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When the air is calm, smoke rises vertically.

It practically never does, though, no matter how calm and hateful and tedious the world intends to be. Sherlock knows this, because he smokes a lot when he’s waiting and he always, always watches the smoke rise.

He’s waiting a lot, these days.

 


 

 

Operator six-five-zero is fatally shot on a Wednesday afternoon. One shot in the chest. Immediate, irreparable damage to the right ventricle. Internal blood loss above critical. She is dead before her body hits the ground. As is her unborn daughter, because nature is pitiless this way.

Sherlock finds himself moved by it. This is uncharacteristic and not entirely understandable, since Sherlock Holmes does not grieve for people.

Mycroft calls first. He explains what's happened. After that, he explains what’s really happened and what kinds of arrangements have been made.

John calls second. He doesn’t sob or choke or cry. He sounds tired and alone and like he isn’t really surprised by it all which is somehow worse. Sherlock hangs up with a sour taste in his mouth and wishes John had just shouted at him. Then he moves his armchair to the window and chain smokes, watches the smoke swirl and vanish in the dim late afternoon sunlight, wonders if there’s a way not to mourn a woman he’s not sure he ever actually knew.

Sherlock does his best not to feel anything for two hours, then it gets kind of boring and pointless. He lets his heart hurt for a while, clutches a hand to his chest and waits for the pain to go away. He’s supposed to feel something about the woman who and shot him and was his friend and carried the child he never met, he’s sure of it. Grieving is obligatory. A Pavlovian reaction. The inevitable result of thirty-eight and a half years of conditioning done by a society that fears death and idolizes the dead. It’s not important.

It’s not sentiment either, Sherlock decides, and takes a particularly forceful pull on his cigarette.

It occurs to him that John suffers more, after a while. John always does. One shouldn’t underestimate John’s inability to deal with loss. This time, he hasn’t merely lost a friend, of course. His wife and his child are dead. His family. The people he’s most devoted to. That must surely be a new level of loss to deal with.

John suffers, he definitely does, which worries Sherlock. Because that’s how it is. John is always Sherlock’s second thought, and sometimes his first, and he’s always the thought that stays when everything else doesn’t matter anymore.

Maybe, Sherlock contemplates, what he’s feeling is not just grief. It’s empathy, which is even more hateful.

 


 

 

Sherlock wonders if he has any responsibilities, as the best friend of a recently widowed man. He doesn’t, as it turns out. John doesn’t want anything from him. He doesn’t even want to see him. He doesn’t want consolation, and, as he informs Sherlock dryly during a particularly painful phone call, he doesn’t want pity either and needs to be left in peace. Sherlock wouldn’t have offered pity in the first place, of course. Not even if John had asked for it. Then again, he most certainly wouldn’t have offered peace. Sherlock Holmes is not a peaceful man.

Sherlock figures the loss of his wife and unborn daughter is going to change John. He wonders if there’ll be another wrinkle on his forehead. If one of the seven and a half laugh lines next to his right eye will have vanished when he sees him again. If his jaw is clenched and skin is pale, if his hair is greying more rapidly than usual, now that he’s in so much pain. If he’ll ever step into an empty nursery and close his eyes and clutch a hand to his chest. If he will cry at night, if he’ll roll onto his stomach to muffle his sobs when he’s alone in a too large bed with too cold sheets.

Sherlock doesn’t find out. They don’t talk about those things. John never visits. John only ever calls.

 


 

 

The funeral is annoyingly colourful. There are sunflowers, because they were Mary’s favourites, and yellow roses, because they simply match. The sun shines down on them ironically and bathes John’s expressionless face in soft colours. Sherlock observes him out of the corner of his eye as he stands next to him, hands clasped in supplication to a god who doesn’t exist.

John looks pale and tired and entirely emotionless. His self-control doesn’t falter for a moment. He doesn’t shed a single tear. Nor does Sherlock, but then, crying is definitely not on his agenda.

The priest talks about the kind-hearted woman Mary was. The loving wife. A woman who made friends easily. Who loved her job and was so good at caring for other people. Who would have been a wonderful mother. Friendly, generous, simply a good person. It’s oddly fascinating. Sherlock realises that he never actually got to understand the person behind the facade. Now it’s too late for that, and Sherlock doesn’t really mind. He supposes that’s something he should feel guilty about.

Everything the priest says might be true in a way, of course, except that Mary was not a good person. Just like Sherlock. It didn’t matter though, that neither of them was good, because John was good enough for both of them.

Actually, that’s not quite true, he contemplates as he rolls his eyes and hands Mrs Hudson who’s crying next to him another tissue. John was good enough for Mary. John’s always been too good for him.

Nobody talks about the baby. Sherlock figures there’s not much to say about a person who never had a chance to become.

 

People seem to agree that it was a horrible accident. A stray bullet. Nobody would have been able to foresee it. Wrong time, wrong place. What a tragedy.

Elderly ladies keep patting John on the shoulder. Sherlock stands back and watches, ignores the accusing glances people shoot him as he smokes, watches John’s mouth curl into a bitter smile when someone assures him that he couldn’t have done anything.

At least John knows it’s not his fault, Sherlock thinks. John blaming himself for things that cause him pain is an exceedingly unpleasant thing to witness.

 

When it’s over, everyone seems very eager to leave the cemetery, the flowers, the grief and the half-heartedly forced compassion. Sherlock begins to understand why funerals make people’s stomachs turn.

He is the only one left, after an hour or two. Apart from John, of course.

John is facing the grave stone, the second one with Mary’s name on it, hands clasped behind his back, jaw clenched, that vacant expression on his face that is starting to frighten Sherlock more than a bit.

Sherlock experiences this very odd sensation John sometimes evokes in him when he looks small and broken and storm-tossed in the light air of a late spring afternoon. He doesn’t want John to look so uncharacteristically fragile. Someone should stand behind him, probably, put his arms around him, offer a safe, warm weight to lean into. Maybe Sherlock should do this, because there’s no one else around.

Sherlock can’t do this, of course. John wouldn’t appreciate that. It’s a pointless train of thought, nothing else.

They don’t talk, that day. Not a single word. Inexplicably, there’s nothing to talk about whenever it’s about Mary. There never is.

Sherlock turns his coat collar up and walks away, leaving John behind at the grave of his wife because he figures that’s where John wants to be alone.

 

He goes home and continues his increasingly agonizing waiting, even thought he isn’t entirely sure what he is waiting for.

Sherlock isn’t really surprised that they don’t see each other for two more months. Sherlock’s used to this by now. They’re not nearly as close as they once were. Marriage does change people, after all.

 


 

 

When John finally comes, he arrives without a suitcase, which is not what Sherlock expected.

He paces on the pavement for nearly five minutes. Sherlock watches him through the curtains. His silhouette walks up and down, hesitates, continues walking, reaches for the door bell.

Mrs Hudson opens the door, hugs John briefly, coos about the creases on his shirt and the weight he’s lost. John doesn’t act irritated or unapproachable, which is a bit of a surprise. Sherlock hears meaningless chatter and Mrs Hudson’s giggles before she shoos John upstairs, listens to the familiar sound of John’s footsteps. His limp has worsened since the funeral. The door creaks and Sherlock doesn’t feel the smallest bit prepared for this.

John has indeed lost weight. Eight and a half pounds, which means he is one and a half pounds lighter than he was on his wedding day. This doesn’t matter, of course. Sherlock just notices because he always does.

John halts in the doorway, clenches his hands, unclenches them again.

Sherlock gives him his best impression of a surprised half-smile. “Hello, John,” he says.

John clears his throat. “Sherlock.”

How apt. His name is the first word John says to him in months and Sherlock feels pleased by the fact. Not that he’d wondered what the first word would be. Not that he’d wished it would be something more than a “hello” or an “alright”. That would have been entirely illogical.

He gestures vaguely at the couch and John sits down, his left foot tapping on the floor (one, two, three – pause - one, two, three) like always when he’s nervous and tries to hide it.

Sherlock walks into the kitchen and makes tea for both of them because he wanted some anyway. John wants his with very little milk and two sugars. Sherlock knows exactly how to make John tea.

They drink in silence. It could probably be described as awkward. Since Sherlock tends to make people feel awkward by just existing, he doesn’t really mind awkward silences. John looks around, lets his gaze wander. He takes in Sherlock’s experiments on the table and the new charts on the wall and Billy the skull who’s temporarily moved onto the coffee table because someone has to watch Sherlock when he’s sulking on the couch. John looks like he actually finds that interesting.

It makes sense that John’s missed 221B more than Sherlock.

“So,” John says, finally, and deposits his cup on the table, “I’m just... I wanted to ask if I... I mean, possibly--“ He closes his eyes, collects his thoughts, opens them again. “Sherlock, I wanted to ask if I could--”

“You want to move back in,” Sherlock states matter-of-factly, because it’s obvious, isn’t it?

John takes a deep breath and smiles the bitter smile he seems to be so fond of lately. “Of course. Of course you’d figure it out before I can even explain it to you.” He buries his face in his hands and sighs.

Sherlock isn’t sure what he’s done wrong.

“Look,” John says, “it’s just—the house is so stupidly big for just one person and... and I hate being alone there, it’s just temporary if you want, I can find something. I just, I feel like I need to sort of... leave it behind. Just – start over. Properly. And I don’t know where else to go.”

Sherlock nods thoughtfully and takes another sip of his tea.

“It’s okay if you’re not alright with this, Sherlock. Just say no if you’d rather I... left.”

Sherlock looks up, genuinely startled. “Why on earth wouldn’t I be alright with it?”

“Well,” John says and smiles a bit more. His smile looks nearly sincere this time. “Letting someone you haven’t talked to in months move back into your flat, it’s... Many people would at least want to think about it.”

Sherlock frowns at him.

“You wouldn’t need time to think, though. Never mind,” John says, with something that sounds awfully like resignation in his voice.

“There’s nothing to think about,” Sherlock says decidedly, “Your room is upstairs. It’s only reasonable for you to be here, too.”

“Reasonable,” John repeats contemplatively. “Yeah. Of course it is.”

Sherlock wonders if it’ll always be like this. If they have forgotten how to talk to each other. He figures it’s theoretically possible for two people who like each other to become what they once were, even after an extended period of estrangement, but then, maintaining relationships with other people has never been his strong suit. He shouldn’t expect too much.

It would be alright if it was like this, though. It doesn’t matter that talking to each other isn’t as effortless as it once was. Having John here, in 221B, where he belongs, is already everything Sherlock could have wished for. He is quite fond of the prospect, really.

“So, I’m moving back in, then,” John declares. To break the silence, presumably.

“You are,” Sherlock agrees and tries not to sound too satisfied about this. Or eager, which would be even worse. Because he is satisfied, indeed. The silence stretches between them.

“I’d better leave,” John decides and rubs his thighs with both hands, as if he’s trying to remove the invisible dust that may have gathered during the barely seven minutes he’s spent here. “For now, that is. I’ll pack. And come back tomorrow. Bring the first few boxes.”

Sherlock remembers the first time John moved in with him, remembers that his possessions fit into a small suitcase and one cardboard box. Sherlock exhales, bites his bottom lip. “You could stay. Today. For dinner.”

John huffs out a laugh. “It’s barely half past two, Sherlock.”

“Oh.”

John stands and Sherlock gets up as well to bring John to the door, because that’s what you do when a visitor wants to leave.

John buttons up his jacket, gives Sherlock a tight smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Wouldn’t count on it,” Sherlock tells him, “Probably won’t be here. I’m busy. Need to see a man about a cockatoo.”

“Of course you do.”

Sherlock sighs as if seeing a man about a cockatoo is a terrible burden.

“Hey,” John says almost jovially (forcedly so, but he tries), “I’m... I’m glad. I’m looking forward to this, you know. I could use a bit of distraction.”

“Is that what I am?” Sherlock asks dryly, very deliberately not looking at him, wondering why his voice has gone so hard, “A distraction?”

John shakes his head in a way that indicates he is equally amused and exasperated. He pauses in the doorway to look up at Sherlock.

“Oh, you really are a distraction,” he murmurs, “in a good way, though.” John smiles, just for a second, and the corner of his mouth twitches like he means it. A moment later, the smile is gone and Sherlock wonders if he’s maybe just making things up.

He watches John’s silhouette through the curtains as he walks away.

 


 

 

They end up seeing the man about the cockatoo together.

John arrives when Sherlock’s just about to leave, which is not a coincidence. John doesn’t need to know this, of course.

“I could use your help,” Sherlock lies, “Cold case. Murderer most probably still on the run. Could be dangerous.”

John doesn’t question any of this. He just leaves his boxes on the floor, pushes them to the wall and follows him. Sherlock gives him the necessary details in the back of their cab and John nods, clears his throat, asks the appropriate questions. It’s almost as if they still do this every day.

It feels a bit like a farce. They’re both trying very hard and they know it.

 

The cockatoo is extremely peculiar.

The bird has witnessed the murder of its owner’s wife. The owner is convinced the bird knows something, which is quite interesting. The police don’t interrogate animals because the police are stupid, therefore Sherlock is going to talk to a cockatoo.

Turns out the bird is the most reliable witness Sherlock has questioned in months. It doesn’t look all that promising at first, though.

Thomas Bulgner (moderately wealthy novelist and self-proclaimed philosopher, recently widowed, bird enthusiast) leads them into his living room, offers them coffee. They sit down on one of the gigantic, fluffy grey sofas that look oddly out of place in the large, brightly lit room. The furniture is modern, bordering on minimalistic, all arranged carefully around the two frankly enormous sofas. Mr Bulgner himself looks like he’s about to appear in a historical play, wearing a grey three-piece suit and metal-rimmed glasses. There’s a quill pen in his breast pocket and, well, a cockatoo on his shoulder, which Sherlock finds mildly startling at first.

“Her name is Charlene and she only talks when she feels like talking,” Mr Bulgner tells them as he sits down opposite them, pointing at the great white bird on his shoulder that’s eyeing them warily.

“Good morning, Charlene,” Sherlock says formally, although it’s technically already noon.

Charlene narrows her eyes to slits, bends forward on Mr Bulgner’s shoulder and says, “Good morning.”

Sherlock frowns. “Mr Bulgner, you say the bird doesn’t just repeat words, it can-“ he pauses in reaction to the man’s disapproving look and stifles the urge to roll his eyes, “Charlene can use specific words in order to communicate?”

Mr Bulgner nods eagerly. “She absolutely can. Nobody ever believes it, but she understands what’s happened. She knows Cecilia’s been… she knows what’s happened to Cecilia. It changed her completely. She… she grieved for weeks. She barely ate, didn’t talk, just kept asking for Cecilia. Cecilia and Charlene were very close.”

“So,” Sherlock begins thoughtfully, making eye contact with the feathered specimen that’s beginning to look like it wants to eat Sherlock alive, “Charlene, what happened to Cecilia? Tell me about Cecilia.”

He feels more than a little stupid, admittedly, but he’s going to go through this with his best impression of sincerity. John is beginning to look amused, which really doesn’t help.

Charlene nibbles at Mr Bulgner’ earlobe and coos. Mr Bulgner smiles apologetically.

“Cecilia,” Sherlock repeats emphatically, “what happened to Cecila in November?”

“Ah, grapefruit,” Charlene crows wisely.

“Grapefruit?” Sherlock repeats, puzzled.

Mr Bulgner shrugs. “Well, she really likes grapefruit. She probably wants some.”

Sherlock snorts derisively, but stubbornly maintains eye contact with the bird. He’s not going to give in. “Cecilia. Who killed Cecilia?”

“Grapefruit.”

“Charlene, concentrate. Who cut Cecilia's thoat?”

“Leo Tolstoy.”

“You’re not helping.”

“Grapefruit.”

“I’m sorry,” Mr Bulgner cuts in. “I think she’s very emotional about this.”

“Yeah, I think so, too,” John remarks flatly. His cheeks are turning delightfully rosy. He seems entertained, unlike Sherlock.

They’ve only been here for five and a half minutes and Sherlock is already getting impatient because nobody in this room (which includes both the bird and John) is currently cooperating. “Mr Bulgner,” he says very seriously, “did Charlene call Cecilia by her first name? Was there any kind of nick name? Or anything else she could possibly associate with her? A word? A sentence?”

Mr Bulgner stares at him, somewhat startled.

“Think!” Sherlock orders.

Charlene jumps gracefully from Mr Bulgner’s shoulder onto the coffee table in front of them, places herself in front of Sherlock, ruffles her feathers and says, “Grapefruit.”

John fails to hold back a chuckle.

“Oh, for God’s sakes,” grumbles Sherlock, his voice barely audible.

“Grapefruit,” Charlene repeats petulantly.

“Um. Yes. Well. About the nick name.” Mr Bulgner clears his throat. “When we adopted Charlene, the first words we taught her were our names. Naturally. She had troubles pronouncing the word Cecilia, so for the first few months she called her… Lia.”

Charlene’s head turns almost a hundred and eighty degrees in reaction to the last word. She coos loudly.

“I know, darling,” Mr Bulgner murmurs and reaches out to pet the bird lightly.

This looks a lot like progress.

“Focus, Charlene,” Sherlock orders the bird, because someone has to stay on track here. “Lia. Tell me about Lia.”

“Peanut,” Charlene tells him.

“Are you going to keep talking about food?”

“Um,” Mr Bulgner says and clears his throat somewhat awkwardly, “I don’t know. She doesn’t particularly like peanuts.”

Sherlock glares at the cockatoo. He’s far higher up in the hierarchy evolution has established and the cockatoo doesn’t appear to be aware of his superiority. This is unacceptable.

“No,” he tells Charlene decidedly. “We’re talking about Lia. What happened to Lia?”

“Peanut.”

“Lia.”

“Peanut, peanut, peanut, grapefruit. Fuck.”

“Oh,” Mr Bulgner gasps, horrified, “I’m terribly sorry. We had a talk about swearing. She’s sixteen. Teenagers, you know how… well.”

John’s face is turning a quite delectable shade of red as he tries not to laugh. He rubs his forehead and takes a few deep, steadying breaths.

“Is that all you can tell me, Charlene?” Sherlock asks, one more time.

“Peanut.”

“Peanut?”

“Peanut, peanut.”

Sherlock sighs exasperatedly. “You’re tiresome.”

“Oh my god,” John breathes and chokes back a chuckle.

“Cecilia,” Sherlock says.

Charlene tilts her head, glares directly in Sherlock’s eyes and says, “Posh git.”

The dam breaks. John bursts out laughing.

And he continues laughing, until his chest is heaving and his breath is coming in shallow puffs and there’s a sheen of sweat on his red cheeks. Sherlock fails to see why this situation is laughable. He also isn’t sure if he should stop glaring at the bird in order to glare at John.

“Oh,” John gasps out when he has his voice back, still shaking, tears of mirth in the corners of his eyes, “that bird is amazing.”

Mr Bulgner smiles proudly. “Yes, isn’t she?”

Sherlock forgets to focus on the bird for a stupidly long time. He isn’t sure why seeing John laugh for the first time in months makes his chest hurt in such a peculiar way, but then, John has a habit of making Sherlock hurt in peculiar, illogical ways.

He’ll figure that out sooner or later.

 


 

They leave without a clue, except that “peanut” may be a code word of some sort, as John very helpfully points out.

“Was that a distraction?” Sherlock asks as they walk upstairs and into their flat. He notices that the tips of John’s ears are still red, which is a side effect of laughter. Sherlock finds he quite likes it.

John snorts. “Well, you got insulted by a bird and I have a new story for the blog.”

Sherlock holds the door open for John. “You’re going to update your ridiculous blog again?”

“Of course I will. I mean, it’s part of the game, isn’t it? You, me, the flat, the blog.”

“The case isn’t even solved yet.”

“You’re going to figure it all out, Sherlock. And people are going to love the cockatoo.”

Sherlock grunts in annoyance and turns to hang up his Belstaff. “This bird hates me.”

John huffs out a laugh. “Yes, it does, and it’s the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen.”

John takes off his jacket, stretches himself contentedly and walks over to the fire place to inspect Sherlock’s case notes on the mantle.

Sherlock sucks in a sharp breath. “You’re planning on writing your blog again. You were thinking about it before you even came here.”

“Probably?”

“So, this,” Sherlock says thoughtfully and gestures at John’s chair opposite his own, “it’s not actually temporary, is it?”

John sighs, rubs his hands together. “Don’t think so,” he murmurs and gazes at his own feet like they’re extremely interesting. “Not if you’re okay with that.”

"I am okay with that."

“Good.”

“Mmh.”

John kicks off his shoes, lets himself fall into his chair and sighs. He reaches for his laptop that’s already on the coffee table and begins to compose the first blog post in over six months. He types with three fingers (left index and middle finger, right index finger), because that’s how John always types, unbearably slowly. He’s frowning. The corners of his mouth are twitching and once or twice he involuntarily curls his toes as he concentrates hard. Sherlock watches him, fascinated, because John is struggling with something that’s mind-numbingly simple and only holds importance when John does it.

It’s astonishing how one single day can change things.

John catches Sherlock staring. “Something wrong?” he asks and stops typing.

“Nothing,” Sherlock says dismissively. He walks towards the window, lights a cigarette and watches the smoke rise, swirl, vanish.

 

And all of a sudden he knows exactly what he’s been waiting for.

 

Chapter Text

 

John brings Mary flowers twice a week.

On Wednesdays and Fridays, after work, John buys white tulips and takes a cab to the cemetery. He stays for a while then, lays down the flowers, lets his hand glide over the top of the grave stone like he wants to caress it. Sherlock doesn’t know if he talks to Mary when he visits her. He knows John talked to him when he was dead.

He doesn’t find out, though. He can’t hear it, can’t see if John’s lips move, no matter how hard he tries. He’s hiding behind a maple tree that’s too far away.

 


 

The mystery of Cecilia Bulgner’s murder is solved barely two weeks after the first formal interrogation of Charlene the cockatoo. Unfortunately, it requires another visit at Mr Bulgner’s domicile and a lot of tiresome conversation with two different species.

 

Sherlock, John, Mr Bulgner and Charlene have gathered in the Bulgners’ gigantic living room again. Everyone’s doing their best to act sincere while the bird is interrogated anew, although the situation bears resemblance to a circus conference. If such a thing exists.

Charlene is absolutely convinced that peanuts have something to do with the murder of her beloved companion and tells Sherlock so on every possible occasion. Mr Bulgner is absolutely convinced that Charlene’s on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Sherlock is absolutely convinced that he’s going to throttle the bird unless some kind of clue presents itself in the foreseeable future.

John finds the whole situation very amusing, which irritates Sherlock immensely.

 

Talking doesn’t lead to any conclusions, so Sherlock decides to search Cecilia Bulgner’s personal possessions properly. He should have done this sooner. He can’t think with a godforsaken cockatoo crowing monologues about groceries in his ear. That’s hardly his fault.

He demands access to all of Cecilia’s diaries, photo albums and note books as well as the glass ash tray that sits on a side table in the entrance hall.

“What’s the ash tray for?” Mr Bulgner asks.

“I smoke when I’m thinking,” Sherlock informs him.

“Yeah, you smoke an awful lot, lately,” John mutters thoughtfully from the other end of the sofa where he’s engaging in a staring contest with the awful cockatoo. Charlene seems to like him. Sherlock begins to legitimately detest that hypocritical excuse for a bird.

“Shut up John.”

"For God's sake, Sherlock."

“For God's sake, Sherlock,” Charlene repeats happily.

John clears his throat. “No, seriously, Sherlock, you smoke more than you ever have.”

“Dull.”

“Peanut,” Charlene crows and wanders from one end of the coffee table to the other.

Mr Bulgner starts to sound really insecure. “Should I get the ash tray or not?”

“Yes,” Sherlock orders petulantly.

 

Mr Bulgner scuttles off with an extremely befuddled expression on his face.

John pets Charlene and calls her a “good girl” in reaction to which Charlene cackles fondly, closes her eyes and leans into the touch.

Sherlock buries his face in his hands and groans.

 

Once he gets his hands on Cecilia Bulgner’s most personal belongings, it takes Sherlock exactly fourteen minutes to find what he’s been looking for.

“Ah,” he exclaims and presents Mr Bulgner with a photograph that’s the extremely predictable solution of it all. An old photograph, taken probably thirty years ago. It’s a bit rumpled and has finger prints on it. Taken out of the album several times. Memories. Sentiment, of course.

The photography shows two children - a maybe ten year-old girl with long, dark hair whose arm is wrapped protectively about a younger boy. (Same hair colour, ear shape about eighty per cent identical, younger brother). “Cecilia & Peanut” is written on it the back of it. Messy handwriting. Smudgy. A nickname, of course. How awfully predictable.

"Tedious," Sherlock exclaims.

“For God's sake, Sherlock,” Charlene says and ruffles her feathers. She's evidently extremely enthusiastic about the new phrase she's learned. Both Sherlock and the bird are ignored by everyone in the room except John who looks at Charlene with so much genuine fondness in his expression that Sherlock has to work up an inordinate amount of willpower not to throttle either of the two.

“Cecilia’s younger brother, what’s his real name?” Sherlock asks.

Mr Bulgner looks up from where he’s organising a pile of documents Sherlock has previously mussed up. “Ethan,” he says, startled, “What about him?”

Charlene, upon hearing Ethan’s name, coos excitedly. She flutters around a bit and then makes herself comfortable on John’s shoulder, of all places. John seems to approve of this. He keeps talking softly to her and petting her neck. Siding with the enemy is high treason. Sherlock is already planning an amazing once-in-a-century sulk in reaction to that.

“Did Ethan benefit from Cecilia’s death? Life insurance, something like that?” Sherlock asks and orders, “Think," when Mr Bulgner fails to react in time.

“N-no, there were no... no large amounts of money, it’s—“ Mr Bulgner takes a deep, steadying breath. “Look. The house, the cars, the... all the money, it’s practically all mine. Cecilia didn’t earn that much. Geriatric care isn’t paid very well, but she loved her job. She loved it so much. She was the caring type. She donated a lot, mostly for wildlife funds. She was—“

“Yes, let’s get to the point,” Sherlock snaps, “her brother, Ethan. His nickname as a child was “Peanut”, most likely because of this ridiculous hairstyle that made his head look sort of—“ he squints at the photo, “peanut-shaped. More recent photographs show he got rid of it during adolescence, but, well. Did she still call him that?”

Mr Bulgner gapes. “Well. Yes. I mean, sometimes, when she was angry with him. I... completely forgot about it. She... she used to tease him. He hated that name.”

“Of course he did,” Sherlock mutters, “and he killed her, according to your cockatoo. But why? He can’t have cut her throat solely because of an awful nickname, although I’d sympathize entirely.”

Mr Bulgner makes a sort of gulping sound and sucks in a sharp breath. Charlene cackles. Sherlock gives her the most annoyed glare he can manage.

John chuckles, the traitor.

“Well,” Mr Bulgner says faintly, “he did get something. Not money, but... Cecilia called it her little fortune. She had... she collected those figurines. Those animals made of porcelain. Cats and horses, all sorts of animals. Japanese, I think. I always found them a bit tasteless, to be perfectly honest. Just dust catchers, really. She had loads of them. She bought an entire shelf just for her figurines. They were handcrafted and... well, you know, the sort of stuff where, you know, uh, people who are really into it pay a lot of money for.”

Sherlock rummages in his pockets to retrieve his phone. “And you simply gave them to Ethan after Cecilia’s death?”

“Yes. He always liked those, for some odd reason. I've always wondered why. He asked if he could have them and I thought it was only fair, he’s her only living relative after all. Who—Who are you texting?”

Sherlock huffs. “Someone who, unlike you, is ready to supply me with relevant details about your wife’s murderer. Did you know Ethan is a drug addict? Heroin. Unpleasant, that.”

“Who just to-told you that?”

“Nobody, look at the more recent photos. The marks on his arms, the state of his eyes. Perfectly obvious.”

“I knew he had some pro... problems in the past, but...”

“Very fond of Blackjack.”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“He was broke, about to lose his flat a few months ago. Owed a lot of people money.”

“I didn’t...”

“For God’s sakes,” Sherlock groans. The only fascinating case he’s had in ages is in the process of turning out to be a tedious act of desperation and Sherlock’s definitely not pleased. “Has he been questioned? Does the police know he got the figurines?"

“Well,” Mr Bulgner says, sounding increasingly nervous, “He... he was investigated of course. But Cecilia hadn’t included anything about the figurines in her will and I only gave them to Ethan because he’d told me he liked them. I didn’t think it was impo... impo-po—“

Apparently Mr Bulgner stutters when he gets anxious. Interesting.

“Has it occurred to you,” Sherlock snaps, increasingly impatient, “that even the police would have been able to make something of the fact that the man who knew he was going to end up with of Cecilia’s little fortune is a compulsive gambler with a drug habit who was desperate for money and had nothing to lose?”

“I-It was a spo-spontaneous decision. He... he came over for coffee a-a-after the funeral and I decided to... to give them to him. He didn’t know he was going to get them.”

“Of course he knew. He’s not stupid. Quite amazing at Blackjack, too, just very unlucky. Where do we find him?”

 

Mr Bulgner manages to give them Ethan’s address. He doesn’t even bother seeing them out, just gestures vaguely in the direction of the entrance hall and practically collapses onto his sofa. He buries his face in his hands. Charlene flutters around excitedly for a while before she sits down on his shoulder and lets him pet her. “Grapefruit,” she says comfortingly and snuggles up to his ear as Mr Bulgner continues to look positively stricken.

Sherlock calls a cab, gives the cabbie Ethan’s address and notes that John looks very excited, which is odd but not unpleasant. He keeps rubbing his hands and glancing at Sherlock. Sherlock doesn’t glance back, of course, since John doesn’t know he’s watching.

 


 

It’s very easy to get Ethan to confess that he killed his sister Cecilia Bulgner, born Stuart, for Japanese porcelain figurines.

Sherlock practically barges into the man’s tiny, shabby flat, introduces himself (and John) as dramatically as he can and explains in detail how and why Cecilia Bulgner was killed.

Ethan Stuart is a thirty-four year old wreck of a human being. He is extremely underweight, dressed in ratty clothes, with puncture marks all over his arms. He keeps scratching himself obsessively. Needs another fix within forty minutes, Sherlock deduces.

“It was an accident!” Ethan exclaims desperately when Sherlock’s monologue is over.

“Oh, it wasn’t,” Sherlock contradicts cheerfully, “John, call Lestrade.”

“It was a-a-an accident. I—I swear, I just wanted to threaten her. I needed money. I just wanted her to let me sell a few of her stupid Japanese figures. I needed... I just wanted help, please, I don’t know what happened. There was blood... everywhere, all of a sudden, everywhere, even her stupid bird was full of blood—“

“That stupid bird,” Sherlock says, “is the reason why we’re here. And believe me, I share your aversion, but-”

 

Before Sherlock can finish his sentence, Ethan pulls a jack-knife out of his pocket, shoves John out of the way and practically jumps at Sherlock.

Sherlock is trapped between the door and a pile of garbage and empty cardboard boxes. He has precisely half a second to figure out how to get out of the way. Half a second is not enough time, as it turns out. Ethan’s hands close around his neck and a foot hits Sherlock’s left knee. A moment later, Sherlock’s head hits the door with a loud bang and everything becomes extremely blurry. The next thing he becomes aware of is that blade is being pressed against his throat. Sherlock dazedly registers that this situation could result in critical blood loss. Or death. Or both.

A moment later, Ethan is being pulled away from him. Sherlock sucks in a sharp breath. There’s a lot of shouting. Sherlock’s vision is still blurred and his blood throbs in his ears. He briefly wonders if he’s going to be sick, thankfully concludes that that’s not the case, swallows, rights himself, rubs his head.

“Get off me!” Ethan yells from a few feet away, his voice effectively muffled by the dirty floor on which he is lying, face-down.

John tightens his grip around his wrists and continues to hold him down with both knees on either side of his waist.

“I think you’ll be the one to call the police, Sherlock,” he announces, smirking, slightly out of breath, eyes sparkling.

“No,” Ethan chokes.

John gives him a well-measured blow across the back of his head. “Kindly shut up,” he says pleasantly before giving Sherlock his best crooked, mischievous smile.

Within an instant, Sherlock’s chest hurts a lot more than his head.

 


 

They arrive at home two hours later. Statements for Lestrade are due tomorrow morning. This might end as a telly night with tea on the sofa. Sherlock rather fancies the idea.

“Well,” John says almost cheerfully as they walk into their living room, “That was amazing.”

Sherlock would be lying if he said he hadn’t missed this. It was amazing. “Was it?” he asks, because it can’t hurt to make John repeat it. Once or twice.

“Of course. I mean, the cockatoo was incredible, and you were not bad.”

Sherlock makes an extremely unpleased noise and frowns at this.

“How’s your head?”

Sherlock rubs his forehead contemplatively. “Fine,” he says, “sort of... throbbing a bit, though.”

“Okay,” John says, smiling thoughtfully, “Tea?”

Tea, yes. Tea is good. Sherlock makes a vague sound of approval and follows him into the kitchen.

 

John stops in his tracks on his way to the kettle. “Oh,” he breathes and stares at the flowers on the table. It’s Friday.

It’s Friday and John has forgotten to bring Mary her tulips.

Sherlock glances down at the bouquet. The tulips are wrapped in cheap cellophane and look like they’re already wilting. And all of a sudden, they make him feel inexplicably uncomfortable. He huffs, because this is a cliché, isn’t it? A particularly disgusting one, too.

“Forgiveness,” he bites out, and it sounds much harsher than he’d intended, “How appropriate.”

“Forgiveness?” John repeats, taken aback.

“White tulips. That’s what they mean. I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept that flowers convey emotions. Not literally, of course. I mean, it’s nothing but a ludicrous attempt to attach importance to a completely irrelevant object in order to convey a message one could get across by communicating like a human being. Obviously.”

John stares at him, mouth slightly open, and doesn’t appear to be understanding.

Sherlock contemplates that John probably needs a bit of positive reinforcement. It’s a pity that Sherlock is particularly bad at reinforcing people’s sentiment-based decisions.

“What I’m trying to say is,” he tells him, suddenly desperate to end this conversation, “it’s… appropriate. The flowers are appropriate, in the sense that Mary would surely appreciate the sentiment.”

“Oh. Yes. She would.” John frowns, raises a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. He closes his eyes briefly. “I should… I should probably go tomorrow. It’s late. It would be dark by the time I’d be there. I should—“ he gestures vaguely in the direction of the hallway, clearly searching for an excuse to leave.

That’s definitely not how the evening was supposed to end. Sherlock glares at the flowers because they’re at least partly responsible for this.

“Take a shower?” he suggests dryly when John is done awkwardly scratching his neck.

“Yes. Probably. Could use one. S’been a long day, hasn’t it?”

Sherlock nods warily. He likes John's physical appearance after an adrenalin high. It’s sweat and tousled hair, it’s creases in his jumper and dust on his jeans. It’s exhaustion and faltering self-control. A sort of flawless dishevelment that’s completely, exclusively John. Sherlock’s train of thought stops as he notices that none of this makes any sense.

John walks into the bathroom to wash it all away, without wasting another second to glance at the flowers on the table. Or at Sherlock, for that matter.

 

This is probably for the best.

 


 

John buys a variety of carnations the next afternoon. Pink, dark red, white, purple. Sherlock doesn’t know if multicoloured carnations actually mean anything.

John walks across the cemetery with an unmistakable determination in his movements. Quick, short strides, back ramrod straight, fists clenched. It’s unusual, though not uncharacteristic. Sherlock notices that his limp is almost gone. For now.

John stops in front of the grave, lets his gaze drop to the ground. He lays down the flowers, gently, straightens himself again. Sherlock narrows his eyes to slits and observes him from the distance. John touches the grave stone like he always does and it looks like he’s going to speak. Maybe he’ll talk to her, this time. Sherlock isn’t sure why he suddenly dreads to hear him say Mary’s name.

John doesn’t talk to Mary, though.

“Sherlock,” he calls instead, surprisingly loudly, and Sherlock freezes behind his tree.

John rests his hands on his thighs, leans forward slightly and takes a deep breath. “Sherlock,” he repeats, with something like impatience in his voice, “Come over here. I know you’re hiding.”

Sherlock walks across the empty cemetery, more than aware of John’s gaze that’s fixed on him. He wraps his coat firmer around himself and still feels like he’s been laid bare. It’s quite unpleasant. He avoids looking John in the eyes as he stands right next to him.

They both stare at the engraving for seconds that don’t want to pass, because this really is easier than looking at each other.

John has settled on a simple grave stone. Black granite, three words. Mary Elizabeth Watson. No sayings, no poems, no dates. Because a woman who never existed doesn’t have a birth date, which makes the date of her death simply obsolete. It’s how Sherlock would have preferred his own gravestone. Much simpler, much more modest than the person buried beneath. Sends the wrong signals to the right people. Very convenient.

Sherlock gazes down at the flowers on the ground.

“Carnations,” he remarks neutrally, as if he hadn’t noticed before.

“Mmh.”

“Didn’t know Mary had a fondness for those.”

“She didn’t.” John clenches his hands, rocks back and forth on his heels. Once, twice. Contemplates. “They’re not for her.”

Sherlock doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say to that. If he’s supposed to say anything at all. So he says, “Oh,” and feels incredibly useless, which is unpleasant.

John takes a deep breath, clenches his jaw. “We hadn’t decided on a name yet. We... we had a list. Mary wanted to call her Amelia. We hadn’t agreed on it yet, but she liked that name so much, I’m sure we would have—“ John swallows heavily, exhales, “She would have got her way. So that’s what we would have called her.”

Sherlock looks at John and, surprisingly, John looks back and smiles his most disarming sad smile. Sherlock crosses his arms in front of his chest.

“Amelia really is a beautiful name,” John says softly, “Bit old-fashioned, maybe. I liked it, too. I would have written her name on the wall above her bed. I would have bought those wooden letters. Those with the teddy bears.”

Sherlock still doesn’t know what to say, so he hums vaguely in agreement.

“I can’t stop thinking about her,” John continues, his voice barely audible at that point, “At night I used to imagine what she’d feel like, in my arms, for the first time. And I still imagine it. I can’t stop and it--“ He lowers his head and stares at the flowers on the ground again. His shoulders go limp and he swallows heavily, and all of it is somehow one of the most depressing things Sherlock has ever witnessed. “I don’t expect you to understand any of this but it’s... difficult. It really is. I honestly never thought I’d be a father. Don’t know if I wanted to. Not before. And now I’ll never be one, so I guess it... doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter,” Sherlock contradicts thoughtfully and begins to regret that he hasn't brought any cigarettes. He isn’t sure how cigarettes would benefit this conversation, but he definitely wants one. John looks up at him questioningly, so Sherlock figures he has to elaborate. Explain to John why he’s wrong. Sherlock is good at that. “Of course it matters. You are her father. You always will be.”

“I never even met her,” John says bitterly, “She didn’t live. She didn’t have a chance to. She would have deserved a chance.”

“Mmh.”

“It wasn’t her fault,” John bites out, “it was Mary’s fault. It was my fault. But it wasn’t hers. She should have lived.”

“She did,” Sherlock breathes.

John looks at him questioningly.

“She lived for over eight months,” Sherlock says softly. “She was a tiny person. You created a... a tiny person, and she could already think, John. She understood who you were. She knew the sound of your voice. She does matter.”

John takes a deep breath and clenches his jaw. Something in his expression changes entirely. “You think what you’re doing is some sort of consolation?”

“No.”

“Then why on earth do you bother?”

John’s voice sounds much harder than Sherlock would prefer. He swallows. It’s silent for a far too long time.

“Do you think—“ John begins and cuts himself off, rubs his forehead with both hands instead.

“Do I think you would have been a good father? Yes. Do I think she would have been a happy? Of course she would have been happy. For God’s sake, John.”

John huffs out an entirely joyless laugh. Then he shudders, buries his face in his hands and sobs. He weeps quietly, for minutes that don’t want to end. Sherlock feels an inexplicable pressure on his rib cage as he watches him, as well as this terrible urge to hold John, to steady him, to make sure he doesn’t fall.

 


 

Four days later, Sherlock doesn’t bother hiding behind his tree. John brings carnations for Amelia, a single sunflower for Mary and cigarettes for Sherlock.

“That’s the only time I’m putting up with your stupid smoking,” he tells Sherlock decidedly.

They both look down at the grave. The wind is getting stronger. It may ruin the flowers over night.

“I didn’t trust her, towards the end,” John says. “I couldn’t. I tried but... it was pointless. She lied to me, all the time, and I pretended not to notice. Every time I asked her where she’d been, who she’d talked to, who she’d been on the phone with, she... she was lying to me, and I knew it. I knew it and it made me want to scream, at times. But I stayed. I just stayed even though I couldn’t trust her.”

Sherlock takes a pull on his cigarette. “You don’t trust easily, John. You don’t even trust me.”

“Of course I don’t trust you. Nobody does. Because you drug people for fun and you’re a colossal arsehole, but I’m still trying to figure out if you’re entirely aware of that.”

Sherlock blinks.

“Mary knew what she was doing. I... I knew none of what she told me was the truth. And she knew that I knew. That’s different, somehow.” John sighs. “It was terrible, sometimes. It really was.”

Sherlock drops the cigarette to the ground, watches it gleam uselessly before it turns to ashes. “You loved her.”

“I did,” John says softly and the corner of his mouth twitches like he wants to smile and finds he can’t.

 

They take a cab home and don’t talk for a long time, which is undoubtedly advantageous for everyone involved. They end the day with Mrs Hudson’s left-over vegetable stew and crap telly, and surprisingly, the forced normality turns into actual normality for what is probably the first time since John came home.

They bicker over the telly and the stupidity of writers and actors and narrators and the media in general. In the end, they settle on an incredibly boring crime romance drama John seems to be inexplicably fond of. Sherlock deduces that the owner of the estate has killed the maid before the opening credits are over. John changes the channel and accuses him of ruining the movie, but he does so without any spite in his voice. He sounds almost amused. Sherlock ignores him in order to check different types of dermatophytes and the distinction thereof on his phone. He glances at John regularly. John is utterly engrossed in the TV programme, because John has the ability to focus on just one moderately entertaining thing at a time which Sherlock finds fascinating. He watches him laugh about silly jokes and absentmindedly rub his thigh and run a hand through his hair that has indeed gone more grey than it ever was.

Sherlock makes tea a while later. When he hands John his mug, John thanks him by making a satisfied noise and wiggling his toes on the sofa cushions, and he definitely isn’t aware he’s doing that. Sherlock feels a smile tug at the corners of his mouth and just for a second, he’s barely strong enough to will it away.

It could actually stay like this, he thinks. John can grieve, and Sherlock won’t let him do it in peace because peace is the last thing John actually needs. They can solve cases and have tea and feel safe in each other’s presence. Sherlock can function like this and he figures John can as well. It’s quite... good, in a way. They live this bizarre, domestic chaos they’re so used to. It allows them to breathe just fine.

 


 

It does stay like this for a few more weeks.

Then someone decides to kill people during thunderstorms.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

London is grey and wet and just unnecessarily gloomy as it presents them with the treacherous calm after last night’s storm. The sun is barely visible through the thick wall of clouds masking the sky, yet it still manages to bathe the quiet alley in dim, blurry colors. Brown, black, grey. Mud, dried blood, milky white skin stretching over lifeless bone and muscle. Like a bizarre oil painting.

Sherlock crouches down and resists the temptation to touch the motionless face that has yet to reveal its mysteries to him.

He likes this part. Starting up, getting a first impression, assessing the details of the case, uncovering the victim’s more obvious secrets.

It’s a silent interrogation. Why did you have to die?

The victim is a woman in her thirties. She is blonde, athletic, a writer or maybe a journalist going by her shoes and the paper cuts on her thumbs. Moderately wealthy, too. Steady income, financially successful partner, no, father.

She’s lying on her back, eyes open, staring towards the sky as if she’s still able to see it. There’s an expression not unlike surprise on her face which is interesting, though not necessarily relevant. Her blouse and skirt are soaked in blood and water. There are multiple stab wounds all over her chest and abdomen, most of them quite deep. She must have been dead after the first few stabs, which indicates that the murderer kept stabbing her unresisting body for minutes on end.

Sherlock is pleased.

Murderers who carry killing to excess are always peculiar. Weak, pathetic, yes, but peculiar. They’re mere vessels for an autonomous force brewing inside them. Nothing more intriguingly dangerous than built-up aggression that will inevitably free itself and expose the darkest side of a human being. Their murderer will kill again, that much is clear. In short, it’s a case with what one might actually call potential. They’re chasing a time bomb. Now Sherlock needs to find out why the blonde has been chosen as the first victim. There must be something special about her.

 

The crime scene resembles an anthill. Police officers and the forensics squad are running around like headless chickens. Someone somewhere is crying audibly, people are talking across each other and Sherlock can’t concentrate.

Sherlock rights himself and scowls at no one in particular. John, who is watching Sherlock examine the corpse with that familiar look of excitement and admiration on his face, clears his throat.

Sherlock blinks at him.

“What’s going on over there?” John asks, gesturing at a small crowd at the further end of the alley. A group of people, including Lestrade, has gathered around what looks like a person wrapped in a blanket.

Sherlock shrugs. “Not a witness, Lestrade would have informed me. Not a medical emergency, Lestrade would have informed you. Therefore irrelevant.”

(Eighty per cent probability that someone couldn’t stand the smell of drying blood and fainted dead away. Tedious. Ten per cent probability that an unrelated person is trying to get a look at the corpse. Equally tedious. Sherlock doesn’t bother to explain this.)

“There’s... a woman crying, I think,” John remarks contemplatively, “Maybe someone’s actually hurt. I should probably look if I can, um—“

“Help?” Sherlock suggests dryly, because naturally, John’s desire to care for people is getting the better of him, although he’s supposed to be concentrating on Sherlock. This happens way too often. It’s almost a compulsion, it is.

“Yeah,” John says absentmindedly, already heading towards the far end of the alley.

Sherlock watches John join the group of people. It must be exhausting, really, being so prone to compassion. It’s fascinating though, in a way, John’s proclivity for this kind of social interaction. Maybe that’s the reason why he’s still with Sherlock. Maybe, Sherlock contemplates, he needs someone to worry about. Someone to pity, perhaps, although that would be incredibly unwelcome.

John’s voice jolts Sherlock out of his thoughts a second later.

“Call an ambulance right now!” John orders. It’s Captain Watson of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers on the verge of getting tremendously angry, which indicates the situation is more serious than Sherlock expected. Interesting. Very nearly more interesting than the corpse, actually.

Sherlock takes his time brushing the dust from his coat and turning his collar up, then walks over to join the group of people. He spots the back of Lestrade’s head and pushes his way through the small crowd. Since Lestrade doesn’t notice his presence immediately, Sherlock makes sure to casually bump into him.

“Oi,” Lestrade exclaims.

Sherlock simply gives him a questioning look and gestures at the person sitting on the ground in the middle.

It’s a girl, maybe seventeen years old. Pale and skinny, dressed in leggings and a baggy green dress, with a shock blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She’s clutching the blanket like she’s holding on for dear life, obviously crying and trembling like a leaf.

“She found the corpse,” Lestrade explains dutifully, gesturing at the trembling girl, “Her name is Annabelle Peterson, she’s nineteen, still in school. Discovered the body on her way home and called the police. She's been questioned, doesn’t know anything, of course. We were waiting for her father to pick her up, but he just didn't show up. She’s a little out of her depth, naturally, I mean, she was very composed, now she’s having kind of a... panic attack or something. She sort of... broke down crying. Says she’s feeling sick. John made Davison call an ambulance, so I suppose it’s serious.” He shrugs helplessly.

Sherlock blinks at the scene in front of his eyes.

John is currently kneeling next to the girl, Annabelle, and is supporting her with an arm around her waist as she takes quick, shallow breaths. That is probably a good thing, since she really doesn't look like she'd be able to stay upright by herself.

“I need you to breathe as calmly as you can until the ambulance arrives,” John tells her, “do you think you can do that for me? It’s going to be alright.”

Annabelle nods and stares at him with wide, fearful eyes.

John raises his free hand in order to stabilise her trembling shoulders further. Annabelle flinches like she wants to back away and escape the gentle touch John is offering.

“It’s okay,” John reassures her calmly. It takes her a few seconds to visibly relax.

“You’re doing great,” John continues, and endless, barely audible string of reassurements, “just your blood pressure and your breathing need to be put in order. Your circulation got a bit worked up and your pulse worries me a bit. That’s hardly surprising, with everything that’s happened.”

Annabelle nods again, tucks a strand of brown hair behind her ear with trembling fingers. She’s getting even paler and slightly green around the nose, and she looks all around like she’s going to throw up. Sherlock wrinkles his nose. He’s really not in the mood for bodily fluids.

“It’s alright,” John murmurs, maintaining eye contact, “We need to get you properly hydrated and you need a bit of rest, okay? Just keep breathing, your pulse is already getting steadier,” Full doctor mode, confident and reassuring with an underlying layer of genuine concern.

“Ambulance is coming,” someone (presumably Davison) announces.

“Good,” John says, “help’s on the way, Annabelle.”

“I’m d-d-dizzy,” Annabelle murmurs weakly, “and... a bit sick.”

John tightens his grip around her shoulders so she can lean back without having to support her own weight. “I know. It’s going to be alright, okay? We’re just going to keep breathing.”

 

John gives the paramedics clear instructions, insists on taking Annabelle’s pulse one last time, helps her up, wraps the blanket tighter around her shoulders to keep her warm.

Sherlock watches him. He barely notices that the crowd has slowly dissolved, now that the girl is in capable hands. Sherlock is definitely wasting valuable time, though. He should be looking for clues, shouldn’t he? He could be examining a fresh corpse before forensics technicians tamper with valuable evidence. None of this seems relevant at the moment, oddly enough, because John is illogically fascinating and Sherlock really shouldn’t be so distracted.

John's way of caring does look like an actual virtue, rather than a useless distraction that clouds his judgment. It’s always been like that, of course, but Sherlock has forgotten how utterly intriguing it is to see John care for someone, with strength and confidence and a steadfast determination to ease pain.

John makes his way up to Sherlock when the ambulance is out of sight. “Bloody hell,” he grumbles, “the girl was close to a circulatory collapse. She was positively hyperventilating. If I hadn’t been there, they would have waited for her to faint in front of their eyes, respiratory alkalosis and everything. They didn’t even notice how miserable she was. At least Greg could have had a bit more common sense, really.”

Sherlock nods thoughtfully, oddly unable to take his eyes off John. He looks radiant. The way he always looks when he feels professional, confident in his abilities. Sherlock hasn’t seen him look like this in a long time.

“Alright?” John asks, “Shouldn’t you be nosing around in a dead woman’s belongings? Don’t tell me you solved the case already.”

“I haven’t,” Sherlock says quickly.

John clears his throat and gives Sherlock a somewhat guarded smile. “Well, let’s get down to business, then?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says with about three seconds of delay, wrapping his coat firmly around himself just to keep his hands occupied. “Obviously. I’m fairly sure she owned an apartment in this neighbourhood. We need to be there before Lestrade’s imbeciles get a chance to ransack it.”

 


 

Seven hours later Sherlock groans and flings a bright pink note book through the living room of 221B. It hits the book shelf and knocks over a single chess piece (The white Queen, a present from the Strangler of Worcestershire. An awful killer, entirely disorganized, but a fabulous chess player, really.)

“She was flawless,” Sherlock snaps, digging his finger nails into his own thigh in frustration, “absolutely flawless, John. For God’s sakes.”

John stops browsing through a collection of newspaper articles. He looks up and raises one eyebrow.

“Joanna Roberts,” Sherlock spits, like he finds the murdered woman’s name particularly disgusting. “She was a moderately successful sports journalist with a steady income. She had a wealthy family -- immense contributions to charity, lovely people – and a close circle of friends, all devastated by her death. Conventionally attractive, popular, respected, accepted by society on every possible level. God!” He runs both hands through his hair, effectively rumpling up ever single curl he spent half an hour arranging in front of the mirror this morning. “She didn’t have a single enemy, John,” he exclaims, “no competitors. Not a single rival at work. People drool themselves into entire puddles rambling about how friendly, forthcoming and wonderful she was. Everybody bloody loves her.” Sherlock slams his hand on the coffee table. “There is no motive. No reason at all. Killing her would have been completely pointless for every single person she knew.”

“You’re telling me this for the fifth time, Sherlock.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“God!” Sherlock exclaims.

“Alright. So no one in her… social environment has a motive,” John sums up calmly, folding his hands in his lap, “Except someone kills just for the sake of killing, right?”

Sherlock kicks the coffee table. “Obviously.”

“You think it could be a serial killer, then?”

“Potentially.”

“Potentially?” John repeats, sounding almost curious.

Sherlock groans exasperatedly. “For God’s sake, John, I need to concentrate. Just shut up if you’re not going to contribute anything I can use to solve the case.”

“Now I’m the one who’s a distraction?”

“Yes.”

“Fascinating.”

“You’re an idiot.”

John sighs, deposits his newspaper cutouts on the table. “I’m going to make tea. You can use some tea.”

“How would tea help?”

“Oh, it won’t help you,” John tells him dryly, “It will help me. There’s an annoying git in my living room and I will punch him on the nose if I don’t find a way to shut him up. And pouring hot milky liquids down people’s throats usually prevents them from talking.”

Sherlock grunts in protest and stomps over to the shelf to pick up Joanna Robert's note book. And the white Queen, because social convention suggests that presents should to be handled with care, even if they’re from notorious stranglers.

 

When John brings their tea, he refrains from pouring it down Sherlock’s throat, and he’s smiling. Sherlock smiles back somewhat cautiously, which is equivalent to a sort of apology.

John understands this. Naturally. John is amazing at understanding Sherlock. Sherlock wonders if John values that half as much as he does.

 


 

It’s the Sunday five days after the discovery of Joanna Roberts’ corpse, which means John’s been back in 221B for five weeks and six days. He pads into the kitchen in the morning, frowns sleepily at the contents of Sherlock’s petri dishes on the table and puts the kettle on. John’s wearing his favourite day-at-home oatmeal-coloured monstrosity of a jumper, and he’s most definitely wearing it inside-out.

Sherlock is intrigued.

“Any progress?” John asks, eyeing the photos Sherlock has taped to the wall above the sofa.

Sherlock grunts and slumps down onto the sofa, wiggling his toes luxuriously on the cushions. He still hasn’t got a clue who killed Joanna Roberts. It's been a long time since he last had to deal with a victim so devoid of malevolent relatives, personal enemies and dirty secrets. Joanna Roberts was basically a living saint. It’s equal parts annoying and interesting.

John frowns at him. “Still nothing, then?”

“Nnnngh.” Sherlock grumpily reaches for one of the photos, snatches it off the wall, holds it under his nose and pretends to examine it more closely while in reality, he’s observing John’s every move out of the corners of his eyes.

John wanders in the direction of the fridge. “I’m making toast. You’re having some as well.”

“No.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Stop being annoying.”

“Stop sulking.”

“You’re wearing your jumper inside-out.”

John freezes, looking confused for a second. He looks down on himself, plucks at his jumper, then chuckles. “Oh my God, you’re right,” he murmurs, amused, “Yeah, well, guess I’m too sleepy to dress properly.”

John does the most amazing thing. He stretches, pulls his jumper over his head so he’s standing there in his sleeveless undershirt. He chuckles some more, fiddles with his jumper to turn it inside-out (outside-in?) and Sherlock can see the muscles of his bare upper arms move under his skin and the waistband of his pants peek out. John puts the jumper back on, runs both hands down his chest and belly to smooth the fabric, and lifts his head to smirk at Sherlock. His hair is more tousled than before now and his eyes are sparkling vividly.

Sherlock continues to watch him as John tracks down a few fresh eggs, a pan and a knife to slice bread.

Illogically, this is the most fascinating thing Sherlock has ever seen.

John is in their kitchen on a Sunday morning, whistling a meaningless melody while frying eggs and preparing toast and tea, and suddenly, those simple facts are almost too much for Sherlock to process. The entirety of this situation hits him like -- like a freight train perhaps.

John is home. John isn’t going anywhere, and he is so utterly breathtaking, so devastatingly captivating that Sherlock feels like he’s losing his mind just looking at him. Intolerable. Terrifying.

It’s like it was three years ago, before Sherlock died and John moved on. They’re inseparable again. An entity. 221B and them. Sherlock and John.

It’s a relief and a sweet sort of pain at once, to have this again, which doesn’t make the smallest bit of sense.

John accidentally drops his fork, picks it up, ruffles his own hair. “Oops,” he says and chuckles.

Sherlock decides that he is really not inclined to investigate where the constant dull ache in his chest comes from. He’s even less inclined to admit that he already knows.

 

Chapter Text

Having John back does have its disadvantages (mostly standard inadequacies that come with sharing living space, but also occasional John-specific sources of annoyance). Sherlock is usually very willing to condone those disadvantages, since John-related benefits easily outweigh them.

„We need to talk about your chain smoking,“ John announces after tea a few days later, which makes for another disadvantage to add to the list.

Sherlock sighs, takes one last, particularly forceful pull on his cigarette, then stubs it out in one of his petri dishes. “No, we don’t.”

John puts his laptop aside and eyes him doubtfully. “Seriously, Sherlock. You smoke constantly. The entire flat reeks. I can’t remember what it’s like not to see everything through a layer of smoke.”

Sherlock pours the contents of his soiled petri dish into the dust bin and doesn’t honour John’s outburst with a response.

“What happened to your nicotine patches?”

“Dull.”

“You’re going to ruin your bloody lungs, Sherlock,” John exclaims. “You smoke, what, one and a half packages a day?”

“Two.”

“Sherlock,” John says, “do you realise that that’s a lot?”

Sherlock frowns at him. “Yes?” he says slowly, with the sort of mock-patience in his voice that’s reserved for occasions like this, when John is being overbearing and annoying.

John sighs. “Do you want bronchitis? Constricted blood vessels? All sorts of cardiopulmonary problems? And let’s not forget the fact that you’re inhaling copious amounts of what’s basically a neurotoxin, although you’re probably enthusiastic about this, so we’re not even going to talk about… nicotine itself.” John pinches the bridge of his nose. “It’s just unhealthy is all I’m saying. You were so invested in stopping, hell, you were nearly there. Can you even remember? You used to ask me to hide your cigarettes. It’s kind of a pity, throwing it all away like that.”

Sherlock’s mock-patience expires as rapidly as it appeared in the first place. “Why on earth are you telling me this?”

“Because I’m your doctor.”

“So what?”

So what?” John repeats in disbelief. “It’s kind of my responsibility to tell you that you’re ruining your health.”

Sherlock grunts and contemplates lighting another cigarette, just to be deliberately difficult. He doesn’t really want to smoke another one, but he’s willing to make compromises if it means he’s going to win this dispute.

“Jesus, Sherlock. All I’m trying to tell you is that you could at least try to stop smoking.”

“Why would I?” Sherlock snaps petulantly.

“Because I ask you to.”

"How is this relevant to you?”

“It’s fucking relevant to me, because in a few years, when you’re unable to chase a murderer because you’re busy coughing your bloody lungs out, I swear to God, I won’t pick you up and carry you.”

Sherlock bites his lip and squints at John in an attempt to look affronted. “You won’t?”

John gets up, walks over to Sherlock and holds out his hand. “No, I won’t. Give me your cigarettes.”

“This is becoming tedious. You’re being tedious, John.”

“I’m being considerate, you tit.”

“Considerate,” Sherlock huffs. “Why are you always considerate?”

John takes a deep breath. “Because I can’t be not considerate about you being an idiot.”

“Why not?”

John’s voice slowly approaches a volume that indicates mild exasperation. “Because I don’t want to see you hurt.”

“Why?”

“Because, Sherlock. Is this really such a difficult concept for you to grasp?”

“Yes.”

John groans. “Jesus. Because you’ve done enough dying in front of my eyes, that’s why.”

“Oh for God’s sakes—“

“Look,” John interrupts him, “I don’t want to fight. I just… I want you to know that I’d like you to take care of yourself.”

Sherlock isn’t sure how to react to that, which is why he makes a quick decision not to react at all and squints at an acid stain on the table.

“Think about it.” John grumbles and grabs his laptop. “I’ll go upstairs. It smells terrible in here.”

“Butanoic acid,” Sherlock says and gestures at an open plastic bottle in front of him.

“I was referring to your goddamn smoke, genius,” John clarifies, then stomps upstairs with his laptop under his arm. His bedroom door snaps shut and Sherlock frowns in its direction.

 

Butanoic acid smells far worse than cigarette smoke. Sherlock knows that. He ponders over it for a bit. John’s assessment of the smell in the living room and its sources might be addled by sentiment, he finally concludes, and puts the cap back on the bottle. He tries hard not to read anything into this.

 


 

There’s a particularly violent thunderstorm, precisely three weeks after the one Joanna Roberts didn’t survive.

This one throws several tiles off the roof of 221 Baker Street, ruins Mrs Hudson’s petunias and sets off a car alarm at three in the morning that interrupts Sherlock’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D major.

In the early morning, a body is found in a park by a group of joggers. Thirty-three stab wounds, only the first few of them lethal. Stabbed multiple times after circulatory arrest. The rain has washed most of the blood away, but the state of the corpse indicates that there has been plenty.

Definitely the same killer.

 

Marco Amatti is (was), on all accounts, the complete opposite of Joanna Roberts. He’s male, obviously, but also tall, dark haired and overweight. A school dropout. Unemployed. Still living with his parents at thirty-two. Addicted to video games, coffee and caramel crisp chocolate.

Sherlock examines his body, studies the crime scene, mentally compares it to the first one and... completely and utterly fails to find the common theme.

There are precisely two things both victims seem to have in common: Firstly, they are dead. Secondly, there was absolutely no logical reason to kill either of them.

They both had a close circle of friends and a loving family. They are both described as genuinely nice people. Neither of them had any enemies. No matter how mediocre looking and unsuccessful Marco Amatti was, he was every bit as accepted and well-liked as the ambitious sports journalist his murderer chose before him. Who happened to be his complete opposite.

Common murderers have a motive. Serial killers have a type. Killing is never a random occurrence, Sherlock knows this. This is, in a nutshell, the fundament of criminology.

No matter how much research Sherlock does, how hard he tries to find the connection between the two victims, the golden thread, the murderer’s weak spot. He is as far from a clue as he was three weeks ago. It’s hatefully frustrating, more so than usual. None of it makes any sense.

It’s unsolvable.

 


 

Sherlock’s been awake for over twenty-four hours. The world is blurred and loud and unpleasantly bright. The light stings in Sherlock's eyes and he's about one cigarette away from pouring corrosive acid over his microscope.

A warm weights leans over Sherlock’s right shoulder, and Sherlock shudders minutely. John gently plucks the object slide from Sherlock’s hand, deposits it on the table and turns the lamp of his microscope down low.

Sherlock blinks.

“Sherlock,” John says softly, “I know you’re not making any progress, so why don’t you take a break?”

“Conditioner,” Sherlock mumbles, “They both used the same conditioner, the same brand at least. This might be important, this may actually mean something…”

“Do you think so?”

Sherlock’s shoulders slump in resignation. “Not really,” he admits.

“You’re tired and hungry and you reek of sweat and experiments and whatever the hell you smeared onto those slides. So you’re going to take a shower, change your clothes, and then we’re going to have dinner.”

“Not hungry.”

“Oh, you bloody are,” John declares. Sherlock eyes him suspiciously until John frowns and orders, “Move. Now,” in this voice that always manages to make Sherlock comply.

 

When Sherlock walks into the kitchen fifteen minutes later, dressed in a fresh t-shirt and pyjama pants, his wet curls leaving a trail of water droplets in their wake, the table is laid and a pot of water is already boiling on the stove. And John is wearing a godforsaken apron.

“Come on, Sherlock,” John orders, “dive into the toxic waste dump that is our fridge and hunt down the smoked salmon I bought yesterday.”

Without bothering to overthink the situation properly, Sherlock walks over to the fridge to do just that.

John hands him a knife and a cutting board and makes increasingly impatient gestures with his hands until Sherlock starts moving. Sherlock slices the salmon and wordlessly does the same with the cheese and tomatoes John places in front of him. John, meanwhile, cooks pasta and melts butter in a large frying pan that most probably belonged to Mrs Hudson at some point in history. When he’s done slicing all kinds of vegetables and cheeses, Sherlock wipes his hands unceremoniously on his shirt, leans against the counter and crosses his arms in front of his chest.

John frowns at his butter for a while, then gradually begins to add various ingredients. Sherlock can smell the fried onion and feels heat radiate from the stove, and all of a sudden he wants nothing more than to feel the texture of John’s apron under his finger tips. His jumper, too, maybe. Probably the skin of his left cheek, right where the musculus risorius twitches when John smiles.

 

“Milk,” John says and almost makes Sherlock jump.

Sherlock blinks exactly twice.

“Milk,” John repeats, smirking. “You’re blocking the fridge, Sherlock.”

“Oh.” Sherlock takes a step back to allow John to fetch the milk, then settles back to watch him cook.

John stirs in milk and garlic, then tosses the salmon in. He hums unconsciously and licks his lips, engrossed in his task. Sherlock’s heart beats a lot faster than it should in reaction to that, and his eyes are burning, which is at least partly due to sleep deprival and frustration. Thankfully. He really needs to pull himself together.

“You could lift a finger once in a while,” John informs him a few minutes later, already carrying pasta and sauce to the table.

“Mmmh.”

Sherlock sits down, reaches for his fork and peers at it because he’s done enough staring at John for the entire evening and Sherlock really needs to distract himself. Their food smells delicious, he notices.

John has taken a seat opposite Sherlock. “Bon appétit,” he says in his insultingly bad impression of the French language, then fills Sherlock’s plate with noodles, sauce and salmon. Sherlock is almost startled about how ravenously hungry he is.

They eat in silence. Sherlock tucks into his pasta like he’s been starving for ages (which is probably the case. He can’t really remember the last time he’s eaten, though he’s at least eighty per cent sure he consumed a rice cracker yesterday). John’s pasta tastes as amazing as it smells. One should never underestimate John’s (reluctant) ability to toss things in a pan in a way that makes them edible.

Sherlock’s plate is empty within barely three minutes. John shovels a generous second helping onto Sherlock’s plate.

“Good?” he asks, giving Sherlock a smile that could almost be described as...curious? Interested? Fond?

Sherlock finds himself fighting the urge to smile back. “Mmh,” he hums vaguely and attacks his noodles instead.

When he looks up, John’s smile is even brighter than before. And even though he probably has sauce all over his lips and chin, Sherlock allows himself to return it for a second.

 

“I’ll do the washing up. Do me a favour, huh?” John says when they’ve both finished, gesturing at the dishes, rolling up his sleeves.

Sherlock absentmindedly clears the table and wipes it clean while John busies himself with the frying pan and inordinate amounts of washing-up liquid.

“Thank you,” John says when Sherlock is done, then he completely unexpectedly takes a step closer.

All of a sudden, John is standing so close to him that Sherlock can smell his hair, his shampoo (Tesco store brand, extra mild for sensitive scalp), and the cheap laundry detergent he uses for his button-downs (also store brand, though not extra mild because John cares markedly less about his clothes than about the integrity of his scalp). Sherlock takes an involuntary deep breath. John tilts his head and eyes him suspiciously.

“All right?” John asks, “you’re sort of... swaying a bit.” To Sherlock’s surprise, he reaches out, just briefly, and lets his hand rest lightly on the small of Sherlock’s back. It’s a soft, warm touch, a small point of connection between them.

“All right,” Sherlock rasps and very deliberately doesn’t move. He has an unaccountable urge to draw this situation out, which really doesn’t make any sense.

“You’re tired out of your mind,” John remarks, “Bed now, huh?”

John is so very close, Sherlock thinks, fascinated. He can see every pore, every mole and every freckle, every small bit of skin that covers all of John is so close to him, invading his every sense and making him unable to think properly. (Although it could be the fatigue as well.)

“Bed, yes,” Sherlock says firmly.

“Good night,” John says, with something very, very close to actual fondness in his voice. He increases the pressure on Sherlock’s back minutely and Sherlock can feel his body warmth seep through the cotton of his t-shirt.

“Good night,” Sherlock repeats soundlessly. He takes a deep breath, straightens himself, marches away from the kitchen and the smell of salmon and the warm, solid weight that is John’s hand.

 


 

Sherlock wakes around lunchtime the next day. The flat is empty. There’s bread in the kitchen and unopened packages of ham and cheese in the fridge, which indicates that John has done the shopping in the morning. Very convenient. Sherlock can continue working on his (admittedly useless) conditioner samples.

 

John comes home in the early afternoon (gone approximately four hours, ketchup stain on right shirt sleeve, dried mud on shoes, limp barely noticeable, not hungry; walk through Regent’s park, lunch with Stamford).

Sherlock abandons his experiment, fishes the package of cigarettes out of the pocket of his dressing gown and tosses it in John’s general direction. John picks it up, eyes it warily for a second and frowns at Sherlock.

“Don’t give them back to me,” Sherlock orders, “Not even if I beg. Not even if I threaten to harm you. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it properly.”

“Oh,” John says, looking pleased. “A sudden enlightenment? Where did this come from?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock tells him truthfully.

John smirks and pockets the cigarettes.

“Can’t risk getting abandoned in an alley, coughing my lungs out,” Sherlock says, finally, “because you wouldn’t pick me up and carry me, as you so eloquently established.”

John snorts, then smirks at him. “Oh, I would. You should know that by now. I would carry you and your… your stupid cigarettes and your bronchitis and your chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to the end of the bloody world. But I’d rather I didn’t have to.” He fiddles with the package in his pocket, then turns to walk towards the door. “I’ll get rid of those, alright?”

“Alright,” Sherlock murmurs soundlessly.

His heart is pounding stupidly fast. That happens a lot lately.

John marches down the stairs and is gone for exactly five minutes and seventeen seconds, which indicates that he has either simply thrown the cigarettes in Mrs Hudson’s bins or asked the new waitress at Speedy’s to throw them away for him. Because he thinks Sherlock wouldn’t expect him to do that. Sometimes John is still hopelessly slow in this confusingly endearing way.

John smiles at him when he walks back into the living room. He looks almost triumphant. Sherlock pours his formaldehyde solution into a fresh petri dish and ignores the glow in his chest.

 

Chapter Text

In the mornings, they work effortlessly together. Like a clockwork, really. It used to be like this before Sherlock died, and when John moved back in it took them barely a few days to find their routine again. Finding a routine with John always proves to be surprisingly easy, after all.

Sherlock always leaves his bedroom first, provided that he spent the night there. He’s never needed much sleep and maintaining a sleep schedule is boring, especially when there's work to do. No matter if he has slept or not, Sherlock brushes his teeth and showers before John shuffles downstairs, and then proceeds to lounge around in the sitting room (in his pyjamas and dressing gown or fully dressed, depending on room climate, possible  impending sulk and plans for the day) while John occupies the bathroom. John needs exactly twenty-one minutes, provided that he neither clips his toenails nor masturbates. (Oddly, both activities require an inordinate amount of John’s time.)

Today is different for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the bathroom is still occupied when John wanders downstairs. Secondly, it will be occupied for another hour or maybe seven, unless Sherlock finds a way to get out of his shirt without getting a full-body alkali burn from the potassium hydroxide solution he just spilt all over himself in an attempt to extract parasitic mites from a skin sample.

John stops in front of the bathroom door, yawns and grumbles, “Sherlock, you in there?”

Sherlock doesn’t answer and continues his increasingly agonizing fight against his left shirt sleeve that’s completely covered in liquid. It’s threatening to seep through the fabric and Sherlock just doesn’t manage to get out of the damn thing. The area right under his armpit is beginning to itch suspiciously which doesn’t exactly improve things. Sherlock bumps his big toe against the bath tub and makes and involuntary gurgling noise while trying to unbutton his shirt without touching the wet stains.

John yawns audibly again and knocks.

The itching sensation is spreading rapidly from Sherlock’s armpit to his rib cage and his sides. Sherlock tears at his buttons and accidentally sends one of them flying. It lands in the sink. Sherlock curses under his breath.

“Sherlock,” John says cautiously and knocks once more, “I can hear you thrashing around in there. Everything alright?”

“No,” Sherlock exclaims and finally, blessedly, manages to unbutton one of his cuffs without exposing his fingertips to alkaline hydrolysis.

Amazing how a harmless experiment can result in excruciating fear. This is exactly why chemistry is not at all boring, he reminds himself, though he also has to admit that this doesn’t really help right now.

“Maybe,” John suggests, after a long contemplative pause, “tell me what’s wrong? Do you want me to come in?”

“For God’s sake,” Sherlock yells, makes another attempt to push his now mostly unbuttoned shirt off his shoulders, and promptly performs an involuntary pirouette that ends with his right foot in the bathtub.

“What’s wrong, Sherlock?” John asks again, sounding somewhat exasperated.

“Potassium hydroxide,” Sherlock bites out.

“What?”

“Potassium hydroxide, John. It’s on me. This means you’re going to have to delay your shower, but I’m confident you’ll cope just fine.”

He frantically tears at his other sleeve and groans. The itching intensifies as more and more patches of skin come into contact with the liquid soaking through his shirt.

“What have you done?” John demands sharply.

“Spilt a strong alkaline solution all over myself.”

“What?”

“John-”

“Okay, that’s it,” John says firmly, “let me in.”

“There’s really no need--”

“Yes, there is. Open the door, Sherlock.”

“And what are you going to do? Rip my clothes off?”

“If I have to. Open the door.”

“Mmh.”

Please.”

Sherlock takes a deep breath, rips his shirt open and shrugs it off in one swift move (the left sleeve tears and more buttons fly and it doesn’t really matter; the Sicilian tailor who didn’t get his head blown off by his friendly neighbourhood Mafia informant owes Sherlock his life anyway).

"Sherlock," John says sharply and bangs his fist against the door.

"For God's sake," Sherlock huffs, unlocks the door and stands there, in all his bare-chested, not really alkali burned but slightly reddened and itching glory, because John is relentless when it comes to Sherlock’s safety and Sherlock needs to make compromises at some point.

John makes a sort of gulping sound and just stares which is a bit uncomfortable.

“I don’t need your help,” Sherlock announces, and turns his back on him to turn the cold water up.

That is perhaps an ill-advised decision, judging by John’s immediate startled gasp. Sherlock freezes with his hand in mid-air.

He has quit lounging around half-naked for a reason.

John hasn’t seen Sherlock’s back since before the fall.

Ah.

Stupid.

The scars have definitely faded in the last two years; there are the remains of two ragged gashes, one across the right shoulder blade, one along Sherlock's spine. They stand out white and smooth and distinctly visible against the pale, now pinkish skin on Sherlock’s back. A variety of smaller cuts at his sides, along his ribs; not very deep, designed to inflict as much pain as possible without causing too much actual harm. Then there are the cigarette burns, of course. The cigarette burns are by far the worst. They spread all over his back and shoulders, like sardonic little brand marks, marking him as vulnerable, touchable, harmed. Sherlock despises them.

John was never meant so see any of this, of course. Sherlock stares at the shower head as hard as he can.

“Sherlock,” John says firmly behind him, sheer disbelief and incomprehension at once.

Sherlock bites his lip. John expects an explanation, obviously, which is unfortunate since there isn’t really one Sherlock is ready to give.

Sherlock turns up the water. It splashes on the tiles around the bathtub and his chest and the trousers he’s still wearing while John is standing in the doorframe, not moving.

“Twenty minutes of rinsing,” Sherlock says firmly.

“Um,” says John.

“That’s what you’re supposed to do when your skin has been exposed to a strong basic solution. Aren’t you supposed to tell me this?”

“Um,” John murmurs again, then clears his throat, “Yes. That. Cold water, rinse as long as possible. It says so in your handbook about lab safety.”

"Which you have memorised."

"Which I have memorised years ago since you can't be bothered to pay attention to anything that's written in it."

“Alright.”

“Mmh.”

Sherlock’s hands wander to his flies, because he has to take off his trousers in order to take the endorsed twenty minute shower. He realises that John still hasn’t moved and stifles the urge to roll his eyes.

“John, I am capable of showering. Alone.”

“Of course you are,” John says quickly, obviously not considering the implications of this statement, as he continues to stare mindlessly at Sherlock’s back, which is really inconvenient.

“Then what exactly is the point of you still being here?” Sherlock snaps. His entire upper body is beginning to feel itchy and sore, and a bit of liquid is definitely trickling down his leg. He’s not entirely sure how it got there.

“Right... uh, sorry,” John says and clears his throat again, “you’re not in pain, are you? Is... t-the chemical... Does your skin feel burned or do you have sensory loss in affected areas?”

“No!” Sherlock all but yells, still very determinedly staring at the shower head.

“Right, well, fine,” John sort of stutters and slams the door shut. The lack of footsteps outside indicates that he keeps standing in front of the door, not moving, just staring, which is something John tends to do when he’s overwhelmed and unable to articulate this. Sherlock frowns at the thought of having to deal with that later.

Sherlock takes off his trousers and pants, feeling somewhat exposed which is ridiculous since John can’t see him. Obviously. It’s just peculiar knowing that John is so close while Sherlock is... bare. Naked. It’s utterly illogical.

He steps under the cool stream and closes his eyes.

 

Sherlock marches into the living room fully dressed and with damp hair half an hour later. He flops down on the sofa and steeples his hands under his chin.

John is in the kitchen, probably cleaning something (John is not particularly keen on cleaning things, except when he finds those things dangerous or intolerably disgusting) or making tea (John makes ridiculous amounts of tea, he has always done this). He doesn’t ask Sherlock if he’s alright and if he has successfully gotten rid of the potassium hydroxide on his skin; he doesn't ask about Sherlock's scar. They’re obviously not going to talk, which Sherlock wholeheartedly approves of.

 

The doorbell rings three times in rapid succession an indeterminable while later.

(Moderately firm touch to the button. A pause after the first ringing, hesitation, waiting. When nobody answers, the bell rings again, longer this time. Definitely not a client; not determined enough. Not an enemy either, the ringing pattern lacks aggression. Personal, then. Neither Lestrade nor Molly. A stranger, definitely.)

Sherlock is curious.

He hears Mrs Hudson open the door and listens to her chatter and barely audible words uttered by an unfamiliar, distinctly male voice, followed by footsteps on the stairs. This is interesting. Somewhere in Sherlock’s peripheral vision, John wanders out of the kitchen, plants himself in front of the couch and glares down at him. He’s talking, quite loudly too, which interferes with Sherlock’s listening. The footsteps on the stairs hesitate.

Sherlock curls his toes and says, “Dull.”

“Are you even listening to me?” John exclaims with a faint air of exasperation in his voice.

“No,” Sherlock informs him.

John keeps on talking without wasting another second and Sherlock is still not listening, though he catches random words and phrases like “Sherlock” and “move your arse once in a while” and “Mrs Hudson’s hip”.

Sherlock is about to respond that John could have walked down there himself for the sake of humanity, when the footsteps halt directly in front of their door. John stops talking and stares instead. There’s another pause. The person in front of their door doesn’t move.

Sherlock wonders what this visit is about, since it requires a truly inordinate amount of hesitation.

“Come in,” he exclaims to speed things up a bit

Their visitor is a man in his fifties with thin grey hair and strangely watery eyes. Not worth a formal welcome.

“Morning,” the man says warily.

“Mmh,” Sherlock answers from his position on the couch, not moving.

“Morning,” says John warily.

“Um,” says the man who’s still standing in the doorway, clearly at a loss as to what to do.

“Yeah, um, how can we help you?” John asks, not sounding particularly keen on actually helping, or (more accurately) not keen on compensating for Sherlock’s current lack of helpfulness.

“I’m looking for a Dr Watson.”

Sherlock raises both eyebrows.

“Ah,” John says, “that would be me.”

The visitor (divorced, two children, allergic to cat hair, regular heart burn, chronic insomnia, self-employed, something with... cars?) walks through their living room and holds his hand out towards John. John takes it after a brief moment of contemplation.

“Frank Peterson,” the man introduces himself, shaking John’s hand emphatically.

John eyes him questioningly. “Hello. Sorry, um... do I know you?”

“No. Uh, you don’t, though you probably remember my daughter. Annabelle. A few weeks ago she... she found a dead body, poor girl.”

“Ah!” John’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. “Yes. Of course I remember her. How is she doing, is she... um, alright?”

“Yes,” Peterson says quickly, “I mean she’s... never really alright, lately, you know, I just—“ He laughs nervously and clears his throat. “She’s having a difficult time, lately, and... you... you know what happened. You were there, weren’t you?”

“Yes. Well, dreadful, of course.”

Peterson scratches his neck awkwardly. “Dreadful, yes. She was so scared, that day. Scared out of her mind, really. Can’t blame the poor child, imagine running into a body covered in blood on your way to...” he cuts himself off and stutters for a bit. Sherlock finds this mildly intriguing.

“She told me everything, everything that happened, of course. How confused and terrified she was and it’s just... I can’t imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t been there. So that’s why I’m here. To thank you.”

John frowns at him. “Thank me?”

“Yes. My daughter, she... she couldn’t stop talking about how you were the only one who helped her. Everyone else just... stood around and ignored her, and she was terrified. She also mentioned another doctor, at the hospital afterwards, she couldn’t remember his name, but she... she wanted to thank you. You really made an impression on her.”

Sherlock moves himself up to a sitting position, ruffles his hair and squints at Peterson.

“Um, well,” John says, clearly a bit taken aback, “I just did what was necessary, I guess. Glad to hear she’s doing better, of course.”

Peterson begins to fiddle with the breast pocket of his jacket. “Yeah, she even wrote you a card. To thank you. She’s good with words, Annabelle. Just not good with... with people. That’s why she wouldn’t come here on her own. So she asked me to do it for her and... um, give it to you and tell you that.”

“Is that so?” Sherlock cuts in dryly.

Peterson gives Sherlock a bewildered look, then hands John and envelope and looks at him expectantly.

“Thank you,” John says warily and turns it over. Sherlock cranes his neck to get a better look at it. It’s not blank; John’s name and their address is written on it, andthere's a stamp. A letter ready to be sent.

“She has problems, you know,” Peterson declares, “Annabelle. She’s... depressed, she has been for a few years, actually. And so very confused. A few weeks ago she... and my wife had a bit of a disagreement, and she just ran away. And she just got lost in the middle of London. Said she couldn’t find the way home, can you imagine? A lady found her, looking all lost in the rain, and helped her find a police station. Isn’t that dreadful?”

John nods warily, tilting his head, like always when he’s getting a bit puzzled.

“It’s because she’s lonely,” Peterson continues, although really no one asked him to. Sherlock’s frown deepens.

“She’s always so... caught up in her own word, her books and the internet. Awful, that, if you ask me. The internet is a dangerous place for girls like her, I think. But you can’t take it away from her, you know, she’s growing up and everything. She... she has her therapist, of course, I guess that helps but the panic attacks are just getting worse. And now she found a dead body, had to see it all and tell the police about it, over and over, you can’t imagine how difficult that is for someone like her.“

“Of course,” John says, still holding the envelope in both hands and markedly confused by the entire conversation. “Of course, um, I understand. Please, give her my best wishes and tell her I thank her very much.”

“Will do,” Peterson says and begins to rock back and forth on his heels as if there’s something else he wants to say before leaving.

Sherlock tilts his head and stares Peterson down. “What’s the point of this?” he asks flatly.

“Uh, I--” Peterson stutters, taken aback, “What do you mean?”

Sherlock takes a deep breath. “Why are you here, Mr Peterson? To tell John your daughter wants to thank him? To tell him you appreciate his effort?”

“Well. Yes?”

“No.”

Peterson sucks in a sharp breath. “Excuse me?”

“You could have called. You could have written an email. Annabelle is nineteen years old, she’s not a child. Shy, anxious, yes, but independent enough and perfectly articulate. If she was determined to express her gratitude she would have already done it in person. If this had, in fact, made her uncomfortable, since she’s not good with people, according to you, she could still have sent the card per post without even telling you about it. She was, in fact planning to do that, otherwise she wouldn’t have bothered to write the full address on the envelope. In any case, she wouldn’t have sent her father to speak on her behalf. Obviously your visit has more reasons than passing on a simple message.”

Peterson opens his mouth, closes it again and scratches his unshaven chin. “Ah, she mentioned it and I decided to – just stop by. It was more or less spontaneous.”

Sherlock keeps his eyes fixed on him. “No, it wasn’t.”

“O-of course it was,” Peterson stutters, “I just—“

“Your daughter doesn’t really know you’re here, does she? She didn’t ask you to do this."

"What? How--"

"You are a confident man, Mr Peterson, aren't you? You own a company, you’re used to giving orders. You’re not a socially inept person, yet you’ve been acting markedly nervous and insecure since the moment you stepped into our living room. You’re out of your comfort zone, obviously, it’s written all over your face. So what, pray tell, do you really want?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Peterson says stiffly.

Sherlock gets up and walks over to John and Peterson, making sure to invade his private space just enough to make him uncomfortable.

“Sherlock,” John says slowly, warningly.

Sherlock ignores him and stares at Peterson instead. “I know you’re here to prove a point, whether it’s to yourself, to your daughter or to us I’m not sure, but one thing I’m absolutely sure of.”

Sherlock makes a pause for dramatic effect.

“You’re a bad liar,” he says, holding Peterson’s gaze, careful not to blink. He’s always been good at being intimidating.

Something in Peterson’s expression changes entirely. He straightens himself, clenches his jaw and raises his chin minutely. Complete deflection rather than defensive stance, obviously. Sherlock has hit a pressure point.

“I’ll leave, shall I?” Peterson says stiffly and holds out his hand once more, “Excuse me for interrupting.”

“Now, that is interesting,” Sherlock says coldly.

“Um,” Peterson says, clenching his jaw. He turns to John, decidedly not paying attention to Sherlock. “Good bye, Doctor Watson.”

John shakes his hand absentmindedly.

Peterson slams their door shut as he leaves (involuntary, fingers trembling too much to get a firm grip; alcohol? no, adrenaline) and proceeds to practically run downstairs.

“What was that?” John blurts out when Peterson is out of earshot and Sherlock has relocated to the sofa.

Sherlock raises one eyebrow. “This is, impressively, the right question to ask,” he says sarcastically. “Astonishing, John.”

“Why did you treat him like this?”

Sherlock grunts, which seems to make John unfathomably angrier.

“Seriously. Sherlock! That was unnecessary. He came here to thank us, why on earth would you think--“

“To thank you,” Sherlock corrects.

“Why would he come here and lie to us?”

“I’m not one hundred per cent sure why,” Sherlock admits, “but he definitely did.”

“And you thought what you just did was going to make him tell us the truth?”

“Of course not.”

“Then, please, explain it to me,” John snaps, “because I don’t understand.”

“He is a notorious abuser, John,” Sherlock says firmly.

John sucks in a sharp breath. “What?”

“The girl, Annabelle. She is a victim of physical abuse. Has been for years. Obviously.”

What?”

“Do keep up, John.”

"What kind of abuse?"

"There's obviously emotional abuse, and it most probably has a physical aspect to it, as well. He has violent outbursts, loses control over himself.."

John looks thoroughly taken aback. He opens his mouth, closes it again and says, “But I didn’t see—“

“I know there weren’t any visible injuries or haematomas, John, I do know you would have noticed that. It's the things you don't see. She flinched when you first touched her. There were scratches across her neck, barely visible, most probably covered with cheap make-up. She wore leggings under her dress and covered her upper arms. She acted significantly more cautious and uncomfortable towards men than towards women and she kept making eye-contact with female bystanders to assure herself that she’s not surrounded by men. It’s respondent conditioning, a method of self-preservation, a reflex, like clutching a lifeline. There's obviously a male abuser in her direct socioenvironment who has been influencing her for a long time.”

John swallows. “And you’re sure it’s her father. Why? What about... I don’t know, an uncle or teacher or older brother or something?”

Sherlock takes a deep breath. “She doesn’t have any brothers. One slightly older sister, though, who is most probably either studies or works abroad, judging by Annabelle’s clothes - definitely worn by an older sibling before her, a lot of sentiment attached to the dress, probably because her sister was the first victim and is the only one who understands what she's going through. Her father is married to a woman she doesn’t accept as a mother figure, not her biological mother, notice how he referred to her as his wife instead of her mother? He relates this woman to himself rather than to his daughter, even though Annabelle and her social life were the centre of the conversation. Her stepmother makes for a possible source of conflict, but other than that, have you looked at this man?”

Sherlock gives John a short contemplative look. “No, of course you didn't. He’s used to being an authority figure – both at home and at work, and yet he acted like the figurative deer in the headlights today, here, in front of us. Nervous, uncharacteristically eager to explain himself and his daughter’s situation. Do you see what’s going on, John? He’s being controlling and overbearing, he acts against her will, does things on her behalf in order to isolate her further. This sort of behaviour is not caring and protective, that’s what he’s trying to make us think, that’s what he’s trying to make himself think because he feels guilty; because the fact that he’s been abusing his child for years is a terrible, nagging thought that he desperately tries to make up for. He’s a walking stereotype, John.”

John clears his throat. “Sherlock,” he says softly, “You know you’re brilliant, right?”

“Mmh,” Sherlock hums, because he knows, but he enjoys hearing it nonetheless.

“So,” John says contemplatively, “What are we going to do? Call the police on him?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock says truthfully and runs a hand through his hair. There’s a lot he doesn’t know lately, which is not pleasant. “I suppose we can't prove it’s him, unless Annabelle accuses him of her own volition. I’m around eighty per cent sure she would refuse to do that.”

“Then we’re going to talk to her first? Let her know someone knows she’s—that someone can help her?”

Of course John reacts like this. It’s simply John’s nature. He wants, no, expects that they are going to help the victim by acting on their empathic tendencies. Well, John’s empathic tendencies, really. Sherlock is above all this. Obviously.

“I don’t know,” Sherlock repeats, and he really is at a loss as to what to say, this time.

“But you’re going to—“

“I need to think, John.”

“You’re not going to ignore this, are you?”

“No,” Sherlock says firmly.

“Okay,” John says. He smiles, briefly, and admittedly more at the floor than at Sherlock, but it still makes Sherlock’s chest hurt a bit. “It’s actually kind of nice to see that you do care, you know,” John tells him.

“I don’t care,” Sherlock huffs, because the notion is ludicrous, obviously, “This is just... another problem that has to be solved.”

“And you will try to solve it.”

“Eventually,” Sherlock says and fiddles with the hem of his t-shirt for absolutely no reason.

“Eventually,” John repeats, and smiles at Sherlock until Sherlock feels like his heart wants to burst.

 

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock’s plotting and thinking and general aimlessness is interrupted mere hours after Frank Peterson’s visit.

John is to blame, because he’s the one who switches the telly on. The weatherman is to blame, as well, because tomorrow night is going to be stormy.

Their faceless, invisible killer will find another unsuspecting victim. There will be another crime scene and another corpse and another detail that won’t make sense, and Sherlock really isn’t sure how he feels about that.

It's a mixture of anticipation and dread, and Sherlock’s skin is crawling with the sheer ambiguity of it all.

“So, the day after tomorrow then,” John says darkly when the weather report is over.

“The day after tomorrow,” Sherlock confirms.

“Any ideas?”

“No.” Sherlock stretches out on the sofa and clenches his fists. His finger nails dig into the palms of his hands.

John and sighs and says, “So we’re just going to wait?”

Sherlock rolls over so he faces the back rest of the sofa. “What else are we going to do?” he asks the cushions, because he doesn’t want John to see his face when he’s essentially admitting defeat.

 


 

The corpse is found in an alley near a parking lot.

Yet another unsettling, bloody picture etched into London’s wet streets. Sherlock’s stomach wants to turn, and it’s not because of the lingering, disgustingly sweet smell of drying blood and flesh that’s beginning to decay.

The man has been dead for at least twelve hours; nobody found him before the storm was over.

Sherlock doesn’t bother to examine the stab wounds properly. It’s too familiar a picture to give the cause of death a second thought.

“Identity?” Sherlock demands.

“Samuel Bramani,” Lestrade states blankly, “He’s a doctor, general practitioner, owns a practice but occasionally works at a small clinic just round the corner. He was apparently on his way home shortly before midnight. We got this from the contents of his bag and his briefcase. We don’t know much about him, they’re informing his family right now—“

“Mmh, doctor, obviously,” Sherlock confirms contemplatively, “quite successful, too. Married, three children. He and his husband were planning on renewing their vows, judging by his ring. A happy marriage. Very unfortunate, that. Tedious.”

Lestrade gives him a look that indicates that this wasn’t a sensitive thing to say, then frowns. “Husband?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Obviously. Have you looked at his fingernails?”

Lestrade raises his eyebrows. “We didn’t give that much thought before, right? The other two were single, is it... I mean, is there a possibility that this is... about this? Hate crime, stuff like that?”

“Do I think his sexual orientation was the main factor for his murderer to designate him as his next victim? No, I don’t think so. I actually don’t think the murderer cares about his victims’ private life at all.”

“So the others—“

“Joanna Roberts? Supressed bisexual leanings, definitely. But Amatti? Solidly heterosexual. Sexuality is not a factor. Stop clutching at straws, Lestrade. Desperation doesn't suit you.”

“Alright. Yeah, you’re right, I guess.”

“The murderer didn’t take anything, I assume? Phone, wallet?”

“Nothing.” Lestrade sighs. He looks tired, uncharacteristically troubled, really. It’s not because of his divorce that’s been finalised a few weeks ago; actually the divorce was an improvement. (No more half-hearted monitoring of his wife’s numerous affairs.) A work-related problem, then.

“This is becoming a really big sodding problem,” Lestrade declares a few seconds later, gesturing at the dead body, which kind of explains the matter on hand.

Sherlock eyes him.

“Look, Sherlock. There’s no weapon, no useful evidence, not a single sodding hair or a drop of blood or any kind of DNA sample we can use. Not even signs of a struggle, it’s like he was so surprised by the attack that he don’t even bother to defend himself. All we know is that someone out there has watched too many Hitchcock movies and thinks it’s funny to kill people whenever it’s a bit stormy outside. The goddamn tabloids are keen as hell, they call him The Thunderstorm Ripper, they draw pictures of him, it’s like he has a fan club. Jesus, people are losing their minds and we’ve got nothing!”

“I know.”

Sherlock digs into his coat pocket, searching for his cigarettes. It takes him precisely two seconds to remember that he has, in fact, stopped smoking due to John-related sentimental reasons, which is particularly inconvenient right now. Sherlock bites his lip and risks a short glance at John who is distractedly maintaining a conversation with one of Lestrade’s moronic officers. (Dwight? Dennison... Davison?)

“I know it’s just another puzzle for you. But if there’s anything you know, if there’s anything you’re withholding because you’re saving it for some sort of dramatic reveal--”

“Why would I do that?”

“Sherlock—“

“I don’t do that.”

“You do that sort of bollocks all the time. I’m just making sure.”

“I don’t have time for this,” Sherlock announces and prepares for an appropriately dramatic, coat-swishing exit.

Meanwhile, John is still busy talking to someone who isn’t Sherlock and Sherlock is beginning to find this inexplicably annoying.

“I’m just saying, if you have a suspicion, even the faintest idea what’s going on here, give me a goddamn silver lining because there’s a stormy weekend ahead of us, which means there are going to be dead people, and it’s my job to prevent that!”

John’s conversation seems to have ended. His eyes are fixed on Sherlock (which could be described as a minor improvement of the situation in general) and his eyebrows are raised as if he’s confused.

“Are you even listening to me?” Lestrade exclaims exasperatedly.

“If it’s your job,” Sherlock snaps, “it’s not my fault it isn’t done properly, is it?”

“Of course it isn’t. You’re just kind of... my last hope right now, okay?” Lestrade pinches the bridge of his nose. “Sherlock, can I ask you a question?”

Sherlock narrows his eyes to slits and stares at him.

Lestrade looks very determinedly at the ground. “John moved back in, what, two months ago?”

“Eleven weeks, three days,” Sherlock says too quickly.

“And are you two... ” Lestrade makes a completely uninterpretable hand gesture that’s clearly supposed to explain what he’s talking about. “Just... I was just wondering if everything’s alright?”

Sherlock frowns at him. “What?”

“Oh, Christ,” Lestrade snaps, repeating his annoying hand gesture, “it’s just. The two of you. You’re both... alright?”

“Of course we are.” Sherlock really doesn’t know where this is going, which is mildly unsettling.

“Has anything changed lately?”

What?”

“Look, I get that’s none of my business,” Lestrade says slowly, “It’s just... have you looked at him? I mean, the man buried his wife a few months ago, and for some reason he looks... sort of less troubled than before. And you’re acting like you’re too distracted to care about a mutilated corpse and an insane serial killer. I just thought maybe something’s... a bit off.”

“A bit off?” Sherlock tries to disguise his lack of understanding by deepening his frown until it feels uncomfortably like his eyebrows are trying to fuse.

“You know what,” Lestrade says after around three excruciatingly confusing seconds, “forget about it. Sorry.”

Sherlock hums contemplatively and fiddles with the top button of his coat.

“Right. I’m going to go make sure the forensics department doesn’t mess things up. Can’t really trust them at the moment, the entire team has changed lately, and they’re all so bloody young all of a sudden, it’s like forensics is just a bunch of interns out of control--” Lestrade is beginning to look extremely awkward. “Well. Yeah. I’m off. Call me if you, ah—you know. Get something.”

Sherlock nods.

Lestrade walks over to a bunch of confused looking people in overalls and begins to shout instructions at them. This is, Sherlock has to admit, a better use of his time than trying to have a puzzling, sentiment-ridden conversation.

He doesn’t know what to make of that.

Apart from this , John is still not where he should be, which is closer to Sherlock. That is really distracting.

The next two minutes are dedicated to studying the victim’s clothes, mainly in order to look busy. Sherlock crouches down and takes a close look.

He's wearing a well-tailored shirt and suit jacket, moderately expensive jeans. A little overdressed for an ordinary evening shift at a clinic; he was wearing a lab coat instead of the suit jacket, obviously. Doing blood tests, judging by the stains on his sleeve. Plans for the night, then, probably. With his husband? No, that doesn’t make sense, since it was already midnight when he left the clinic and nobody noticed he’d gone missing until early morning; probably simply a habit of being ridiculously well-dressed; people are strange like that. Sherlock is strange like that, too, he contemplates. Sherlock is strange in many ways which is why he doesn’t really count. This is also not a conclusive trail of thought, therefore Sherlock decides to abandon it. Stupid.

He squeezes his eyes shut and takes a deep breath.

“You okay?”

Sherlock opens his eyes and squints. John is standing next to him, smiling mildly.

“Obviously,” Sherlock tells him and straightens himself a bit. He is okay, after all. Not being okay would be entirely pointless.

“Anything new?”

“Tremendously little. None of it conclusive. Except that he’s dead.”

The corners of John’s mouth twitch. “Well observed, detective.”

Sherlock returns his smile for a second. John does look calm, he notices. Less tense than a few weeks ago. There are laugh lines forming around his eyes. Lestrade has a point, even though this is a humiliatingly tedious thing to admit.

It’s about time to go home, Sherlock decides. Maybe get John to make tea for him and then think for a bit.

His thought process is interrupted a second later.

“Excuse me,” says an unfamiliar, but intriguingly melodic baritone behind him, “are you with the police?”

Sherlock turns around and finds himself eye in eye with the voice’s owner.

It’s a man his age, pale and lean, about his height, too. His hair is auburn and curly, parted neatly down the middle and has a ridiculous amount of product in it. His deodorant indicates a deep-rooted sexual identity crisis (of which he is, surprisingly, entirely aware) and his ice blue eyes sparkle in a mixture of interest and reserve. Interesting.

“You could say that,” Sherlock says slowly, making sure his voice is half an octave deeper than usual. The man’s gaze remains fixed on him, before he slowly lets it wander down Sherlock’s entire body. It’s a sort of unabashed staring that pleases Sherlock for purely pragmatic reasons. Thinly veiled sexual attraction, ready to be preyed upon. This is going to be interesting.

Sherlock raises one eyebrow and watches him attentively.

“Hello,” says the man and gives Sherlock a wide, toothy smile, “sorry, am I interrupting?”

“We were just finished.”

“You’re that private detective, aren’t you? I’ve seen you before, on the telly, I think. Chasing the mad serial killer, right?”

“Something like that,” Sherlock says vaguely, “are you a journalist? Because in this case-“

The man runs a hand through his curls. “No, nothing like that. I was just wondering if you could tell me a bit about what’s going on. Any clues yet? It’s just, awful business, everything that’s happened. And, believe me, I’d like to help. I think we all want to make the city a safe place again. And for me it's a sort of private matter, too.”

“A private matter?”

“Both private and professional. I know someone who’s involved in all this, someone I feel terribly sorry for and... that’s why I want the case solved. The monster caught, so to speak. And I believe I can help if you just... let me in on everything you know.” He gives Sherlock a mischievous grin.

“I’m not authorised to give you details about an ongoing investigation,” Sherlock says slowly, cocking his head. It's been a while since he last had to fake sexual interest. He's out of practice. Flirting is tedious business. “And I’m terribly sorry, but I didn’t catch your name?”

“Lauris,” the man blurts out. “Doctor Lauris,” he adds quickly. Clearly eager to prove himself. Too eager. He’s getting more interesting with every passing second.

“Your first name.”

“David.”

Sherlock holds out his hand. “Sherlock Holmes. Pleasure.”

David Lauris licks his lips. “The pleasure is all mine.”

John clears his throat very audibly next to them, indicating that he’s still here. Reassuring, that.

“Oh, sorry,” Lauris says and turns to John to shake his hand, acting all around like he’s just noticing his existence.

John puffs up his chest, presses his lips together and sticks his chin in the air like he’s trying to look a lot taller than he actually is. John tends to do this from time to time, most probably to compensate for the fact that John is, in fact, not very tall. It never works, although John seems to consider this sort of behaviour very useful in all sorts of social situations.

Doctor John Watson,” John says firmly, “not that anyone’s interested.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes, then turns back to Lauris and gives him a crooked smile. It's somewhat crucial to Sherlock's plan to make Lauris think he and John are not particularly close. Consequently, Sherlock won't pay an unnecessary amount of attention to John's impending nervous meltdown.

“How did you get in here?” Sherlock gestures at the corpse barely three meters away from them, grinning conspiratorially. “Crime scene. They wouldn’t have let you in if you didn’t have... connections. Someone lifted the police tape for you, I assume.”

Lauris smirks. Sherlock’s can’t help but notice his flawless teeth and the small birthmark on his right cheek. It’s strangely aesthetically pleasing. As are the firm muscles that are clearly defined and visible through the straining fabric of his ridiculously tight tee shirt. Sherlock blinks. Focus.

“I had a nice chat with one of the officers,” Lauris says, “He was happy to help me out.”

“I bet he was.” Sherlock bats his eyelashes (which really is the most ridiculous thing to do, but sacrifices have to be made). He sucks in a sharp breath. “You used to work as a model, didn’t you, David? Briefly, just for the money, I imagine. During med school?”

Lauris’ mouth drops open. “How-“

“Now you’re a medical professional, obviously, though you have a private employer these days, you’re not working as a doctor, strictly speaking. You despise routine and boredom, something we have in common, by the way. You like dogs and classic literature and...” Sherlock makes a short pause, simply because he can, “you enjoy red wine.”

Lauris manages to close his mouth and proceeds to look mildly impressed. “That’s the thing you do, isn’t it? You know everything about people you’ve just met. I heard about hat. It’s magic.”

“It’s a combination of categorizing details and logic reasoning, and it might be fascinating,” Sherlock says dryly, “but it’s certainly not magic.”

“I do like red wine, though,” Lauris remarks.

Sherlock licks his lips. “Then we should have some. What do you think?”

“That would be brilliant.” Lauris is openly beaming at him now.

Sherlock risks a short glance at John. John’s mouth is open and it doesn’t look like he’s planning on closing it in the foreseeable future.

“There’s a nice little bar, just round the corner,” Lauris supplies.

“Excellent. John, don’t wait up.”

John is still staring at Sherlock like he’s on the verge of losing his mind. There’s presumably nothing to be done about this, even though it’s terribly unfortunate.

“Just one more question before we go, David,” Sherlock says, gesturing at the corpse. “Who is it? Your acquaintance who’s involved in... all this?”

“Annabelle Peterson,” Lauris says casually, and for some reason Sherlock isn’t surprised at all.

 


 

When Sherlock comes home two hours later, John exhibits blatant signs of emotional discomfort.

This is inconvenient since Sherlock is slightly tipsy(his body’s ethanol metabolism insists on being dreadfully tedious) and in dire need of time to think.

John has a cup of coffee in his hand and is occupying the sofa when Sherlock marches into the living room. Sherlock walks towards the kitchen to put the kettle on. John grumbles audibly as he walks past him, which is not a good sign.

 

“Tea?” Sherlock asks a few minutes later. He’s standing in front of the coffee table, his own cup in hand and trying not to look bothered, mostly to uphold the illusion that this is just another afternoon and there’s no tiresome conversation ahead of them.

“No. Thanks.” John takes a sip of his (presumably cold) coffee and continues to stare at the floor like it has personally offended him.

“Alright.” Sherlock mirrors him, takes a sip and promptly burns his tongue. “Ow,” he says.

John lifts his head marginally and eyes him. “You were on a date.”

Ah. “Don’t be ridiculous, John. That wasn’t a date.”

“It wasn’t a date?” John repeats in disbelief, “Of course it was. Have you looked at him? Have you seen how he... ogled you with his big blue puppy eyes? He was—He started mentally undressing you the moment he first saw you. It was definitely a date for him. I hate to break this to you, but this is sexual attraction. That’s what it’s like.”

John's ears are illogically red.

“I know what sexual attraction is like,” Sherlock informs him.

John’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. His nose twitches in this very specific way that indicates that he’s in deep emotional distress. “You do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why did you—Why did that just happen?”

“Because he was interesting.”

“Sherlock, I swear to God—“

“He’s suspicious, John. He’s interesting in the sense that he has something to do with the case.”

“Does he, really?”

Sherlock takes a deep breath. It is tiresome, always having to explain everything because John is so hopelessly slow. “Concentrate, John. He approached me at a crime scene to which he technically didn’t have access and tried to manipulate me into giving him details about a police investigation."

John doesn't appear to be understanding.

"Psychopaths, serial killers, that’s what they do, John. Psychopaths crave attention, sometimes that’s the main motivation for their crimes. Well, apart from the obvious reasons, like sexual fulfilment, a desire to control an unresisting body, sadism, necrophilia—“ a glance at John (who is beginning to look vaguely disturbed) confirms that he’s not interested in the rest of this list - “Anyway,” Sherlock continues,“those individuals enjoy the media coverage. The thought that hundreds of people are trying to find them excites them. Sometimes they actively try to get involved in the investigation of their own murders. They want to be feared and admired at the same time and even though they often come across as likeable, confident people, they absorb every compliment because they’re positively addicted to this sort attention. It’s a barely fulfillable desire to be known and remembered. We were talking about walking stereotypes, John. Looks like they’re everywhere.”

“Ah,” John says, places his cup on the table and folds his hands in his lap.

“Mmh.”

“And what does the girl have to do with it? Annabelle?”

“Lauris is a psychiatrist. He used to be her private therapist. Until her father fired him and hired someone else, out of the blue. At least that’s what he told me.”

John frowns. “So assuming he’s the killer – do you think it’s a coincidence that someone he knows personally found the first corpse?”

Sherlock huffs out a laugh. “A coincidence? Hardly.”

“And what does she have to do with it? Why is the poor girl somehow... the common thread in this disaster.”

“No idea,” Sherlock admits.

John takes a deep breath. “So that’s it, then? You went on a date with a serial killer?”

“Probably. I don’t know yet.”

“He didn’t poison your wine, did he?”

“I’m fairly sure he didn’t. I was paying attention.”

“Oh my god,” John huffs out before breaking into a fit of giggles, “You are a madman. You know that, right? You are a madman and you just seduced a potential killer with... with red wine and... and your ridiculous cheekbones and everything.”

Sherlock isn’t sure what his cheekbones have got to do with everything, but then, John has a habit of randomly bringing them up during conversations. For whatever reason.

“I didn’t seduce him.”

“Of course you did. I mean, you could have. And I... I thought—“

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “You thought I went on a date with him? For absolutely no reason? Why would I do that?”

“How would I know?” John exclaims, “Maybe you’ve decided that you’re interested in that sort of stuff now. Maybe you had an epiphany during one of your incredibly long showers or something. For God’s sake, Sherlock you were engaged once, who knows, maybe you’ve decided that you liked this... sort of thing after all. One can never know, with you.”

“What sort of thing?”

John grumbles, then proceeds to stare at Sherlock in a somewhat judgemental way, which is incredibly confusing.

“Are you upset?” Sherlock asks cautiously.

“No,” John tells him firmly.

“Good.”

There’s a far too long pause.

“You’ve always had secrets,” John finally blurts out, “Listen, Sherlock, your whole bloody life is a secret. It’s not—I’m not blaming you, you have a right to... to withhold things from me. It’s just... you look at me and you and know everything about me, and sometimes I think that’s not fair. It doesn't work the other way round. I can’t figure you out. I know it’s just the way you are, but it’s kind of frustrating. I’ve known you for years, and sometimes it’s like I still have no idea who you are.”

Sherlock’s heart insists on beating uncomfortably hard against rib cage in reaction to this. Something suspiciously butterfly-like starts to flutter in his stomach.

“John,” he says, then closes his mouth because he isn’t sure what he wanted to say in the first place.

John clenches his left fist until his knuckles turn white and stares at it rather than at Sherlock.

“You do know who I am, John,” Sherlock says helplessly, “You know more about me than anyone else, at least.”

“I don’t... I don’t actually-- Look, Sherlock. I didn’t even know there were scars all over your back. I had to force you to take an accidental decontamination shower to find that out. I had no idea. And I still don’t know what really happened when you were gone. Who did this to you?”

“Various people,” Sherlock says soundlessly.

John raises his eyebrows.

“Mostly Moriarty’s henchmen. A group of notorious robbers in Eastern Serbia, on one memorable occasion. I accidentally deduced where they’d hidden seventeen million dinars and decided to... retrieve the money. That was, in fact, a bit thoughtless. I’ll have to admit that. Anyway. I got captured three times.”

John swallows. “They tortured you. People cut you and stubbed cigarettes out on your skin and I had no idea.”

Sherlock bites his lip. “It hardly matters now.”

“I would have killed them, if I’d been there,” John murmurs, and it sounds so sincere that Sherlock feels a shiver run down his spine. “But you never even told me.”

“You never asked.”

John’s shoulders slump. “I’m sorry,” he says weakly, looking up at Sherlock. His eyes are ridiculously wide, all of sudden.

“It’s not your fault, John. There’s no need to be sorry.”

John buries his face in his hands. “I know, it’s just—I’m sorry I never even imagined... I never even considered that someone might have hurt you while you were away and I... I should have. It’s not like you were on holiday.”

“I’ve had worse.”

“Yeah. I know,” John tells him exasperatedly, shaking his head, “And this doesn’t make it better.”

“It doesn’t?”

“It absolutely doesn’t.” John gives him a mildly exasperated smile. “Anyway. We have work to do, right?”

“We do,” Sherlock confirms. He gathers his case notes from the coffee table and wanders over to the sofa to sit next to John, and it really doesn’t matter that there’s barely any space between them.

In fact, it feels like home.

 

Chapter Text

 

If there’s anything Sherlock despises more than intellectual stagnation, it’s probably the odd feeling of helplessness when things happen too fast for him to keep up.

He’d never admit that, of course.

Erin Cavanaugh was sixty-seven. Widow. Cat owner. Lonely. Lived on benefits. Quite fond of marmite on toast. She went out in the storm on Saturday morning to buy seven tins of cat food. That was a lethal mistake.

She’s lying face down in a puddle of her own blood, tins scattered around her. Her back is covered in deep, ragged wounds. It’s the first attack from ambush, and it's only been three days since the last murder. Their murderer feels safe. Comfortable with what he’s doing. He doesn’t even bother to face his victims any more. Casual killing, one might call it.

Sherlock examines the corpse briefly, snaps at John for being useless, at Lestrade for being a moron, and leaves without a piece of evidence or an idea or anything, anything that will prevent his mind from tearing itself to shreds. His head feels like it’s about to burst.

 


 

At home, Sherlock retires to the couch and sulks for three hours, until it gets dreadfully boring and he decides to peer through his microscope instead. John attempts to make contact six times. Sherlock ignores him.

At 5:58 pm Sherlock destroys three petri dishes and throws an Erlenmeyer flask against the fridge. John (who’s inexplicably still there) watches him as he wordlessly cleans up the mess he’s made. Sherlock picks up the broken glass, throws the shards in the bin and then stands there, absentmindedly rubbing his thighs with both hands.

John cocks his head. “Are you alright?”

“Four,” Sherlock says simply.

John gives him a look.

“Four people are dead, John. The next thunderstorm is tomorrow night, unless the atmosphere changes its mind. I don’t know what to do.”

“And you hate not knowing what to do, I get that.”

“I hate waiting,” Sherlock huffs, “I hate not being able to do anything, except waiting for another corpse. All I can do is sit here and hope the murderer finally makes a mistake.”

“What about Lauris?”

“He’s being monitored. Homeless network. Most suspicious thing he’s done so far was buying seven cucumbers, whipped cream and a box of extra large condoms. Questionable, but I can’t tell Lestrade to arrest him for that. Nobody saw him leave his flat during the storm this morning.”

“But you still think it might be him?”

“Might be. Yes. Nothing else... makes sense. Yet.” Sherlock rubs his eyes. He's tired.

“Take a break, Sherlock,” John says.

Sherlock peers at him in mild annoyance. “Why are you even here?” It’s a moderately sincere question and Sherlock doesn’t really expect an answer.

“I live here,” John tells him.

That is correct, and, as Sherlock suddenly realises, precisely the point. John lives here. Not actually temporarily, but still most probably not forever, which is an absurdly painful concept.

“You should probably be somewhere else,” Sherlock bites out, “everything’s a mess. I’m not making progress, the case is being tedious and I’m being difficult, and this is apparently bothering you, so why are you still here?”

“Because I bloody want to be here.” John picks up Sherlock’s coat (that has ended up on the floor because Sherlock was too frustrated to hang it up). “Come here,” he says softly.

“What?”

John takes the Belstaff in both hands, arranges it so it’s ready for Sherlock to put on. “We’re going out for a drink,” he announces.

Sherlock squints.

“Come on, Sherlock. We need to take your mind off things.”

“This is pointless, John.”

“And demolishing your own science equipment isn’t?”

Sherlock grumbles.

“Come here,” John repeats, still holding the coat, and Sherlock complies.

 


 

 

John chooses the pub. He really does have more experience when it comes to that sort of thing, so Sherlock doesn’t protest.

The pub is small, a little dingy, and everything is oddly red and... velvety. It smells like smoke and wood polish. Sherlock isn’t sure if he likes it. At least there aren't many people.

John places Sherlock on a chair in a corner and walks up to the bar to order drinks for both of them. Sherlock doesn’t pay attention to John’s interaction with the barkeeper, which is why he ends up with a drink he’s unable to identify. It’s red and definitely not beer. Sherlock approves of this. He eyes his glass for a while, then takes a sip. It tastes like cranberries.

 

John insists on doing the clinking glasses... thing. Probably because it’s a tradition, and John is fond of those.

“Here’s to you!” John declares and raises his glass. He's drinking beer. Predictably.

Sherlock mirrors him. “Me?”

“Yeah. Who else?”

This is a bit of a non-sequitur, so Sherlock doesn’t comment on it. He drinks instead, and stares at the notches and scratches other people’s glasses have left in the wooden table in front of him. The pattern is entirely meaningless, albeit strangely mesmerizing.

John nudges him with his elbow an indeterminable while later. “You still ruminating about the case?”

“No,” Sherlock says truthfully.

John frowns at him in a way that suggests he doesn’t quite believe that. “Okay, what’s going on? What are you thinking about?”

Sherlock bites his lip. “I’m thinking about wood polish, John. Scratches. The definition of temporary. The number of people who touched this glass before me. Nothing important. Don’t try to catch up.”

“The definition of temporary?”

“Yes.”

“Alright,” John says softly. It sounds almost like he understands.

Sherlock's glass is empty and his head is spinning a bit. He wonders if he’s already getting drunk. He’s always had a terribly low alcohol tolerance, but this seems a little too fast.

Sherlock deposits his glass on the table and looks up.

He blinks into John’s eyes. They’re cerulean in the morning, ocean blue in the evening, dark and glistening in the sparse light right now. Sherlock knows John’s eyes. John remains silent, cocks his head a bit as Sherlock mentally traces the soft curve of his nose, the crinkles around his eyes, the curvature of his earlobe. His heart clenches in the way it always does when he allows himself to study John Watson. It really is an abominable habit. It’s a pity he’ll never be able to stop.

John marches to the bar to order another drink for Sherlock. An identical one, as Sherlock notices when it’s being placed in front of him.

He grunts his thanks and takes a sip. Then another. It’s surprisingly good, actually.

“Slow down, there,” John tells him, gesturing at his own glass. His pint glass is still half full.

Sherlock doesn’t slow down. He’s never been good at getting drunk. He’s beginning to enjoy this, though. A little bit. “What am I drinking?” he asks.

John licks his lips. “Vodka Cranberry. Not your typical choice of beverage, I know, but you’re awful with beer and you practically leap at the cranberry juice every time I buy some, so I thought - it could work.”

“It does,” Sherlock says slowly, licking his lips. They taste sweet and sticky. He is acutely aware of John’s eyes that are fixed on him. He notices that he can hear John breathe, when he concentrates. They’re close enough.

“Now,” John begins again, “what’s really on your mind, hm?”

llogically you, Sherlock thinks.

John’s comment about the speed of Sherlock’s drinking is rendered somewhat obsolete as he gulps down what's left in his pint glass as fast as he can.

He orders another one and is therefore ahead of Sherlock. Drink-wise. Not in any other way, of course. It’s extremely silent between them. Sherlock decides to take off his coat in order to bridge the time a bit. He places it in his lap, over his knees like a blanket to keep him warm, even though he's not particularly cold.

“I’m glad,” John says, finally, biting his lip, “that I’m back. That I’m staying. And I don’t mind that you’re being difficult. You know that, right?”

Sherlock squints at him in a way that seems to amuse John greatly.

John huffs out a laugh. “We both know nothing is temporary about this. We had this conversation. The day I came home, I believe.”

“I have no idea why you’re bringing this up,” Sherlock lies. Something pleasantly warm is bubbling up in his stomach. Might be hope. This is unwelcome.

“Because you’re thinking things over again, that’s why.”

“Of course I’m thinking things over, that’s what I do.”

“I just want you to know that I’m not planning on leaving,” John says contemplatively, fiddling with his glass, “ever, I think. I feel... good, the way it is. I feel at home. I thought you knew.”

Sherlock raises one eyebrow. “Ever?”

This is, interestingly, something Sherlock has never imagined. He’s a stopover in John’s life, he always has been. A place to stay when John needs one. A source of adrenaline when John needs a fix. He’s always been alright with that.

John gives him a slight smile. “Why would I want to leave?”

“Because at some point you’ll realise that - you’ll remember that you don’t have the life you always wanted.” Sherlock explains.

“You've already had all those things you’re so stupidly devoted to. Dating women. Romance and... and happiness. One day you'll want it back." John doesn't comment on that, so Sherlock elaborates, "You won’t be satisfied with this forever, now, will you? With a flatmate who experiments on dead frogs and drags you along to show you the most interesting corpses he can find. You’re supposed to get tired of all this. That’s what happens. People get tired of me.”

John’s mouth is slightly open, his lips wet and glistening, and Sherlock should really take his eyes off him. “I’m not people,” John says after a far too long pause.

“No,” Sherlock murmurs, feeling an uncomfortable amount of blood rush to his face, “no, you aren’t.”

John just smiles at him in reaction to that. As if that’s an appropriate answer.

“But you need to understand, John,” Sherlock says slowly, “You need to understand that if you stay, you'll never have what you had. With... with her. You’ll be stuck with me and... you’ll still have everything Mary left behind, but you can’t have more-" He isn’t sure what he’s even trying to say, really.

“I don’t know if she actually left anything behind,” John tells him, “except a hole in your chest and a bitter taste in my mouth when I think about it. And the baby, she’s gone too, for good. I understand that now. Took me a while, but- I got there, eventually.”

Interesting. This explains why the frequency of John’s trips to the cemetery has notably decreased.

“It just...” John continues hesitantly, “it really hurts to think about it all, the—the child and everything, it’s just bloody painful. It really is. So... please. Don’t make me. I guess I’m... I’m learning to let go. It’s so much better now that I’m home. Where I belong. And that’s good enough, I think. That's what I want you to know.”

Sherlock swallows. “Good enough?” he repeats thoughtfully.

“No. More than that, actually.” John smiles again. “It’s—It’s good, yeah. Very good.”

Neither of them talks for a while, which is quite convenient, since Sherlock needs time to prevent his thoughts from spinning too much.The alcohol seems to help. Sherlock and his drink are beginning to establish a love-hate relationship.

“She kissed me first,” John mumbles into his glass, without warning, after around a minute. This somehow contradicts his own, very recently established policy of not wanting to talk about it, but then, John is a walking contradiction.

Sherlock makes a questioning grunting sound and takes another sip of his... whatever the red liquid in his glass is.

“I always kiss people first, you know,” John says, eyes still fixed on his glass, “That’s how it works. I kiss them. They kiss me back. Nobody ever surprised me like that before. She did. Second date. She just... she just kissed me and laughed in my face and said she’d like to see me again.”

“But you liked it,” Sherlock says. It's more of a statement than a question. This isn’t his area of expertise. “Um. You liked her. Kissing you.”

“Mmmh,” John hums contemplatively, “I thought so. But it’s been a long time and the longer I think about it the more I’m – I think...” he cuts himself off and traces a fingertip along the edge of his glass, “She took the initiative is all. That's not a bad thing, is it? I’m... I'm not sure.”

“It made you uncomfortable.”

“No. Maybe. In the beginning, maybe.”

Sherlock squints. “Because it was her, or because you generally don’t enjoy being kissed without warning?”

“I don’t know,” John admits, eyeing Sherlock suspiciously. “Why the hell are you interested in that sort of thing?” he asks slowly, “you’ve never been interested in other people's relationships, and me and my-- You know.

“I’m not interested in speculations about people’s love lives because that usually wastes my time.”

“Exactly,” John says, “and yet—“

“I’m making conversation,” Sherlock explains, “isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”

“What?”

“Night out with a friend, mildly intoxicated state. Faced with that sort of situation, you’re supposed to make conversation that heads towards increasingly intimate and personal issues, proportional to blood alcohol level and profoundness of friendship. I believe society suggests that.”

“You never do what society suggests.”

“Who was the first person you wanted to kiss?”

John’s mouth drops open. “What? Sherlock-“

“I’m making an effort, John. Answer the question.”

Sherlock is genuinely curious, although he doesn’t quite understand why. His head feels a bit like it’s filled with cotton wool. He blames the Cranberry Vodka. Vodka Cranberry. Red liquid. Whatever.

John grins into his pint. “Uh. Okay. Her name was Jennifer. Jennifer Smu—Small—Smallbrook. Something like that. Can’t really remember. Anyway, Jennifer. Seventh form. She was smart and loved chewing gum. Can't really remember what she looked like.”

“Who was the first person you kissed, then?”

John giggles. It’s a ridiculous, high-pitched noise. The tips of his ears are turning red, which is interesting. ”Jennifer Small-whatever, seventh form,” he says.

Sherlock frowns.

“It was nice, actually,” John mumbles, “I went for it. Bravest thing I've ever done, maybe. She was my first girlfriend and all. We were a nice couple, I think. Jenny and Johnny. It lasted for two weeks. She cheated on me with Anthony, the football champion.” He giggles some more before looking up at Sherlock. “God, I was devastated. Your turn.”

“My turn what?”

“First person you wanted to kiss?”

Oh. This is peculiar.

“His name was Daniel,” Sherlock says carefully, trying hard not to feel illogically nervous about the revelation that might be happening here, “first year at uni.”

“Ah,” John says simply “and the first person you actually kissed?”

Sherlock takes a deep breath. “One of my first cases. A young marriage impostor. I had to pose as a potential victim, and it worked, although I was way too young to actually be in her target group. Her name was Rachelle.”

John squints at him.

“Well, not her real name, obviously,” Sherlock adds, because John is really bad at comprehending obvious details.

“Your first kiss was for a case?”

“I believe I just said that.”

John downs the rest of his beer in one go, as if he’s bracing himself for what he’s going to say. “And did you want to kiss her?”

“It was a matter of necessity.”

John smirks again. John smirks a lot tonight. “She was pretty, wasn’t she?”

Of course that’s John’s primary concern. It’s like he’s actively trying to be tediously predictable. Sherlock sighs. “She was attractive, going by conventional socio-cultural standards. At least I suppose so.”

“Seriously, though, Sherlock. You were not... attracted to her?”

“No.”

John does something entirely unexpected at this point. He bursts into laughter. “Look at us,” he gasps out, “We’re talking stuff drunk people are supposed to talk about. We’re being ordinary. And we're not even drunk enough yet.”

Sherlock runs a hand through his hair and frowns.

“Should have done that last time,” John says thoughtfully, “last time we got drunk, I mean. Would have been much funnier than what we actually did.”

Sherlock snorts. “Don’t remind me of last time.”

“Mmh. It was awful. Even for a stag night. It was awful.”

“It was well planned, and moderately successfully orchestrated,” Sherlock says, trying to sound defensive about that. It was a lot of work, after all. John will have to acknowledge that.

“It was well planned," John murmurs, "but frankly, the plan was shit. And you’re a light-weight.”

Right. “Fair enough,” Sherlock says reluctantly.

John makes a sound that sounds like an exasperated giggle that somehow gets stuck in his throat.“I remember I got seriously concerned about you at one point. Thought you were going to die of alcohol poisoning. Or lose your mind or something. Might have been shortly after you vomited all over a crime scene.”

“John,” Sherlock huffs, “I said, don’t remind me.”

“We’ve never talked about it,” John mumbles, “after you brought it up at the wedding we pretended none of it ever happened because... because it was so very bad.”

Sherlock is confused. “You never told me that I shouldn’t have brought it up at the wedding.”

“It’s alright,” John says, and it sounds like he means it. Sherlock relaxes a bit. “It’s not like it matters anymore. You did everything - you were great. Just the drinking bit, uh.“ John rubs his nose with his left index finger for a second. “So bad.”

Sherlock feels like he needs to object. Maybe just a bit. “Not quite as bad as getting shot,” he says, because that is undeniably true.

“No,” John agrees, “but very, very close.”

John gives Sherlock a look that is so utterly, ridiculously amusing that Sherlock can't help laughing.

John joins in, his ridiculously high chuckle resounding in Sherlock’s ears. It feels good, to laugh like that. Definitely has potential to get addictive. They laugh until Sherlock’s belly hurts and he has to wipe tears of mirth from the corners of his eyes, and he isn’t sure what they’re actually laughing about, but it feels amazingly warm in his chest and John’s eyes sparkle like gems, and Sherlock contemplates that this is probably not even the alcohol’s fault.

He drinks some more of his Cranberry Vodka, because it’s getting better with every sip. Alcoholic drinks are strange like that. Presumably.

“So, now that we’re actually having that sort of talk,” John says, all business-like, once he has his voice back, “Irene Adler.”

Sherlock stifles the urge to roll his eyes. “What about her?”

“You were attracted to her, weren’t you?”

“She was... uh.” Sherlock ponders. “Attracted.” He tests the word on his tongue. “Not the right way to put it.”

“But Janine?” John sounds extremely eager for this piece of information. For whatever reason.

Sherlock sighs. “Just because your ability to comprehend sexual attraction depends on the involvement of conventionally attractive women, doesn’t mean it’s the same for me.”

John swallows a frankly ridiculous amount of beer in reaction to this and raises both eyebrows. “You were in a relationship with her, surely you two...” John smirks. “Seriously, Sherlock. That. Happened, didn’t it?”

“Don’t believe the tabloids, John,” Sherlock says dryly, “you should know better.”

John’s mouth drops open. “Not a single time?”

“Mmh.”

“So, that’s it, you’re... simply... you’ve always been—“ John struggles to find the right words. This is not exactly surprising. Conversations about intimate relationships, let alone sexual orientation, have never been John’s strong suit. “It’s just— sorry, I shouldn’t be asking you this.”

“Go ahead,” Sherlock says flatly, because John’s hopeless struggles for words never fail to be mildly amusing.

“You’re not attracted to women at all?” John blurts out, “It’s just—men?”

Sherlock allows himself to reflect on that for a second.

He does find male bodies stimulating. It’s always been like that.

He likes the musky scent, the deep voices. He enjoys the presence of men who exhibit self-confidence, who know what they want and how to get it. When he touches himself he thinks of firm skin dusted with sparse hair and shifting muscles underneath; flat chests, erect penises, well-proportioned arses. Sometimes he watches average pornography and allows his transport to get affected by the obligatory sweaty, muscular bodies rolling on soiled bed sheets. Rarely, he allows himself to study men he’s attracted to. Saves images. Revisits them. Indulges. Always discreetly, though. He is careful about that.

He’s always considered it somewhat obvious that he’s a gay man with a libido slightly below average.

Nothing out of the ordinary, really.

It’s a curious idea, just spelling it all out. He’s never really done that. (Well, if you don’t count that one dreadful conversation with Mummy and Daddy after summer camp 1990.)

“That’s generally what homosexuality entails, John,” he finally says, not quite succeeding in sounding sarcastic.

John simply stares at him for a stupidly long time after that, inhales deeply, cocks his head and stares some more. Then he gulps down nearly all of what’s left in his glass.

Sherlock wonders if it’s probably the beer that slowly renders John incapable of human interaction. Beer tends to do that to people, even though previous incidents involving both John and alcohol rather suggest that the contrary will be the case.

“Okay,” John says firmly, putting his pint glass down, “I’m glad you told—I mean, not that it changes anything, Christ, I’m not... This doesn’t change anything at all, of course, just, I want you to know it’s all— I’m not-“

This amount of stuttering is unprecedented and extremely tiresome. “If that’s your way of telling me you’re not going to shun me due to my sexual orientation, spare yourself the trouble, John. I already know that," Sherlock snaps.

“Good,” John says and takes another sip of his drink, “because I don’t want you to think I’m... I’m some kind of—“

Ah. Apparently, John no longer actively tries to finish his own sentences.

“I know that, John,” Sherlock says, “You’re not an—well, you’re an idiot, obviously. You're not that kind of idiot, John.”

John’s nose twitches exactly twice. “I mean, it’s none of my business anyway, it’s not like we have to talk about that. I always kind of suspected- I mean, I’m not going to ask with how many men you’ve... I won’t-” John cuts himself off, chuckles awkwardly for a bit and runs a hand through his hair, which results in him looking exceptionally confused and tousled. Sherlock has to suppress the flush that’s threatening to creep all over his face.

John really is stupidly beautiful, flustered and tipsy and a bit embarrassed, like that.

Sherlock’s second glass of Cranberry Vodka is empty. He isn’t sure how that happened. “You’re not going to ask me,” he says dryly, “but you might as well. It’s not as if there’s anything I could tell you.”

John narrows his eyes to slits, peers at him and says, “What?”

“I need more of this,” Sherlock tells him, gesturing at his glass, “cranberry... thing. I need more.”

“Right,” John says slowly, “I think we both need more, hang on—“

He marches over to the bar once again, swaying a bit, looking like he’s glad to escape this conversation for a minute. Sherlock isn’t sure how he feels about that.

To his surprise, John returns with two identical glasses.

“Here’s to you. Again,” John declares and slams his own glass of Cranberry Vodka against Sherlock’s. A few drops of liquid splash over the edge of his glass and trickle down Sherlock’s hand.

Sherlock watches for a second, then he slowly lifts his hand to lick them off. He dips his index finger in his mouth and sucks until it’s clean and finally wipes his hand on the coat in his lap. It does occur to him that that is probably not something a well-mannered person would do in public. Irrelevant.

John’s eyes are slightly glassy and fixed on him when he looks up, which is mildly intriguing. John drinks, puts his glass down, rubs his face with both hands and takes a deep breath.

What Sherlock witnesses next is John Watson inhaling half a glass of Vodka Cranberry and subsequently giving up every last shred of inhibition. It’s extremely intriguing.

“What you just said,” John begins determinedly, licking his lips, “is that you’ve never had sex.”

Sherlock places his left hand on the table and begins to tap a meaningless rhythm with his index finger. “It’s a common misconception that sex is something you need to experience in order to live an autonomous life.”

“So you really—“

“I never considered it necessary, John," Sherlock says firmly, "it’s not important.”

“Of course it isn’t,” John says carefully,” I mean, it isn’t, but I guess I assumed it was something you’d at least want to try.” He clears his throat. “Just... scientific interest and everything.”

Sherlock bites his lip. “Never had an opportunity.”

John actually bursts into another violent fit of giggles in reaction to that. “For god’s sake Sherlock,” he huffs, “you’re taking the piss. You’ve had thousands of opportunities. Christ, you’ve had seven opportunities since we walked into this pub and a few days ago I thought you were about to shag a serial killer. People go fucking crazy for you, Sherlock. For you and your... your goddamn voice and your cheekbones and everything, and you know it. You know it, and what I know, wha—what I’m sure about is that this stuff is bloody strong.”

John gestures at his goddamn vodka that’s most probably the main reason why this is happening.

“Mmh,” Sherlock hums, contemplating everything John just said, including the Cranberry Vodka (Vodka Cranberry?) that is indeed bloody strong. “Maybe those opportunities aren't interesting enough to be taken,” he finally says.

John licks his lips. “Is that so?”

Sherlock notices that John’s ears have turned crimson and his cheeks are rosy. This adds rather nicely to the already interesting image of John giggly and embarrassed with a glass of Vodka Cranberry in hand and Sherlock’s chest promptly decides to do the thing where it feels like his heart is performing a back flip.

“But there must have been, I mean—“ John swallows and struggles with himself a bit to get the next word out, “men. Who were interested in you. What about this Daniel bloke you were talking about? At uni?“

John seems extremely determined not to let this subject go. It’s equal parts exasperating and amusing.

Sherlock frowns. John visibly braces himself for the explanation he obviously expects.

“I didn’t know him very well,” Sherlock says slowly. “Daniel. He was a few years older, I met him during one of my classes. He dropped the pipette and kept apologizing for it, that was when I... noticed him. We studied together, a few times. He was terrible at organic chemistry. Hopelessly slow. I—well. That.” Sherlock swallows. “I liked him, I suppose. We did have a... slight disagreement when I first broached the subject of— well. And that was the end of it.”

“What kind of disagreement?”

“He wasn’t up for the activities I had in mind.”

“Oh.” John smirks. “Adventurous, were you?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes at him. “For god’s sake, John. He wasn’t interested in me. Not like that.”

“Ah,” John says simply.

“However, I wasn’t up for the activities he had in mind.“

John raises one eyebrow. “What?”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to phrase it the way he did,” Sherlock says slowly, trying hard not to chuckle.

Everything seems irrationally funny, all of a sudden. John takes another sip of his drink, then removes his face from the general vicinity of the nearly empty glass and eyes Sherlock expectantly.

“He told me he wasn’t gay. He was very clear about that, in fact. Yet he also said he considered me good enough for,” Sherlock makes a particularly meaningful pause, “a quick, dirty shag.”

John’s mouth drops open. “What an idiot.”

Sherlock grins. “Most people are.”

“Uh,” John huffs and glances at his glass that is, miraculously, empty again, “I swear—I swear this stuff is pure vodka with... with two drops of cranberry—cranberry... thing. We should - one more. That’s enough, really is. Otherwise we’ll get lost on our way home.”

Sherlock eyes his drink. “I’ll bring you home, John,” he declares.

A second later, he’s no longer sure why he just said that, but is seems very important that he did so. John smiles at him in a sort of loopy way, which indicates that it was the right thing to say, so it's fine. Presumably.

John obviously considers it his duty to procure their last two drinks. He’s procured every single drink so far, therefore it’s only logical, Sherlock supposes. It takes John a bit longer to return with their glasses this time (the barkeeper is distracted; just got a call from his boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, dying grand-aunt, whatever, not important). When John finally slumps back onto his chair opposite him, Sherlock is swaying slightly. He isn’t sure why. He's sitting, for crying out loud.

“You alright?” John huffs, puts their drinks down, leans over the table and places his hand on Sherlock’s shoulder, as if that’s going to steady him.

“Um,” Sherlock says and grabs his drink. “Yes. Fine.”

The tip of John’s tongue darts out and rests on his lower lip for several seconds. “Cheers,” he says then, raising his glass again.

“Cheers,” Sherlock repeats and drinks until his lips are cold and it feels like he’s losing the last bit of balance. It’s probably John, who makes him lose balance. The vodka just tips him over the edge, and he isn’t sure why he’s falling.

John jolts him out of his thoughts, as usual. “What about him?” he asks, gesturing at a group of people crowding around a table in another corner.

“What about whom?”

“You didn’t notice?" John asks, blinking a bit too rapidly for Sherlock's liking, "Seriously. You’re supposed to be the most observant man in London, and you didn’t notice that the bloke over there’s checking you out.”

Sherlock locates the stranger in question (who is indeed checking him out) and gives him a once-over. He’s short, compact stature, round face, green eyes, nice hair, boring.

“What?”

“Is he... not your type?”

Sherlock peers at John over the edge of his glass. “What are you expecting? That I go talk to him?”

“No,” John says firmly. He drinks, then hesitates, drinks again and finally reaches out and places a hand on Sherlock’s arm, giving the stranger a stern look. The gesture is so oddly, blatantly possessive that Sherlock’s heart skips a beat.

“He’s not my type,” he blurts out, eyes fixed on John. John.

John cocks his head and giggles that annoying high-pitched giggle of his once more, that somehow manages to sound much less annoying than usual. “I actually thought he looked... quite dashing.”

"Quite dashing?"

"Know a better word?"

“Judging other people’s looks is tedious, John. Beauty is an abominable delusion, a construct formed by the media and society and other...” He can’t really remember. “Childhood... things. I guess. I wrote an essay about that-”

Perhaps John’s giggles have never actually been annoying. “No, you didn’t.”

“No, I didn’t,” Sherlock confirms.

“What is your type, then? What do you get o—What to you like?” John raises the hand that’s currently not holding a glass like he's trying to placate him, “I’m just interested is all,” he declares.

“Maybe I have peculiar tastes,” Sherlock huffs, “Just because your sexual behaviour is focused on every single attractive naked woman you’ve ever seen, doesn’t mean I’m interested in every--“

“Oi,” John cuts him off, putting his (nearly empty) glass down with an unreasonable amount of force, “my sexual—my, my no-nothing is focused on single – on naked women. Not always. You of all people should have noticed that it isn’t like that. Not that easy. Figuring those things out, I mean.”

This statement actually manages to startle Sherlock. His sexual orientation has always been sort of a given, he simply never felt a need to be open or demonstrative about it.

Sherlock empties his glass. “Figuring what out?” he says very, very slowly.

“Nothing,” John murmurs, suddenly sounding defensive, “nothing, just... forget about it. Forget it.” John shakes his head and rubs his eyes and is beginning to look horribly uncomfortable.

Sherlock does not approve of this. He gets up, blinks the blur in his vision away and gestures at the door. “We’re going home,” he announces, already buttoning up his coat and turning to leave.

John follows him, probably because that’s what John always does.

 


 

It’s dark outside. Definitely somehow night. Not midnight-night, presumably, but still. Interesting how alcohol modifies one’s perception of time. Sherlock wraps his coat tighter around himself and John grumbles about the cold for a bit, and they walk in silence for a while, side by side.

They’re close. Approximately every seventh step Sherlock’s hand brushes against John’s. It’s a curious feeling. John’s hand is too cold for Sherlock's liking, though.

After about six minutes John stops abruptly and proceeds to stand still in the light cone of a street lamp, shoulder slumped, peering at the ground.

When he’s already a few metres ahead, Sherlock remembers that he promised to bring John home and he is committed to keeping this promise. They’re already close to Baker Street. “Come on,” he says, because there’s no point in procrastination now, is there?

“I kissed a man,” John blurts out behind him.

Sherlock turns to look at him. John’s hands are clenched, his gaze still firmly fixed on the ground.

“Just once, years ago. And it was good. Really fucking good. And I liked him, that’s what made it even better, I suppose.”

John buries his face in his hands. He looks terribly lost. Sherlock feels the familiar, inexplicable urge to hold him. Maybe he should. They’re not standing at a grave, this time. There’s a realistic chance that John could, in fact, appreciate being held by Sherlock. For once. Sherlock takes a few steps towards him, to get closer. Just in case.

“I’ve never— I’ve never told anyone,“ John bites out, then giggles in a brief fit of hysteria, “I’ve never even tried to tell anyone, hell, I never even considered- I always thought-“

Sherlock takes a few steps closer and eyes him questioningly in the sparse light. The street lamp flickers a bit.

“I always thought it was supposed to be like that,” John murmurs, “when I was younger, I assumed most people kind of - liked both. I didn't know it any other way, I just... I chose women, always, because - because it was easier, because—“ He gives Sherlock a look, wide eyes, all drunkenness and confusion, “because when Harry brought her first girlfriend home, our father threatened to beat her, because I never - because I thought dating women was - was what I was supposed to do. And if felt natural, so I thought that's what it was, but - but the one time I kissed a bloke, it felt- It felt natural too." John sighs. “But you,” he says softly, “you weren't like that. You always knew, and you never questioned it and you never did anything because you thought you were supposed to. And that's good, Sherlock, that's a good thing. You know who you are, that's why you're a better man than I'll ever be and I shouldn’t be telling you this o-on the bloody street when I’m bloody pissed but... but I figure-”

John looks unsteady on his feet. Sherlock figures it really is time to steady him a bit. He takes another step towards him, then carefully wraps one arm around John’s waist. John looks like this startles him immensely.

“You’re drunk, John,” Sherlock says helplessly.

“So are you,” John huffs and wraps his arms around Sherlock.

Sherlock lowers his head, just a bit, just enough to feel John’s hair tickle his chin. John’s breath is hot against his neck and if they were closer, just a little closer, Sherlock could kiss his forehead. And, provided that John doesn’t object to Sherlock kissing his forehead, Sherlock could proceed to cup his jaw with one hand, lift his chin, lean in and kiss him properly.

John actually does lift his chin a bit and smiles drowsily at Sherlock. He smells like cranberry and sandalwood and aftershave and sweat. Sherlock’s breath hitches. God, he wants him. He can't even help it. Unbelievable how one flawed, poorly controlled body can desire another. Disgustingly plebeian, that.

This really shouldn’t be happening. At least not like this. This isn't even remotely the way Sherlock imagined it. (Not that he has imagined it, of course. Sherlock would never delude himself like that.)

However, if Sherlock kissed John, they certainly wouldn’t be drunk and tired and confused and standing in a dark alley. Their breath wouldn’t smell like cranberries and beer and vodka and Sherlock’s fingers wouldn’t be trembling like that.

If Sherlock kissed him, John’s lips would taste of John instead of cranberry, and it would be perfect.

This is not going to happen, evidently, because if there’s anything Sherlock would never do it would be something so dull as acting on... this. Whatever it is. Unrequited romantic feelings, one might call it. Hypothetically.

He really is drunk.

And God, he hates vodka. It occurs to him that what he feels for John is the exact opposite of what he feels for vodka right now, only much more intense. He loves John more than he hates vodka. This is an absolutely ridiculous train of thought.

 

They let go of each other simultaneously, as if by command. The loss of warmth and touch and generally John is peculiar and unpleasant.

Sherlock feels cold in the light cone of their street lamp.

“Let’s really go home now,” John says, and this time, it’s Sherlock who follows him.

 


 

John doesn’t wish him a good night. John usually does that. He disappears in the bathroom instead and Sherlock stumbles into his bedroom, because there’s nowhere else to go, really. This evening is extremely confusing.

He undresses, puts on a pair of pyjama bottoms, listens to John’s crashing around in the bathroom and the soft sound of John’s naked feet padding upstairs. He realises that standing around half naked while listening to John-specific noises is not a meaningful activity.

He’s tired.

Brushing his teeth isn’t important and can be done tomorrow morning, he decides.

Sherlock simply turns the light off and crawls into his bed, hoping that his brain will leave him alone long enough for him to fall asleep.

It does not, of course. It never does.

Not when it’s busy being completely and utterly focused on John.

John’s hair has tickled his chin today. This is a stone cold, unchangeable fact. Less than 20 minutes ago John’s smell was in his nose and his arms were warm and strong around his waist, and Sherlock liked it and he doesn’t know why. And now sandalwood and cranberry are tickling his nose again and the covers are warm and tight around him, like they're trying to embrace him, and his cock is getting hard, and that really isn’t in any way acceptable.

Masturbation is tedious. Unfortunately not always avoidable, though. Entirely unavoidable, sometimes. Now, for example.

Sherlock shoves a hand in his pants and closes his fist around his stiffening cock, because that’s the only way to get this over with as fast as possible.

He remembers the heat of John’s breath against his neck and John’s ridiculous laughter at the pub earlier and his entire body craves him so much it aches. Sherlock bites back a soft moan as he starts to stroke himself, because odds are that John is still awake, maybe getting naked upstairs, and the walls are thin and oh-

The need is almost painful - pressure and motion, foreskin tugged back, glans exposed, pre-come dampening the pants he's still wearing, so he pulls them down along with the pyjama bottoms he only just put on, and he still needs-- He needs so much.

His body craves John’s body, and the rest of him craves John’s mind. It’s a beautiful mind indeed, despite the fact that it works so differently from Sherlock’s own. He craves John’s presence, his soft words of praise, his inexplicable patience. His ability to save a life when no one else can. He needs John, in his entirety. Relies on him. Desires him with every fibre of his body and his dull, chaotic brain.

He huffs and strokes his cock faster, feels the heat in his abdomen tighten. Maybe John’s hand would feel like that on him. Maybe his mouth would feel even better. Maybe, if Sherlock were a different man, John would lay down with him and caress his chest and take him in his mouth and kiss his stomach when it's over. Maybe John would want to roll him over and work him open and fuck him as hard as he can, until Sherlock screams into his pillow, and maybe John would whisper his name, and it would sound as if Sherlock is who he wants. And afterwards, maybe, John would do something as disgustingly stereotypical as cuddle up to him and kiss his forehead. And, maybe, just for Sherlock's sake, he would take a moment to pretend that Sherlock Holmes is a man John Watson could love.

Sherlock bites his lips when he comes. His muscles tighten briefly, he squeezes his eyes shut and ejaculates all over his hand and belly, and suddenly John’s breath is on his skin again and the taste of his lips in his mouth, hypothetically, of course, because Sherlock doesn't know what John's lips taste like, and it occurs to him that he really no longer knows where his mind ends and his transport begins. It’s the most pathetic thing that’s ever happened to him.

Sherlock is weak now. Helpless. Completely at John’s mercy without John knowing it, and there’s really only so much desperately forced denial even Sherlock can take. He blindly reaches for his nightstand and, blessedly, finds something that feels like a tissue. Maybe this is love, after all, he thinks as he cleans himself up and scrubs a bit at the mess on his sheets. Maybe it’s supposed to be like that. Sherlock throws the tissue on the floor and rolls over to get some sleep, dizzy and sweaty and with his stupid hand over his stupid, aching heart.

People adore love. Sherlock feels like he’s being ripped apart by it. It’s pointless to dwell on it, Sherlock decides, already half asleep. Completely pointless.

Most things are pointless, after all, for people like him.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The next morning is awful. One of the main reasons is that one tends to feel more dead than alive after exposing oneself to amounts of alcohol one's body is not accustomed to. That's general knowledge, of course, but experiencing it firsthand never fails to be illuminating. In a very cruel way.

Sherlock makes his first attempt to move towards the bathroom at eight o’clock.

He swings one leg over the edge of his bed and tries to sit up.

His bedroom is spinning and he is entirely unable to move into an upright position. For a moment he contemplates that maybe it’s not his bedroom that’s spinning around its axis but the entire planet (Earth is supposed to do that, as far as he recalls) but he isn’t entirely sure. Planets are tedious and Sherlock’s attempt to leave the bed fails.

Sherlock actually reaches the bathroom at half past eleven. His head feels awful and his mouth tastes sour. Not brushing his teeth was, evidently, not a very smart idea.

He attempts to solve this problem by attacking his teeth rather aggressively with his toothbrush and John’s menthol flavoured mouthwash. His mouth tastes like a slightly better variation of disgusting after that, which is at least somewhat acceptable. Sherlock manages to take a quick shower and puts clothes on that smell sort of fresh (John’s been doing the laundry recently, Sherlock doesn't really understand John’s laundry sorting system; laundry is supposed to be sorted by type and colour not by... dirtiness). Getting dressed happens without further incidents and Sherlock feels surprisingly ready to face the day. Or John, wherever he is.

 

John is waiting for him in the sitting room, as it turns out, looking about as horrible as Sherlock feels. He wordlessly gestures at the kitchen table where Sherlock discovers two paracetamol and a glass of water. He picks up the pills, swallows them, gulps down the water and walks over to the sofa to slump down next to John. No need to challenge his sense of balance for an unnecessarily long period of time. John raises his eyebrows in reaction to this, as if he’s mildly surprised, but not surprised enough to comment on it. This is to be expected. They’ve become used to a certain amount of closeness.

John yawns and reaches for an envelope on the coffee table, picks it up and dangles it in front of Sherlock’s nose.

“You've got a letter,” he announces, “no sender. Mrs Hudson brought it, along with the tea.”

“What tea?” Sherlock inspects his surroundings in order to track down the Mrs Hudson’s tea pot. Tea would be nice now.

John sighs. “I drank it.”

“All of it?”

“Yes.”

Sherlock glares. “You could have saved some for me.”

“That was three hours ago, you were sleeping like a log.”

Sherlock snatches the blank envelope and eyes it. No adress. His correspondent must have brought it personally and slipped it between the rest of Mrs Hudson's mail.

“My name is not on it,” he declares, “might as well be for you, then.”

“Of course,” John huffs, “because I’m the one in this house who gets anonymous letters.”

“Mrs Hudson got a few a while ago.”

John grins at the table. “Yeah, but those were from the bloke she met at her bingo club. The one who fancied her.”

“Ah.” Sherlock remembers that. Partly. “What happened to him again?”

“God, Sherlock,” John groans, “you deduced he was married and only interested in an affair is what happened. Mrs Hudson cried for two hours because you’re an arse. Open the letter.”

Sherlock tears the envelope open. In it is a typed letter, neatly folded. The paper smells flowery. Faintly like violets, maybe. Sherlock currently doesn’t trust his olfactory perception.

It’s a brief letter. No greeting, and, more importantly, no signature. Anonymous letters are always peculiar.

 

I know you deserve a handwritten invitation,

but I think that would spoil the surprise.

Delldale Road 23. 7 pm.

Let’s face the storm together.

No police, but please don’t come alone.

 

“So. What do you think?” John asks once he’s finished reading. John reads exceptionally slowly today.

Sherlock sighs. “I think Lauris is even less careful than I assumed. And that this is a game for him.”

“It’s really him, then? You’re sure Lauris sent this?”

“He stressed that he couldn’t send me a handwritten invitation. Evidently, he doesn’t want me to recognise his handwriting. He gave his little secret away by trying not to give it away. Amateurish mistake.”

John licks his lips. His mouth is slightly open, as if he’s having trouble understanding what Sherlock is saying. The sight is strangely appealing. “You’d recognise his handwriting?”

“Of course I would.”

“Why?”

“Because,” Sherlock says slowly, smirking, “four days ago, he wrote his name and his phone number on a serviette for me.”

“And you still have it?”

“Of course I still have it. It’s evidence, John.”

“Okay,” John says, rubbing his temple, because apparently he’s not immune to ethanol-induced headaches either. The fact is strangely soothing. Sherlock’s own throbbing headache has yet to become more bearable.

“So,” John continues, “are we going to meet him tonight?”

“Mmh. I suppose so. He obviously expects you to come along.”

“He does?”

“He knows you’re my colleague, and that we’re solving crimes together, it’s only logical for you to be the one accompanying me. We’re both invited to join his game. Jealousy might be one of the reasons since he's obviously attracted to me-" John's facial expression indicates that he doesn't want Sherlock to elaborate on that topic. - "I don’t know what it’s all about," Sherlock continues, "but I know he wants me to play with him, and he wants you to be there as well. So we're going to accept his invitation. It's only polite. Manners, John.”

John folds his hands in his lap. “Are you going to call Lestrade? Considering that Lauris is most probably armed—“

“He doesn’t have a gun.”

“That didn’t prevent him from murdering four people. At the very least.”

“John,” Sherlock says patiently, because John’s being slow again, “When a highly intelligent serial killer tells you not to involve the police, you don’t involve the police.”

“Oh, of course,” John scoffs, “and did that work out very well the last few times?”

“Actually, yes.”

“Really?“

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “For God’s sake. I’m going to text Lestrade and suggest he stay put. Ready to intervene. Just in case. Can’t give him any details, of course. That would be against the rules.” He gestures at the letter. “In my experience, you shouldn’t break a murderer’s rules if you value your own life.”

John huffs out a laugh. “Greg is going to kill us for that, you know. Provided that Lauris doesn’t spare him the trouble tonight.”

“Please,” Sherlock huffs, “Lauris isn’t planning on murdering us tonight. Too obvious. It’s never that easy. As I said, I think he’ll try to establish the rules of his game. He’ll try to rationalise his behaviour, explain his intentions, make an attempt to justify what he’s doing." Sherlock makes a dismissive hand gesture. "Yes, he might try to murder us when he’s finished explaining, but I find that highly unlikely. And even if he tries–“

John snorts.

“Even if he tries, John, there’s two of us. He wouldn’t stand a chance. All in all, it’s an acceptable amount of risk that we’re about to take. Do keep up.”

“Okay,” John says simply. As if keeping up with Sherlock is the easiest thing in the world.

Sherlock’s head is practically burning. Paracetamol is supposed to take full effect within thirty minutes. That’s too slow, of course. Even cyclooxygenase inhibitors insist on being difficult this morning. Sherlock's stomach makes a grumbling sound, probably because the rest of his body isn't annoying enough already.

John places his feet on the coffee table and leans back, wiggling his toes and yawning again. Sherlock notices that he looks exhausted, but also mildly amused by it all, which is intriguing.

“What are we going to do now?” John asks, pinching the bridge of his nose, “are we just going to wait for our rendezvous with your... your admirer? Or do you have anything in mind?”

Sherlock pokes the inside of his cheek with his tongue. “Breakfast?”

“Lunch,” John corrects, “I’m starving.” He fishes his phone out of his pocket with some difficulties. Sherlock is not the only one with unsteady fingers this morning.

“Thai?”

Sherlock grimaces. “Nothing spicy,” he says flatly, gesturing at his stomach that’s dangerously close to voicing its displeasure again, “otherwise someone might get sick.”

John smirks and puts his phone back where it was. “Yeah, we want to avoid that. Breakfast for lunch? Speedy’s?”

“Yes.”

“Okay,” John says and gets up. He clenches his hands and stretches briefly, then rubs his eyes. “God. I feel awful. I’ll be right back.”

Sherlock nods. John puts on his jacket, checks the whereabouts of his wallet (in said jacket) and marches downstairs. He's walking a lot slower than usual, most probably due to balance and orientation issues. Sherlock briefly contemplates locating the rest of John’s painkillers. However, John usually doesn’t appreciate Sherlock’s unsolicited experiments with self-medication, which is why he decides against it. He doesn’t want to upset John. An upset John has potential to make this very confusing day even worse.

John returns a few minutes later, two coffees and a paper bag that smells like croissants in hand. He places their food on the coffee table and slumps onto the sofa again, burying his face in his hands.

“God,” he groans, “my head is killing me.”

Sherlock hums contemplatively and takes the coffee that’s closer to him. Black, two sugars. John knows how Sherlock takes his coffee. They’re sitting too close to each other again. Even closer than before. Still not close enough. Sherlock isn’t sure. There are barely two inches between Sherlock’s left thigh and John’s right thigh, which is definitely a first.

Sherlock takes a sip of coffee and promptly burns his tongue. “Ow,” he says.

John grins. “Yeah, s’hot. Careful.”

Sherlock deposits his coffee on the table and decides to reach for a croissant instead. Oddly, John decides to do the exact same thing at the same time.

Their hands touch, John’s fingers brushing over the back of Sherlock’s hand. Sherlock waits for John to pull his hand away, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t move at all, to be precise, which is entirely illogical. Sherlock inhales, exhales, then turns the palm of his hand upwards. John’s hand follows his movements, slowly, until their palms are pressed together, warm and dry and... utterly inexplicable. Sherlock’s heart beats in his throat.

John is the one to end it, as expected. He clears his throat and fumbles with the paper bag instead. Seconds later he supplies Sherlock with a croissant (chocolate chips on top but no filling, Sherlock’s favourite) and moves closer as he does so. Very close. Close enough to touch. Sherlock can feel the warmth of John’s skin against his thigh. There are only two layers of fabric between them. It’s an extremely peculiar sensation.

John doesn’t smell like cranberries anymore. He smells like tea and shampoo, which is a lot better.

“Okay?” John asks, biting into his croissant.

“Okay,” Sherlock says.

He eats his breakfast with his thigh pressed up against John’s and John’s scent in his nose and his skin tingling when John smiles at him. John looks soft, this morning, he thinks. Beautiful. Crumbs all over his jumper and all. It’s all quite alright, in a way. Really.

 


 

Six hours later, Sherlock’s head hurts significantly less. He’s also seated next to John in a cab and they’re on their way to the meeting with their correspondent.

It’s grey and rainy outside and it’s just a matter of time until they’ll hear the first roll of thunder.

Nobody’s going to die tonight, Sherlock reminds himself. They’re not going to be the victims of a harmless storm. They’re just playing a game.

The cab stops abruptly and John’s fingers brush lightly over Sherlock's sleeve. Sherlock swallows. John’s gaze is fixed on the window, as if the grey, wet streets outside are in any way intellectually stimulating. Sherlock eyes him. The bags under his eyes are noticeably large, most probably due to a lack of sleep. His laugh lines are more visible than ever, as well. Sherlock is oddly fond of all that. He’s oddly fond of all the small things about John.

Delldale Road 23 is a large, unoccupied looking warehouse. Most probably abandoned. Neutral territory. Interesting.

Sherlock pays the cabbie and joins John under the lonely oak tree at the nearest street corner, since that's the only way to escape the rain. Still no thunder. Bad timing on Lauris’ part, that.

“We have five minutes left,” John says, glancing at his watch.

“Always good to be on time.” Sherlock taps his index finger against his own thigh. “Did you bring your gun?”

“Of course.”

“Good.”

“Mmh.” John seems to be fascinated with Sherlock’s tapping index finger. “Do you think he's already in there? Waiting for us?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock admits. God, he wants a cigarette.

John frowns and looks up at the sky. A raindrop lands on his nose. “Well. It’s only a matter of time before it gets extremely uncomfortable out here, I guess.”

“Exactly,” Sherlock says, “that’s why we’re going in.”

“Do we have a plan?”

“We don’t need a plan, John. He invited us, he's the one who needs a plan. Do what he says. Do what I say. What I need is information, time to make him talk. In the very unlikely event that he attacks us, try to get out there alive. That’s all.”

“You sure you know what you’re doing?”

John’s hair is wet. Another raindrop has landed right above his left eyebrow. It sparkles.

Sherlock presses his lips together. “Of course I do.”

John takes a step towards him.

“Sherlock,” he says and places his hand cautiously on Sherlock’s shoulder. Sherlock blinks. The amount of touching that occurs today is unparalleled and dreadfully hard to process. “Before we go in,” john says, his tone indicating that he'd been waiting for the right moment, that those are prepared words, “and who knows what the hell is actually waiting in there, I just— I want you to know that I’m glad we talked yesterday. I don’t want to act like it didn’t happen, okay? And I’m... I’m glad you told me the things you told me and – I’m glad you listened to me as well. And it was good to talk to you. It really was. That's what I want you to know.” John’s hand vanishes. “Okay, then,” he says, giving Sherlock a curt nod, “Into battle, right?”

 

They enter the warehouse side by side.

It’s nearly empty. Not empty enough for an abandoned warehouse, though. It smells like dust and mould and moist cardboard. Empty boxes are lying around, along with pallets and cable ties. Sherlock spots several paint tins and a spare wheel for a forklift on the mostly empty metal shelves to their right.

Not abandoned, then. Just temporarily out of use. Sherlock should have bothered to trace the owner of the property beforehand.

The heavy iron door snaps shut behind them, leaving them standing in near darkness. There’s barely any light falling through the small, grimy windows. The rain drums on the roof, becoming louder with every passing second.

Sherlock takes a few steps forward in order to get an overview.

Lauris is not waiting for them, which startles Sherlock a bit. He’s most probably not hiding in here, either. The rows of empty shelves that occupy around a third of the floor area make for a dreadful hiding place, and the single concrete pillar that’s supporting the ceiling is too narrow to hide a grown man. They’re alone. Nobody is waiting for them. Lauris makes them wait for him. Of course. It's another pathetic attempt to feign superiority. Sherlock has to admit that he should have expected that, too.

John clears his throat next to him. “So. What now?”

Sherlock squeezes his eyes shut and opens them again in an attempt to see him more clearly. “We wait. And we find a light switch.”

John gazes up at the neon tubes on the ceiling. “There must be one near the entrance.”

“Mmh. Either that or somewhere behind those shelves. I suspect that there are several smaller rooms. The building looked larger from the outside.”

John sucks in a sharp breath and crinkles his nose in the way that indicates he’s entertaining various ideas at once. It’s his strategic thinking face. “He could be hiding in there, then,” John says slowly.

“I don’t think so. I’m relatively sure he’s about to make a dramatic entrance. He wouldn’t want to spend his precious time crouching between boxes in a windowless room in order to surprise us. We’re alone, for now.” Sherlock gives John a stern look. “Light switch,” he orders. He needs to see clear.

“Right." John sighs. “I’ll look over there.” He heads for the rows of shelves and disappears in the darkness between them.

Sherlock inspects the dirty walls. The plaster is crumbling. No light switch.

“Found it!” John announces from behind the shelves. The neon tubes flicker for a second, then the light goes on. It stings in Sherlock’s eyes.

“Wait,” John exclaims, sounding startled, “Sherlock, what are you-“

“John?” Sherlock takes a step in John’s direction and cranes his neck a bit. He can't see him.

“Sherlock,” John repeats, sounding alarmed, “something is—Is that you?”

“No,” Sherlock says. He can hear John’s footsteps, and oddly enough, they are moving away from him. That doesn’t make sense.

Sherlock cautiously approaches the first shelf and peers around the corner. John is nowhere in sight. He moves on to the next row, peers into the space between the second and the third shelf. John isn’t there either. Sherlock can hear footsteps again. Not only John’s footsteps; there is definitely a second pair of feet moving in here, and it's moving fast.

Sherlock turns around, scans his surroundings, then moves on to the next shelf.

“John,” Sherlock repeats. A moment later, he takes an involuntary step back, surprised. John is standing opposite him, between the fifth and the sixth shelf, with his back against the wall, not moving. He’s pressing his index finger to his lips. His gun is in his left hand, ready to be used. Sherlock stares at him. Everything is dead still, only the wind is howling outside and the rain patters against the window panes. Nobody is moving inside the warehouse, except-

The lights go out. Neither of them has touched the light switch.

Sherlock can hear the first, distant rumbling of thunder.

The sudden darkness is too much; Sherlock's eyes can’t adjust fast enough and the footsteps are getting closer again. The footsteps that are, in fact, not John's because John is not moving.

This is not a meeting. They’re not here to negotiate.

It’s a trap. An ambush attack. Someone is hiding in the darkness, someone who might as well be invisible. Someone he underestimated.

“John!” Sherlock yells. He can’t see John in the darkness anymore, not even his silhouette.

A second later, one of the heavy metal shelves gets knocked over. It creaks, falls, hits the ground. The noise resounds in Sherlock’s ears and the resulting dust cloud forces him to close his eyes. Someone is moving fast, possibly running, terrifyingly close to him.

Sherlock hears another noise; not a scream, not a cry for help. It’s a long, painful, drawn-out “oh,” a sound of surprise and fear that’s almost swallowed by the next roll of thunder.

John. Something happened to John, and whatever it is, it should have happened to Sherlock instead which means Sherlock is responsible.

“John,” Sherlock yells again, rubbing his burning eyes, taking deep, shallow breaths in an attempt not to inhale too much dust. He won’t allow himself to think for a second that John might be lying under this shelf, unconscious, injured—and it would be Sherlock’s fault because he miscalculated, underestimated--

“John!”

Lightning flashes, bathing the warehouse in sharp, white light, just for a second. Something unpleasantly hot flares up in Sherlock’s stomach. He can hear footsteps again. They sound light, easy, like—like dancing, like the movements of a petite ballet dancer. This is a pointless association, clearly, and it doesn't change the fact that something extremely unsettling is going on here.

The storm outside is howling now, drowning out the pulse that's throbbing in Sherlock’s ears and the rain that's lashing against the window panes.

“John! Where-- Are you alright?”

“Sherlock,” John says somewhere in the dark. His voice sounds hoarse and shaky, and Sherlock’s heart clenches. John is close to him. It’s alright, everything is alright, it doesn’t matter that Sherlock’s made a mistake. They’re going to get out of here together.

Sherlock blinks and blinks and rubs his eyes, waits for the dust to settle and his eyes to stop burning.

When he opens his eyes, John is there. Right in front of him, approaching him, slowly, wordlessly.

“John,” Sherlock says emphatically, “have you seen him? Is it him? Is he here?”

John doesn’t answer. He moves closer, looking unsteady on his feet, still clutching his gun.

“Is Lauris here, John?” Sherlock barks out.

A door snaps shut. The warehouse has a second entrance, probably an emergency exit in one of the side rooms. Of course.

“Is he—Was he alone? What happened?”

John doesn’t speak.

“Did he try to attack you, John?” Sherlock nearly yells.

Another flash of lightning illuminates John’s face. He looks unbelievably tired, exhausted. His features are tense, like he’s in pain. John being in pain is so atrocious a concept that Sherlock refuses to consider it, of course. John takes another step, raises both hands. His gun hits the floor, causing another, smaller dust cloud to swirl at their feet.

John Watson in his right mind would never drop a loaded gun.

Something is wrong.

“John,” Sherlock says firmly, “tell me what just happened.”

John closes the distance between them, wraps his arms around Sherlock, hugs him, clutches at him like he’s holding on for dear life. His fingers dig into Sherlock’s back and shoulders. It hurts a bit, but Sherlock lets him. He’ll always let John be close to him if that's what John wants.

John’s pupils are dilated (catecholamines, acute stress). His upper lip trembles and he looks like he's about to faint. Sherlock wraps his arms firmly around John’s waist, holds him as tight as he can because that really is the only thing he can do. All he can do is prevent John from falling.

“Sherlock,” John whispers.

Sherlock just stares, puzzled, because something is clearly wrong, not the way it should be, but he can’t put his finger on the problem. He can’t think of anything to say, not when John is holding onto him like this, so he just keeps them both upright and as steady as he can.

“Have you ever looked at someone,” John stutters, “and thought, that’s it, that’s—“ His gaze is becoming unfocussed, dropping from Sherlock’s eyes to his lips.

Sherlock eyes him questioningly, painfully aware of the lack of space between them.

John swallows. “Have you ever looked at someone and thought - now or never. It has to be now, because in a minute it might be too late?”

“No,” Sherlock says truthfully.

“You are a miracle, Sherlock Holmes.” John whispers, eyes impossibly wide, his chest heaving with a sudden effort to draw breath. He raises his hands, cups Sherlock’s face with cold, trembling fingers and pulls him closer.

“John,” Sherlock says helplessly, inhaling a scent of dust and sweat and iron that makes his skin prickle and his breath hitch and his chest burn with agitation. This is not alright. This is not like yesterday, this is not drunken hugging under a street lamp. This is something else entirely, but it isn’t how it should be either. Something warm is trickling over Sherlock’s hand where he’s touching John’s waist. It can’t—It can’t be what he thinks it is.

“You’re going to call me an idiot for this,“ John whispers.

Sherlock can’t imagine anything that would make him call John an idiot, nothing at all. Not right now.

“A long time ago,” John says, “I thought what you did was a miracle, what you’re capable of. Your mind and your brilliance. Your work. But I was wrong. You are. It’s you. It’s always been-”

You’re not making sense, Sherlock wants to say, but he really can’t.

John gazes at him, a dreamlike expression on his face, like he’s losing his grip on reality.

Sherlock’s heart beats in his throat as John raises himself on his toes, his entire body trembling.

John kisses him. It's a forceful kiss, deep and desperate. Soft, dry lips pressed firmly against Sherlock’s, John's fingertips light and shaky on Sherlock’s cheeks. Sherlock holds on, holds John until John’s eyes roll back in his head and he goes slack in Sherlock’s arms.

“John,” Sherlock breathes as he lowers him to the ground. Sherlock can’t focus because this is a unprecedented situation. John has kissed him. He cannot think.

Sherlock cautiously raises his right hand. It's covered in blood, so much blood. Frightening amounts of it. Sherlock stares for a second, dazed. He runs his hand over John's body, blindly searching for the wound. John shivers in his arms when he finds it; it’s a single stab wound right below John’s seventh rib, and the blood flow doesn’t cease. More blood is soaking John’s shirt and jumper under his jacket. Sherlock feels sick.

He kneels down with some difficulties, manoeuvres them so John’s head doesn’t hit the ground and is safe in Sherlock’s lap. John is heavy in his arms, like a limp puppet. His eyelids flutter like he’s having a fever dream.

“John,” Sherlock repeats, sheer panic in his voice. His heart is beating fast, so much faster than it should, and he can’t breathe.

He searches for a pulse on John’s neck and finds it, rapid and weaker than it should be.

It’s all Sherlock’s fault of course. All his fault. He has miscalculated. He made a mistake, walked into a trap. Let John become the victim even though it clearly should have been him. Willingly. He let John kiss him when he was out of his mind, and now he's wasting time, he has forgotten how to think. He has failed. John is unconscious, bleeding out on the floor of a dirty warehouse, and it’s all Sherlock’s fault. He can’t lose him, Sherlock realises. Not like this. Not ever. It's simply not an option.

You don’t have time for sentimentality, Sherlock’s brain supplies, finally, he’s entering hypovolemic shock, stage one. It’s John’s voice telling him that, somewhere in Sherlock’s useless, confused brain, and it’s probably the first time Sherlock is genuinely grateful for the fact that John rules his head. Get his blood loss under control before circulatory decentralisation begins. Don’t be useless. Act.

Sherlock pulls tugs at John’s jumper and pushes it up along with the shirt underneath to reveal the wound. It’s relatively small, but deep. A steady stream of blood is trickling down John’s side. Sherlock shrugs off his coat and then his suit jacket. He’s not wearing a scarf, not today, stupid, stupid. He grabs his suit jacket instead and presses to sleeve to John’s wound, frantically searching for his phone in his coat pocket.

He dials Lestrade’s number with trembling, blood-smeared fingers. He explains, shouts, begs for about a minute. Or a lifetime. He doesn’t know what he’s saying, but he knows Lestrade understands. He should have called the ambulance first, he realises.

John makes a sound in his arms, an unconscious little sniffle, as if he’s about to wake up. Sherlock’s throws his phone away in order to tighten his grip around him, because he needs to hold him, he needs to keep him safe.

“John,” he says helplessly, “John, wake up.”

John doesn’t move. Sherlock stares at his fingers, red with John’s blood and shaking and he remembers that he needs to trim his fingernails, and what a pointless thought that is because it doesn’t matter now. Nothing matters. Nothing.

“Stay,” Sherlock begs, “stay with me. John. Stay.”

An indeterminable while later, the blood flow seems to have stopped. Sherlock is pressing hard enough to clamp an artery or two, after all, but John’s lips are turning blue and his eyelids are still moving, and he’s cold, so cold. Sherlock clutches John’s ice cold wrist like a lifeline, because he can feel his pulse there. It is still there, terrifyingly weak, but it’s John’s blood under his skin. It’s keeping him alive. John has a pulse, John is here, he is still here with Sherlock and John can’t leave.

Because Sherlock needs him, more than he has ever needed anyone. Because love is like that.

By the time Sherlock finally, blessedly, hears sirens approaching, he is cradling John’s head, his thumb drawing circles on John’s cheek and the hand that’s keeping pressure on his wound cramping. He can hear the blood rush in his ears and someone, distantly, is calling for help, and Sherlock thinks it might be him, but he can’t bring himself to care.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

They refuse to give him a comfortable chair.

Sherlock’s in a hospital. He isn’t entirely sure how he even got here, but no matter how much he complains and shouts abuse at people, they don’t give him a comfortable chair. They offer to call security to escort him out on three separate occasions however, which he declines.

Sherlock remembers Lestrade yelling at him, people running, so much running. Paramedics pressing an oxygen mask on John’s face and someone telling Sherlock to let go, to let go of John because they need to carry him away on a stretcher. He remembers Lestrade shouting instructions at the paramedics which resulted in Sherlock being ushered into the back of the ambulance. He remembers how pale and small John looked as they pressed bandages all over his chest and covered him in something that looked like a thermal blanket, even though it wasn’t particularly cold.

Sherlock also remembers that someone kept telling him to breathe.

Everything after that is a bit of blur. He must have washed the blood off his hands at some point, since they’re clean now. He can’t really remember. He’s just waiting, and his back hurts because he’s sitting on one of those stupid visitor’s chairs on a corridor, with people rushing past him and making a lot of noise.

Unacceptable, obviously, all of it. He has to stay here over night. Or even longer. He has to stay here as long as John stays, after all, and he can’t sleep on this nightmare made of hard plastic with people shouting and chattering and carrying all sorts of things around--

“Mr Holmes?” says a voice, nearly making him jump.

Sherlock looks up and blinks at the nurse in front of him. “Yes?”

“You’re here with Mr John Watson?”

Doctor,” Sherlock corrects. It feels very important to do so. John is a doctor.

“Ah,” the nurse says, brushing a strand of black hair out of her face, glancing at the clip board in her left hand, “Dr Watson. Right, sorry. Anyway. Dr Watson is fine, well, given the circumstances– I assure you he’s being cared for. He’s currently asleep, but he’s no longer on anaesthesia. He  was awake for a short period of time and asked for you.”

Sherlock narrows his eyes to slits and peers at her. Something warm is spreading in his chest. Relief, most probably. Unimportant. Focus.

“He’s in a stable condition, that’s unfortunately all I can tell you about his health status since you’re not family,” the nurse continues, “but I can take you to his room if you want.” She gestures at the far end of the corridor, “right over there, if you want to come with me—“

Sherlock gets up hastily, grabs his coat that he’s been sitting on to make the plastic chair more bearable and follows her.

John’s room is small, grey and intimidating the way hospital rooms tend to be when they’re full of monitors and wires and tubes surrounding a bed with a broken looking person in it. John is indeed asleep. His eyelids are fluttering a bit and his breathing is shallow but regular. There are electrodes all over his chest. His wound is covered in clean gauze.

“John,” Sherlock whispers and involuntarily takes a step towards him. John’s left hand is lying on top of the duvet, palm upwards.

There’s a chair next to John’s bed. Convenient. Sherlock sits down and folds his hands in his lap.

“He’s going to be alright. I’m sure,” says the nurse, who’s apparently still there. Sherlock blinks at her. Her name is Rebecca, according to her name tag.

“It’s going to be okay,” she repeats, giving him a smile that’s probably supposed to be comforting, “I know it’s scary. He gave you a fright. Stabbed in the chest. Terrible, terrible business.”

Sherlock nods because he doesn’t know what else to do.

“It’s hard. I know what it’s like,” Rebecca says, “same thing happened to me and my boyfriend. Well, to him, really. He was in a car crash, half a year ago, it was terrible. Nothing serious though, you know, he just had a broken arm and a few scratches, he recovered in no time but I—I had nightmares for weeks. Couldn’t stop crying, thinking about what could have happened. Sometimes, when the people we love get hurt, it’s harder for us than for them.”

John makes a noise in his sleep. It’s a sigh, nothing but a small sound of distress, but it makes Sherlock’s heart clench.

“You two are going to be alright. I know it,” Rebecca says. Her lipstick doesn’t match her eye shadow. Her boyfriend is planning on proposing to her within the next two weeks, judging by her earrings. She’s going to say yes.

“I’m sorry.” She pulls her hand away. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be rambling about this. I get chatty when I’ve had too much coffee, and I’ve had a lot of coffee because, you know, I have to survive my night shift somehow—“

One of John’s monitors chooses this moment to beep. Rebecca looks pleased.

“His blood pressure is going up. That’s good. Looks like you being here is a good influence. I’ll leave you two alone for a bit. Press the call button when he wakes up. If he’s still a bit drowsy, don’t be alarmed.”

Sherlock nods. The nurse closes the door behind her.

 

The thunderstorm is long over; the rain is only lightly pattering against the window. It’s getting dark already. Sherlock turns the light on and returns to his chair.

John’s thumb twitches minutely. His hand looks small and wrinkled and there’s a bit of dried blood under his fingernails. Sherlock feels and inexplicable urge to touch it. Social convention suggests that it’s not unusual to hold the hand of a man one has kissed.

He has kissed John today.

It feels like that happened a lifetime ago. Sherlock raises a hand and touches his bottom lip, carefully, just for a second. John touched him there.

Sherlock contemplates the situation for around a minute, then he carefully covers John’s hand with his own. It’s not like John will ever find out; he’s asleep after all. A part of Sherlock wants to keep holding John’s hand when John is awake. He wonders if John will let him.

John’s hand is warm and dry, not ice cold like the last time he held it, a few hours ago, on the floor of a dirty warehouse. It feels easy to interlace their fingers. Sherlock presses his index finger to John’s pulse point, just for a second. John’s pulse is steadier now. Firmer, too. Like it should be.

John stirs and grumbles softly. His eyelids flutter.

Sherlock’s heart beats inexplicably fast in reaction to that. He tightens his grip on John’s hand a bit, squeezes. He hasn’t made a conscious decision to do that, of course, it just sort of happens. John makes another sleepy sound and sucks in a sharp breath. Sherlock tries not to panic.

“John,” Sherlock says cautiously, “are you awake?”

“Mmmh,” John murmurs back, eyes still closed, “You’re breathing funny, Sherlock. I can hear you… breathing.”

Sherlock blinks.

 “Sherlock,” John repeats, “are you okay?”

“I am—Obviously.” This is a ludicrous question, of course he’s okay. “You’re the one who is not okay,” he informs John.

“I’m not okay?” John slurs, cracks one eye open, lifts his head a bit and peers down at their joined hands for a second, then at the monitor that’s closest to him. He makes a resigned sound and lets his head fall back onto his pillow.

“You’re in a hospital,” Sherlock explains. It occurs to him that he has no idea where they actually are. He’s sure that this is not Barts. It’s only logical that they brought them to the hospital that was closest to the warehouse. “You have been stabbed, John. We were in a warehouse and you -- Do you remember this?”

“Ah,” John says, “yes, I-- Right. How long have you been here?”

“The entire time.”

“Ah,” John says, smiling slightly. He doesn’t seem to understand the seriousness of the current situation, which is worrying.

“You are injured. You got anaesthesia, and you got stitches,” Sherlock says, “and I need to press your call button.”

“Mmh. Why?”

Sherlock stretches, reaching for the button above John’s bed. “Because I’m supposed to press the call button when you’re awake.”

“I’m awake.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Ah.” John seems to contemplate this. “You’re holding my hand.”

Oh. “Yes,” Sherlock says, “Sorry, I’ll-“

“No,” John murmurs sleepily, squeezing Sherlock’s hand, “’s good. Don’t—Stay here. Don’t let go.” Sherlock squeezes too, just a bit, because it feels right.  “Don’t let go,” John repeats sleepily, so Sherlock doesn’t. 

 

The doctor walks in about three minutes later, clipboard in hand. He introduces himself as Dr Sternberg. (Pointless information no one asked for, wasting time when he should be doing what he’s being payed for. Fixing John, that is.)

Sherlock scowls. Sternberg quickly checks the monitors and scribbles on the clipboard, adjusting the glasses on his nose with his index finger exactly seven times.

Judging by the state of his white coat, he’s not only going to overview John’s recovery, he’s also the surgeon who treated the wound, which is at least moderately reassuring. His body language indicates that he’s not about to announce bad news. Sherlock approves of that.

“How are you doing, Doctor?” Sternberg asks when he’s done ticking boxes on his list.

“Tired and sort of like I’ve been… punched,” John murmurs, rubbing his eyes with both hands. The back of his hand in faintly purple. Extensive haematoma where the catheter pierces his vein. Sherlock feels an odd urge to touch it, to find out if it hurts, because it shouldn’t. John shouldn’t be in pain.

“You were incredibly lucky,” Sternberg says, and something hot flares up in Sherlock’s stomach. Nobody was lucky today. John’s been stabbed instead of him and it’s Sherlock’s fault, and there’s absolutely nothing lucky about this. This man hasn’t got the faintest idea what happened.

John squints at the doctor, seemingly processing what he just said. It seems like he’s still too drowsy to react.

“Your pleura is intact, lungs unharmed. And no pneumothorax to deal with, fortunately. How’s breathing? Still a bit painful?”

“Well,” John says contemplatively, taking a deep, forceful breath to determine if it hurts. “Uh,” he says on the exhale, “still hurts, yeah. Quite a bit. Uh, how much blood did I lose? A lot, I—I suppose.”

Sternberg nods contemplatively. “Your wound is more of a cut than a stab wound, but it’s still quite deep. There was extensive bleeding, as you may have noticed. Fortunately, we have a well-assorted blood bank, so we took care of that.” He gives John a reserved smile. “Your heart rate and blood pressure look good. We’ll keep the monitors in for the night, and a nurse will check on you regularly. Apart from that, I think you need rest. So we’re going to have a proper talk tomorrow.”

John mumbles something that sounds like “Good.”

“And you,” Sternberg says sharply, pointing at Sherlock with his index finger, “are going to leave in ten minutes. Visiting hours are long over.” He gives John a curt nod before leaving. “Good night, Dr Watson.”

 

“Well. Sounds not too bad, I guess,” John says when the doctor has left the room.

Sherlock hums in agreement.

“Sherlock,” John says softly, eyeing him.

“Yes?”

“You look like death personified and you haven’t eaten since breakfast. You’re worrying me.“

“You haven’t eaten since breakfast either,“ Sherlock says matter-of-factly.

“Yeah, but as far as I know I have a hole in my chest. I’m allowed to put off eating for a while.”

“John—“

“I’m tired and in pain, Sherlock, “ John says, “and I really don’t need more reasons to worry right now, so you’re going to try not to be difficult, for once.”

Sherlock can’t decide what he finds more annoying; the fact that John doesn’t seem to be the smallest bit concerned about having been stabbed in the chest, or the fact that he’s obsessed with Sherlock’s well-being, especially since it really doesn’t matter right now.

“You’re going home now,” John announces, “and you’re going to sleep for at least six hours.”

“There’s no reason to make a fuss, John.“

“Of course there is. I’m worried, is all. Because you’re not nearly worried enough about yourself and someone has to be.”

Sherlock opens his mouth to protest. John practically shoves his index finger in his face to silence him. John winces as he moves and Sherlock’s heart performs something that feels like an aborted backflip. John’s finger touches his lips, just for a second. Sherlock wonders if John remembers that he kissed him. Probably not. He was dizzy, losing blood, out of his mind, he’ll probably never find out and it’s for the best. Maybe.

“You’re going to go home and sleep,” John repeats firmly. Firmly enough to make Sherlock’s plans to object dissolve into thin air.

“But-“ Sherlock begins hesitantly, “I find myself unwilling to leave, that is to say I… I don’t want to—You’re in pain and I’m—“ he cuts himself off and swallows. He’s not sure how to phrase this. He’s not sure any phrasing he might choose would be appropriate. He decides to caress the back of John’s hand with his thumb instead, rubbing gentle circles into his skin. It feels good, to touch him like that. Reassuring.

“I want to stay with you, John,” Sherlock says soundlessly.

The corners of John’s mouth quirk up into a smile. “I know,” he whispers, “I—thank you.”

“What for?”

John blinks up at him sleepily, his lower lip trembling a bit and his face a bit less pale than before but still quite a worrying colour. “For being here,” he says simply, and he keeps smiling until Sherlock lets go of his hand and turns to leave.

 

Sherlock wants a cigarette on the way home. Quite desperately in fact. He doesn’t stop to buy cigarettes, though. John wouldn’t want him to.

 

 


 

 

Sherlock brings John coffee first thing in the morning.

John looks pleased to see him and is also less pale than yesterday, which is reassuring.

John grins at him. “You here?” he murmurs, “so early?”

“Obviously.”

“Shouldn’t you be out and about with your coat and everything, solving a serial killer case?”

“Something more important has come up,” Sherlock informs him.

“What?”

“You.”

John snorts. “And who’s saving the world?”

“Mmh.” Sherlock hums contemplatively. “Someone who’s qualified to do so, I suppose.”

John chuckles at that and the sound makes Sherlock’s heart do something extremely curious. He helps John sit up in bed without putting pressure on his wound and hands him his Cappuccino and places the vanilla croissant he managed to successfully hide in his coat pocket on the small side table next to the bed. John makes a pleased sound.

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock blurts out as John bites in his croissant, because he figures it’s as good a time as any to say it.

John stares at him for precisely two seconds, then puts down the croissant and frowns. “Sorry for what?”

“I’m sorry you got hurt because of… me.”

“I didn’t get hurt because of you, Sherlock, stop—stop taking the blame for something you couldn’t prevent, that’s—that’s so unlike you. We’ve been injured a hundred times before, how on earth is this different?”

“I should have been stabbed, not you. I was clearly the target, you were in the way. Don’t you understand, John, it’s my--”

“Don’t say it’s your fault, Sherlock.”

“It is. It always is, that’s the way I am. I made a mistake, I miscalculated, everything went wrong and now you’re--” Sherlock gestures helplessly at John and feels stupid which is unpleasant.

“Stop it.” John pushes his coffee away from him and crosses his arms in front of his chest. “We’re not doing this. I thought you were here for breakfast, not to – to morally deconstruct yourself. You need to stop doing that, by the way. I might lose my mind.”

Sherlock bites his lip. “You’re not happy I’m here.”

“Of course I am, I just—“ John takes a deep breath. “Listen. I’m tired, I’m in pain, and your self-pity is not helping.”

Sherlock sighs dramatically. “Since I’m such an incredible burden to you, you’ll be pleased to hear that you won’t have to endure my company this afternoon.”

“Why?”

“I have invited someone.”

“Ah,” John says, gazing at the ceiling, “and who would that be?”

“Someone we need to help. Since you’re not… available at the moment, I’m going to try to do it alone. Not my area, but I will manage.”

John raises one eyebrow in understanding. “Ah. Try not to scare the poor girl too much.”

“I’ll be clear about her situation, state the facts and explain in certain terms what I can do for her—“

“No.”

“What?”

“You’re not going to—No. You’re going to be… not you,” John says emphatically.

Sherlock frowns at him. “That’s not possible.”

“Of course it is. Listen, I don’t want you to traumatise her.”

“I won’t try to traumatise her, John. I know how to traumatise people, I know exactly—“

“I know you won’t try to traumatise her. The problem is,” John says dryly, “that you don’t know how not to traumatise people. You do it accidentally.”

“I know what I’m doing,” Sherlock says. He’s not sure if this is in fact true, but he intends to do his best.

 

 


 

 

“Take a seat,” Sherlock says, gesturing at the sofa, “I would offer you tea, but I don’t know where the tea bags are. They must have been sort of… moved since I last saw them.”

It’s because John makes tea when he’s home, and everything’s different when John’s not home.

Annabelle sits down on the couch and smiles shyly. “No problem, I—I had tea at home,” she says, running one hand through her hair. She put make-up on; lip gloss and mascara, which is clearly unusual for her. She isn’t used to being careful about her appearance. Trying to make an impression, obviously.  

“Wonderful. Let’s talk, then.” Sherlock paces, hands steepled under his chin. He isn’t sure if he’s doing this right. This being polite and reassuring thing.

Annabelle looks mildly intimidated, which is inconvenient. She crosses her legs and rubs at an invisible stain on her jeans with her thumb. “About what?”

“About the fact that you are in what we might call an… unfortunate situation, and I can help you. Well, obviously I can’t, but there are people who can and I have their phone numbers.” Sherlock contemplates. “I have lots of people’s phone numbers,” he adds then, to emphasize the point.

“Um,” Annabelle says, her gaze rapidly scanning her surroundings, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You do.”

Brutally confronting people who are already scared out of their mind is a not good, no matter how efficient it is. So Sherlock will find another way.

He hands the girl the list of phone numbers he has prepared. “I’m going to make this quick. I can’t force you to stand up to your father, Annabelle, and I don’t intend to. But I want you to know that there are people who are aware of your situation and prepared to take action if you so desire. You are an adult and you are able to take any kind of action against you father you feel comfortable with.”

“You might seek counselling, or financial support, and I assure you, there are numerous possibilities—“

Annabelle stares, first at Sherlock, then at the piece of paper in her hand. “You’re misunderstanding something,” she says finally, firmly, as if she’s making a spontaneous decision to object to him, which really hardly makes sense. Her back straightens and she folds her hands in her lap. Something in her eyes lights up briefly, as if she’s having a moment of clarity, of some sort. “You’re so convinced you’re getting it right, aren’t you? You don’t even know me and you think you can change my life, you think you can change me.” Her voice becomes louder with every word. She looks angry and, for a second not the smallest bit intimidated. Almost as if she wants to challenge him. It’s entirely out of character.

Sherlock frowns. Within a second, the girl has become considerably harder to read. “What do you mean?” he asks slowly.

“I mean I—I never told anyone,” Annabelle says quickly, and the next moment her demeanour changes completely. She slumps back onto the couch, averts her eyes, swallows. She looks shy and broken and Sherlock has been right all along. If she made some sort of decision not to cooperate a few seconds ago, she regrets it now.

Right? Sherlock cant help but feel that he’s missing something important here. What a peculiar conversation.

“You didn’t need to,” he says, “tell anyone, that is.”

“Is that what you do?” Annabelle asks, “you know everything about everyone, and then you try to… to interfere.”

“Not everyone. I don’t know much about people I’ve never met, obviously, and there’s a staggering amount of people I’ve never met. Billions of them. It’s a shame, really, so much information going to waste. Do you still play the violin, Annabelle, or was it just a phase?”

She stares at him, mouth slightly open. “I still play, I—uh—“

“I do, too,” Sherlock tells her, gesturing at the violin that’s under the coffee table, for some odd reason.

“Mmh.” Annabelle seems uninterested in discussing the violin.

Well, then. Sherlock is already running out of things to talk about.

Sherlock is self-aware enough to admit that he’s not good at what he’s trying to accomplish here. He wonders if John would be better at this.

John would definitely be better at this.

“Is Dr Watson not here?” Annabelle asks suddenly.

“I—What?”

“I’m sorry, just—“ Annabelle fumbles with the hem of her sweatshirt.  “I expected to see him, I mean—I’m sorry, it’s not a-a problem or anything. I was just—wondering.”

That explains the mascara, Sherlock realises. He tries not to be amused about the fact.

“He had an accident,” he says dryly.

“Oh.” Annabelle reacts way too fast, and she looks surprised, but not nearly surprised enough. Now, that is interesting. “Is he—is he okay?” Annabelle adds after a few seconds, sounding slightly panicky underneath all that emotionlessness and sheer resignation that resonates in everything she usually says.

“No,” Sherlock says truthfully, “but he will be. Soon. Don’t worry about him, you have other things to occupy yourself with.” That must have sounded patronizing, Sherlock realises, and he has made a promise not to be like that.

“There’s no reason to worry, really. He was injured while working on a case with me, but he’s going to be alright.” That’s better. Sherlock is proud of himself.

“Ah. I’m sorry that happened,” Annabelle says simply, looking somewhat disappointed. “I think I have to leave now, my step-mother is waiting for me and she’ll get angry if I’m late, so—“

None of this is working out the way it’s supposed to. Sherlock sighs. “All right,” he says, “I’m—“

 

It is precisely then that he’s interrupted mid-sentence.

Someone knocks on the door, forcefully, exactly five times, and doesn’t wait for Sherlock to ask them to come in.

The door opens and—

 

Sherlock stares for a second, then fights the urge to bury his face in his hands. This is beyond inconvenient. No, this is ludicrous. He wonders if the last few days have inflicted some sort of permanent damage on the part of his brain that’s supposed to deal with things rationally.

 

“Grapefruit,” says Charlene the cockatoo.

 

“Oooooh!” Annabelle squeaks at the sight of the abominable bird. She looks pleased. For the first time since Sherlock met her, Annabelle Peterson looks actually pleased, and of course the avian curse of Sherlock’s existence is responsible.

“Um, sorry to barge in like that.” Mr Bulgner, on whose shoulder the cockatoo is sitting (naturally), is standing in the door frame, looking nervous and out of place. He seems to notice Annabelle with around ten seconds delay. “Good afternoon,” he says, “Pleasure. My name is Thomas Bulgner, and this I my umbrella cockatoo Charlene, and Mr Holmes solved a case for us a while ago.”

“Um,” Annabelle says shyly, “hello.”

Sherlock groans.

“I really d-didn’t mean to disturb you. Charlene and I happened to be in this area, coincidentally, we were picking up food from the vegan health store around the corner. We’ve been experimenting with a lactose-free diet, Charlene and I. Um, I thought it would be nice to stop by and ask how you’ve been doing, and thank you again for everything you’ve done for us and—Where’s Dr Watson, by the way?”

People are exhausting and Sherlock’s patience is wearing thin. He could be spending time with something way more important, right now. John, to be precise. He could be with John. He isn’t, though, because Bulgner and his infuriating bird are fond of surprise visits and Annabelle Peterson is also somehow still here and Sherlock has no idea how to deal with 19 year-olds who don’t really want his help.

This is a disaster.

And there are way too many people plus one bird and no John in this sitting room and Sherlock is not satisfied with the situation in general.

“Yes, thank you, Mr Bulgner,” he snaps, “everything’s fine, we got your check and John has been stabbed in the chest, now—“

“You’re busy,” Mr Bulgner says quickly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you, I just— what?“

“I was just leaving,” Annabelle blurts out, gathering her jacket and her tiny black handbag and clutching both to her chest.

Charlene, noticing that she is not the centre of attention and finding the fact unacceptable, spreads her wings and says, “Good morning. Good morning. This is the seven o’clock news. You’re not the father.”

Sherlock stares her down. As if that would shut he up. God, he knows this bird too well.

“Sorry for that,” Mr Bulgner says, “she’s into crap telly now. I’m – I’m sorry, did you say your colleague was… stabbed?”

“Yes,” Sherlock nearly yells, trying hard not to get caught up on the fact that the only bird in the world that gleefully hates him is currently in his sitting room.

“Oh God, I’m—I wasn’t expecting that. Obviously, my visit is an inconvenience. I’m terribly sorry, Mr Holmes. And so is Charlene.”

“Grapefruit,” Charlene confirms.

Annabelle chooses this exact moment to make a beeline for the door, which, Sherlock supposes, is entirely understandable.

“Annabelle,” Sherlock says exasperatedly, “just… one second.”

She stares at him, then at Mr Bulgner, then at Sherlock again. A deer in the headlights. Sherlock swallows. He has one last chance to do this right. “If there’s anything I can do for you— give me a call. Or something.“ He sounds as lost as he feels. Unacceptable. “Anything you think… might help you.”

“Help you!” Charlene repeats happily, "help you! Might help you!"

Annabelle gives Charlene an extremely curious look, then turns to leave. “Thank you,” she mumbles, without looking at Sherlock, avoiding eye contact at all cost, “and give my best wishes to Dr Watson?”

“I will,” Sherlock says.

 

Charlene cocks her head and says, “Shit.”

Sherlock is inclined to agree.

 

Sherlock listens to Annabelle’s footsteps on her way downstairs. They are firm, uncharacteristically so. She’s not in a hurry to leave.

The documents Sherlock prepared for her rest on the coffee table, forgotten.

Sherlock peers out of the window, ignoring the man with the bird on his shoulder (who’s somehow still there). Annabelle walks down the street, her jacket wrapped tight around her slim body, and disappears behind a street corner.

As expected, a man in a navy-blue coat follows shortly after. A man who's been hiding, watching the entrance to 221 Baker Street for at least the last half hour. Tall and slender. Auburn curls, parted down the middle. David Lauris is observing Annabelle Peterson’s every move, and isn’t that interesting. Sherlock is 95 per cent sure that, of whatever nature his involvement in this case is, he has no intention to harm her, but makes a mental note to instruct larger parts of his homeless network to keep an eye on him.

There are going to be more thunderstorms over the next few days. How ironic. How terrifyingly convenient for the murderer, too. The sky is grey already, and the clouds are hanging low above the city. Sherlock shivers involuntarily.

 

Mr Bulgner talks a lot, for a long time (or maybe five minutes), before he finally leaves. Sherlock doesn’t pay attention. At one point, Charlene chews on the letter-opener on the mantle while crowing the jingle of a well-known commercial and Sherlock curses his existence and the fact that he ever accepted a case with a bird as a witness.

 

Sherlock calls John first thing when he’s finally alone.

As it turns out, John does not want Sherlock to come back to the hospital. Visiting hours are nearly over and apparently sneaking in in order to hold one’s flatmate’s hand is frowned upon. Sherlock is not disappointed, of course. Except he is. People are irrational and tedious and Sherlock complains about that for a bit while John listens.

John makes thoughtful comments about Annabelle and laughs about Charlene until he claims he can’t laugh anymore because his chest hurts. Then he tells Sherlock he’s tired, which makes Sherlock realise he’s tired as well. Quite exhausted, actually. The last day was tiring, and more than that.

John is alright though. Given the circumstances. John wishes Sherlock a good night and giggles some more about Charlene, says that he’s sorry he missed the cockatoo because she’s his favourite bird in the world and he would have loved to see Sherlock’s face.

Sherlock huffs and John bites out a laugh, and he sounds like he’s doing a lot better, and that’s what matters. John is what matters, and the serial killer matters as well, but not nearly as much as John. John is hurt because of Sherlock, and tomorrow Sherlock will be able to be with John again and maybe he can try to make it up to him.

That’s it, Sherlock decides. After all that's happened, he can at least try.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock’s phone wakes him up in the middle of the night.

He blindly reaches for the stupid thing, knocks two books off his bedside table and rubs his eyes. A glance at the display confirms that it’s 2:24 a.m. This is annoying. Sherlock needs to sleep at night so he can stay awake during the day. During the day, he can be with John. (John, at the hospital. John is not okay. Unacceptable.)

Sherlock doesn’t recognise the number.

He contemplates declining the call for a second, but it occurs to him that this wouldn’t be very smart at the moment. With the insane serial killer who’s currently after him and everything.

 

“What?” he barks into his phone.

“Oh— um, Mr Holmes? Are you – there?“ stutters a male voice.

“Yes,” Sherlock snaps, “Who is this?”

“It’s just—I need your help again,” the man stutters and the voice would probably sound familiar if Sherlock wasn’t half asleep, “I know I shouldn’t be calling you in the middle of the night and I’m so-sorry, but--  there’s been an attack and I’m scared. Someone broke into my house and—“ he cuts himself off and makes a noise that sounds like a sob – “the police is informed, but they don’t give it the attention it deserves, because I guess they—they think as long as nobody was injured it’s not that important. But she’s been injured, she’s at the clinic right now, she just woke up, she can barely talk, she so weak, I’m -- I thought she wouldn’t pull through—“

“Bulgner?” Sherlock huffs incredulously. Can’t the man leave him alone?

“Mr Holmes, I—Charlene’s been attacked with a knife.”

Sherlock has spent so much time in an utterly perplexed state lately that he should be getting used to it. “What?” he nearly yells, because this is ludicrous. A practical joke? People don’t pull practical jokes on Sherlock, they know better. Plus, Bulgner is not that sort of moron.

“Someone broke into my house and attacked Charlene with a knife,” Mr Bulgner says slowly.

“What?”

“Charlene, she—“

“Someone stabbed your cockatoo?”

“No, n-no,” Bulgner gasps, horrified, “cut her, her—her left wing is injured, there was so much blood, but she’s alive. I heard her screams and I woke up and by the time I reached he--- the attacker was gone and--- a-a-and I took her to the clinic and the vet stitched her up and—“

“What do you expect me to do?”

“So-solve the case. Like last time.”

Sherlock slumps back onto his pillow and groans. Obviously he’ll solve the case, just not now. He has more important things on his mind.

Or does he?

A somewhat lucid part of his conscience reminds him that, no, he doesn’t have more important things on his mind, because despite everything, this is an important incident, in the sense that it’s clearly related to the serial killings. This is not a separate case, stupid, stupid. It’s only logical. Everything that’s been happening to Sherlock (and John) lately is related to the murders. Also, both Sherlock and Annabelle Peterson had a conversation with the goddamn cockatoo less than ten hours ago, and obviously that’s why someone decided the bird had to die. There has to be a connection.

It’s only logical. Illogically so. And infuriating.

Who would bother breaking into a house to attack a bird, though? Lauris? It’s sort of hard to believe that Lauris would do something as irrational as attempting to murder an animal. Lauris fits the description of an organised killer, an arrogant, attention-seeking, sadistic psychopath who carefully chooses which impulses to act on in order not to get caught. If he had a desire to torture an animal, he wouldn’t choose someone’s treasured pet. Not this very specific pet, to be precise. Not a pet Sherlock has a personal connection to.

Except maybe that’s the entire point. Maybe that’s Lauris’ way of challenging him. First John, then the bird, as if that’s—anything other than completely nonsensical.

It really makes no sense, no matter how hard Sherlock tries to rationalise it.

And what on earth does Annabelle Peterson have to do with it? Obviously, she’s the reason Lauris found out about Charlene. He must have watched Bulgner arrive as he hid around the corner during Annabelle’s appointment at Baker Street. Yes, this makes sense. Somewhat. To go after the bird is still an uncharacteristic decision to make, and an odd one at that.

Sherlock is confused and tired and his brain is processing things hopelessly slowly.

This is just unacceptable.

“Mr Holmes?” Mr Bulgner interrupts his thoughts. “Are you still there, Mr Holmes?”

“Yes. No. I’ll look into it tomorrow, now—“

“Please,” Mr Bulgner says soundlessly.

“Yes. I will find the attempted murderer of your treasured bird. Now let me think.”

“I’m sorry, I’ll—“

“Good night, Mr Bulgner,” Sherlock snaps and slams his phone onto the bedside table.

 

Around half an hour later, Sherlock reluctantly crawls out of bed. Sleep is not happening anymore.

He has a couple new messages from his homeless network and various other sources (god bless Raoul, London’s nosiest newsvendor). As it transpires, David Lauris has an alibi for the evening John was attacked. The alibi is an insurance salesman by the name of Peter Elroy, who happens to be very much alive and spent the entire night with Lauris. Apparently. How predictable.

Sherlock does realise, of course, that the alibi might be forged. Lauris is not an idiot. Further inquiries quickly conclude that he has no alibi for the last few hours. And even though he is alone in his bed right now (Sherlock doesn’t even want to know how his correspondents figured this out) he might actually have attacked the cockatoo, which is interesting as well.

But why?

Sherlock is drawing a blank. Again. It’s annoying.

 

A glance at his watch confirms that he won’t be able to go see John for another four hours. Sherlock walks into the kitchen, puts the kettle on, slumps down into his chair and draws his knees up to his chest. And just as he’s trying to figure out how to kill this frankly idiotic amount of time, he notices the envelope. It’s small and blank and has obviously been slid through the narrow gap under the door.

Sherlock picks it up, opens it and eyes the card inside.

Anonymous, of course.

Typed and printed. No signature.

 

 

7 p.m. again

Come alone, this time.

 

Obviously, his correspondent is asking for another meeting. Same place, Sherlock concludes.

The murderer wants to end this, obviously. The game is over. They’re both tired of running in circles without getting what they want.

Sherlock is going to humour him.

Sherlock feels sick at the prospect of walking into the warehouse on Delldale Road one more time, but it’s not like he has a choice. The thought of the smell, the moist cardboard and dried paint and rotten wood makes him sick, and the drumming of the rain on the metal roof resounds in his ears, and in some bitter, ironic way, he thinks, it’ll be appropriate for the moment he faces the killer.

At least he’ll be alone, this time. John won’t be there, he won’t let John get hurt tonight. Not again.

 

Sherlock tucks the card back into the envelope and walks back into the kitchen to make tea.

 

 


 

 

John looks much better.

“They might discharge me tomorrow,” he announces cheerfully when Sherlock walks in with the obligatory cappuccino in hand.

“Mmmh.” Sherlock puts the coffee down on John’s bedside table and unbuttons his coat.

“One final blood test and I’ll be free to go. I feel a lot better, too. The stitches itch a bit, but apart from that I feel like I should be at home. Can’t wait to get out of here. Pain medication. Good stuff, that.” John puts the novel he’s apparently been reading aside and grins at Sherlock. (The fact that John has been reading a novel indicates that he’s 1) feeling well enough to concentrate on inane fiction and 2) he gets bored easily without Sherlock. Sherlock is pleased.)

“Listen to you,” Sherlock huffs, “I’m the one who’s supposed to get excited about substance abuse.”

“Like hell you are. Anything new?”

“Actually, yes.”

John makes a questioning noise.

“Our murderer has taken a liking to your precious favourite cockatoo.”

John’s mouth drops open. “What?”

“Charlene was attacked last night. Break-in. Bulgner called me at three in the morning.”

John stares. “Is she dead?”

Of course John cares about the state of being of the awful bird. “Do relax,” Sherlock says, “it’s apparently not that easy to murder that… thing.”

“Okay,” John says thoughtfully, looking relieved, as if the bird being alive gives him immense satisfaction. “That is strange,” he adds after a second or two.

“Accurate observation,” Sherlock says dryly.

“And… what on earth does it mean? Is there any kind of connection… I mean, why did he do that? Just to… mess with your head?”

“Probably.” Sherlock arranges his coat on the visitor’s chair and paces.

“So all of this is about you now?”

“Mmmh. No idea.”

“What are we going to do?”

“We’ll see. I have a plan,” Sherlock says. This is hardly a lie. Sherlock is planning on meeting up with the killer tonight. Have a nice conversation. Exchange an anecdote or two. In the warehouse where John was stabbed, of all places. The plan doesn’t really cover the potential outcome of this situation, but Sherlock will improvise.

John doesn’t have to know any of this, of course.

John is hurt, and he’s supposed to rest and avoid stress and get healthy as soon as possible, because John not being healthy is all-around unacceptable in the first place; and if John knew about the envelope and the card and Sherlock’s little appointment he would a) make a fuss and/or b) insist on coming along, which is definitely not happening. So Sherlock is going to keep this minor incident to himself and handle the situation alone. He’s done enough damage already.

“Ah,” John says, looking equal parts amused and concerned, “and care to explain anything to me? Because, you know, I’m sort of interested in details about this bloke, given that he stabbed me in the chest and everything.”

Sarcasm doesn’t suit John when he’s injured in a hospital bed. “You’ll find out eventually,” Sherlock says.

“Oh, I’m sure I will,” John says dryly, “so what is it you’re planning?”

“Nothing that requires us to take immediate action.” Well. Now he’s definitely lying. “You’re supposed to rest, John. Don’t be tiresome and… lie back. Sleep or—something.”

“Listen, Sherlock, if you think I’m going to lie here waiting while you secretly chase down a killer and refuse to even tell me about it because you think I’m some sort of invalid who has to be spared—“

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m ridiculous?”

“You’re supposed to relax, John.”

John pushes his duvet down to his knees and puffs up his chest. “Do I look like I want to relax? Jesus, there’s a killer out there who’s probably after you and I can’t do anything--”

“You’re not supposed to do anything.”

“Sherlock-“

 

They are interrupted, at this point. Thankfully. John’s doctor walks in, with his clipboard and everything, and promptly sends Sherlock out because he’s not family.

Not family.

Sherlock is beginning to despise this phrase beyond belief.

 

Mrs Hudson turns up shortly after that, to pay John a surprise visit.

People seem to be awfully fond of surprise visits lately. At least Mrs Hudson doesn’t have an unnerving cockatoo.

Mrs Hudson brings a Tupperware container full of chicken soup, gossip about Mrs Turner and her married butcher and generally a lot of fuss. Within minutes, John is too preoccupied with his soup to question Sherlock about the serial killer, and then Mrs Hudson has to be comforted by the two of them because John gave her such a fright and she’s still not over it.

Sherlock pats Mrs Hudson’s back and John holds her hand while she sniffles into her handkerchief that she’s so glad her boys are alright.

Sherlock is, in fact, not alright.

 

 


 

 

The afternoon flies by. Sherlock doesn’t admit to himself that he’s nervous and also probably terrified out of his mind. A little bit. Irrelevant. He plays Bach for an hour to calm himself down. It doesn’t work of course, but it’s a good enough excuse to play Bach anyway.

Sherlock finds himself walking towards the warehouse perfectly on time. He’s not a minute to late. Or too early, for that matter. It’s impolite to let serial killers wait.

He doesn’t really have a plan, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. He’s about to face the person who kills in the streets on stormy nights, who staged an ambush attack and injured John, who’s been playing a long game with him. It’s about to get personal.

 

Sherlock opens the heavy metal door, smells dust and rotting cardboard and tries not to think about what happened last time. Not even for a second. He won’t give him the satisfaction. He will face his opponent head-on.

Sherlock takes a deep breath and walks past the first metal shelves, the concrete pillar, trying to get an overview.

„Unintelligent, Mr Lauris,“ Sherlock says, as loud and firmly as he can manage. Lauris doesn’t deserve a formal greeting. He definitely knows Sherlock has arrived, he’s probably watching him already.

(Sherlock does realise, of course, that he might be wrong, that there’s a possibility that it’s not Lauris who’s waiting for him, but that would make all of this entirely useless and extremely dangerous, which is why it’s simply not an option. Lauris is who Sherlock has been studying. He can deal with Lauris. He can make him crumble before they even get to play with one another.)

Sherlock’s gaze darts around the room, scanning the empty room, the shelves, careful not to miss the first traces of his opponent.

“Dreadfully inconsiderate,” Sherlock says a bit louder.

There are footsteps, clearly audible, in his immediate vicinity. Behind him, probably. Sherlock wheels around as fast as he can, but all he sees are the dirty concrete walls. The sound of footsteps breaks off. The stupid shelves make it impossible to see him. It’s just like last time, except the light is thankfully still on.

Lauris is hiding somewhere. Sherlock can’t see him. The space between the shelves is definitely empty and the single concrete pillar in his immediate vicinity are far too narrow for Lauris to hide. Yet, the man is here somewhere, and Sherlock can’t put his finger on his precise location.

Unsettling, admittedly.

“It’s not a good idea to kill me here,” Sherlock announces. “Even the police can draw certain conclusions. You’re the primary suspect, Lauris. And it’s your own fault. With all due respect, playing the justice-loving voluntary helper in a serial crime investigation is not the smart thing to do.”

It’s dead silent. No rain, no storm, no noises to fill the air and make the silence more bearable. The absolute stillness of it all crawls under Sherlock’s skin like a flesh-eating parasite.

 “Tedious. Predictable. So very common,” he continues, “a textbook serial killer, desperate for attention. I’ve seen hundreds of your kind, and some were a lot more creative than you.”

More footsteps. Sherlock whirls around again, trying to keep as much of the room in sight as he walks into the shadows.

“You’re not as special as you think you are. The thunderstorms, of course. The dramatic touch. You enjoy the sound of thunder in the background. It excites you. You’re so very, very predictable. It’s all a performance for you, a scheme to feed your ego.”

Sherlock makes a pause for dramatic effect that loses some of its gravitas as his breath hitches. More footsteps, audibly closer this time. They’re in front of him. Lauris is still nowhere in sight. It’s like he’s invisible; a predator stalking his prey. Behind a door? In one of the smaller rooms maybe?

“Then, of course, there’s the minor detail that you’re Annabelle Peterson’s former therapist. That’s part of the game, isn’t it? We both know coincidences are… rare.”

There’s a sound in the distance that sounds a bit like choked-back, high-pitched laughter. A shiver runs down Sherlock’s spine. He takes a deep breath. He’s in control of this.

“I knew it wasn’t a coincidence that the girl found the first corpse. You treated her recurring panic attacks and nervous breakdowns for over seven years. What was she? An experiment? Were you trying to figure out how far you can push her? Did you need to include her in your little story? I know some twisted part of you cares about her, deeply. She’s not just another object to project your sadistic fantasies on, there has to be... more to it.”

Sherlock cautiously takes a few steps towards the door behind the shelves, keeping an eye on the entrance to maximise the number of ways to escape, should the need arise.

“Did you know that a staggeringly high number of serial killers have a degree in psychology? You’re so, so very common, Lauris. You’re ordinary. You’re not one in a million. You’ll never get the attention you crave so much.”

 A door snaps shut. Sherlock sucks in a sharp breath, carefully turns around. He’s still alone, and suddenly he isn’t sure if he’s still trying to humiliate Lauris or if he’s just playing for time.

Sherlock can feel eyes on him.

A shudder runs down his spine. He’s being watched. He’s been observed and positioned and trapped by someone who is very much in control of this. He’s losing his grip on the situation.

He can’t admit to himself that he has failed yet again. That he is caged; an animal waiting to be slaughtered.

He should call Lestrade. Right now is the point where he should get help, he knows, but admitting defeat is not an option, not when he’s being mocked like that by someone who considers themselves superior—

One of the doors right in front of him falls open, as if it’s being pushed by an invisible hand. The door hinges creak and Sherlock tries his best not to wince.

One of the smaller rooms, it is. This is unfortunate. The smaller the room the easier you get trapped.

Sherlock steps closer, blinks into the shadows until he can distinguish the silhouette of the man waiting for him.

Lauris is sitting on a chair in the middle of the apparently empty room, his head slightly tilted, not moving. He’s not holding any weapons. He’s just… waiting.

There’s an empty chair next to him. For Sherlock? Probably. It’s an invitation, a meeting.

Lauris looks like he’s presenting himself in defeat. Sherlock moves closer.

This… doesn’t make sense.

“Good evening, David,” he says, because if it wasn’t the time for pleasantries before, it probably is now. Lauris has offered him his first name, after all. And more. A lot more. They really are on a first name basis.

He steps over the threshold, his eyes fixed on Lauris who still refrains from looking directly at him.

This is good; Sherlock is in control again. He got this, he can overpower Lauris like this, both physically and intellectually. It’s only his stupid heart that keeps beating painfully fast.

The door snaps shut behind him, leaving him enveloped in darkness. Sherlock winces, breathes in the smell of mould and humidity, of moist cardboard and blood.

Something is moving behind him.

Someone else is here.

They’re not alone, and Lauris on his chair is still utterly silent, too silent, not even breathing—

 

Not breathing at all.

 

The lightbulb flickers for a second before it goes on. Sherlock takes a step forward, blinks until he can see clearly and finally forces himself to look down into David Lauris’ eyes. They’re open, wide with fear, staring up at him, dull and lifeless. Blood is slowly dripping from the deep cut in his neck, trickling down his front, pooling on the ground between his feet. Throat cut. Immediately fatal.

Lauris hasn’t been dead for long; the blood is still fresh and dripping and the person who did this to him is in this room right now, this exact second. The person who pushed the door open and turned the light on and is standing behind him.

When he walked into this room, he walked right past his murderer. Right into the trap. Well, this is a first.

Sherlock needs to improvise.

“You owe me an explanation,” he says. He needs time as much as he needs answers now. “A few details. Before you do to me whatever you want. I just want a simple explanation, that’s all.”

It’s silent behind him.

“Why,” Sherlock says soundlessly, “Why the cockatoo? What would prompt a highly intelligent, dangerous, driven individual to do something so pointless, so utterly illogical? What forced you to attack an animal?”

Silence.

“And, more importantly, I don’t understand the overkill,” Sherlock continues, “It wasn’t necessary in his case--“ he gestures at Lauris --“but usually --you injure them fatally very quickly, but then you keep stabbing your victims. You stab dying people, you stab them until their circulatory system fails, you stab corpses. It’s like a compulsion. But there must be a reason. You do that on purpose, it’s part of the ritual, and I can’t figure it out. Before we end this, tell me. What’s the meaning of all this?”

The person behind him takes a step closer.

They’re not going to negotiate. Sherlock has lost.

He is about to turn around to face his murderer, to admit defeat. He takes a deep breath and a step back, but he’s halted by the edge of a blade, pressed into the skin above his carotid artery. He freezes, shudders. There’s a cold hand slowly gliding down the back of his neck.

A small, bony, ice cold hand.

“No reason at all,” Annabelle Peterson’s high, clear voice whispers in his ear. Sherlock can feel her breath on his neck, her hair tickling his right ear and her thin arm slowly wrapping around his waist to hold him in place.

“No reason at all,” she repeats flatly, “I just like it when they bleed.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock finds himself in the formerly empty chair, next to Lauris. Or what’s left of Lauris, as some sardonic part of his brain contributes helpfully. The knife is still pressed to his neck, firmly, and the blade is burning on his skin where it touches him; might be drawing blood already. Superficially, of course.

Annabelle is behind him, holding still, very still. Sherlock wonders if she relishes the moment.

He swallows, closes his eyes. Think. He doesn’t have time to panic, he needs to figure out what exactly is going on here, and he needs to do it fast.

 

Surely enough the truth hits Sherlock like a blow in the chest.

It makes sense.

It all makes a disturbing amount of sense. Sherlock’s been tricked, he’s been blinded. It’s been Annabelle from the start, right from the day she was too slow to flee the scene of the first murder, so she improvised and pretended she had found the body. The girl with the long, mousy hair who mercilessly stabs people in the darkness, a young master manipulator without a conscience, the girl who wrote John a card to thank him and then tried to kill him—

Of course.

 

I know you deserve a handwritten invitation, but I think that would spoil the surprise.

 

That’s what the murderer had written, and Sherlock had thought he’d been referring to Lauris’ recognizable handwriting, his goddamn phone number. If Sherlock were to call this number now, a phone would ring in the dead man’s coat pocket next to him and the murderer had never been a he in the first place and Sherlock has got it all so very wrong. 

She’d been referring to the card she’d written herself, the card her father had obediently delivered; the card Sherlock had never read because he hadn’t considered it important.

It all fit, like small, horrifying puzzle pieces. Stupid. Stupid.

Sherlock had made the most elementary of errors. He had underestimated a psychopath. He’d never considered Annabelle Peterson important enough. He had just pitied her. And this was probably why he was about to die. This was why every single one of the unfortunate people whose bodies he had examined over the last weeks were dead.

Because they had pitied someone who didn’t want their pity; and misguided compassion always results in unadulterated rage.

Annabelle Peterson is a young, organized but impulsive psychopath who was just trying to play a game but was continuously underestimated, belittled, pitied. Being pitied can be enough to turn people into monsters.

 

Sherlock takes a deep breath, relishes the fact that he and Annabelle have both stayed motionless for over three minutes and he is still alive, and folds his hands in his lap. It’s time for conversation. He has to make good use of the minutes he has left.

 

“I have a theory,” he says slowly. His voice is shaky. Inconvenient, that.

Annabelle breathes in. Breathes out. Sherlock can feel her warm breath on his neck. Her free hand sneaks up the back of his neck, across his cheek, tilts his chin up.

“I don’t like cutting throats,” she whispers, “all the blood comes out at once. Where’s the fun in that?”

“I have a theory,” Sherlock repeats sharply, “and I would like to know if I’m right.”

“I doubt it,” Annabelle says dryly and let’s go of Sherlock’s chin. His skin prickles where her cold finger tips had been pressed into it mere seconds ago. Focus. He needs to focus. He’s not dead yet, after all, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t at least solve the case before it’s over. He can enjoy the puzzle while he’s here. He has nothing to lose if he’s never going to see John again anyway--

“You underestimate me, Annabelle,” Sherlock says soundlessly, “much like people tend to underestimate you. Our minds work similarly, I think, although with vastly different motivations behind our actions.” 

Annabelle doesn’t comment on that.

“You had to kill Lauris,” Sherlock says, “Of course, it all makes sense. Lauris’ murder must have been burning under your nails, it had been a long time coming. I’m surprised he survived so long. I considered him a suspect, but he was – he was one of the original targets.”

“Targets are overrated. Spontaneity is much more… promising, you know?” Annabelle’s voice is thin, high, completely devoid of emotion. Sherlock remembers the shy, insecure girl chewing on her finger nails on the couch in 221B and can’t help but feel a tiny bit impressed. Annabelle would make an excellent stage actress. Talented for her age. Complete lack of empathy and no capacity to feel guilt, though. Pity, that.

“He knew it was you,” Sherlock continues, “at least he suspected something, he spotted the signs, early on, even before the murders. Of course he did, who would be more qualified to see through you than your private psychiatrist? He confronted you about your behaviour, your increasingly violent tendencies, that the conflict with your father and step-mother was consciously fabricated, and that you were painting yourself as the victim. So you got him fired.“

“He never listened to me. He was a rubbish therapist.”

“I’m sure he was.” Sherlock dares to lift his head a bit, and Annabelle lets him. He can see a strand of her hair out of the corner of his eye as she bends over him from behind. She cards a hand through his hair, for no good reason, really. Probably just because she can.

Sherlock can hear a dripping noise and he realises that it’s the blood, the blood still spilling from the gash across Lauris’ throat. He shivers involuntarily. He hates that he’s going to die next to Lauris’ corpse, exactly like him. A macabre mirror. Two of a kind, two men who thought alike, gravely misunderstood each other and walked right into their demise because of it. Sherlock loathes the prospect.

“Lauris didn’t give up, though, did he? He started to follow you around, to spy on you, and after the first murders, he started to fill in the gaps. He made the connection. He’s the only one who was suspicious. And he tried to talk to the police, he tried to talk to—me. He was dropping hints.”

“He wasn’t doing a good job, then,” Annabelle says slowly.

“No,” Sherlock breathes, “he really wasn’t. But he was the only one who knew, save for your father, maybe. Speaking of your father --  this is a rather nice location. The warehouse, I mean. The dramatic touch. I suppose he used to rent this place, most probably used it to store heavy machinery. You stole one of your father’s keys a long time ago.” Sherlock clears his throat. His voice feels… faint. Too weak. “Is he still alive, by the way?”

“Mmmh,” Annabelle hums, still idly playing with Sherlock’s curls, seemingly enjoying herself immensely. “Unfortunately, he is.”

“But you don’t intend for it to stay this way.”

“Probably not.”

“Mmh.”

“Those…people. Your victims. They aren’t simply nice people, aren’t they?” Sherlock grits out between his teeth, “they’re compassionate, socially competent, kind, they’re...”

The bony, ice cold hands close around Sherlock’s throat, not trying to choke him (she wouldn’t be physically capable of doing that, anyway),  just firm enough to remind him of her merciless, murderous presence behind him.

“A sports journalist with a strong interest in social justice in competitions. A victim of... of bullying with new-found confidence. A doctor and a friendly elderly lady. Lauris, another medical professional who was personally responsible for you, and... and—“

“Yes?” She sounds almost provocative.

“John.”

Annabelle is laughing now. Enjoying herself, obviously. It’s not Sherlock who’s drawing this out. It’s her. She’s in complete control of the situation. Sherlock can feel her breath tickle him behind his ear.

“The first time we were here you attacked John. You planned it like that. You never intended to kill me. John was the target all along.”

“You think so?” she whispers, drawing the words out in a soft, melodic tone, like she’s about to sing a mocking tune for him.

“Roberts and Amatti were the first two,” Sherlock says. ”Your first victims. They were described as... as kind. Sociable. Just... people who’d offer to buy you a cup of hot tea or bring you home when you’re alone on the street on a stormy evening. People who came across as friendly and trustworthy. That’s how it all began, I suppose. Strangers worrying about you, approaching you, making conversation, entirely harmless. Pitying you, because to them, you looked lost.”

Annabelle inhales deeply. Her nose touches the back of Sherlock’s neck. She hums briefly, and the sound is thoroughly unsettling.

“Erin Cavanaugh was the woman who accompanied you to the police after the run-in with your stepmother, wasn’t she?”

“Oh,” Annabelle breathes, suppressing a chuckle, tightening her grip around Sherlock’s neck minutely.

“Bramani was the doctor who treated you at the hospital after you collapsed at the scene of your first murder. You mentioned him to your father. Then you targeted Lauris and... and John—“

“Mmh.”

“And now me, but only now, only after I’ve... I’ve talked to you. You had no interest in killing me before I invited you, before I offered-- That’s why you’re going to kill me, that’s why all the others had to die.”

Sherlock exhales. Inhales again. Wonders how many more times he’ll be forced to breathe until she cuts his throat and lets him bleed out, slaughtering him like an animal--

An animal.

“The cockatoo. Even the cockatoo,” he bites out, “of course. It may be irrational, planning an attack on a talking bird, but for you it wasn’t irrational at all. That’s what a compulsion is like. You have to kill those individuals, don’t you? The stupid bird repeated what I said and signed its death sentence. You hear their words and know you have to kill them, even if it means breaking into a mansion to attack a bird. It’s the principle of cause and effect.”

“Impressive,” Annabelle bites out. She doesn’t sound the least bit impressed.

“All your victims, they’re people who...”

“Why don’t you spare us all the suspense and just say it?” Annabelle demands drily.

“You don’t kill at random, you never have,” Sherlock concludes, “You murder the people who offer you help.”

 

It’s silent, utterly silent.

Too silent.

Sherlock finds himself waiting for it to be over, the clean cut, the ending of it all. Sherlock Holmes has known for a long time that he’s going to die a violent death, eventually. He never fancied bleeding out, though. They say you get very cold when hypovolemic shock sets in, that it burns in your chest when you choke on your own blood, that the very last breath is the most painful one. He hopes the gash will be deep enough. Maybe it’ll be a matter of seconds.

 

“I don’t need help,” Annabelle says slowly, very slowly, her voice dripping with pure disgust. “I don’t need anyone’s help.”

“No,” Sherlock confirms, “obviously, you don’t.”

Annabelle takes a step towards him. Her entire body is pressed up against Sherlock’s back, the back rest of the filthy chair he’s sitting in, and now her thin brown hair is falling in his face and her finger tips dig into Sherlock’s left upper arm.

“We’re done now,” Annabelle says, and it sounds utterly finite.

This is it.

 

Sherlock closes his eyes. He wants to think of John. Rationality is no longer an issue, nor is the cruel, bitterness of unrequited love, or the memory of a single, desperate kiss that no longer needs to be suppressed. And if there’s one thing Sherlock Holmes knows it’s that John Watson is the last conscious thought he wants to have before he dies.

It doesn’t matter anymore.

All that matters is John, and John is beautiful when he smiles. He’s beautiful in the light cone of a street lamp and he’s beautiful in his chair in 221B where he belongs. He’s still beautiful in a hospital bed, as long as he has a steady pulse and a strong heart beat and Sherlock Holmes feels privileged to have loved him until the day of his death. It’s alright. It really is.

 

A second later, the door flies open. The bang resounds in Sherlock's ears.

 

Sherlock perks up, blinks. He’s having trouble seeing clearly, it’s all so—painfully blurred.

Annabelle makes a noise of distress and the blade glides across Sherlock’s throat, not cutting, not deep enough, leaving nothing but a scratch.

Sherlock sees a familiar face in the dimmed light, feels waves crushing down on him, pain and relief and… surprise, maybe. He feels like he’s about to lose consciousness even though he’s not bleeding out yet, he hasn’t been murdered.

He’s being saved.

The pressure on Sherlock’s arm vanishes and a second later, Annabelle is being pulled away from him. Sherlock whirls around in his sitting position, tries to get up, collapses back onto the chair when his knees give out. Annabelle’s eyes are wide and her mouth is open in a silent cry. One strong arm is wrapped around her body from behind, her right arm is being twisted behind her back. She winces in pain, then Sherlock hears the knife fall to the ground.

Sherlock closes his eyes. He still feels like he’s about to faint, which is inconvenient, really.

 

“Are you alright?” John asks, sounding breathless.

John.

 

Sherlock rubs his eyes with both hands, tries to focus. This is ridiculous. This is completely and utterly ridiculous and here’s John, wearing a coat over the hospital gown that he’s tucked into his jeans, saving Sherlock’s life. Always saving Sherlock’s stupid life that’s really not worth being saved all the time.

“Sherlock,” John says sharply, “I’d like to check on you, and I’m not sure what’s going on, but I think, for some disturbing reason, I’m restraining a serial killer and it’s the girl we’ve been trying to protect. And I can hardly let go of her, now, can I? So please tell me if you’re alright.”

“I am,” Sherlock whispers. “John—“

“Mmh.”

“Did you call the police?”

“They’ll be here any minute,” John says. He glances at Annabelle who is staring at the ground, utterly silent. John has her upper arms in an iron grip. She can’t get away, but he’s not hurting her. John would never hurt someone so fragile.

“So this is it?” John asks soundlessly, “this is how this case ends?”

“Apparently so.” Sherlock rubs his eyes. His vision is still blurred. Fear for one’s life will do the oddest things to the central nervous system.

“In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have thought—“ John begins, then cuts himself off, stares at the ground for a second, at the same spot Annabelle seems to find fascinating. He lets his gaze wander across the room, observes Lauris’ body that’s still bleeding out, eyes still open, staring mindlessly into thin air. Then John finally looks at Sherlock. Their eyes meet for barely a second. John looks confused yet determined, utterly disillusioned, much the way Sherlock feels. “I thought I was going to find Lauris holding you at gunpoint, or something. Christ, I thought I was going to kill Lauris with my bare hands for hurting you. But in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined this,” John finally says.

“Me neither,” Sherlock tells him simply. His knees still feel far too wobbly to get up. This is getting really annoying.

“I don’t understand,” John admits, side-eying the corpse again as Annabelle keeps staring, stubborn, unrepentant.

Sherlock sighs. “Do we ever truly understand? I can deduce the mechanics of it all, the superficial motives, I can tell you how it all happened and what triggered it, maybe, but I don’t think we ever… understand why people do what they do.”

“I suppose not.”

“Mmh.”

“The world is… awful, somehow, isn’t it?” John sounds helpless, and it’s not okay.

It would be, if it didn’t have you in it, Sherlock thinks. He doesn’t say it, though. Not the right time. Not the right lifetime, probably. The wrong witness, too. You shouldn’t go around declaring your love in front of a teenage serial killer, not even metaphorically. He just nods instead, buries his face in his hands and tries to breathe steadily.

 

Thankfully, the police arrive barely two minutes later, accompanied almost ironically by the first rolls of thunder in the distance. The storm is approaching. For once, The Thunderstorm Ripper, as the tabloids have obliviously nicknamed a young psychopath who simply didn’t like to be pitied, is not on top of her game, for a change.

Nobody else is going to die tonight.

Annabelle is taken into custody. They refrain from handcuffing her as they escort her out, and she doesn’t attempt to resist. She refuses to say a word, however. She gives Sherlock a look as they lead her out of the room. It’s a look of complete and utter contempt and Sherlock shivers.

Minutes later, Annabelle’s pale hand is pressed against the window pane as Sherlock and John walk past the police car. Sherlock allows himself to glance through the window for a second. Annabelle is staring at her own lap, hunched over, making herself as small as possible. She looks lost, and she probably is.

Or, maybe, she’s pretending. Preparing to play the next game. Sherlock has no idea and he is aware that the notion is going to haunt him for a long time. Cases like this one make it difficult to discern good and bad. Hopelessness and pure evil. Maybe it’s a mixture of both. The line is blurred, sometimes.

They called her father and he agreed to come immediately, along with his wife. Sherlock doesn’t know what to think about any of this. He doesn’t know, and it’s hateful and frustrating and he wants to go home.

It probably doesn’t matter anyway. Not tonight. The rolling thunder is getting louder and the first flash of lightning illuminates the bizarre scene in front of the warehouse. Cars parked haphazardly all over the place and people bustling around like bees in a hive. They carry Lauris’ body out after a while, in one of those generic grey coffins and take him away in a police vans. A makeshift hearse, Sherlock thinks sardonically. Lauris probably deserved better.

No, pointless train of thought. The dead don’t deserve things.

Sherlock finds himself sitting next to John in the back of another police van, a while later. They’re sitting close, very close, and when it starts to rain. The first raindrop lands directly on John’s upper lip and it makes Sherlock smile and want to kiss him and bury himself alive and stop existing all at once.

Someone has wrapped them in matching shock blankets and Sherlock finds himself oddly pleased by the fact.

 

Lestrade doesn’t bother them with their statements for too long. Turns out he has common sense after all, and can recognise that Sherlock still feels close to collapsing and John is wearing a bloody hospital gown.

Sherlock gives them a quick overview and John adds his part of the story, and somewhere around the moment John describes bursting into the room to find a dead Lauris and a terrified Sherlock, John’s left hand finds Sherlock’s right hand, and for some odd reason, it feels natural to take it and hold it and Sherlock feels warm all over.

 

It’s properly dark by the time they’re in their cab, heading home. Dark and stormy and every roll of thunder sounds like it’s closer than the last. It’s pouring down and the streets are a chaos since apparently the whole of London wants to get home before the thunderstorm hits the city properly. The cabbie curses under his breath when he finally turns into Baker Street.

All of this is irrelevant because John is still holding Sherlock’s hand.

They don’t talk on the way home. John takes Sherlock’s pulse four times, though, to make sure he’s no longer in danger of fainting. Sherlock curses exhaustion-induced arterial hypotension. The warm, dry pressure of John’s fingers around his wrist, on the other hand, is quite alright. Quite acceptable, really.

 

They make it into their flat and out of their wet coats and then, suddenly, it hits Sherlock that it's all over.

The case is solved. And here they are. Just the two of them, always the two of them. Sherlock has never been more aware of how monumental John’s presence in 221B is, how fundamentally right it is to be here with him, even with the storm howling outside and John wearing a hospital gown and having stitches in his chest and all that. John is here. He’s home, with Sherlock and they’re alive because John has saved them. As always.

“How did you figure out where I was?” Sherlock asks, breaking the silence. There’s another roll of thunder and for some odd reason, it makes Sherlock feel warm all over. He’s safe inside, with John. They’re at home and the raging storm can’t harm them.

John chuckles. “I’m not an idiot, Sherlock.”

“I know,” Sherlock says, and means it.

“You acted strangely this morning, there was something you weren’t telling me, so I called Greg. He told me about a cryptic text message he got from you, about how you want him to be ready to intervene once again. I knew you were up to something. God, Sherlock, of course I knew you were going to get in trouble without me, I’m not stupid.”

“So you… what? Sneaked out of the hospital?”

“Yes. Well. I’m going to have to explain that tomorrow, I suppose.”

“I couldn’t find you, and Mrs Hudson told me you’d gone out, and I was getting nervous when I found—“

“The card,” Sherlock exclaims, “of course!”

“—the card you left on the coffee table. And then I knew you’d gone out to get yourself killed without me, because you’re a bloody idiot. So I took a cab and prayed I wasn’t too late.”

“You weren’t.”

“No, obviously I bloody wasn’t. God, I could—I could strangle you. You could have told me--”

 “No.”

“Why the hell not?” John’s voice is getting dangerously loud, for a second.

“Because, John,” Sherlock says slowly, the corners of his mouth twitching, “I didn’t want you to do something stupid.”

“Like what?”

“Like sneak out of the hospital and come running after me.”

John shakes his head, but he can’t help but smile, and the sight of him makes Sherlock’s heart race and the blood rush to his face.

 

If he doesn’t work up the courage to ask John now, he’ll probably never do it. This, this is the turning point.

He understands what John said at the warehouse, before he collapsed in Sherlock’s arms. It’s suddenly crystal clear. It has to be now, because otherwise it might be too late and that’s just not an option. This is his chance and it’s terrifying and breathtaking and he loves John so much he thinks he might burst.

 

“John,” Sherlock says slowly, “when you were stabbed—before you collapsed – do you remember what happened?”

John’s eyes widen minutely, and then he does something entirely illogical. He smiles. Sherlock wants to touch his laugh lines, and the rest of him, all of him. He wants it so much it hurts.

“John—“

“Yes,” John says slowly, “I do. I remember all of it, yeah.”

“How much do you regret it?” Sherlock asks. He’s said it before he could help it, really, and it’s too late.

There’s a pause. John takes a step towards Sherlock.

“Sherlock,” John says quietly, “I don’t know what you want to hear. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say but—I don’t regret anything. Not a single second. Not a—a single moment of that awful night, or any other night, good nights and bad night, any night I ever spent with you. Or any day fro that matter. How could you possibly think I would regret it?”

“People do,” Sherlock says breathlessly, “people regret doing… things like this.”

“Like what?”

“Like kissing me.”

John’s ears turn a peculiar shade of red. He licks his lips, makes a decision. “Well, I don’t,” he says firmly, “and people are idiots.”

“Glad we aren’t people, then,” Sherlock says slowly.

“No. No, we really aren’t. We’re a mess.”

Sherlock feels like they are supposed to break into a fit of giggles now. Except they don’t. The atmosphere is too heavy for this, for laughter and slumping against a wall and giggling and deflecting like they’ve done so many times. Today is not that kind of day. They’re talking now. For the first time in ages, they’re actually talking.

“I thought I was dying,” John says quietly, “and I thought it was the last chance to do what I’d wanted to do since—since the day I met you, really, and I’m sorry if—“

“John,” Sherlock says soundlessly, “don’t— please--“

“I’m—“

“Don’t say you’re sorry.”

 

The next moment, Sherlock is blinded by a flash of light. The light bulb of the ceiling light flickers above them and a moment later they’re enveloped in darkness.

Short circuit. The thunderstorm, of course. Well, it’s been ages since the last proper blackout. Sherlock supposes it was about time.

Sherlock can barely make out the outlines of John’s body, but he is moving closer until Sherlock is sure he can feel the warmth radiating from him.

It’s dark and they’re close, so very close.

 

“John,” Sherlock says faintly.

“Sherlock?” John murmurs back. His voice is soft, questioning. His features are barely distinguishable in the darkness, but Sherlock can hear the smile in his voice.

“I’m here,” Sherlock says. It’s a pointless statement, really. But it feels inexplicably important to tell John that he’s here. He’s not going anywhere.

 “What are you thinking?” John asks, and Sherlock finds he can barely remember how to breathe.

You are adored, John, is what he thinks. How can you not know that, with every fibre of my body, with every last coherent thought I can muster in your presence, you are adored.

“Please,” is what Sherlock says. Because John won’t figure it out on his own. Can’t. And Sherlock is so oddly, illogically desperate for him to understand.

“Please –?“ John repeats, taken aback.

 “Kiss me again.”

 

John takes another step towards him. They’re touching now, chest to chest, belly to belly, and then John’s hand is cupping Sherlock’s cheek. “Sherlock,” he says simply, “are you sure?”

And Sherlock takes a deep breath, averts his eyes, and says, “I have loved you for over seven years, and tonight I’m asking you to kiss me.”

 

Sherlock’s heart stutters and his conscious mind is an electric chaos, like the thunderstorm outside. His thoughts are raging and his hands tremble like aspen leafs. He might shatter tonight, he realises. He might walk out of this room as a different man, one who has hoped and lost, which is infinitely worse than never having hoped at all.

 

The echo of thunder in the distance makes his breath hitch. Lightning flashes through the room, bathing their faces in sharp, silvery white light, like a grotesque spotlight designed to illuminate this blatant display of human weakness.

 

Because that’s what it is, isn’t it? The extinction of logic. The rationalist’s ultimate failure.

 

A declaration of love.

 

It feels right, however. It’s inevitable and right and terrifying.

John doesn’t move for a few agonizing seconds.

Sherlock closes his eyes. The storm outside is howling with a violent intensity, the pattering of raindrops resounding in his ears, sparks colouring the insides of his eyelids like thunder and lightning at once. Right now, after everything that’s happened today, Sherlock is losing the last bit of balance he managed to preserve.

 

And just when he’s about to collapse, to lose ground, John wraps his arms around him and holds him.