Chapter 1: empathy
1. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another
John always found it hard to pin down exactly when he'd realised what he was doing was out of the ordinary. When you were a child, you thought your world was the only world that existed, that everything that happened to you and everything you did was normal, and no one ever experienced anything differently. Gradually, through comments of 'you can't possibly know that John', 'what an imagination you have' and 'stop lying' he became aware that no one else knew what other people were feeling all the time.
They could tell, of course, from facial expressions and voice tones but they didn't know, not in the way John did. They didn't feel a faint curl of sadness in the back of their mind when someone was crying, they didn't feel a flicker of embarrassment and shame when someone tripped over in the street, and they couldn't cheer someone up just by thinking really happy thoughts at them.
And as he’d gradually realised this made him unusual, made him different, John started trying to hide it. At first because no one believed him, but then because he was frightened they’d take him away and lock him up in a laboratory somewhere. He once saw a movie that involved a man getting a lobotomy, and had nightmares about it for years afterwards.
So his first reaction to Sherlock’s deductions wasn’t affront or offense, but shock, awe and a tentative hope. John had tried to squash it, tried to tell himself to be calm and logical about it, but nothing could silence the tremulous question in the back of his mind.
Is he…like me?
But eventually, he learned that Sherlock wasn’t like him. He was just clever; very, very clever. It was still fascinating and amazing and brilliant and all those things, of course it was…but it was also a little disappointing. Just a little, just in the secret corners of John’s heart.
He used to ask people about it. He’d talk about auras, about psychics, and ask people if they believed it and then watch them, feeling about for a flicker of acknowledgement or fear or recognition.
But it never came. John was alone.
And perhaps that was a good thing. John called what he was doing – or had done, because he was holding to his vow not to use it again – empathy. It wasn’t telepathy, because he wasn’t picking up on people’s thoughts, only their emotions, and it wasn’t clairvoyance because he wasn’t seeing the future, so empathy was the best descriptor he could come up with. But whatever it was, it could do its fair share of damage. And after Thomas, and Kemp…well, it was probably a good thing he’d never found anyone else like him.
Wouldn’t want too many monsters running around, after all.
“So, you’ll stay.” It was phrased as a statement, but John could feel the way anxiety suddenly shot sticky black needles through Sherlock’s voice.
“Of course I’ll stay,” John snorted, picking over his fried rice to see if any more of those tasty shrimp pieces were lurking around. “I don’t shoot people for just anyone, you know.”
“Patently untrue – if it were a good cause, you would do whatever you deemed necessary.”
John could concede that Sherlock was right about that; the shooting part, at least. But before the shooting, John had used his empathy.
It wasn’t much. Just a little nudge of concrete-thick confusion and hesitation to slow Sherlock down, make him pause before swallowing the pill, buy John time to get his gun out and load it. But he’d still done it – a vow he’d sworn to uphold, that he’d stuck by for over six months, and he’d thrown it out the window as soon as Sherlock was threatened.
He should probably be more concerned by that. But he couldn’t regret it, not really – he liked Sherlock. The man’s emotions were just so…honest.
People (indeed, Sherlock himself) might claim that the man was emotionless, but he wasn’t. John might have tried to suppress his empathy but he still felt Sherlock’s emotions leaking out of him, wavering through the air like heat shimmers. Sherlock had emotions, of course he did, but he was more controlled about them than other people. At least, those not linked to frustration or excitement – those were always on clear display.
In many ways, it was a relief. Other people got angry, then pretended they weren’t because they didn’t want others to think they had a temper. Other people were sad, and pretended they weren’t because they didn’t want to share their grief with the world. Other people were amused, and then tried to pretend solemnity, because they didn’t want people to think they were morbid or weird. Other people hated, and pretended fondness because it was politic. Other people pretended, full stop, and the mixed signals – the confusion between what his empathy was telling him and what his eyes and ears told him – often gave John headaches.
There was never any kind of confusion with Sherlock, and it was refreshing. Correction, it was bloody magnificent, and John knew he would have put up with a lot worse than casual insults and disregard for his personal autonomy just to tag along after that kind of clarity.
He needed to be careful with this.
“Do you object to rich bankers in general or Sebastian Wilkes in particular?”
John turned his head, jerked out of the breathing exercise he’d been engaging in to try to calm himself down. “What do you mean?”
You don’t like him,” Sherlock observed. “You barely spoke to him, and didn’t shake his hand when we left.”
“Yeah, well, he’s kind of an arsehole,” John muttered. He couldn’t say that Sebastian’s frustration had scraped over him like piano wire, setting his teeth on edge like fingernails dragged over chalkboard.
Physical contact always enhanced his empathy (that handshake had been a mistake), but he might have dealt with it better if he hadn’t had to make a grocery run earlier that morning.
Really, this was just one more example of how this whole thing was more curse than gift. If John didn’t have his empathy, he might have stood a better chance at keeping his head when he was dealing with the stupid chip and pin machine.
But he always got so frustrated in grocery stores; so many other people were rushing around –frantic to pick up tonight’s dinner before their kids got off school, wishing the line in front of them would move just a bit faster, cursing the customer in front of them for taking the last bit of smoked cheddar – that John couldn’t help but pick up on it. He always tried to make his shopping trips short because after twenty minutes he started to become restless and impatient, like he was inhaling that cloud of frustration and it was slowly permeating his blood, an emotional form of passive smoking.
The tube was another problem place for much the same reasons, which was why John preferred to walk and didn’t grumble (much) over Sherlock’s love of cabs.
So shaking hands with Sebastian at the bank ended up putting him in a very foul mood. Sebastian was brimming with resentment and thwarted ambition and god, why were so many people so unhappy? There were times when John thought city life was just inherently unsuited for the human race, and everyone should move back to the caves and start over.
“You’re tense,” Sherlock observed. His voice was quiet, probably meant to be soothing, but John’s muscles only bunched tighter.
“Yeah, just…” John shrugged, and told a partial truth. “Too many people.”
Sherlock made a soft humming noise that John assumed was either understanding or considering. But when they hit the tight crush of the street, John couldn’t help noticing that Sherlock was manoeuvring himself to stand between John and the worst of the crowd.
John had always known he could make his emotions bleed into other people, and he’d always tried to push positive emotions to make people happier and more relaxed. If he was going to influence people like that, he might as well make it a good influence, after all. At least until…Kemp.
That had been the first indication of how dangerous his empathy could be. Before Kemp, John had never really thought to use it as a weapon.
But he used it as a weapon now – there was someone else in the apartment with Sherlock, someone who smelt of smoke-sharp frustration and oily-bitter determination – and John knew he needed to do something. He pounded on the door and vented some of his frustration, trying to get Sherlock to let him into the apartment.
When Sherlock’s monologue cut off, emotions fracturing into glass splinters of terror, John knew it was time to stop messing around. Kicking in the door would take too much time (and to be honest, John wasn’t entirely sure he was physically capable of it), but there was something else he could do.
John dredged up all the fear he was feeling – along with the memories of every moment he’d ever been scared or hurt – and threw them all at the foreign signature above him. He wrapped the stranger in them, smothered and drowned them beneath unreasoning, unquestioning fright until rational thought was erased and all that was left was the instinctual response.
John felt the person flee, and smiled grimly to himself.
He’d broken his vow again. And again, he couldn’t bring himself to regret it.
John spent several minutes mulling over how best to approach the matter, but in the end just decided to go for the bulldozer method.
“How bad is your throat?” he demanded.
Sherlock didn’t start, but his face twitched like he was surprised. “My what?”
“Don’t play stupid, it doesn’t suit you – your throat, how it is?”
Now Sherlock was looking intrigued. “How did you know?”
John couldn’t exactly confess that he’d been able to sense a second person in the apartment, so he went for the next best thing. “Your little deduction-rant cut off and now your voice sounds hoarse; it’s not much of a leap to think something happened. Did you suddenly develop a cold?”
“There was someone in the apartment, he tried to choke me and he left this,” Sherlock admitted, pulling out a folded black lotus flower and speaking very rapidly as though he thought he could distract John.
John gave into an impulse he’d been feeling for a long time, and reached up to cuff Sherlock across the back of the head. “You see? You see? This is what happens when you lock the trained soldier out of the apartment!”
“I didn’t know he was in there,” Sherlock protested.
“And that’s why you take me!” John hissed, keeping his voice low.
Sherlock huffed and said nothing, which meant he knew he’d made a mistake and didn’t want to admit it.
John knew he should leave it at that – he’d broken his vow too many times already. And in spite of what he’d used to think, he clearly didn’t have control over this facet of his ability – Thomas had proved that.
But on the other hand, he could ease Sherlock’s pain, ensure there were no complications…
God, he was like a drug addict, always making excuses. Besides, it probably wouldn’t work.
But John already knew what he was going to do. “Come here, I can do something for your throat.”
Sherlock looked vaguely suspicious. “If it involves drinking some sort of horrid liquid-”
“Do you see a tea kettle tucked under my jacket? Now shut up, come here, and trust me.”
To John’s surprise, Sherlock did just that, stepping well into his personal space and staring down at him with an air of expectation. He radiated a tangy sort of curiosity, the low engine-thrum of excitement that was presumably about the case, bright sparks of bitter pain from the attempted strangling and a rich, bright glow of simple, uncomplicated trust.
It had been a while since someone had felt that sort of thing for him, and John needed a moment to compose himself before he reached for Sherlock’s neck. He pushed the scarf aside and laid his fingers over the reddening mark, massaging it gently.
Then he took a deep breath, and reached for Sherlock’s pain.
The first time he’d done this, he’d been twelve and their dog – Gladstone – had wriggled under their fence and been hit by a car. John had been the one to find him, and he’d taken the whimpering puppy in his arms, for a moment wishing that he could take the pain himself…
And then agony had roared through his body. John had passed out on the spot, and woken to Gladstone licking his face. The dog had been whining and wagging his tail, and moving like he’d never been hit by a car at all. The previously mangled back legs were as straight and healthy as they’d been that morning, and only the blood on Gladstone’s fur and in the gutter told John he hadn’t imagined the whole thing.
It had taken John years to understand what he’d done. Somehow his ability to feel and influence other people’s emotions translated to being able to heal them as well. John wasn’t sure how that was connected, but it only worked if he was willing to take on the pain of their injury. And not just the pain of the infliction, but all the pain they would have gone through as it healed, compressed into the space of perhaps a minute. It didn’t work if he told himself his patient was going to die unless he healed them – his empathy had never been influenced by logic, after all. He had to care for the person enough to be genuinely, instinctively willing to take the pain from them, which made the number of people he could heal very limited indeed.
But Sherlock was one of them. At least, John was fairly certain he was one of them.
He was proven right when pain raced through his throat, sharp and sudden. It felt like his neck was collapsing, his throat being scraped raw as every little hurt or twinge Sherlock would have experienced until the bruises vanished rushed through him in the space of a minute.
Good thing he was used to this. John kept his head ducked to hide the grimace, and swallowed rapidly to try to quell the lingering soreness.
“That was very quick,” Sherlock said, so abruptly John twitched.
He probably should have drawn it out, massaged a bit longer to make it seem believable, but it was too late now.
“Pressure points,” John lied. “Those years of medical school are good for something, you know.”
He allowed himself one last stroke of his thumbs across Sherlock’s throat, checking that he’d healed it properly, and was surprised by the silk-shiver of desire that hissed up from Sherlock to greet him.
Startled, John glanced up at Sherlock, but the detective’s face was turned away, staring up at the house he’d just left.
It was a little disappointing, but not terribly surprising. Just because John’s empathy meant he knew Sherlock leaned more towards celibate than asexual didn’t mean he wanted John, and feeling desire for someone was a far cry from actually wanting to have sex with them.
And when someone was feeling so affectionate and in love it felt like trilling birdsong and cotton floss sticking to the sides of John’s mouth, it didn’t necessarily mean they were in love with him. Mary had taught him that lesson. It had been painful, but not nearly as painful as the lesson Kemp taught him. Or when Thomas taught him the final lesson, the one that made him give up his empathy as a bad job, a mistake, some freaky mutation in his genes that should never have happened in the first place.
Yet…this was the second time he’d used his empathy to save Sherlock’s life. And maybe, if was very careful, he could use it to heal people again.
But just small things. Nothing like Thomas. Nothing like that ever again.
John was uncomfortably aware he sounded like alcoholic pleading that they only drank on special occasions.
There hadn’t been many times in his life that John had been glad to go home alone after a date, but this was one of them; being knocked about the head didn’t make for a good night.
John brushed his fingers over the gash behind his ear, held together with three stitches. It stung painfully, and he quickly withdrew his hand – it wasn’t a terribly large injury, but the scalp was very sensitive.
“They said you didn’t have a concussion," Sherlock said. "You could have gone home with her.”
He sounded grumpy, but John could feel the guilt and worry Sherlock was stewing in, thickening in his lungs like noxious smoke.
“It was the first date,” John pointed out. “Whatever impression Mike may have given you about my dating prowess, I'm not in the habit of taking people to bed that quickly.”
“He did mention something about three continents,” Sherlock smirked.
He seemed amused, but there was a bitter tang of envy beneath there, along with scouring prickles of something like resignation and a thick blue flash longing. In short, it was far too much for John to sort out after he’d come close to having his skull bashed in.
So he ignored it and grimaced at Sherlock to express his disdain of that stupid nickname Murray had saddled him with.
Most of his friends had been astounded by his so-called ‘success’, but John couldn't really take any pride or satisfaction in it. His empathy ensured he always knew when someone was genuinely interested in him, and often warned him when he was starting to do something that would put them off. He had a small window into people's minds while everyone else was stumbling around with conversational cues and body language – of course he seemed like some kind of Casanova by comparison. Which sounded brilliant, but in reality was often just messy and painful, and ensured a one-night stand was almost an impossibility for him – other people might have been able to have sex with people they were essentially indifferent to, but John had to genuinely like them. He’d tried going to bed with people he didn't really care about on only two occasions, and each time the near-constant contact with their emotions his empathy provided made him tense and frustrated, like a cat having its fur rubbed the wrong way.
He didn't feel that with Sarah, though. She was...well, nice. Her emotions were sweet and clear and honest, like the peal of a chapel bell.
People’s emotions changed, of course they did, but everyone had their own…signature, for lack of a better word – a strange mishmash of sight/sound/smell/taste/touch along with something else, something beyond those five senses, something that was purely his empathy. The emotions might vary, but the signature stayed the same, and in John’s mind, Sarah would always be linked to the image of a church bell sounding out the dawn.
John's mother had felt like a meadow, like soft grass and pastel flowers with little insects buzzing over them. His father had felt like cloth, like threads of all different colours and textures weaving together, sometimes separate, sometimes blending to create something entirely new. Harry felt like a jewel, like a bright red ruby set in cold silver, all sparkling and sharp, sometimes so bright it hurt his eyes.
It meant he was able to identify people with his empathy – when he was a kid, John had always known when Harry was coming home from school because he could sense her walking down the street – but only if they were familiar to him. After all, he'd had no clue he and Sherlock were apparently being followed for days. And it hadn’t warned him he was about to be kidnapped; empathy wasn't telepathy, and while he'd been able to feel that their kidnapper was metal-bright determined and resolved, there had been no fireworks of anger or hatred to warn John they were in danger.
At least he'd known not to panic and try some last-ditch, suicidal escape plan when he felt Sherlock coming. He'd felt him from almost half a mile away – Sherlock's signature was very...unique. It always made John think he was standing in the midst of a labyrinth of caves – immense and intimidating and sparkling with astonishing crystal formations, fading into shadows and hidden depths.
Though something about Sarah seemed to irritate Sherlock for some reason. John couldn’t pin down why – the cavern of Sherlock’s emotions got dark and flooded and choked his throat when Sarah was brought up. There was the gritty silt of irritation, yes, some vague sharp flavours of jealousy (probably resenting those moments when he wasn’t the centre of John’s attention) and something that felt puzzlingly like shivering insecurity and resonating loneliness, but that was as much as John could make out.
Sometimes, John wished everyone’s emotions were exactly the same, instead of the billions of shades and nuances and mixtures they actually were – he’d probably have managed to sort out every possible combination by now if that was the case.
But he wasn’t that lucky, and instead he was stuck with strange echoes of feeling and a whole lot of confusion.
Just like everyone else. Well, not really.
If Sarah was a church bell and Sherlock was a winding set of caverns then Molly was like a river. Clear and calm apart from the occasional floods and flurries, and far deeper than it looked.
But the man with her was different. The happiness and excitement were genuine, but they seemed thin, as insubstantial as mist drifting across…nothing. A gaping hole like an empty grave, like someone had reached inside and cut out everything inside him.
John did his best not to touch Jim or look at him. He was almost grateful when Sherlock told Molly he was gay (almost, because really, that could have been done with a lot more tact) because at least she’d been warned off him. And John doubted anything he said would have made an impact – what could he have said, after all? He didn’t think a ‘sorry, but your new boyfriend feels like the kind of person who’d kill people just for fun’ would go down well.
He’d still considered saying something, but then he remembered how wrong his empathy had been about Kemp, and kept silent.
Still, considering that introduction, he wasn’t entirely surprised when he woke up in the pool changing room, his hands cuffed to the railing, to find Jim grinning down at him. He stared for a moment, then made himself look away, trying not to get sucked down into that black emptiness.
“What, no exclamation of surprise?” Jim drawled. “I’m disappointed, Johnny – don’t tell me you don’t remember me.”
“Jim, dating Molly, works in the IT department at Bart’s and seemingly gay,” John recited wearily. “Though I’m assuming none of that is actually true, and that the name ‘Moriarty’ means something to you.”
“He fell for that little trick with the underwear then, did he?” Moriarty giggled. “How delightful.”
John wasn’t surprised to learn it was a trick. He didn’t think Moriarty was gay – he didn’t think he was anything, really. He think Moriarty could be anything, not with that…emptiness.
He made himself look again, made himself stare into that yawning void and couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to make Moriarty like that.
Something must have shown on his face, because Moriarty’s expression suddenly went blank and flat, dead eyes glittering like a shark’s.
“Is that pity I’m seeing on your face?” Moriarty hissed, leaning in close. “Pity? When you’re the one about to be strapped to a bomb?”
John had no idea what Moriarty was seeing, but it probably was pity. Because he looked at this man, this man who’d killed so many people just to attract Sherlock’s attention, and the main thought in his head was ‘you poor, sad sod’.
“Don’t you dare pity me!” Moriarty suddenly snarled, slapping John across the face.
John automatically turned his head to absorb the blow, absently noting that Moriarty clearly wasn’t used to hitting people. He had slapped John instead of punching him, and it was a rather ineffectual slap at that – just a sharp sting, and it probably wouldn’t even bruise.
It was loud though; a sharp smack of flesh against flesh, and the sound seemed to restore Moriarty’s composure. He stepped back, straightened his suit, and grinned.
“You already know how this works, so I won’t bore you with the details,” he said, tossing an earpiece into the air and catching it again. “Do exactly as I say, say exactly what I want, and I might let you live through this.”
With anyone else, John might have been able to tell if they were lying – there might have been a sharp, illicit thrill at the idea of making him dance to their tune when they were just going to kill him anyway, like the icy point of a needle pricking his thumb. There might have been smugness, thick and rich like melted chocolate, there might have been stinging-sandpaper guilt or chili-scented anticipation or something. But with Moriarty, that emptiness offered him no clue, no hope, not a single shred of insight.
He hadn’t seriously pushed anything on anyone since he’d made that Lotus bloke run away from Sherlock. The slight nudges to Sherlock when the detective was in one of his moods were always half-hearted, always tinged with the thought that Sherlock would come out of it eventually, and maybe he should just leave him to his sulk. But now, staring into Moriarty’s face, John gathered all the fear and despair he was feeling and pushed.
And it was sucked into the emptiness like light going into a black hole. There and then gone, without leaving even the slightest impression.
The feeling of his emotions spiralling away into the void left John feeling like he was standing on the very edge of a very tall building. Sick with vertigo, the drop making him feel dizzy, and he jerked his gaze away from Moriarty before he vomited.
And he did exactly as Moriarty ordered.
Maybe this was what he deserved. John didn’t really believe in karma or some kind of cosmic justice, but maybe this was his punishment for what he’d done to Thomas.
Afghanistan had been when John began to understand other, less pleasant aspects of his empathy. Well, it was hardly pleasant to be able to feel people’s misery and pain simply by virtue of close proximity, and Kemp had shown him that his empathy could have devastating consequences, but he’d never considered that his empathy could truly be a weapon before.
Until he found he could create a neat hole in firing lines by pushing fear and despair like mustard gas onto the enemy soldiers, to the extent that they dropped their guns and cowered while he ran to treat the wounded. Until he realised he could raise the flagging spirits of his comrades with some subtle nudges of hope and courage and happiness like sweet-smelling coffee. The officers always liked it when he came around, saying that everyone seemed much happier after he’d visited.
John always laughed it off and gave some weak excuse about being a people person. It wasn’t the first time he’d noticed this side-effect of his empathy – even when he wasn’t deliberately trying to influence others, he seemed to instil a sense of calm and relaxation. He wasn’t sure why, but it was very useful when treating patients – they had to be well and truly worked up before they even started to get nervous.
He also found it easier to heal people in the army. You were much more motivated to take on a comrade’s pain than an acquaintance’s. And for a while, it was good; he was healing people, and he’d finally found a use for his empathy – there was actually a point to picking up on people’s heartbreak and terror.
Then John fucked up, and it changed everything.
Thomas was ginger and freckled, and burned whenever he forgot his sunscreen. He seemed to find the whole thing more funny than irritating, though, and grinned at John whenever he asked how he was doing. He had a habit of looking up at John through his eyelashes, and he shared the care packages he got from his parents, and John thought maybe, maybe…
Then Thomas tripped a mine when they were scouting the road for a convoy.
John managed to tackle him off it, but half of Thomas’ right leg had been blown off. John had automatically put pressure on the injury, reaching for Thomas’ pain to heal him, in that moment not even caring if half the bloody squad saw what he was doing.
But then something had hit his left shoulder like a hammer, and John felt himself falling. He felt his link with Thomas fading, his own pain overwhelming his empathy, and in his panic he grabbed for every ounce of Thomas’ pain he could feel and pulled.
John passed out on the spot. And when he awoke, he had a hole in his shoulder and a pending honourable discharge for medical reasons. All of which he didn’t really care about at the time because they’d had him on some very strong drugs.
They began to wean him off the morphine on his second day of consciousness, and it was then that his scattered thoughts came together enough to ask about Thomas and if he could see him. His doctors weren’t happy about it, but John promised quite faithfully to be a good patient as soon as he’d seen Thomas, and threatened to be as difficult as possible if he wasn’t allowed to. Which wouldn’t have worked back in London but this was Afghanistan, and perhaps it was a bit unethically sound to take advantage of overworked medics, but John didn’t care.
“It’s not pretty,” was Dr. Nguyen’s warning. “His leg’s fine, but we think he has brain damage.”
For a moment, John had been sure she was joking. “Brain damage?”
Nguyen nodded. “He seems to be catatonic. We’d need someone to get a look at him and make sure it’s not trauma related, but…”
She shook her head and sighed. “I’ve seen catatonic people, and he isn’t catatonic. I honestly have no idea what’s wrong with him, but brain damage is the most likely explanation.”
John’s chest clenched in dread, and he was grateful she left him to enter the room alone.
Thomas was sitting on the bed, staring at the wall, and didn’t even glance at John when he entered the room. Very much like a catatonic patient, except for the small smile and almost blissful expression on his face.
“Hey, Thomas,” John said, not really expecting a reply.
Thomas didn’t so much as blink. But John wasn’t deterred – if the brain damage was physical, maybe he could heal him?
He sat beside Thomas bed on the bed, and took his hand, reaching for his pain…
But there was none. No pain, no damage, no trauma, only pure contentment.
John had taken Thomas’ pain. But not only the physical, as he’d intended to – he’d taken all of his pain, every negative memory and emotion. He hadn’t just given Thomas relief from physical agony; he’d given him peace. Permanently.
And it was sickening. Because everyone needed a little discontent in their lives. It was what gave people ambition, made them strive for new things – the feeling that ‘okay, things are nice now, but they could be better’.
He’d left Thomas completely content, completely at peace, no matter what happened around him or even to him. And it was the most horrifying thing John had ever seen.
Thomas’ family wanted to meet him. John declined. He was invalided home. John didn’t fight it.
He’d always known he had to be careful with his empathy. But he’d never dreamed he was capable of something so hideous. He’d never thought he could reach inside someone and take away everything that motivated them, everything that made them who they were, and leave them an empty, smiling shell that wouldn’t even resent him because they’d lost the capacity for resentment.
John didn’t think it was a coincidence that the day after he saw Thomas, he started limping. With the leg that Thomas was missing.
After all, he’d always known he was unusual, but that was the first time he’d considered himself a monster.
He never made any kind of effort to connect with people after his discharge, not even Harry. He locked himself in his flat and stared at his gun and contemplated eating a bullet.
Because he was monster. And at the end of the story, the monsters didn’t get happy endings.
John was still shaky when they got back to the flat. Facing death was one thing – been there, done that – but the memory of that awful, sucking emptiness made him feel nauseous every time he thought about it. He hadn’t even tried to push anything onto the snipers, afraid Moriarty would just suck it all away.
But he wouldn’t take this lying down, either. John might have been willing to accept his own demise as punishment for Thomas and insurance he would never do such a thing again, but if Sherlock’s death came with it? That was a line he refused to cross.
For a while – a long while, really – John had considered his empathy useless. It didn’t identify Kemp, after all, and his healing of Thomas had been disastrous. Still, he couldn’t help but remember that his empathy had made him wary of Moriarty when even Sherlock had dismissed him. His empathy had allowed him to delay Sherlock taking the pill, and maybe it had some monstrous aspects, but maybe – now that he knew he had to be careful, now that he knew the horrific things it could do – maybe if he was careful, he could make it a force for good. Like he had back before…Thomas.
Maybe his empathy could be useful again, instead of a painful, misery-inducing burden.
“Sherlock…” he began, slowly and carefully, making tea just to give himself something to do. “Hypothetically, say that-”
The sudden crash of anger and fear from Sherlock was like the detonation of a grenade. “What did he do?”
John blinked, trying to reorient himself after the sudden emotional backlash. “Sorry, what?”
Sherlock was standing in the entrance to the kitchen, his eyes dark and his emotions wild. “You’re uncomfortable, your leg is giving you trouble, and while you usually value eye contact when speaking you’ve yet to meet my eyes since we entered the house. All indications are that you are wrestling with something unpleasant that you want me to know, but fear my reaction to, so I will repeat – what did he do?”
Sometimes, John thought it was almost funny, how Sherlock could see almost every detail of a situation but miss the one that explained it all. He was uncomfortable, and his leg was giving him trouble (Moriarty’s emptiness was of a different flavour than Thomas’, but it was still a disturbing reminder of his sins), and he was trying to discuss something unpleasant …but Sherlock had assumed it was linked to Moriarty, that something had happened to John before he’d arrived at the pool.
Which John supposed wasn’t an unreasonable assumption to make, considering.
“Nothing,” he said quickly. Then pulled a face and amended, “Well, apart from the bomb and the snipers, but you were there for that part. And before that, he just did a lot of strutting around and talking, though he did slap me once.”
Sherlock’s fear dimmed like a failing bulb, but the smoky anger was still present, though it was tempered with treacle-thick confusion. “He slapped you?”
John nodded. “Pretty rubbish slap, actually – barely even hurt. Harry gave me worse when we were kids.”
Sherlock snorted, shimmering amusement and cottony relief softening the edges of his fury as the corners of his mouth quirked, and John grinned.
Then he looked down, forcing himself to concentrate on dipping his tea bag into the hot water. “Hypothetically-”
“Oh, must we have the charade?” Sherlock sighed. “I know you’re referring to yourself, you know you’re referring to yourself, can’t we discard the-”
“No,” John said firmly, interrupting whatever tangential rant Sherlock had been about to launch into. “And yes, we must have the charade – it helps me, so you can just put up with it.”
He took Sherlock’s silence – and the vague throb of curiosity and something that felt disturbingly close to lumpy-armchair sympathy and minty worry – as consent.
“Hypothetically,” he repeated, just to hear Sherlock scoff. “If someone had been badly injured, and his doctor performed a risky, never-before-tested medical procedure to try to save him, and it killed him, would you say that doctor had committed a crime?”
He thought framing it as a possible crime would get a more honest response from Sherlock.
“Would they have died anyway?” came Sherlock’s voice from behind him.
John thought of the mangled mass of thigh – bone and gristle exposed to open air, everything below the knee just gone, blown into pieces, the way blood had squirted from the femoral artery, the already-depleted supplies in his kit and how far away they were from the base – and nodded.
“Then I don’t see the moral dilemma. Medical procedures sometimes go wrong, don’t they?”
There was a note of reassurance in Sherlock’s voice and in his emotions, and John realised that Sherlock was trying to comfort him. For a moment he almost laughed, wondering what the MET would think of the self-proclaimed sociopath now, trying to console John about losing a friend (and possibly something more) without the slightest trace of mockery.
But the thing was, it worked. Somehow those words allowed John to relax, allowed him to finally shelve the guilt he’d been carrying for months. It was still there, of course, but it didn’t weigh as heavily on him. The thought had been growing for weeks, the thought that perhaps he’d been too vicious with himself, that all doctors lost patients and made mistakes, and the point wasn’t that they were perfect but that they were trying…but he’d needed someone else to say it.
If it had been an ordinary, non-empathic medical procedure, he’d have been reviewed by a board. Instead, he was being reviewed by Sherlock.
And John tried not to think about the fact that Sherlock’s tacit approval and absolution made him feel much better than any review board he’d ever seen.
He’d already made up his mind about the bond, but he couldn’t deny that made his decision seem that much more justifiable.
Chapter 2: bond
1. something that binds, fastens or holds together
Harry often bemoaned that John didn’t call or write or email, and John would make conciliatory noises and then still forget to do it because he could never explain to her why he forgot.
When he was a kid, John had spent a lot of time with his sister. He’d healed her scrapes and bruises a few times, and it was a rare day indeed that passed without Harry’s familiar emotional signature surging and ebbing at the back of his mind.
It was only when she left home that John realised Harry’s emotional signature was more than just ‘familiar’ to him – it was a constant. Whether they were separated by four feet of hallway or almost six thousand kilometres of land and sea, John always knew how Harry was feeling. Which meant he forgot to actually talk to her about it.
John had often wondered exactly what it was he’d done to form the bond, but he could never pin down the exact reason. Because he spent a lot of time with her? Because they’d sometimes fallen asleep together, so exhausted that the line between their separate emotions blurred and ran in John’s head until he couldn’t tell what feelings were his own and what were Harry’s? Because he’d taken on her pain to heal her so many times during their lives?
John didn’t know how he did it, but it wasn’t going to stop him trying to do the same with Sherlock.
His bond with his sister meant he always knew where she was – not precisely, not like a map, but more like a game of hot-cold. It meant he could heal her from a distance, like that time she’d contracted liver cancer while he was in basic training (and John was in no hurry to live through a year of chemo in the space of five minutes ever again – officially, the cancer had been listed as a misdiagnosis).
Of course, there were downsides to it as well – Harry’s emotions came through much clearer, and affected John much more than anyone else’s. It was one of the reasons he tried to avoid her when she was drinking – he needed to be in a good place himself, emotionally speaking, to resist her or they just dragged each other into a tailspin of misery.
Which was probably why he felt so apprehensive about the bond. He was going to give himself a direct window into Sherlock’s emotions, which were volatile enough at the best of times – what would happen if John could compound his black moods, could drag him down even further without even meaning to?
But on the other hand, John had no intention of letting Sherlock wander into danger without him. He wasn’t going to watch Sherlock walk into a trap again, not without knowing there was something he could do to help him.
If he really was going to try putting his empathy to use again, he might as well go the whole way.
At least Sherlock was nearby, since he’d fallen asleep on the sofa. He often did that after big cases – he wouldn’t sleep a wink all through it, but would crash as soon as it was over and sleep like the dead. And by this point, the adrenaline from the pool would be wearing off as well; Sherlock might like to play it cool, but John had felt the raw, electrified fear that had filled him as soon as he realised that John was strapped to several kilos of Semtex.
So John waited fifteen minutes to make sure Sherlock was genuinely asleep, then knelt down beside him – fighting the ridiculous urge to brush Sherlock’s hair off his forehead – and carefully entwined their fingers.
He’d never had any idea what he’d done with Harry to form the link between them. But he could feel it, like a weak glow in the back of his mind, so he did the best he could to mimic it. He took a deep breath, and tried to push his emotions at Sherlock, the way he did when he was trying to influence someone. Except he wasn’t pushing just one emotion but every emotion, all of himself, hoping that something would latch on, would catch and stick…
Something jolted in his chest, like his heart had been lightly squeezed and released. It wasn’t exactly pleasant, but there was definitely something there. Not quite the weak warmth that Harry was, but brighter and sharper and hotter. Maybe because he’d linked himself to Sherlock deliberately this time, rather than it happening by accident.
He probed the link, testing it, and yes, that was definitely Sherlock. The same impression of depth and vastness and secrets John would never discover even if he explored for the rest of his life.
And now it would be with him forever, tucked up inside his chest and head next to the soft, throbbing glow that was his link to Harry.
He released Sherlock’s hand.
He’d never deliberately formed a bond with anyone else before, not even Mary. He tried not to think about what that meant. Instead, John simply went upstairs and crawled into bed, only bothering to remove his shoes.
John awoke the next morning to the deafening crash that was his bedroom door bouncing off its hinges, and a flood of fear from Sherlock. He jerked upright, automatically reaching for some sort of weapon – his gun was too far away, but his alarm clock was heavy enough to do a decent bit of damage – until he realised Sherlock had stopped in the doorway, and the tremors of fear and panic were abating.
“What’s wrong?” John asked blearily.
His reflexes were still hair-trigger, but his brain needed about fifteen minutes of run time before he was properly woken up.
“Nothing,” Sherlock said hastily.
“No one charges up the stairs like an escaped rhinoceros because of ‘nothing’,” John pointed out.
Sherlock looked affronted. “I did not charge-”
“Yes you did,” John interrupted, smothering a yawn. “So what’s wrong?”
Sherlock was shifting his weight on the balls of feet, as if he were considering simply running away from the conversation. But he probably felt that was beneath his dignity.
John was starting to get rather worried. “Sherlock?”
“…you weren’t there.”
It was mumbled, and seemingly directed at the curtains, but John knew what he’d heard.
Didn’t mean it made any sense though. “Um…what?”
“I woke up, and you weren’t there,” Sherlock repeated, looking as though every syllable physically pained him.
And John understood.
“Stupid, really, idiotic,” Sherlock muttered, in the rapid-fire speech he usually used for his deduction. “There was no sign of a break-in or a struggle, I hadn’t even checked your room, and yet…how do people function like this? It’s absolutely hideous-”
He broke off, and John revelled in the cool flicker of surprise that lashed across the bond – it seemed he could still surprise Sherlock now and then, good to know. Of course, his attempts to surprise Sherlock didn’t usually involve walking up to him and hugging him, but John was willing to take his victories where he could.
At that thought, he settled his arms more comfortably around Sherlock’s waist. He wasn’t squeezing, just holding and standing close enough that his face was pressed against the side of Sherlock’s neck.
“What are you doing?” Sherlock asked, holding himself rigid.
“Trust me, this helps.” John deliberately sent feathery comfort and stone-hard love along the bond, trying to soothe away the last remnants of Sherlock’s panic.
Slowly, as though he thought if he did it gradually enough John wouldn’t notice, Sherlock put his arms around John’s shoulders. At first they were just resting there, but Sherlock’s grip got incrementally tighter and tighter, until it bordered on uncomfortable.
John just waited. He knew Sherlock cared about him – even if he wasn’t an empath, Moriarty’s promise to burn Sherlock’s heart out while John was wrapped in explosives was a particularly unsubtle anvil. As was Sherlock’s expression when he first stepped out and opened the coat.
So yes, Sherlock cared about him, John had never doubted that. Though he didn’t care in the way Moriarty had implied – John suspected Sherlock didn’t do romantic entanglements, and that was fine. First and foremost, he was John’s friend, which meant John wasn’t going to burden him with…this.
It was just a silly little infatuation anyway, sprinkled with a bit of hero worship. It would go away, he was sure. Or more precisely, he hoped.
Because being Sherlock’s friend was one thing. Being in love with Sherlock…well, John suspected that was very fast road to a whole lot of heartbreak.
“You’re not allowed to get yourself strapped to a bomb ever again,” Sherlock said abruptly, yanking John out of his contemplation.
John snorted. “I promise I’ll try to avoid it in the future.”
“I mean it,” Sherlock snapped, suddenly tense. “You need to be careful, he…”
Sherlock’s voice trailed off like an engine winding down, and the bond quivered with sick confusion and elastic-tight worry and a strangely lost, almost helpless kind of feeling.
John would have liked to tell him everything would be fine, but that would only be a lie. So he settled for, “I’ll be careful, I promise.”
Sherlock nodded vaguely, but it was still a long time before his emotions quieted. And an even longer time before he made any move to let John go.
John was twenty-two when he fell in love. Her name was Mary, and she was a pre-med with an interest in punk rock and the kind of unashamed laugh that could fill a room. They were in the same group for practicals, and a friendly conversation had led to drinks, which led to dinner, which led to them tumbling into Mary’s bed and not leaving until morning.
It had started out casual – they were friends who occasionally had sex, and while John had heard of that ending messily it had seemed to work for them.
Until the night Mary had come to dinner from the hospital, and John had finally identified the soft, glowy feeling that had been permeating her for weeks.
It was love. Mary was in love.
John had spent the next day in a haze, wondering what to do about it, if he should do anything about it. What could he say anyway? Nothing that referenced his empathy, not if he wanted to get his degree without a detour to a psychiatric facility.
Mary was in love, and John knew about it – that much couldn’t be changed. So John took a long, hard look at himself and asked if he loved Mary, if he could love Mary?
And the answer was yes.
So they still went to dinner and drinks but now John considered them dates, and thought that they were ‘going steady’. He was on the verge of asking her to move in with him when she told him their arrangement had to come to an end; she’d fallen in love with a nurse at the hospital.
John knew that it was only his empathy that got his hopes up with Mary; if he hadn’t been aware of the love she was feeling and mistakenly attributed it to him, he would never have thought it was anything more than friends with benefits.
Still, he couldn’t help feeling a little bitter.
He and Mary remained friends, but they fell out of touch when he went into the army. John fell out of touch with a lot of people then.
John could tell he and Sarah weren’t going to last – he’d got much better at this stuff since Mary. But he thought they were coming from the same place, at least. Neither of them were looking for marriage and babies, but they both wanted some company and some uncomplicated affection.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t upset when she ended it. Not depressed, not torn up inside and feeling his own sorrow and loss like razors under his tongue, but certainly upset.
So he decided to have a lie-in to sleep off the emotional exhaustion, and was drifting in that wonderful place where you weren’t quite asleep but weren’t quite awake and knew you had absolutely no commitments for the rest of the day. His bonds were throbbing contentedly – Harry was asleep in her own bed, and Sherlock had been checking up on his homeless network for the past two days but was now approaching the flat. John spared a sleepy brain cell to hope that he wasn’t going to do any experiments involving loud noises or fire.
The bond shivered briefly with curiosity, then suddenly sent waves of irritation and confusion, and John tried to rouse himself to respond, bidding farewell to his luxurious lie-in.
John dragged himself out of bed just in time for Sherlock to fling open the door to his room, stride over the threshold in a way that said he’d worked himself up into a proper snit, before stopping dead in his tracks as though a wall had materialised in front of him.
“We really have to have a talk about you battering down my door,” John muttered.
“You’re naked,” Sherlock said, in what John had come to think of as his ‘I’m surprised but trying not to show it’ tone.
“Well done,” John yawned.
He was still drowsy, but he woke up very quickly when he felt a hot, shaky flash of lust from Sherlock.
It disappeared as quickly as it had come – likely deliberately smothered beneath gruesome mental images – but John knew what he had felt. He felt it again – stronger and hotter – when he crossed the room and bent over to pull some underwear out of his bottom drawer.
But then this was nothing new. John was aware Sherlock was attracted to him, and he was equally aware Sherlock didn’t want to do anything about it.
“Is there a particular reason you were yelling my name on a Saturday morning?” John asked.
Sherlock blinked, and John saw him consciously move his eyes up to John’s face. “You didn’t text me.”
John tried to drag some kind of sense out of that statement, and failed. “Which means…?”
“Lestrade texted me half a dozen times asking for my whereabouts, and they only cease with the message ‘just texted John, he says you’re safe, talk to me when you can’.”
“And? Did you actually want him to keep texting you?”
“How did you know I was safe?” Sherlock demanded, looking almost affronted. “I even got a text from Mycroft, which meant I managed to shake his spies for at least a day, so how did you know I was safe?”
It was times like this that made John think it would be much, much easier if he just told Sherlock about his empathy. But then he remembered how eager Sherlock was to examine and dissect anything unusual, and a lifetime of caution reared its head. He knew Sherlock cared about him, but did he care about him enough not to experiment on him?
John didn’t know and, childishly, didn’t want to find out – he’d thought Kemp was a good bloke, after all, so what did that say about his judgement? It was far safer to let things continue as they were than to risk rocking the boat.
“You were checking up on your homeless network,” John said eventually. “I didn’t think I should be worried until a few days had passed.”
Sherlock looked and felt baffled and mildly affronted. “How do you know that?”
Because he had a psychic link that allowed him to know where Sherlock was and what he was feeling. But John couldn’t say that, so he settled for listing the other, more tangible signs.
“Because there’s been a bit of a cold snap, you’ve been collecting old newspapers, and you didn’t need all those scarves and gloves for yourself.”
Sherlock was silent, and the expression on his face would have confused John if he hadn’t been able to feel the tremulous wonder that whispered through the bond.
Then Sherlock blinked, and seemed to come back to himself, the wonder suddenly crushed beneath irritation and a touch of resentment.
“We’re out of milk,” he snapped, turning around and hurrying down the stairs.
“I bought two litres only yesterday!” John cried. “What the hell did you manage to do with it in the ten minutes you’ve been home?”
“Do you just carry on talking when I’m away?”
“I don’t know – how often are you away?”
John’s first reaction was worry. Could Sherlock feel the bond somehow? Certainly Harry had never shown any sign of being aware of their connection, but the link with Harry wasn’t nearly as strong as the one he had with Sherlock.
The bonds certainly gave John a feeling of companionship, a reassurance that he was never alone, not really, but he’d been the one to create them.
He told himself it meant nothing – that this was just one of Sherlock’s many idiosyncrasies. He didn’t know, he couldn’t know.
And even if he did, he wouldn’t bundle John off to a laboratory…would he?
John liked to think not. But sometimes there were too many similarities between Sherlock and Kemp for John’s comfort.
Lloyd Kemp was John’s favourite dissection partner in his labs. Most people didn’t seem to like him – he had a knack for saying disturbingly insightful things at the exact wrong moment – but he had steady hands and a weird sense of humour that was strangely compatible with John’s. Even if he did tend to treasure some beliefs about crystal healings and the like.
So when they were wandering back to the college drunk off their arses and Kemp was hit by a car that crushed his torso and collapsed his lung and just kept on going, John didn’t even hesitate to bend down and heal him. A collapsed lung was a new experience, and it took him several long moments to get his breath back.
When he was able to see past the pain, Kemp was staring up at him like a knight of the Round Table that had just found the Holy Grail.
John told himself Kemp was too drunk to remember anything – and if he did, he would chalk it up to the alcohol and move on.
Three days later, they went on another trip to the pub, and John had been out after his first drink – Kemp had slipped him something.
When he woke, he awoke to bright lights and bondage. Which might have been nice, under other circumstances, but rising out of a groggy haze to find himself strapped to something a lot harder than a hospital bed was rather unnerving. His head felt like it was full of concrete, and he couldn’t feel anything below his waist.
He’d glimpsed Kemp in the corner of his eye, wearing a surgical mask and bloodstained gloves, and still John hadn’t panicked. He didn’t quite know why – perhaps because he thought it was some kind of prank? Because all he was picking up from Kemp was blue, pulsing curiosity with no taint of malice and so he didn’t think he had anything to worry about?
“Wha…what’s going on?” John slurred, his lips and tongue feeling thick and uncooperative.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Kemp said, with the high-pitched laugh he always used when he was worried about something. “I’ve given you an epidural, so it shouldn’t hurt-”
John heard nothing past ‘epidural’.
“What?” he mouthed weakly, feeling as though he was slowly sinking into some deep, dark pit.
He couldn’t feel his legs. There was a tiny, horrified part of John’s mind that just didn’t want to look, but he looked.
He could see his own femur. His left thigh had been cut into, skin and blood vessels and stringy bits of fat peeled back like a curtain, revealing the underlying muscles and tendons and knotty nerves and the dull yellow of bone.
John thought he might have been trying to scream. His mouth was open, and his chest was constricted and tight, but there was no sound coming from his throat.
“I always believed in it, you know,” Kemp was saying conversationally, somewhat muffled behind the surgical mask. “Knew there had to be more than just pills and surgery – I mean, look at the placebo effect! Our brains influence our healing so much, I just knew that there had to be someone who could influence other people’s healing as well. And then when you saved me after the car…”
This is just a nightmare, John told himself. This is just a nightmare. It has to be, it has to be – there is no way this is actually happening…
“Don’t worry,” Kemp said again, turning back to John with a scalpel in one hand and a small jar of liquid in the other. “I just want a sample, just a bit of the lateral cutaneous nerve to see how your neurons are different.”
And with those words, it was easy (far too easy) for John to take all the fear he was feeling, every scrap of his terror at his worst nightmare being realised (imprisoned and experimented on), gather it up like a fireball and shove it onto Kemp. Every single, sodding bit of it.
It screamed out of John’s head like a tornado, and he could feel the instant it hit Kemp and latched on hard, the force of the emotions practically pummelling him. Kemp’s face contorted, looking as though he were about to scream but couldn’t find the breath, and then he fell. John heard the sharp sound of glass breaking, and then Kemp’s fear and pain just…went out. Like a blazing lamp suddenly turned off.
John passed out again, but he was never sure if that was whatever drugs Kemp had given him or the shock of feeling all that emotion – of feeling Kemp himself – just die.
It had all been sorted out by the time John woke up, of course (Kemp had been using an empty practical lab and someone had found them). Kemp’s family had a history of psychiatric issues, and the stress and pressure had caused him to have an episode. And at some point, the strain had simply gotten too much for his apparently weak cardiovascular system, and he’d had a heart attack.
If John had actually wanted to truth to come out, he would have been able to poke a lot of holes in that story. What kind of delusion came on so abruptly and suddenly no one had noticed anything out of the ordinary until Kemp was cutting him up? How did a man in his mid-twenties with no history of cardiovascular disease suddenly die from a massive heart attack?
But the last thing John wanted was for people to start getting curious about what had happened. If the university wanted to sweep Kemp’s little ‘episode’ under the rug, then that was fine with him – they could sweep away.
He was more concerned with what it said about him. He knew his little empathic nudges physically affected people – fear would make their palms sweaty, a little burst of happiness would help them relax – but he’d never suspected it could be done to that kind of degree. He’d given Kemp a heart attack by pushing his own fear onto the man; what other kind of damage could he do?
For a little while, John didn’t think it made sense – how could emotions overload someone’s system like that? He hadn’t been having a heart attack, so how had he given Kemp one?
Then they took him off the good drugs on the second day, and his more logical thoughts began to come back. And John realised that in a way, he probably should have expected it. He’d been dealing with other people’s emotions all his life, and his body had adapted to be able to cope with that kind of mental upheaval. But Kemp hadn’t. John has shoved his fear onto him and when his fear had become Kemp’s fear John had still been afraid, so he’d just kept pushing and pushing, until he’d pushed Kemp far past what the human body could cope with. Far past the level of fear anyone would experience naturally.
Really, John was amazed it took Thomas to make him realise how awful his empathy could be.
John felt uncomfortable from the moment they entered Irene Adler’s house. It wasn’t the deception (god knew he’d had enough practice with that, working with Sherlock for so long) but the way his empathy was tugging at him, the way pain and sorrow were prodding him for acknowledgement like barbed wire stung between his bones.
It only got worse when he actually walked into the room. He knew Sherlock thought it was Irene’s nakedness that meant he was having difficulty looking at her, but he couldn’t have been further from the mark. It wasn’t Irene’s body that was disturbing John, it was her mind.
Or more specially, her emotions; they reminded him far too much of Moriarty. The feeling of emptiness was the same, but where Moriarty’s hollowness was blunt, worn smooth with time – whatever happened to make him that way, it happened a very long time ago, long enough that it didn’t hurt anymore – Irene’s hole was jagged, open and bleeding the soft echoes of where there used to be…something. Something more than grief and loss and a need for something to do, for anything that would take her mind off it for even a moment. Moriarty was like a black hole, consuming everything so that not even light escaped. Irene was like someone screaming from the bottom of a deep, dark well.
He could feel other emotions from her, of course. Happiness, triumph, smugness, curiosity…but they felt thin. A paper mask daubed with bright colours to cover the hole beneath.
“Could you put something on?” he asked, mainly because he couldn’t see any clothes lying about so she’d have to leave the room to put something on, which would give him some time to collect himself.
She didn’t leave, of course, just borrowed Sherlock’s coat (and John wasn’t jealous of the way they didn’t even seem to be aware of his presence except when they were using him to snipe at each other, he wasn’t). He sat beside her on the sofa, and tried to push some happiness, safety and peace on her, a big ball of emotions like a purring, contented cat – he just wanted to be able to think past the grief pouring from her like a burst pipe – but it just skated off her like watercolour on oily glass.
He tried again, with the same result. It wasn’t like Moriarty – she didn’t suck it into nothingness, it just…didn’t stick.
John had always known his little nudges were palliatives, not cures, but he was still a little shaken by a grief so deep he couldn’t even make the faintest impression on it.
What could have happened to hurt someone that much?
He was actually quite glad for Sherlock’s order to ‘man the door’ – it meant he could get out of the room and get some distance between him and Irene’s suffocating emotions. Sometimes (well, most of the time, really) his empathy was more trouble than it was worth.
After all, he was so busy keeping himself from getting sucked into Irene’s sorrow that he completely missed the men sneaking up on him.
Jeanette calling Sherlock his boyfriend had hit a bit too close to home. John was painfully aware that people had good reason to think he and Sherlock were a couple; they had a plethora of inside jokes, he nagged Sherlock into eating and knew what a ‘danger night’ was – he’d even created an empathic bond so he could know if Sherlock was in trouble. John could see why people would think that, but he still resented it.
Not so much for the implication that he and Sherlock as a couple, but the assumption that he’d be dating these women if they were. Okay, yeah, he’d got around a bit in his younger days, but he did not cheat on people, thank you very much!
And John was being absolutely sincere when he said he wasn’t gay. His empathy meant that his relationship with sex and sexuality was…complicated. He only felt sexual attraction if the person was…well, empathically appealing was a good way to put it. If their empathic signature felt nice, then he felt attracted to them. If not, then sex with them – any kind of contact with them – was just unthinkable.
That was why he was attracted to Sherlock, but wasn’t really comfortable calling himself gay. It was why he was attracted to Sarah and Jeanette and all the others, but couldn’t call himself straight (even bisexual didn’t cover it). It was also why he hadn’t felt attracted to Irene in the slightest.
Oh, he could certainly see that she was physically beautiful, but it was like admiring a well-crafted doll – a cold, almost hollow sort of admiration.
Sherlock, on the other hand…what he felt for Irene was a complex tangle of tangy admiration and flickering curiosity and strawberry fascination, with a sprinkling or two of lust. If John was perfectly honest with himself, he was more than a little jealous.
Because while Sherlock did care for him, John didn’t arouse (arouse, ha!) his interest the way Irene had.
‘Maybe I should have wandered naked around the flat now and again,’ he thought, then shook his head.
He’d been having a lot of these thoughts recently, wondering what it was about Irene that had managed to capture Sherlock’s attention and interest so effectively. It was pointless, he knew, but he couldn’t seem to help himself, like tonguing at a sore tooth.
He and Sherlock a couple?
John would never be that lucky.
John knew he was staying out of sight for anything to do with Irene Adler, and he knew it was confusing Sherlock. John usually jumped into a case right alongside Sherlock, and even when he couldn’t – like when he had to work or take care of Harry – he was at least curious about them.
But frankly, John just did not want to go anywhere near Irene.
The fact that she was clearly manipulating Sherlock like some kind of toy was only part of it. The fact that Sherlock was falling for it was…alright, it was more significant than he’d like to admit, but again, it was only part of it.
It was the pain. The never-ceasing pain that beat at him whenever she was nearby. After Sherlock had deciphered the code for her, John had retreated to his room for what he felt was a well-deserved lie-down (it was a pity painkillers wouldn’t make any impression on this headache), until thirst drove him back to the kitchen.
“I think you’re avoiding me,” Irene declared as he stepped past her and Sherlock, intent on the kitchen and kettle there.
He doubted tea would help, but it was a psychosomatic thing – tea helped him calm down and relax, after all.
He felt Sherlock’s curiosity spike, and John turned to give both of the geniuses a glance. After his experiences with Sherlock, he knew this was just Irene trying to put him off balance.
“Kind of,” he admitted, because he knew admittance was the best way to derail this kind of plan.
Irene smirked, just a little, a brief feeling of triumph and smugness flashing over that paper mask like a sprinkling of ink and cloudy paint. “Is it because you’re jealous?”
Sherlock wasn’t saying a word, which would have told John how interested in the conversation he was even without feeling Sherlock’s quicksilver fascination flow down the bond.
“No,” John said honestly.
He was jealous – one part of being an empath meant you were very good at recognising your own feelings, having seen them in others so often – but that wasn’t why he was avoiding her.
Irene laughed, low and throaty. “Oh come on, darling, you can be honest. It’s just the three of us, after all.”
She sent a flirtatious smile Sherlock’s way, and John couldn’t help marvelling at the tangled skein of her feelings for Sherlock. There was a sort of idle curiosity and a sense of prideful rivalry, but more than that, there was…wistfulness. As though she wasn’t truly interested in Sherlock, but wanted to be. Wanted something to fill that dark hole inside her, even if it was brief and based on deception and manipulation.
John sighed, and gave Irene one of his gentlest smiles. “Well, if we’re being honest, I thought it would be easier on you.”
He didn’t have to be an empath to know he’d confused her. Confused Sherlock too, come to that, and John allowed himself a moment to revel in it.
“I thought it would be easier,” he clarified. “If you didn’t have to see us together.”
At first, he’d been puzzled, wondering exactly what kind of loss could have left that deep stain of grief on her for so long. And he probably would have remained puzzled if Irene hadn’t come to their flat. But she’d seen them talking and griping, had heard Sherlock’s comment about John calling him amazing, and the each time John had been struck by flashes of jealousy and longing, like the slow drip of spilled wine. But it wasn’t the kind of longing people felt when looking at something they couldn’t have – it wasn’t wistful and yearning but dark and bitter, the kind of longing people experienced when they had something and lost it.
And then John had understood. Irene once had something like that – something like what he and Sherlock had. She’d had someone who’d laughed with her instead of at her, who’d thought she was exceptional when everyone else thought she was a freak, who’d known exactly who and what she was and loved her anyway…and then she’d lost them.
No wonder she didn’t seem to give a damn about anyone or anything, including herself.
“I don’t often admit to this, but you’ve honestly stumped me, Dr. Watson,” Irene said, still smiling. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
She clearly thought he was going to make some envy-ridden comment about her and Sherlock hooking up. Just because John knew why she was doing this – seemingly trying to push them together even as she made Sherlock dance to her tune – didn’t mean he didn’t resent it, just a little.
But she was a human being in pain, and John was a doctor first and foremost, so it wasn’t malice that made him say, “It won’t bring them back.”
Irene blinked, suddenly going perfectly still. “What?”
“Whoever you lost,” John said quietly, staring directly into her eyes. “This won’t make it stop hurting. Trust me, I know.”
He crossed the kitchen in three strides and pressed a hand to her shoulder in commiseration. Irene stared at him, and John knew that he’d honestly caught her off-guard, that she was half-panicking as she wondered if she was really that transparent. He wanted to say something, to reassure her that he only figured it out because his brain didn’t seem to work the way other people’s did, but knew whatever he said would come out sounding like he was some kind of lunatic.
So he just kept his hand on her shoulder and looked straight in her eyes, trying to somehow communicate that he understood. Understood in a way he didn’t really think Sherlock could.
It was just a hunch – it was empathy, not telepathy – but John suspected Sherlock had never lost anyone he really cared about. His parents were still alive, and John thought he didn’t have enough contact with his extended family to really care if they were still alive or not.
But John had lost his parents, had come very close to losing Harry…and he’d lost Thomas. Correction, he’d killed Thomas, so yes, John could understand.
This time, Irene’s laugh was just a little too high, a little too quick to sound entirely natural. There was a measure of desperation in the way she shrugged his hand from her shoulder, as though she couldn’t even contemplate accepting comfort.
“I don’t know what you’ve thought up, but I assure you, you’re wrong,” she stated, making a deliberate show of looking John in the eye.
“Of course I am,” John said quietly, feeling his lips curl into a sad smile. “Just ignore me.”
“John…” Sherlock began, looking and feeling startled.
But the kettle had boiled, and John turned back to the kitchen without acknowledging Sherlock. He went through the motions of making tea, feeling Sherlock’s confusion and concern and something tinged with soft purple admiration. For Irene? John thought it was the most likely explanation.
“I’m going back upstairs,” he said, not looking at either of them as he walked past.
He didn’t think it was a coincidence that Irene left shortly after.
“How did you know?” Sherlock demanded.
John blinked, glancing up from his laptop. He was used to random outbursts while Sherlock was curled on the sofa and thinking, but this one was clearly directed at him rather than some phantom murderer or victim.
“How did I know what?” he frowned, unable to stop himself feeling a prickle of anxiety.
Sometimes he was convinced Sherlock was only inches away from discovering his empathy…had he messed up somehow?
“How did you know she’d lost someone?” Sherlock asked, staring at John with the kind of intensity he usually turned on corpses with no clear cause of death.
Oh, it was about Irene – John should have suspected. He could often guess when Sherlock’s thoughts turned to her, because his emotions became strangely wistful and yearning, bright dew drops of admiration and affection and even a light trickle of fear, as though he were afraid of how strongly he’d connected with her.
It was difficult to lie to Sherlock, so John settled for a half-truth. “I knew because I’ve lost people too – I can recognise the signs.”
“What signs?” Sherlock didn’t sound scornful, but honestly curious, apparently eager to resolve this gap in his knowledge.
John tried to come up with a way to express the inexpressible. “Well, she was a thrill-seeker for one, but not the usual kind, and you come to know the types when you work in an emergency room. There are those who do dangerous or illegal things because it gives them a rush, there are those who do it just because they’re idiots who’ve seen it on the telly or something, and then there are those who do it because they need the thrill to stop them thinking, to make their mind concentrate on something other than what they’ve lost. And while she wasn’t suicidal, she wasn’t terribly invested in her own survival – I expect if someone came to kill her, she wouldn’t try to get out of it as hard as she could. She’d try, yes, but it’d probably be a half-hearted effort, just enough to justify it to herself.”
John expected Sherlock to have some kind of response to that – more about how caring wasn’t an advantage or something – but Sherlock was silent. Silent and staring at John.
“Interesting,” he said at last.
Then he folded himself up on the sofa and didn’t speak for the next six hours.
It was strange, going to Dartmoor after spending so long in London. His empathy meant that being in London was like looking out at the city from their living room window. Up close you could distinguish the street lamps and lit windows, just as he could distinguish the separate emotions of individuals, but soon they all blurred into one sea of light, into a roiling ocean of pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, hope and fear and everything in between.
And Sherlock had called his mind ‘placid’? If only he knew.
In contrast, Dartmoor had long stretches of emptiness, and John’s head went quiet for the first time in a very long time. Not silent, of course – he could still feel the people in the villages, and his bonds with Sherlock and Harry were still there – but quiet. Like someone had turned down the volume. The people were there, but…distant. As though it was just him and Sherlock (and Harry, sort of), and no one else in the world.
But it couldn’t last, and they were at the village before John really had time to appreciate it. The couple who ran The Cross Keys were nice, but guilt lurked beneath their cheerful veneer like a ribbon of blood through water. John snagged a receipt for meat, just in case it had something to do with their case.
He and Sherlock wound up with a single bed between them, but John didn’t really mind; Sherlock probably wouldn’t be doing much sleeping anyway.
Though of course he objected when John put his case on the bed. “Why can’t you take the sofa? You’re shorter.”
“Of the two of us, I’m the one most likely to do some actual sleeping,” John shot back, putting his toothbrush in the bathroom.
“You don’t know that,” Sherlock grumbled.
“Well, if you happen to fancy some sleep, then we can share,” John pointed out. “It’s certainly big enough for the two of us. But if you hog the covers or kick me in the night, I’m dumping you on the floor.”
There was a strange ripple of emotions from Sherlock at that, something longing and sad and strangely hopeful. John only got a brief glimpse before Sherlock deliberately smothered it – probably forcing himself to think about the case – and while John could probably probe the bond to determine what that had been, he felt his friend deserved some kind of privacy. John couldn’t help knowing what he was feeling, but he could stop himself from poking his nose into subjects Sherlock obviously didn’t want to think about.
For the first time, John wondered if it was possible for an empathic bond to become too strong.
He’d been able to follow Sherlock through the moor even when they lost sight of each other – that was one way in which the bond helped enormously, though it was a bit like playing hot-cold; John never got a clear picture of where Sherlock was, only a vague feeling of the direction he was in.
John had stopped to write down what he thought was Morse Code, until he’d probed with his empathy, picked up on the lust and love howling out into the night and realised it was people having sex in a car. Of course a place like Dartmoor would have several ‘make-out points’ – he was surprised they hadn’t stumbled across one sooner.
Then he’d felt Sherlock’s fear, and almost dropped his notebook in his hurry to find him.
The fear had been so strong, strong enough to start bleeding over into John. Even when they were back in front of the fire at the pub and perfectly safe, John could feel it creeping along his spine like a cold sweat. He’d tried to nudge some feeling of security into Sherlock – carefully not touching him, because then they’d have two people panicking – but the fear bubbling over into him made him shaky, not quite sure of himself. In the end he had to take a walk just to calm himself down.
That had never happened before. He was aware of other people’s emotions, yes, and they could influence his own, but they never consumed him like that. Not even Harry’s. Maybe it had something to do with his bond with Sherlock?
It was times like these that made John wish that he wasn’t the only one, that there had been some older, more experienced empath for him to learn from. He had no idea why his bond with Sherlock would be stronger than the one he had with Harry. He had no idea why it seemed to be getting stronger with time. He had no idea about a lot of things, and he was getting a little sick of it.
He’d been born with this damn empathy – shouldn’t he know something about it by now?
Sherlock didn’t return to their room that night, but John hadn’t really been expecting him to. He was feeling it again from Sherlock – the painful love and yearning that meant he was thinking about Irene – so he’d probably be roaming around and brooding.
John tried to stay up that night, tried to keep himself attuned to the bond between him and Sherlock so he’d know if there was a problem…but that intense fear had left him very tired, and eventually he succumbed to sleep.
He opened his eyes when he heard the door to the room shut softly. Usually, that sound would have had him leaping off the bed and grabbing for his gun, but his empathy told him it was Sherlock who’d just entered the room, and John was so tired he couldn’t be bothered to move. He shut his eyes again, already beginning to doze.
In the morning, when he awoke to an empty room, he’d tell himself that the feeling of a hand stroking across his forehead – and the dull glow of love and longing that shuddered through the bond – had just been a dream.
It was actually possible to lie to John – he’d figured that one out fairly early. He was an empath, after all, not a telepath like in the sci-fi shows. He didn’t know what people were thinking, only what they were feeling, and certainly not why they were feeling it. Most of the time, he could take a guess, but that was all it was – a guess.
Still, his empathy helped him get a better read on people, and pushing fear onto someone was certainly useful when he was being threatened. The hardest part was controlling it, ensuring his own emotions and sense of self weren’t consumed by the empathic noise that surrounded him.
So when his empathy suddenly started battering at his senses in Baskerville, John knew right away something was wrong. It wasn’t like those times when he got distracted and let his empathy drift free – he didn’t feel weightless and barely aware of himself. If anything, he felt like he was aware of too much.
He was aware of Sherlock, yes – he was always aware of Sherlock – but suddenly he was aware of the people lingering on the outskirts of the facility, of their emotions bleeding into his and no matter how hard he focused, he couldn’t shut them out. It was like all his barriers between himself and the world around him crumbled, emotions shattering through his mind like a broken window letting in a hurricane, a storm of thoughts and feelings that rushed by him and swept him up in the flood.
It was too much, far too much. He couldn’t block it, couldn’t stem the tide, couldn’t pick out individual people anymore and could barely pick out individual emotions. He was happy, and worried, and sad and confused and happy and angry and scared/triumphant/smug/anxiousexcited grievingguiltylovingcontentfrustrated-
Then he was feeling nothing at all.
There were voices…somewhere. Above him, below him, to the side – John couldn’t tell, but they were there. Sherlock and someone else, someone unfamiliar.
“-kind of dosage?”
“I…don’t know.” Sherlock sounded embarrassed.
“You drugged him without knowing the dosage you were giving him? No wonder he had a reaction – for all we know, these are the typical symptoms of an overdose!”
“Why didn’t a helicopter come for him?”
“Because we have a jeep with the facilities of an ambulance and no time to waste waiting for other transport!”
“If that’s…” Sherlock seemed to realise John was awake. “John? John, are you alright? How are you feeling?”
But John’s brain apparently decided that if he was hearing and seeing, it was time for his empathy to wake up as well. Too wide, too loud, too bright, too…everything.
Emotions rose up to swallow him, and for a moment John could feel his brain trying to fight back, trying to hang on to what was him in the deluge of feelings and personalities that weren’t his own.
It felt like he was being ripped apart on a molecular level, like every cell in his body was being pulled in a different direction. The human brain just wasn’t built to process every emotion at once, not even John’s.
John had just enough time to wonder if he had any chance of coming out of this sane before the tide rose to engulf him, and he was gone.
The next time John woke up, it was to the familiar sounds and smells of a hospital. Heart monitor, check. The bustle of nurses and doctors tending patients that they could never quite muffle, check. The scent of disinfectant, check.
The utter exhaustion that showed him he’d been injured and was probably on a cocktail of drugs? Check.
John wanted to open his eyes and take advantage of what he suspected would be a small window of lucidity, but he didn’t risk it until he was certain his empathy was under control.
The doctor in the hall was flavoured with bitter worry and pinstriped self-doubt. Maybe she’d made a misdiagnosis, or one of her patients wasn’t responding to medication? The patient in the bed next to his was sapphire-happy with relief resounding over it like a trumpet blast. A successful surgery? The patient in the one over was asleep, drifting little soap bubbles of contentment and security over to John.
And Sherlock was exuding blood-tinged worry and pus-smelling guilt through the bond, which was telling him Sherlock was close.
John opened his eyes. The fluorescent lights were a little too bright, and he blinked several times before he felt it was safe to lift his head.
Sherlock was perched in a chair – literally perched, in that bird-of-prey-way he sometimes did. He was clearly aware John was awake; he’d gone tense and wide-eyed, but he wasn’t saying anything.
“What happened?” John asked. Or at least, tried to ask – it emerged as a hoarse, painful croak instead.
What was wrong with his throat?
“You were screaming,” Sherlock said quietly, obviously reading the question on John’s face.
John supposed that made sense. He hadn’t even been aware he was screaming, but then he hadn’t even been aware of his own mind, let alone his body. He took a deep, uncomfortable breath and fought the urge to just close his eyes and drift back into unconsciousness.
“You collapsed in the lab and started seizing,” Sherlock went on, in the voice of someone who was trying for calm but not quite managing it. “They transported you out of the base and admitted you to the hospital fourteen hours ago.”
Fourteen hours? That was…a very long time.
“Henry?” John rasped. Even that one word felt like an enormous effort.
“Recovering. You should have been there, John – it was brilliant! Murder weapon and scene of the crime all in one-”
John let himself tune out, giving in to the drugs and letting his body rest so he could heal…whatever had happened. He had time to wonder one thing, though; what had set his empathy off like that?
When John woke for the third time, his mind felt much more his own – he was probably off the more potent drugs, then – and Sherlock was still there.
“How long this time?” he coughed.
“You’ve been here for twenty-seven hours,” Sherlock muttered, leaning over him and peering into his face in a way that would have made John uncomfortable if it was coming from anyone else.
He’d got used to Sherlock’s bizarre scrutiny, but it was the steadily-leaking guilt – now bitter and fermenting like rusted water – that was confusing John.
“How’d I get here?” he asked, enjoying the way his words didn’t slur and his mind was clear.
Sherlock explained in his usual lightning-fast way about some kind of drug that Franklin (Franklin, really?) had been dosing Henry with. There was a gas that was triggered by pressure pads in Dewer’s Hollow.
“…and some of the gas was leaking in the laboratory,” Sherlock finished. “You started seizing.”
But the guilt hadn’t gone away, and Sherlock wasn’t looking John in the eyes anymore.
“The door was locked,” John said slowly, a horrible idea taking form in his mind. But surely there were some lines even Sherlock wouldn’t cross? Sherlock wouldn’t...
“I thought it was in the sugar,” Sherlock said quickly, shifting uncomfortably.
It was eerily similar to being shot. A moment of blinding pain, followed by numbness and spreading cold as blood poured out of him into the dirt.
Sherlock had tried to dose him with an unknown drug – thought he’d succeeded, in fact – and locked him in the lab to observe its effects.
Sherlock had experimented on him.
Sherlock had experimented on him.
And if Sherlock did that for a case he’d half-solved already, then what would he do if he found out John was an empath? Would he take it as permission to lock John up in a lab somewhere? Sherlock cared about him, yes, but clearly that caring didn’t outweigh his curiosity about the effects of a drug that induced crippling fear and hallucinations. So what would Sherlock do if he ever learned about John’s empathy?
John honestly didn’t know. He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to find out.
The lights were bright, too bright, and the distinctive smell of hospital disinfectant burned his nose. John pulled against the straps that held him down and swallowed hard, trying to repress his panic.
Panicking wouldn’t help him.
Even his head was strapped down tightly, so all he could do was slide his eyes to the side to try to take in something besides the painfully white ceiling.
Something in his chest jolted when he realised Sherlock was standing next to him, wearing surgical scrubs, gloves, and a mask.
“I’m coming, John.” Sherlock’s voice didn’t sound quite right – tinny and distorted, as though it was coming through a cheap electronic speaker.
Still, it was undoubtedly Sherlock, and John was just starting to feel reassured when Sherlock picked up a long, thin metal needle and a small hammer.
He reached out automatically with his empathy…but there was nothing. He kept reaching, scrabbling for the bond, feeling panic mount as Sherlock came closer.
“Sherlock, what are you doing?” And John wasn’t panicking, he wasn’t.
But then he most certainly was panicking, because Sherlock was bending over him, lining up the end of the needle with the corner of his eye, the precise spot where a sharp tap with the hammer would drive it through bone and flesh and into his brain. The exact procedure to perform a lobotomy.
“Don’t worry,” Sherlock said, raising the hammer, the needle just beginning to prick the tender blood vessels around John’s eye, no matter how much he tried to blink the pressure away. “Laboratory conditions, I promise.”
The hammer came down.
And John woke up with an unpleasant jolt, the corner of his eye still prickling and burning, half-expecting fluorescent lights and white tiles. But the room was dark, and John remembered being released from the hospital, remembered the advice Stapleton had given him from the little information they had on reactions to the drug, remembered the trip back to Baker Street as he’d leaned his head against the window and ignored Sherlock’s faltering attempts at conversation.
John sat up and rubbed at his eye, trying to focus on the dull wallpaper and pull his mind away from Harry’s emotions, just in case the headache was coming from her.
It wasn’t, but it could have been, judging by the nauseous-green anger and paper-brittle unhappiness that was radiating through her bond. John needed to remember to call her in the morning.
Sherlock was downstairs, practically bubbling with curdled misery and burnt self-righteousness, slathered with more of that sour-blue guilt.
John would have liked to think all that was about him, but who really knew? He had a direct insight into Sherlock’s emotions, and that wasn’t enough to tell him when Sherlock was about to experiment on him, so he certainly wasn’t capable of teasing out something as complex as that.
John turned over and shut his eyes, but then had to open them again just to remind himself that he was actually in his bed and not a laboratory. Which was ridiculous – he could feel the difference between his mattress and a steel table, thank you very much – but he needed to see it.
Logically, he knew it was just a nightmare – god knew, he’d had enough of them to last him a lifetime. He knew it was just the toxin working its way out of his system. He knew it was just his subconscious twisting half-formed and ridiculous fears so they seemed like real threats.
But John didn’t go to sleep for the rest of the night.
In the morning, John went down for toast automatically, even though he didn’t feel hungry.
“You don’t want toast,” Sherlock pointed out from the sofa.
“I don’t actually want much of anything,” John said, pleased his voice was much calmer than he actually felt. “But eating something, especially toast, can help toxins work out of my system. Well, burnt toast is best, but I’m not eating burnt toast.”
“Loss of appetite isn’t one of the symptoms,” Sherlock said, sounding almost peeved.
John nodded agreeably. “True, it’s not in the list Dr Stapleton gave me.” And that Sherlock had undoubtedly appropriated for his own perusal at some point. “But they’re dealing with a limited sample size and I had a very extreme reaction. They think it’s done its damage, but I’m under strict orders to call them if there’s any change in case it does end up killing me.”
Sherlock made a funny noise, and woodsmoke-fear suddenly made the bond hum.
“But you already knew that, didn’t you?” John sighed, forcing down the last bite he could manage and tossing the half-eaten meal in the rubbish. “You know my charts, and you’ve read the list Dr Stapleton gave you. Which means that you also know that being thrown into a seizure indicates that I’m responding very differently than any other subject studied. It could just be an overdose but that doesn’t seem likely, given the speed of my recovery.”
John should stop talking. He knew he should, but he couldn’t clamp down on the bitterness that wanted to spew forth like vomit. “Look, I’ll tell you if I feel the urge to commit suicide, but for now, I need to indulge my PTSD. Which means staying in my room for the day, convincing myself I’m properly defended and trying to sleep to make up for the night of horrendous nightmares.”
Of which Sherlock had often been the star, but John wasn’t quite cruel enough to mention that.
But he was cruel enough to abandon his pretence at nonchalance and go on the attack. “What did you think was going to happen, Sherlock? Because I’m honestly curious.”
Sherlock hissed like an angry cat. “I didn’t actually dose you-”
“But you intended to!” John snapped. “You know I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD and you intended to feed me a drug designed to induce utter terror! What was your plan if I snapped on the spot and tried to kill myself? Or someone else? If I’d ended up in a mental institution, that would have been okay, would it? Or if you’d overdosed me and I went into cardiac arrest?”
“I made a mistake!” Sherlock shouted. “Is that what you want to hear? I made a mistake and I wasn’t thinking clearly!”
John had taken a deep breath to shout back when it suddenly faltered in his throat, the memory of his own mistake with Thomas rushing up to choke him. He still wanted to yell at Sherlock, but he no longer had the energy.
So he turned around and walked out of the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” Sherlock asked, sounding alarmed.
“Upstairs to my room,” John said wearily. “Weren’t you listening?”
He spent the rest of the day trying to read, watching the sunlight track across the wall and trying to convince himself he was safe.
The next day Sherlock was still smoke-buzzing nervous and thorn-prick guilty, tentative in the strange way he had that meant he’d clear his throat before speaking and wouldn’t slam cupboard doors just to get attention.
John made him a cup of tea, trying to return to some semblance of their usual routine. He wasn’t quite sure if this was an olive branch or just him being too weary to keep holding a grudge, but Sherlock certainly took it as a sign that his not-quite-apology was accepted. By the afternoon, he was back to bashing around the kitchen like a scientifically-inclined elephant.
But John didn’t think he’d ever entertain the idea of telling Sherlock about his empathy again.
John supposed it was almost inevitable, really. With all the cases Sherlock took, he was bound to stumble over some famous ones eventually. He already had, come to think of it.
But never anything quite so famous as the Reichenbach Falls painting, or so many in such quick succession. It was ominous, mainly because John knew how the media worked – one month’s darling was next month’s scapegoat, and John honestly didn’t have the time, energy or inclination to deal with that. Media attention tended to be poisonous.
On top of that, Sherlock was feeling sad almost all the time now, which was strange and very disheartening. The intensity ebbed and flowed – not like a tide, because tides were predictable, but more like…actually John didn’t have an appropriate simile there. Because nothing came close to describing the seemingly inexplicable surges in misery that gripped Sherlock day and night.
John couldn’t figure out the pattern to it. It had to be there, he knew – emotions didn’t come out of nowhere, Sherlock was responding to something, he just didn’t know what.
He seemed happier when he was with John, and John couldn’t deny that left him feeling a bit chuffed. But then he’d say or do something and Sherlock’s mood would deflate so suddenly it was actually rather frightening. Especially because there was no outward sign of it. Sherlock didn’t frown, didn’t get the dejected expression that usually meant there was nothing but boring cases on the horizon. He didn’t do anything – if it weren’t for his empathy, John would never know there was something wrong.
But he did know, and the fact that he couldn’t figure it out was driving him a bit mad. Sherlock would be sitting in the kitchen, trying to get rid of whatever toxic waste his latest experiment had produced at John’s shouted behest and then suddenly everything would go wrong.
They’d been arguing about…John actually couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said. The usual about hygiene and food preparation surfaces and Sherlock retaliating with his spiel that essentially boiled down to ‘it’s for science, so you should let me do anything I like’. (John had a lot less tolerance for that one after Baskerville.)
Sherlock hadn’t been shouting, but he had been pouting – the expression he used when he was feeling oppressed. “Your obsession with cleanliness and antibacterial soap is really quite unbecoming for a medical man – aren’t you supposed to be warning people about the dangers of superbugs? After all, you’re forever lecturing me about every other danger.”
“You’d miss me if I was gone,” John tossed back.
And just like that, Sherlock’s emotions spilled sorrow like red ink, splattering across the steady scrolling of his thoughts and tainting everything.
John could admit he tended to nudge Sherlock’s mood a little if it got too bad – when the storm clouds broke and bled rain-thick sorrow, lightning-sharp worry, thunder-crashing bitterness and a slow howl of loss – but it was a palliative, not a cure. The brief burst of lightness would be matched by an even more dramatic dip, and John didn’t feel comfortable meddling beyond that. Sherlock had a right to….whatever this was. Maybe something to do with Irene?
Gradually John sussed out that Sherlock seemed especially unhappy when John mentioned something about going away or missing something, but that didn’t make any sense. Did Sherlock have some kind of terminal illness?
“You do know you can tell me anything?” John hazarded as he passed Sherlock while Sherlock was doing…something with his laptop. “If you were in trouble, or something?”
He was watching Sherlock closely in his peripheral vision, which was the only reason he saw the way Sherlock looked utterly stricken. It was only for a moment, but it was there.
“You think I’m in trouble,” Sherlock stated, in the tone of voice that somehow made a statement into a scornful question of, ‘how could you be that stupid?’
“You’ve been sad lately,” John said quietly.
“Why do you think that?” Again, there was no hint of defensiveness, but John hadn’t really expected any – Sherlock was a better actor than that.
“I’m not like you Sherlock, I can’t list off all the things I’ve noticed,” John shrugged. “It’s just…something I know.”
“Just something you know?” Sherlock repeated, but his voice was softer now.
Physical contact was always a bit dicey – sometimes Sherlock seemed to need it, sometimes he’d practically flinch away – but John took a risk and put his hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. Sherlock twitched like he wanted to lean into it and leap away at the same time, but both motions had equalised into a kind of spasm that didn’t actually move him anywhere.
When there was no other reaction John squeezed Sherlock’s shoulder and then drew back. Sherlock didn’t say anything, or do anything, and his expression didn’t change. His emotions were tense and roiling, sunburst-gratitude and wine-sharp bitterness and a low drumming of…regret?
John had no idea if he’d helped or not, but at least he’d tried.
John didn’t like going into the courtroom. The idea of seeing Jim Moriarty get his comeuppance was certainly an appealing one, even if Sherlock thought it was unlikely, but that ever-present emptiness – the emptiness he was now making no effort to disguise – was as sickening and gut-wrenching and wrong as ever.
Except Moriarty didn’t get his comeuppance. He didn’t even get convicted, which was…well, John couldn’t lie and say surprising, but it was certainly unsettling. Frightening, even. If Moriarty could do something that blatant, be caught in the act and still get away then what hope did they have of ever catching him?
Of course, that was assuming they were going to catch him. John should probably worry what it said about him that he was perfectly prepared to shoot Moriarty in cold blood, because that was exactly what he was half-planning to do. But he didn’t feel the slightest flicker of conscience about it, probably because what Mycroft had said about the battlefield was true – this was war, and in war, you shot to kill.
It didn’t help that Sherlock was frightened. A soft, creeping sort of fear that twisted at the edges of John’s senses like roots sneaking in beneath a door – thin but strong, smelling like earth and decay. It put John on edge, though in all honesty he couldn’t swear that he wouldn’t have punched the Chief Superintendent even without that constant, nails-on-chalkboard frustration.
Still, at least it was satisfying, even if it did end with him arrested and he and Sherlock on the run.
“Well, what stage of Moriarty’s plan is this?” John asked after Sherlock had picked the lock on that reporter’s flat.
Sherlock lunged forward like he wanted to turn the place upside down in search of…whatever he wanted to look for, but John stopped and set his weight as soon as they were through the door. The handcuff chewed into his wrist as Sherlock came up short against the restraint and actually came close to toppling over, flailing his long limbs and making a huffy, disgruntled noise like a cat that had just been stepped on.
John let himself enjoy it for a moment – it was rare to see Sherlock uncoordinated, and those moments were to be treasured – then took advantage of his imbalance to yank Sherlock down onto the couch as John sat down.
Sherlock was bristling, like he was offended somehow. “We need to-”
“I’m sitting down,” John interrupted, his voice calm and controlled. “I’ve got a headache.”
He’d tried to ensure the police hesitated to follow him by pushing as much fear onto them as he could, and it had been a long time since he’d tried to target a crowd. John wasn’t sure if that was the reason his head was pounding in time with his heartbeat – it could be adrenaline or fear or any number of things, really – but it was the reason he was using.
At least it was dark. John shut his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to centre himself. He tried to relax his hold on his empathy and just let himself float on the emotions that leaked from Sherlock and Harry and the people in the surrounding apartments – his own form of meditation.
It was broken when Sherlock spoke, the bond suddenly twitching with damp worry, “Did they hit you?”
“Did the police hit you?” Sherlock repeated.
“Why would they hit me?” John asked. “I mean, I didn’t exactly resist arrest.”
“You struck their lord and master, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the plebeians went in for a bit of police brutality before they brought you down. And you haven’t answered me – did they hit you?”
“No,” John sighed. “No one hit me. The headache’s from…something else.”
The back of Sherlock’s fingers were resting against John’s leg. John took his hand, because they were handcuffed fugitives and he needed to touch him and if Sherlock didn’t like it he could bloody well say so. But Sherlock didn’t pull away – on the contrary, he turned his hand over and gripped back, squeezing a little tighter than John was expecting.
“So, what’s Moriarty’s end game?” John asked into the darkness. He hadn’t opened his eyes.
“I don’t know.” Sherlock’s voice was calm and contemplative, and it was a masterful performance.
John knew it was a performance because silvery, toxic dread and frothing fear trumpeted across the bond. If Sherlock had been telling the truth, if he really didn’t know Moriarty’s end game, then there would have been some metallic excitement or something that showed how eager he was to figure it all out, but there was just fear. And dread.
“Liar,” John said wearily. “You’re frightened, so it must be bad.”
“How do you know that?” Sherlock snapped. No instant denial or scoffing – he must be really fraying at the edges.
“It’s what I do.”
“Yes, but how do you know?” Sherlock hissed. “How do you always know? With everyone?”
John shrugged and repeated himself. “It’s what I do.”
“It’s not exactly something I can explain.” Or felt prepared to, after Baskerville.
Sherlock exhaled harshly through his nose – not exactly a huff or a sigh, but certainly an expression of petulance.
“So…what’s going to happen?” John pressed.
Sherlock was silent for a disturbing amount of time. “It’s fine, John. It will all be…fine. You’ll be alright.”
That sounded far too final for John. “I don’t really care whether I’m alright or not.”
“I do,” Sherlock said.
John was having trouble recognising what Sherlock was feeling. It felt like toughened wood, fibrous and hardened by rough weather with streaks of tar-scented bitumen. He’d never felt anything like this from Sherlock before. Was it…resolve? Determination? They weren’t really emotions, but John didn’t know how else to describe it.
He was so wrapped up in trying to unpick what he was feeling from Sherlock that it took Sherlock stiffening beside him to make him realise that Kitty Reilly was approaching.
At least Sherlock finally picked the lock on their handcuffs, though John wondered why he’d left them on so long.
John was so involved in the argument with Kitty (and trying to somehow mitigate the sheer, sharp-varnish desperation that was hissing from Sherlock like steam) that he completely missed Moriarty’s approach. He felt it when Moriarty was right outside the flat, of course – that emptiness couldn’t be missed up close – but he only had enough time to tense and regret that Sherlock hadn’t kept the gun.
The door opened and Moriarty strode in, the very picture of the tired but devoted boyfriend. John stood there, feeling as though he were rooted to the ground, watching Moriarty babble and plead as though he were the innocent one, as though Sherlock was the one who should be in jail, and the force of his anger and indignation literally took his breath away. It washed out into the room like a tide of stinging light, and he dimly felt Kitty and Sherlock twitch with it but all his focus was on Moriarty and the sucking hole that ate those emotions as if they’d never been.
John stepped forward, gathered every scrap of fear and despair he could, dredging up memories of his worst nightmares and worst experiences and shoved it at Moriarty, hard. He tried to power it on the force of his hatred alone, and pushed more and more until it felt like he was dragging his guts out through his mouth. He pushed hard enough to send a dozen people running for cover.
And it didn’t work. The emptiness took everything – everything – and left John wavering on his feet, suddenly as tired as if he’d run twenty kilometres through the hot sun in full gear.
It didn’t work. It didn’t work, and John had no idea what he was supposed to do next.
And then Sherlock buggered off to do something important all on his own, but at least John got to rant at Mycroft.
Perhaps calling Sherlock a ‘machine’ was a bit of a low blow, especially when John could feel the evidence to the contrary, but he just wanted some kind of reaction from the man. Anything other than this low-level sadness and percolating guilt that had been gnawing at John through the bond, and he barely reacted to the news that Mrs. Hudson had been shot.
Of course, it was only when John saw Sherlock on the roof – his fear and distress and guilt and pain loud and bright as a beacon – that he realised why there’d been no reaction.
Sherlock must have known it wasn’t true. He’d known, and he’d let John go anyway.
Not for the first time, John reflected that this empathy thing would have been a lot more useful if it made it impossible to lie to him.
At first, he had no idea what was happening, and then Sherlock said it was his note and no, no, this had to be some kind of cruel joke. Sherlock couldn’t be talking about…
John pushed every single particle of joy and purpose, happiness and contentment and love (yes, love) – every positive emotion Sherlock had ever made him feel – through the bond, trying to give Sherlock a change of heart, trying to make him think twice.
It didn’t work.
John knew he was in shock. He didn’t fight the blanket that draped across his shoulders, didn’t acknowledge the paramedics that buzzed around him like midges, poking at the deep bruise on the side of his head.
It had to be the concussion. John’s brain had been rattled, that was why nothing made sense. A short trip to the hospital, and everything would get sorted out, and then he’d understand.
He’d seen Sherlock die.
But the bond was still there. It was crawling with guilt and fear and pain, but it was still there, as though it were echoing the last impressions he’d received from Sherlock. John wondered numbly if this was what it was like to have a phantom limb.
It was insane, it was crazy – John had finally snapped. Sherlock was dead (oh Christ, Sherlock was dead, dead and never coming back), and if his empathy was going to thrum with Sherlock’s feelings just before he’d suicided for the rest of his life, then John was going to ensure the rest of his life was very short. He had a gun, after all.
John closed his eyes and leaned against the frame of the ambulance – which the paramedics didn’t like and they started urging him to open his eyes. But John wouldn’t; he was looking inwards, looking at the bond and willing it to stop, to just stop, to shut up because Sherlock was dead and dead men didn’t feel emotions.
Unless he was feeling consistent proof of the afterlife, and at that thought John actually laughed. Laughed and laughed until there were tears in his eyes and streaming down his face. Laughed until he bent over and vomited on his shoes.
Fear and guilt surged through the bond, as if Sherlock had somehow seen John do that, and John shoved comfort and love at the link in a last-ditch attempt to get it to shut up, to wink out or do whatever it was supposed to do…
And the bond responded. The fear eased, and the guilt didn’t vanish but solidified somehow, like a bad decision made for the right reasons.
And then John knew.
Sherlock was alive.
Chapter 3: break
1. separate into pieces as a result of a blow, shock or strain.
2. interrupt (a continuity, sequence or course).
John felt numb. Sherlock was alive, but had pretended to commit suicide. In front of John.
John knew Sherlock wasn’t exactly normal, and was capable of a lot of cruelty through sheer indifference, but he wasn’t cruel enough to do something like this without a purpose. The only mystery was what that purpose could be.
John told himself to keep calm and carry on – he’d understand soon enough. Sherlock would contact him, tell him what the plan was, and then they’d figure everything out. Together.
Though Sherlock better have a bloody good excuse for traumatising him like that. John knew he was alive – the bond told him that much – but that didn’t mean the memory of watching him fall and then apparently lying dead on the pavement wasn’t giving John nightmares.
The funeral had been an exercise in agony. Misery and grief permeated everything like smoke, oily and acidic like burning paint or plastics. John had a headache all through the service, and he couldn’t even look at Mrs Hudson and Lestrade – their emotions were bad enough.
He wanted to go up to them and tell them it was okay, that Sherlock was alive, but he didn’t dare. There had to be a reason Sherlock had done…what he’d done. There had to be a purpose to it, and John wasn’t going to risk ruining it.
John was waiting. Sherlock would contact him, and tell him the plan. He wouldn’t leave John to suffer this alone.
By the third day, when John felt Sherlock’s signature getting more remote – showing that he was moving away – he started to admit to himself that maybe Sherlock was leaving him. That he’d pretended to kill himself in front of John and now he was leaving.
John didn’t understand. He didn’t understand why Sherlock had pretended to kill himself. He didn’t understand why Sherlock had made him watch. He didn’t understand why Sherlock wasn’t communicating with him. He didn’t understand why Sherlock was leaving.
He didn’t understand anything.
John made himself sit down and think it through. He was no Sherlock, but he wasn’t an idiot, either.
Sherlock had pretended to commit suicide, and was now leaving London at the very least, judging by what John was feeling, if not the UK itself. Given that Sherlock wasn’t dead, John felt he could ignore Sherlock’s ‘note’ as a lie. The whole ‘research’ thing had been bollocks anyway – what kind of research would have told him Harry was an alcoholic but left him with the impression she was a man?
Moriarty hadn’t been heard from since they’d found him in that reporter’s flat. Not even to threaten or gloat that he’d won. It was almost as if he’d gone away…
Like Sherlock had.
Alone protects me.
And just like that, John understood. Sherlock was leaving, and his fake death had been his way of ensuring no one would come after him.
Not even John.
Everyone thought he was in mourning, and in a way, John guessed he was. He was in mourning for the friend he’d thought he had.
Because Sherlock could be an arse, and cruel and dismissive, yes, but John had thought that Sherlock cared for him. That Sherlock thought he was useful, if only as back-up muscle. That Sherlock had trusted him.
Apparently, he’d been wrong.
It was a heavy blow, and John was enough of an adult to admit that he didn’t take it well. It felt like the night Mary told him she was in love, and it wasn’t with him – a sudden tilt in his worldview that threw everything into a whole new light. Sherlock had been worried at the pool, but maybe he’d been worried because he thought he’d been wrong. There was that thing about John being a ‘conductor of light’, but maybe he’d only said that because he’d needed to make up with John so he could have a test subject for the supposedly-poisoned sugar.
This was worse than Mary. Because Sherlock had been the centre of his life.
And that had been his mistake.
Maybe if Sherlock had actually died, John could have stayed in Baker Street and grieved quietly, supported by Mrs Hudson and Lestrade and everyone who’d known Sherlock. But knowing that Sherlock had tricked him, that he had never really trusted him or considered him a friend, John just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t see any of his friends mourn (though they’d been Sherlock’s friends first, and that was part of John’s problem) without wanting to tell them that it was a lie, that Sherlock was just using them all.
Well, except Molly. John didn’t feel any urge to tell her because she already knew.
John wasn’t a genius – he knew that about himself. He had difficulty knowing why people were lying to him, assuming he even knew they were lying in the first place. But this was one of the exceptions.
He knew Molly was lying to him almost from the first moment he saw her after…just after. Guilt and fear were practically steaming off her, though to most people it probably would have looked like grief combined with some social awkwardness.
John had known better. He had known Sherlock was alive, and going by what he was getting from Molly, he was fairly certain she had a role in the staged suicide.
He’d had to walk away from her before he yelled at her. Before he asked her if Sherlock had told her why he didn’t trust John, why John hadn’t merited being let in on the plan.
He might have hated Molly under different circumstances, but she looked and felt so wretched with guilt that all he felt for her was compassion.
Not so Mycroft.
Mycroft was putting on a good show of a man tightly controlled but cracking at the edges with grief, and John was pretty sure it was fooling everyone. Anyone who got close to him at the funeral started getting sympathy sprinkled through their emotions like drops of warm rain, but John could feel that there was no trace of grief in Mycroft. There was something there – a flickering shadow of loss, like the intermittent pull of a malfunctioning vacuum – but it wasn’t grief, not really.
Of course Mycroft had been involved. The geniuses had hatched a plan on their own – god forbid they ever consider the mere mortals.
But John didn’t say anything. Because if Sherlock and Mycroft were really bringing down Moriarty, that was more important than screaming at them about being cold, crazy bastards who thought everything was about one-upping everyone else. No matter how much he wanted to.
So John moved out. Because he needed to move on.
Except he couldn’t. Move on, that was, because he’d gone and bonded himself to Sherlock like the idiot he so clearly was. Even when he determinedly ignored the bond, refused to probe for insight into Sherlock’s emotional state, it was still there, pulsing quietly in the background. Like white noise, except your brain got used to white noise and could ignore it, but John had never managed to just ignore a bond. It was part of him, and it was like trying to ignore his hands – you might not consciously think about them, but you were never unaware of them.
Clearly, he needed to break the bond before he was going to get anywhere.
Except he couldn’t. Not couldn’t as in ‘couldn’t manage it’, but couldn’t as in ‘had no idea how to’.
John supposed he should have expected this. He had no real idea how he’d created the bond in the first place, and he’d never tried to break his bond with Harry. He’d formed the bond when he just kind of…pushed emotion at Sherlock, and something had snagged. He’d been trying to push all his emotions – all of himself – so maybe the opposite would work? Pulling himself away from Sherlock, the same way he tried to pull pain away from people he was healing?
He tried to pull himself away from the bond. Like leaning away, except in his brain.
It didn’t work. John didn’t even get a headache or a twinge from the bond, which would have told him it was at least doing something. There was no change at all.
The worst part was that John wasn’t even sure if that was because he was doing it the wrong way or because he needed another tactic entirely. It wasn’t as though there were instructions he could consult.
So John embarked on some experimentation.
He tried visualising the bond as some kind of rope or chain, and then he visualised cutting it.
That didn’t work.
He tried to smother it, to bury it, to shove it into the back of his head and starve it.
That didn’t work, either.
He tried alcohol, but that only blotted his empathy out when he got to the stage where he couldn’t walk straight. He didn’t feel the bond, true, but John had no desire to pick up Harry’s bad habits, so he chalked that one up to a failure as well.
He tried marijuana, but he still felt the bond. The drug just made him not care that he felt it.
He bought self-help books that talked about meditation and ‘opening the mind to the energies of the universe’ and such. They didn’t help either.
John even made a neat little list, complete with checkboxes:
Calming the mind [x]
Brain surgery [ ]
Morphine was no help – John remembered that from when he’d been shot – so he’d considered cocaine. But cocaine tended to increase sociability and only began to induce numbness and blunting emotions after you’d been using it for a while, so he didn’t think that was a good idea.
The antipsychotics were a bit of a stretch and a definite abuse of his hospital contacts, but John had been hopeful. After all, if they helped schizophrenics cope with delusions then maybe they could help him cope with the bond. But they only made him feel tired and listless.
John could create the bond, but he couldn’t destroy it.
There was a final option he hadn’t explored: brain surgery, or more specifically, neural destruction. He’d have to get one of those fancy imaging scans that showed which parts of the brain were active at what point in time, use those to narrow down which part of his brain dealt with the bond, then just burn that little cluster of neurons and hopefully kill the bond. Of course, it would take years, cost a fortune and John had a better than average chance of ending up brain-damaged in a way he wasn’t expecting, so he didn’t really consider that a feasible option. He wrote it down anyway.
He put the list up on his fridge with a souvenir magnet they’d brought home from Dartmoor. The pub had a collection of silly things like that – stuffed toys and bottle openers and the like – and John had never been sure if Sherlock had actually bought the magnet or if he’d nicked it like he had the ashtray from Buckingham Palace. Sherlock had just given it to him when they were driving back to London and at the time, John had taken it as another half-arsed apology. But now he was wondering if Sherlock had just lifted it when he was anxious (probably as some bizarre way to calm himself down) and needed someone to pawn it off to.
John was settling into bed and wondering if he’d have any luck with combining his strategies (maybe if he took Clozapine and then tried the visualisation trick?) when the bond suddenly twitched. John had been doing his best to ignore it, but he was starting to feel…was that pain?
Paying attention to the bond was his big mistake. Pain flared along his left arm, concentrated in the wrist, and John – unthinkingly – reached for the pain and drew it into himself. It hurt, but of course it hurt; Sherlock had probably gone and broken his wrist like the idiotic git he was. The fine bones ached and throbbed, the way they would if they were healing, until it faded into discomfort then went away entirely.
“Shit,” John muttered. There wasn’t much point in swearing aloud when you were alone, but it made him feel better.
Well, the hope that Sherlock would never notice anything just went sailing out the window. John had never been entirely certain whether Sherlock was aware of the bond or not, and he’d often wondered if Sherlock would notice if it was broken – would he be aware something had changed, or did the bond operate on a level that Sherlock’s brain just wasn’t built to register? John had been afraid to test it when he still thought they were friends, because even if poking and prodding the bond didn’t set something off, just the change in his behaviour might have made Sherlock suspicious.
But now John had healed him, and there was no way Sherlock could have missed that. For all that he’d talked about Sherlock’s ‘spectacular ignorance’, John was pretty sure Sherlock would know it wasn’t normal for a broken wrist to fix itself within a few minutes.
All he could do was hope that Sherlock was too preoccupied with…whatever he was doing…to experiment.
John gripped the arm of the chair and resisted both the urge to scream and to grip the part of his body that hurt. He knew it wouldn’t help.
He hated broken fingers.
He especially hated when he was suffering them because Sherlock seemed to be systematically injuring himself. Probably to test out his newfound healing ability, just like John had been hoping he wouldn’t.
John had been watching some crap telly to bore himself enough to go to sleep when the bond started twinging, broadcasting a strange cocktail of feelings, the most prominent being lemon-scented pain and a bubbling, glimmering curiosity. It told him that whatever was happening was mild (it was when John could taste the pain that he had to start worrying), and the curiosity had made John suspect that Sherlock was doing it to himself, so he’d done his best to ignore it.
He couldn’t fix every little thing, and maybe Sherlock would lose interest if nothing happened.
But then there was something that felt like Sherlock had cut open his own arm from wrist to elbow, and…well, John had to fix that. Except Sherlock, the bloody idiot, had just done it again. And now he was apparently breaking fingers.
John was half-tempted to leave him like that so he wouldn’t do it again, but no sooner had the thought occurred to him that he felt guilty. For a moment, he was nothing but furious – how could Sherlock make him feel guilty? Sherlock was the one who’d faked his death and gone off to do something dangerous without him and was now breaking his fingers out of twisted curiosity – John had nothing to feel guilty about!
He felt guilty anyway. Because he was the one who’d healed Sherlock and piqued his curiosity in the first place, and because whatever Sherlock was doing was dangerous. Sherlock needed to be as close to full strength as possible, or he could end up severely injured or worse.
At least after John healed the broken finger, Sherlock seemed content to let it be. Well, he was probably taking samples of his skin and blood and analysing them or something, but he wasn’t mutilating himself anymore. John had learned to take the victories he could.
He told himself he wouldn’t be healing Sherlock again. It was a lie, but it was a comforting one.
It was strange how the drudgery of routine could make time blur. Little ‘incidents’ with Sherlock broke the monotony somewhat, but for the most part John’s life consisted of work, attempting to socialise, eating and sleeping. Two years had passed almost before he knew it.
He tried dating, but his heart wasn’t really in it and John soon stopped. It might have been different if he’d thought Sherlock was dead, but this strange limbo where he knew Sherlock had lied to him (had left him), but still felt what he was feeling…there was no closure, no chance to move on. He was still healing Sherlock, for Christ’s sake!
The fact that he could heal Sherlock said a lot about how well he was moving on – in that, he wasn’t moving on at all. John could only heal people he loved, after all.
Most of the time, John wanted to track Sherlock down just to scream at him (or maybe punch him, that’d get him some closure, right?), but he had no idea where to find him. The bond wasn’t GPS – it didn’t come with a homing signal, only a vague sense of Sherlock’s general direction. And John knew he couldn’t find Sherlock if Sherlock didn’t want to be found.
So he went through his routine as a now-established GP, wondering if this was what the rest of his life would be like. Hopefully he’d find a way to break the bond, and then maybe he could start to recover. (And maybe he was thinking about ‘recovering’ from Sherlock like he was recovering from a disease, but John though the simile fit.)
In short, being kidnapped was almost a relief.
John would have stood a chance against an actual person. He couldn’t read people’s minds to know when he was going to be attacked, but he could influence them as soon as they started in on him. Fear was always a good one, useful for making them falter or even run away.
But you couldn’t push emotions on a poisoned tea bag, and John could admit he never suspected a thing. He’d felt a little drowsy after the tea, but he hadn’t thought anything of it – it had been a long, dull day of routine, and he’d felt he deserved a nap.
It was only when he woke up and realised he wasn’t in his flat that John knew something was wrong.
John kept his eyes closed, just in case he was being watched. He was lying on his side on a surface that was hard and even but slightly rough – concrete, most likely – and he was feeling cold but not damp. Basement? Someplace industrial with little insulation? There was metal around his left ankle, thicker and heavier than a handcuff and lumpy. Maybe a chain?
John cautiously reached out with his empathy, and to his surprise the bond with Sherlock responded. It was sharp and bright in a way it hadn’t been in years, with worry and fear and pain glowing like warm coals and singing out that Sherlock was close. Very close.
John opened his eyes.
It was a chain on his leg – big and thick, wrapped around his ankle and locked with a plain padlock. John was barefoot and without his jacket, just as he’d been when he’d laid down for his ‘nap’, and he wasn’t missing any other clothes.
He’d been right about the concrete floor, and one of the walls was brick. The other three were corrugated iron, and while that would usually make John hopeful about his chances of breaking down the door, he knew there wasn’t enough slack in the chain for him to reach it. The chain was anchored to a large metal ring embedded in the floor, wrapped and locked with a padlock like his ankle.
He could see all this by the light of a single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling – there weren’t any windows.
With a deep breath to try to calm himself, John looked over at Sherlock.
His appearance was a bit of a shock. He was wearing a ratty T-shirt with the radioactive symbol on it, khaki-coloured trousers and his hair looked greasy and unwashed. For a man who usually looked so elegant, it was certainly a step down. He was secured more thoroughly than John was – he was handcuffed in addition to the ankle chain. He also had a split lip and a black eye.
“Hello, Sherlock,” John said evenly, clamping down on his emotions so he wouldn’t risk accidentally sending something through the bond.
Sherlock was looking shaken. “You’re not surprised?”
John felt an impulse to burst into hysterical laughter. “I knew you were alive.”
“Since when?” Sherlock sounded almost offended.
“Since about…a minute or two after you did it.”
“That’s impossible. I had everything planned-”
“You really shouldn’t be reminding me of this right now,” John interrupted, pushing himself into a sitting position and feeling a surge of fury at the reminder that Sherlock had planned that charade, had planned to betray John and leave him alone.
“But you…you seemed…”
“I’m a very good actor,” John snapped.
Sherlock shifted, like he wanted to move closer, but John realised Sherlock was at the limits of his ankle chain – he couldn’t move any closer to John unless he laid himself flat on the floor. But there was only about two feet between them, and they could touch if John pulled his own chain taut. Which meant this was a deliberate move; their captor wanted them to be able to touch.
John didn’t pretend to be an expert on interrogation, but he knew you only indulged a bond between captives when you were planning on manipulating that bond.
Sherlock opened his mouth, but John cut him off. “Any ideas?”
Sherlock immediately looked shifty. “John, you have to understand-”
“Any ideas?” John repeated, carefully keeping his voice flat and even and throttling the scream that was trying to burst from his throat.
“Sebastian Moran,” Sherlock said, sounding like he was trying to match John’s tone. “Former sniper in the army, dishonourable discharge. He was Moriarty’s second in command.”
“Was his second in command? He’s gone rogue?”
Sherlock hesitated. “Moriarty’s dead.”
That was news to John. “Since when?”
“Two years.” Sherlock’s voice was almost strained. “Moran wants information about his death. Or to be more precise, he wants lies about his death, since he refuses to believe the truth.”
John would like to ask what that truth was, but that wasn’t relevant at the moment and wouldn’t aid in their escape. He was trying to be distantly professional about the whole thing, treat Sherlock like one of those colleagues he didn’t like but had to work with.
John wasn’t optimistic about his chances of success, but he could at least try.
“So when can we expect a visit?” John asked.
Sherlock shrugged. “Impossible to say.”
“Has he visited before now?”
Getting information out of Sherlock that he didn’t want to give had always been like pulling teeth, and John didn’t have the patience to deal with it right now. “Sherlock, I’ve been drugged and kidnapped and I don’t really know what’s coming next but it probably won’t be nice, so how about you tell me what you know so I can at least brace myself.”
Sherlock didn’t flinch, but the bond did. Pinched-lemon fear and burnt-plastic guilt and frayed-red worry all burst into his brain like bullets from a machine gun.
“Moriarty killed himself-”
“You’re sure of that, are you?” John grimaced, angry at himself – he’d been trying to get past this resentment, and interrupting Sherlock for petty digs wasn’t going to help them.
“Fairly certain, yes.” Sherlock’s voice was acerbic, but his feelings were…complicated. The guilt throbbed sharply, like a freshly-opened wound, but it was thick with something that felt like oily righteousness. “But the body was…removed. Moran held Moriarty in some level of affection, and refuses to believe that he committed suicide. He also wants to know the location of the body, and I assume he’s planning to torture us for it.”
That made sense. Or at least, made sense to the type of psychotic murderer that Moran probably was (being Moriarty’s second and all that), except for one bit. “Why does he think I know anything?”
“I don’t think the purpose of your presence is to extract information from you,” Sherlock said quietly, looking at the ceiling.
Okay, so Moran thought torturing John would get Sherlock to talk. At least that explained why he’d been kidnapped and why the chains were long enough to let them touch – John had been right, Moran was planning to exploit the affection he thought Sherlock held for John.
Maybe that was harsh; John knew Sherlock did hold some affection for him. Just not very much, it would seem.
“Do you know where we are?”
“Not the actual location,” Sherlock admitted, sounding furious at himself. “The style and degradation of the brickwork is consistent with an industrial building, most likely chemical-based. But the smell indicates it hasn’t been in use in at least three years, possibly four. I was unconscious until approximately half an hour ago, but judging by the footsteps I’ve heard, this place is quite expansive and Moran is employing at least five thugs.”
John nodded, already planning their escape. Not that it took much planning – he’d wait until someone came in and got within range, hit them with enough fear to terrify them into paralysis, then disarm them and knock them out. Even if this hypothetical person didn’t have the keys on them, they’d probably have something Sherlock could use to pick the locks. Once they were out of the chains, they could go from there.
So maybe his plans had room for improvement, but John wasn’t going to hang about getting tortured while he came up with a new one.
And escape plans always went better when everyone was healthy. Sherlock’s injuries looked (and felt) superficial, but pain still slowed your reflexes and made you vulnerable.
John both wanted to heal Sherlock and hated the very idea. Hated it because Sherlock would know, and Baskerville and the fake suicide had proven exactly how much John should trust Sherlock with his well-being. And he wanted it because at least then it would be done, John’s biggest secret would be revealed, and the worry and waiting would be over.
Still, he had to check; “Any surveillance in here?”
“No – this is a very sloppy operation.”
Good enough to catch you, John thought but didn’t say.
“Are you hurt anywhere else?” John asked, focusing his gaze on Sherlock’s split lip.
“I’m fine,” Sherlock huffed, leaning back from him. “And don’t worry – there’s been a new development, which I’m sure will seem very unusual but which has proven reliable, so don’t-”
“Stop moving,” John muttered, shuffling close enough to grab Sherlock’s hand. “This is easier with physical contact.”
John closed his eyes and reached for the pain. It hurt more than he was expecting – there were some bruised ribs along with the mangled face – but he set his teeth and breathed slow and even until the pain began to fade.
“It was you,” Sherlock breathed.
John opened his eyes, unable to stop himself from giving a short, satisfied nod as he took in Sherlock’s healed face. “Yes, it was me.”
Under other circumstances, Sherlock’s lost expression might have been funny. “So every time-”
“And when I-”
“Have you always been able to do this?” And now Sherlock was irritated, but it was creaking and sparky – irritation at himself for failing to deduce this, rather than at John for not telling him.
“If you mean the healing, then I’ve been doing that since I was a kid,” John admitted. And then, because he might as well go all the way, “But this is really just an offshoot of my empathy.”
“My empathy. That’s what I call it. I can feel other people’s emotions.”
Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, but John couldn’t feel even a flicker of disbelief. “How?”
“I don’t know how. I only know that I’ve been doing it all my life.” John laughed, short and harsh. “Don’t you remember? You asked me once how I knew – how I always knew, with everyone. This is how.”
“But how does that work? Can you recognise them as distinct from your own feelings?”
“They don’t come as only feelings,” John admitted. “It’s a bit like synaesthesia. I feel other people’s emotions, but I also see them, hear them, taste them, smell them…it’s hard to describe.”
“And the ability to heal people is somehow related to this?”
“I can feel people’s pain. And I just try to…pull it into myself. It doesn’t work for everyone.” Which was definitely an understatement, but all John felt comfortable saying.
“You were…” Sherlock swallowed, the bond prickling with rose-tinted worry. “It looked like it hurt.”
John shrugged. “The pain has to go somewhere. It goes to me.”
Sherlock shifted, his emotions turning muddy and clotted and John didn’t have the energy to pick them apart. Instead he leaned back against the wall, closed his eyes, and tried to use his empathy to feel out how many people were holding them.
He could feel a man quite close to the brick wall, exuding a kind of calm boredom that said he was either used to kidnapping and interrogation or had no idea what he was guarding. There was a woman near the door, splashed with soft ripples of excitement, like she was enjoying what she was doing or looking forward to something. Her signature was moving – patrolling, or did she have somewhere to go? John kept himself focused on her, noting that she moved further away, remained there for a few minutes, and then returned to her original position.
Now, was that a trip to the bathroom, or had she gone outside the building for a quick smoke or something similar?
“What are you doing?”
John was used to ignoring distractions while he did this, but Sherlock was hard to ignore. John opened his eyes and pinned Sherlock with what he hoped was a glare that expressed his full level of frustration.
“I’m trying to determine how many people we have to worry about,” he said flatly. “Do you think you can let me do that?”
Sherlock frowned. “And that’s something your…empathy…can tell you?”
“Yeah, everyone’s emotional signature is different.”
“I feel emotions, but different people make me think of different things. I know it sounds strange, but that’s really the best way I can describe it.”
“And you’ve always been able to do this? With everyone?”
John snorted to himself. “I must admit, I always wondered about the look on Donovan’s face if she ever found that I was the freak, not you.”
Sherlock was silent for a moment, and John was just about to shut his eyes and get back to work when he spoke again. “So you feel their emotions, and you understand them-”
“Not always,” John interrupted. He felt he should be clear on this point. “Emotions are complex and confusing, and they’re much more so when you don’t know the thoughts and experiences attached to them. I can feel them, sure, but I have no idea about the reasons behind them.”
Sherlock made the low, humming noise that indicated he was thinking, and John wondered at the prickle of watery fear and rough green relief that flowed down the bond. But he only wondered for a moment – he had things to do, and John shut his eyes again to concentrate on his empathy.
There was another man to the right of the cell, further away than the woman outside the door. There were two men and a second woman to the left, even further away than the third man. Not for the first time, John wished he had some reliable way of measuring distance with his empathy apart from ‘close’ and ‘further away’.
The congregation suggested some kind of entrance. Or a meeting. Or maybe just a lunch room – kidnappers had to eat too, right?
John tried to push his senses further, but he couldn’t pick up any more individual signatures before they started getting blurry and indistinct. So unless they were in a complex the size of a shopping centre (unlikely), he’d assume there were six people holding them – four men and two women.
John opened his eyes. “Okay, there are six people we have to deal with. A woman near the door, a man behind the wall there, another man somewhere in that direction, and two men and a woman over there,” he said, pointing in the appropriate directions.
“Excellent work, John,” Sherlock said, sounding like he used to when he had a plan. More specifically, when he had a plan that involved John in some way.
John tried not to make comparisons to pawns and cogs, but it was hard.
“All we need to do is-”
“No,” John said firmly.
“Come on, John-”
“Be quiet,” John hissed. “I’m trying to concentrate.”
He’d never managed to use his empathy to call someone over to him, but he figured he could give it a shot. He just needed to figure out what kind of emotion would make someone walk into a dungeon to torment captives…
“On what?” Sherlock frowned, suddenly scornful. “I have a plan-”
“Shut up!” John snapped. “Christ, you didn’t speak to me for two years easily enough, can’t you go a few more minutes?”
Sherlock fell silent, the bond going icy with guilt and irritation, but John was more focused on the new emotional signature he could feel approaching. Was it Moran?
John thought it was. The man was pulsing with wine-dark satisfaction and fluttering excitement. It wasn’t like the woman’s – that was vague and weak, but this was like black cocoa, thick and rich and liable to give you a headache if you ate too much. With anger and resentment undercutting it all, like points of barbed wire gleaming with blood. John never knew these things for certain, but it felt a lot like a man who had worked towards revenge and was finally getting it.
He knew it was Moran when the new emotional signature encountered the three congregated at…wherever that was. All three picked up a slightly purple tinge of fear, like the slight sourness of an apple – light but there. Like the boss had just come to look over their shoulder, and the boss was a crazy assassin.
One of the men detached himself from the group and approached their cell. The woman in front of the door flared with renewed excitement, and together they moved closer.
“Moran’s here,” John whispered, lying down on the ground and closing his eyes – if he could trick them into thinking he was still unconscious, they were likely to come closer. “Someone’s coming in.”
The door screeched open just as he finished talking – the hinges were in very bad shape – and the man and woman entered. John could feel Sherlock’s irritation and worry, but he concentrated on the two people who had entered.
There was a metallic click and a rustle, like someone drawing a weapon from a holster. Gun or knife? John supposed it didn’t matter.
“You don’t want to try anything,” the woman says, and John was aware of the man approaching him.
The kick was a surprise, though – right in the small of his back, too. John groaned and curled into himself, trying to act as though he was just rousing from a drugged stupor.
“Leave him alone,” Sherlock snapped.
“Shut up,” the woman barked.
The man yanked on the chain attached to John’s ankle, twisting the padlock up and opening it. Just what John had been hoping for.
It had been a while since he’d done this so deliberately, and with such intent to harm. Moriarty had been his latest attempt, and John did what he’d done then – shoving fear and despair and just about every negative emotion he could dredge up straight at them.
He opened his eyes to the sight of a blond man and brunette woman gasping and clutching at their chests like they’d just been stabbed. The woman lunged toward him – she had a knife, not a gun, more’s the pity – but John just rolled out of the way and she collapsed without him touching her.
They didn’t move. John got to his feet and checked them, pressing his fingers to their neck and feeling no answering pulse. He tried not to think about pressing his fingers to Sherlock’s wrist and feeling the same.
“They’re dead,” Sherlock said, staring at the bodies. “Heart attack, yes?”
John nodded. “My push was maybe a bit stronger than I meant it to be.”
He’d pushed so much at Moriarty without any kind of impact, he’d forgotten to adjust for other people. Not that John would be shedding any tears for these two, but it was slightly sickening to realise how easy it was to miscalculate that sort of thing.
John felt the beginnings of a headache knotting his temples. A side-effect of whatever drugs he’d been fed, or of pushing his emotions so hard?
He took the woman’s knife and the man’s keys from their hands, and began searching the bodies.
“We need to move quickly,” Sherlock was saying, already reaching out like he expected John to just hand him the keys.
“I need to move quickly,” John corrected. “You’re staying here.”
He could feel Sherlock’s surprise, like the sudden taste of detergent – bitter and nasty.
“I can deal with them easily,” John continued, gesturing to the two dead bodies laid out on the concrete. “And my old CO used to say that the only thing worse than no one at your back was someone at your back that you didn’t trust. You’ll just distract me.”
“You don’t trust me.” It would have been a flat statement of fact, if John couldn’t feel the sudden hurt spilling through the bond, sharp as aged cheese.
“I don’t trust you,” John affirmed. Then, because he felt he should explain himself, “I don’t trust that any instructions you give me will be genuine instead of attempts to manipulate me. If you say ‘duck’, I won’t duck – I’ll look to see if you’re telling the truth about the threat. We’re less likely to get killed this way.”
John took a solid grip on the knife and made his way towards the door.
“John, you can’t do this,” Sherlock cried. “You don’t know what he’s like, the things he’s done...John! John you can’t-”
John shut the door on Sherlock’s devastated face, and did his best to shut down the bond.
John always tried to avoid opening up his empathy too far. It was like squinting your eyes when you were checking the position of the sun – if you opened them, the light dazzled you and you didn’t see anything, so you had to control the amount of input. Except if you looked directly at the sun you could get eye damage and his empathy didn’t so much as dazzle him as stop him being aware of what was happening to his body, and here was where the metaphor broke down.
He’d slipped up a few times as a kid, just by accident. He’d been focusing on one person because they had an interesting emotion, then someone else’s emotions would grab his attention, and he’d inadvertently open himself up to more and more stimuli until he was just a mind drifting on a sea of emotion, mostly unaware of his body or anything that happened to it. While John didn’t walk into walls when he was like that, he’d once nearly walked into traffic and he often ‘woke up’ with bruises and scrapes where he’d collided or tripped and just went onwards without ever realising it.
It was like being so far in your head you didn’t notice what other people were doing, except John got so far into other people’s heads he didn’t know what he was doing.
He knew it was dangerous, to open himself up to everyone in the warehouse, but it was also the most effective way of making sure they were all dealt with, quickly and (relatively) cleanly. John needed to take out five people who were likely armed and definitely dangerous, and the only physical weapon he had was a knife. His empathy was the only thing that was going to get him and Sherlock out of this in one piece, so John was going to use it. He was going to make sure he knew where those people were and what they were feeling because he couldn’t feel anything but them.
John couldn’t really explain how it felt to drown in his empathy like that. It wasn’t like the Baskerville drug – they didn’t overwhelm him to the point of being absolutely lost, but his attention was definitely…absent. He was aware of people approaching him and trying to push fear on them. He was aware of them falling, of stabbing them to ensure they stayed down, and he was aware of them dying. He wasn’t aware of much else.
Of course, John could only drift like that when there were a lot of empathic signatures around him. The less people there were, the easier it was for his brain to parse the emotions, to remain focused.
When John came back to himself, he, Moran and Sherlock were the only people still alive in the building.
He’d also managed to acquire a gun (John had a vague image of a woman drawing it and shooting at him as he charged her), but there were only three bullets left. John would have done a more comprehensive check of himself, but he could feel Moran approaching the cell Sherlock was still locked up in and he didn’t have the time to waste.
He was a little disappointed in how out of shape he was, though. He was tired and it was taking real effort to breathe – the result of the painful stitch in his side, most likely. Or the way he kept coughing. Sherlock had said this place was old, and John hoped he hadn’t inhaled any asbestos. And he must have stepped in a puddle because his right foot was moist with lukewarm fluid and was making nasty squishing noises as he ran. With any luck, it wasn’t some awful chemical left over from when this place was still in use.
He turned a corner just as Sherlock rocketed out of the cell. John was surprised for as long as it took him to remember that the bodies had been left within Sherlock’s range – he probably swiped something to pick the lock. Sherlock took one glance around, saw John, and suddenly paled.
John would have turned around to check if someone was behind him, if his empathy wasn’t telling him that the only threat in the place was about to come down the corridor.
Moran turned the corner and raised his eyebrows at the sight of them. “If you want to threaten me with a gun, you should make sure you’re not bleeding to death first.”
And even though Moran was pointing his own gun at him, John was too tired to stifle the reflex to glance down.
That was the problem with empathy. Living in other people’s feelings and other people’s pain often made it difficult to recognise your own.
If John hadn’t been using his empathy, he would have realised he’d been shot in the chest. And a graze – or perhaps a knife wound – had opened up his right thigh. The bullet had probably got him in the bottom of a lung, judging by the way blood was foaming around the wound, and he’d obviously been bleeding for a while –his jumper and jeans were soaked. John would bet he’d been leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind him.
He was distantly surprised that he’d been able to walk. Or perhaps it wasn’t so surprising – he was feeling very tired (a side-effect of blood loss) and he’d been having trouble breathing. Injuries could hinder, but it was pain that incapacitated and John hadn’t really been in a position to feel much of anything.
Until now. He was feeling a lot of pain now.
“John…” Sherlock’s voice wobbled, and the high whine of fear coming through the bond sounded like the screech of static.
“It’s alright, Sherlock,” John muttered, coughing a little and finally noticing that the back of his mouth tasted like blood. “It doesn’t hurt as much as the first time I got shot.”
Of course, John knew that was a bad sign. If it didn’t hurt as much as it should have, it was because most of the blood and oxygen going to that area was then pouring out of him rather than giving energy to the various nerves that could send pain signals. He leaned to the side, letting the wall take most of his weight, and he let the gun drop. Not just drop from a firing position but actually drop to the ground. It wasn’t going to do him much good, anyway – in this state he was more likely to hit Sherlock than Moran.
“You’re dying,” Moran sneered. Because apparently he was the type that always had to gloat. “How much time do you think you have? Two minutes? Three?”
Actually John knew it was more like ten. Maybe he only had a few minutes until he lost consciousness, but it would take him longer than that to actually die. People were always making mistakes like that.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, trying to keep his voice from wavering.
Moran was looking amused. “It doesn’t matter, huh? Why not?”
“Because you’re going to die.” Usually it was a bad idea to warn people about your tactics, but his empathy wasn’t something that could be defended against. And he needed to buy time to gather his strength for another empathic hit.
“He can fix it!” Sherlock hissed, grabbing John shoulders in an effort to keep him upright. “John, do you what you did to me – hurry!”
“It doesn’t work like that, Sherlock. I take the pain, I don’t give it away.”
John could taste blood on the back of his tongue, rising with each exhale. Which could mean a lot of things, really, but it was never a promising sign. A burst of hysteria hit and he giggled, feeling little bubbles of blood form at the corner of his mouth.
Moran’s eyes narrowed. “I got a look at Wallace’s body, you know?”
John had no idea who that was. Sherlock was trying to slowly pick up the gun without telegraphing his movements, so John kept his eyes fixed on Moran so he wouldn’t inadvertently draw attention to him.
“His throat was slit, but that wasn’t what killed him,” Moran continued. “Not enough blood for that. But there wasn’t any other mark on him, like he’d just had a heart attack on the spot. Now I know you didn’t manage to smuggle in poison…so what are you?”
He clearly meant it in the form of what John’s rank and training had been in the army, but John answered honestly.
Then he funnelled all his fear straight into the stormy hurricane that was Moran’s emotional signature, hoping he could bring the other man down before he passed out just as Sherlock snatched up the gun, brought it to bear and pulled the trigger.
John wasn’t sure if it was his empathy or the bullet in his head that got Moran first, but his money was on the bullet. John didn’t think he‘d pushed enough fear to startle a baby.
His knees were buckling, and Sherlock abandoned the gun to try to ease him to the floor. He didn’t do a good job of it – John’s elbows knocked the concrete painfully – but John appreciated the effort.
“John, what you did, does it work the other way?” Sherlock was saying, his voice low and frantic, his emotions practically bludgeoning they were so loud.
“Dunno…” John slurred.
Everything was getting dim and distant, probably because of the blood loss. The wounds didn’t even twinge anymore, and John knew he was going to die. Even assuming Sherlock could somehow acquire a phone, no ambulance could ever arrive in time.
He had the vague thought that he should be angry, or sad, or frightened, or something. But he just felt strangely resigned, as though there was some twisted peace in acknowledging that you were done for.
There was no ‘please, god, let me live’ this time.
Though he was very annoyed at the way Sherlock was shaking him, at the fear and guilt and crushing despair spurting across the bond like…well, like blood from a severed artery.
If he wanted to die in peace, John thought he’d earned the right.
“John, look at me! Tell me how it works – I can help you if you’ll just tell me how it works!”
“It’s fine,” John managed, before he coughed hard enough to feel drops of blood hit the back of his teeth.
Because you had to love someone to take on their pain. More than just love, in fact – you also had to admit it yourself, which was much more difficult. Sherlock scorned love because he feared it, and feared what it could drive people to. Sherlock might love John on some level, but he was unlikely to admit it, even to himself.
“It’s not fine!” Sherlock snarled. “This is the very opposite of fine. This wasn’t…it isn’t supposed to end like this! You’re not allowed to die!”
Honestly, John thought his death was the only thing that made sense out of all this. That was how these stories went, after all.
“I told you,” he gurgled – it really was getting difficult to breathe now. “I’m not the hero, I’m the monster. And monsters don’t get a happy ending.”
They died. That was how all the fairy-tales ended, and god knew John’s life with Sherlock had been crazy enough to sound like a fairy-tale.
Sherlock was talking again, but John couldn’t make sense of the words. He heard them, but they were lost in the haze that seemed to be rolling across his vision. He closed his eyes, and opening them again seemed like too much work, so he didn’t try.
He could still feel someone shaking him, and then someone kissing him. John wondered who thought it was a good idea to kiss a dying man – his lips were coated with his own blood, after all, and even leaving aside the unpleasant taste, what if he had some kind of blood-borne disease? They were risking infection.
There was a vague sensation of hands tightening over his shoulders and breath breaking over his face in a gasp or sob.
Then there was nothing.
1. to make healthy, whole; restore to health
2. to bring conflict or strife between people or groups to an end or conclusion
John woke up, feeling rather surprised that he could.
The last thing he remembered was choking on his own blood on a concrete floor. He was still lying on the concrete floor, and he could still taste blood in his mouth, but he wasn’t labouring to breathe anymore. He wasn’t in pain, and while his clothes were stained with blood it was stagnant and cooling instead of pumping and hot.
Sherlock was tucked against the wall, shaking and pale and watching John. His emotions were shrill and discordant – fear like knotted wire that tremored with hope and scraped along John’s nerves.
“Did it work?” Sherlock asked, his voice small.
John parted the tear in his jeans, and lifted his shirt and jumper to survey his wounds. Except they weren’t wounds, they were scars – pale pink, as if he’d been injured years ago rather than minutes.
“I’m alright,” he pronounced. “Some scars, but nothing hurts.”
“It hurt more than I expected,” Sherlock said quietly.
“It’s not just the pain of the injury, it’s how much it would have hurt as it healed as well.”
“That’s…how does that work?” Sherlock sounded personally offended at the sheer illogic of it all.
“I don’t know.”
“Emotions are, in essence, chemical and electrical signals within the brain – how can you pick up on that?”
“I told you, I don’t know. Now, do we need to do anything here, or can you just call Mycroft to come clean this up?”
Sherlock went still. “You know about Mycroft?”
“Empathy, Sherlock, remember? I know about Molly as well.”
Confusion crept through the bond like orange-hued mist, damp and obscuring. John wasn’t sure if it was because Sherlock was still confused about his empathy or if Sherlock just didn’t know how to proceed from here, so he did his best to ignore it. “Come on, Sherlock, what’s the plan?”
“It’s over,” Sherlock muttered, and his emotions were suddenly flavoured with creamy relief and a vague, yellow-lavender sense of wonder and ashy disbelief. Then he blinked, like he was coming back to himself, and went on in a much firmer voice, “Moran’s dead. Mycroft can deal with this.”
John nodded. It seemed pointless to stand up just to wait around, so he scooted over to the wall opposite Sherlock and leaned his back against it. Sherlock was beginning to bristle with worry like shards of silver tilting into the light, and his eyes were fixed on the blood that still stained John’s clothes.
“They don’t hurt,” John said, his voice flat and tired.
Sherlock must have read something in his tone, because the worry only sharpened into knives. “Does anything hurt?”
“Head,” John admitted – his headache was creeping back.
“Because of what you did?” The wonder was starting to creep back into Sherlock’s emotions.
John shrugged. He honestly had no idea.
But he did have a question. “Was Mycroft in on it from the beginning?”
John knew Sherlock wasn’t confused or surprised – he was just asking for clarification; which beginning did John mean?
“You planned this for a long time. Months. Was he in on it from the start?”
John sighed. “Not at the time – I told you, it’s not telepathy. But I was picking up on some weird emotions. Didn’t make sense at the time, but in hindsight…”
Sherlock nodded, like he was mentally noting that down somewhere in his mind palace, and responded to John’s question. “He knew. We planned it together.”
John laughed bitterly. “Of course you did.”
He supposed it had been foolish of him, to think that Mycroft would be stupid enough to spill information on Sherlock to a criminal and then let the criminal go. But that was nothing new – John had been aware for some time that he’d been played for a fool. He didn’t want to look at Sherlock, so he closed his eyes and tilted his head back to rest against the wall.
His headache was getting worse.
John got through Mycroft’s arrival with his cronies and his subsequent lecture to Sherlock by the ingenious method of simply not acknowledging them. He didn’t glance at Mycroft and he didn’t speak even though several pointed silences invited him to, even when Mycroft suggested that Sherlock should go home with him and attempt to keep a low profile.
Sherlock was still in his usual habit of stubborn silence and unnecessary biting remarks when his brother was around, and he didn’t address John at all. Though it didn’t stop him from darting glances at John every five seconds while his emotions whispered worry and fear and sun-dappled resentment.
At this point, John’s headache was getting to the point that he was really wishing for some painkillers. He wanted to close his eyes and rub his temples to see if it helped the discomfort, but he didn’t want to reveal weakness in front of Mycroft.
At least Sherlock was quiet for the car trip away from the warehouse. In fact, he didn’t say a word until they were back in John’s house, just when John was closing the door behind them and thinking he might actually get a quiet rest for whatever remained of the night.
“If they do DNA tests on the blood or pay any attention to the splatter, they’ll know you lied,”
One of the minions had made worried noises about the blood covering John’s clothes, but he’d just claimed it wasn’t his. Sherlock hadn’t said anything at the time, and John supposed he was an idiot for assuming he’d just let it go.
“They won’t be able to test my clothes, because I’m going to destroy them,” John said bluntly. “And if someone happens to have a paranoid streak and take a closer look at the blood I’ve left on the concrete, Mycroft will just assume I was being a stoic military man and that my wounds were minor enough that I could treat them myself.”
“Ah.” Sherlock looked like he thought he should have figured that out, and his embarrassment tasted like sour apples on John’s tongue.
“This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve had to come up with some good explanations over the years.”
“Pressure points!” Sherlock exclaimed.
“When I was strangled, back when we were dealing with the Black Lotus. I was wondering why I felt so healthy after you touched me, and you said it was pressure points.”
“Like I said, Sherlock, I’m a good actor.”
Sherlock’s emotions being complex and confusing were nothing new, but this time whatever was going on in his head only seemed to be making John’s headache worse, and his sigh was more pain than exhaustion. “Now I’m going to shower and get my clothes ready to…I don’t know, to be burned?”
The blood had long ago dried into a thin crust that crackled and flaked off John’s clothes as he shed them, scattering across the tiles like spots of rust. It was slightly tacky on his skin, moistened by sweat, and itched where it stuck to the hair on his chest and legs.
He was rather surprised he’d been allowed to go home – he was a walking biohazard.
There had been a large swathe of blood on the back of his jumper, and when he twisted in front of the mirror he could glimpse a pink, circular scar on his back. That was good news, because it meant the bullet had gone straight through him, and he wouldn’t have to worry about it drifting around his body and possibly causing problems later.
John turned on the shower and waited for it to warm up, then simply stepped in under the spray. The water began to dissolve the dried blood, streaking his skin pink for a few moments before he scrubbed with the cloth to wipe it away and get the last stubborn drops out.
He was tired, and his empathy seemed ‘louder’ than usual, the emotions of his neighbours grating on his nerves rather than being something that could slip past him without making much impression. His headache actually seemed to have diminished though, and John hoped it stayed that away. He’d prefer that it go away entirely, but he was trying to set realistic expectations.
He was disappointed anyway when he stepped out of the bathroom (dressed in a new shirt and loose pants) to find Sherlock lurking in the kitchen. As soon as he saw Sherlock, the headache hit him again like an axe between the eyes.
Sherlock seemed to take his groan as a sign of extreme exhaustion, and offered him a mug. “Coffee?”
“What have you done to it?” John was too tired to mask his suspicion.
“I prefer tea. I know that, you know that. The one and only time you made me coffee was to drug me.”
Hurt wavered from Sherlock, like heat shimmers off an asphalt road. “Your tea has been tampered with.”
Oh, right. John felt a little bad for his assumption, but admittedly not enough to give Sherlock an inch. “You wouldn’t be the first person to decide this…anomaly…meant I was now their experimental subject. Hell, it wouldn’t even be the first time you used me as an experimental subject.”
“You’ve been using yourself as an experimental subject!” Sherlock snapped, brandishing a piece of paper John recognised as being the record of his attempts to break the bond. “What is this?”
“I was trying to break the bond,” John said bluntly. He took a sip of the coffee, because he clearly wasn’t getting any sleep tonight.
He was a little surprised to realise Sherlock had made it just the way he liked it. John hadn’t known he paid attention to that.
“The bond?” Sherlock echoed. “What-?”
“I’m not sure how it works,” John said, yet again. “But I can form bonds with people. It means I can always feel what they’re feeling, I have a vague sense of where they are, and I can heal them from a distance.”
“You have a bond with me.” Sherlock’s tone made it a statement, not a question.
John nodded. “And with Harry.”
“That’s how you knew I wasn’t dead.”
“I can feel it when people die. It’s like all their emotions just…go out. Like a light turning off. Yours didn’t.” He thought of Thomas. “Though I did feel it once when someone didn’t actually die.”
Sherlock frowned, the way he did when an experiment did something he wasn’t expecting. “Who?”
John supposed he might as well air all his dirty laundry. “There was a man in my unit. He wasn’t my boyfriend, but we might have…I suppose it doesn’t matter now. He lost his leg, and I was trying to heal it when I was shot, and I made a mistake.”
Sherlock didn’t ask about the mistake, but there was a definite sense of eucalyptus-confusion coming from him. “You…you always say you’re not gay.”
“Because I’m not. I can’t have sex with someone if they don’t…feel nice, for lack of a better word.”
“Your empathy informs your perception that much?”
“It’s not something I activate, Sherlock, it’s like sight or hearing. In fact, it’s probably worse, because you can at least close your eyes or plug your ears, but my empathy doesn’t come with an off switch.”
“Have you ever been able to make it stop?” Sherlock asked, his voice and emotions strangely soft.
John could admit he hadn’t expected this question. But if anyone could relate to having a brain that just wouldn’t stop, he supposed it would be Sherlock. “I can’t. And believe me, I’ve tried. I can’t count how many times I wished I could turn it off, but nothing does the trick.”
“Of course you would ask that,” John sighed. “And no. The only drug that had any kind of effect was the Baskerville one. It amplified my empathy until I couldn’t…I couldn’t tell what was me and what was everyone else.”
“That’s why you seized.” It was a realisation, not a question.
“I’m still surprised I came out of that sane,” John said, still feeling strangely apathetic about the whole thing.
“But you did try drugs!” Sherlock exclaimed, gesturing with the piece of paper again like he’d just remembered it.
“I told you, I was trying to break my bond with you. No luck, as it turns out.”
Sherlock was silent for a moment, worry and fear weaving together like slippery silk and rough hemp rope. “Why do you have brain surgery as an option?”
“If I was somehow able to locate the part of my brain that dealt with empathy, damaging it might break the bond or kill my empathy entirely.”
Sherlock’s fear suddenly gained strength, flaring like a burst of sparks when you tossed something on a fire. “The risks-”
“There’s a reason it isn’t crossed out,” John interrupted. “That was definitely a last resort. The kind of last resort that you consider but never actually use.”
Sherlock looked and felt relieved, so John took another mouthful of coffee, and wondered if their discussion was over.
“You didn’t want to tell me,” Sherlock said quietly.
“I considered it,” John admitted. “But then you locked me in the lab in Baskerville and tried to drug me to confirm something you already suspected. I can’t deny I was worried that if I told you something this unusual you’d be vivisecting me before the day was out. That’s happened once before and I’m not keen to try it again.”
Sherlock didn’t flinch but his emotions did, swelling with hurt like a boil ready to burst.
John set his coffee down on the table as his headache spiked. “Look, I’ve got a headache, so I’m going to go to bed – do you need anything?”
Sherlock didn’t respond, and John took that as a negative. He turned away from Sherlock and walked the few feet that took him from the tiny kitchen into the cramped bedroom. He didn’t bother getting undressed – what he was wearing was comfortable enough – and just crawled beneath the covers.
As he closed his eyes, he reached out by reflex to touch his bonds. Harry was probably sleeping – there was a vague sense of her presence, drifting eddies of jasmine-scented contentment, so she was either asleep or so drunk she was practically comatose. He preferred to think she was asleep.
But the bond with Sherlock was…strange. John had been trying to ignore it, so it was only now that he realised it was only giving him a vague and muffled view of Sherlock’s emotions. It was still there, but it was dim and fleeting, a flickering candle next to Harry’s 100-watt bulb.
The bond was diminishing, and John suddenly wondered if his headache was the bond…tearing, for lack of a better word. Seeing Sherlock had brought to life all the feelings of betrayal and hurt that he’d been quietly stewing in – had the mental withdrawal he’d been attempting in Sherlock’s presence been the missing piece for destroying the bond?
He’d sort it out after he’d got some sleep.
When John woke up, Sherlock was still in the flat – he could feel it. He was trying very hard not to feel anything else from him, but he knew Sherlock was there.
John went through his morning routine on automatic; dressing and combing his hair and brushing his teeth and doing his shoulder exercises. It was strange to see new scars on his chest and leg – while his brain accepted that he’d been injured, some part of it was insisting that he should have stitches and bandages, that the injury couldn’t possibly have healed that quickly.
Sherlock was perched in John’s armchair, staring out the window into the street, wearing the same clothes but clearly having showered at some point. John was rather surprised – he’d been expecting to find Sherlock on his laptop, looking at John’s files and being his usual obnoxious, intrusive self.
John had forgotten how quiet Sherlock could be.
He made some coffee to wake himself up. He’d been making it for one person for so long that it didn’t even occur to him to ask if Sherlock wanted any until he’d taken the first sip. He pushed aside the impulse – if Sherlock wanted coffee, he could make it himself.
“So how does this work?” John asked, moving to stand beside Sherlock’s chair. “What kind of paperwork is involved in coming back from the dead? Without getting arrested for fraud, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” Sherlock scowled, and the bright burst of his anger felt painful. “Mycroft’s dealing with that.”
John didn’t think there was anything to say to that. He drank his coffee and tried to ignore the prickling of discomfort that told him his headache was coming back.
Sherlock was looking at him, and though the anger hadn’t left, there was now a hint of bitter confusion and resentment, hissing like a kettle just starting to boil. “Don’t you want to know what happened?”
John was in no mood to hear Sherlock boast about this. “I know what happened. You pretended to kill yourself. In front of me.”
John was trying very hard to be logical and unemotional, but even he could hear the fury in his voice. He couldn’t help it – just remembering that moment when he realised Sherlock had lied to him, had actually wanted him to grieve like that made anger and betrayal and the hurting keen of ‘how could you do that to me?’ howl across his thoughts.
John actually choked and clutched reflexively at his head, make sure it hadn’t actually split open, no matter how much it felt like it.
“Your head can’t still be hurting,” Sherlock snapped, in the voice that sounded like anger and frustration but had never fooled John, not when he could feel the still-water worry that undercut it.
“It’s the bond,” John sighed, keeping his eyes closed as the pain began to ease.
He nodded shortly, and was confused by the sudden wash of fear and pain from Sherlock, like the thundering roar and noxious fumes of a passing truck.
“I’m…it’s hurting you?” Sherlock’s voice sounded off somehow, and the hurt radiating from him didn’t ebb.
“It’s breaking,” John said honestly. “It’s painful.”
“Why? What are you doing?”
“Nothing, really. It’s just…all the feelings I had when you first did this…all the betrayal and fury are coming back, and I think, being faced with you and not wanting anything to do with the bond is finally making it disintegrate.”
After being wary of talking about his empathy for so long, it was nice to finally be honest about it, honest about everything. Well, maybe not ‘nice’, exactly…but it was a relief.
Sherlock’s fury flashed bright and sudden, like a red firework going off too soon and scorching the ground. “Betrayal? It wasn’t a betrayal, anymore than you grabbing Moriarty and telling me to run was a betrayal. You were going to die if I didn’t. You and Lestrade and Mrs Hudson, if you think I should have gambled with your own life.”
It said something that John’s first thought was to wonder if Sherlock was being honest, or if this was another lie – a manipulation to try and get back into John’s good graces. He didn’t think Sherlock was lying, but what did he know? His empathy wasn’t much use when it came to this.
And even if he was telling the truth, what difference did it really make? So Sherlock had much more noble motives for the ruse than John had assumed – it was never the motives he’d been so angry about. It was the fact that he hadn’t trusted John with it, and that hadn’t changed.
“And you couldn’t tell me.” John was dimly surprised at how calm his voice sounded.
“I couldn’t risk it,” Sherlock snapped, frustration swirling and eddying within him like bubbling kerosene.
John snorted quietly, but didn’t say anything.
Sherlock was still scowling. “You’re angry, aren’t you? I don’t see why – you know why I had to do it-”
“I’m hurt,” John said honestly. “It’s hard to trust someone and care for someone and know they didn’t feel the same.”
“I do! I’d think what I just told you-”
“No, you don’t,” John interrupted, still keeping his voice calm and steady. “Not to the same level.”
There, that should shut Sherlock up. And it did, for all of about twenty seconds in which Sherlock stared at John like he was trying to deduce something from him. Sherlock’s frustration thickened and clotted, turning into pitch-dense determination.
“I can prove it,” Sherlock said, in the voice he used when he’d just solved a case. “How did I heal you?”
“You said the healing only rarely works, and you refused to elaborate. You would have told me why if it was simple biology – you were practically telling me everything at that point – so that means whatever the reason is, it’s emotional and private.”
“Or maybe I just don’t know.”
“Again, you would have said so. So tell me, how does it work?”
Sherlock looked completely confident, but John could feel the doubt creeping in, like shadows cast by a guttering candle. John was half-tempted to prevaricate and misdirect, to leave Sherlock uncertain, but what was the point?
“Love,” he sighed. “You have to love them.”
“Ah.” Sherlock blinked, like he’d been expecting that answer but was still startled to get it.
“I just wanted you to not die,” Sherlock said, his voice soft as remembered fear licked at him like a sudden gust of snow. “I was willing to do anything, even if I died instead.”
John didn’t know how to feel about that. So he didn’t say anything, even though Sherlock was looking at him and his emotions were glittering with expectation.
Eventually, the expectation gave way to warm, frothing impatience, like Sherlock was sick of waiting for him. “So when you healed me…”
“You never said anything!” Sherlock was indignant, and John almost laughed.
“You’re married to your work, remember? No point in saying anything.”
Sherlock faltered, and John realised he’d just missed the perfect opportunity to claim that his affection was platonic.
Well, too late now. Sherlock would either deal with it, or he wouldn’t. John could admit he suspected Sherlock would just ignore his pronouncement, the way he’d ignored John’s entreaties to warn him before he left body parts in the fridge.
But Sherlock was staring at him with a strange expression on his face. His emotions were bitter-red regret and something that trembled and fluttered and felt suspiciously like happiness and…and…
“You love me,” John realised.
“You’re an empath!” Sherlock snapped, and John was surprised to see a blush creeping across his cheeks. “This can’t be news to you!”
John hoped he wasn’t flushing, but this was an embarrassing mistake to make, let alone admit to. “I told you, I know the emotions, but not the reason. I thought you were in love with Irene!”
“Irene?” Sherlock echoed, the way he did when he was honestly puzzled by something and trying to understand it.
“When you thought she was dead, you were…”
“I smoked a cigarette!” Sherlock felt gravel-crunch indignant, like he couldn’t believe John had made such a foolish assumption.
“And you sulked and composed-”
“If it had been you,” Sherlock hissed, anger streaming from him like a sudden jet of hot water in ice. “If Mycroft had called me into the morgue to identify your body, do you know what I’d have done? I’d have first determined if your death was anyone’s fault, and then I’d have dealt with them.”
Sherlock’s tone made it clear that ‘dealing with them’ would have been final and permanent.
“And then, I’d find enough cocaine or morphine to ensure I forgot you were dead, and then…” Sherlock trailed off. “And then…I don’t know what would have happened after that.”
“But you were quite happy to make me think you were dead,” John snapped, the feeling of hurt and betrayal boiling forth anew.
Sherlock loved him…but he’d still made John watch him die. That hadn’t changed.
His head ached.
Sherlock looked confused, as if he couldn’t understand why John was still angry. “But you know that I-”
“I discovered I could heal when I healed my dog,” John said. “It doesn’t have to be a love between equals.”
“I love you,” John interrupted, feeling nothing but weariness. “I do, but I don’t trust you. And I don’t know if I can, not after something like this.”
“I did it for you!” Sherlock all-but snarled. “I didn’t tell you because I knew they’d be watching for that! If you could just get over-”
“I’m not sure I want to,” John admitted, feeling a bitter smile curl his lips. “When you told me about the threat, my first impulse was to wonder if it was a lie, just another manipulation. And that…wasn’t a good thing to think. So maybe…” John hesitated, but charged onwards because this had to be said. “Maybe what we need is closure, for both of us to move on.”
Sherlock’s surprise and instant, visceral rejection felt like being slapped in the face with hot oil.
“You can’t-” he started, then stopped and switched tacks, perhaps sensing that John was in no mood to be told what he could and couldn’t do. “John, I can fix this.”
“Really?” John felt nothing but a dull amusement. “How?”
Sherlock didn’t seem to have expected that. John could see and feel him scrambling for answers, for an instant-fix where there was no instant-fix. John didn’t even know if it could be fixed.
“That’s what I thought,” John sighed, and rose to start getting ready for work.
“If you don’t forgive me, he wins.”
John stopped, but he didn’t turn around or even look over his shoulder. On some level, he understood what Sherlock was doing – appealing to John’s determination and his streak of compassion, hoping that he wouldn’t be able to stand the idea of letting Moriarty win anything and would just brush everything under the rug for the sake of returning to the status quo. He understood, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t pissed off at Sherlock for using it.
“No, he doesn’t win,” John said without looking at Sherlock. “But you lose. You lose…whatever you thought this would be. Whatever you thought would happen after you came back. So don’t try to hold that over me. You don’t have anything you can hold over me.” Then it occurred to John that Sherlock did, in fact, have something. “I suppose you can always threaten to tell Mycroft about my empathy and have me dragged to Baskerville or wherever I’d be taken, but I think I’ve proved that I’m more than capable of defending myself.”
“I’d never do that!” Sherlock actually felt sticky-rose offended, like John had insulted him.
John snorted. “You’d want to do the experiments yourself, right?”
Sherlock swallowed, and John could feel sharp-plastic shock and hurt shiver through him. “I wouldn’t experiment on you. Not like…not like that.”
Some part of John was still suspicious – Sherlock could be lying, after all – but it was a relief to hear him say that. Sherlock tended to prefer lying by omission, so he was unlikely to do something if he specifically denied it.
John nodded – still not turning around – and was just lifting his foot to continue out of the room when Sherlock spoke again.
“I was wrong, alright? I didn’t think you’d be so…affected. I knew they’d be watching you, and I didn’t know you were so good at pretending not to know things you did.”
Sherlock must have been very upset – John had never heard him explain something so incoherently before.
“But I’m not sorry,” Sherlock said, practically burning with self-righteousness and determination. “I’ll never be sorry that I saved your life.”
There really wasn’t anything John could say that he hadn’t said before, so he walked away.
At least his headache was feeling better.
John’s day was boring but steady. There had been a virus going around and most people just wanted a certificate to say that they hadn’t been disguising a hangover as an illness. Of course, a virus also meant he had to explain to about half a dozen patients that no, antibiotics wouldn’t help them because bacteria and viruses weren’t ‘basically the same’.
Sometimes John wished there was some way of making learning that as mandatory as basic literacy. Granted, it wasn’t nearly as important, but it would certainly save doctors hundreds of hours of work a year.
John had never been the type to watch television or read the newspaper while he was at work, so he only knew something was going on when Mary popped her head around his door and said some reporters wanted to see him.
John liked Mary – she was nice, and didn’t put up with stupidity, and once when John had forgotten both his lunch and his wallet she’d shared her own sandwich with him. If John had really thought Sherlock was dead and thus been able to move on, they might have started something. Mary had certainly flirted, but John had never been able to bring himself to take her up on it. After Sherlock’s lie, saying he had ‘trust issues’ didn’t even begin to cover it.
Though he couldn’t deny that sometimes he felt a little wistful, wondering what would have happened if he’d been just a little more stable, a little less…emotionally damaged.
If nothing else, there would have been something funny about falling in love with two Mary’s.
But now wasn’t the time to brood – reporters were asking for him?
“Reporters?” John echoed. “For me?”
“Apparently,” Mary shrugged. “Did you win the lottery?”
John shook his head, but he exhaled hard as a thought occurred to him. He waved Mary off, feeling her humming confusion and tingling anxiety move away as she did, like the sound of music fading into the distance.
Mary’s empathic signature made him think of an orchestra without a conductor. Lots of activity, all happening right in front of you but still catching you by surprise when the music swelled – little, crucial movements lost in the white noise.
When she was gone (probably to do some investigating of her own), John opened up a webpage on his computer and typed his own name into the search bar.
He really hoped he was wrong about this.
The top result was still his old blog, but the second was some hastily-written online article, proclaiming that a famous detective was back from the dead.
John took a moment to remind himself that he couldn’t actually kill Sherlock, no matter how tempted he was.
John didn’t go home. If the reporters had managed to find out where he worked, he was sure they knew where he lived as well. He snuck out the back and Mary gave him a lift to a hotel to save him taking the tube.
He hadn’t told her the whole story, but he’d sketched out enough details for her to shake her head in sympathy and mutter, “He’s a bit of an arsehole, isn’t he?”
Mary always had a gift for understatement.
John didn’t have anything with him except his wallet and the clothes on his back, but the room had those little complimentary soaps and even a toothbrush, so he’d worry about that later. For now, he washed his shirt, trousers and socks in the bathroom sink and hung them up to dry. It left him walking around in his underwear, but such were the advantages of being alone.
Not that he was alone for long. The bond told him Sherlock was getting closer, so he had some warning before the knock at his door.
He might have used the time to get dressed, but his only clothes were soaking wet, so John answered the door in his underwear. Some people might feel at a disadvantage, talking to someone fully unclothed while they were almost naked, but John honestly didn’t care.
Besides, the way Sherlock blinked and stared left John feeling like he was the one with the upper hand.
Sherlock’s stare had lingered on John’s hips and shoulders, but it was concentrated on his scars. On the white starburst at his shoulder where the first bullet had hit him all those years ago, and the line where it was later removed. He thought he actually heard Sherlock suck in a sharp breath as is eyes landed on the new pink circle in the middle of John’s chest, and the fresh line across his thigh.
“I’m looking good for a man who was dying less than twenty-four hours ago, aren’t I?” John snorted.
Sherlock twitched as though startled out of contemplation, and John stood aside to let him enter. He’s rather not have this conversation in the hallway of a hotel.
“Is there any point in asking how you found me?” he wondered, slumping down on the couch.
“You didn’t come home!” Sherlock snapped, prickly and rough with anger, like fur or velvet rubbed the wrong way.
“I didn’t come home because some inconsiderate bastard set the journalists of London on me without any warning!” John snapped.
The anger turned into wavering guilt, shimmering like a heat mirage with streaks of blue hope bleeding through. And just like that, John understood what Sherlock had been trying to do.
“You wanted them to take me by surprise and corner me,” he said flatly. “You were hoping for them to push me into making a statement about forgiving you, weren’t you?”
His headache was back.
The guilt felt stronger now, as if Sherlock knew that was an underhanded tactic to use but had done so all the same. “I thought if you just saw-”
“No,” John interrupted, feeling his weariness return.
He didn’t want to talk, or fight, or…whatever it was Sherlock expected them to do. There was nothing to say that hadn’t already been said, nothing that would somehow make this easier. Right now, John didn’t even want to look at Sherlock – he just wanted distance. Distance and quiet and something resembling peace.
“Sherlock, just go,” he sighed. “Please. If you ever cared for me beyond my usefulness with a gun or how I fed your ego…leave me alone.”
John closed his eyes, but the hurt Sherlock felt flashed in orange fire behind them, smouldering and gritty like clay just drawn from a kiln. He could feel it cool into a rigid anger, dark and smooth like a stone worn from handling, and then it abruptly collapsed into….was that resignation?
“Alright.” Sherlock’s voice was small and timid.
John tracked Sherlock’s progress to the door by the sound of his footsteps, but didn’t open his eyes until he heard the other man speak again.
Sherlock had paused in the doorway, one hand on the knob, but he didn’t look back at John. “I am sorry that I hurt you.”
John knew that, on some level. He just wasn’t sure how much he cared. “But you’re not sorry you did it, are you?”
Righteous anger snapped from Sherlock like the crack of a bullwhip – sharp and deafening. But it was soon lost in regret that tasted like burnt tuna, and the sad strains of something that felt like love.
“I can’t be sorry you’re alive,” Sherlock said quietly.
And then he was gone.
Getting through the next three weeks felt like the state John had sometimes fallen into in Afghanistan. When there’d been an ambush or a convoy drove into IEDs or whatever else that left dozens injured and he’d had to work for days at a time, he’d found himself falling into a state where he processed what was happening but felt no real emotional impact from it. It was remote and distant, like he was guiding a character through a video game rather than living it.
Ella had called it disassociation and had been worried about it. John should probably be worried about it too, but he’d never been able to explain to Ella that he thought his ‘disassociation’ came from being overwhelmed by his own emotions and coasting on other people’s to muffle them.
John let the media storm die down. He didn’t talk to Lestrade or Mrs Hudson or Molly and he ignored the black car that pulled up in front of the clinic until Mycroft took the hint and stopped sending it. He usually wasn’t one for ignoring problems until they went away (that tended to end badly when you were in a war zone), but right now he was willing to indulge himself.
The journalists might have still been hounding him if he hadn’t got sick of them trailing him into the clinic and made a comment that suggested he wasn’t talking to them because he was upset at how they’d defamed Sherlock’s character two years ago. No one wanted to print anything that was badmouthing them, so they left him alone and he didn’t have to comment on any of the stories proclaiming Sherlock a hero.
The bond was still there, and John had the vague thought he should do something about that. But every time he told himself he should go see Sherlock and complete whatever severing process had been started, he always managed to talk himself out of it. For all that he was still angry, John didn’t want to cut his connection with Sherlock. At least, not anymore.
It was quite a change. Nursing anger and hurt for so long and then thinking about moving past it…John didn’t know if he was relieved or angry at himself for being a pushover.
He didn’t forgive Sherlock. He didn’t know if he could forgive something like that. But he was starting to believe that Sherlock had really just made a mistake – a bad one, but with good intentions. He said he hadn’t contacted John because he was worried that people were still watching him and any move on Sherlock’s part would have ended with John dead, and John felt as if he was starting to accept that as the truth. He knew more than anyone how fear could paralyse you, how you could be so afraid of putting someone at risk that you did nothing, but he’d always had someone (a commanding officer, a supervising surgeon) to snap him out of it. Sherlock hadn’t had anyone to snap him out of it.
John couldn’t forgive him – not now, possibly not ever. But maybe he could let it be. Move past it.
He rang Sherlock that afternoon, before he could talk himself out of it.
He was expecting the phone to ring out and leave him to do this by text, but to his surprise Sherlock answered on the second ring.
“You answered the phone,” John blurted, caught off-guard. He wasn’t expecting Sherlock to answer it!
“Of course I did,” Sherlock snapped. “What’s wrong?”
John could feel Sherlock’s worry spreading through him like a bleach stain, and wondered why. But then, given how their last conversation had gone, Sherlock probably thought John had to be in serious trouble to call him.
Well, nothing to do but forge ahead. “It’s going to take time for me to trust you again.”
Anger and impatience swept along the bond like a wave, salty and gritty and stinging and cool all at the same time. Sherlock drew breath – probably to snap something about how John had said that before and Sherlock was leaving him alone like he’d asked – but then he seemed to realise what John had actually said. At least, the anger and impatience vanished to be replaced by cautious hope, like sunlight peeking through heavy clouds.
“But you’re going to try?” Sherlock asked, in the interrogative tone he used when he was nervous about something and trying not to let it show.
“Yeah, I’m going to try,” John said. “But I’m not moving in with you again, not for a while. We should probably…” Christ, he felt like a therapist just saying this, “…start over?”
“Start over?” Sherlock echoed. “Why?”
“I’m told it’s a legitimate form of rebuilding trust.”
John had read a few psychology books in his time – mainly in an effort to puzzle out why people’s emotions seemed to contradict what they were actually doing and saying half the time. Of course, the whole ‘starting over’ thing was usually used in romantic relationships when someone had cheated on the other person or otherwise crossed a huge line, but John didn’t see any reason to mention that.
“You know why I did it,” Sherlock muttered, sounding and feeling sulky.
“Trust issues, Sherlock – remember?”
“Do we have to?”
John was starting to feel annoyed – he was making an effort here, couldn’t Sherlock make one as well? “No, Sherlock, we don’t. We can say ‘it was fun while it lasted, goodbye, have a nice life’ and that’ll be it.”
“No!” Sherlock snapped, a quick lash of fear pricking at John’s senses, like he’d just stepped on a sharp rock. “We can go to Angelo’s.”
John was tempted to demand they go somewhere more neutral, but it would take a stronger man than he to resist the lure of free Italian. “Tomorrow at seven?”
Sherlock made a noise of affirmation, and John waited for the dial tone – Sherlock never prolonged phone calls. But it didn’t come, and it took him almost a whole minute to realise Sherlock was actually waiting for him to hang up.
“See you then,” he said lamely, and ended the call.
Sherlock had answered his phone, even though he usually only did that for the promise of a case. He’d waited for John to end the call instead of assuming he had all the information he needed and just hanging up. And – perhaps most important of all – Sherlock had actually respected John’s request to leave him alone.
Sherlock really did love him.
And John had no idea what to do with that.
John was surprised to find Sherlock waiting for him at the restaurant, especially since John had turned up ten minutes early.
Sherlock stared at him, and the bond fluttered with surprise – like he hadn’t really thought John would turn up, even though he’d been the one to suggest this – and tremulous hope. “John.”
“Hey,” John said. “Didn’t expect you to be early.”
“I’ve been here since six-thirty.”
John’s shock must have shown on his face, because Sherlock frowned and looked away, his emotions pulling into himself like a porcupine bristling defensively.
“I had to make sure there were no reporters,” he explained.
“I haven’t seen anything about you in the papers for a week,” John pointed out. “I’m pretty sure they’ve moved on.”
Sherlock scowled. “That’s what they want you to think.”
He sounded sulky and petulant, but he was leaning against the side of the restaurant in a tense way that told John it was make sure no one could sneak up behind him. His eyes were scanning every person on the street and his emotions were buzzing with nervous tension, like an irritated insect.
Those two years clearly hadn’t been easy on him. John had known that, on some level – how many times had he healed Sherlock’s injuries? – but he hadn’t wanted to accept it. He’d wanted to keep his resentment and crush every hint of sympathy that crept into his heart.
“Shall we go inside?” John offered.
Sherlock nodded, and preceded him into the restaurant.
Angelo actually waited until he was level with them to greet Sherlock personally, and John wondered if he’d had to deal with reporters too. Usually, the big man shouted out Sherlock’s name as if he wanted to inform everyone in the street.
“The table by the window, just as you asked,” Angelo enthused, shuttling them towards their seats. “I’ll get a candle.”
It was the same table they’d taken the first night, when they’d used it for surveillance. It even looked like Angelo had brought them the same candle.
John tried not to laugh, he really did, but he couldn’t help it. Trust Sherlock to take the ‘starting over’ thing seriously.
“What’s so funny?” The tangy citrus of Sherlock’s emotions was tilting dangerously close to ‘offended’.
“Just…this is a much more literal new beginning than I was thinking of,” John grinned. “Do I have to awkwardly ask you if you have a girlfriend or boyfriend again?”
Sherlock stared, and the sudden rush of nervous hope felt like the first breath after a resuscitation. But he didn’t reply.
John was just beginning to regret saying anything when Sherlock dropped his eyes to his hands and spoke.
“I don’t have a boyfriend. But, there’s someone…” his eyes darted to John for a moment before they flew away, and the fear felt like a sodden cloth choking him. “And I think maybe we could…”
Sherlock trailed off, swallowing sharply, and John blinked.
“You’re serious?” John was honestly surprised – he knew Sherlock loved him, but relationships were a lot of effort, and a lot of risk, and he’d thought that Sherlock would just decide it wasn’t worth it.
And maybe some part of him had hoped for just that; unrequited love was painful, but there was a kind of safety in it. Actually putting yourself on the line, opening yourself up to someone else…it was frightening.
“Only if you want to,” Sherlock said quietly.
Well, if Sherlock was being brave, John could too. He took Sherlock’s hand, just because he wanted to, and the bond opened like one of those high-speed films of flowers blooming.
“I’d like that,” John said, feeling a ridiculous smile stretch his face.
Happiness and relief burst like a meteor shower – illuminating the night without being blinding, throwing glittering sprays of colour – and John didn’t quite know where it came from. From him? From Sherlock? Both? Looking at Sherlock’s smile – small and private and wondering, as if he couldn’t quite believe this was happening – John thought it was probably both.
His head didn’t hurt anymore. John squeezed Sherlock’s hand and basked in the light of their healing bond.
It was a start.
This isn't betaed, so do let me know if you've spotted a mistake!