles, needed stitches and will require rebuilding your muscle mass. You will get a bit more attention now, once the cut on your jawline heals - it will leave a faint scar, I'm afraid. You lost one of your incisors, which is unfortunate but not a challenge. I've booked you a visit with a recommended specialist in four months time. Hopefully it will be enough to get you mobile, reasonably healthy and in London."

"'rene?"

"Starved" Mycroft said simply. "And she will never wear a deep neckline again. It was a miracle she could even stand up when John found her. The doctors had to rehydrate her and apply wide-spectrum antibiotics to manage the skin infections and... other infections, I'm afraid. Obviously, she's on antivirals, too. John... John will take care of her, I expect. He made it a personal challenge to ensure her comfort once she is turned over to my people. I promised him unlimited access to her, so he will be able to see that she is being properly taken care of."

Someone walked by the door, pushing a heavy cart. The door wobbled slightly - he heard the lock click open and the hinges groan. Voices of the rickety hospital washed over them.

Patients crying.

Doctors arguing.

Nurses complaining.

Orderlies running.

"...to tell him? Hm? What? Irene, I understand your position..."

"No you don't."

"And you don't understand mine. What do you expect me to do? Go in there, hold him and tell him I forgive him? I can't forgive, Irene. I'm not built for... for this! I can't even look at him right now!"

"John, please. He needs you to..."

"I needed him. I needed him not to be dead. Two years ago. Two fucking bloody years ago. Now? Now I can't... I can't go in there. I don't have anything... Nothing. He took away everything I had, you know? I had nothing when I met him. I didn't even have a fucking life. I was a zombie, waiting for the apocalypse to happen. Then I got him, and Lord, it was glorious. I lived, I heard music, I saw colours, dammit."

"Tell him that."

"Irene, I, I can barely breathe when I consider being in the same room as him. I can't think, I can't move. I can't look at him without seeing a pool of blood on concrete. These last weeks? It was pure torture, but at least I knew I was doing something useful. Now I can't. No more. I can't look at him. Do you know I can't actually go near Bart's entrance now? I threw up on the sidewalk the last time I tried. This is what he did to me. He stripped me naked of all that made my life an actual life. I depended on him, I built everything back on the foundation that was Sherlock bloody Holmes, and he took away that foundation and everything crashed. Do you want me to tell him that? Or maybe you'd rather hear me tell him of all the times when Mycroft waded in and picked me up from a drunk tank, or a hospital? When I didn't have anyone else to call and had to put his brother as my emergency contact? Or the time when I couldn't go back to Baker Street so I rented a bedsit in my old building, but I could only afford one almost as nasty as what I used to have before him? Irene, are you sure any of this will help any of us?"

He heard her make a noise, but it was muffled, and followed by something like patting of a soft surface.

"Come on, blow your nose, woman. We are expected on the tarmac. The airplane is ready and can leave the moment we are there."

Mycroft took a long, whistling breath.

"Little brother... I can explain."

"No" he whispered and swallowed. "No. S'fine."

It wasn't. But there was not much he could do about it.

If John truly felt that way, there was only one appropriate thing to do.

Chapter Text

Thompson watched him with infinitely calm eyes.

"You can hit something, if you feel it would help" he suggested finally.

"I'd rather not" John managed not to growl. "I almost broke my fingers on the plane back, hitting a seat arm."

"I have a few glass bottles saved, if you'd rather."

"Are you making fun of me?"

"Never. But I found that it does me good to damage something from time to time. I used to live in a rather nasty building that had that tall garbage chute, all the way up to twelfth floor. You know, cockroach central line, whatever could crawl out of it, did. I lived on the third, but on the days I wanted to really punish the world around me for existing, I rode the elevator up to the top floor, opened the hatch and threw glass bottles into it. One of the most satisfying sounds in my life."

"Your neighbours must have been delighted."

"Oh, I tried to do it when nobody was really around. Like, three o'clock in the morning..."

He couldn't really stop the giggle.

"God, why am I always surrounded by madmen?"

The psychiatrist took off his glasses and leaned forward.

"Because there are no normals in this world, John. There are just ones that have a better mask or keep their crazy under better natural regulation. We, on the other hand, have to learn that control and train it daily, so that it doesn't rule us."

He massaged his temples, trying to subdue his mind and make it work correctly.

"How can I help you, John?" the therapist asked finally, kindly, but with a hint of exasperation.

He smiled in a completely not-happy way.

"Now sure there is a way, my friend. It all seems... rather hopeless."

"Can you maybe just tell me the facts, just as you know them? Not something other people told you, but simply what happened to you?"

John stood up and strolled slowly to the window.

"I walk again" he said first. "No cane. I'm on a new meds routine, actually."

"Does it help?"

"I had to discontinue your prescription, I'm afraid" he pinched his nose. "I feel a bit jittery, but... I think it's a good payoff. They managed to get my shoulder back in order. My left hand is steady again. Not only in stress, but, well, all the time. Before, I could only make it work for shooting, and that I could anyway do with my right hand, too, so it wasn't that much of an advantage. I'm not a cowboy after all, no high noon two-handed shootouts for me. But with this therapy, you know, I could probably get re-licensed and find work in a hospital. I am registered as a GP but I do have a trauma specialisation which I'd like to make use of someday. I'd need to go through tests and everything, but I could be a surgeon again, with how the hand works now."

Thompson leaned towards him, nodding thoughtfully.

"That's a good thing, isn't it? Isn't this what you wanted all that time? To be able to go back to your old life?"

He laughed, but it sounded dull even to him.

"Which old life would that be, Donald?" he asked finally. "The one I had before the Army? I was a kid, a student, then an intern. Not much of a life. The life in the Army? Where I got shot at and I shot other people? When my family decided they want nothing to do with me, because a doctor who shoots people makes about as much sense as a dancing chicken? The one when I got invalided back 'home' and almost ended up swallowing my gun?" he stood up and looked at a picture on the wall.

Donald sat in silence, looking at him.

"I want something from them all" John said finally. "I want to be... I want it to be like it never really was, a combination that would make sense, but I've never..."

"What you really want is none of them" Donald's answer was quiet. "What you and I both know is that you really actually wish for that fourth life you had. The one where you were running all over London, fighting crime and you want to be able to operate again, too. But this is not going to happen, John."

"No, it isn't" his patient turned back to him, a painful smile stretching his lips. "But for a completely different reason than you think."

 

#

 

"Dear Lord."

"Yes."

"And he is..."

"Very much alive, yes. Still in Croatia, or probably in Switzerland by now."

"But you..."

"No. No way. I can't."

"You should."

"Can't. Impossible."

"But you, and him, you were..."

"Never real. Never true, apparently."

"I wouldn't be so sure, John."

"You don't know Sherlock like I do, Donald. Or, rather, nobody really knows Sherlock, including me. I just know more of the disappointing parts than others have ever seen."

"I'm sorry, John. I really am."

He sighed, combing his hair back both-handed.

"So what would you suggest?"

Donald snorted.

"If I was one of your mates, I'd pull out a bottle of whisky and proceeded to get us both rat-arsed. As your therapist, I should remind you that alcohol consumption never helps and may be detrimental to your new medical trial therapy."

"I'm actually considering binging on chocolate, or something equally stupid. Like girls in these cheesy comedies. Eating a tub of ice-cream."

"That is bad for your liver, I'm afraid. And you already know it. Now, maybe we can work through this, slowly. I won't ask you to name your feelings all at once, but if we could go through all the events and you could describe, for me, the psychological 'climate' that accompanied each of them, that would be a nice start."

He sighed.

"Right. Fine. Sure, I'll try. First, I was out, shopping, and Mycroft Holmes appeared like the bloody ghost of Christmas... no idea which one. In a black sedan and with a cast on his leg. I must admit, I was a bit intrigued."

 

####

 

"Mr Holmes, you will be sedated for the flight" the tall, thin fellow roped into overseeing his recovery was not someone he imagined to meet on a military base. Still, he was competent, as far Sherlock could say.

He nodded slowly, trying to limit movements to the minimum.

"I'm afraid it's necessary, in case you have..."

"An adverse reaction to the neurotransmitters that had gone haywire."

"Indeed. The facility in Zurich - the first you will be going to, I understand - has a course of treatment prepared for you, but they insist on having you transported there. I'm very sorry we can't help you locally."

He shrugged. Of course they would insist. If they were in fact as proficient as they claimed, they probably had secrets that had their own secrets. Including the treatment they assured would work for Sherlock.

His organism had expelled most of the toxic substances already in the first days. The hospital had applied basic treatments, starting with dialysis and pumping him full of fluids through IV, under John's direction. Unfortunately, since the samples taken immediately after landing had turned out to be missing - and nobody would admit to ever handling them, to Mycroft's annoyance - they couldn't compare levels of whatever-that-was to current state, thus missing a baseline for marking his progress.

Samples taken daily however said he had been successfully "cleansed" of the substances that were not supposed to be in healthy human blood (morphine notwithstanding). Unfortunately, it seemed that the time he had spent under influence had left him with some neural damage and his brain seemed to be firing up at random with either memories or sudden thought cascades that left him tired and anxious for any kind of treatment that would alleviate the symptoms.

The way his brain was broken made him at the same time anxious to go back home and unwilling to expose himself to the potential risks of London. He had to be at the top of his game before anyone got wind of him being alive. Still, London seemed more and more enticing with every day spent on the military base, surrounded by all there people who behaved in that eerily familiar and yet jarringly wring way.

I just miss John. Which isn't news to Mycroft and that's why he is looking at me with that small worried smile. Really, brother, why couldn't you have waited at least a day...
The doctor was speaking again. Why was he still speaking? Couldn't it be simply written down?

"I was glad to see doctor Watson, if in passing" the man said fondly and shook his head, as if in disbelief.

"You know John?"

A pair of round, green eyes looked over the low-set glasses. He could see such details when the man was as close as he was standing now.

"I was in the day he was brought in with sepsis" the doctor - captain Albert Nyglad - said. "We were afraid for his mobility. Well, at first we were mostly afraid for his life, of course. Once he had recovered from the general infection, he had a terrifying setback during physio. He was supposed to be stretching his arm and a badly secured element of the machine fell on him and compressed a nerve in his leg... Despite the fact that there was nothing permanently wrong with the leg, he..." the man shook. "Sorry. Shouldn't be gossiping like this, but he... we worried about him. Did - do you know him, out of the army?"

He nodded slowly, again.

"I've... I've known him, before I had to leave for my mission" he said softly. "We shared a flat for a while."

The medic started.

"John? Sharing a flat? With..."

"With me, yes. Why?"

"Wait... Wait a moment. John Watson, our captain Watson, is the same Watson who was running around London with you all that time? I mean, we saw the news, but nobody believed it was the same man!"

He sat up, frowning.

"What do you mean? John Watson, captain, medic, yes. Fifth Northumerland Fusiliers etc etc. A small guy, about yea high" he waved his hand at what he thought would be five feet seven. "Blonde, easily annoyed, shoots like a bloody sniper, loves his tea with milk, curses like a sailor, women tend to get clingy with him?"

"Well, captain, medic, the fifth, yes. Shortish and blonde, definitely. Otherwise, I can't say, he was mostly unconscious when I saw him, and then mostly on the machines, trying to exercise his disability away. Never really succeeded, but he managed to built respectable muscle mass. What a coincidence... How come he was even here?"

"Ah" Sherlock smiled crookedly. "That would be because of me, doctor. I needed rescuing and, according to my superiors, John was the man just perfect for the job."

"So they've sent your retired soldier flatmate to get you out of whatever it was that you got yourself stuck in, he did it, then directed your treatment, looking as if he had never spent weeks limping around and getting himself more and more depressed by the way his situation was not progressing. How in the world did he manage to lose that limp, I wonder. It seemed no therapy was going to ever get it right."

Sherlock swallowed.

"I helped" he said finally. "A bit. Everyone tried to get him to calm down, and that was when the leg protested. I gave him excitement, and the leg stayed silent."

"Ah" the doctor nodded. "It has been observed that what most weighs upon a soldier going back home - especially too early - is the uselessness. Having no aim, no duty and nobody to take care of, they fall into certain state of mind... Yes, that could be the explanation, definitely. Although with Watson being a medic I wouldn't have expected him to be so bloody-minded."

Sherlock shrugged. Of course John was bloody-minded, but in a very different way from what people expected. Also, it wasn't the blood, or killing, or anything of the sort, that John had needed. It was adrenaline. Shooting, yes. But running, even thinking about the crimes, that was what had worked for him. Among others.

"I wonder what he did for the shoulder" the medic continued. "It seems marvellous, the way he regained mobility. Was it also you? I mean, the leg was psychosomatic, but the hand..."

"No" he said tersely. "I suppose he simply finally found a competent physiotherapist. Good for him, it was rather limiting him."

"Ah. Well. Anyway, tomorrow you're being flown to Zurich and they will continue as they see fit. All your documentation will be, of course, going with you. I hope you get better soon, because this, we freely admit, is outside of our abilities."

"The Zurich hospital promised what exactly?" he finally forced himself to ask.

"From your test results, and the cerebrospinal fluid sample we've provided, they seem reasonably sure they can identify the neurotransmitter group that is getting affected. Putting simply, the neurotransmitter should 'connect' to part of your brain in the right place, but the toxins that are still in your organism are attaching themselves to that piece - for a random amount of time - so the connection in the brain cannot be made. It's not a high number of them, fortunately, because I'm not sure you'd have awoken at all."

"High enough to be annoying" he grumbled. "So, these people from Zurich, what do they promise?"

"They claim to have developed an inhibitor that will reduce the activity of the compound which is currently, well, blocking your neurotransmitters. Or rather, blinding your neuroreceptors. They are also optimistic about potential non-invasive surgical solutions for your eyes."

He shuddered.

The inflammation had gone down, the infection was managed and he had regained his vision - rather fuzzy, but it was progress. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of foreign bodies that were introduced with the needles (read: dirt) called for a specialist that the military didn't have on hand.

"They also have a surgeon that is well-versed in the invasive eye treatment, so if there is no other option, they will be able to remove that crap - sorry - piece by piece. As it is now, it presses on your eye and may, in a long run, cause damage that will affect your sight."

"It's already affecting my sight" he grumbled.

"We can't help it, beyond the treatment that we've already provided" the doctor nodded with understanding.

He doesn't understand. Nobody understands. I have to see properly. How can I work if I can't see?

John would have understood. He would have explained it to them.

The overwhelming need to curl up and weep was only managed by the presence of the doctor by his bed.

"Anything else?" he asked gruffly.

"That would be all" the doctor seemed unfazed. "I hope you will be able to get off morphine soon - I understand the doses we had to use were rather... out of the standard, but doctor Watson seemed so sure, and then the evidence confirmed it, everyone relented."

"John has had over a year experience in dealing with my... specific needs" he said softly. "He knows what I look like coming down from a high and has once seen me through a full cycle of detox. He knows I have high tolerance for morphine and that it would make the other... whatever that was, stop affecting me."

"Wow. You two were really close for a time, I see."

He stiffened.

"As much as a patient with a live-in doctor can be."

 

####

 

"Oh, don't give me that look, Mycroft" he snorted, rubbing some talcum on his hands and clapping to get rid of the excess. "You know and I know perfectly well that he doesn't really require my presence there. He doesn't trust me. Never did. Not sure what he is about, most of the time, but even I can read the writing on the wall when the letters are big enough."

"John..."

He stretched on the bench and picked up the barbell from the rack.

"John, he needs you."

"What for? To take his mobile from his pocket and hand it to him? To check him out of the hospital and take care of him at home, because he doesn't like the way his tea was prepared? Or maybe to just be around and get fucking lied to, because I'm the naive idiot who actually trusted him all that time?" he pushed up angrily with each sentence, watching with satisfaction as the bar went up and down perfectly evenly. "Or maybe..."

"Or maybe he misses you, John, and he actually needs you to be there for him?"

The bar was carefully lowered to the holder and the soldier sat up.

"Mycroft, please leave. I will not lower myself to using your brother's favourite phrase, but please, do leave all the same. I'm sure you know as well as I do that the only reason your brother would be asking for me is because I'm convenient. Well, not anymore. I trusted him, I believed in... believed that there was some kind of connection between us. Obviously, I was wrong, because I not only got discarded like some useless, broken tool, I didn't even deserve explanation from you, and you saw me more than often enough to tell me, in passing, 'by the way, my little brother is fine, just doing some work for the country, but don't worry, he should be mostly OK, unless we lose track of him'. Two years. I mourned, I grieved. I helped you to clear his name. Was it all in preparation for his triumphant return? Did you forget you used me to clear Sherlock's name without ever telling me he was alive? Did it fucking slip your mind? Do you seriously consider me stupid enough to get ensnared in your machinations yet again?"

"Doctor Watson, I truly believe..."

He sighed and leaned forward, resting his face on his knuckles.

"You have promised me a personal favour, Mycroft" he said coldly, with effort.

"Indeed. But, John..."

"I would consider it a personal favour if you got the fuck out of this gym. Now. Leave me alone, Mycroft. Leave me alone to live my stupid, normal, pedestrian life. I don't want to see your face anywhere around here, the vet centre or my home. And by that I mean The House, yes. Don't approach me. Don't contact anyone from my team. And tell your brother that... Tell him our... Tell him whatever the fuck you wish. He's an independent grownup, he can make his own decisions. He always did, after all. Never needed to check in with me, to at least make sure we were on the same page."

"John, you promised..."

"And he fucking promised, too" he stood up slowly, stretching his back and shoulders. "And what did I get, after all the promises? After all 'my only friend' and 'absolute trust' and 'conductor of light' shite? I get two years of mourning and being made into a fucking laughingstock. How funny was it, to send me on that fucking mission, Mycroft? Did you have a good laugh, hmmm? Did you even consider what may happen to me, should I see him unprepared? You can ask Irene what I looked like, it must have been fun to watch - maybe you had a camera there, too? You know what happened? I had a bloody heart attack, right there, in the helicopter. I'm still having panic attacks, to add to the old ones that the Army left me with. The only reason I can sleep is that our shrink is better than that lousy hack the Army assigned me to all these years ago and can actually help people work through the trauma, even one that their so-called closest friends inflict on them. So don't tell me about promises, Mycroft. I never expected much. I knew I should have never expected great respect or even being taken very seriously. But I expected at least being trusted with basic information. Well, it goes to show - never expect anything good from a Holmes."

"John, I respect you in the deepest possible way" Mycroft Holmes straightened and took a step back.

"So you will fucking respect my wish and get out of here, like, fucking, now. Or I will take that umbrella and shove it so far up your arse you'll be coughing up silk."

"You are making a mistake, John."

"I've made a lot of mistakes already when it comes to the Holmes' brothers. Telling you to fuck off is me trying to make up for them to myself. For my own personal wellbeing and for my mental balance. Get out of my sight, Mycroft, and you can consider your 'favour' as repaid."

He never raised his voice. He didn't feel it was needed. Mycroft Holmes could either get the fuck out of the room or John, honest to God, would help him. He shut his eyes and focused on his breathing.

"I will leave, John" he heard finally and the steps accompanied by the umbrella started towards the door. "But I have to say, I still think you are making a mistake. I hope, for your sake, and my brother's both, you will see it my way, soon. He may not survive this without you, John."

"He managed so far, with my minimal input. He doesn't need me, Mycroft. He may think he wants me now, when I'm not there, but the moment I come, he will get bored and will require a new toy to chew on and spit out once it loses the taste of newness."

"I am deeply sorry you feel that way, John. It was never my intent."

"Well, you two should have thought more about the collateral damage. You can tell him... No, fuck it. I have nothing more to tell him. I have my life now, life that doesn't need Sherlock fucking Holmes in it. I've rebuilt myself from ground up. You should be proud - you two had taught me so much about life. I will never rely on anyone again. Trusting is not an advantage. Especially when it comes to the Holmes family."

 

####

 

Oh, brother mine. I am afraid we had broken him, truly.

I am so sorry, John.

 

####

 

"Are you sure, Cap?"

"Bill, please, do be quiet. I don't want to talk about this ever again."

"But you... Wouldn't you rather be in Switzerland, with him?"

John softly swore and reached out to pick up the saltshaker.

"Bill, I'd rather move the calendar two and a half years back and stop him from jumping. I'd rather delete all that time and start again, this time actually telling him what I felt early enough to save him. Right now, though, this is it and here I am."

And please stop asking or I will break down like a wee boy and start crying right here and now.

"But, Captain..."

"For chrissake, Bill, would you let it go?" Rudy smacked him on his shoulder. "Not everyone loves to analyse their feelings at breakfast, you stupid git. Yes, John would probably much rather be out there in Zurich, watching that idiot of his get better. No, he won't admit it, because the idiot was an idiot and broke his promises - sorry, John, but you were loud. Half of the centre was talking after you kicked out that posh toff. He the older brother, right? So, Bill. Shut up. John talks to Thompson when he thinks the time is right and Thompson will make him better, if he can. The same goes to all of you" he pointed out the rest of the crew. "John has this therapy of his to be finished, has stuff to be done and doesn't need any of you trying to take apart what privacy he has left. Which in this house is basically bugger all."

"Rudy..."

"Sorry, Cap, but I just can't listen to that."

John nodded tersely.

And I really hope they leave it as it is, because I would have given back that whole therapy and all this life if I had a chance to actually get him back. The sad thing is, I could. It wouldn't be for long - half a year, at most, before he got bored again, but what a glorious half year it would be!

"So, Cap. What about that treatment? It was the older brother who got you into the trials, wasn't it? You plan to stay with it?"

He shrugged.

"The doctors told me they'd be keeping me on, no matter what any meddling government gits say. Apparently I'm a perfect subject now. And one of them is making this into a PhD. They said I had already been on a shortlist for the next phase of the trials anyway, so that mission just got me there sooner."

 

####

 

"You should have told them sooner, Celeste" he prodded the inflamed muscle cautiously. "I was away, and I told Murray I can't say when I'd be back, you shouldn't have waited for me! Now you'll have to wait at least a week before this goes down. You've been walking on that leg all that time, I suppose."

"Murray told me" she shrugged. "I needed you to have a look at it. Nobody else knows how to do this! These civilian people are hacks, captain. They know nothing."

"Actually, they may be better qualified than I am" he spread the cooling gel on her skin and wrapped it up. "Now, don't put your weight on it and try not to overexert yourself. Next!"

 

#

 

He was worried. They had come to depend on him too much. They were waiting for him to come back with even the most worrying symptoms - never showing them to the personnel in the Centre or even to the qualified team that the House provided. They had come to rely on him and he had just... left them. Without telling when he would be back or why he left.

Yeah, he could draw the parallels quite easily.

 

####

 

The therapist in front of him reminded him vaguely of Ella, that one that John had been visiting for his PTSD. He dearly hoped this one would be more effective. He didn't have time for semi-professional guessing of what it was that was wrong with him.

He already knew quite well.

PTSD, obviously.

Fear of darkness - it took additional week and a half for his eyes to work semi-normally after he woke up and ever since he had been afraid of the dark.

Stress due to the neurotransmitters working randomly.

And he didn't even want to consider that one other problem that Mycroft tried not to mention explicitly, but... He definitely didn't want to go back to London before he had dealt with the fact that he not only avoided human touch (as before), but he couldn't stand even thinking about it.

"I have the description here" she winced just slightly "of the things that..."

"That were done to me" he summed up tersely. "Torture, sexual violation, sensory deprivation and poisoning. And drugging. Are you up to the task? I am asking seriously, because I don't want us to invest any time in this if you don't feel confident."

"Mr Holmes" she rubbed her nose. "I have to admit, quite frankly, I've never had a patient with that amount of compound issues. They may overlap, interact and negate each other, depending on the trigger points. I'm quite sure that your current state is something we can, at least partially, alleviate. There are basic methods that can be used in case of PTSD patients that are applicable to most everyone..."

"Does it require being very calm and very quiet and writing about my feelings?"

"What?" she frowned. "If you wish so, yes, but I..."

"No. No, that's just... that's just what a friend was made to do, and he hated it. And when I read and he told me what his shrink had suggested, I just imagined I could go mad if I had to..."

"Definitely not. I understand from your brother's notes that your typical way of living is rather intense, quite voluntarily, and that means trying to get you to calm down wouldn't meet with much success. Do you even know how to relax, Mr Holmes?"

He blinked and cracked a smile.

"I do, doctor Lane. I actually do."

She nodded and made a small tick on one of the papers, then stored them away in the drawer.

"OK, now, let's have some rules agreed and we can progress from there. I know people get annoyed and nervous when I make notes. Are you one of these?"

"Nno, but it does interrupt, a bit."

"Are you fine with being recorded?"

"Voice or video?"

"Voice, here" she pulled out a small digital recorder and placed it on the table in front of her. "This, a copy for each of us, so that you know exactly what was being said, in case you have a panic attack or some other kind of episode. I do not edit these, I run a voice recognition software on it and make this into minutes. After each session, and analysis of what I have on the recording, I will make a note and we will discuss it on our next meeting. I will, of course, have suggestions immediately after the session..."

He nodded.

"Fine. I..." he sighed. "I'm not sure. I have no idea how to proceed. My brain is... My brain is not working. I have to get it under control. Mycroft said you were experienced with, as he called it, interesting cases. Are you? Can you do that?"

She cocked her head and looked at him from the side.

"Mr Holmes... Or is Sherlock better? Which will make you feel more comfortable?"

"Sherlock, Sherlock is fine."

"Than June. No doctor, just use my name. Some patients feel better with formality, so I don't want to assume, but..."

He nervously touched a spot next to his right eye.

"June. Yes, thank you" he drew a sharp breath. "This is a new situation for me" he said finally.

"I understand. Everyone after this kind of experience..."

"No. I mean, yes, that, certainly. But not only this... Maybe you want to start recording?" he suggested in his best "John approved" voice.

She blinked.

"God, yes. Sorry. I'm usually more collected, but after reading your file..."

"Yes, yes. Now. You've read the file, you know what kind of physical damage was done to me. Including..." he swallowed. "Multiple assaults. The ones who had more English declared that they would, I quote, 'fuck the gay out of me'. They added drugs, combined that with withholding food and water, adding heat and cold combinations. They were amateurs, but imaginative."

"One question, because I can't find it. Did they by any chance..."

"No, I'm at least clean in that area. No traces of HIV."

"Good. Good. I've had a few patients..." she waved a hand. "Terrible cases."

"Well, that much we've had checked immediately in the hospital, but we had to repeat the test a few times, due to the way we were... handled. We will be undergoing periodical checks and scans for some time yet, just in case they were smarter than we predicted. The doctors who had treated us first have their suspicions about the possibility of some additional toxic or viral vectors being embedded in the wounds, for example in the foreign bodies they had injected me with. These will be removed, tested and who knows what next."

June grimaced.

"I see. So it is 'clean for now'. You say 'we' - I have a note that an associate of yours had been captured together with you. Where is she?"

"She had been sent on to London, under the care of... of a responsible person. She wasn't drugged with the same substance as me, so she isn't going to require that level of therapy. She will require various treatments, yes. I am sure that they are taking proper care of her. My brother is overseeing that."

"So that responsible person, it is your brother?"

He swallowed again, rubbing his eyebrow again.

"No, it's the soldier who had rescued us. He promised he will make sure they take good care of her. He will keep my brother in line."

She frowned, confused.

"A soldier? Why would he..."

"Army medic. He will know what to pay attention to."

"So, you have no fears on her account?"

He smiled, not entirely happily.

"She can take care of herself. Or, should she not, he will badger her till she does."

The silence ruled for a moment as she gathered her thoughts.

"Now" she sighed. "Now come the hard questions, Sherlock. You may choose not to answer some of them right now, but in order for me to help you, they will all need to be answered one day."

He shivered and stood up, turning towards the window.

His reflection was fuzzy - like everything he saw right now. He didn't see the short cropped hair, the sharp cheekbones, the scar that Mycroft described to him and that he could feel with his own fingers. Just a general ghostly figure, pale-skinned, in a dark suit and a maroon shirt. He combed his hair back with just his fingertips.

"Fine" he said sharply. "Ask away. I'm on a deadline, after a fashion."

 

####

 

"There were requests for your participation, Cap" Rudy said when the supper dishes were cleared and Zane brought the cards out.

"I'm not taking any jobs right now, just the centre" he said, picking up the deck and shuffling it in an agile move. "Not enough hours in the day. I have to sleep at least eight for the treatment to work properly, I spend half of my waking day at St Anne's and half at the centre. When would I fit another job?"

They looked at him as he started dealing.

"You could reduce the hours at the centre. They have two new doctors there, but as long as you're available at all hours, the patients aren't switching to anyone else. You have to let the new kids take over."

"I was off for a month and a half, what with the shit that MI6 tried to pull with Irene" he grumbled. "And there were patients still waiting when I came back, with stuff that happened on the day I flew out. I can't just leave them like this again."

"You should wean them off gradually" Murray suggested, turning the chair around and sitting astride it. "They got too used to you. Or you could try to make sure all the new ones are going to the new doctors. If you told the receptionists to inform them that you're not taking new patients, they would finally get the message. And the old ones either finally get out and manage to live on their own or will learn to talk to someone else when you're not there. What if another call like the last one comes? What will they do then?"

Ah.

"I am not going anywhere" John picked up his hand. "Now, are we playing or gossipping?"

Murray picked up his cards and scowled.

"With a hand like this, I'd rather gossip. Pass."

"You are boring, Murr. And repetetive. Zane, anything?"

He managed to get them focused on the game.

He would have been glad to be able to focus like that, too. He wasn't that lucky.

He sniffed and held his breath for a moment.

No punching the table.

The little inclination of his head, the light hitting the tabletop at just the right angle, the sounds dying in the distance. All the memories were immediately brought up, flooding his senses.

Sherlock's red-rimmed eyes, opening in panic, unseeing.

Sherlock's poor, broken fingers, re-broken and stretched in their small splints, each separately. There was no "tape them together" option.

Sherlock's skin, cut, whipped, infected, inflamed.

Sherlock's ankles, dislocated so many times they were too swollen to even move them.

Sherlock's whistling breath when they feared the pneumonia had set in, despite all the antibiotics.

Sherlock's body, cut open on the operating table, with a team of surgeons trying to locate and staunch the bleeding that had only been identified by the traces of blood in his urine.

Sherlock's thin, nearly skeletal stomach, all ribs visible under the stretched skin.

Sherlock's panicked movements when the morphine was lowered experimentally and pain overtook his system.

"...tain? John? John, can you hear me?"

He was shivering, but there was a warm weight over his shoulders.

"John, breathe. In. Out. Slowly. In. Hold it. Out. Hold it. It was just a panic attack. There is nothing here that can hurt you. Nobody is hurt. Nobody is getting hurt. John? In, hold, out. Slowly. Slowly. In, hold, out."

"Sh..."

"Sherlock isn't here, John. He is in the hospital and his brother is taking care of him. He is not hurt. You are not hurt."

"Bill."

"Yes, Bill" Murray sat in front of him on the floor.

They had turned him to the "safe" position and covered him with his own duvet. It was nice. It didn't smell of anything but his own room. He squeezed his eyes shut and breathed it in.

"You started shivering and broke in cold sweat" Zane said from somewhere behind Bill. "I thought your quilt will help."

"G-good" he managed to utter. "Hurts."

"You fell off the chair" Rudy explained. "I didn't manage to catch you, so you're going to have a spectacular bruise, or at least a pulled muscle."

He inhaled, as deeply as he could, until his lungs smarted.

"How long?"

"Three and a half minutes, give or take ten seconds."

"Fuck" he slowly eased up. "I'll be stiff tomorrow. Hate this shit."

"This isn't your first rodeo" Rudy wasn't asking.

"No. It's just the worst one I've had in a really long time. Fuck, fuck. I will have to stop doing a lot of stuff now. I can't take my exam if I'm not sure I should be holding a scalpel. This was bad, Christ."

"You looked like you were seeing the death itself."

He rubbed his eyes and nodded.

"In a manner of speaking."

"You really have to consider cutting down the clinic hours" Murray said softly. "Imagine what kind of chaos this would have caused if you had one of these in front of everyone. And you know that the attacks are brought on by overtaxing yourself during the day."

He tried shaking his head, but it hurt even worse.

There is no amount of rest that can cure me.

 

####

Chapter Text

There had to be something more boring than physiotherapy, but he honestly couldn't recall anything specific at the moment. His legs, his arms, even his fingers required daily stretching, joint checking, muscle training and strengthening. He was being massaged thoroughly, which was one of the most unpleasant experiences in his life. At least it was the same person every day. There was nothing to be done but to endure.

 

#

 

"You are tense."

"You are observant."

"Sherlock, you know you have to cooperate with me to get these things sorted out."

He shrugged.

"I never met a psychiatrist who could sort my brain out. Most of the ones Mummy took me to as a child gave up pretty soon."

"You read the books before you went for a visit and, in the current teenage parlance, trolled them?"

He shrugged and nodded.

"Might have. They diagnosed sociopathic tendencies and gave up. Which was just fine with me, although Mummy was a bit worried for a time."

"What would you do if I gave you a different diagnosis?"

He finally turned to face her.

"I'd say you are smarter than most."

"You are aspergeric - on the autism spectrum, but not the same. As you are happy to say, high-functioning. Yes. You hate being touched - and that was even before your last unfortunate experience. You only interact with chosen persons who fit correctly with the way your brain works. You can observe, analyse and understand a lot about others, but you do not, in fact, live through it in the same way."

He pressed his lips together, looking at a wall.

"Also, someone had already told you all this, before your life was so completely messed up."

"Yes" he had to admit that much.

She shuffled a few pieces of paper.

"Sherlock, do you have a steady relationship with someone?"

He felt himself tense.

"Yes, I suppose. At least I used to, before."

"Does this person know you are here?"

He nodded sharply.

"Yes, or no?"

"Yes, he knows."

"Will this person be visiting you?"

"He. And no, he most probably won't be visiting."

"Will he... will he be waiting for you in London?"

He felt ice in his veins and an overwhelming need to scratch his eyes.

"I don't think so."

"What happened to him? Why wouldn't he be there for you?"

He touched his left eyelid nervously.

"He... He thinks I left him because of a whim" he tapped his lips. "He thinks the whole reason I didn't tell him about my mission was that I didn't trust him. He feels betrayed."

"If he... if the situation was different - if you two hadn't been separated, would you have been able to rely on him with your full recovery?"

"Naturally. I'd trust him with my own life. Did so, several times. He is a crack shot."

"Being a marksman doesn't really mean someone can take care of you" she remarked kindly. "Don't mix combat readiness with actual ability to..."

"He has PTSD, too" Sherlock looked steadily at the wall. "He was in Afghanistan and was shot. He knows how to deal with panic attacks, triggers and nightmares. He is a GP. He has specialisation in trauma, but can't work as a surgeon due to his wounds."

She frowned.

"He is disabled then?"

"As much as a man with a tremor in his dominant hand could be called that. They had to invalid him out from the Army because of that. But otherwise he is perfectly well, physically. Now, I'm guessing, he is even better. Seems someone managed to get rid of that tremor permanently."

"Physically fine, but not-physically he is...?"

"Like any veteran. Nightmares, itchy trigger finger, anger management issues, absolute inability to accept defeat, almost equal in scale to his inability to see and observe. He is addicted to risk and adrenaline."

"Doesn't sound like a very good person to be around..." she was watching him intently.

"There is noone better" he whispered. "There is nobody else like him. He had gone against thugs, policemen and politicians in my defence. I think we might have threatened my brother at some point, too. Definitely tried to sacrifice his life for mine once."

"Ah" she said. "And, if I am connecting the dots correctly, he is the one who is taking care of your associate."

He nodded.

"So, how does this work? Your ex had saved your life, and that... miss Adler's, yes? Then he left you in the hospital and flew with her to England? And your brother is now in charge of your treatment, but also overseeing whatever it is that's happening to the other two?"

"That would be correct" Mycroft's voice came from the doorway. "I'm sorry, doctor Lane, but I've been trying to contact the two of you for the last half-hour. It seems that the surgeon who would be operating on my brother had arrived and is expecting him to be available presently. She is rather convinced that the longer we wait, the higher the risk of permanent damage is."

"I see" she smoothed down her skirt. "Mr Holmes, once your brother is..."

"I am here, in case the two of you forgot."

"We never could, brother mine. We never could."

Only after the consult with the surgeon he had time to think and try to work out the way to tell doctor June that John wasn't and would never be his ex.

 

####

 

John pursed his lips and kept his erect stance as he waited for the guard to confirm his authorisation.

"Mr Watson..." the man smiled in the insincere way security professionals smiled at whoever they were detaining. "I'm afraid the person you're requesting to see is not available right now."

He sighed. This was going to be a long day.

"The person I'm requesting to see is my patient and I need to ascertain her well-being. I have received an e-mail from her, asking me to visit. There should be somewhere in your system an entry saying 'Doctor Watson is allowed to see Irene Adler at any time of day and night, should she or he wish so. Signed: Mycroft Holmes' or something to the effect. In case you have a problem identifying the persons I'm talking about, I am doctor Watson, Irene Adler, also knows as The Woman, is an asset recently moved from St Anne's hospital into this facility and Mycroft Holmes is..."

"Busy at the moment, but he sent me."

Anthea's voice made the guard stand straighter.

"Something had interfered with... his duties, and he is unavoidably detained in Switzerland. He had sent me with the needed paperwork. I must admit, doctor Watson, your guess as to the content of the note was quite accurate. Follow me, please."

 

#

 

A lift ride and a short walk later, Anthea knocked on the door marked with "221". She rolled her eyes when she noticed his badly-suppressed grin.

"She thought it would be funny."

There was a small sound from within the room and the door opened a crack.

"John?"

"Irene, is everything fine?"

She sounded... tired.

"Yes. No. Come in. You too, miss A. Please. I find myself at..."

She opened the door wider, letting them in, and they filed in quickly, closing the door behind them.

Irene stood away from the door as they entered and watched them carefully.

"What's going on, Irene?"

"It's" she closed her eyes and shivered. "I didn't have nightmares on the base" she said finally. "Maria was afraid, actually, but it was fine. Fine-ish. I thought I'd be alright."

"And in the hospital?"

She shook her head.

"Not even once."

"Do you want to go back to the hospital? Is it about this, Irene?"

She swallowed.

"No, no. Not... consciously. I don't think it's about the hospital. But I haven't slept for two days now and... I'm not sure."

He looked at Anthea and nodded towards the door.

"Please get me the first aid kit from the medical and ask them for something for nerves - not sleeping pills, just... if they have something soothing, that would be fine. Herbal. You know."

She snorted and shook her head.

"I'll get you some proper, clean, medical-grade weed, doctor Watson."

The door closed behind her and he saw Irene startle at the sound, but she relaxed against the wall she was leaning on as soon as Anthea left.

"What is this about?" he asked, sitting down on one of the stuffed chairs. "Come on, Irene. You have to talk to me."

"I can't sleep" she blurted out. "I can't do anything. I'll go mad, soon. If I'm not mad yet. What is wrong with me, John?"

Oh, Lord, they are so similar. She may be better socially adjusted, but they are like frigging twins.

"PTSD, Irene. Despite the fact that you looked quite fine when I came for you, you were affected by the captivity. You held it together when I asked you to help me - for Sherlock, correct?"

She nodded jerkily.

"Then in the hospital, you were surrounded by people and that helped - because part of what these men did was leaving you all alone in the darkness, not knowing when they'd come next. So being with everyone, in a brightly-lit hospital, on a military base, that grounded you. And, I suppose, Maria Piotrowska being there played a part, too. And the hospital here in London, while lacking the military base atmosphere, was still full of people..." he trailed off. "You are afraid of being alone, Irene. You need someone to stay with."

"No!" she was picking at her cuffs. "Maybe? I can't think of anyone I'd be able to share a flat with, though."

OK, this was eerie and creepy.

"I can stay for a few hours, if it helps you" he found himself offering.

The pair of intense eyes was on him immediately.

"Would you? I..." she sighed. "I need to tell you a few things I didn't want to say in the hospital. I have to tell you a lot, actually, but there was never a chance..."

He looked at her, undone like he had never seen her. Her hair was perfectly coiffed, her clothes immaculate - if buttoned up to her neck and down to her wrists - her makeup light and precise - she was a picture of perfection, unless someone saw the way her hands trembled, her eyes were blown wide and her shoulders strained.

Abominable.

Nervous Irene Adler is not a sight one wishes to see often.

He looked around and found a blanket of some sort thrown over the back of the couch. He spread it on the seat and backrest and guided her to it.

"Now" he pulled the blanket in, settling it over her shoulders and around her body. "Now you try to calm down and tell me everything that you think is so important."

Her eyes fluttered shut and she visibly relaxed.

"I think I know why he loves you so" she smiled tremulously. "After the two days we've spent in Zagreb, I was ready to kill you on sight. I was sick of 'John would' 'John told me' 'John thought' 'John wouldn't like it' and, what was the most annoying part, the way his face went all worried when I said something positive about you. He's bloody possessive, you know that?"

"Until he finds a new toy to play with, sure."

"Oh, John" she sighed. "Really. You two are terrible at communicating."

 

####

 

The violin was there, just as Mycroft had promised.

The skills were missing.

He couldn't get his fingers to cooperate. Despite all that physio, the exercises that John and Irene did when he was still unconscious, the surgery that put the bones in alignment again, they were not working.

The first time he picked up the instrument, he could barely get the fingers to curl around the neck. Putting them on the right strings was out of the question. The bow shivered in his right hand, his fist curling up and squeezing it dangerously.

He had to put the violin away before he damaged it by accident.

He spent the next week intensifying the exercises, stretching, straightening his joints, trying desperately to return his transport to its previous dexterity.

The right eye surgery put a stop to this for a while - he wasn't supposed to move too much after they had removed the dirt from around his right eye, so he spent the time recovering in bed, the violin in his hand, wrapping his hand on the neck and strings repeatedly, trying to get a proper grip, put pressure on the steel, picking a simple melody with his right hand.

After his left eye underwent the same treatment, he carefully upgraded to an actual attempt at playing. Even sitting - or leaning back on the bed - he could try to at least practise something simple. He wasn't up to a full Vivaldi yet, but maybe at least a country reel, or lullaby...

After twenty minutes he felt his fingers cramping and seizing.

More physio then.

The one important part he could already be happy with was a dramatic improvement in his eyesight.

The unhappy part was seeing himself in a mirror.

"Blimey" he said mildly, looking at his not-fuzzy reflection for the first time in ages. "That's... not very good" he turned to the side, and to the other one, trying to see all the scars from the various cuts and abrasions.

John had stitched me up. John had patched me, had checked me all over - Irene had written as much - had been taking care of this ?

He swallowed with effort.

No wonder he ran away. I don't even have my hair. And that scar on my jaw is revolting.

First thing, shaving. They must have safety razors somewhere in this facility. Maybe a barber?

He shook in disgust.

No, no barber. But an electric shaver and a package of disposable razors shouldn't be that hard to get.

 

#

 

"How are you doing today, Sherlock? Did regaining your sight help a bit?"

He sprawled on the chair comfortably.

June was nothing like Ella, in fact. First, she actually had experience with PTSD patients. Second, she didn't push, she pulled. She threw something to him and took a step back. Comparing to how John had described his meetings with Ella, this was a dramatic difference. He wished he could bring John to talk to June. Maybe she could have helped.

"I feel... more myself" he had to admit. "Sight plays a very important role in my work, and if I couldn't see, I wouldn't be able to do my job."

"Wouldn't it be possible for you to hire an assistant?" she asked, her eyes scanning him up and down.

Preposterous!

"Most of what I do is observing. Having someone else observe and then serve me the information would make no sense. I wouldn't be able to make deductions from partial data."

"Hm" she cocked her head to the side. "And what about your ex? Are you still in somewhat friendly relationship? He did save you and your friend, after all."

"He..." Sherlock simply had to get up. "He is not my ex. It's not like this."

"So, just a close friend, who had felt... what?"

"That I should have confided in him. And he feels I couldn't trust him, and that's why I never told him. Which is not true, but I didn't have a chance to explain it to him."

"Will you? Have a chance?"

He leaned on the windowsill.

"I will definitely try. I just have to work out an appropriate moment and place. And I'd much rather be more myself than I am right now" he flexed his fingers. "He always liked me playing the violin. I got rid of his nightmares like this, you know? He never noticed. They weren't regular, not since he moved in with me, but they did happen. He... I suppose he assumed they just became much less frequent. I'm worried what happened after I left."

That last sentence was unexpected, actually. He stood still, trying to taste it on his tongue.

"I didn't think about this earlier" he said slowly. "It must have been... hard. If his nightmares came back, and with me supposedly committing suicide in front of him..."

"He must have been hurt" she said softly. "Did you talk to him at all, after you came back?"

He shook his head.

"No. I just heard three conversations he had. With another doctor, with my brother and with Irene. Miss Adler. He said he... Well, in short, he almost tore the doctor's head off for misplacing my blood samples - someone had labelled them wrong and they only found them much later. He told my brother he is ceding my care to him, because he can't work with someone who doesn't trust him. And he told Irene that he can't stand the sight of me."

June made a soft sound.

"I'm not surprised" he continued. "Well, I was hurt then, but now..." he shrugged. "Now I think I might have been overly optimistic in some areas. Including his flexibility and acceptance. And, well. I did take a long look in the mirror today. I'm definitely no longer the man he met all these years ago."

"Do you believe you deserve this kind of treatment?"

He turned back, smiling at her crookedly.

"Now, that would be the question for one million, wouldn't it?"

 

#

 

He played the lullabies. He even managed to get to Vivaldi at some point, when his body relaxed enough. He went through some old country ballads, adding Loch Lomond from memory and looking a few others up online.

Day by day. He forced himself, every day five minutes more. After a week he was at full hour and felt more elated than ever. He finished his practice with a flourish on some rather simple song and stood in the middle of his room, panting from exertion.

Slowly, carefully he loosened the strings, but his fingers slipped on the smooth wood. He put the violin and the bow on the table and looked at his fingertips, not understanding what he was seeing.

Red.

A droplet of blood welled up from the broken skin.

Blood.

Another joined it. The cut across the pad of his finger was thin, but bleeding profusely.

Cut. Blood. Bleeding.

He made a step back, away from the instrument.

Metal cutting his skin into ribbons.

Cold sweat run down his spine.

Blade, cut and cut and cut until he couldn't think or speak or even cry out.

He felt the hardness of wooden floor under his cheek.

They were flaying his back with a steel-wrapped whip.

People around him, asking him to calm down.

All voices wrong.

All voices were the wrong voices.

He wanted that one voice, one possible voice, one voice to carry him back to the normality.

 

#

 

"I'm afraid it's two steps forward, one step back and three to the side" the doctor said with the thick accent Mycroft recognised as German-influenced. If he focused slightly, he could probably guess which of the lands of Germany the man hailed from.

Sherlock wouldn't have needed to focus.

"Care to explain, doctor?"

"Physically, he is recovering quite well. The surgeries had removed almost all of the objects lodged around his eyes. There is one piece still left over his left eye, to be removed once the skin around the eye recovers. Unfortunately it was hidden from previous scans by a bigger fragment just next to it. This allowed his eyes to regain almost their normal geometry. He will need to wear glasses for any kind of long-distance task, including driving."

Mycroft nodded slowly. Their family had genetic predisposition to myopia, so Sherlock's glasses wouldn't be anything out of ordinary.

"He had regained manual dexterity, fine motor control and muscle tone in his arms and legs. He had been exercising religiously, participating in any additional activity that can bring in any kind of 'profit'. He got on some aides' nerves, asking them for a meaning of this or that exercise and interrogating them in-depth on the finer points of theories of physiotherapy from various countries."

"Sounds like my little brother" he breathed.

Maybe he is coming back to himself.

"On that note, I'm afraid we've had a bit of a setback... He had been practising on his violin - very quick progress here, from the day when he couldn't even properly catch the instrument, to a full hour concert he gave us yesterday. Unfortunately it seems he had injured himself and, from what his therapist had gathered, the sight of his own blood had triggered a panic attack. It took the nurses several minutes to calm him down and he hadn't touched the violin since, as we had to dress all his fingers rather thickly. Now, my question is, Mr Holmes - who is 'John' and is it possible to get him here?"

 

####

 

"There is an invitation for you here, Cap" Rudy was distributing the mail at breakfast. "Or at least summat verra fancy."

"Give this here" John snatched the stiff envelope out of his fingers. "Hmm... My old school, actually. They are hosting an..." he frowned. "An event. On the general care in a war veteran's case. And they are asking me to be a guest lecturer, to provide, I quote, experience from both sides of the problem."

"Wow" Billy said in his best Village Idiot voice. "So, what are you going to do?"

John tapped the invitation on the table in thought, then smiled widely. And it wasn't one of his nicer smiles.

"I will give them the best fucking lecture they are ever going to hear."

 

#

 

The main university hall was bursting in seams. He could see the students, herded in by several of their teachers, the teachers and researchers just next to them, various groups of graduates and a few suits. Several of them even pretty fancy, he had to say. His living with Sherlock had given him a thorough knowledge of male couture and he could easily work out which guests were clad in good, but off-the-rack suits (like the ones he used to wear, or slightly better), who had paid the tailor to adjust a store-bought product, who had actually one made for them and who had one crafted for them by one of the magicians from Saville Row or a similar place. There were only three of the last category, easily classified as "high-level corpomasters", probably from some Big Pharma or equally money-drenched Big Altmed.

None of them wore their suits with the same natural grace as his... as Sherlock. None of them moved as if it was their second skin. None...

"Doctor Watson? They are now ready for you."

Ah. Finally.

The opening lecture of the conference was an insipid affair detailing the varied ways in which the condition of NHS had been improved over the last years - which nobody believed in and some had actual data to the contrary on.

Now it was John's turn. He was prepared. He was ready. He was on fire.

John coughed and sipped some water to get rid of the sudden feeling of tightness.

He straightened and let everyone in the room get a good look at him. His dress uniform. His RAMC badges, his medals, his rank.

He clicked on the presentation, opening the first slide, diving straight into the painful facts.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. Is everyone sitting comfortably? Very nice for you. Comfort. This is what many of our vets expect after getting back home, but they never receive. Let me walk you through a case. A man invalided from the Army..."

He gestured to the screen.

"This is the flat the man could afford, due to complications with his pay. Dismal, isn't it?"

He saw the kids' side nod, eyes wide.

Ah-ha. Now, let's hit them with something visual.

The next slide was a photo he had made using his bathroom mirror.

 

#

 

The hour was done, two bottles were empty and the room was buzzing with excitement. He closed the presentation, unplugged his laptop and walked down from the small dais towards his seat.

"Doctor Watson? Or, rather, Major Watson?" someone tried to stop him and John...

...wobbled.

Oh, God.

"Doctor Watson? Everything OK?" a woman appeared by his elbow, the same as before his lecture, one of the conference aides.

"Just..." he wheezed. "Low blood sugar, I suppose. Forgot to eat an honest breakfast today. If you could just help me outside and get me a cup of tea, I will be fine."

"Of course" the attendant smiled and guided him to a side room. Soon she was back with a cup of tea, a jug of milk and some sugar. "Do you need anything else? I can call someone..."

"No, no" he smiled. "It's fine. Just a doctor being as stupid as some of his patients. I was so focused on the lecture I quite forgot it will be lunchtime by the time I'd be finished. I'll just drink this and then I can join everyone at lunch."

"Absolutely. There will be someone in the corridor to guide you."

"Thank you" he frowned, trying to see her nametag. "Annemarie."

"Not a problem, Doctor Watson. That was a moving presentation, I absolutely understand your preoccupation. Still, if you don't feel better soon, we could ask someone to have a look at you - doctors enough around here, after all!"

 

#

 

"I must say, doctor Watson, I've rarely seen someone that brutally honest and that... open about their personal experience. Some of the students actually thought at least a part of what you showed must have been photomanipulations."

"I wish they were" he sighed, looking up at the man next to him at the dinner table. "If only our problems were as easy to remove as a photoshopped pimple on a model's cheek."

"Ah, but it seems that at least a part of yours have been taken care of" came a snide remark from his other side.

"Doctor Stiles, that's not appropriate" the dean frowned at the man. "Doctor Watson is our invited lecturer and I was actually hoping..."

"No, no, that's fine. Perfectly fine. I can freely answer this. I've been invalided out, well, it will be five years soon. Still, I was lucky enough to retain some of my relationships from before the Army - as I said, the Army itself doesn't help much - and they helped me once I was left on my own by whoever was supposed to guide me in my civilian life. I had a therapist I was supposed to meet every week, who knew bugger all about what a veteran may be feeling and I was supposed to write down everything what happened to me. That was my therapy - talking to a woman who never listened except to make insipid notes and writing a blog about how much of nothing happened around me daily. Then I found my place in the world with..." he swallowed. "With Sherlock Holmes - finally there were things happening. That man helped me more in an hour than the therapist managed to do in two months worth of meetings."

"But I've heard that you've been included in some rather fascinating drug trial" Stiles leaned back and smiled in a rather weird way.

"One of the doctors involved in the trial had known me both before and after the injury and submitted my case to the trial board. I was accepted and, at least in my case, the outcome is a resounding success. I'm looking forward to the moment when the drug is in general distribution and others with similar issues may finally regain mobility."

"So, is it a magical potion they describe it as?" someone asked from further down the table.

"If it was a magical potion, the injections wouldn't have been that bloody painful" John's answer made most of the table break out in laughter. "But for me the change is... well, life-changing. If everything works correctly, this may be a similar experience for so many others..." he shook his head. "I know that there are many other groups that would benefit from that treatment, but I hope nobody can blame me for focusing on the group I've been most involved with - and am a part of, still."

"I was a bit curious as to the timing of the treatment" Stiles licked his lips with a thin, lizard-like tongue. The whole picture he presented was so alien in that subtle, near-human way that made him look even more disgusting. The lazy half-smile he affected reminded John much too closely of a certain Westwood-suited consulting criminal.

"I think that will be all published once the trial is finished" John chastised him mildly. "I can't really go into details right now. I'm the subject, not one of the project team members."

"But in case of the London vet centre, you are most certainly one of the moving forces, aren't you?" the young woman sitting diagonally from him had huge eyes and was looking at him with such intensity he felt the need to sat straighter under her gaze.

"I have only joined an initiative that was already underway when I showed up. My participation might have been only notable because there hadn't been any full doctors joining the staff before. Two of my nurses talked me into it and, at the time, it seemed like a perfect way both to fulfil my doctor's duties and to take up my soldier's responsibility for his brothers in arms."

"But you've left them to their own devices recently, haven't you?"

Stiles was really beginning to get on his nerves.

"I think it is my private business what I do and what I don't do with hours I volunteer to an institution that not that many bother with. Are you asking due to your actual care for the situation at the veterans' centre or because you want to gain some insight into my life, for some reason?"

The man wavered for a few seconds but finally smiled again, in a way that turned John's stomach.

"Just trying to ascertain whether the resources of the state are going to the worthiest of its subjects, and not to, for example, someone's pets."

That guy wasn't even in the same league as Moriarty, but was of a species similar enough for them to happily crossbreed in some potential future, although what kind of progreny they might have produced would have been hard to predict. John had been quite sure it would have been slimy. And probably would have licked a lot of things with a patently disgusting smile on its snakelike face.

 

#

 

His visit to Mike on the next day was fraught with anxiety and filled with mis-attached markers, badly-running software and a particularly bad reaction to his next injection. As he sat there, massaging the muscle around the needlemark, he watched Mike fighting with the computers. He knew his limitations in the world of high-tech - he could use the general-purpose software of civilian world and was reasonably confident in his ability to handle various military-grade tools, but whatever Mike was using right now was beyond his scope. Especially once the interface switched itself into Swedish. While most European languages were acceptably familiar to him - in either the vernacular or the more medical range - the Scandinavian languages, despite their Germanic roots, remained terra incognita. There had been a very limited number of doctors from that area that he had worked with, and most of them spoke fluent English, so he had been lazy enough to make use of the fact and never learn their own languages. Even in the case of Jorg, who had been not only fascinated... Well. As it were, even Jorg couldn't motivate him to learn Swedish.

Swedish software interface was more than Mike could deal with, so with an apologetic glance he pulled out his phone and started a long procedure of getting through the multiple-option helpline menu.

John did his exercise, marched around the room, nipped out to the lavatory, had a cup of rather disgusting tea-coloured liquid, had a cup of rather surprisingly acceptable coffee, checked his texts, checked his e-mails and finally started reading the variety of health advice in the display cabinets in front of Mike's office. Finally, after an hour, Mike joined, his expression rather sombre, and informed him that there would be no recording.

"A technician is coming to set it to rights. At least I know that all the recordings are saved and backed up - all is in the hospital's server - so if they have to reset everything on this station, I won't lose anything. I'm sorry you had to wait all that time - I hoped that we would be able to continue..."

"Never mind, Mike. Never mind. Maybe we could take a small walk in the park, take some air? Have a light lunch? I don't feel like eating a lot, but I do have a craving for some protein lately. Seems my body started remembering what kind of material it needs to build more muscle."

His friend rolled his eyes.

"I'm more than ready to murder something, and protein sounds quite fine. There is a little Indian place nearby that had opened recently, they make most decent lamb curry."

"That would be absolutely fine" John smiled lightly, trying to push away the feeling that Indian food should be eaten only in one place and in a completely different company. "Lead on!"

And I hope I will be able to swallow something.

 

####

 

"He will need personal, direct care. Not regarding his medication or physiotherapy - this will be resolved by our dedicated staff visiting and overseeing the needed dosage and required activity - but simply on everyday basis. I was informed that he used to have a... a live-in physician? Can we define it like that?"

Mycroft grimaced.

"In a manner of speaking, yes."

"Would that person be available to continue in their role?"

"I'm afraid my brother had managed to alienate his... his friend, thoroughly. I have asked, several times, but he doesn't see a possibility to stay in contact with my brother anymore."

"Would it be possible for your brother to stay with family, or have someone hired whom he would trust? In cases such as this, the flashbacks may come at the most inauspicious times, and there is a need of a constant attention of someone living in the same flat or household, to check in on him on regular basis, to prevent an episode from developing or to call for assistance if something more distressing happens."

"I will try to arrange appropriate..."

"No" Sherlock's voice cut through their hushed conference. "I will go back home. You can install your infernal cameras wherever you want, but I don't need anyone invading my flat. I need only one person there, and he is not going to be there now. You can put someone in C to be nearby, but nobody is going to be living with me."

"Brother..."

"I will... I know I can get him back, Mycroft. I can't allow myself to think differently. Accepting a live-in assistance is out of question."

What he hadn't said, but Mycroft had heard perfectly well is 'nobody is taking John's place'. And the second, which he suspected Sherlock might not have identified was 'if someone is there, I may give up'. Presence of anyone else in the flat might mean acceptance of failure. And failure was not something Sherlock Holmes would tolerate.

"Very well. I will install an appropriate help in the C apartment and will equip the main areas of your flat with needed surveillance. This is however still a matter of weeks, most probably."

"How is he doing?" Sherlock's face tensed and he raised his dark glasses up to look at him more easily.

"He is regaining his strength. He is working at the vet centre, apparently very popular with his patients. He is spending time with some of his old acquaintances from the medical school. Reintegrating into the medical world, so to say. If all goes well, he will be taking the exams soon."

Sherlock frowned and shook his head.

"Exams?"

"Surgical qualification. Physicals, theoreticals. John is getting re-licensed as trauma surgeon, Shelock."

His brother blinked and looked to the side, his fingers wandering towards his eyes in a mechanical move.

"John..." he trailed off. "That's... That's good. That's very good. Is he going to pass?"

"I don't see any signs to the contrary" he said cautiously. Better not to mention the panic attacks and the weird occurrence during the conference - his people hadn't been close enough to observe and the young nurse who helped John proved to be quite resistant to their attempts at extracting information. "Still, it's some time in the future."

"I wish" Sherlock swallowed his next words, but Mycroft understood. He hoped to be there, too, if only to witness the final recovery of Doctor Watson from a distance. The way the man had came - from the frail, barely-there, withered creature, to the in-control, if slightly broken man of present - was astonishing. Going back to that meeting in the warehouse, he should probably have expected something interesting from the man, but he had been so above that all in his mind that he had never taken a longer look at the short soldier.

"I have a small gift for you, brother" he said instead.

Sherlock's face twisted in suspicion.

"Your old violin" he said finally, looking at the box. "Wh... Ah."

Mycroft opened the box, letting Sherlock inspect the contents.

"Natural strings" the younger man said finally. "That... that will be an improvement. May I?"

"Of course, brother mine. That's why I brought it."

Long, scarred fingers wrapped around the neck of the instrument, tuning it, checking the tone, stringing the bow to his liking. And then Vivaldi happened to them all, the sound so mild and lovely as almost none of them had heard before.

He bowed his head in silence as his brother played, eyes closed, hands flying deftly over the strings.

I really hope you are correct, little brother.

 

####

 

There was no dust and the flat seemed, in some way, half-empty. It wasn't just that feeling of a place long-unlived, but of a place sad. There were spaces on the shelves, like knocked out teeth. The kitchen smelled all wrong - the cleaning powder used by Mycroft's people was much harsher than whatever John had used. And there were mugs missing from the shelf. Most everything else was the same, except where it wasn't. That hurt.

Knowing that John wouldn't be there was one thing, but seeing a living proof was much more powerful.

John's books. John's mugs. John's shampoo, toothbrush and shaving cream. John's shaving brush. John's towels, John's medical journals...

He managed not to bolt upstairs, but he was pretty sure he knew what would the small room hold.

A heap of nothing.

His bedroom was much more promising. There was a chance for something that migrated there over time and never got picked up... He did, after all, steal John's things from time to time. Usually that ended on a laundry day, when John invaded his room ruthlessly and retrieved his missing garments, only to lose them again soon after wearing them.

John's dark blue shirt. The same shirt he had been wearing when he came back from the Yard and they had that great row about him being an idiot and endangering himself. He remembered watching John's shoulders straining the seams of the garment and him trying to work out how long it would take the enraged soldier's muscles to actually pop the button on his chest due to simple strain as he tensed his back and arms so.

The shirt was there, thrown across the small rug. They must have...

He swallowed and closed the bedroom door again. Good, nobody had touched it. Very good.

The wooden box on the fireplace mantle made his heart skip a beat.

Ah. So this is how despair tastes. Of copper.

He pulled a thin, silver chain from his breast pocket and put it around his neck, adding one more pendant to it. Cool metal felt alien on his skin, under the shirt, but it felt somewhat better at the same time.

Hope tastes of tea.

 

####

 

Aaaaah?

 

He looks sad. Have a dinner with him.

14:31

 

Oh, bugger off. Where did you get my number?

14:33

 

You fell asleep in my room and left your phone unlocked.

You really should be more careful.

14:37

 

And you had to change my bloody text signal, too?

14:40

 

It seemed appropriate.

14:41

 

I am at work! Fucking hell, I have to turn my phone off now.

14:43

 

You should be home now.

18:51

 

I am. So what? Is something wrong? Mycroft trying to

force you to do something? MI6 being uncooperative?

18:87

 

Irene?

19:10

 

Irene, bloody hell, what's wrong?

19:15

 

I couldn't reply for a moment. Talking to him.

He isn't well, John.

19:17

I'm sure Mycroft is taking care of him. He will be fine.

19:20

 

But he doesn't need his brother. He needs you.

19:21

 

He never really needed me.

19:23

 

You were his leverage point, John. Moriarty had special plans for you.

19:25

 

I know. You told me. That doesn't change a thing.

19:30

 

It should. We should talk.

Let's have dinner.

19:32

 

This isn't even remotely funny.

19:35

 

I am not trying to be funny. I'm deadly serious.

Maybe tea? Coffee?

19:37

 

Irene, I know that you know that I know.

Stop. It.

19:40

 

####

Chapter Text

"I have a visitor for you, little brother."
Mycroft's voice grated on his oversensitive nerves, but he managed not to jerk under the therapist's hands.
"Who?" he groaned, because if it was Lestrade, he could go fuck himself, but if it was John...
"Hi, Sherlock."
"Ah. Hi. I. Rene."
"I asked your brother to let me visit and he assured me you'd be happy to see me."
He grimaced and waited for his legs to be freed from the man's grasp.
"I am" he nodded. "How are you, Irene?"
She shrugged and looked at the men around them.
"I think I can safely leave you in Miss Adler's company, brother mine. Gentlemen, please, come with me," Mycroft gestured for the therapists to precede him.
He pulled on a robe - not his, but close enough to be acceptable - and sat in a wide stuffed chair by the window.
"I've been talking to John" she said without any preamble. "He's miserable."
He shrugged, extending his feet in front of him.
"Did he listen?"
"I'm not sure he believed me - rather, he believed that I believed in what I was saying. He is unable to allow himself to trust you."
He nodded slowly.
"I am not in any way surprised" he said. "I have underestimated his reaction to my..." he waved. "Situation. I must admit, I had made an error in calculating his emotional response to the events."
"Is there something neither of you had mentioned to me and that may have an impact... Sherlock!"
He jumped up and strolled to the window.
"I didn't take into account a certain changes in our status" he managed, stiffly. "He was quite right to feel unjustly cut out of the communication. I am personally responsible for that. He had expressed his..."
"He is heartbroken" she said, that simple sentence making him freeze in place. "He barely reacted to anything I did. Do you know how many women had John gone out with since your disappearance?"
"Oh, this is one thing that is perfectly obvious to me, unfortunately" he grimaced. "Because John, unlike me, is unfailingly loyal. He hadn't dated women, men or anyone in between in the time when I was gone."
He heard her draw a breath with a small hiss.
"Do you know how they call him in the city?" he laughed, his own voice hurting his ears. "The Lonely Doctor. Apt, isn't it?"
"Sherlock..."
"He had all that reputation. Women loved Doctor Watson. Cute, cuddly, for some reason always running to save that tall posh idiot from himself. Always leaving his current girlfriend in a lurch, because a text came. He used to be the man, the one that women for some weird reason flocked to. Maybe it was the smile, maybe it was the way he spoke. Maybe the surgeon's hands. Maybe his general way of being so painfully unassuming. Men too, by the way. John 'I'm-so-not-gay' Watson had at least three fanboys and one semi-romantic stalker. And I'm not even counting Moriarty, who despite all the claims to the opposite, had harboured a certain unhealthy fascination with John. When John leaned forward to see something at the crime scene, half of the NSY leaned forward to see how he filled these abysmal denims of his. And I do mean half, not half of the female staff..."
"Sherlock..."
"...sometimes I wondered why we weren't having more idiots waiting for us at the door, asking for his attention, but then I scared most of them away quite effectively. Without me, he would have been flooded with..."
"Sherlock!"
He sucked in a lungful of air.
"He had grieved your death. He had recovered, as much as he could. He had done through hell, and special therapy, to get the two of us out of that place and he didn't even know it was you."
"He... he what?"
"Mycroft never told him. I saw his face in the helicopter, Sherlock. The moment you opened your eyes - he saw your eyes and I thought I'd be having two unconscious bodies on my hands. He was barely aware of the moment we landed, for example. I don't know how he did it all - talking, walking, trying to patch you up. I was expecting him to keel over any moment."
"Mycroft had sent my... sent John to rescue me and he never told him?" he felt his brain realign in order to account for that information. "This is..."
"Very much like your brother, actually" she said with a sneer. "He didn't give John any usable background on the local political situation and he never warned him that the man on the base out there was his ex-CO. Who, if my nose was working correctly, was a bit more than just his ex-CO, mind you. I thought for a moment he might have been interested, but they just exchanged a very... general and public farewell, when we were leaving."
He felt himself stiffening a bit.
"And then there were all these young soldiers who basically worshipped him. Both at the first base - you probably don't remember that part, it was just a few hours, but that's where the ex-CO was - and at the hospital where you woke up. If it wasn't a nurse who just happened to blunder in when he was changing, then it was a private who had to fetch something and mistook the room for the supply closet. Or it was some other kind of a rather young soldier who simply felt he had to express their admiration..."
"Irene" he grated out.
"Oh, he never even looked. He just smiled at them absently and then went back to your room and cried. And then he talked to you. I tried not to eavesdrop too much, but sometimes I just couldn't stop myself. Do you want to know what John Watson is feeling right now? And ever since he accepted you were alive as a fact?"
"Fear" he said simply. "John is afraid of me."

####

Sherlock was fretting.
They weren't seeing. For all their intelligence and supposed observation skills, they were half-blind. Irene could be excused - she had clearly lost some of her objectivity when John was concerned. Mycroft... Mycroft was being obtuse on purpose. He was by design ignoring that which would have falsified his own earlier decisions or approach.
Here: Keeping John in the dark for the purpose of the Dobrota mission.
Also, quite probably, he simply didn't know John well enough to recognise the multiple ways the man was broken. Yes, he was standing straight, looking ahead, a seemingly well-adjusted member of society. The recording, made by one of his psychofans (very kind young teens who followed John, making sounds of distress when he seemed even a bit worried or tired, which meant almost always), had been uploaded under a caption "The Lonely Doctor and his bachelor shopping!! <3<3<3 !!" with a description of "Spotted! Captain Doctor Watson-Hotson in Tesco, picking up his groceries. He's back! Alive! And still SOOO CUUUTEEEE!!! We love our little cuddly bear doctor!" which made Sherlock feel faintly nauseous.
But he had his John on a little screen and could watch him without asking Mycroft for help. Right now, however, he was showing the clip to Mycroft and Irene, who were looking at it with mild interest and absolutely no understanding.
"You two..." he groaned. "He is ill, Mycroft. It's not just... Well, it's not only depression. And I understand that such an intense person as John would be most certainly displaying all the symptoms of that. Still, it isn't depression... There is something else deeply wrong with him."
"Yes, he has been left alone in this world by the only person he had let inside for the last four years" Irene grumbled. "Just that. And then learnt said person was alive."
"Stop being an idiot, if you can. If you can't, shut up" he barked. "See the way he walks, he is securing himself against something - as if he had habitually hit himself on something, recently."
"Why recently?"
"He is still dropping his guard, from time to time. If the habit was old, the reflex would have been much stronger. Something happened not so long ago to his... Upper left arm, or shoulder, can't really say from this angle. That's why he is turning sideways in a bigger crowd. But, there is... something..." he sat basically with his nose to the screen. "He is too tired. He is wavering in his step - see? It isn't a very big shopping bag, so he shouldn't be walking like that. And, anyway, since when does he get tired by simply doing small shopping? Maybe he has been missing sleep, it always affected him rather strongly. His treatment... Is this after or before the session of the day? No, I remember, this is before. I'd need a clip of the same day after the treatment."
Once he found one, yet again, some lovely fans providing, he added it to his "John" playlist and looked for more. More and more. John had many fans, apparently.
Which was the only positive thing about the situation, because otherwise it was looking worse and worse with every day passing.

####

He looked up at the next patient, who stood there, wringing her hands as she waited.
"Sit, Elaine" he said heavily. "I am referring you to another doctor from now on. You need specialised care and I'm no OB/GYN. I can't reasonably take responsibility for treating you now."
"But, doctor..."
"Elaine, would you rather have me comfort you and let this grow worse, or do you want this problem resolved? I understand you aren't feeling comfortable with a new doctor, especially after what had happened to you before you were directed to us, but I have a feeling you will like that one. Come on, let's take a small walk and I'll introduce you to her."
Elaine, with her shrapnel-caused period problems and her hesitant smile, followed him down the corridor. He knocked on the door and, following a soft "Come in", let her through before of him.
"Elaine Kennedy" he introduced her. "Maria Piotrowska. Just back from Balkans last week. She will be taking over part of my caseload. Maria will be able to help you much better than I ever could."
"But, doctor Watson" she squeezed his hand. "You sewed me together! You know what is wrong!"
"Elaine, I am a trauma surgeon and a GP. Not an OB/GYN. The reason I was the one who had to sew you was that there was nobody else available. If I had an ortho surgeon put my leg together, I would still depend on others to help me exercise it and on a radiologist to check it. This is the same - I was the hand behind the stitches, and I did it as well as I could at the time. Doctor Piotrowska will help you to get it back under control now."
"I..."
"Hello, Sergeant Kennedy" Maria's soft smile was more than welcoming. "From what doctor Watson had described, I think I can help you. Would you be willing to try?"
He sighed with relief as Elaine nodded and walked stiffly to the chair.
"Oh, doctor Watson...?" Maria's question stopped him mid-stride.
"Doctor Piotrowska?"
"Are you still in contact with that associate of your I've met on the base?"
He cocked an eyebrow at her and she nodded with a smirk.
"Absolutely. Should I hand your contact...?"
"If you could, I'd be grateful."
"Not a problem."

#

"I will be reducing and redirecting" he said to the Centre director. "I know that some will insist, but I have to be firm. If I don't cut my hours, I won't have time to recover enough for my own therapy to work. Once I'm done with that, I'll come back for more hours."
"What do you want me to do to alleviate the situation?"
"I need you to talk to the sponsors about hiring more nurses. It shouldn't be the volunteer's duty to cover nurse's duties, they are not qualified. Volunteers can talk, can help, can read to the patients, or do the part where they accompany people to other doctors, but cannot be given medical duties."
They exchanged heavy glances.
"Definitely. At least two? Three?"
"I'd say five, if you can get them. To provide more flexibility and to make sure the volunteers do get proper training. And at least two persons to manage the records. We're letting people slip between the cracks, because we don't have a correct filing system. We should actually have a proper computer system to do this, but I'm not counting on that. Right now we're already losing information - I know I have patients that I'm seeing repeatedly and for some, I've had to set up the file myself at least twice."
"I see your point" the tired man behind the desk sighed. "I'll put it in the budget proposal, but..." he shrugged. "Who knows. Still, if you could write your professional opinion, a feedback from someone with your rank and medical degree may bring more attention to the topic."
"I suppose there aren't that many similar centres that would not be experiencing similar issues?"
A tired shrug was all the answer he got.

#

"Sergeant, we need to move you to a cardiologist's care" he said for the fifth time, and for the fifth time the man nodded, but said "I'm sure you know best, doc" and stayed where he was.
"Let's go, then" he rose and watched his heavy-set patient blanch a bit.
"But, doc, do we, really...?"
"Sergeant, this is a serious heart issue. I can't treat you on my own anymore. We have reached the limits of what I'm allowed to do" and my patience, too "so I'm handing you over to the specialist you need. And because we've had some issues with patients not really following through, I'm now obliged to walk everyone to their new doctor. So, we're going, Sarge."
His patient sighed and arose reluctantly.
"Now, this new fellow here" he said morosely. "He has a lot of newfangled ideas. Diet" the rotund man shuddered. "And exercise."
"Well, we can't all survive all our lives on bacon and bangers" John managed to bite his lip and stop the emerging smile. "Sometimes a tomato or a bit of lettuce..."
"Rabbit food" Sergeant Herkin commented with distaste.
"Be it as it may" John agreed affably "you still need to eat more of it. Subsisting solely on fried meat will clog up your arteries and you'll keel over in the next three years, by my estimation."
"Ah, but what a beautiful death, Captain!"
John swallowed the first remark that he thought of and opened the door to the cardiologist's office.
The week was only beginning.

#

"We've received funds for new record keeping system."
The table fell silent.
"The what?"
"The new system for patient management" the centre supervisor raised a file in front of him. "Including entry terminals for all the doctors' offices and the nurse station. The funding is also for proper installation of all needed infrastructure, cables, power, desks... the software needed, including something that... Not sure what this is..." he turned the topmost paper to John, who by the virtue of his rank had become the main representative of military medics in the centre.
"It looks... Hm. Like something that transfers the ultrasound photos to the patient's record."
"But we don't have an ultrasound!" one of the ortho specialists protested.
"Well, apparently we will, now" John moved further in the specification. "And a new x-ray machine, to boot."
"Wow."
"They are also offering the costs of training for all the doctors, nurses and any additional staff and an IT specialist on call for us, twenty-four per seven, to ensure continuous service."
There was a moment of silence at the table.
"OK, what do they want for that?" Bill raised a bit at the other end of the table. "Because, forgive me my cynicism, this sounds much too good to be true. Will we have to tattoo the logo of their company on our asses, or give them our firstborns? Which, by the way, not all of us have.”
A nervous giggle around the table showed that he hadn't been that far off from what everyone else had been suspecting.
"Nothing that sinister. They expect the logo to be there - sticker on every object they pay for, no more. And a certificate of how nice they were, in our lobby. Maybe a statement by one of our doctors or nurses, for their own press materials. Not immediately, just after we start using the system. And they will ask for our monthly feedback regarding the usage of the system and whether we wish for something to be added to it."
"An IT company then" John stated, thumbing through the proposal. "Sounds fair. Run it through the lawyers, checking what kind of issues they might have been hidden in the contract. Make sure there is no risk of losing the patient data in case of some malfunction on their side - or that it is covered. All the cybersecurity doo-dah, so that we aren't going to be responsible if a hacker gets inside and pulls someone's data. And backup solution. Offsite" he rubbed his shoulder. "And..." he swallowed and had to pause to think. "Security, backup and something else... Ah. Let me think about it a bit more. I'm sure there was something..."
"John?" Bill was by his side with a glass of water.
"Thanks, Murr" he sighed. "Must have forgotten to drink something, yes. Ah, I know. The system must be certified for usage in medical offices. We can't just use any random piece of software, even if the price tag is nice. Also, ask doctor Piotrowska for input, she should be in tomorrow. She had worked in private health centre before, she will know what to look for."
He breathed heavily, not sure why everything went a little wobbly.

#

The young man in front of him was about dead of embarrassment.
"It happens to almost everyone, Stanley" he said consolingly. "And there are many who, unfortunately, experience it more often. Twenty-six percent of men in your age group, in fact."
"But... it was the first..."
The youngster reminded him of someone.
"So you were rather stressed? Pressed to perform?"
"...yeah..."
"And your partner reacted...?"
The boy - he was a boy, John couldn't keep up the charade of calling him a man - blushed even more.
"Badly" he said finally. "And I couldn't even... I mean, it was my first... I've been with girls before, no problem, but with Brian..."
"Ah."
The boy reminded John of himself.
A bit thinner, a bit more hair, a bit less wrinkled.
And the exact same heaping amount of awkwardness connected to these sudden self-discoveries.
At least now the army was much more welcoming to such cases.
He smiled at Stanley, who was sitting there, miserable and awaiting a terrifying diagnosis.
"We'll start with your heart, to eliminate cardiological reasons, and then diabetes. So, let me write out some blood tests, and we'll take it from there. Once we know which specific cause it may be, we'll follow up on that, hm? How does this sound to you?"
Stanley nodded eagerly.
Ok, this one John would be keeping.

#

Sometimes work seemed like the last thing left to him that made sense. Scaling down on his hours felt unreasonable - that meant more time for thinking, more time for introspection, more time for memories to emerge and freeze him in their unforgiving hold.
He had to reduce his hours, though. It was either that, or less sleep, and he couldn't reduce sleeping time if he wanted the treatment to work at some point.
He yawned and shivered, looking at his desk, cleaning the last pieces of paper from it.
What sense did it make to undergo the treatment, though? Why should he? There was nobody waiting for him to get better.

####

Another recording. John standing in front of some screen, talking about the deficiencies of the veteran care. Being brutally honest, shocking the audience. Being... Oh.
Sherlock pushed away from the desk and stood up, trembling.
John was using himself as an example.
Suicidal tendencies.
Abandonment.
Muscle tone loss.
Finding his place in the society.
Inadequacy.
Lack of connection with reality.
Lack of aim.
Lack of will to live.
He swallowed, moved his impressions aside and continued to observe John as closely as he could without resorting to begging Mycroft for CCTV recordings.
Not that the annoying prick wasn't hovering. Like literally at that moment.
"I am afraid, brother, that I might have done the two of you a disservice."
Really? Now it dawns on you?
"You could think of a way to repay him for that."
"Should you have any suggestions, little brother, I will welcome them."
Sherlock shook his head.
"Go and think for yourself, Mycroft. I thought you were the well-adjusted one. Use that. Think" he smirked, painfully “what would John Watson do?”

####

John massaged the injection spot and grimaced.
"I suppose it's just too many needles in the same area" Mike said, not very helpfully. "It looks like one huge bruise."
"Well, thank you, doctor Stamford. I wouldn't have worked it out myself."
"Let it settle for five minutes and then it's the recording time for you."
Fortunately at least this time the markers kindly stayed in place. He went through the whole round - bowing, jumping, waving his hands, full rotation of the arm, full extension of his leg. Mike seemed more than happy to see his rediscovered mobility and recorded all the details, making notes on every measurement.
"This is looking very nicely" he said finally. "If what I'm seeing in your results will be repeated with others, we'll be seeing this therapy going into final production soon."
"How many others are there?"
"I have three, besides you, and in total the hospital is treating twenty. Out of these, we got a high-level response, again, beside you, from eight. We're monitoring the other eleven cases to see why it didn't work."
"But this is already the full trial, meaning everyone had received the actual product, and not the placebo?"
"Absolutely. During the first phase we've had a perfect response from all of the subjects that had been later checked as being assigned the treatment and a perfect no-response from the placebo subjects."
"So suddenly in this group..."
"Over fifty percent unresponsive. We're now making correlations with specific aspects of the subject's life, starting with interactions with other drugs."
"Check also for previous conditions and old treatments" John suggested idly. "Maybe there are some illnesses that would leave permanent marks on the body or previous medicines that leave traces that won't be obvious, but still conflict with this little wonder cocktail. And, if these subjects are ex-military, check interference with less obvious substances, too. Some vets bring back very, khm, specific habits. Even if they discontinue the usage, the lingering effects may be, to say the least, exotic."
Mike nodded and chewed his lip.
"I thought that had been covered by the entry interviews, but maybe some aspect was missed. I'll check in with you once we have some reviews done, if you don't mind. Your insight would be invaluable, you know that."
John smiled, a bit bitterly, and started dressing again.
"The consulting army doctor. No, doesn't have such a nice ring, does it?"
Mike shook his head slowly.
"You could easily call yourself a detective, you know that? You have all the skills, the maths, the chemistry... and you have much better medical background than he will ever gain."
"And next to no deductive abilities, which are the most crucial part of the job."
His friend fixed him with a withering glare.
"John, you had just added three valid remarks to what had only been identified today as an issue in the trial - two I had been considering, but the third... only an army medic would have made this suggestion."
"Or a company's drug dealer" John remarked casually. "There was always one."
Mike straightened up suddenly.
"And you still say you have no skills to be a detective?"
John frowned, looking at his friend.
"What did I say?"

####

Breaking into the hospital system didn't help him all that much, unfortunately. Apparently the wretched place kept the trial documents at least partially in hardcopy. There were recordings of the patients, notes on their progress, statistical correlations between various data points, analyses of the single or collective outcomes, but there was no way to identify John.
Of course, he had identified John's basic medical record - kept in Mike's folders, to make it easier - but it told him next to nothing except for John's vital statistics. Weight: Too little, especially considering John's normal muscle mass. Height: Well. Heart rate, blood pressure: in the norm for a man of John's age and profession. Bone density, correct. There was even an analysis of the state of his cartilage tissue, which Sherlock read and memorised quickly, just in case at some point...
He shook all over.
There were x-rays of John's shoulder and he lingered on these, mapping the damage visible on the screen to his knowledge of the man. The fact that John must have been in constant pain ever since these incompetents from the Birmingham hospital had let him go was obvious. Yet, he had never taken any kind of painkiller in Sherlock's presence. He sometimes complained about a certain stiffness after falling asleep on the sofa, but Sherlock usually attributed this to John's natural tendency to find small things to grumble about.
Now he traced the ghostly image of the bones on the screen with his fingertips.
They had to have given him something for the pain, all these years ago, hadn't they? He probably declined, leaving more for ones that would have needed it more. Always the leader, always the commander. Always responsible for others.
How much would you bet, Holmes, that he had declined even the morphine IV at the hospital, claiming others were a priority?
Another point on his list "If John comes back home" - always ensure his partner's comfort, not depending solely on John's own words, but using his deductive powers to infer what the doctor required. Sherlock knew that his own body could take much more, or rather much different type of strain, than John's. He could run longer and stay awake for days, to be certain. Under specific circumstances, he could withstand torture and rather varied types of physical deprivation, using either meditation or his Mind Palace as a means of escape.
John's body had different capabilities. His muscle reflexes, especially his hand to hand combat skills, were phenomenal. And, Sherlock had to remember, that was with the shoulder being an obstacle. John had been conquering his body's infirmity on daily basis, reaching the levels normal couch-dwelling population would never be able to even attempt. His weapon skills were by now the legend among both the London's criminal masses and the police force (although, if asked for a witness of John having ever shot anyone, both sides would have claimed they had no idea what gun of Dr Watson's someone may be mentioning, at all). John's medical skills were more than adequate for their way of living and much, much above what that dismal little clinic could ever appreciate.
He could also function in much higher temperatures than was a norm for the British Isles. On the other hand, he was somewhat less suited to work in London's normal murky chill. He'd have to take that into account.
A shower, always. Hot one. And hot compresses. No matter what that stubborn, self-reliant man claims. A massage, probably. By now, having spent untold hours on having his arms and legs massaged by specialists, he was becoming quite knowledgeable about the ways in which human body reacted to certain types of pressure.
And no more allowing John to fall asleep on that sofa.
Maybe they could get rid of the sofa and buy something more bed-like, to allow John to rest in comfort when he is stubborn enough to try to stay awake as long as Sherlock is working?
Another point on the list.
He turned back to the screen, trying to find some specific data point that would help him.
The outcomes of the trial were differing vastly. A group of nine was showing drastic improvement and a group of eleven - no trace of change. He really hoped John was in the first group.

####

"Doctor Watson - or is it Captain Watson?"
John turned to see the wiry, lizard-like man approaching him.
"Doctor Stiles" he nodded in a curt greeting. "It is Major Watson, actually. But I usually go by Doctor. How can I help you?"
"Oh, there is a thing - nothing major, but still, interesting. Might be just up your alley, in fact. Ethical aspects of medical trials."
John cocked his head to the side.
"Why would you consider this to be of interest to me? I am sure the one trial I am participating in is conducted in a proper manner and there are no ethical aspects being overlooked or ignored."
"If you say so, then I suppose that must be true. After all, running after the consulting detective and being his assistant must have taught you some morals... or not."
"I'm not sure what you're implying" he drew himself to his full height - it wasn't as impressive as when Sherlock did it, but his military stance usually got him the right kind of attention. This time it failed. The disgusting man in front of him smiled in such a lizard fashion he almost expected to see a forked tongue flickering out.
"There is an hour or two on that conference dedicated to medical experimentation on Her Majesty's military personnel. I think it may be fascinating, too. I will certainly be attending. There is a hope of a discussion on a topic that excites me in particular - how people are chosen for these trials and how they benefit from the experimental treatment offered."
"Well, in my case, I have benefited, definitely" John could finally let go of the wall he had been unobtrusively using to support himself. "It would be hard to participate in a study of a treatment that doesn't apply to us and observe an effect that would not be showing. The deaf will be a better subject to test a new hearing aid than a person who does already hear. An invalid like me" he flexed his shoulder with a twinge of pain "is a better subject to check a drug that corrects their mobility than a person who is already fully mobile. I'm afraid I do not understand what you're trying to infer here."
"Nothing, nothing at all. It's just a wonder, how sometimes, out of so many potential candidates of similar characteristics, specific ones are chosen to be blessed with the early version of high-technology achievements."
"Early versions of medicines, like in everything else, are fraught with errors. I don't wish to make myself into a hero, as I agreed to participate with a specific aim in sight, but there are people who honestly risk their lives in order to prove or disprove certain theses."
"Ah, you see. You agreed to participate - you got the chance to make a decision! Many others would have liked it, too. I wonder how it is that it happened to be you."
"I think you'll find it's written somewhere in the trial protocols. As this is the very first such study that I'd even participated in, I have no experience with the formalities, but I'm almost sure you're not supposed to ask me questions and expect in-depth answers."
"Oh, I will most definitely check it. And I will make my own inferences from the documentation provided."
"Please, do."
"You may not be so happy about it, once I'm done."
Was this a threat? Really?
"Doctor Stiles, please do find someone else to try to intimidate. I'm not sure what you are implying and why, but I see you're worked up about something. Not yet sure if this is about me, about the military in general, about the company that had developed the drug or just this hospital. I can see your negativity though and I'm not willing to be abused anymore. Goodbye."
He turned on his heel and stalked away, trying to put as much distance between him and the man as possible, before he gave in to his baser instincts and punched the disgusting face soundly.

####

There were, among both the successful and less fortunate trial patients, certain characteristics that made Sherlock uneasy. All of them had reported certain levels of dizziness and even fainting spells.
All of them, except for his brave soldier.
He was quite sure he had identified the entry correctly, based both on the time of the first recorded session, "the baseline", which had been almost a week before his rescue, and the very fact that no adverse effects had been reported. Who better to ignore the downsides of an otherwise helpful therapy than John Watson? Well, probably Sherlock Holmes, but that wasn't the answer he was looking for now.
It stood to reason that patient number 13 was John.
"He is probably even not noticing them" he said when June came to check on him, reminding him he hadn't appeared for a session with her. "He is very good at making his observations seem less important. He always had such a throwaway way of mentioning his conclusions, I sometimes ignored them completely. Only... I have to admit, only after a good few cases where at the end I found out something and Molly had pointed out that John had already mentioned it, I started to pay more attention to his little utterances. He kept saying most important and vital things like 'incredible, a heart attack at thirty, with his built?' or 'nobody could hang themselves in this position, could they?' in that wondering tone that made everyone think he was just a small-clinic invalided GP that would never amount to much, except for being my 'assistant'. And you know what? He internalised it. He swallowed the world's scorn towards himself and made it his own. Started saying things like 'simple medic', 'old useless soldier', 'spavined warhorse' or, one I hated - I hate - in particular - 'common brain'."
June leaned closer.
"Why do you hate this one specifically?" she asked softly, as if already knowing the answer.
He sighed and looked down, at Mycroft's borrowed violin and plucked a string.
"Because this is the one that I had used to describe him, repeatedly. And then he took it as his own, started using it as a part of his everyday language, to pad his own findings with security phrases, to cushion his deductions in the blanket of 'just in case I'm wrong'. To diminish his impact."
June drew a breath, but didn't continue the topic.
"So you are saying that he either isn't seeing the symptoms you've identified as plaguing the other patients, or, if he sees them, he sidelines them..."
"Yes. He probably feels that should he tell Mike - Michael Stamford, our common, well, friend. He made me meet John all that time ago, and is now one of the doctors running the trial. He is afraid that if he told Mike he is experiencing any discomfort, the trial would not be continued. He probably is at least partially right, because if enough negative impact reports are collected, the whole thing may be put on hold in order to investigate the reasons. Or he may be lying to himself."
"What? Why would he?"
Sherlock laughed.
"Why wouldn't he! I'm sure he is finding all kinds of reasons to not tell Mike things. Starting with claiming to himself that Mike is a doctor, too, so he would have noticed should anything be going wrong. But I'm afraid he may simply be not noticing the problems, truly and honestly."
June nodded and made a welcoming gesture.
"Why would he be ignoring symptoms that severe?"
He looked up from the keyboard and met her gaze directly at last.
"Depression does different things to a human body. It floods the brain with such a mixture of hormones that it may make a thoroughly rational human being ignore the greatest discomfort. You should know it, June."
"I do" she leaned forward, watching him intently. "I only needed to hear it said in your own words. I need to make sure you understand fully what you are saying, Sherlock. We've gone over the parts that I felt we needed to reinforce - the parts where you took, in my opinion, too much responsibility on yourself. I think we have covered everything here. Still, there are elements for which you have to take responsibility - in an honest and open way. You tend to veer into sarcasm and pseudo-acceptance and I have a feeling that you try to distance yourself from that responsibility by making a show of overreacting. What you have to do is to, treating this as seriously as you can, voice that acceptance.”
“June…” he pulled at his hair and turned to the window. “I… I know where I failed. Basically, everywhere. This is what you want me to admit? I’m a loser. I let down the only person that had chosen to be with me, ever.”
“And here comes the overreaction and sarcasm, Sherlock” June sounded somewhat tired. “You are not responsible for everything that went wrong. Moriarty, your brother, probably every person on the force who had believed in your culpability. And the journalists, too. But your fault has to be admitted. So, Sherlock. Sit, take a breath and tell me about John Watson.”
He didn’t sit, but he did take a deep breath.
“My… John Watson. I’ve hurt him, June. I’ve hurt him so much he is afraid to see me again. Others may see him… Others would judge him, they’d say he is being unfair. But I know I’ve hurt John too many times, too much. I am afraid that should he let me in again, I could hurt him again, simply by taking actions that would seem required of me, but..." he paused "...but less of a priority to him."
"What would be John Watson's priority?"
He sighed.
"My survival."
"So... you're both afraid that if you two ever, well, get together again, you'd have to sacrifice yourself for some case?"
"I suppose so."
"How probable it is that something like that would happen?"
Sherlock shrugged.
"A week before I jumped we had barely seen the black clouds on the horizon."
"Do you predict you could be forced to do something like that again?"
"I'd rather actually die."
June sat back, looking at him, frowning.
"What is pushing you to get him back into your life?"
"I think he may be dying."

Chapter Text

"Brother mine, I have--" Mycroft paused, his surprise was unprecedented. "I can come back later."

"No need" Sherlock groaned from his prone position. "Irene, get off me right now."

She sat back, pouting.

"I had ensured that you've been given a leave to visit my brother, but I wasn't expecting it to be for something that... direct."

She unfolded her legs and stood up, freeing Sherlock's own from where she was holding them, assisting him with sit-ups.

"He needs the exercise" she said. "And I was there. And we needed to talk."

"Now what he needs is to dry off and see what I've just received."

He wiped off the sweat and sat down in front of the laptop Mycroft had set up on the coffee table.

The picture on the screen was razor-sharp, unlike most of the CCTV he had seen, and it was showing the interior of, ah, a hospital, definitely... which, yes, St Anne's. Very well.

Oh.

John was walking down the corridor, looking slightly beat, but definitely also in much better condition than on the last recording he had seen.

"This is immediately after him leaving doctor Stamford's office" Mycroft informed them, tapping on the timestamp on the screen. "Observe."

A man in white coat approached John from the side, standing with his back to the camera. There was an exchange in which John had participated minimally, mostly answering the stranger's enquiries. After a moment, he had visibly leaned on the wall next to him, assuming a relaxed and comfortable pose. That made the man stand differently, with his side to the camera, finally showing them his face.

"Pause" Sherlock tapped to stop. "The picture quality is good enough to read his badge, I suppose."

"Yes. Doctor Henry Stiles, employee of St Anne's hospital. Not related to doctor Stamford's research or involved in the trial in any way."

"He doesn't seem like the typical crowd that is attracted to John" Irene shrugged. "Too old."

"Au contraire, Irene. John's fanboys and the stalker were considerably older than him - five to ten years. And Moriarty was my age, so only two years younger. It's not only barely-graduate wet-behind-the-ears Privates who get struck with Major Watson's charm."

"Looking by his face, he isn't trying to charm John."

"Let's run it from the beginning and let me have a look at what they are saying..." he tapped the keys. "Now, John... he's correcting the rank the man used, but informing him that 'Doctor' is preferable. Something the man said makes him annoyed. The man had made some proposition and John is not interested. Ah, regarding the trial, the man is suspecting something unethical. Again, he's annoying John, see that fist curled up at his side? Ooh, he stood taller, yes. And he's very angry. The man is a punch in the face waiting to happen. And now John faux-relaxes and leans on the wall so I can... The man is talking about the way people are picked for the trials and what the benefits are for them. Interesting, he is implying something is wrong about John being chosen for the trial, I suppose. 'I have benefitted' John says, and observe, how he pushes himself away from the wall? Still he keeps the man standing with his side to the camera. Oh, he's saying that someone with no problems would not be joining a drug trial, because they would not be able to see if the drug worked. Well, obvious" John on the screen moved his shoulder "...ah. Using his own example. And being deliberately obtuse, which John can do with the best of them. The man - doctor Stiles - is trying to suggest wrong people are being chosen, no, that there is some preference as to who would undergo experimental therapies."

"Well, there is" Mycroft paused the recording for a moment. "Whoever the doctors know that had the most fitting situation."

"Also, whoever doesn't have much to lose" Irene added.

He wished them both to shut up, but instead, he tapped the key to start the clip again.

"John tells him that medicines have their downsides and that such patients are risking a lot for the supposed benefits. The man seems to be an advocate for people who didn't get into the trial... John tells him off, rather smartly and tells him to bother the doctors involved in the research. The man agrees... Oh. He is threatening John. And John tells him to piss off. And..."

John marched steadily away from the man, in the direction of the camera. The thin doctor behind him turned to look at him, and such an expression of vivid hatred crossed his face that Irene gasped.

"He is..."

"Definitely up to something. I'll need that recording, Mycroft. I have to see it again, to make sure he didn't do something to John, or if I can work out what started that conversation. Now, let me think, the two of you. See yourselves out."

“Are you implying, brother, that what we just saw was a deliberate action on John's side? He meant… he wanted you to…”

“I doubt it was deliberate as you or I would define it, but John's instinct was to make sure there was a recording of that exchange. I'm almost sure that if you asked him where the cameras were, he'd be unable to pinpoint any of them, including that one from which the recording was.”

He sank down onto the stiff, still-strange chair and bowed his head. The moment they closed the door, he jumped up and pulled out his own laptop.

"Henry Stiles, who are you..." he tapped a few keys and bit his lip. "Ah."

The file on his screen looked innocent. Almost innocent.

The hospital database gave up quickly, and he had access to all the patients' records that he could wish. Which was surprisingly, or rather unsurprisingly, little.

Doctor Stiles seemed to be spending his time haunting the corridors and making threatening remarks at passing patients.

He ran the recording, sent in the meanwhile by Mycroft, again.

There was something about the man that made his skin crawl, just a bit.

Predator, in the presence of a carrion eater...

That was what John was feeling, too. And John was a predator with an open wound. A vulture would be stalking him with an intent.

John needed someone with a large stick to beat the vulture away. And who better than a tall, annoying detective who knows just where to hit?

He pressed the intercom button that allowed him to communicate with the reception staff.

“Manny, have my physio schedule rearranged with doctor Jeffries. As many hours a day as they think I can take, and then add some. And please ask doctor June to contact me the moment she is free” which was the nice way of saying ‘right now’, because June didn't really have any other patients under her care.

It was no surprise she was at his door in twenty minutes.

“Sherlock, what is it? What happened? Are you OK? Is this about John?”

“As a matter of fact, yes” he twirled in place and sat down, showing her to the seat opposite. “I need you to get me as stable as possible. As quickly as you can.”

“It doesn't work like that, as you well know” she sat, but kept frowning. “What happened?”

“I found a trail of misdirection, betrayal, disappointment and jealousy. Also, I think I know who is hurting John.”

“But…. that's good, isn't it?”

“Not when I have only a thin link, but I can make it stronger” he fingered the chain around his neck. “I need to be up and mobile. I need a place, a perfectly secure place to talk to him, without causing any suspicion…”

He felt a flash of inspiration and grabbed for his phone.

“Mycroft. That thing you could do for John? I suppose you are still looking for something?”

His brother inhaled sharply.

“Get these idiots at the promotion board to move their asses. They are stalling because John's team had humiliated one of their favourites, right? Get that general who always sits in the corner at Diogenes, he hates their collective guts. Ask him to help you, if needed. They had held his son back from advancement and he was put under a wrong commander, invalided out…”

“Shot and not recovered in time, because a medical team had been delayed…” Mycroft sounded vicious. “The boy may never walk again, he said.”

“Very sad, obviously, but the point is, that team was John and his nurses. I've just put the timeline together. John was shot trying to get to him! Check the dates in the reports, obviously, but it fits. It all matches. Someone was posturing, because stupid medics had beaten the combat team in the camp shooting competition, and they had sent the medical team into unnecessary danger first, then they delayed the pickup and then they denied them transport…! Transport, when their commanding officer had been grievously injured!”

“Sherlock…”

“I need you to start the process, make this go forward. All the medals, everything they are owed. Conspicuous gallantry, hell, see if you can't get a knighting out of this. As big as possible, Mycroft. Get them all properly processed. That nurse, Murray? Check his records, I'm almost sure he has some decoration held back from before. And some misdemeanours they are holding over the man's head. Pull out all stops. Call in any favours you have. Hell, promise them I'll work on some of these shitty government cases that had been waiting for me. Just. Get. Them. Moving.”

“What… You saw something, Sherlock.”

He sounded tired, worn and worried. Quite unlike the man who was the British Government should sound, ever.

“I need to get him into a strictly secure place, Mycroft, but with a good excuse. Whoever is after him… They are poisoning him, in some way. But you know he won't listen if we just approach him directly, so I need you to set it up so we can get him away and explain it to him on a neutral ground.”

“Sherlock…” Mycroft sighed. “What did you find?”

“I'm guessing they already know he had been the one to get me out. Check for another mole, brother mine, but I suppose it's more probably someone in the hospital in Croatia. Innocent letter or email about their own micro-celebrity coming to the Balkans to be a badass. And they described me or Irene. As we've only visited 221B for an eyeblink, these people don't know where I am, but they are hurting John to bait me. And they are using Stamford to do it, poor idiot. But we can't just warn them, or whoever is running the operation will simply disappear. We have to bait that person ourselves, and we need John's and Mike's cooperation to do this.”

"I have a certain feeling that it's not only your logical thinking that is being engaged here, Sherlock. Do consider whether this is the most effective way of doing this."

"What else can I do? Sit around and wait? We don't know that man's plans, but I do see several interesting days coming up - Christmas, my birthday, anniversary of the day I met John. Which of these has the greatest potential for mayhem?"

"We could get John into a secure location at any time" Mycroft said, just to be contrary.

"No, you could not" he snorted. "If you kidnapped him, he'd raise such a fuss you'd need several agents just to make him sit. And he wouldn't be happy to have to talk to me and nothing you'd have to say would convince him. Also, we'd make our target withdraw and attempt again, sometime later."

"So you are going to use her authority to make your... to make John listen to you?"

Sherlock huffed with annoyance.

"Really, brother. You make it sound as if I was planning to use the Palace as a dating agency. I just need to get John in a safe place and willing to talk to me. How I get this outcome, I don't care. And if being decorated and promoted makes him a bit more willing to stay still and listen, for his own good..."

"And the fact that you're going to kill two birds with one stone..."

"Brother. Do not be so common. Now, June. How quickly can we get me successfully rewired? I need to seem reasonably stable at least a week earlier than the promotion board finishes their deliberation."

"What..."

"I'll need to go tux-shopping" he cocked an eyebrow. "I'd rather not have a panic attack at the nice establishment Mycroft and I patronise. That may damage our good opinion in the eyes of the very exclusive tailor family that had been helping to dress our family in properly constructed suits for the last several generations."

 

####

 

"We can try injecting it a bit lower" Mike brandished the syringe. "I don't want to incapacitate you while trying to fix this."

"Go on" John shrugged, feeling about as enthusiastic about getting injected as a man about to enter the dentist's office. Yes, it was useful and for his own good, but he'd be damned before he called this pleasant. "I hope it will make it sting less. It limits the way my shoulder moves, too, so maybe we'll have better outcome in this recording."

It didn't, not really, but at least it was not so close to the joint that had been most affected before, so he could easily overcome the muscle pain and do all the needed exercises.

Finally, he could dress and ask the question that had been worrying him for several days.

"Mike... Is doctor Stiles somehow connected to this trial?"

"Stiles? Which one is... Ah, that rather rat-faced fellow? No, he has nothing to do with us. Why would he?"

"He's been asking me questions" John chewed his cheek for a moment. "And he's been posing them in such a way that I'm not sure whether he has something against me, your team or military in general. He seems... Seems to be looking for any kind of unethical dealing he might find and sink his teeth into. Still, unsure who he is trying to discredit, but be on a lookout, just in case."

Mike sighed.

"There are always vultures around such trials. Trying to make people from the placebo group to sue the research team for not giving them the active substance, or if the trial goes wrong, urging people to sue for every real or potential issue. Or trying to remove someone from the research team, by getting a damning evidence of some kind of misconduct."

"Mike" John leaned on the desk. "I am your misconduct. Even if the drug had been ready to go into final trials, you won't convince me I had been on the list of candidates."

The portly doctor sat back in his chair.

"On one hand, you're right" he said, with no reluctance. "Of course it does look a bit suspicious. Until you take the first approval submission of the trial and read it carefully."

John frowned.

"I've shown you this document on the plane, don't you remember? You fell asleep over it, so maybe not, but the meritum is that there are several cases of patients provided as examples of what kind of trauma we wanted to be dealing with. Anonymised, obviously, but if you open it..." Mike pulled out the slim document "...and check 'patient 3', you will see something you know."

"Patient 3" was, for all purposes, John. Including the brief injury history, photographic documentation and smartly anonymised military background.

"What the..."

"You don't remember signing the document, I suppose, these hacks at Birmingham tended to trick people into various shit like that, but you allowed them to use your medical history as a reference, in case of a possible treatment becoming available. We used this to make a submission of this trial, as one of the doctors who had initialised this two years ago had transferred from there. He managed to get himself assigned as a case specialist for some of these documents - don't ask, I have no idea what he did - but unlike these pricks at the military hospital, he was actually planning to get these specific people the treatment they'd be basic cases for. They mostly were planning to milk some more money from the system."

"So he, what? Put these six injuries as the examples of what the treatment was supposed to deal with, and added that he is definitely planning to deal with these six? How was he going to do it, considering they were anonymised?"

"Ah" Mike cringed. "They were anonymised by him. The military had kept them as they were. Which is, in this case, a good thing. We can point out that, unlike many others, you were supposed to be one of the subjects ever since this had seen the light of day."

"Oh" John sat back. "So, even though my... Mycroft had strongarmed some people into getting me treated, he simply... accelerated the events, not caused them?"

"It would seem so" Mike stretched and smiled affably. "Now, are your fears for our future allayed?"

John shook his head.

"In one way, yes" he drawled. "But... what can Stiles be about then?"

 

####

 

Sherlock bit his lip, drawing a bead of blood.

“There has to be something we're missing, John” he whispered into the silence of the room. “Something rather obvious. Something so obvious that you would have mentioned it in the passing and then looked in surprise at me when I'd confirm it. What could John say?” he buried his fingers in his hair and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to channel his doctor. “Look at him, he looks fine now. And…”

He froze.

“He looks fine now. But on that older clip…”

He was at his laptop in a flash.

“This clip, John is tired. Tired, even after the treatment. Tired. A bit better here. A bit bett…”

He hated to write things down, as it slowed him down, but that was actually what he was looking for now. Time to process.

“Dates. Dates…!”

The phone. Mycroft.

He would be damned for depending on his brother so, but he had no choice. Not until he was well enough to venture outside of his rooms in the secure medical centre they had picked. Not until he had to leave them, and the point was getting ever closer.

“Ah” his brother coughed. “Something happened when I wasn't looking?”

“Don't be annoying. You're always looking. Where is John's therapy schedule?”

“Well, it should be in the file from the hospital…”

“Mycroft…!”

“In your inbox.”

He threw the phone on the chair and crashed to his knees in front of the laptop. Plot the videos against John's schedule

“Mycroft. The ceremony, what day it is?”

His brother swore softly.

“Monday next.”

“You must talk to her. We have to move it.”

“Impossible, brother mine. But I will have a team at hand.”

He sat for a moment, bowed in pain, unable to draw a breath.

"Have more than one team ready, brother mine" he said finally, his inhale troubled and heavy. "We will have to move in coordinated fashion."

"Sherlock... Please, remember to talk to her, before you do anything drastic. She doesn't take well to being blindsided."

"Oh, I will" he stood up suddenly, fingering the chain around his neck and pulling it out, making pieces of metal there glint softly in the reduced light. "I definitely will. I have a favour to beg of her."

 

####

 

"Ah, Mr Holmes the younger" the man behind the counter scowled a bit at his glasses, but simply directed them further in. "What can I help you with today? And the ladies?"

"My colleagues" he quickly declared, shooting them a glance. "Due to recent illness I'm afraid I need new measurements taken, Mr Thompson."

"Ah, definitely. I can see that" the man scowled. "Very well. Timothy, tea for the ladies. Mr Holmes, please follow me."

June made an uncertain gesture, but he nodded shortly.

I'll be fine.

"I'd be grateful if you could keep the door ajar" he said in an undertone to the elderly tailor. "My last adventure abroad left me with a lingering distaste for locked rooms."

It took all of his resolve to admit that much. June had coached him to say these exact sentences for the previous two days, ensuring he'd be able to make the point as calmly as possible and in a fashion at the same time self-assured (as much as he could, under the circumstances) and engendering confidence.

"I... see. Definitely. Your comfort is our aim, after all."

There was some silence as various parts of his body were carefully wrapped in measuring tape and the outcomes recorded in appropriate spreadsheet (next to his old sizing, so it looked rather sad in some points, but actually impressive in others).

"Are you assuming this will become a permanent situation, or shall we be reviewing this in the coming months?" Thompson's soft voice broke his reverie.

"I think we'll have to review" Sherlock sniffed a bit. "That depends on... on how it works."

He felt uncharactaristically open recently. Too many sessions with June, probably. Not good for general public, he'd have to rein it in before he ventured outside unsupervised, but for now, in controlled environment like this.

"I see" the older man motioned him to raise his arms and started on the width of his back. "And, may I ask... the other set of measurements that we're keeping under your account... should we scrap these?"

Oh, so this was how Saville Row fished for gossip.

"I'm afraid that will be true" he drawled, observing the dismayed face of the man now checking the length of his arm.

"I'm sorry to hear this."

"We'll need to come again, to take a new set" he continued as if nothing had happened. "Certain circumstances have changed."

And this is what Saville Road looks like when it's confused.

"I must admit I do not comprehend..."

"Military life changes a man" Sherlock felt a little ripple of amusement at the way the man's eyes widened.

"That would require..." the consummate professional was lost for words.

"Well, for one, changing the fit in the shoulders" Sherlock bit the corner of his lips to stop himself from smirking.

"Sherlock, stop being a git" Irene stuck a hand with a mobile inside the fitting room. "Mr Thompson, I apologise in advance for anything else he might say. And if I'm guessing the topic of your conversation correctly, you can see for yourself here" she waved the smartphone "why he is being so annoying."

"This is most... irregular..." the man trailed off as he pushed the glasses up his nose. "But thank you, Miss...?"

"Irene. And you're welcome. Take your time."

Sherlock peeked over the tailor's shoulder as the man swiped zoomed in on a photo of John in the middle of the hospital courtyard, white coat thrown on the bench beside him, a pair of old DPM trousers and an annoyingly tight tan vest definitely not hiding any important detail of his body from the viewer's eye.

"Well, that is a significant change" the tailor admitted. "And I would certainly appreciate the challenge, should he require our services."

"He will" Irene's hand appeared again and the mobile was replaced in it. "Just make sure this one here looks as smart as he can."

"I certainly will" Thompson drew himself to all his height. "Well then, Mr Holmes. Let's see about the patterns, shall we?"

Chapter Text

The doorbell rang.

He didn't react, apart from stretching his right leg a bit more to the side and holding the position.

Focus, John.

Someone knocked on his door.

"Uh, Cap?"

Bill. Keep the position.

"Cap, there is an official messenger for you here. A letter, for your own hands, apparently."

He breathed, slowly, in, out.

"If it's Mycroft, tell him to piss off."

He heard, faintly, a quick exchange.

Breathe, slowly.

"He says it's not from Mycroft" Bill sounded worried. "Cap, it's from the Palace. An official invitation. And there are ones for us, too. A decoration ceremony."

He dropped the position and shook himself out.

"Very well" he sighed and combed his slightly wet hair back with his fingers.

The downstairs living room - opening almost directly into the hall - was full of his flatmates. Despite there being only six of them in total, they seemingly crowded around the stiff, officially-looking man in the doorway.

"Major Watson?"

The man was only slightly taller than him but apparently held a higher degree in looking at people down his nose.

"That's me."

John smiled and stood at rest, arms behind his back, his shoulder, arm and chest muscles nicely tense and just a teensy bit bulging from under the sleeveless vest.

"Sir, there is an invitation I'm supposed to deliver to your own hands, from Her Majesty, inviting you to a small, private, award ceremony. Your... associates, having taken part in the actions leading to these awards, are included. There will be cars made ready for you..."

"We'll take cabs" John snatched the heavy envelope and broke the seal.

"John...!"

"Told you, Bill. I grew out of getting into unmarked cars long ago."

The Palace messenger made a suffering face.

"And if we ensured that someone you know..."

John pulled out the invitation.

"Yes. If he feels I should be there, he will know who to send. Otherwise, we'll take cabs. Now, if you excuse me, I still have exercise left to do before I leave for the hospital."

The man's glare went down and up his arms, stopping at the bruises and multiple injection sites.

John felt his spine straighten by itself as the courier's lips curled with distaste.

Bill's hand clapped his right arm and squeezed slightly.

"We'll be there" the taller man said calmly. "All of us."

 

#

 

The ceremony itself was probably going to be tedious, as most of them were, but it was a good sign. A chance that maybe, just maybe, someone would give his subordinates the recognition they deserved for all that shit they had lived through. Late, but maybe finally here? His team was greeted by an liveried usher and conducted to the special guest seats in the front side row. There were many illustrious personages - rather numerous, for a supposedly private ceremony, he thought. It was rather stuffy, despite all the tall ceilings. He took a longer breath, trying to ease the tension that had settled somewhere in his midsection.

"Looks serious" Murray whispered when a few guards were quietly placed along the aisle.

"Well, for me definitely. I'm apparently considered a prime entertainment now."

"You are decorative, Cap."

"You can call Rogers "Cap", Murray. I'm a bloody major now."

"You are not a major, Cap, and we all know that."

"Not unless they'd finally processed that crapload of documentation, and maybe not even then."

"You could have known by now, if you hadn't told them to wait for our papers to be cleared, too."

"I thought it was unfair" he shrugged. "And I was pretty sure if I didn't blackmail them with my promotion, yours could have gone quietly missing. A bit risky, that."

"We are grateful, Cap. We just aren't very happy about that."

"You will be, once all the promotions and decorations you lot deserve are finally through. We'll be living the life of princes."

"Or, at least, decorated combat vets of good rank."

He snorted, but the sight he caught at the other side of the room made him freeze.

Mycroft Holmes, leaning on the pillar. Holding a thick cane, much too short for his height.

"Is that...?"

"Yeah."

"The girl in the car?"

"His PA. That's why I told you to stay quiet, yes."

"But you trusted her, in the car?"

"I trusted her to be a sign that this is the right car. Nothing more."

Mycroft nodded to one of the guards and there was suddenly a movement all around them.

"Ladies and Gentlemen. Please rise for Her Majesty."

They stood up, smartly in a row, according to seniority, all gleaming and perfectly pressed. They had spent two days on ironing he shirts, polishing boots and buffing all the metal possible to the right level of shine. They were ready, hopeful and curious.

John was ready, hopeful and, as it was more and more common lately, tired. He frowned. More tired than he felt normally at that time of the day, actually. The feeling of slowness and weariness that had been with him since the morning intensified with every heavy heartbeat. Everything at once seemingly started to press down on him. Every little cut, every little graze, every needleprick, every IV port and each and every bruise brought on by the regimen of physio he had been following so religiously. There was even, to his extreme annoyance, a small twinge of pain coming up from his leg, through the back of his hip, his shoulderblade and straight through his shoulder, as if someone had connected these places with a thin thread and was now twinging it, like a kid plucking a violin string.

There was the anthem, and he sang, semi-consciously, keeping his voice low, in accordance to his friends' wishes - they always said they knew he knew the words, but they didn't want to be reminded of what he did to the melody. Then everyone sat down and the thread of pain blossomed into something that made him gasp.

Murray's concerned gaze was like a strong touch on his skin. He could feel the way his men were looking at him as he fidgeted in his seat to find a better position and flex his leg.

With every minute of meandering speeches and polite applauses he felt less and less like someone who belonged there and more like

just a random bloke who had wandered in from the street and would be thrown out the moment they noticed he was there.

"All right, Cap? That Holmes guy is watching you."

Of course Mycroft bloody Holmes was watching him. Looking for a weakness. Waiting to pounce on any uncovered softness. He had to make sure - triple sure, in such a place! - that there was no softness and no weakness now in him. The dress uniform helped a lot - it provided structure, a place, a way to identify oneself. In a way, it provided an external skeleton he could hide in. No soft belly to be attacked. No heart to be uncovered for all too see and to make fun of. Silly John, trusting John, soft John. No more.

He saw his people being called up to where the dignitaries were waiting, his men and women finally getting the recognition they deserved. He tracked the medals listed, the official thanks and congratulations, special awards.

Finally.

His eyes met Mycroft's again. The man gave him something less than a nod but slightly more than a blink.

Ah.

"Lieutenant William Murray" the old voice said finally and John's face snapped up as Murray stepped up and was pinned, ribboned and shaken hands with, his rank insignia being changed to the captain's ones. "Thank you for your service, captain. We hope this country can produce more men of your calibre, and that under your guidance we will see them grow into their own greatness."

Freshly-made Captain Murray managed - barely - a "thank you, your Highness" and turned wobblily back towards his seat, when John's own name was called and he rose, trying to regain the balance that he had apparently lost somewhere on the way from the car.

"There are multiple reasons we meet here today, Major Watson" she reached for the first box presented to her, unfurling the ribbon that lay there. "We are decorating you with these not only because of your bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, and not only for your sacrifice in the line of duty" she was pinning yet another small thing to his chest, and each and every one of them felt like a lead weight, dragging him under, not letting him take a whole breath. Each was announced by a man's voice, listing all the various commendations and services to the audience. "There are other ways to render service to the crown, and more than one way to glory among your fellow men. You've shown dedication, lack of hesitation and a capacity for both compassion and courage. Therefore, and for the actions you've performed for the Crown, you are now asked to kneel."

He blinked. There was the small pillowed pedestal in front of him he hadn't noticed before, and he was slowly kneeling, his right hand tightly holding onto the side support. He hardly felt the sword touching lightly on his shoulders and was prompted to stand up. He had to use both hands to push himself up from the kneeling position and found his head particularly heavy as he watched the Queen's hands adding a new ribbon to the collection he already had. Her next words barely registered, but he tried to focus on her voice with all his might.

"...one more small piece of metal that you are asked to accept - but We will leave this task to someone more suited."

He sighed and nodded slowly, expecting some appropriately doddering officer of one order or another to add yet another ribbon to ones already keeping him grounded. A pair - ridiculously expensive one - of Italian loafers threw him off that course of thought.

A large hand - long-fingered, scarred and calloused - opened in front of him.

Two thin, three-metal rings glinted in the light of dozens of lamps and candles.

Platinum, titanium, silver. Braided together in a never-ending plait. And a chain, thin and silver, coiled below them in the palm of that lovely, well-known hand.

He sighed again.

He wanted to bury his face in that hand, to breathe in the smell of that cologne, to hide himself from the world in the blackness of that jacket.

"One of Our younger cousins asked Us for the honour of participating in this ceremony. Although We thought he was still not in the state appropriate for such an occasion, We relented. And now, We hope, so will you."

He blinked, slower and slower.

"John."

He reached out and touched the bigger ring. It was warm, the temperature of the body. The temperature of the hand that held it. Like it used to be, on his own hand, albeit for a short time. It couldn't have retained the heat when it was resting on the mantle at 221B, could it? If it was warm, it must have been held for a rather long time now. Carried in hand, probably. Or on that chain, around his neck, both rings resting over his heart--

"Please?" the sweet, rumbling baritone made him blink.

He tried saying something. There was something that he had meant to say, but there was nothing coming to him. The whole day had stripped him of words. The only thing that was left was weariness.

Someone was speaking, but he couldn't hear them, he shook his head to make them stop. That made the room go blurry on the edges and he had to catch himself on the pedestal stand to stop himself from falling.

Someone was kneeling in front of him, and his own hands were tangling in the thick, unnaturally short locks, trying to calm the man down. He was meant to be saying this thing he wanted to say, but no sound came out.

"John?"

One word made its way to his brain and he nodded, noting the way his whole body was hurting on his every move.

It is a good thing I am short. I'm closer to the floor.

And that thought was over by the time he slowly collapsed and two strong, musician's hands eased him down.

"Take these things off him" a voice demanded. "He stopped breathing!"

"I have heartbeat" another person. "Rescue breathing, now."

There was a pinch on his nose and a mouth covered his own.

"...four, five, six, another..."

Again, a portion of air pushed into him.

"...five, six, another..."

Again.

"...five, six..."

Again.

"Where's the bloody medical team?"

"Coming, sir."

Again.

"Take that uniform jacket. Major Murray, please..."

Again.

"What the hell is going on here?"

"The paramedics!"

Again.

"Sir? Please, we'll take over."

No.

Again.

"Sir? We need to intubate him, please stand aside."

I have to tell him.

Again.

"Sir? Guards, please."

"Go away."

Again.

Breathe, dammit, John, or he will never know.

"Sherlock, this is hardly the time..."

"Yes."

"John?"

"...yes."

"Hospital, now. You two..."

"...no."

Sherlock's face swam to focus in front of him.

"What do you need, John?"

"Th'rings."

He felt his hand being curled around two metallic shapes. His fingers picked the smaller one and, focusing deeply, he pushed it onto the correct slender digit and then smiled.

"Thank you, love."

The whispers were fading again, but as the bigger ring was pushed onto his own, stocky finger he relaxed and turned his face into Sherlock's cummerbund. It was so much easier to close his eyes now that he could feel the warmth of his partner's body.

"John, stay with me. John? Jo..."

Black.

Light again.

"Come on, Cap. Be the stubborn arse we know you are!" Murray was helping to carry him. Probably the fault of all these medals and ribbons, they had pulled him down so much, making it so hard to breathe. Where was Sherlock? His hand flailed around a bit, but a bigger one he was searching for was not there, until someone hissed "He goes with!" and a spot of free space opened on his left side.

"Not that I complain, but who the fuck..."

"MI5, his security detail as of now. Also, his bloody husband. John? Are you with us?"

"Love."

"I love you, too. Please stay awake, at least until we get to the hospital."

He shuddered at the thought of crossing the door of St Bart's.

Black.

Light.

"...to St Anne's" Sherlock's voice ordered. "Some of the doctors there know John, if not personally, then by reputation."

"And he is undergoing his treatment there" Murray provided helpfully.

The warm, big hand closed on his own.

They were worried. He was worried, that man.

"...shoulder. Regained mobility..."

The world around him slowed down again and then faded to black.

Chapter Text

Light.

Voices.

Two voices.

Floating.

Something holding his hands.

Tapping of something steel-capped on the stone.

"Experimental. Military-developed experimental therapy. And you give me the documents only now. You kept me in the dark. Had I known...! You allowed him to do this. Your brother in law. They treated him like a lab rat."

"He agreed. He basically volunteered. He is, after all, a professional. He knew the risks."

"You goaded him into this. You baited him, dangling Irene in front of him...! He isn't a neurologist."

"Neither are you. And he knew enough. Doctor Stamford gave him all the documentation. Also, nobody predicted some idiot would try to sabotage the trial. Now, auntie is waiting for a status update."

"You are good at status updates, you can do it."

"She wants to hear from you."

"Tell her my both hands are busy. I can't let him go."

"Shall I make it an official order?"

"Piss off."

"Now, talk to your aunt, little brother."

"Come on, Myc... dammit! Take that fucking phone away! Yes, aunt. Yes. I'm so sorry. No, we are at the hospital. He is being annoying. No, John is... As well as he can be. No, not... Absolutely. Yes. I am so very sorry. I'll tell him. I'm sure he is very sorry. Yes, Easter then. I'll make sure."

"I hope you can."

"Piss off, brother mine. And, if you never did it before, pray. Because I will be most unhappy, as a recovered drug addict, if I lose my husband due to someone injecting him with what seems to be a fucked-up combination of street drugs. I'm almost sure family wouldn't appreciate the fallout."

 

####

 

The next time he woke up, the room was quiet and dim. A soft whoosh of the ventilator corresponded with the feeling of being choked despite still breathing, but he couldn't raise a hand to signal for help. There was something restricting his left wrist, holding it down. He could barely feel his right hand at all. Rather soon his body's natural reaction to an intruder made itself known and he was actually choking and coughing, the monitors around him registering his distress immediately.

"Shh, shh. Relax. They'll pull it out. I called the nurse, someone will be here in no time. Try to relax now. You know you should" the warm hand disappeared from his wrist and his face was being wiped with a cool, wet cloth.

He made a wild movement with his freed hand.

"St Anne's. Six days. The drug trial was hacked by... by a person here in the hospital and it did a number on your heart and lungs. They have brought everyone else in for checks. Strain on heart muscle is not a prevalent outcome, but they found at least three other persons, though not in such an advanced condition. Lungs also, five people in total..."

There was a new person in the room suddenly, and yet another, saying something about the monitors, and the tube was finally pulled out. A standard battery of "flashlight in the eyes, follow my finger, do you know where you are, can you see this" checks followed. He was deemed conscious, disoriented and informed that he was in need of more hydration, but in a much better condition than the week before and definitely on the mend.

His muscles felt like lead wool - soft and too heavy to move. He could barely turn his head, but once he managed to roll it a bit, he finally could take a look at the man curled up in the chair next to his bed.

"You look like shit, love" he managed to whisper.

"So do you."

"Match made in heaven then."

He had to close his eyes for a moment, when simply looking became too much of an effort.

"Irene told me she explained..."

"She did. A bit."

"I... I can't do it any better."

"You can."

It was still a challenge to breathe deeply, so he had to be economical with his sentences. Still, they had to talk at some point, and this was a moment as good as any, and better than some.

He opened his eyes again.
"Not me. Why?"

He saw the detective stretch and stand up.

"There was a sniper assigned to you. If you seemed to be not experiencing grief, they would have started with permanently laming you, to see if they can draw me out. For them, you were just a means of remotely controlling me. Shoot the doctor in the knee, the detective will pop out. It was all about power play. Moriarty had killed himself, thus removing himself from the equation and making calling the snipers off impossible. He wanted me to suffer no matter what I did. Either I lived and you, Lestrade and Mrs Hudson died, or..."

"God, Mrs Hudson?"

"He had snipers on all of you - for Lestrade it was actually someone directly in the Yard. Mycroft managed to eliminate that one in the weeks following... Having him shot during action, making it look like their suspect did it. But the ones on you and Mrs Hudson had disappeared into the crowd. They were still looking for me, in a way - just in case this was all a cover-up, you two were valid targets. Including the setup that if one of them gets eliminated, the other will immediately deal with his own target and the other ones. Moriarty had plans within plans."

"God."

"Sending you out of the country and having Mrs Hudson brought under heavy protection at the same time - almost to the hour - made them both reveal themselves, purely by accident. Mycroft's people were counting on maybe one of them making a wrong move, but apparently you leaving so suddenly surprised the remnants of Moriarty's net in London, so MI5 managed to remove the last them before you even landed in Montenegro. Which, in turn, allowed me to return to England safely once I was well enough."

He had just about as much strength as was needed to blink a few times and squeeze away the tears that suddenly appeared.

Long, warm fingers brushed them off his cheeks.

"You saved me" he felt dry lips touching his knuckles with a feather-light pressure. "You saved me, and you didn't even know it was me. My brother duped you into taking an absolutely crazy mission and you went, you did everything to get us out and you saved me."

"Irene" John managed to grunt.

"And you saved Irene. The Woman owes you now, big time. Although I have no idea what kind of service you could wish to collect in return" the lips smiled against his palm.

"No. Sherlock. I went there for Irene" he had to breathe slowly after finishing the sentence. "I felt... You saved her once."

He felt the big hands still.

"You went there to save Irene and some random bloke that was, apparently, working with her? Because it was Irene?"

"M-hm."

"And... because I had saved her, once?"

"M-hm."

"But... what does this have to do..."

"Legacy" he managed to shrug slightly. "Honour."

"You are absolutely, completely and irrevocably crazy, John Watson."

"Watson-Holmes."

"A-ah?"

He couldn't really focus again enough to answer, so he just settled on squeezing his husband's fingers.

 

####

 

"...heart muscle is weakened by the additional drug - the same as for most of the other patients. The improvement of mobility in the damaged shoulder will be permanent, as far as we can say, and with correct treatment we can bring the heart and lungs back to their previous condition. This will take time, however, and will require him to undergo a series of appropriate physiotherapy, courses of medicines and... Mr Holmes!"

"Leave us! John?"

He blinked. Everything felt a bit off, but no longer too heavy to process. And his arms were full of a lanky, well-dressed, posh detective and it felt like the absolutely best thing in the world. He didn't have to process that. He just luxuriated in the smell that meant 'home' - wool, Mrs Hudson's laundry detergent, Sherlock's shampoo and a hint of cigarette smoke.

He would forgive him for that last one. Probably. It did make the smell more real, after all.

"Sherlock."

"Do you know where you are?"

He focused.

"St Anne's?"

Sherlock's soft lips touched his temple and then he sat back, holding John's hand possessively. He was slightly rumpled - probably sleeping in the room then, or somewhere in the hospital. Dark glasses?

"Do you remember why?"

"I collapsed" John said slowly. "God, did I faint in the Buckingham Palace?"

"Afraid so. Aunt was rather put out."

He frowned.

"Aunt?"

"Aunt Elizabeth, of course."

Sherlock pushed the glasses up into his hair as he watched John's reaction.

His eyes, still swollen.

"She... she said, 'our young cousin'..."

"Well, third or fourth cousin twice removed. Mycroft will know exactly."

"What did I get myself into?"

"For the time being? Private room here. In long run, I'm afraid, a family Easter celebration. She insisted. We are supposed to, I quote, explain ourselves to her satisfaction."

"Can I stay in hospital until May, please?"

"Absolutely not. You will be the chief entertainment."

He squeezed his eyes shut.

"Last time I was the chief whatever of some occasion, I ended up fainting at my hostess' feet. Why would we want to risk repeating that?"

"Because it's an obligation we can't get ourselves out of unless you wish to be accused of lèse-majesté? And yes, Mycroft did use these words exactly, just this morning, reminding me to make sure we are both dressed appropriately. Your measurements will have to be taken again, I'm afraid."

"God."

"No, just Mycroft. Don't entertain his need for ego stroking like this."

"It hurts to laugh."

"Don't, it's terribly serious. I mean it. Now, how do you feel?"

"It does hurt to laugh. Otherwise... Kind of tired."

"They had to supplement your oxygen, a lot. Seems the treatment had been adulterated with a rather nasty, if not particularly innovative compound - created from common street drugs, to make it even more annoying. It consists of two parts, working in a way against each other. One of them weakened your lungs and heart, the other helped them, but they were calculated in such a fashion that the damage was permanent - and deepening with every dose - but the helpful part was quickly metabolised. Every break in the treatment meant you were feeling weaker, not getting the second part, while the permanent damage was just there. Weekends - why did you even make the break for them? - were mostly fine, but the ceremony was on Monday, and so you missed a dose for the third day in a row, having cancelled your visit with Mike, so your heart muscle had problems keeping up. That's why you were feeling so sluggish, and don't even try to tell me you weren't - I saw you, I know all of your tells. Even then, the effect wouldn't have been that radical, had you not been exercising like crazy for the last several weeks - that heightened the effect."

"So... it's my own fault now, that I made an idiot of myself in front of what, only the most important person in your family?"

Suddenly he found himself hugged fiercely, his nose buried in the familiar curls, his hands automatically going around his husband's slender back.

"You are the most important person in my family" came a huffed response and Sherlock was kissing him, hungrily and urgently. "Stop being stupid, John. Nobody is more important than you."

"Oh, love" he gathered the taller man closer. "I'm nobody important. I'm just a normal bloke."

"You are important to me. You keep me sane, you keep me tethered. You keep me good. Nobody is more important."

He snorted, cradling the dark head to his shoulder.

"I think Mycroft would argue."

"Mycroft can go and fuck himself and his argument. Actually, did you really have to put my brother as your emergency contact? I mean, John, what were you thinking?"

He squirmed a bit, still luxuriating in the feeling of the familiar body next to his.

"I... it was a bad day" he admitted finally. "Mike was bothering me to update my hospital information and begged me not to put him in. I considered Greg, but kind of didn't have heart to do that..." he sniffed. "I had to pick someone who would make the correct, possibly logical choices, should anything have happened to me, and Mycroft was the only possible option. Mrs Hudson would have dissolved in tears if she had to make a decision, Greg has kids and enough personal responsibility, and Mycroft, well. I could count on him making the right choice based on correct calculations."

Sherlock sat back again, watching him with a frown.

"Were you planning on having something happen to you?" he said finally, slowly and with effort. "JOHN. Were you actually planning..."

He turned his face to the wall.

"I wasn't planning" he whispered. "I was dreaming of it. I was imagining it. Playing it out in my head. Considering options. I never bought the things I was thinking of, but I... I climbed to the roof at Bart's one day. Molly let me in through the back entrance, so I didn't have to pass by... And I stood there, watching everyone. Watching the spot where I had been standing, trying to imagine what I had looked like to you at that moment. Watching the people milling about, ignorant, walking over the place where you fell. I wanted to shout at them to stop walking all over you, all over your blood, stop stepping on your body... I looked down and I saw you lying there, and I though that it was just one small step and it would all be done and I wouldn't have to think about it anymore. But at that point I still had you on all of my documents, so by default they would have then informed Harry and dragged her in to identify the body, and I stopped for just a second to think about this. And I decided against pushing my recovering alcoholic sister over the edge in that fashion."

"God, John..."

"What was I supposed to do, Sherlock?!" he sat up, pushing himself off the pillows. "What the hell was I supposed to do? To just... carry on?! To go about my life, shave, dress, make tea, pay the bills and, why, yes, occasionally visit my husband's grave? I had stopped living already, why bother with pretending that there was someone still inside, why bother with breathing, someone else could make use of that oxygen, why..."

Long, warm, trembling hands surrounded his head and pulled it into his husband's shoulder. Sherlock's lips pressed into his short-shorn hair again and again.

"I am sorry, John. I didn't have... There was no time. There was no way to let you know earlier. At first I hoped I'd be able to make a deal with him, and then I had to make sure you survived his snipers. I thought I could make him give the cease signal, but when he shot himself it was too late to put you in the loop, too. If I knew he was spiteful enough to off himself just to make sure I got hurt, I'd have... I don't know what. But I would have never left you like this. Do you understand, love? There was nothing... Nothing worse than having to leave you behind. And you being sure I was dead was the only thing that kept you alive."

"Why didn't you tell me sooner? You had the time to set it all up - Molly, Mycroft, the team that played the doctors?"

"It was... very last-minute kind of arrangement. They were there to convince Moriarty I'd committed the suicide if he wished to see it with his own eyes. I was supposed to bring you in on it, under the guise of a nervous collapse, or whatever, but by then you had your personal guardian angel which I could not recall and there was no way to even approach you reasonably. Had Moriarty lived and recalled them once I jumped, you'd have been fetched the moment you returned to Baker Street. But as it was, Mycroft barely dared contact you for the fear of triggering one of them. He definitely couldn't just plain tell you, because, my love, he was convinced you were an abysmal actor, and he would have had to remove you, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade in one go. And all that with a mole in his team - one they'd only figured out when I went offline in Zagreb."

"The snipers... they were watching..." John pressed his fingertips to his eyes. "And he wasn't sure of his own people. So he couldn't just make me disappear without risking Mrs Hudson and Greg, and possibly triggering some bigger reaction."

"And considering that 'your' sniper turned out to be living a few houses over, I'd say there would have been a risk of having any suspected car tracked and eliminated."

"And I suppose the flat was bugged, too."

"Or tracked with directional mikes. By the time you moved out, however, Mycroft deemed your condition to be improved and I, on the other hand, was out of direct contact. He had actually considered letting you know, under the guise of some official visit or other, but there was nothing he could use without raising suspicion. Also, until I showed up in Croatia -- and then promptly disappeared -- they had no absolute confirmation that I was still alive, and telling you I'd been out there all that time just in order to then tell you I was dead now was too much even for my brother. Once he came back from his unfortunate attempt of a rescue mission and they had removed the mole, however, he had Mrs Hudson swiftly collected and sent to a secure location, Lestrade to be appropriately taken care of - a room in MI5 building, just in case the snipers decided to default to him - and you were picked up personally by my brother, to ensure your safety. And then promptly sent into danger of a completely new kind, yes."

"Dear God..." he sighed. "That man's mind..."

"Mycroft is rather Machiavellian sometimes, I agree."

"I meant Moriarty. With a few simple movements he managed to steal over two years of our lives. We... we barely had any time... His timing was atrocious, I have to say."

Sherlock's hands tightened around him.
"Please, do get better, John" he whispered. "I need you to come home. It isn't the same without you."

"Can we have a 'glad you're alive, you idiot' party then? For both of us?" he joked weakly. "This way we can also tell everyone our not so new good news?" he flexed his right hand.

"But..." Sherlock pulled away. "You never told anyone?"

John shrugged.

"It didn't make sense. I wanted to tell them about us when it was a good thing. When you were actually there to share it with me. 'We got married last week' sounds so much better than 'We got married last week and now he's dead'. They pitied me as a guy who lost his best friend, and not as a widower" he sighed. "It was bad enough. I didn't want them trying to console me, when none of them really knew us as us. They may have suspected, but..."

"Mr Holmes! Mr Watson needs his rest! I'm not sure you are even authorised to be here, it's supposed to be family only visiting!"

"The head nurse" Sherlock whispered theatrically. "I assure you, nurse Whitley, I have all the right to be here. However, John, you do need your rest. I have to go and have the flat prepared. Mrs Hudson had been muttering about ordering a cleaning company for the last week, so this may be the right moment for me to graciously give in."

He stood up and straightened his jacket slightly, glasses back on his nose.

"Sherlock" John sighed. "Come here" he raised his hand.

"John?"

"Come here, I said. I hate repeating myself."

His imposing spouse shot a glance at the impatient nurse.

"John, I'm not sure..."

"I am. Now come here, dammit, or I will get up and then these machines will get disconnected and I know you hate the kind of noise they'd make."

Sherlock finally took the two steps forward that John needed. With a fast grab, he pulled the tall detective closer and down, pressing his lips with a bruising force against the red, pouty mouth, swallowing the gasp he pushed out of his husband.

"I'm sorry" he whispered against the pale skin. "I'm so sorry, Sherlock, I'm so, so sorry."

A large hand covered his head, trailing down to his cheek.

"It's fine, John. It really is. We're fine now."

"It's not" he sighed. "I was... I was awful. I was so wrapped in my own hurt, I was terrible."

"To Mycroft. He usually deserves it."

"But you..."

Sherlock's lips were on his, again.

"John. Just come back home. Everything else can wait."

"Love..."

"Sh."

"Mr Watson, I'm not sure this is entirely appropriate..." the nurse approached the bed from the other side.

"Doctor" Sherlock snapped angrily at her.

"Watson-Holmes" said John at the same time.

She stopped, frowning at his chart.

"We got the paperwork filed, but our documents still say the old..."

"Actually, there is a new set waiting for you at home" Sherlock interjected hesitantly. "And your new service ID, with your current rank and... and everything. Anthea dropped them off yesterday."

John rolled his eyes at him.

"So why didn't you bring them here?"

"I... wasn't sure you'd want me to."

"Go and fetch them. Idiot."

"Love you too, John."

"Go. I need my rest, apparently."

Chapter Text

John was asleep. Finally, normally, properly asleep.

Not 'unconscious due to breathing issues', not 'in drug-induced coma'. Asleep.

He had been talking, actually talking. A bit slow, sometimes - not mentally, but purely on the physical level. Sherlock could see the frustration coming off him in waves when his brain was already a few paces ahead, but his body didn't want to obey.

And he tired so easily.

They had allowed him a pale imitation of a proper meal - he was already getting most of nutrients he needed through the IV, but someone decided to get him started on light food as soon as possible, especially considering he hadn't undergone any kind of surgery. It was a rather depressing experience, for a man of such appetite for life like John.

He prodded the sad pieces of a potato with his fork, made a wan remark on the correlation between salt and the prevalence of heart disease in certain nations and slowly, carefully, ate his potato and soft-cooked carrot.

Sherlock had been watching him for any adverse effect, but nothing happened, and when the evening nurse came to administer the drugs - a cocktail to strengthen the heart muscle, calm down the irritation in the trachea and clear any lingering traces of poison from his system - he accepted it easily and proceeded to lie down, holding Sherlock's hand and saying random, disjointed things in progressively more tired voice.

Finally he smiled and trailed off, his cheek on Sherlock's palm, eyes closing and breath evening. Still not deep enough - Sherlock glanced at the saturation levels, which were almost up to expected values, but not yet completely - and still uncertain.

But at least he was here, he wasn't dying and he had accepted The Explanation. More or less. Sometimes he was still looking at Sherlock with such pain in his eyes that they both fell silent and had to sit without a word for a moment, waiting for the feeling to pass.

He slept, and Sherlock could finally relax on the spare cot they had brought in for him after that one time John had woken up and panicked because of Sherlock's absence. Despite some mutterings from the nurses, he was allowed to stay and be there for all the checkups, injections - John watched each needle as if it was a snake - and first PT attempts.

However well he was doing right then and there, still one thing remained to be solved.

Not really solved per se. He had already worked out most of the problem. The ingredients for the adulterated medicine had been purchased from specific companies, not on the street. Yes, they had been purchased under the guise of regular hospital purchases and there was nothing to link them directly to doctor Stiles, but, having checked Stiles' list of patients and his involvement in the research wing of the hospital, he came to certain conclusions.

One, doctor Stiles had been pushing for experiments with certain street drugs "for the good of the patients".

Two, doctor Stiles was never one to perform said experiments himself.

Three, all the experimental runs were slightly behind schedule, due to supposed miscalculation of the amounts needed.

Doctor Stiles had been syphoning these drugs quietly off one or another experiment, making them think the others were at fault.

In combination, and especially in the company of the neural rebuild drugs, which in itself was highly effective and would probably see much usage, as soon as it managed to free itself from the rather negative connection to the tragic trial outcome, these two worked just as Sherlock had described, in effect potentially killing John - and others - without any direct contact with their assailant.

Stiles could have actually gone completely unnoticed in the whole issue. They would have suspected various other elements, from someone's carelessness to simple sabotage by competition. He simply had to keep his mouth shut.

For some reason, he couldn't stop himself when it came to John.

They could only hope the problem would be troubling him long enough for his plan to work.

 

#

 

Mike's office was a mess. The man himself was a mess, too.

The trial was suspended and all the doctors taking part had been asked to turn in all the evidence they had, including unused doses of the drug, used-up container and even needles and syringes, were there still any. They were allowed to continue analysis of the data they had - after providing copies of every file to the investigating team - but their activities were strictly controlled and audited.

"Sherlock" the greeting was nothing like what the gregarious, smiling man usually bestowed on everyone he knew.

"Mike. I need your help."

A short, bitter laugh.

"The last time I helped someone, I almost ended up killing a friend. You'd be better off asking someone else."

Sherlock heard a familiar note in the doctor's voice.

"Actually, that's even more of a reason to ask you, Mike. We need to prepare a trap for the person who actually did try to kill John."

"W-what? How can you do this?"

"Not me. We, two. And, preferably one or two other medical professionals, if we can get them to help. I'll talk to John's army buddies. You" he leaned closer to look at Mike's face, saggy with lack of sleep and with worry. "You will need to do the following..."

 

#

 

"I am very worried about Colonel Watson."

"And I assure you, Captain Murray, we are taking care of him. In fact, his condition is much improved. We just need to wait a day at most and he will be out of the most alarming stage."

"And what would that be? Colonel Watson wasn't exactly willing to share the details and his so-called partner is a tight-lipped bastard if I've ever seen one. I don't want the colonel to get worse by accident if that man for some reason forgets something pertinent."

"Well, to tell the truth, captain, as long as we clear this night without incident, he will be safe and clear. It seems his system is completely free of the compound that had affected him and once this is done, he should be safe."

"What do you mean?"

This had been the weakest point of their plan. They had to convince Stiles to move that night and not wait for a convenient moment someday later - this way they'd be able to control the setup and all the conditions.

Mike's voice lowered.

"It's this... the military had apparently been interested in usage of... you see, and it will work only once administered overnight... We'll be applying the first part of the treatment this evening. You can sit with him for a while, or even better, bring some music he likes to plat for him during the night."

"Why? Isn't he going to be asleep?"

"Well, the unfortunate side effect is a temporary pseudocoma. Previous patients had reported being fully conscious of everything around them and inability to move. It may help him if there are sounds he knows played in the room."

"What exactly does this do? It sounds like a proper nightmare."

"It will remove the remnants of the poison from John's system and then make it ready for the second part - which will, in essence, inoculate him against any future uses of these drugs."

Murray sounded appropriately impressed.

"I didn't know there were meds like this available. Fascinating thing..."

"American military research, I believe. John's CO and some higher-ups in the government managed to get it for us."

"But... Why do it like this?"

Mike made a distressed sound.

"It seems analysis of John's blood and tissues made them believe that should he come into contact with more of the substance before he is inoculated, he wouldn't survive."

"That bad?"

"It seems his heart muscle was, so to say, on his last legs. Now, we still don't know what exactly that was, so we can't guarantee that he wouldn't be risking accidental contact. Therefore it was decided that he should be inoculated, just in case."

Well, there it was. Nice, reasonably vague, probably would make any wannabe-assassin antsy as hell.

Terribly inappropriate of you, doctor Stamford, to perform such important conversations with your door half-open.

Or to perform them when prompted by a carefully hidden consulting detective armed with a small camera checking the corridor for specific quarry.

 

####

 

The room was darkened and a small player was emitting soft violin music from the corner.

He was trying to relax, to lie as still as a person affected by a locked-in syndrome would.

It was getting harder with every second.

Why wouldn't the damned man hurry up?

He breathed evenly and deeply, feeling happy to do it without an assistance of the ventilator.

He just had to hold.

Sherlock's plan was actually quite simple, but brilliant.

Bait the man to come to them and entice him to confess. There was not badguy who would ignore a chance like that. His victim, helpless and unarmed and forced to listen. Without any chance for reaction.

And if they had presented the lure attractively enough, the fish would bite and swallow it all.

The recorder set up on the other side of the room was masked by a gift basket. A few more microphones were seeded across the room, in case the man started pacing. A number of very discreet cameras and no less than three night-vision setups were placed in convenient spots around the room.

All it needed now was for the man to show himself.

A small "beep" somewhere under the bed signalled their target had finally started his way.

Finally.

The door didn't even squeak when the man slithered in.

Soft scuff of rubbed shoes on the vinyl-covered floor.

A small "pop" of a tube being opened.

"Fancy seeing you like this, doctor Watson. Or is it Colonel Watson-Holmes now?" a soft sound of John's papers being picked up and then discarded on the floor. "It is, it is. Well, not for long. At least, not for you. And once you're gone, well, that so-called husband of yours will certainly find other sources of amusement. What, do I see a surprise on your face? Did you actually think it was about you? It's never about such a pitiful, common men like you. You do not deserve anyone's attention, much less mine. You have already used up the resources of some very important personages, very high up. You had taken these resources, their attention and care, from other things. If it wasn't for you and your interfering... commonness, Sherlock Holmes would have been able to focus properly! He would never have stood on the side of the angels, as Jim used to say, if it wasn't for you and your so-called morals."

That was... interesting. John managed to stay still, but really hoped the others were hearing it all.

"You see, Jim... Jim was special. Such a person doesn't come every century."

I bloody well hope not!

"And he deserved so much more. He deserved admiration, he deserved acclaim. And he deserved Sherlock Holmes' undivided attention. And. You. Stole. It. From. Him!"

 

####

 

"He sounds deranged."

"He sounds familiar."

"He sounds like Moriarty, in a way."

Sherlock's eyes snapped to his brother's as he looked up from the screen.

"No, Mycroft. He sounds like you."

"I most definitely do not sound like this."

"Shush. You did. My eulogy."

"Ah. Indeed."

"You know what he also sounds like?"

They listened for a bit more.

"And there is no better way for you to go than to simply die of a failure of your stupid, useless, common heart. At least Jim had an interesting death - messy, public and from his own hand. You, you will die like a laboratory animal, put to sleep by the doctor that had dosed it with poison before. Like a lab rat. I wonder if they will dispose of your body in the same way."

"He is..."

Mycroft was already turning the laptop around to let Sherlock read.

"Bloody modern world and bloody feminists."

Chapter Text

They had installed all the surveillance equipment under the guise of bringing in all the "get well" cards, flowers and gift baskets. There was also John's laptop, which Murray had brought at Sherlock's request, and which had been updated with all the manner of interesting software. Throughout the afternoon and all the real and simulated medical activities it was sitting there, on John's night table, seemingly asleep. With a tiny black dot pasted over the camera warning light.

It seemed that for all his intelligence, the man now slowly approaching John's bed was terribly unobservant.

He never even noticed the slow footsteps in the corridor, so intent was he on his victim.

He flinched, honestly flinched, when the door was thrown open and both Sherlock and Lestrade strolled in, switching the lights on.

"Doctor Stiles, please step away from the patient" Lestrade strode confidently towards the man in white. "Set the syringe down and be so kind as to present your hands. You're under arrest."

The medic turned to them, his face wild.
"What... who... You're not authorised to be here!

"Neither are you" Lestrade countered easily. "Andrew Stiles, you're under arrest for an attempted murder of John Watson..."

"You can't do this!"

Sherlock approached the man slowly, looking at him with interest.

"Incredible similarity" he said finally. "I mean, I've seen the symptoms before, in others, but in connection to these genes... incredible."

"Was he fucking Moriarty?" John slowly sat up, trying to ease the tension from his body, and only then the man had reacted.

"You... you are...!"

"Alive and tolerably well. Also, here goes your suspicion, love, he didn't come up with the compound by himself, or he would have known the way it works well enough not to fall for your ruse. It is, frankly, embarrassing, the level of a criminal these days. One almost wishes for a comeback of someone like... No, actually, one doesn't. It's easier to catch ones like this" he nodded to the other doctor, now being cuffed by Lestrade. "So, what was it that you found? Was he fucking Moriarty, or was it the other way 'round? Because this is the only explanation I see for this kind of twisted reaction."

"Actually, John, there is another one. I must admit, I never would have guessed it just from the evidence on hand. But with the personnel files, I managed to work out a few details."

"Oh?" his husband's eyes widened in an inviting manner.

"It seems that doctor Stiles here had given in to a modern fashion I find abhorrent - as it muddles the waters for a good citizen like us - or our dear inspector here. He changed his surname after getting married. Nobody ever paid attention to this little detail, as that kind of behaviour is more and more popular, when a woman has had a successful career before marriage. If not for the general direction of the feminist movement, we'd never had this issue, I think. Still, here we are and we must live with it."

"Sherlock?"

"Hmm?" he smiled down at John and caught his hand, squeezing it in comfort.

"What is his... first surname? I'm a bit curious now."

"Can't you work it out? With the hints I gave you and your own..."

"Oh. He is de domo Moriarty..." John interrupted him. "He is Jim Moriarty's older brother. This is why that tirade seemed so... so..."

"Familiar?" Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Yes, an older brother, a tad obsessed with his younger sibling..."

"Utterly devoted" John pointed out. "And willing to carry out the instructions given two years ago."

"Yes, that. It seems Moriarty had plans that had plans that had subplans and the whole initiative switched from one track to another in reaction to external stimuli. This one was a part of a plan "what to do if SH is really alive" with some additional flourishes by the man himself."

"He was supposed to die, like a dog, like a rat! And he will, mark my words!" Stiles looked at them with wild eyes. As soon as Lestrade let go of the handcuffs and tried to direct him to the door, the medic threw himself on the wall of the room. "Ah, you see? Police brutality! I will be out before you know it!"

"No, you won't, and we didn't, and the cameras won't show it either" Sherlock shrugged. "There are at least ten of them in this room. Now, doctor Stiles, is this all you're prepared to say? I was expecting more of an evil posturing, but you may just stay silent, if you prefer. We have a full recording of your actions, from several angles."

"You won't be able to use it in any court!" the man bellowed with satisfaction. "I had been recorded without my consent!"

"Actually, the only person whose consent to recording the hospital had to ask for is John. You, as the employee, are subject to the workplace regulations of the hospital, where the monitoring, including camera and audio, are part of the security in the workplace campaign. So we have the recording fair and square. Including official police instruments" Lestrade picked up the syringe. "And this is going to the lab. Sergeant, please make sure our guest makes it safely to the car. Gentlemen, good day."

"Thank you, Greg" he managed to mumble from where Sherlock was wrapped around him like an overeager, but elegant, octopus.

"Can we go home now? Soon?" his husband asked the moment others had cleared the room.

"In two days, the doctor said. The longer I stay, the better off my heart will be. You do want me to be able to climb all the way to our flat, don't you?"

An unhappy groan was all the answer he got.

"He really was Moriarty's older brother? Sherlock?"

He felt a shuddering breath being taken.

"Yes. He had taken rather seriously the plan that Moriarty had left behind - to take it all out on you. However where Jim wanted you to die to make me suffer, Andrew wanted you to suffer first. He had some twisted idea that you had taken my attention away from Jim, and so wanted to free me up for Jim... posthumously."

John pressed himself closer to his detective.

"There must have been something seriously wrong with the Moriarty family" he sighed. "I hope we've seen the last of them."

"And once the doctors say we can go..." Sherlock paused, unsure. "You will be coming home with me? Mycroft and Mrs Hudson have taken care of the flat... I haven't been there for a few days, but they promised to make it inhabitable."

"Definitely" John breathed in, the blessed air of home filling his lungs. "Now, tell me what it looked like from your point of view. I couldn't really look at him, so I have missed the most important bits."

"Well..." Sherlock unwrapped himself from around John and stretched on his side, almost on the edge on the bed, hand possessively placed over John's heart. "What he sounded like, you've heard. And when he came in here, he was honestly skulking, I mean, who skulks anymore...?"

####

The flat had been, in fact, cleaned yet again. The traces of whatever had been done before Sherlock had returned were removed - the too-harsh chemical smells replaced with the same cleaning agent as used by Mrs Hudson and John - and the things he scattered when rushing out to the ceremony were placed just so, making room for John's.

He went through the flat, checking all the possible and less probable places and removing all kinds of surveillance implements - movement trackers, cameras and microphones.

"I understand you're just jealous we have something, but, brother, really" he murmured, removing a small device placed over the main door.

"I assure you, these are not mine" his brother's voice interrupted his focus. "It has come to my attention that there had been an aborted attempt at the house yesterday morning, but it seems they were at least partially successful. Very... annoying. Peter, please make a sweep of the flat, just to make sure my brother found them all, in fact."

The "burglars" seemed less concerned with privacy than Mycroft had ever been - there were two cameras in the bathroom, and the number of electronic devices in Sherlock's bedroom made the screen of the little reader light up like a Christmas tree.

"Doctor Watson's room, too. Upstairs."

The brothers exchanged glances. If there was a similar array of bugs found in John's bedroom, it would suggest their uninvited guests weren't conscious of the duo's change in status. That may have several different kinds of ramifications, depending on the actual findings.

"Actually, there are even more of them here, sir" young man reported with akin to awe in his voice. "And... Sir? There is something like a speaker..."

Sherlock felt something going off in his head as they raced upstairs.

A speaker.

They had put a speaker in John's room.

They - whoever they were - might not have known about their relationship status but they definitely knew about John's sleeping issues.

He was, obviously, well acquainted with the ways in which one can affect a sleeping person using sounds, having done it himself to John multiple times. But if John was susceptible to the calming influence of the violin, what possible outcome may a hostile auditory input have?

"Don't remove it yet" he gritted his teeth. "We need to track it..."

"Already on it, Mr Holmes" the tech frowned. "There is a mobile wired into them, set to... Ah, how nice of them. Sorry, Mr Holmes, thinking out loud."

"Go on" Sherlock leaned on the table, watching the young man as he fiddled with the wiring. "As long as it's actual thinking, of course."

"This phone isn't even locked" there was something like a disgust in the young man's tone. "Very, very sloppy. They hid the wiring rather poorly - masking tape and some airbrush over it, so obvious - and the phone is not locked. Let's see... Not rigged with explosives either. No fluid inside, so no acid ampules. Very weird, if I may say, sir."

"You may" Mycroft agreed affably. "Now, what can you tell us about it?"

"Standard, Android, Chinese, not too weak, good battery, but it is actually also plugged into one of the sockets behind the dresser. I won't unplug it, just in case something else was rigged, so I have to work on it right here. No frills, no... no SIM card even, interesting... It was connected to WI FI, which is now being blocked by our team downstairs, so... Yeah, I should probably work faster if they had put any trackers on that... It was set to play sounds, at specific times. They just used the alarm app and put MP3 files as the alarm tones. Vibration off, to make it harder to find, and the sound would have been routed to the speakers, which are mounted under the bed. Now, I'm copying the mp3 files to this... And the schedule at which they were supposed to be run... Nothing else here. And I think we'd better leave."

Sherlock frowned, but the young man replaced the phone carefully under the dresser and, not standing up, moved towards the door.

"Ah. I see. You think the fact that we've cut off the equipment from their network..."

"Well, I've learnt to be suspicious of installations too sloppily masked. Downstairs, sirs, please. And away from the windows."

#

In fact, nothing happened. The tech - Peter - relaxed after an hour and, once a bomb vdisposal team arrived to eliminate all the identified pieces of surveillance equipment (just in case they were rigged, somehow), the curtains were drawn and a screen installed in front of the window, he was ready to share his findings.

"The alarm schedule was set to varying hours in different days. Probably counting on catching Doctor Watson in different sleep stages. The messages..." he shook his head. "I'm not sure you should be listening to this, Mr Holmes. I mean, I don't know doctor Watson personally and I'm already rather disturbed, but..."

"Just get on with this" Sherlock growled. He'd rather have that done as quickly as possible...

"Sure. Now, this is what was set to run every Monday at four in the morning."

A voice, sibilant and somewhat breathy. Some weird, woodsy tones in the background.

"Marimba" Sherlock murmured.

"So he had left you like this, broken and alone. What are you now, but the leftovers of a meal long since eaten? Even if there was anything between you at some point, now he is done with you. He is done. He will ask you to leave, one day, soon. He will remove you from his life, he will delete you. Like any inconvenience."

"And this was put on a loop, for several more alarms, to play repeatedly from four until four thirty. Another set is two in the morning on Tuesday."

The same voice, some other instrument in weird counterpoint to the words.

"He despises you. You are nothing next to his greatness. You don't deserve him. He belongs to others. You can't think you were ever anything more than a temporary diversion. Soon someone else will come and you will find yourself on the street where you belong. It would be better to leave on your own..."

"Stop it" Sherlock managed to choke out. "I see. I understand."

"The voice sounds like Stiles himself" Mycroft remarked, his voice surprisingly tense.

"Also matches Stiles' manner of speaking."

"How many of these are there, Peter?" Mycroft leaned on the wall, watching the young man on the sofa as he worked quickly on the laptop.

"Fifty, sir. Of different sizes and scheduled to run... well, sometimes even during the day..."

"Take this to the office. Don't connect the computer, of course. Run all the files and make a transcription of the contents, including any sounds you hear in the background. Have Anthea help you identify people with musical education, we have a few. Have them listen to the files, transcribe and identify any music or even single tones that they may hear. Also, once done, make an audio copy from this laptop to a clean one. Then give this laptop to disposal team. Standard drill."

####

Mike looked like shit. There was no other description that would fit the situation.

"Not your fault" John patted his hand. "You were just following the instructions. You had no way of knowing the whole thing had been, well, hacked."

"But I should have!" Mike's hands were shaking as he took off his glasses. "You told me it started to hurt, but I thought it was just the case of too many injections in the same area. I... I should have checked..."

"No, Mike" he sat up. "No, you went according to the procedure. That was correct. Have you reported the problem to the producer?"

"Yes."

"Have you sent the followup that injections in other places also hurt?"

"Yes."

"Did they send anything back?"

Mike frowned.

"They just sent some notification that they had received my findings and were working on them, but for the tine being I should proceed... John? Is it possible that snake had intercepted my mail...?"

They looked at each other in dread.

"Call them, Mike. Call them now and ask for the content of the last reports they had received from you."

#

"Mike's mail had been meddled with" John's first words apparently surprised Sherlock at least a bit.

"Ah, you managed to do some investigation from your bed? Without even moving an inch away?" he leaned over the railing of the bed and traced the curve of John's jaw with his thumb. "And what did you find?"

John had to actively focus on the topic in order to avoid just losing himself in the touch of these strong, agile fingers on his skin.

"Stiles had managed to get into Mike's reports to the company that had produced the drug and replaced the summaries of patients reporting pain with some innocuous remarks. The hospital is launching an investigation regarding mail handling. Is it possible that Stiles had been controlling the remnants of the London cell? He must have some accomplices, I'd wager a guess."

"Hmmm..." his husband leaned closer, tangling his fingers in the hair at the back of his head, drawing a small gasp from him. "Are we playing detective now, doctor Watson?" Sherlock's voice dropped just a bit, making John smile slightly.

"I've had quite an experience in this area of work, I'll tell you" John straightened himself haughtily and pulled Sherlock closer, into a lip-crushing snog. "Now, will you help, or...? Mike is... shaken. And he says..." John looked down and away. "He says there are in total seven other patients who had been affected."

"Well, that seems to be what they told me just after the first tests. I thought I told you, too..." Sherlock paused. "What is wrong, John?" he felt Sherlock's long-fingered hands on his shoulders, kneading the tense muscle. "Hmm?"

"It's just..." he leaned into that beloved warmth and took a lungful of the "home" smell. "He was trying to get me, but he might have killed someone! One of the other patients might have reacted...!"

"But nobody did" Sherlock pointed out reasonably and sneaked onto the bed behind John, so there was a warm body now directly supporting him and Sherlock pulled him back and against his slender chest. "Stiles' incompetence was... astounding. I wonder if he was actually really involved in the activities of Moriarty's organisation. He doesn't seem quite up to the challenge."

"I feel... responsible, in some way. The only reason they had been harmed was because they were also treated by Mike. They were... so expendable for someone. For Moriarty, I was just a means of controlling you, and now, these people all around me, their coming to harm is also a byproduct of harming me. They didn't mean anything to that guy, they were just in the way..." he turned his face, resting his cheek on the sleek fabric of a dark blue shirt, soaking in the comfort of listening to Sherlock's heartbeat.

"The doctors say that whoever had actually received the full round of treatment, should retain the mobility, and they should be quite fine when the drug additives are completely flushed from their systems and they undergo the same treatment as you did. Less intensive, of course, because obviously my husband has to be the first and to lead the charge in any possible area..."

John nodded, burying his nose under the lapel of Sherlock's jacket.

"I just want us to go home" he whispered tiredly. "I want our bed, our table, our kitchen, our tea. I want to take a proper shower and to wash my hair with my shampoo. I know, I have my shampoo here, but it's not the same thing. I want..."

"I know. But you said it yourself, two more days, right?"

"Two more days" he confirmed. "And home."

#

John sank down in his chair, sighing with relief.

The flat had been cleaned, thoroughly, from what Mycroft had reported. Both on the purely hygienic level and electronics-wise. All the bugs, cameras and other weird implements had been removed and were now being thoroughly checked by Mycroft's team. Their laptops had been reviewed by a nice tech girl from MI5, who tut-tutted over John's password and grimaced when she found some more disgusting photos on Sherlock's desktop. They had received a new internet connection and WI-FI router just to make sure. They could, obviously, assume that the new equipment would be somehow more accessible for Mycroft's minions than anything store-bought, but at that stage their security won and even Sherlock didn't protest overly.

Mrs Hudson had fussed over him, promising tea and scones, but he declined, claiming exhaustion after the hospital and the way home.

Truthfully, he wasn't that tired. More like a bit worn out, a bit frayed. And very, very definitely in need of some quiet time with his partner.

If said partner had been there, of course.

Sherlock had left the moment he saw John settling in in his - their - bedroom. He said something about fetching the necessities and twirled in place, coat, glasses and all, leaving John frowning at the door.

The flat was half-empty. Not only due to the absence of Sherlock, but due to the absence of John's own possessions. He saw them, where they were supposed to be - the medical journals, the textbooks, the space opera paperbacks, the Bond DVDs.

Murray was bringing them, actually, and everything else the House inhabitants decided belonged to John. He asked them to pack his bedroom and add whatever he had left in the other rooms.

 

#

 

"So, you're leaving us, Colonel" Murray smirked, moving a chair to sit next to John. "Any specific plans for the next few weeks?"

"Wouldn't say so" John sighed. "I still have a lot of PT to go through. Then, it seems, someone from the Army had suddenly recalled they have a veteran Colonel with teaching education and experience and wish me to deliver a course to some young things in the Academy."

"You, a course? Sounds entertaining. What would that be?"

He rolled his eyes.

"What to do when there is no medic next to you and how to help a medic if they are in short supply. You know, stuff we wished they all knew every time someone decides to walk on a broken leg or postpones coming to us with a wound until it becomes infected."

"You'll need your books for that, I suppose?"

He half-nodded.

"I will make the syllabus without, but for the actual course I'd need them, definitely. I'll be 'round for them sometime in the next few weeks."

Murray smiled and shook his head.

"You stay with that husband of yours, Colonel. You two have a lot to talk about. We'll bring your stuff, once you tell us you're at home to let us in."

He sighed, looking at the man's sympathetic face.

"Thanks, Bill. I wouldn't have made it through that last year without you all. I... I'm sorry for leaving you like that, but..."

"He needs you more than we do, I think" Murray nodded towards the door, where Sherlock was leaning on the wall, typing away at his mobile. "Hello, Mr Holmes."

"Holmes-Watson" Sherlock corrected absently. "Are you two done? I need to discuss some details with you, Captain, if I may."

#

That had been the day when Sherlock had set his whole plan in motion.

Later on he had updated Murray on the findings about Stiles and his treatment, to give to the others - and to his patients, who had apparently been waiting impatiently for any word. Bill had sounded a bit winded as he repeated slowly "Moriarty's older brother" several times and "fuck, John, really" another few. Then he promised to be there with the boxes the afternoon John would be back from the hospital.

It would have been nice to have Sherlock there when the team came with his things, but he could hope Mrs Hudson would let them in and they knew their way upstairs already.

#

Sherlock came back just as Elena was hauling John's black medical bag and made his way between small mounds of boxes and bags to where John was sitting with a mug of tea made by Rudy and a thick paper pad, making rapid notes from the textbook in front of him. He dropped his coat on the back of his chair and stretched out on the couch.

"You said you were going out for some necessities" John remarked lightly. "But I don't see any shopping."

"I needed to..." Sherlock looked aside. "Just walk around the block."

"Mhm. And?"

"Did it four times."

"Any chance once of these times was close enough to the shops to get the milk...?"

Sherlock shrugged, still not looking at him.

John sighed and lowered himself from the chair to the rug in front of the couch.

"Love, what is wrong?" he reached out to smooth an errant curl away from the detective's face.

And Sherlock flinched.

"Sherlock...?" John reached to pull one of his husband's hands into his, just like he had done many times in the hospital.

And Sherlock flinched.

Chapter Text

John couldn't really. He just couldn't. He wasn't yet sure exactly what, but he couldn't.

Sherlock, who had been the next best thing to a human octopus in the hospital, who maintained constant physical contact with John through all that time, who touched, caressed and kissed him constantly... Suddenly stopped, cold. Ever since they came back home, ever since he had reached out to Sherlock on that couch, there had been no possibility, not even a chance of closeness.

The sudden shift between his stances had left John reeling, but also woke him up. He definitely had overlooked that aspect. Sherlock had looked so... so well-adjusted, so fine in the hospital, John completely forgot...

...well, or rather, ignored - his own words.

 

"Did they..."

"Definitely. I'd say, if he survives and remembers, I hope whoever is waiting for him at home is patient and kind, because this guy is going to need serious help ."

"I'm sure once he gets home to his loved ones, he will be cared for."

"M-hm. Well, people tend to forget... PTSD, you know. Not a piece of cake to deal with. Poor guy."

 

Irene said at the time she was sure Sherlock would be properly cared for. Of course, she had meant John. At the time, she didn't know the actual truth about them, not really, but the funny thing was, she had predicted it all these months before.

 

#

 

The problem was, now he wasn't sure he knew what to do. They had been at it for days.

Sherlock avoided him as if he was a cactus. Or a hedgehog. Putting space between them, taking wide detours through the flat... At first, it had all seemed natural. More or less. Sherlock had flinched when John tried to touch him, but he explained it away in a joking manner, jumping up from the couch and tearing around the flat, suggesting tea, food, telly - all nonsense, as his hands were flying so quickly he had barely any chance to actually do something. He had calmed down after a few minutes and actually put the kettle to boil, but never sat down, kept standing there, by the counter, looking at John with something weird in his expression.

 

In the evening John had prepared the bed - slowly and cautiously - had the second proper shower of the day and slid between the sheets. Sherlock had remained in the sitting room, reading some documents and making quick notes, waving away John's quiet "Will you come to bed at some point?" with a mumble.

Which was normal. Absolutely normal, exactly as it used to be all that time before.

 

What was not normal was Sherlock never coming to said bed at all and falling asleep on the sofa, showered and changed. Ever since they had finally admitted to each other what they felt, they had never spent a night completely apart, until the day Sherlock fell. Even in the deepest throes of an investigation, Sherlock usually succumbed finally to the need of touch and joined John, at least for an hour or two, holding onto him with a singular ferociousness. Now, he had willingly and in a premeditated fashion prepared for bed and gone to sleep on the sofa.

 

#

 

Once was an accident.

Twice was a coincidence.

Thrice was a trend.

Four times was a bloody problem.

 

#

 

Sherlock was avoiding touch, sometimes even avoiding any kind of closeness, but the pattern was so peculiar that it took John weeks to identify it. It had been further muddled by the fact that Sherlock behaved like an effing rotating magnet - sometimes pushing away from him, but on occasions coming unexpectedly close.

John was still limited by his endurance, so nothing more strenuous than a trip downstairs to Mrs Hudson's or Speedy's was possible, but he tried pushing the boundary a bit. On that particular occasionm he had walked, unaccompanied (as Sherlock had disappeared after a frustratingly weird and silent breakfast) down the block to the nearest shop and back, carrying a small shopping bag with a jug of milk and a packet of biscuits. He shouldn't have done that, which became obvious the moment he scaled the stairs and had to lean on the wall next to the door before he regained his breath.

As he stood there, waiting for the faintness to pass, the door opened and Sherlock was all around him, picking up the bag, divesting him of his jacket, propping him up and leading him to the sofa. John could barely hear what was being said, but the pillow, the blanket and the worry in Sherlock's eyes somehow melded into one generalised feeling of being cared for. There was some more noise and Sherlock was back in his sight, upending a small box of medicines, fishing out a specific blue inhaler.

"John, breathe deeply now."

A hand at the back of his head, a plastic mouthpiece at his lips.

He took a long breath and the aerosol got sprayed into his lungs.

"Oh."

Blessed relief.

"Sleep now" his husband's fingers carded through his sweat-matted hair. "And please, don't do this again."

 

#

 

He woke up, groggy, in the middle of the night, to the feeling of a lean hand touching his chest.

"Shh" again, long, thin fingers caressed his face. "Sleep, John."

He slept.

When he woke up again, Sherlock wasn't in the flat, but his chair had been moved to face the sofa. His medicines were neatly arranged in a row on the coffee table and the inhaler had a sticky note attached to it, saying "please take it with you if you leave the flat - SH".

They definitely needed to talk.

 

#

 

He tried. He tried talking to Sherlock a few times after that, each of them less than successful. His husband had always been a master of avoidance, but this? This was ridiculous. Including the night when he woke up, in their bed, alone, but with Sherlock watching him from the doorway. When he asked, sleepily, when the hell Sherlock was going to finally sleep, he only heard "need a cup of tea" and the door clicked shut. He stayed awake until morning, nodding off now and then, but of course, the bloody git never came back.

 

#

 

The flat was empty again, so he used the occasion to properly, logically think. He had to organise the information - he would have preferred to do it on paper, but if Sherlock found it... No. No paper. He didn't have a mind palace like Sherlock, but he didn't need a complicated creation to recall all the details of recent days, especially since everything pertaining to Sherlock was, and always had been, at the front of his thoughts, easy to browse and search.

So, the first query. What were the occasions that had triggered Sherlock's reaction?

Attempts at - rather feeble - intimacy. But only at home. At the hospital everything was fine. They hugged, they kissed, they touched, Sherlock had even initiated something that could have been perceived as cuddling, had there been fewer tubes coming in and out of John.

So, what had not triggered the reaction but, on the contrary, led Sherlock to initiate contact?

Hospital.

John almost fainting on the stairs.

Damn.

What had triggered the first reaction?

John approaching him when he was lying down...

Wrong.

The first reaction was Sherlock leaving suddenly when John had been...

Ah. Bedroom.

He groaned and rubbed his face vigorously.

He needed some air. Slowly and without shopping.

The blue container with asthma spray was in his pocket when he left for his careful, slow walk. Just to the nearest newsagents. He had to pace himself. He selected two daily newspapers, a logical puzzle magazine (he would have to hide this one from Sherlock, or he would lose any chance of doing even one of these by himself) and a roll of mints. With all this in his pockets, he felt at least like he had

As he strolled back - careful not to hurry too much - he noticed a cab leaving their kerb, and the door closing, which meant Sherlock had just arrived from wherever it was that he had been, and that meant, finally, a chance to talk.

He made his way upstairs slowly, to avoid overstraining his lungs, but rested for a moment before opening the door anyway, just in case. Finally, he entered the flat.

"Sherlock?" he sighed, looking at the tall, tense figure at the kitchen counter. "I think we need to talk, properly."

"I'd say you should" Irene remarked with a roll of her eyes, as she stretched on the sofa. "My branch of service has been called "recreational scolding" at some point. Very appropriately. But what I think the two of you need is plain scolding, because you are such idiots you don't deserve anything else!"

Sherlock's shoulders twitched.

"Irene, what the hell are you doing here?"

She huffed in mock annoyance.

"Really? This is all I'm going to hear from both of you? This one had been staring daggers at me for the last three minutes and you only come in and start like that. Maybe I should be asking you two some questions? Like perhaps starting with 'why the hell did you two not tell me you were married?' or maybe rather 'what the fuck are you two doing with your life now?'"

Irene Adler, being crude. It still sounded vaguely posh.

"And here I thought that passing you Maria's number may work towards loosening some of that tension you carried around" John joked feebly and slowly made his way to the kitchen table, where he sat heavily, leaning his head on his hands. Immediately there was Sherlock, right behind him, long fingers on his shoulders, kneading the muscles and warming up his skin.

"You two are hopeless" she scoffed. "John, do you know that Sherlock declined participation in any kind of therapy related to the sexual abuse he had experienced?"

"What?" he looked up at his partner, who immediately stepped back. "Sherlock?"

"I don't see how talking to some stranger is supposed to help me manage my body's responses" he snapped at Irene. "That obnoxious woman was just... sitting there! Smiling!"

"Love" he turned slightly to the side, looking at Sherlock pleadingly. "Not so loud...?"

And, as if by magic, Sherlock was back at his chair, his hands covering John's forehead and the back of his neck.

"Migraine" he said softly, not looking up. "I... there is the medicine..."

The hands left him and he suddenly felt bereft, as if an anchor chain was cut and he was floating away, unable to control the direction or the speed. He felt his chest tightening uncomfortably and the way the air whistled when he took a breath was worrying, too, but he couldn't, for the love of God, he couldn't speak up. And the way his head felt, the words were not coming together, not at all.

"John?" Sherlock was pulling him up, his hands now blessedly cool against his face. "John, what is...? Where is your inhaler?"

He made a weak gesture towards his pocket and soon the plastic tube was pressed between his teeth and a soft hiss of the spray preceded the relaxation that allowed his lungs to work properly again.

"I didn't know it was that bad" he heard Irene's voice nearby and felt her hands now on his shoulders, drawing him backwards, allowing Sherlock to check his pulse and pupils.

"Stoppit" he sighed. "mfine."

"You don't sound fine" Sherlock bowed over him, fingers ghosting anxiously over his cheeks and cupping his face. "I will call a cab, John. You need to go to the hospital."

"No" he caught Sherlock's wrist before he managed to move away. "No, no hospital. Wait. I'm fine now. Just tired. Pushed myself a bit too much. Love, please. Stop."

He kept his eyes on Sherlock, who in turn regarded him suspiciously. Slowly, slowly, trying not to make any sudden movements, he turned his face and pressed a kiss to Sherlock's palm.

"That OK?" he asked softly and saw Sherlock blink in surprise, then nod. "Good."

Irene removed her support at some point - she probably guessed he wouldn't collapse without her support anymore - and sat on the other side of the table.

"However touching this tab..."

"Shut up, Irene" they said almost simultaneously.

"...leau, you two should..."

John kicked her in the shin under the table.

"Don't kick Irene, John" Sherlock's fingers carded lazily through his backswept hair. "She is a guest, after all."

"Uninvited."

"Mycroft comes uninvited and I've never seen you kick him."

"You will never know how many times I wished to" he smirked and the great detective smirked back. "Sherlock, so we need a specialist in recreational ass-whipping to force us towards some solutions, or will you walk Miss Adler to the door and lock it after her?"

"Irene, get out" Sherlock never moved his eyes from John's face.

He could hear Irene rolling her eyes.

"If you do it again, your eyes will get stuck like that and it may be a detriment in your profession" he said, watching as the small laugh wrinkles in the corners of Sherlock's eyes - wrinkles now crisscrossed with tiny, thin scars - deepened, as the detective tried and failed to contain a smirk.

She humpfed, but finally he heard her walk out and shut the door with much more force than necessary.

"I'll send her flowers" Sherlock offered. "I suppose this is what you do when someone is done kicking your seat, isn't it?"

"A gift card to a lingerie store" John suggested. "And not to her."

"Ah. Irene, Irene... What should we do about her?"

"I think, at the moment, we should do something about you, my love. Because you are a first-class avoider and right now you are obviously trying to derail my train of thoughts."

"I wouldn't do such a thing" his husband straightened slightly, but as he moved a bit away, John pulled him closer and into his lap.

"I know" he said into the stiff, trembling side "that this will not be easy. And I will let go of you in half a minute, I promise. I just want to tell you, Sherlock. I know what happened. All of it. I just pushed it away, repressed it, because I didn't want to remember. But now I do. So we will go very, very slowly. As slowly as you need. But we will work on it, with or without a therapist. I will go to classes - the vet centre actually offers support for families of PTSD sufferers, too, you know. I will take one of them. And I will help you."

The thin body in his arms shook like leaf and so he loosened his hold.

"See? I'm not holding you. You can go, anytime. Just please, do come back to me, love."

He found himself held, quite immobile, to the lean chest.

"I am here" a slightly broken baritone assured him. "I'm not going anywhere."

 

#

 

That evening they spent quietly, slowly and very, very carefully checking Sherlock's boundaries and tolerance for John's touch.

And if it ended more than once with one of them turning away to take a breath or two, it was all fine.

And if they slept rather completely dressed, with Sherlock under the duvet and John next to him, wrapped in a separate blanket, it was all fine.

And if during the night their hands migrated slowly from where they had been at midnight and found each other across the expanse of the pillows between them, it was all fine.

And if it took them weeks of talking to a sympathetic family support specialist before they approached anything resembling balance... it was not fine, but they were willing to accept it.

And if Donald had baulked at the idea of taking both of them as patients and referred Sherlock to another specialist, they were a bit doubtful, but agreed.

And if the equilibrium they gained at the end... was not in fact the end of the journey, because it was not a journey that could ever be declared done, they were going to be fine.

All fine.

 

#

 

There were some darker and brighter moments marking the next few weeks.

Panic attacks.

Claustrophobia.

Late night catching up with various shows John had missed during his hospital stay, because "Of course I recorded them! I know how to program a simple device like that, it's not rocket science!"

Someone hoarding someone else's favourite jumper, because "It doesn't even fit you anymore, so why would you want it?" "Because it's bloody cold, Sherlock, now give it back!"

Asthma attacks.

Case files spread all across the coffee table, including being propped against John's laptop, which apparently made it impossible for John to use it.

Medicines being carefully placed in a daily dispenser, despite curses and murmurs of a certain posh detective.

Uncontrolled flinches and rapid gasps at unexpected touch.

Forgotten inhalers.

Medicines being carefully placed in a daily dispenser, despite curses and murmurs of a certain retired soldier.

Thoughtless re-enactment of the position of the dead body, smack in the middle of their sitting room.

A row, following said re-enactment.

A completely unexpected, yet welcome, and rather epic shag, following said row.

Additional inhalers bought and stashed in the coat pocket, in the bedside cabinet and in the kitchen.

A need to visit the discreet establishment on Saville Row in order for both of them to be, yet again, measured properly.

John's decision to actually go with ordering more than just the morning suit needed for the nearest occasion and a subsequent fitting session that left Sherlock slightly shivery and wide-eyed.

A truly surprising session of lovemaking, started with Sherlock carefully peeling the newly-purchased black coat (of a vaguely Victorian cut) off John's shoulders and him pinning John to the wall by the door in order to divest him of the deep burgundy shirt and new waistcoat.

But, despite all the little wrinkles (and the wrinkling of the waistcoat, which Mycroft pointed out to them when he woke them up the next morning) it was all fine.

It was all fine.

 

#

 

They curled up in their bed, carefully arranging themselves to accommodate for their respective security needs - with Sherlock at John's back and both of them facing the door.

"You, John Watson, are the most incredible person on this planet" his husband said fervently.

He raised his hand, but the experience of the previous weeks had taught him a lot, so he only patted Sherlock's bony knee.

"Not at all, love. Not at all. Absolutely average."

Chapter Text

"Mr Holmes-Watson and Colonel Watson-Holmes" the majordomo introduced them in a carrying voice. "This way, sirs."

The crowd as the so-called "family brunch" was almost more than John could stand - some breathing deficiency still troubled him, despite the aggressive treatment the hospital had introduced and the religious way in which Sherlock attended to his daily needs. Fortunately, being navigated through it by his protective husband and an attentive servant made it much easier for him to survive the short walk without having to resort to his meds.

They took a moment to officially greet their hostess - including a short, but kind 'welcome to the family, Colonel' speech and a dark look towards Sherlock, which promised further discussion at a better moment - and then slightly more time to greet various cousins that approached Sherlock in order to properly meet his husband for the first time. Several 'I didn't really believe' and 'I hope you know what you're doing' later they gratefully retired to a spot near the window, allowing John to take a few unencumbered breaths.

"Are you all right?" Sherlock patted his pockets for the spare inhaler. "Do you need...?"

"No, no. Fine. Just a bit surprised, you know. I was expecting... something else."

"Well, once my mother arrives, you will see something else. I'm afraid she is slightly unhappy with me right now. Mycroft spilt the beans. By design, of course, but now he denies it and says it's all my fault."

"Sherlock, you didn't tell your mother about us?"

"When could I? When I was 'dead'? When I was in Switzerland, trying to flush rat poison, hospital disinfectant and extract of wormwood from my system? When June was still propping me up and I wasn't perfectly sure I would ever be able to leave the hospital? I barely managed to get vertical before you were invited to the ceremony, and then we were mostly, well, in bed. One way or another."

"Don't tell me you didn't find ten minutes between our, khm, therapy sessions to inform your mother you've gone and got married."

"I considered it a mood spoiler. Frankly, I don't see an actual reason, the ceremony itself was almost two and a half years ago. There are people who married later than us and managed to get a divorce in the meanwhile. Some probably are remarried already."

"Sometimes to the same person they'd divorced in the first place" John snorted. "Well. I hope we can deal with this in a calm and civilised manner. After all, we did survive my phone call to Harry, didn't we?"

Sherlock cringed at the mention of John's sister's explosion at the news.

"Yes, well. If we count Harry as 'zero' on the scale of social enthusiasm, and Molly as 'ten', I think we can expect about 'eight' from Mummy in regard to the fact and somewhere around 'minus 273' in regard to the way it was done."

"After being called 'lazy, opportunistic, privileged, undecided idiot' I think I can survive most anything."

"Anyway Mummy will be mostly shouting at me" Sherlock mussed up his husband's neatly combed hair slightly. "She will probably hug and kiss you. Women always want to hug and kiss you."

"And, well, that's the most they will ever be getting from this doctor" John smirked and reached up to straighten Sherlock's tie. "Now, you, you are perfect. How do I look?" he asked self-consciously. "I feel a bit awkward out of the uniform, you know. Uniform is perfect in formal situations. It immediately advertises who you are - to the knowledgeable eye, of course - and it reminds you who you are and who others are. No ambiguity, no unclear comparison of social standing, no protocol to be guessed. Rank is rank."

Sherlock looked again at his husband. Mr Thompson had surpassed himself. Once presented with newly recovered John, he had kindly refrained from salivating over the very idea of creating something appropriate, but the way he raved on, never once repeating a compliment, had caused John to look at his husband meaningfully a few times during each fitting session. The outcome was astounding. All the muscle was now neatly wrapped in a light morning suit, slimness of his waist underlined by an appropriately cut waistcoat and dress trousers that had both women and men turning their heads when they walked past. Sherlock knew perfectly well whose well-shaped bum they were all staring at and it wasn't his.

"Well, Colonel, I must say that in this suit you do look rather... edible" Sherlock leaned in slightly, pressing his lips to John's. A small flicker of a tongue reminded both of them where they had been no more than an hour earlier and made John sigh as the tension left him. Just as Sherlock pulled slightly away and opened his mouth, saying something, the majordomo announced yet another guest.

"Yes, yes. Me. Everyone knows. Now, please. Where is my son?"

"Which son, My Lady?" the guy had a voice that carried.

"The one more oblivious in the general area of social obligations, Nigel" she answered testily. "Sherlock Holmes! Come here immediately! Where are you?"

Sherlock actually moved towards her, almost automatically.

"Stay here" John said softly. "I need your support, I think."

"What? John, is something wrong?"

He sighed and patted his husband's shoulder consolingly.

"No, there isn't, not right now. But I am a convalescing veteran and sometimes I need to have my husband by my side to make sure I'm doing fine. So, please. Could you hand me my inhaler and then - in a restrained fashion, of course, appropriate to the occasion - hug me?"

The sounds in the crowd approached as Sherlock fished out the small cylinder. John smiled at him and covered the proffered medicine with his left hand. The moment the grand lady found her way to the small corner they hid in, he picked up the container, raised his right hand to stop her for a moment, pressed the top of the bottle and breathed deeply.

"Thank you, love" he smiled at Sherlock and handed him back the inhaler, which the detective quickly pocketed, drawing his husband closer with his free hand.

"Hello, Mummy."
"Sherlock. It is good that you observe at least some of the niceties of a civilised man."

"Mycroft threatened me with treason charges. Also, it is a good occasion for John to meet everyone at once, and at someone else's expense. John, this is Mummy, Violet Holmes. Mummy, this is John Watson-Holmes, my husband."

The regally tall woman - very similar to her sons in that respect - pulled herself slightly straighter.

"That means that despite all the previous signs to the contrary I do have, finally, a son-in-law. Well. That will be interesting."

"You've already had him for a while, Mummy" Sherlock explained with a suffering sigh. "We got married over two years ago."

 

#

 

"Really, brother mine, you should know better by now" Mycroft joined them as Violet Holmes was going through a small and dignified attack of nerves in the quiet corner. "You could have let her know in a more private setting."

"She accosted me here. It's not like I had a choice" they watched as John performed a standard round of checks on their mother.

"She will be fine in a moment. A cup of strong tea and something sweet will do wonders. Simple low blood sugar coupled with sudden excitement" the doctor summed up, helping her to sit up on the dainty sofa. "Sherlock, please find something adequate. Something light and with an appropriate amount of glucose. Mycroft, find a servant who could help us to a private room" he looked up at them, frowning. "Now."

His mother-in-law watched him for a moment in silence.

"They scurried" she said finally, her voice tinted with delight.

"They were supposed to" he shrugged slightly.

"I see why he likes you."

"He rarely sees this... face. At least recently."

"So you rarely go all Colonel Watson on him?"

"I've been Colonel Watson for all of a month or so. Not much practice in doing it yet. Captain Watson, yes. This fellow I have large experience with."

"I was given to understand that you've earned your rank in battle, and you've been invalided from the Army almost five years ago. How is it..."

"Tedious military procedures, Mummy" Mycroft was back, with a butler. "The important part is that John and his unit had finally received the recognition they deserve, with some misdemeanours being stricken from their records... And, anyway, technically he had never been Colonel Watson, anyway."

"Some misfiling of documents kept me from changing my name, but Mycroft had straightened that one out, so I'm officially Colonel Watson-Holmes now" John said dismissively. "Now, I think you should take some rest, as soon as Sherlock... Here he is. Now, drink this and eat something sweet. It will bring your blood sugar up a bit and you will immediately feel better. Still, I would heartily recommend you consult your GP for a followup and blood test to monitor your sugar levels and treatment to prevent future episodes. You also shouldn't drive until this is properly balanced."

"Ah. So this isn't actually the Colonel, or the Captain" she smiled over the teacup rim.

"No, this is Doctor Watson" her younger son leaned closer to his sandy-haired husband, who in turn reached up without looking, hooking his hand around the slim hips. "Say 'hello' to Doctor Watson-Holmes, Mummy. I hope you like your son-in-law, because I'm not letting him go, so until Mycie gets you someone more to your liking, you're stuck with my choice."

"Sherlock, don't be crude. Now, Mummy, if you follow me, there is a room made ready for you. I'll see to it that someone from the medical staff attends you immediately."

She smiled and patted his hand.

"I think I would be more than happy if Doctor Watson could stay with me."

"But, Mummy" Sherlock gritted his teeth. "Aunt expects us to explain ourselves to her satisfaction. You can't possibly monopolise John for the rest of the party."

"Well, yes, if your aunt requires your presence, then by all means, go, both of you. Find me later and report. It was very good to meet you, Doctor Watson."

"It's John, ma'am."

"And it's Violet, John. Now, take your husband and try to make sure he doesn't get himself exiled by accident. That would be annoying."

Sherlock stood there, jaw working hard.

"And now we have to actually talk to Aunt Elizabeth" he growled. "But out of spending the next hour waiting for Mummy to release you and that, I'm choosing the royal grilling. I have to warn you, though. She may be rather caustic. She is also slightly annoyed with me."

John felt an overwhelming urge to slap his husband silly.

"What now?"

"I should have reported our union to her before we actually went through with it. It's not like we're likely to produce an heir, but as a member of one of the small number of hereditary peerages I should have followed the procedure..."

"Sherlock!"

"Well, that, boring, yes."

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me now? Anything at all that may affect in some manner our survival chances for the next two to three hours? Please do consider it carefully, as it may also affect your survival chances for fifteen minutes from the moment I find out you've actually omitted something vital."

"I'm twenty-second in the line to the throne of Norway."

John simply closed his eyes and very slowly licked his lips.

"My cousins used to call me 'Froggie' when I was six."

John waited.

"I have a small castle in the north of Scotland."

"Define 'small'."

"Eighteen-ish bedrooms."

John nodded.

"Any ghosts?"

"Supposedly. Not confirmed."

"M-hm" he still waited, not looking at his husband.

"I may have gushed about you a bit. To Aunt Elizabeth. I may have been a bit high on painkillers at the time, they were still adjusting my dosage when she decided to descend on the hospital."

John waited.

"She thinks it's romantic."

Another tense lip-lick.

"My cousins really wanted to meet you. They served, all of them, you know. Practically a requirement these days. And you are a kind of a celebrity now. With a very healthy and, ah, class-wise diverse fan base."

"Sherlock."

"Yes?"

"Anything else vital for the next fifteen minutes?"

"Why fif... Aunt Elizabeth."

"I understand you've spoken to your mother, young man."

"Yes, Aunt."

"She was rather unhappy with the way you have conducted this whole affair."

"Yes, Aunt. She explained this to me, in detail."

"My secretaries are unhappy with you, too."

"I was not, technically, required to file..."

"No, technically no. I would have however expected a bit of courtesy from you, Sherlock."

"Yes, Aunt. I'm sorry."

John looked up at the elfin face that showed a rarely-expressed chagrin and couldn't repress a smile.

"Now, Doctor Watson, I presume."

"Watson-Holmes, Your Majesty."

"Yes, that has a nice ring. I don't think we had a medical professional in that branch of the family for what, three? Four generations?"

"Five, actually" Mycroft appeared by their side as if by magic. "There was that Scottish nurse who came to take care of our great-great-grandfather's brother when he was dying of consumption. She made such an impression on the master of the house that he had offered for her and they got married before anyone could oppose him. He was an object of, in equal shares, wild jealousy and pity of his nearest and dearest."

"And that is where Mycie's hair comes from. The last remaining trace of Evangeline Farlane in our blood."

"That and the heterochromia" Mycroft pointed out. "She was lauded by her husband for having the most captivating eyes."

"Mycroft got the hair and I got the eyes."

"That does sound just a slight bit creepy when you say it like this, Sherlock."

"Well, it will be nice to have someone with an actual job around here. All that gadding around with very important papers and people forget what it is like to actually walk on the pavement. Apart from Sherlock, of course, but he usually takes it at a run, from what I hear."

"Well, yes, Auntie. I have to admit that."

John stopped for a moment and frowned, the other three continuing without him for a few steps.

"John? All right?"

"Yes. Perfectly. No. Not really. Can you give me...?"

Sherlock extracted himself from his aunt's grip and handed John his inhaler.

"What is wrong? You never need a repeated dose so quickly."

"Too little air here" John pointed out. "Also, I might have had a small bout of a memory cascade. Not all of us manage their recall by the Mind Palace, before you even say anything. I just got a wee reminder from the back of my brain that I should take a closer look at my family tree. Especially at Annabelle Watson, nee Farlane, a girl of astounding beauty, mesmerising eyes, imposing stature and, additionally, a mane of golden-red hair. Out of which, the current, last generation inherited the heterochromia" he winked and grinned "and the red-blonde curls. Harry got them together with her temperament."

"Annabelle Farlane?" Mycroft stepped closer. "As in, twin sister of Evangeline Farlane?"

"Also a trained nurse. She lost the coin toss with her sister and stayed home, when Evangeline went to work at..."

"At our family estate."

"Oh, this is just too perfect" a laughing male voice said from just behind them and yet another of Sherlock's cousins slapped their shoulders. "Does this mean that you two are descendants of a pair of identical twins?"

"As far as we can say, without checking the family trees and parish archives, yes."

"Well... Look at you" the man smiled kindly. "Sounds like a two-century investigation to be followed. Would that be one for your blog, John?"

He smiled lightly.

"I'd much rather keep this... in the family" he smiled at Sherlock, who was looking down at him with fondness and yet certain hesitancy. "Some things should remain private."

"Absolutely" Sherlock leaned down and claimed his husband's lips. "We simply can't have you appear to the public as anything more than just an average, everyday man, can we, love?"