Actions

Work Header

The Curious Incident of the Dog, the Detective and the Devil’s Daughter

Chapter Text

It’s the usual diorama, as Sherlock approaches, John following behind and muttering something about it being cold. Sherlock hasn’t really noticed.

Exhibit A: Gregory Lestrade, or ‘Greg’, apparently. Wearing an enormous quilted coat, heavy leather boots and holding a coffee in a glove that looks like it was designed for use in a boxing ring.

Exhibit B: Sally Donovan. Wearing a stupidly thin cotton jacket, large-knit woollen scarf and a sour expression.

Exhibit C: A dead dog.

Sherlock stops short and gives the dog a look that, had it not already passed away, would have killed it stone dead. John comes to a halt beside him, takes one look at the dog, another at Donovan and a final one at Lestrade and says: ‘You are fucking joking?’

~

They are not fucking joking.

‘Look, will you take the case or not?’ Lestrade has flakes of snow settling on his eyebrows. His nose and cheeks are approaching day-glow pink.

Sherlock glances around at the scene. He catches sight of John, off to the left, wearing his ‘I survived Afghanistan for this?’ expression. Donovan stamps her feet and huffs a breath into her scarf. It escapes as a thick white plume. Sherlock’s fingers twitch for a cigarette.

The dog has water in its lungs, a bullet in the back of its head and a large tongue that lolls out of its mouth. It’s a shaggy-haired, dark brown mongrel, with hints of spaniel. Not a prize, pedigree specimen, so unlikely an attempt to threaten or intimidate a member of the upper echelons of society. The dog has been drowned, but not in dirty water, judging by the smell, so not the Thames or other easily accessible urban watercourse. Bath? Tank? Once drowned, it was then shot in the head. It’s an amateurish effort at best to fake the cause of death.

The real question is: why?

Sherlock fixes his gaze on Lestrade.

‘Why are you investigating this? I didn’t think dead dogs were among your limited expertise.’

‘We were called in to examine a dead man who’d been sighted on this spot by a member of the public. When we got here the body was gone and the dog had taken his place.’

Sherlock looks around – too many feet have been through the snow to identify any tracks.

‘It’s a prank. Some kids find a dead dog, call the police, tell them they’ve found a body. I don’t see why you’ve called me in.’

‘Ace Ventura wasn’t available’ says Donovan. John snorts.

Sherlock knits his eyebrows ‘Who?’

Lestrade rolls his eyes ‘Never mind that. Look, we know it wasn’t a prank. Here’ he fumbles a thin plastic wallet out of his coat and holds it out ‘the person who found him took some pictures on their phone. Same street, same patch of snow. No dog.’

Sherlock takes the enlarged photos, holds them up to compare the angles with the real-life street. The images match up, certainly, apart from the victim.

‘Do we know who he was?’

‘The victim? Hardly, it’s not like he stuck around to be asked is it?’

Sherlock huffs an exasperated breath.

‘The person who found the body, who took these photos. They clearly didn’t stay with the body until the police arrived, so how long was the opportunity for the swap? When were the photos taken?’

Lestrade fumbles another piece of paper out of his coat.

‘According to the report, the call about the body was received at 19:06 today, and the concerned member of the public turned up with his happy snaps an hour and a bit later at 20:39. Our first officer on the scene had been dispatched before we got the photos, and he arrived on this street at 19:48. So, at some point between 19:06 and 19:48, someone came down this side street, removed a dead man and replaced him with a dead dog, purpose unknown.’

Sherlock steeples his fingers under his chin.

‘Look, if you’ve seen enough can we move this investigation somewhere warmer? It’s bloody freezing out here, and while I know I’ve two kids already, I’d like to keep my options open a few more years.’

Sherlock squints at him, annoyed and distracted.

‘What?’

‘He’s freezing his bollocks off’ says Donovan ‘and he’s not the only one.’

‘Amen’ says John.

‘Will you take the case, Sherlock?’

Sherlock looks round the scene again: the main road going past at one end, twenty feet from the dead body, the sheer brick walls either side, punctuated by a locksmith's shop and a beauty parlour. The nine-foot fence at the far end, covered in mould, slime and moss that hasn’t been disturbed in ten years.

‘Yes, I’ll take it.’

~

‘What will you call this one, then?’ Sherlock asks, once they’re in the cab on the way back to Baker Street.

‘Hadn’t really thought about it – ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’?’

Sherlock turns away from his examination of the streets beyond the window to look at John, bemusedly. John smiles to himself.

 

Chapter Text

Sherlock doesn’t seem disposed to conversation so John looks out the window of the taxi and lets his mind wander. It meanders at random for all of thirty seconds before zeroing in on his lunch with Harry that afternoon.

~

‘You could just tell him’ says Harry, as if the whole human condition of angst and self-doubt about expressing emotions has simply passed her by.

She takes a bite out of the wrap and gazes at him, wide-eyed and faux-innocently, chewing reflectively.

That’s exactly what Harry would do, of course. Just tell him. Harry’s never been backward in coming forward, even sober, and if their positions were reversed Sherlock would already have found himself half out of his shirt with a very determined blonde woman settling herself into his lap.

Not for the first time in his life, John feels very grateful that, a) Harry is a lesbian and b) that they don’t really have many mutual friends or acquaintances.

 ‘I can’t do that.’

‘Why not?’ his sister asks, around a mouthful of humus.

‘I don’t think he’d react well to that.’

Harry shrugs and swallows. She casts a critical eye over him.

‘You’re not that bad looking. Besides, people like soldiers. The air of danger, I guess. That and the uniform.’

John looks away and tries not to envisage what would happen if he were to come downstairs one morning in his dress uniform. Something snide and soul-crushing, probably.

‘I don’t think he’s really into all that.’

Harry rolls her eyes.

Fine. Shoot yourself in the heart and let him come home to his very own crime scene. I bet he’d love that.’

He bloody would, John thinks, uncharitably.

‘Don’t be childish’ he says out loud.

‘Oh, I’m sorry, I thought we were back at senior school’ Harry raises her already high-pitched voice to a whiny squeak ‘I don’t know if he likes me or not, waa waa waa. My mistake, sorry.

John glowers at her. Harry glowers back. Then she sits back in her seat and folds her arms.

‘Why are we talking about this, little brother? I thought we’d decided before there was nothing going on.’

And that’s it, really.

‘Things are… it’s different. Now.’  After he jumped off that roof. After he came back again. After I hit him, hugged him and moved back in and haven’t really quite recovered from any of that in the six months since.

Thankfully Harry has mellowed with middle-age and doesn’t vocalise any of this, but John knows she’s thinking it, just like him. She sips her orange juice. John takes a heavy breath and stirs the tea that’s rapidly going cold in front of him.

‘So, what you’re saying is you’re having a mid-life sexual identity crisis?’ says Harry, as if she deals with such things on a daily basis. Hell, John thinks, she describes herself as the ‘token lesbian’ at work: she probably does.

‘No, look, I am not having a sexual identity crisis. I am, quite definitely, not doing that.’

‘Alright’ Harry says, and finishes her drink.

~

Once back inside the cosy sitting room, John puts the kettle on and Sherlock resumes his languid pose in the leather chair.

‘So go on then’ John says, leaning on the divide between the kitchen and the sitting room while the water boils ‘what have Scotland Yard failed to notice this time?’

Sherlock grins.

‘As usual, John, most of the salient points. To start with, don’t you think it’s a little odd to see all that foot-traffic in and out of such a small street?’

‘The shops?’

‘It’s a Sunday: they were both closed, had been all day going by their opening hours on the doors, and the snow only fell last night. So, unusually high numbers of people going in and out of that alleyway. No other reason to go down there if the shops were shut, and besides, I don’t think either establishment is doing a thriving business even during the working week.’

‘So why were they all there? ‘

‘Exactly, John. Why indeed. More interesting still is the fact the ground in the photographs looked a lot less trodden on.’

‘You mean they all came to have a good gawp at the body once he’d taken the photos?’

Sherlock rests his chin on his fingertips.

‘Possibly, but I think it’s unlikely. People don’t tend to linger near corpses. Or calmly standby and take photos that they then trot along with to the police. Our photographer must be a very interesting man indeed. Besides, that doesn’t answer how our disappearing corpse arrived on the scene.’

The sound of the kettle boiling recalls John to the kitchen, and he pours out two cups of tea. Returning to the living room, he sets one down on the side table at Sherlock’s elbow and takes the other back to the armchair.

‘Alright, so, strangely macabre crowd or a group of people up to no good? Maybe they came in, had a fight, left the body there –’

‘ – and he then magically transforms into a dead dog?’

‘Well, no, obviously –’

‘Not that, obvious, clearly. No, no there were no signs of a struggle, no blood or marks on the walls.’

‘So maybe he was dead on arrival and it was the people who brought him?’

‘No – as I said the footprints all appeared after the photographs so after the body was put on the ground. It takes at least two or even three people to carry the dead-weight of one person, and there are almost no marks around him in those photos.’ Sherlock smirks sideways at John. ‘So, he wasn’t dead.’

John keeps his face very calm. This is a touchy subject. He takes a sip of his tea.

‘How do you know that?’

‘Well, as we’ve just discussed, he clearly wasn’t carried there, and didn’t die on the scene. Besides, if you had to dispose of a dead body in London, why would you leave it there? Fairly clear view to the main street, going to be spotted sooner or later. That would explain why it was later removed but why leave a body in such plain sight only to move it again forty minutes later? Plus –’

Sherlock reaches down beside the chair and holds out the photographs he has clearly swiped from Lestrade.

‘Your opinion, doctor. Looks surprisingly ruddy in the face for a dead man lying in the snow.’

John takes the pictures and another sip of tea. The man is lying sprawled on his back, no obvious injury except a bruise to the side of his head and what might be blood in his hair. John’s stomach turns over at the spark of similarity, but he recovers himself quickly. The man’s face is indeed pink and hearty looking, not at all suggestive of a body transported through the freezing night in a van, or a man who has been lying in the snow. There’s also…

John peers closer.

‘Is that… is he breathing?

Sherlock laughs.

‘Yes, clever trick for a dead man, exhaling vapour.’

John sits back in his chair.

‘You seem to manage it quite well.’

Sherlock’s eyes snap on to him. A slightly remorseful look comes onto his face.

‘Oh don’t look like that, I was only joking.’ John smiles. ‘It’s fine, really.’

Sherlock’s mouth does a strange shuffle between a smile and a frown. It’s a feature of, since, well after. John isn’t sure whether he likes it or not. He’s not entirely sure what it means.

‘Go on then’ John prompts, ‘what are these hordes of people doing in this darkened alley.’

Sherlock recovers himself and draws a breath. John this knows this is his favourite bit, after the part where he gets to puzzle it all out himself first. It’s a joy to watch.

‘Well, having established the so-called victim is in fact alive and well, how he comes to be there is simple. He walked in and, once the photo had been taken, walked out again.’

‘Liked an audience, did he?’

‘Not at all. Only takes two men to photograph a body on the ground – one if our corpse brought a tripod with him.’

 ‘So what then?’

Sherlock smiles the slightly worrying, slightly feral smile that comes onto his face in the middle of the intellectual chase.

‘I imagine it takes quite a number of people to carry a large, water-logged, dead dog.’

Chapter Text

Sherlock tosses the photos on the desk between them. Lestrade pulls a face and Donovan smirks the smirk of a woman who has just won a bet with herself about where the stolen police property had got to.

‘See for yourself.’

Lestrade picks up the photos and examines them in the light of Sherlock’s observations.

‘So, your story is this bloke walks in, gets his photo taken and buggers off. And then shortly afterwards another group of people turn up and abandon a dead dog.’

Sherlock bristles slightly.

‘It’s not my story, it’s what happened. You’ve seen the CCTV footage by now, I take it?’

Lestrade and Donovan share a look.

‘We have, as it happens.’

‘And?’

Lestrade scrubs a hand over his face.

’18:54 – lone man, carrying a large black bag is seen to enter the alleyway. 19:04 he leaves the alley. 19:21 the entrance is obscured by a large grey van that parks up until 19:29.’

Sherlock sits back in his chair.

‘What did I tell you, John? Lone man with a tripod. And the dog was delivered in the van.’

‘So the photographer is in on this, then?’ John says, mildly.

‘Of course he was. I think our concerned citizen is definitely of interest to the police. Any uninterested observer would have reported this man drunk, or unconscious.  ‘Dead’ excites a lot more official interest.’

Sally sucks her teeth in an aggrieved manner. Lestrade rifles through some papers on his desk and pushes another photo towards Sherlock. It’s a still from the CCTV.

‘I think you might be right…’

Sherlock holds it up. It’s the man with the bag again, heading into the alley. The time is 19:34.

‘He came back…’ He murmurs.

‘Looks like it. Would explain why he took so long to get here with the photos. Especially since he dropped his bag off en route – when he arrived with the camera all he had on him was his wallet.’

‘Obviously – he couldn’t risk you lot looking inside it and finding the tripod, change of clothes and the gun.’

Lestrade looks up from his study of the CCTV still. ‘Gun?’

‘Yes, gun. He shot the dog, I’m sure of it.’

‘But the dog was already –’

‘Dead, yes, exactly, so why did he do it? He was trying to get our attention. My attention.’ Sherlock stands up and whirls out of the chair. ‘Have the dog sent to the Barts mortuary – I need to examine it. Our photographer was trying to tell us something!’

Sherlock is halfway across the outer office before anyone can react. Lestrade folds his arms and puffs out his cheeks. Donovan scowls at the chair where Sherlock was sitting. John tries to look harmless.

‘You’d better go and keep an eye on him.’

‘I’m not his babysitter.’

Lestrade and Donovan each give him a look that suggests they must agree to differ. John sighs and jogs after the swirling black coat tails.

~

Molly makes a strong, reasoned argument about there being an investigation already in progress in one examination room, and a class in the other. What’s more, the Yard have told her not to release the body until tomorrow, after they’ve run their own tests. She supports this with the fact that animal post mortems are not usually carried out at the hospital, what with there being pet hospitals for that kind of thing and the rooms are busy enough with human patients.

Sherlock smiles the smile that could disarm a paratrooper, compliments her hair and tells her that her perfume reminds him of the few weeks he spent in the Italian Aeolian islands, swimming in the sea and learning the local language.

Molly folds like a flag in a hurricane.

John, mind awash with Sherlock diving semi-naked into limpid pools of aquamarine water and ordering wine in a soft, sensual Italian baritone, knows exactly how she feels.

~

The dog, it transpires, has been poisoned.

Sherlock is thrilled. He’s never seen this one used in London before. John watches him rub his hands together with glee, like a bird spotter who’s just sighted the last mating pair of an endangered South American species in the back garden of their Wimbledon home.

‘I knew there must be something, John. The gunshot was a signpost, a flag. It was such a clumsy way of faking the death it drew attention to itself. Whereas the faked drowning…’ Sherlock holds out the vial of water. There had been enough that the at-the-scene puncture test had showed water in the lungs, but so little of it on closer inspection that it couldn’t have killed the animal. ‘Excellent work– very nearly fooled me.’

‘High praise indeed.’

Sherlock throws him a grin.

‘Only ‘very nearly’. It was too clean for river water, which was immediately suspicious. Not many people have a bath big enough to drown a dog this size, and it would have fought back. Add in the fact there was so little of it, and the water was clearly added after death. It also gives us another clue.’

‘How so?’

‘Whoever poisoned this dog and faked drowning it did an almost perfect job. Why would they ruin it by making such an amateur mistake in shooting it after death? Even Scotland Yard would have spotted that. It was someone separate, someone with a different agenda.’

John smiles.

‘The man who came back with the bag. The man with the gun.’

‘Exactly.’

Sherlock reaches out for the blood sample from which he has identified the poisonous toxin.

‘The expert was trying to disguise this. Our photographer was trying to make it more obvious… first he draws attention to the scene by faking his own death and then he makes the dog’s death look suspicious by adding a deliberate mistake.‘

John adjusts his seat on the counter top and bites his lip.

‘Very public spirited of him.’

‘Hmmm.’ Sherlock’s gaze unfocuses. He sees a shadowy figure administering the poison; pipetting the water down the dog’s throat; helping to heft the dog into the back of the van –

Why the alley? Why fake the body of a drowned dog only to abandon it in an alley?

Houston, we have a mistake.

‘A genuine mistake.’

John’s head snaps up.

‘What?’

But Sherlock isn’t talking to him. Sherlock is talking to the only person who could possibly understand.

Himself.

‘It was never meant for the alley, it was meant to be found in the river or by a pond: couldn’t risk it being found in the water with no water in its lungs so they added some… but then who would think to look that closely? No, no, no meant to be found somewhere specific, in an isolated watercourse, by someone specific who would have known what it meant and what to look for. A warning. A show of power – no one else has this poison and it’s nasty, quick acting.’

Sherlock steeples his fingers under his chin. Lost him again, John thinks.

‘So a warning that never made it to the correct destination. A mistake, a mix up… or… No!’

Sherlock leaps up, claps his hands.

‘Houston we have another deliberate mistake! It was all perfect, the perfect encrypted warning but someone on their own side is a double agent. There was a weak link, a traitor. Someone’s turned it against them, warned the police rather than the intended recipients.’

Sherlock draws a pleased breath and beams at John.

‘Gang warfare!’ he exclaims, as though he’s saying ‘Christmas!’

Oh joy, John thinks.

~

‘Fucking hell’ says Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade.

‘Who let you in? We weren’t releasing that body until tomorrow!’ says Sergeant Sally Donovan.

‘You’ve got a new poison loose on the streets and a potential revenge crime on the horizon and you’re quibbling about the timing of the post mortem for a dead dog?’ says Sherlock Holmes, renowned consulting detective and masterful misser-of-points.

‘I think we should get hold of this photographer ’ says Dr John Watson, eternal pragmatist and Keeper of the Peace.

‘Some of the team are after him now’ says Lestrade, resignedly.

‘It was Molly, wasn’t it?’ says Donovan, unwilling to let the point go.

Sherlock ignores her. ‘I’m pleased to hear it, Inspector. In the meantime I trust I have your blessing to make my own enquiries? Or shall we just wait and see who gets poisoned first’ Lestrade scowls ‘like you normally do?’ Sherlock finishes, cuttingly.

Lestrade’s scowl deepens.

‘I’ll keep him out of trouble’ John says. Everyone hears ‘When he gets into trouble I’ll try and stop him getting himself or anyone else killed.’

Fine’ says Lestrade.

Sherlock leaves, John makes to follow.

‘Tell Molly to try and keep her knickers on, next time’ says Donovan, coarsely. John frowns at her.

It’s not Molly’s knickers we should be worrying about, he thinks.

Chapter Text

‘There’s something else’ Sherlock says, apropos of nothing, reclining on the sofa.

John looks up, taking in the sweep of blue dressing gown draped over bony hips and wiry body. Sherlock has his hands under his chin again, like a schoolboy at prayers.

John tries not to think of Sherlock at school, all boys’ boarding school, probably, then Eton or Harrow.

The rumours probably aren’t true, anyway.

Not anymore.

Probably.

Besides, you’d have been in a different year.

‘Why did he take the photos to the police in person? He could have just emailed them.’

‘Perhaps he’s a genius and he wants an audience?’

Sherlock doesn’t open his eyes but he grins broadly.

‘Perhaps.’

~

‘How’s it all going, then, you know, with him being… back?’

Molly smiles encouragingly at him over her tea.

‘Yeah, yeah it’s, fine, actually. You know, good. Better than when he was gone, anyway.’

John doesn’t say ‘dead’.

Molly beams a bit more. John wonders abstractly if she actually hates him for being so close to Sherlock on a daily basis. She’s a very good actress, if so.

Molly stops smiling and looks down at the grain of the wood on the table.

‘You should tell him, you know.’

John chokes on his tea. Perhaps that’s how she always planned it. Blindside him with frighteningly astute personal observations while he’s trying to swallow scalding liquids.

Molly offers him a napkin.

‘He’s not very good at noticing that sort of thing’ she adds, a little sadly ‘At least, not properly. Not in the way it counts.’

She reaches out to take the tea while John pats himself down.

‘Thanks’ he manages. He’s not quite sure for what.

~

It’s only several hours later, in bed, that John realises it didn’t even occur to him to question what Molly had meant.

He’d just assumed. He’d made an assumption, based on all the possibilities and selecting the most likely.

 ~

He wakes up, an hour or so after that, with the realisation that it also didn’t occur to him to contradict her.

He wonders if 2:06 is an excusable time to call his sister.

He decides probably not.

~

While John was out doing mundane, pedestrian things like ‘food shopping’, ‘having lunch with Molly’ and ‘paying the electricity bill’, Sherlock had been busy.

Sherlock has been out ‘freeganing’, ‘sharing lunch with Sam’ and ‘paying his surveillance network’.

Sam lives with Liam and Jezzer  ‘the Fish’ Pike, on the third floor of an abandoned house.

For the purposes of the meeting, Sherlock’s name is Simon. This is because they always do as he says.

Sherlock learns that there is some trouble brewing between a small, tight-knit family group and a rather looser, less cohesive collection of dissidents, one of whom is the estranged son of the family patriarch. There’s a, so far discreet, skirmish for territory going on, but the assembled committee seem very mournful about the dog and what this bodes for future developments.

‘That’s a fucking bad omen, that is, mate’ says Liam.

Simon draws appreciatively on the cigarette offered him by Sam. It does sound like it.

Incensed father has street dog captured, poisoned and given a fake cause of death, intending to leave it somewhere for his son to find as a dire warning of the consequences of continued disobedience.

Son discovers this plan, has the dog hi-jacked to a different location, probably using his father’s van and bribing or incapacitating his father’s henchmen.  This allows him to alert the police to his father’s possession of the toxin, gives him an opportunity to rise from the dead and to walk in and out of Scotland Yard as though he owns the place, no doubt according him a good deal of respect from his merry band of followers.

Marvellous.

Despite his best efforts, Sherlock is back in the flat, showered and suited, before John returns, thereby preventing the grand entrance he was so looking forward to.

John had asked how his day had been.

Sherlock had said ‘Fine.’

~

It is day four of the case. Sherlock is in uncharacteristically high spirits considering he hasn’t been shot at, punched or outwitted in the last seven days. John feels rather on edge as a result. He feels Sherlock must know something he doesn’t.

His disturbed night’s sleep has nothing to do with it.

At precisely 2pm, 1400 hours, Sherlock snaps shut the book he is reading and says: ‘Fancy a pint?’

~

John wouldn’t call Walthamstow their local, but then he never entertained any serious hopes of Sherlock actually planning to go out for a drink.

The pub is bland and small. There are five men inside, including the barman, who is stacking glasses behind the bar. Two men are playing the quiz machine in a manner that suggests habit rather than hope. One man sits at the bar nursing a whiskey, the other sits beside the bedraggled pool table, reading a tabloid.

Only the barman looks up at their entrance.

‘The usual?’ he queries.

‘For two’ Sherlock replies. John has the distinct impression that there is more to this conversation than meets the ear.

The barman nods, puts down the glass he is holding and opens a door in the back of the bar. He leans through it and shouts: ‘Harry!’

John has a bizarre but momentary fear that his sister is going to appear. She doesn’t.

Harry is about six foot six and four feet across. He looks like a man made out of beer barrels.

‘Two for the usual, Harry’ says the barman. Harry smiles and wanders out of the room, through the door marked ‘Toilets’. Sherlock follows him. John follows Sherlock.

~

Because John is a sensible man, not given to flights of fancy, he had never given much thought to the ‘other’ doors in the corridors of pubs. ‘Ladies’, ‘Gents’, occasionally a ‘Disabled’ or ‘Baby Changing Area’, and then unmarked others.

Store cupboards, he had thought. Cleaning supplies, crisp packets, Christmas decorations.

Door to the cellar, possibly. Stairs going down to the barrels.

He is therefore not overly alarmed when Harry leads them down some spiralling metal stairs. He isn’t even that alarmed when they meet another man, standing beside one of the piled up kegs. A delivery man, John thinks, or a rat catcher.

The other man, who is not introduced, says: ‘For the fight?’

‘For Charlie’ Harry says.

The unnamed man nods and waves them on through a door at the end of the cellar.

Ah, John thinks.

 

Chapter Text

Charlie is a clean-shaven man, in a loose-fitting black vest made of expensive sport-wear material. He has the muscular look of someone who spends a lot of time at the gym.

Or possibly, John considers, a lot of time in that make-shift boxing ring we passed on the way in.

The muffled noise of the crowd in the larger room beyond rises and falls sporadically, like the wind between buildings.

‘Mr Holmes, how nice to finally meet you.’

‘Mr Strickner.’

‘What can I do for you?’

‘Actually, Mr Strickner, I think it might be a case of what I can do for you.’

Sherlock tells him he knows about the poison (and the drug dealing and the weapon smuggling, it turns out). He offers them leniency for these other crimes if the poison and the details of the younger brother’s gang are provided to the police. He makes a very strong case for their co-operation.

Strickner tells him to go fuck himself.

‘Goodbye, Mr Holmes.’

A thin, angular man appears in the door. He is smoking an untidy roll-up and is clearly there to speed their exit. John stands and heads out past the acrid fumes, Sherlock following.

‘I hear you used to be the Cambridge university boxing champion’ says Strickner, as he lights a cigarette.

Sherlock stills, head tilting around slightly. Behind him, Strickner chucks the match away and draws in a breath. John feels his own eyebrows lift up his forehead: he reviews Sherlock’s wiry frame and decides they must have got the wrong man.

‘Very la di dah, I’m sure. Maybe you could show us how it’s done?

Sherlock says nothing.

‘Or maybe you don’t want me to beat you twice in one day.’

A muscle jumps in Sherlock’s jaw. Don’t do it, John thinks desperately.

 Sherlock sweeps off his scarf with a crack like a whip. He throws it at John who catches it on reflex before he realises what he’s doing.

Strickner laughs, unfolds from his chair, and stubs out his cigarette. The shouts and jeers of the crowd beyond the door become more threatening in John’s head. Strickner swaggers past them and presses a hand to the door.

‘When you’re ready.’ He pushes against the wood and the sound doubles. John has a momentary flash of the yelling crowd and the contorted faces before the door swings closed.

‘Oh come off it, for God’s sake’ he hisses ‘we should go. Now!’

Sherlock holds his gaze and unbuttons his coat but doesn’t say a word. He shrugs it off his shoulders and holds it out. John takes it with a sigh.

‘I hope you know what you’re bloody doing.’

‘Of course.’

Sherlock toes off his shoes and socks. He starts to unbutton his shirt.

‘Sherlock, what –’

‘Well I’m not going to conduct a bare-knuckle boxing match in a dress shirt.’

Sherlock finishes with the buttons, shrugs off the material and holds it out to John.

John is having trouble with where to put his eyes, largely because he’s thinking about where he’d like to be putting his hands. He takes hold of the shirt instead. The cotton is still warm from Sherlock’s skin.

Sherlock rolls his shoulders.

‘Right then, shall we?’

~

John follows Sherlock through the door, carrying most of the other man’s clothes and body heat. His fear for Sherlock’s safety mingles nauseatingly with the lovely spike of heat at the sight of his long, pale back over his narrow hips, and the sinewy lines of his arms and shoulders. He has seen Sherlock without his shirt before, but it was a rather finer, safer location than this, and the two emotions are giving him fiercely protective urges that are clamouring for him to take Sherlock’s place.

But it’s too late, and Sherlock’s lithe form is swallowed up by the crowd at the entrance to the ring.

John feels another wave of nausea hit him and he wonders if that’s the last time he’s going to see Sherlock in one piece. Flashes of bloodied curls on the pavement come inexorably to mind, and he stumbles blindly to a space behind the wooden slats at the edge of the ring.

The small room contains about fifty people, all of whom are making a racket and most of whom are male and smell of stale beer and sweat. The one or two women dotted about are oily-skinned and hard-faced, plastered in strong make-up. The one who jostles through the crowd past John smells of bad perfume and cannabis in equal measure. Everyone is watching the ring with hawkish, mean-eyed attention.

Charlie Strickner, the recognised and popular proprietor of the establishment, has removed his vest and his flexing his arms and back in a needlessly showy warm-up routine. The women are shouting lewd obscenities at him and the men are cheering.

When Sherlock pushes through the crowd into the ring, there is a faint ripple of quiet, before the laughter starts. Some of the women wolf-whistle before dissolving into cackles.

John can’t help but agree with the sentiment – nice try, but you don’t have a hope in Hell.

The two men are roughly equal in height, but Sherlock is leaner and slighter, and standing opposite the sculpted figure of Charlie Strickner, he looks like a wiry teenager.

Strickner finishes showing off, spreads his arms gregariously to his adoring crowd and smiles, winningly.

Sherlock tips his head one way then the other to loosen his neck.

There is a shout from one of Strickner’s cronies and a bell clangs in the far corner of the room.

~

John thinks that, even to the uninitiated observer like himself, it’s quite clear that Sherlock didn’t pick up all this stuff while earning his blue at the good old university.

The tone of the shouting has gone from cocksure encouragement of the favourite to screams of rage and incitements to murder. Strickner and his adoring fans have got rather more than they bargained for, and what started as a solid, reliable afternoon’s entertainment has become something of a point of honour.

Strickner has a darkening bruise on the side of his head, a black eye and a patchwork of other bruises on his ribs, back and shoulders. Sherlock is sporting a split lip, an impressive weal just below his left eye and a multitude of scratches and bruises. There is a line of blood down his neck and shoulder, probably resulting from being thrown against the fence earlier.

Both men are clearly taking a moment to revaluate the situation: Strickner rapidly revising his first impressions and Sherlock deciding which weakness to capitalise on next.

‘Kill him!’ shouts an imaginative onlooker. Strickner grins, panting heavily. He makes a dive for Sherlock, who sidesteps and thwacks him on the shoulder, spinning him round. But Strickner holds his balance, twists, catches Sherlock round the waist and the two men hit the ground heavily.

Sherlock’s advantage is, or was, his speed on his feet. He’s less agile on the floor and Strickner is the more powerful and heavier contender. Sherlock makes a lunge to stand but Strickner drags him back down. Sherlock retaliates by going with the movement, using the momentum to roll them both over to get the advantage, but Strickner is on to him and the two men flip over once too many, Strickner shoving Sherlock’s head and shoulders hard against the floor.

He puts his hands round Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock brings his knee up sharply with reflexive speed and calculated accuracy. Strickner gasps, Sherlock shoves and then the two men are apart, both scrambling to their feet.

They stand on opposite sides of the ring, eyeing each other warily.

Sherlock’s latest escape attempt has brought him to John’s side of the ring. His skin is flushed and slick with sweat and traces of blood. His chest is heaving up and down, pulse firing frantically on the side of his throat, blue eyes glittering like cut diamonds. John imagines he can see the intricate mechanics of Sherlock’s brain beneath his sweat damp curls, everything spinning at top speed and full capacity.

John thinks he looks absolutely fucking beautiful. Like he’s doing what he was designed to do and loving every minute of it.

It’s a great and terrible tragedy that the odds are stacked heavily on the side of him being swiftly incapacitated and prevented from doing anything else, ever again.

Strickner makes another dive for him, Sherlock steps neatly to one side but this time Strickner follows him, barrelling forward, lifting him off his feet and then throwing him, hard, at the juncture of wall and floor.

Sherlock coughs, winded, reaching out a hand and drawing up a knee to push himself upright. Strickner kicks both limbs out from under him, one two, and then grabs hold of his arm. Sherlock only just manages to get onto his feet as the other man heaves him up, and swings him round like a rag doll, before letting him go stumbling backwards into another collision with the wall. Sherlock’s head snaps back and connects sharply with the wood, and even across the ring John sees the dazed look on Sherlock’s face, imagines the flashing black stars encroaching on his vision.

Strickner’s supporters are again in full voice. There are loud, blood-curdling screams of ‘Finish him!’ from around the room. The din grows louder and John can feel his own heart beating in his mouth. He can hardly breathe.

Gingerley, Sherlock pulls himself up against the wall. There’s a new splash of blood down his neck and over his cheek. Strickner laughs, raggedly, and flexes the fingers of his right hand, no doubt as a precursor to breaking at least three of Sherlock’s ribs.

Sherlock sways on his feet, blinking unevenly. Strickner laughs again, and suddenly throws out his right arm.

Sherlock snaps his head to the side, dodging the blow. His right fist collides with Strickner’s exposed right cheek. Strickner staggers, Sherlock skips sideways, brings both fists to either side of Strickner’s head and smashes them together. Impulsively, Strickner’s left arm swings in low. Sherlock deflects it expertly with his elbow, leaning in to smash his left fist into Strickner’s spare ribs. Pivoting and twisting like a dancer, Sherlock smacks away the incoming second arm, swinging his right elbow into Strickner’s jaw.

There is a paniced yell of surprise from the crowd

Strickner takes all of half a step back, mouth falling open just in time for Sherlock’s left hand to smack once more into the side of his jaw. Strickner’s head goes back, eyes closed, exposing his chest and stomach. Sherlock punches him twice – once to the ribs, once to the stomach, before drawing back his arm for the final and decisive blow that dislocates Strickner’s jaw.

His head twisted to the side and jaw hanging grotesquely, Strickner begins to lift his arms as if to defend himself. Sherlock balances on his left leg, draws up his right like a spring, leans back and kicks out viciously, foot connecting with Strickner’s diaphragm with a sickening thump.

Strickner flies backwards, weight collapsing inwards until his back hits the wall and he crumples to the floor.

The crowd falls silent.

Sherlock regains his balance, huffs out a breath that flutters the lock of hair over his forehead and looks down his nose at Strickner’s prone form with an expression of disdain.

Then he marches out of the ring.

The crowd parts around him like the Red Sea, and it’s all John can do to make his legs work well enough to follow him out.

~

‘Interesting three years away, was it?’

Christ. We’ve spent six months carefully avoiding discussing this and now we’re going to do it while he’s bleeding and shirtless and I can’t seem to let go of any of his clothes. And there’s a lot of angry men about to come after us.

Sherlock looks up from tying his laces, a feat he is accomplishing with amazing speed considering the state of his knuckles. He is perched on one of the beer barrels, flushed skin starting to goose-pimple in the chill air.

‘Shirt?’ he requests, still breathless.

He isn’t the only one. It takes John a beat to register anything more than the sound. Nevertheless, he accomplishes the feat with amazing speed considering the state of his head and the by now far advanced stage of his sexual identity crisis. He hands over the shirt.

Sherlock doesn’t bother with the buttons, just pulls it on and then reaches for his coat. The lean expanses of flushed, cream-coloured skin are mercifully swept out of sight. John has never been more grateful for clothing in his life, including the time his life was saved by a bullet-proof vest. Today, Sherlock’s shirt has performed an equal if not greater service, because if he’d had to endure much more he’d have died of embarrassment.

The noise of the crowd in the room beyond begins to increase and alertness prickles the back of John’s neck. He focuses on the impending escape and the avoidance of getting-the-shit-kicked-out-of-us-by-beer-barrel-Harry.

‘Come on.’

Sherlock is off, jogging up the spiral stairs and John is running after him.

~

Immediately after leaving the building, running discreetly as possible down the street and gratefully falling into the cab, John is mostly preoccupied with feelings of relief and amazement that both of them have escaped with all of their teeth still in place.

However, the journey back to Baker Street is a long one, and he has plenty of time to reflect on how Sherlock’s shirt is unbuttoned beneath his coat and how Sherlock’s skin is hot and smooth beneath his shirt –

By the time they finally reach Baker Street, John feels the definite need to call Harry.

He waits until Sherlock is safely locked away in the shower before jogging up the steps to his bedroom, locking the door, falling back on his bed and dialling his sister.

This is the wrong way about, he thinks bitterly, as the phone rings, she’s the one who’s supposed to call me with problems. I’m the well-adjusted, normal one.

‘Sup?’

‘Hi Harry’ John says, tightly.

‘Alright. How are things?’

‘Not great. You know that sexual identity crisis I wasn’t having?’

‘Yup, know the one.’

‘Well I’m having it today.’

‘What happened?’

John takes a deep breath in through his nose.

‘Sherlock got himself involved in a bare-knuckle boxing competition. And he won.’

Harry whistles.

‘Didn’t think he looked the type.’

‘Well, take it as read that he did this afternoon’ John grits out.

Harry chuckles darkly.

‘WonderBoy looks good with his kit off then?’

‘You are not helping.’

‘What do you want me to do? Come round with a towel and cover him up?’

John rubs his thumb and forefinger into the bridge of his nose. He doesn’t know what he wants. Well, he knows what part of him wants but he’s not about to go into graphic details of that over the telephone with his older sister.

He ought to stay here and check Sherlock’s wounds and make sure he doesn’t have concussion and stay up with him all night just to be certain… God, he really ought to, he is a doctor, after all…

‘John?’

‘Can I come and stay with you? Just tonight, I need to, I don’t know, get away, for a bit.’

‘Alright. I’m in all evening so whenever is fine. You could just talk to him, though –’

‘No, no, I err… don’t think that’s going to work. Not tonight.’

‘Alright, see you soon then, little bro.’

She rings off.

Chapter Text

 

John Watson dreams.

He dreams of swirling dark colours and incoherent snatches of narrative – flickers of Harry, Molly, Mike and even himself, seen as though from somewhere outside his own head. He dreams of Baker Street, of the seventeen steps and the mismatched furniture, of the knife in the mantelpiece and the gun in his bedside drawer.

Finally, he dreams of Sherlock, smiling at him after a case, cheeks flushed, scarf and hair askew; Sherlock, lying on the sofa, oblivious to his pyjama shirt that has rucked up to reveal the smoothness of his stomach; Sherlock, semi-naked, and streaked in sweat, looking down his nose at John imperiously, like Adonis scorning Venus, and saying ‘Don’t be ridiculous, John’ before turning and walking away.

John startles awake.

Sherlock is standing beside the bed, looking down his nose at him with an expression of bemused puzzlement on his face. The bruise under his eye has darkened and spread. His bottom lip is swollen. He smells of vanilla shampoo and expensive soap.

‘Why are you asleep?’ he says.

When John fails to muster a suitable, or indeed any reply, he sticks out his left hand, a poorly wound bandage trailing from it.

‘I need your help.’

John looks from the fingertips to the badly wrapped knuckles to the delicate bones at Sherlock’s wrist.

‘Alright’ he manages.

~

Sherlock watches him in silence. John mentally berates himself for falling asleep. When his brain tires of this as a diversionary activity, and in lieu of talking, it embarks on a virtual tour, starting from Sherlock’s hands, up his lean arms to his shoulders, replaying the shining sweep of his neck, before plunging down the lovely pale planes of his back and the sweat-slick furrow of his spine, pausing at the blurry barrier of his belt, before circling round his narrow hips and coming to rest at the smooth, neat muscles of his stomach.

John’s breathing falters in his lungs and his hands falter on the binding. He draws a breath, curses himself, and ties off the wrapping. He needs to say something, anything, anything at all.

Were you the Cambridge university boxing champion?’

‘No. But it’s an interesting rumour.’

‘What do you mean?’

Sherlock smiles mysteriously.

‘It’s one I started.’

John’s puzzlement over this strange comment is only matched by his relief that the rumour isn’t true. The last thing he needs is another scenario for his Sherlock-centric sexual fantasies.

Going to stay with Harry, he reminds himself, should not be thinking the words ‘sexual fantasy’ at all, let alone in plural.

Out loud he says ‘Oh, really?’

‘Mmmm’ says Sherlock, like warm honey being poured into John’s mind via his ears.

John shakes himself mentally and says, ‘You should let me have a look at your other injuries.’

~

‘You might have concussion. I should stay here and wake you at regular intervals.’

‘Yes, why were you planning to go to your sister’s?’

‘What, how did you –’

‘It was the last number dialled on your phone before you fell into your afternoon nap. You had lunch with her three days ago, why call her now?’

‘It doesn’t matter it’s nothing, really.’

‘You only ever call her when you’re worried about her or you have a problem you think I won’t understand. But you’re unlikely to be worried about her because she was fine three days ago.’

‘Yes, yes, lovely, now can I finish this in peace?’

‘You’ve only just picked it up. You’re avoiding me. Interesting.’

‘I’m not avoiding you, I just… don’t want to talk about it.’

~

John sits in the half dark and berates himself for a fool, a failure and a false friend.

Sherlock isn’t like this, he thinks, miserably. Sherlock isn’t interested in feelings, however pure they are, or romance, however true, and he certainly isn’t interested in sex.

Even though he looks like one of its minor deities, on occasion.

Sherlock is asleep in his bedroom down the hallway. He sleeps like a small child, curled on his side with the covers tucked round him.

John knows this because he has just spent five minutes watching him sleep.

Had to be sure. Had to check.

Complete a comprehensive investigation before giving the diagnosis.

No good theorising without all the facts.

He’s supposed to be a true friend, and an impartial doctor, watching over his companion and sometime patient with a caring and brotherly eye.

Instead his thinking is wild and irrational, and he is a desperate man gazing at his would-be lover with emotions too deep and too passionate to be anything but adoration and desire.

He had crept back out of the bedroom like a guilty peeping tom.

Diagnosis: absolutely fucking certain.

John drops his head into his hands.

He’s supposed to be at Harry’s.

He has to wake Sherlock in twenty minutes.

He’s not supposed to feel like this.

Chapter Text

‘And just what exactly have you been doing?’

Sherlock affects nonchalance.

‘I won a fight with a man in an illegal boxing match in Walthamstow.’

‘Oh Christ’ says Lestrade, covering his face with a hand ‘Who?’

‘Charlie Strickner. ‘

‘Fucking hell, Sherlock!’

Sherlock huffs.

‘You agreed I was free to make my own enquiries.’

John, who had been lounging, arms folded, against the wall, steps forward.

‘You’ve heard of this Strickner bloke, then? Sherlock neglected to tell me who he was.’

Lestrade looks grey. John feels mild panic begin to roil in his stomach.

‘He’s the second son of Jack Strickner. Noted London personality – fancies himself a mafia boss. Whole family have got an interest in some crime or another, but nothing proven, of course. Drug dealing, arms selling, prostitution, you name it.’

John starts to look a bit grey, too.

~

Lestrade listens to Sherlock’s explanation of events in horrified silence – the two gangs, the family connection, Strickner’s unwillingness to co-operate with the police – and sinks lower and lower in his chair.

They have not traced the photographer.

‘The reprisals don’t bear thinking about.’

‘No’ John agrees.

‘Unless we can remove the younger brother’ Sherlock says ‘Without him his group will disintegrate and the Strickners will have no one to reprise against. Well’ he coughs ‘not on your streets, at any rate.’

 ‘No, but I don’t fancy his chances in prison.’

Sherlock shrugs.

‘So, how do you propose we find this bloke? Our leads have dried up, we found the phone abandoned in a rubbish bin so we’ve not got a lot to go on. The Strickners are a difficult group to get inside – families always are. They work with a very select few outside of that – they’re going to notice new faces.’

‘I think I might have a lead, courtesy of the brother.’

‘Really? Well, I’d rather you told me of course, but since that’s a lost cause, can I at least ask that you’ll call us before you do anything too stupid?’ Sherlock makes a face, Lestrade continues ‘Like getting into a boxing match, for instance?’

‘We’ll keep you informed’ John promises.

Lestrade doesn’t believe a word of it.

~

They climb into a cab and Sherlock gives the driver an address in Richmond. John pulls the door shut with unnecessary force.

He is angry.

‘Why did you bother, exactly?’

Sherlock looks round. John is using his very controlled, very smooth voice.

Really very angry indeed, then.

‘I’m sorry?’

John looks up at him and his gaze hits Sherlock in the face like a physical blow.

‘Coming back from the dead. Why bother, at all, really, if all you’re going to do on your return is throw yourself into fights with people from the mafia, while I stand back unable to help.’

‘John –’

‘No, really, I’m curious’ he snarls.

‘It was for the case –’

‘No! No it fucking wasn’t! That’s just it, it wasn’t, it had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the sodding case. It didn’t achieve anything, apart from, it turns out, kicking a bloody hornet’s nest of London criminals. You’re a complete tosser, you know that?’

Sherlock opens his mouth, thinks better of it, and closes it again.

‘You never tell me anything, do you? Even now, even after –’

John cuts himself off sharply. He hunches himself into his jacket and stares out of the window.

The cab rumbles slowly through a set of traffic lights, and swings round a corner.

Sherlock looks over at the hard lines of John’s expression: the straightened lips, the angled eyebrows. It is moments like this that make him wonder most of all.

He looks out of the other window. He doesn’t like to hope, really, partly because hope is a useless emotion, but mostly because all previous evidence suggests that people do not feel like that about him. John’s persistence is something of a mystery, even to Sherlock, who has devoted no little time to studying the issue.

The anger seems motivated by a care for Sherlock’s welfare. John is a doctor, though, so the deeper motivations behind this could quite easily be clinical, medical: angry at the waste of life.

Or it could be friendship. But Sherlock is only just beginning to understand what that is, in practice. His greatest leap was considering that John’s feelings might be a mirror of his own, albeit weaker and less consuming.

It is inconceivable that John feels about Sherlock the way Sherlock feels about John.

John is pleasant, and useful, and takes care of all the parts of life that Sherlock can’t be bothered with or hasn’t got the hang of. Like shopping, bills and meaningless social niceties. Apart from the one occasion he has never been violent towards Sherlock, or his experiments, and displays considerable tolerance and fortitude in the face of flat-sharing, danger, and finding body parts in the kitchen.

Sherlock, on the other hand, is a fright and a terror.

He sneaks another look at the man on the opposite side of the taxi. John’s expression has softened but he is still looking resolutely out of the window.

I should apologise, he thinks, which is a sentiment he is more familiar with these days, since the terrible incident with Moriarty and the rooftop of St Barts. He had never really lied to John until then, not properly. Lies of omission, perhaps. But not actual, bare-faced lying.

But not yet, he considers, as the taxi picks up speed down the Great Chertsey Road, I’ll keep it until after this. This particular lie of omission.

~

The house is small and well-kept, set on a quiet suburban street not far from the river. Sherlock rings the doorbell. John stands a few paces back, hands in his pockets.

A woman with long red hair opens the door. John has a faint sensation of familiarity, but can’t pin it down. She smiles, steps back and lets them in. John realises with another pang of annoyance that, once again, Sherlock hasn’t told him why they’re here or what they’re doing.

They are directed into a small but tasteful living room. John sits on the sofa opposite the one Sherlock has chosen. It is childish but he’s still angry and hurt and he wants to telegraph it as loud as possible to the man who is studiously avoiding engaging him in conversation about it.

The red-head leans out of the room and calls up the stairs ‘Darling, your visitors are here’ before sitting demurely on the sofa next to John. She holds out a cup of tea as the door opens and the person they’ve apparently come to see walks in.

John stares.

John swallows.

Irene Adler smiles radiantly at him, before delicately seating herself beside Sherlock, their thighs touching.

‘Well hello’ she says.

Chapter Text

Sherlock Holmes likes Irene Adler. While in James Moriarty he saw all his worst features reflected and multiplied, like a monstrous distortion, in Irene he sees some of his better qualities made human.

John Watson cannot stand the woman.

Her return from the grave, again, is just another item on his already extensive list. He hates her lying and cheating and stealing. He hates her gaudy self-confidence. He hates the long, smooth sweep of her legs.

He hates the way she looks at Sherlock like she’s undressing him, touching him and taking him to bed.

Irene crosses her legs like she’s arranging herself in a shop window, taking care to brush her leg against Sherlock’s thigh, and the game begins.

John clamps his teeth together.

~

 ‘It’s lovely to see you both again’ says Irene.

‘The feeling is mutual, I assure you’ says Sherlock.

Wrong! John thinks, viciously.

He forces himself to breathe and not to shout when he opens his mouth. He turns his gaze and a closed-mouth smile in Sherlock’s direction.

‘Any more reanimated corpses I should know about?’

Sherlock has the good grace to look at least mildly guilty. He doesn’t look John in the eye.

John swipes his tongue across his bottom lip. He can feel the anger boiling up to his chest. He should stop. He should stop now.

‘Jim Moriarty not going to be popping in for scones later, then?’

Sherlock’s eyes lift up from their study of the carpet. A muscle in his jaw flickers. Oblivious, Irene smiles mischievously.

‘I should hope not. We haven’t any in, have we Kate?’

Kate shakes her head silently, her gentle smile seemingly fixed in place. Her eyes never leave Irene.

John wonders distantly how she looks so calm and serene, while her lover flirts so outrageously with–

Mine.

He was going to think ‘mine’.

As if she’s read his mind, Irene says ‘Now, how can I assist my dear detective’ she spares John a glance, ‘and his dearest doctor?’

She draws her knees up onto the sofa and wraps her arms around them. She gazes at Sherlock with a look of hungry adoration. John fights the urge to scream.

~

 ‘Come on then, out with it, Mr Holmes.’

‘I’ve come to correct you, actually, Miss Adler.’

‘Oh?’ Irene lifts her cup again. Her eyes flick between Sherlock’s eyes and mouth as he talks. John has no idea what he should do about this, or even if he should do anything at all. He is frightened to pick up his own cup in case he shatters it.

‘You seem to be under the illusion that I was a boxing champion at university.’

Irene’s eyebrows rise fractionally before settling.

‘You’ve come all this way and given poor Doctor Watson a heart attack just to tell me that? Besides, you told me so yourself.’

‘A slip of the tongue.’

Irene purses her lips ‘I didn’t know you made those’ her salacious gaze flicks across to John, before she pointedly refocuses on Sherlock’s mouth ‘You certainly didn’t when we were together.’

Sherlock’s face takes on the slightly disturbed expression he usually wears when Irene is making sexual advances towards him. Irene’s eyes sparkle. Kate sips her tea. John tries not to bite through his own bottom lip. They were ‘together’, after he – . What the fuck does ‘together’ mean?

‘So,’ she says, softly, ‘what do you want?’

~

Much to Irene’s obvious disappointment, Sherlock wants names and addresses of some of the unofficial haunts of the Strickner family. Irene was once on rather good terms with Charlie Strickner (‘I know what he likes’ she had said, smirking as usual) and says she has the information on her newest camera phone, which is locked safely away upstairs.

‘I suppose I do owe you a favour after that business in Paris. I’ll fetch them for you.’

She unfolds her legs like a dancer and stands. Sherlock is sitting almost in front of the door, and as she turns to leave, she lifts her right hand, strokes it along his far shoulder and traces his collarbone beneath his shirt, before sweeping her fingers up the long curve of his throat. The action is swift and sure, tilting his chin and mouth up before he can react.

To John, this simple action is frankly pornographic. All his confusion and indecision of the last six months is suddenly crystallised before him.

 He doesn’t get to see Sherlock like this, ever.

Partly because Sherlock isn’t like this, at least not intentionally, although, in the privacy of his own room, John can silently and guiltily pinpoint and describe a dozen or more moments in each and every day where Sherlock does something that makes John ache for him, even on those occasions where he isn’t shirtless and shining with sweat. Some small turn of the head, a casually undone button, or the flash of one bare, pale wrist.

But mostly, John never sees this because it would be inappropriate, a breach of trust: wrong. Unthinkable, even, despite the fact John thinks about it every waking day and has done for many lonely weeks and months.

They are friends. And what is more, not seeing Sherlock like this is one of the founding tenets of their friendship.

‘…I do consider myself married to my work…’

While being married to deductive reasoning is hardly a conventional pairing, John’s own lack of respect disgusts him.

Slowly, like a cold trickle of water that broadens to a flood, John realises his earlier misconception. He doesn’t hate the way Irene looks at Sherlock at all. He recognises it. It is the way he would look at Sherlock but doesn’t dare to.

John Watson dislikes Irene Adler, because in her he can see all his worst thoughts and fantasies, made flesh and given sentience.

As much as he wants Sherlock, and he does, he knows now, wants him desperately, he also wants not to want him, almost as much.

Almost.

So when Irene touches Sherlock so easily, and John is able to hear the brush of skin, and Sherlock’s quiet intake of startled breath, her boldness appals him, but it also fascinates him and he cannot look away, following her on a journey that he can never take.

As her fingers reach the climax of their sweep up Sherlock’s neck, Irene dips and captures Sherlock’s upturned mouth with hers, and John discovers he has a perfect view of the whole lurid and gut-wrenching scene: the angle of Sherlock’s face, how Irene’s fingers slide possessively along his jaw and the way Sherlock’s eyes fall closed.

 John feels sick, and hot, partly embarrassed for Sherlock but mostly jealous, jealous , jealous of the woman who has dared to touch him, to put him in this position, especially, John thinks, especially when if it should have been anybody it should have been John.

Irene draws back her mouth but leaves her fingers under Sherlock’s chin. She pouts at him, as though making a face at a favoured pet.

‘Anything for my favourite detective.’

And she sashays out of the room.

Chapter Text

They’re three of the most innocuous words in the English language.

And, it turns out, three of the most powerful.

Sherlock replays them in in his head, while Irene examines the bruise on his cheek and turns his hand over between her fingers and teasingly plucks at the gauze. Her phone lies on the end table, yet to be examined.

She is saying something, something about how he got these bruises and something else about being taken care of. 

But Sherlock isn’t really listening.

~

John stands in the small, neat kitchen, staring unseeingly out at the small, neat garden and tries to enclose all the sensations in a small, neat box in the middle of his chest.

He has quite a fight on his hands, and there are a few moments when he thinks he might breathe up a lung or find his eyes leaking water to make room. But he doesn’t and they don’t.

Then he goes outside to the small, neat suburban street with its small, neat houses. He walks along the quiet main road and sits in a small, surprisingly neat bus shelter.

And he waits, for a bus to come past down the road or for Sherlock to come out of the house, whichever happens first.

~

Irene gives Sherlock the names and addresses, a kiss on the cheek and a warning.

‘They’ll come after you, you know. You’ve upset them.’

‘I’ll be fine’ he says, mechanically.

Irene cups his injured cheek in her hand. She looks at him, simultaneously pouty and doe-eyed.

‘Take care of yourself, won’t you, my beautiful boy.’

Sherlock furrows his eyebrows at her. He never knows what she’s going to do next.

That is part of the thrill, of course, in most situations.

She kisses him, firmly, on the mouth.

He doesn’t react. Irene drops back off her tiptoes and strokes his cheek again. She looks at him fondly.

Sherlock looks back at her, expression equal parts confusion and uncertainty. Irene smiles sadly.

‘Well’ she breathes, ‘you can’t blame a girl for trying.’

Her sad smile is swiftly replaced by her more usual grin. She steps back and to the side, as if to go back through her own front door, and Sherlock starts off towards the road. On the way past she slaps him firmly on the rear.

‘Off you pop and talk to people.’

Sherlock freezes abruptly, rotates his jaw and glances over his shoulder at her with annoyance. She blows him a kiss and shuts the door.

~

‘You got everything, then?’

Sherlock nods.

‘I didn’t call a cab, didn’t know how long you’d be.’

Sherlock makes a vague murmur of assent.

John finally lifts his gaze from the floor. He stretches his arms a bit, pulling his jacket taut where his hands are balled into his pockets to keep them out of the chill. Sherlock is backlit by the bright winter sun and John has to squint at him.

‘We going home, then?’

‘Hmm.’

John nods, but makes no effort to phone a taxi.

‘We can make a start tomorrow, on these addresses’ Sherlock says, unnecessarily.

John looks away. He licks his lips.

‘Nice to see Irene, again’ he lies, unconvincingly.

Sherlock watches him. John sucks a breath in through his nose and then turns his head back to squint at him, his closed-mouth, I’m-fine,-really smile on his face. Sherlock swallows.

‘Yes, she was very helpful.’

John’s smile curves a bit more. It gives up trying to reach his eyes. Sherlock drops his gaze.

‘And one or two unexpected advantages’ he says.

He is still looking at the floor. John lets the smile drop off his mouth. He purses his lips, swallows hard and looks away down the road.

‘Bus is coming’ he volunteers.

Chapter Text

 

John doesn’t linger in 221b. He follows Sherlock up the stairs, announces he’s going out, turns on his heel and leaves.

Sherlock is left standing, scarf pulled halfway from around his throat.

~

‘You don’t look good, little brother.’

They are sitting at Harry’s tiny and impractical dining table. Harry has her hands clasped around a cup of black coffee. John has his hands clasped up in front of his face, elbows on the artistically scuffed wood.

Harry reaches out a hand and wraps her fingers around John’s forearm and presses gently. John squeezes his eyes tighter shut and rubs the bridge of his nose with finger and thumb.

He doesn’t say anything.

~

‘Oh, is John not with you?’

Sherlock pauses, his fingers stilling their slow motion plucking of the violin strings.

Mrs Hudson regards the back of his head, outlined against the window.

Sherlock doesn’t say anything.

She bites her bottom lip, cocks her head to one side and clasps her hands together. Resists the urge to tut affectionately.

Sherlock closes his eyes.

~

‘I’ve lost him again, Harry.’

Harry chews her lip. John’s voice is very flat. He looks like he did three and a half years ago. Sitting at this same table, refusing to cry, shout, or drink any of Harry’s tea.

‘Why do you say that?’

John drags his teeth across his bottom lip. He looks at the wall, he looks at the table.

‘Irene Adler’s not dead’ he says, at length. Harry’s eyebrows fly upwards at alarming speed.

‘You’re shitting me?’ she says.

John shakes his head and laughs, anxiously. His left hand shakes and he takes a deep breath, rolling out his fingers to soothe the tremor. Harry tactfully doesn’t mention this, just as she hadn’t mentioned the occasional reappearance of the walking stick three and a half years ago. She takes a swig of coffee. John knows she knows. Knows exactly how he feels about Irene Adler.

Neither of them say anything, for a while. Harry drains her mug and then sits, swirling the last film of liquid about in the bottom.

‘Tell me what happened, John’ says his big sister.

So he does.

~

Sherlock thinks about Irene touching him.

About her hand on his chest, along his neck and under his chin.

About how she insists on kissing him all the time.

He finds it confusing.

It clouds his thought processes.

It’s certainly not conducive to rational thought, being touched and kissed all the time. He wonders how other people cope with it, how they manage to function at all, what with their already simple little minds.

She has her uses, though, Irene.

Surprisingly good knife thrower, for one.

Fluent in Italian, for another. Sherlock is also fluent in Italian, of course, but it was nice not to have to pretend to have an English wife, and to not be forced to feign an Italian-speaking-good-but-not-suspiciously-good-English accent.

But where she really comes into her own is social experimentation.

Sherlock considers her unexpected advantages.

He considers John’s three little words, which he had all but grated through his teeth before standing up and leaving the room.

‘Please excuse me.’

~

‘She looks at him, like… like… God, I can’t even –’

~

‘And she touches him, like it’s nothing, like she does it all the time, Christ maybe she did, does even, it’s not like he tells me where he goes off to or even where we’re going when we go out. He doesn’t tell me anything, not even that she was alive, he sat there, he knew, he must have, while I spun him some ludicrous story about witness protection, Christ. And then she just goes and, and touches him and flirts with and kisses him like it’s normal.

~

‘She said they were together, Harry.’

~

Sherlock considers. It seems astonishing, really, but he mustn’t twist facts to suit theories.

He has a momentary idea of going to the Diogenes club to speak to Mycroft and canvas his opinion.

Mycroft is good at intimate interpersonal relationships.

God knows he’s done enough research.

Sherlock shakes himself.

He’s going to have to watch himself if this is what kissing does to his powers of reasoning.

Speak to Mycroft.

Christ.

~

‘I don’t think all hope is lost quite yet’ Harry says.

John huffs out a breath and looks up at the ceiling. Beside him, he hears Harry chuckle.

‘What?’

‘Oh, well. I was just thinking that yesterday you were having a sexual identity crisis.’

John smiles, despite himself.

‘I was. I still am, actually.’

Harry makes a noise of exasperation and sits up: John feels the sofa bounce as she moves. She must have twisted over onto her front because the next thing he knows her face swings into his vision, upside down.

‘No, you’re not.’

‘I am!’

‘Bollocks.’

John pushes himself up and twists round to face her. She’s sitting back on her heels at the other end of the sofa.

‘I bloody well am. Why, what do you call it?’

‘Bowing to the bloody obvious.’

John wrinkles his nose at her. Harry rolls her eyes.

‘Well, I’ve known you were bi since that whole thing with Mikey Hargreaves at senior school.’

John colours, a bit.

‘That was just… just adolescent hormones, for Christ sake! Everyone knows you fancy anyone and everyone when you’re a teenager.’

Harry shrugs. Images of Michael ‘Mikey’ Hargreaves, noted lock forward on the school rugby team, flash into John’s mind.

‘Maybe you’re right – I’d have shagged him’ says Harry, thoughtfully.

‘You’d have shagged anyone’ John points out. Harry grins. Then her face goes serious.

‘What about Frank Windsor? And Ed Pearse?’

‘Oh for –’

‘You’ve got to admit it’s a long list of homoerotic crushes for a straight man.’

It’s a fair point well made, John has to admit. And she doesn’t even know about George Lessing in Afghanistan.

‘But that’s it, crushes, Harry.’

She snorts.

‘Yeah, whatever. You were blatantly shagging Ed Pearse. I knew it, and I wasn’t even at the same university.’

‘Alright, fine, I was, okay? For seven months, when I was nineteen, I was shagging Ed Pearse. You happy? The fact I haven’t shagged anyone male in the last twenty years just a dry spell, is it?’

Harry shrugs again.

‘Alright, so you’re a repressed bisexual.’

Harry flops back off her heels and crosses her legs in front of her. John tries to master his breathing. He turns round, drops back into the sofa seat, letting his head fall back. They sit in silence for a while. John lets out a long, steady breath.

‘You’re right’ he says, his voice calm and level ‘It’s not that much of a crisis, is it? Not even that much of a shock, all things considered.’

‘All boys considered.’

John snorts lightly. He rolls his head to look at her. She smirks.

‘Anyway’ she says ‘I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed being gay.’

John snorts again, and it turns into something more closely resembling an actual laugh.

‘I never meant it like that, it’s just… It’s not who I thought I was.’

‘I know.’

John smiles at his sister and she smiles at him.

‘He’s my best friend, Harry. That’s the problem.’

‘I dunno. I think it could be pretty nice, being in love with your best friend. Convenient.’

John smiles, properly. He lets his head fall back against the sofa and closes his eyes. Harry watches his Adam’s Apple bob in his throat.

‘What am I going to do?’

Harry sniffs and chews at a fingernail.

‘You could shoot her, maybe.’

‘Don’t tempt me.’

Harry sighs and clambers off the sofa. She straightens her top and wriggles in her jean-patterned leggings. John watches her in amusement. Realising she’s being watched she sticks her tongue out, and then adopts a sultry look over her shoulder.

‘Maybe I could seduce her away from him?’

‘Almost certainly’ says John, affectionately. Harry cackles and trots over to the kitchen.

‘Wouldn’t work though, she’s already got a girlfriend. Besides, you aren’t nearly submissive enough.’

‘Too bloody right. You staying for dinner?’

John feels his stomach turn over – not at the thought of his sister’s cooking, which is better than he lets on – but at the thought that no, he really ought not to stay for dinner.

‘Best not’ he says, lightly, scooping up his jacket ‘Sherlock’s been unsupervised for at least three hours. He might have killed someone by now.’

Harry smiles at him ‘Alright then. Take care, little brother.’

 

Chapter Text

John expects to return to an empty flat and a worried Mrs Hudson.

Instead, he pushes open the door to find Sherlock sprawled in a chair. He doesn’t react at John’s entrance which is not unusual, but something about the untidy pose strikes John as odd. He shrugs out of his coat and goes forward into the room to stand in front of Sherlock.

Sherlock is asleep, legs stretched out haphazardly, head propped on one hand.

John frowns. He prods Sherlock’s calf with his foot.

Nothing.

Becoming steadily more worried, John sits on the arm of the chair and shakes the other man gently by the shoulder.

Nothing.

John shakes him more firmly, Sherlock’s head slips from his hand and he startles awake.

‘Wh-?’

He looks round at John, eyes unfocused.  He blinks, one eye and then the other. His mouth opens and closes. His gaze sweeps up and down as if taking a while to remember and be certain of who John is.

 ‘John.’

‘Yes, it’s me, Sherlock. What the hell is going on? Why were you asleep?’

With an effort Sherlock swallows, blinking again.

 ‘’rene g’ve me r-‘ypnol’ he manages, speech slurred almost beyond recognition.

Not again, John thinks.

~

At least this explains the wholly ridiculous urge to call Mycroft, Sherlock thinks, as he sways and stumbles across the room, finally collapsing into John’s armchair.

Should have seen it coming, really. Rohypnol in the tea. Classic Adler move.

Has she drugged John too?

John. Where is John? Oh, sister’s, yes.

This isn’t going to go down well.

At least the Yard aren’t going to get any photos this time round.

~

I’m going to murder her, John thinks, calmly, as he helps Sherlock the tortuous few feet from armchair to bedroom. I’m going to shoot her as soon as she opens her front  door.

John pauses beside the bed, leaning to pull the covers down with one hand while keeping hold of Sherlock’s shoulders with the other. He can feel Sherlock’s knees buckling and not a moment too soon manages to drop him onto the mattress.

He could, of course, leave him like this, and perhaps if things were otherwise he would. But no, his finer feelings won’t let him, so he tugs off both shoes, pushes Sherlock’s legs onto the bed and then wrestles the covers over him.

Sherlock is fast asleep again by this time, so John goes back into the living room.

His phone rings.

Wondering exactly where Mycroft has positioned the hidden cameras, John pulls it from his pocket.

Unknown number.

‘Hello?’

‘Hello. Are you having a lovely evening, John?’ purrs Irene Adler.

‘Fuck off’ John growls, ‘fuck right off, do you hear me? If you come anywhere near either of us again I’ll make sure I’m the last fucking thing you see, do you understand?’

‘Perfectly. Though I’m rather surprised.’

‘Oh are you? What the hell do you think you’re playing at?’

‘Being Cupid.

Cupid!? Didn’t think sucking his face off earlier was enough of an invitation? Thought you’d just drug him, lure him upstairs and have your way with him did you? What sort of twisted, disgusting – ’

‘No. Not at all. I was just saying goodbye. I wasn’t planning on luring him anywhere, though I am curious to know how you’re getting on.’

‘Me? What the fuck are you –’

Oh.

John has been pacing angrily about in the kitchen, but now he freezes. He takes several, steadying breaths through his nose.

He’s not sure if this makes things better or worse.

‘This is… you did this…’ Oh Christ ‘all this is for me, is it? For my benefit.’

‘Of course. He’s been back six months and still looking as deliciously pure and untouched as ever and I thought you needed a little encouragement.’

‘Encouragement.’

‘Mmmm, yes. Am I speaking to you before or after?’

John drags a hand over his face. He can’t believe it. Any of it. Finally, he pulls himself together, forces his voice into calmness.

‘I’ve been away at my sister’s. I just got in to find him almost unconscious. You sick, twisted harpy. Piss off.’

He hangs up.

He takes three, very deep breaths.

He thumbs through his contact list, finds ‘Mycroft Holmes’, types out Irene’s address and the words ‘Make her disappear’ and hits send.

A minute later, his phone buzzes.

 

Miss Adler has

her own particular

style, certainly.

Have a pleasant

evening.

MH

 

John curses and throws his phone at the sofa.

~

John goes back into the bedroom. Sherlock has twisted so he’s facing the door, legs drawn up. His eyes are sleepy but open. John frowns at him.

‘You alright?’

‘’m fine, ‘us’ dr—sy’

John smiles, despite himself.

‘Well, you sound drunk.’

John perches on the edge of the bed, pressing two fingers to Sherlock’s throat to take his pulse. Finding nothing untoward, he withdraws his hand. With a sudden burst of co-ordination, Sherlock clumsily wraps his fingers round John’s wrist.

‘th-tay’ he manages. John stares at him.

‘I’ll be just out there if you need anything.’

‘’o, no. th-tay, here.’

John swallows. He can hear Irene Adler cackling like a witch in the back of his head. He tries to pull his hand away: Sherlock tightens his grip. He opens his eyes and looks up at John with the wide-eyed innocence of a five year old.

John frowns.

Sherlock seamlessly morphs his expression into what John privately calls ‘The Puppy Dog’ – eyebrows drawing together, mouth puckering, eyes pleading.

John swallows. He knows only too well that, while he has developed selective immunity to ‘Snipey’, ‘Conniving’ and ‘Shouty Sherlock’, he is still hopelessly susceptible to ‘Pouty Sherlock’. And Sherlock knows this, too.

Except, Sherlock probably doesn’t realise quite how susceptible John is.

Probably not a good time to mention it, John thinks, as he relents and sits beside Sherlock on the bed, probably best, on the whole, to wait until he isn’t dosed up on rohypnol.

John drags a pillow up against the head board, settles back against it and then casts about for something to do. There isn’t a book on the bedside table, not even something dense and impossibly complicated, and John starts to consider sneaking away as soon as Sherlock is properly asleep. He looks back over to where the other man is curled up on the bed.

Sherlock is already drowsing, breathing becoming slower and more even with every breath.  One hand is still slightly extended across the pillow.

The urge to climb beneath the covers and bundle Sherlock into his arms washes over him.

Bit not good, at this precise moment in time.

John swallows.

He reaches out to pull the covers a bit snugger about Sherlock’s shoulders.

If he lets his fingers linger on the warm curve of Sherlock’s shoulder a bit longer than strictly necessary then, well.

He’s the only one who notices.

Chapter Text

John watches Sherlock sleep.

This is most definitely in the realms of ‘creepy stalker’, but Sherlock had asked him to stay, and the posters of serial killers can only offer so much in the way of entertainment.

John wonders why he stayed. Firmly resolved sexual identity crisis aside, he could have left hours ago. Sleeping isn’t that interesting, even when Sherlock does it.

But it’s a miracle, really, his being here at all. What with the criminal psychopath, the several storey drop and the three years of being on the run.

John dreams about that. The flickering shadow that leapt in front of the sky and which fell, fluttering to earth like a leaf, until –

God, he’d looked so fragile and broken on that pavement. Like a china doll with a careless owner.

John reaches out and cautiously brushes his fingers against Sherlock’s hair. Soft and warm. Not wet with blood.

Wrong side, anyway.

Seeing Sherlock quite so vulnerable had been one of the worst things about that dreadful, dreadful day. It was proof he was human and fallible, subject to emotional and physical gravity, just like everyone else.

Even now, after the miracle, the sensation haunts him. Even if it didn’t quite happen once, John has seen a glimpse of what the future might look like.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

That’s why I stayed, he realises. He’s keeping close, watching over him, trying to make sure that he never sees blood soaking into Sherlock’s hair again.

He strokes a lock of dark hair absently, smoothing it between his fingers. Sherlock sleeps peacefully on.

He wonders why Sherlock asked him to stay.

~

Everything is so much easier like this, and yet, so much more difficult at the same time.

His mouth doesn’t seem to work, for a start. Or maybe it’s his ears.

Could be both, of course.

Or possibly, (and now the thought percolates through the suddenly horribly convoluted channels in his head, it seems likely), it’s his brain in the middle, scrambling everything against his wishes.

He arrives in his bedroom without really knowing how. Someone, who might be John, is shoving his legs onto the bed.

Sherlock attempts moving them himself, finds this is far too much effort and goes to sleep instead.

He wakes up maybe hours or seconds later, under the blankets.

John is… somewhere nearby. Being angry. He hears the word ‘harpy’ and his brain spikes, translates: Irene.

Marvellous woman. What a fantastic idea of hers.

Sherlock yawns. He is very comfortable. This is nice.

Then John is in front of him, being warm and good and kind and nice.

Sherlock may or may not manage to communicate his own state of well-being. What matters is that John is suddenly a lot closer and Sherlock thinks this is a lovely idea, John being warm and good and nice while being closer, so he musters all his energy and reaches out.

John looks confused about this but it’s such a nice idea and surely John won’t refuse Sherlock, not when Sherlock is so helpless and sleepy and happy to be still and quiet just at the moment, God he really is so very comfortable right now, so no, no, John won’t say no, he should come and be right here, where Sherlock can see him.

God bless Irene, Sherlock thinks, in a fleeting moment of clarity, this is so much easier with narcotics.

He tries to pull his most appealing face. This always works, sure-fire winner, this face. Irresistible.

Hmm, irresistible. John really does look lovely and warm, even though at the expense of wearing a truly hideous jumper.

I could tell him, Sherlock thinks, drowsily, as John shuffles up the bed and settles himself, I could tell him and it would be easy, so easy, it would just roll off my tongue, or at least it would if I could get my tongue to work.

Sherlock’s eyes fall closed and his mind falls asleep.

~

At 2am, John wakes with a start.

He is absolutely freezing, despite his clothes, and the room around him is icy.

Sherlock’s room, he notes, with alarm. He looks down. Oh, yes.

Sherlock’s hands are chill on the pillow. John tucks them under the duvet, notices that Sherlock is shivering in his sleep.

He goes over to the wardrobe in search of blankets, hugging himself and trying to stop his teeth chattering. He is greeted by Sherlock’s immaculately regimented sartorial filing system.

Blankets are apparently not a feature.

He jogs up to his own room, nearly smothers himself with the heap of woollen blankets that fall haphazardly off his top shelf, and then jogs back down.

Sherlock’s eyes are grey and luminous and open. John stops beside the bed.

‘Cold’ Sherlock slurs, more articulate than previously but clearly still three sheets to the wind. John throws the uppermost blanket over him. He drops the remaining blanket, still folded, on the bed.

He considers leaving.

Sherlock watches him, blinks slowly, but doesn’t say a word.

Oh fuck it, John thinks, throws out the blanket, lifts the duvet and crawls under the sheets.

~

Now he’s woken up a bit, and the remaining tendrils of chemical stupor are receding, Sherlock’s head starts to clear. The chill in the room also helps to heighten the senses, and while his outlying limbs still feel drugged, his mind, at least, is getting sharper.

The first thing he’s really aware of, is John, arriving back (did he leave? When did he leave?) with some blankets.

Sherlock puts forward a sound, sensibly reasoned argument as to why he should receive one of these blankets.

John concurs.

There is then a rather awkward pause, while on-going sleeping arrangements are wordlessly discussed.

Then John gets into his bed.

This is an unprecedented event, not counting the several occasions with Irene Adler. (Because those don’t count, not really, Sherlock was entirely indifferent as to whether she slept in her bed, his bed or the bath. Irene had occupied the same mental space Sherlock would normally have used if he’d found himself sporadically in the company of a particularly persistent feral cat.)

But this, though. This might be one of those ordinary people things. A social cue.

Sherlock hates this. It’s like an exam without any rules, questions or marking criteria.

Is this:

a)      An unthinking continuation of a pre-established pattern. John was asleep here, so has returned, following a short-term habitual behaviour pattern.

b)      On-going medical concern for Sherlock’s welfare, with John operating under the mistaken belief that Sherlock requires further observation.

c)       A pointed sexual advance, along the lines of: ‘Deduce this, then, you clever bastard.’

Terrifyingly, Sherlock rather hopes it’s c. Even though he’s fairly sure it’s b.

John reaches out, takes hold of his hand.

‘You’re very cold.’

B, it’s bloody b, isn’t it.

‘Yes’, he manages.

‘Are you feeling alright?’

‘Mmm.’

John frowns a bit.

‘You do, er… you do remember why I’m here, don’t you?’

‘I asked… I asked you to stay.’ He has to speak slowly, but the words do sound just about right.

‘Yes.’

Sherlock swallows. He feels foolish, now. It’s unpleasant. In the back of his head Irene is smirking and purring and winking at him. He thinks of her unexpected advantages as a catalyst to social experiment.

‘Anything for my favourite detective ’she whispers, as she stirs in the drug and taps the tea spoon on the rim. She holds out the cup.

‘Off you pop and talk to people.’

He thinks of Irene, reaching out, touching, being demonstrative. Her face flickers in the lingering fog in his head and she smiles, small and pouting.

He thinks of John leaving her house, of his expression as he went and of his undisguised anger towards her on the phone.

He thinks of John, here. His crawling into Sherlock’s bed, his expression as he looks at Sherlock now and his undisguised care and concern for Sherlock’s well-being.

Sherlock tunes back in to the present, and John is saying something.

‘I can go, now, if you like, I just… I dunno, I thought you might be, still –’

‘No, it’s… It’s alright.’

John swallows.

‘Okay. Good’ he catches his breath ‘I mean, fine. Fine. That’s… fine.’

John makes to draw his hand back, as if he’d forgotten he’d left it there. But Irene has shown Sherlock what to do.

He curls his fingers.

 John freezes.

‘You were angry, today.’

John furrows his brows at him, but Sherlock perseveres, the words clunky and difficult in his mouth.

‘About Irene.’

John says nothing.

‘You’re very pr –’ he struggles a bit, too many syllables ‘protective.’

‘Yeah, well.’ John rolls onto his back ‘I nearly lost you once when I took my eye off you, so forgive me if I’m a bit jumpy. She drugged you, remember. A second time.’

Sherlock smiles. There’s a low buzz of adrenalin and chemical high still in his system. Yes, thank you, Irene. Maybe I’ll owe you a favour, this time.

‘I didn’t mean that.’

John turns his head to look at him. His Adam’s apple slides in his throat.

‘What did you mean then?’

‘Earlier.’

It’s such a little push, really, a tiny press in the right direction.

John’s eyes don’t leave his.

And suddenly they’re both falling over the precipice.

Chapter Text

 

‘Earlier’, John repeats, stalling for time, scrabbling backwards up the slope, flailing his arms, trying to slow his descent.

Sherlock inclines his head, hair rustling against the pillowcase.

John looks at the ceiling. He tries to organise his words, to say something true but not quite.

‘I’m not… protective, I just… I don’t think you should have to put up with that from her. If you don’t like it. But, you know, if you do –’

‘Not particularly.’

‘Well, that’s… that, then.’

Sherlock shifts minutely.

‘So, you’ve been defending my honour?’

John snorts, lightly.

‘I wouldn’t put it quite like that. I’m sure you’re more than capable of doing that yourself.’

‘Well, from Irene, certainly. She’s not really my type, anyway.’

John wonders what Sherlock thinks his type might be. He suspects they haven’t evolved yet.

Ask him, says Harry, through a mouthful of coffee, in his head.

John swallows. The room is mostly dark, with weak, pale light blurring in through the curtains. Everything is very quiet, even the dull, sporadic rush of traffic outside. He’s lying in bed with Sherlock to keep warm and Sherlock’s hand is still resting in his. Sherlock has initiated a conversation about interpersonal relationships that isn’t to do with a case.

The normal rules quite clearly don’t apply.

‘What is your type, then?’ he says, to the ceiling. He just about gets the words out, light and careless, before his heart catches hold of the last trickles of air and lodges in his throat.

He hears Sherlock catch his breath beside him.

Shit shit shit shit. What have I done?

There is a very long silence. John has no idea how to fill it. He hangs suspended in freefall with no sight of the ground beneath him.  In the moment of asking he had expected airy dismissal, and hadn’t dared hope for what he’s been daring to hope for.

‘I don’t know’, Sherlock finally confesses, voice still slow and hesitant.

John swallows. A painful mixture of relief and rejection begins to flood his system, washing his heart back to his chest and dulling the sensation of its beating.

‘But I think… I think that, if I had to, give an example’ Sherlock continues, then stops, swallows.

John feels his heart leap back up into his throat, the world giving way beneath him again.  He turns to look at the man curled beside him. Sherlock looks nervous, and hesitant, in a way that has nothing to do with a fear of slurring his speech.

‘Yeah?’ John breathes, a tiny whisper of air escaping past the frantic pounding he can feel at the back of his mouth.

‘If I had to give an example,’ Sherlock repeats, which is a sure sign something is amiss, because Sherlock loathes having to repeat himself. He swallows again. His eyes look very round and luminous in the silvery darkness. He looks lost, a little bit scared, and clearly doesn’t know how to finish the sentence.

But John does. Because John knows. He can see the landing rising to meet him, and it’s okay. It’s fine. It’s all fine.

Sherlock swallows once more, and his voice grows suddenly more urgent. His fingers curl tighter in John’s palm.

‘John, I –’

‘It’s alright, Christ, Sherlock, yes, the answer is yes’ and he rolls forwards and lets himself fall.

~

John’s mouth is soft against Sherlock’s, a careful and momentary intrusion into Sherlock’s personal space: he feels his bottom lip depress beneath the delicate heat of John’s mouth, his senses full of heat and pressure and closeness. The scent of John’s skin momentarily surrounds him: warm-salt flesh and tang of aftershave. He realises he’s closed his eyes and he opens them to find John looking at him, much closer than before.

This explains a lot, Sherlock thinks, when he regains the ability to think thoughts without John in them.  This is why other people can’t think properly. Because it’s not just heat, pressure, closeness, or even warm-salt flesh and tang of aftershave. It’s everything else.

Christ.

Perhaps I’m still high.

‘Alright?’ John whispers.

‘Yes’ Sherlock whispers back, dizzy, afraid greater volume will tip his mind further off balance. It’s still ludicrous, though, this whispering, says the rational part of his mind, anxious to get a handle on the situation, we’re on our own, in the room and in the flat. He feels himself start to grin and it won’t stop, he can’t control it, he can feel it tugging his mouth up and up until his eyes crinkle. He’s smiling so widely it must be tugging at John’s muscles too, because he’s smiling, disbelief and happiness sitting comfortably and familiarly on his features.

It’s like old times.

Except they’re not at a crime scene, they’re in Sherlock’s bed.

Kissing.

This is not a verb Sherlock associates with himself. Kissing is something that happens to other people. With the twin exceptions of Alice Band (what thoughtless parents) in year five, and Irene Adler, no one else has seen fit to associate the word with him, either.

Except John, apparently.

This is fortunate, because John is the only person in the world Sherlock can imagine himself kissing, and he’s even struggling with that.

Thankfully, John seems keen on making this as easy as possible by cutting out the need for Sherlock’s brain to imagine anything. He tightens his hold on Sherlock’s wrist, his face serious once more. He flexes his eyebrows minutely in silent question.

Sherlock takes in a shamefully shaky breath. John reaches his free hand across from below the sheet, and rests it on Sherlock’s neck, thumb grazing over his cheek. He follows the motion, leaning forward once more and gently presses their mouths together. Sherlock’s brain flickers on and off like a fluorescent light behind his eyelids.

‘You were right’ John says, softly.

‘I usually am’ Sherlock replies, on impulse. John smiles.

‘I am very protective. You might even say jealous.’

Sherlock swallows. John is stroking figure-of-eight patterns on Sherlock’s wrist with his thumb. He can feel it in his chest.

‘You don’t need to be’ Sherlock says.

‘No. It seems not.’

‘Women aren’t my area. I told you.’

‘Hmm. You also told me you were married to your work.’

‘It’s not as exclusive as I might have implied’ Sherlock tries, airily. John smirks, before his face becomes serious again.

‘I thought you liked her.’

‘She has her advantages.’

‘Yes, that’s… that’s what I meant, really.’

Sherlock frowns. He tries to imagine feeling jealous – conjures up an amalgamation of ‘The Girlfriends’, replays the phrase ‘unexpected advantages’ in John’s voice – Ah.

‘I didn’t mean… no, you’ve misunderstood. She’s useful. I was using her for an experiment. I wanted to test a theory, see how you’d react, so –’

‘You were trying to make me jealous?’

Sherlock licks his lips. This is probably not something to admit, certainly not outright.  After all, it hadn’t been pre-mediated.

‘Not deliberately, but I didn’t know how you felt, I couldn’t be certain, and it was a good opportunity. I admit that between us we may have overdone it – I hadn’t factored in her side of the plan. She’s been rather keen on, well –’

‘Me coming home to find you unconscious and having my wicked way with you? Yeah, so I gather. Lovely woman.’

Sherlock swallows. John is pulling his ‘I can’t believe I’m having this conversation’ face.

‘She meant well.’

John’s eyebrows rocket a good two inches. He shuts his eyes.

‘How nice. God save us from Irene Adler meaning well.’

‘It’s fine now, anyway’ Sherlock reminds him. John opens his eyes and bites his lip.

‘You can kiss me again, if you like’ Sherlock offers, hopefully.

John does.

~

He hadn’t expected it to feel this easy, this natural. It’s been a while, Christ, twenty years, and so he expects to be out of practice, as if kissing another man requires extra training.

It doesn’t, he remembers, as he ghosts his mouth across Sherlock’s lovely, full bottom lip.

Kissing Sherlock, in particular though, that might require extra tuition, for one or possibly both of them. But even this seems to work without incident, and Sherlock, icily reserved Sherlock, who eschews all extraneous social interaction, and who, adorably, seems rather inexperienced in the field of ‘lying in bed kissing people’, is actually asking John to kiss him again.

No, not even asking, offering to be kissed.

Flirting.

Sherlock is flirting with him.

Sherlock has been known to flirt with people, of course, most notably Molly, but it is always a means to an end, and always one other than the victim is hoping for: to John’s certain knowledge Sherlock has yet to take Molly on a date, throw her up against a cupboard or make creative use of the examination tables.

Therefore, John thinks, as he curls his fingers at the base of Sherlock’s skull, it’s possible that Sherlock has an ulterior motive here too.

Unlikely though, his brain whispers gleefully, as he pushes up on one arm to bring his face above Sherlock’s, because he must know by now that he can get me to do almost anything without having to resort to sexual favours.

Not that I’d complain, if he did.

The whole thing is also moderately alarming, because God knows Sherlock is dangerous enough when he’s being charming in ‘Sherlock pretends to be normal’ mode. If he learns how to do it properly at a more sustainable level of behaviour, John’s going to have to invest in some better locks.

He drops kisses to Sherlock’s eyebrow, temple, and cheekbone: the slanting angle of his jaw.  Bit not good, that, John thinks, as he looks at him, tad on the possessive side, locking him in. Only realised he was okay with this two minutes ago.

Sherlock is panting slightly beneath him. The very fact of this is the stuff of dreams: vivid, wonderful dreams, but dreams nonetheless, where Sherlock was unsurprisingly very happy to go along with anything John could think of. He watches him for a moment, then lowers his head again, gently brushing their mouths together, rounded tip of John’s nose stroking against the side of Sherlock’s. Lovely warm ache in John’s chest.

He can feel the radiating heat of Sherlock’s skin, the warm rush of his breath. Close and alive and close, so close.

He’d said ‘kiss me’. He wants to be kissed.

He leans in again, a firmer press of his mouth this time, stroking the tip of his tongue along Sherlock’s lower lip. Sherlock makes a wordless noise, slightly opening his mouth, which is soft and warm and so endearingly hesitant that John wants to gentle him and devour him all at once. The temptation is almost overwhelming, but he’s damned if he’s going to ruin this now. He sweeps his tongue against the inside of Sherlock’s lips, soft wet heat of his mouth, sparks behind John’s eyelids and something flares in his chest. Sherlock keens again, a taut little noise in the back of his throat, his fingers coming to rest on John’s neck. John murmurs against his mouth, meaning to draw back and look at him, partly so they can catch their breath, but mostly because he can, he can do that now, all the gratuitous looking he wants.

But then Sherlock twists himself slightly to press closer, fitting them more snuggly together, and John abruptly hurls all caution to the wind, and to Hell with mere looking when there’s touching and feeling, and Sherlock trying to tangle their limbs together. His own fingers tighten in Sherlock’s hair and he licks his way deeper into Sherlock’s mouth, trying to memorise the feel of him, all the glorious little hitches of his breathing and all the tight, desperate sounds he’s making, until he realises quite a few of them are coming from himself.

Drawing back for breath is panting in tandem, breathing each other’s air, in and out, in and out.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ John says, when he can say anything. They’re very close, the sound of breathing rushes in his ears. He should fall back onto his side, give Sherlock some room.

He doesn’t.

Sherlock smiles, slightly. It’s hard to tell in the darkness but John thinks he looks flushed. God I wish it was daylight.

‘Sociopath, remember’ he says, still rather breathless. He swallows: John can hear it, the click of his throat, watch his Adam’s apple shift below his skin. Looking at Sherlock’s throat naturally leads the eyes downwards to Sherlock’s collarbones and other places currently obscured by his shirt.

Steady, one thing at a time, Watson.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

John's brain goes very still and quiet at that. It's his turn to swallow, nervously.

At first he can’t think of an answer. Why indeed? It had been there, in his head, before even the last of the ill-fated girlfriends had walked out of the door. Why they had walked, in fact. Many, many months of missed opportunities.

And then the obvious, of course. The textbook missed opportunity. The one he finally wanted to take and then didn’t.

Couldn’t.

‘You hung up’ John says, when he has mastered his breathing.

Sherlock’s eyebrows furrow. He searches John’s face. Then his eyebrows unknit, his eyes widen.

‘Oh.’

~

Kissing John is not like kissing Irene Adler.

Kissing John is orders of magnitude better. It’s hard to believe that the one word covers both sensations, they are so wholly unlike each other.

Being kissed by Irene Adler is very like having someone’s mouth against your mouth. Sherlock has never understood why this is a desirable situation. Mouths feel like mouths. If you have one, why do you need to start investigating someone else’s? It all seems a rather messier and more unhygienic way of shaking hands.

Kissing John, though, is very different.

Irene kisses as though she expects him to give in and obey, believe it’s wonderful because she’s telling him so, and it might well be, but Sherlock has enough arrogance for at least two people already and he has never liked being told what to do.

Whereas kissing John actually is wonderful. Sherlock doesn’t have to consciously think it, can’t consciously think it in the moment, in fact. His brain is too busy dealing with the actual sensation of being kissed, flickering and sparking and wholly unable to concentrate on anything else. He can feel his heart beat in his toes, taste John’s warmth in his lungs, all of his senses tangled together and the glorious thing is he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care! And it might be the drugs talking but he dearly hopes it isn’t because it’s wonderful and he can feel it all in his chest, even though that’s a cultural invention, to feel things in one’s heart, he can feel it.

(Sherlock considers that this is likely an indication he’s still high as a kite, but if he is then there’s nothing he can or wants to do about it just now.)

It helps that he loves John, of course. He has done since he realised it was John who shot Jeff Hope. Being in love has mostly been a painful inconvenience up till now, a sort of twisting sensation whenever he saw The Girlfriends (jealousy) or Jim Moriarty (fear), but now he is starting to see the benefits.

He likes that he has to remind John that he’s a sociopath, as though John finds it possible to forget. As though sometimes Sherlock isn’t awful and uncaring without thinking about it.

And he has to ask, of course, return John’s question. John could have said something any time in the last six months. Sherlock is so glad now, though, now that John has finally realised and decided to at least have a go at liking Sherlock back. That really is a –

‘You hung up’ John says.

Sherlock’s mind reels. He never calls John, certainly not recently, always texts, what is he talking about? Calls, calls, calls, no they so rarely have calls, not even on Skype any more since John vetoed the rating system and Sherlock answering with nothing on (maybe that was it, he felt uncomfortable? Was going to take the opportunity to say something? No, no there were other people, John wouldn’t do that) Calls, calls, calls when was their last phone conversation? Ages ago, must be and even then probably with other people at one end or another, John wouldn’t want to just come out with that, so no, calls, calls, calls, a call with no one about, a call between just them:

Sherlock’s head stops whirring abruptly.

A call. The call. The note.

Goodbye, John.

That was years ago. Years.

The awful twisting sensation returns, only this time it’s him. He caused it. He makes an attempt at empathy, at reversing their situations, pictures Jim Moriarty and a coat made of explosives and he feels physically sick.

And he did this. He, Sherlock, did this.  He did this to John.

This is going to end badly, says the part of his brain that’s normally in charge, and Sherlock is definitely sobering up now, a bit, and starting to see where the drugs are clouding things. He doesn’t want to, this is good, all this, wonderful, in fact, to be able to feel like this. He doesn’t want to let go.

And the thought of losing this completely and permanently, of not having John, is gut-wrenching and unbearable.

And it was your fault, says his head.

Sherlock ignores it. He can deal with that later. He wants to stay here, for now. Here, where it’s wonderful, where John kisses him and it makes lights flare in his head and his chest.

~

John watches as Sherlock stares at him. He looks genuinely shocked. John licks his lips, nervously. He settles back onto his side.

‘Where are you going?’ Sherlock asks, too quickly.

‘Nowhere, just… here.’

‘Oh, alright. That’s… that’s fine.’

Sherlock swallows, again. John squeezes his fingers lightly – Sherlock responds by threading them together. John inwardly breathes a sigh of relief.

They stay very still, not saying anything. Sherlock is thinking, probably, and John doesn’t want to disturb him. He lets himself drift, lingering in this strange, surreal half-light moment, where it’s possible to kiss Sherlock and have him kiss John back.

‘I didn’t want to go, you know’ Sherlock says, eventually, his voice lower, less smooth and assured than normal ‘Certainly not for three years. I wanted to tell you what had happened, but it was… too late, by then.’

‘I know.’

‘I am sorry.’

John smiles.

‘I know you are. You already apologised. It was unnerving then, as well.’

Sherlock grins, but his heart isn’t in it and he’s starting to look tired once more.

‘I won’t do it again. Not on purpose, anyway.’

‘Good. Because if you do I’ll hunt you down and kill you myself.’

Sherlock’s grin grows impossibly wider, surely only cats in nonsense stories can do that, and he laughs, fingers tightening around John’s where their hands lie between them on the bed. When he stops grinning, his mouth has barely closed before he’s yawning, eyelids starting to droop.

Not quite sober, then. Figures.

‘Get some sleep.’

‘You aren’t going to try and take advantage of me while I’m asleep are you?’

John looks disbelief.

‘This from the man who tells me I have ‘unusually strong moral principles’. No, Sherlock, of course I’m not going to.’

‘Good.’ Sherlock shuts his eyes, smiles lazily and nuzzles into the pillow. ‘I don’t want to miss anything.’

'I'll be here when you wake up, I promise'

Sherlock smiles sleepily, the real smile. In a matter of minutes he is snoozing peacefully, fingers lax in John's grasp.

John shuts his eyes, and lets out a breath he's been holding for the last four years.

Chapter Text

 

John will remark, in years to come, that the earth did indeed move on his and Sherlock's first time in bed together.

Unfortunately, as he will go on to explain, this had less to do with his sexual prowess and rather more to do with the fact that one of the Strickner family had placed a small bomb in the under stairs cupboard.

~

John wakes slowly, drifting up out of peaceful sleep. He opens his eyes and lets the world swim into focus.

Sherlock’s head is resting on the other pillow, hair curling haphazardly in all directions (partly John’s fault). His breathing is even, eyes still closed: John can see the sweep of his eyelashes against his pale skin.

One of Sherlock’s hands is still resting between them, in John’s palm. John has one leg tucked over one of Sherlock’s, pressed to together from the back of the calf to the ankle, his knee nudging against Sherlock’s other thigh.

All in all, it’s a pretty wonderful way to wake up. John spends all of ninety seconds enjoying the moment, the peace and quiet, grateful for his luck.

And then there is a noise like a bomb going off downstairs, and the usual levels of frenetic activity and chaos are restored.

~

The stairs are filled with smoke and the smell of charred wood and metal. Sherlock is racing ahead as usual, John just behind, careering down the stairs after him when there is a sudden splintering of wood, a cry and Sherlock drops abruptly in front of him. John’s hands shoot out to catch him under the arms and there is a perilous moment of not quite balance before John manages to lean back and haul both of them up a stair. He sits back, pulling Sherlock against him, hands fastening over the other man’s chest. His lungs are pumping like bellows and John can feel the thud of his heartbeat under his wrist.

‘Got you’ he manages, catching his breath. The adrenaline of leaping out of bed and sprinting to the stairs is still thrumming in his veins.

The smoke is thinning slightly, and looking down, eyes skating over the long, lean form of Sherlock’s body, John can see the jagged hole in the stairs. Drawing his gaze back up, he can see the blood starting to soak into Sherlock’s left sock.

‘You’re hurt.’

‘I’m fine.’ He propels himself forward, out of John’s hands and then off down the stairs again, shouting for Mrs Hudson.

Good morning, John thinks, resignedly.

~

An examination of the cupboard under the stairs reveals a twisted hunk of metal, the hollowed carcass of the boiler, and nothing much else. The door, or what’s left of it, lies in large, splintered pieces in the hallway.

Mrs Hudson has already had the forethought to switch the mains water off, so while the carpet is ruined there’s no further danger of damage.

The gas, it transpires, had already been shut off.

‘They didn’t mean to kill us, then’ Sherlock muses ‘only a declaration of intent.’

‘One of our friends from the mafia?’ John asks, drily.

Sherlock frowns.

‘Mafia?’ exclaims Mrs Hudson ‘Oh dear, what have you boys done now?’

~

They return to the floor above just in time to hear Sherlock’s phone ringing. He retrieves it from the bedroom, answers it, and then casts it onto the table.

‘You’re on speakerphone.’

‘Uhh… right, okay. I just wanted –’

‘To summon me to the Yard for a pointless conversation about reprisals and how you ought to be doing something about it. Yes, I know, and you should. That’s what you have police for, isn’t it? I’m not a consultant on crowd control.’

Sherlock flops elegantly on to the sofa and closes his eyes. John decides he has very little to add, goes to make tea, realises he can’t and so sits down again. Lestrade is making aggrieved sighing noises.

‘It’s not a bloody riot, it’s a series of very nasty crimes. 'I've got traps, ambushes, you name it. And it’s not just little Alex Strickner’s gang who are getting it, either. Not all the people being treated in hospital have got criminal records.’

‘Pity. More leads if they did.’

‘Sherlock’ says John chidingly, but without any real conviction.

‘You can give that attitude a rest, right now. Because on top of all that, I've got eighteen people poisoned to death in a club – someone spiked the beer, same stuff as the dog. Only one of them has any kind of affiliation with young Mr Alex Strickner.'

There is a long pause. Sherlock adopts the expression he always wears when hearing about the deaths of innocent people who are only tangentially related to the case: a cross between complete indifference and mild annoyance - the former his natural default and the latter learnt behaviour in deference to John.

John should feel less content with this expression than he does.

‘Look’ says Lestrade ‘four nights ago I had a dead dog and a mysteriously helpful passer-by. I’ve now got an irate gang of maniacs trying to track down a group of about six people, using, as far as I can tell, guesswork, a random number generator and the maxim that one out of twenty ain’t bad.’

Sherlock huffs.

‘Would you like me to switch sides?’

‘Oh great, yeah. Bit of focused, pinpoint accurate assassination is all we need.’

‘I thought your concern was collateral damage.’

‘My concern is any sodding damage. I want these people found and brought to justice, not found dead in a ditch with a threatening note pinned to them.’

Sherlock’s eyes spring open.

‘They’ve left notes?’

John raises his eyebrows, massages the bridge of his nose, in silent sympathy with the man on the other end of the phone.

‘No, they haven’t left any bloody notes, I was just… Oh, never mind. I want all of them found and rounded up, Sherlock, the whole bloody crew, whether they hate each other or not. Eighteen people dead, eighteen! Besides, pretty soon it’s not going to be a random member of the public who catches a stray bullet, or who drinks the wrong pint of beer, it’ll be some other bloody gang member and we’ll have it every which way. Do you understand me?’

‘Perfectly. But I’m a consulting detective, not a sheep-herder. I’ve solved the case of the dog, I’ve told you who is involved, and I’ve even gone beyond the call of duty and found a list of Strickner family haunts for you to investigate – on their way, shortly – but my apologies, if John and I haven’t quite leapt into the fray and started ‘rounding up’ scores of hardened criminals by ourselves as readily as you might have liked.’

There is silence at the other end of the line. Finally Lestrade draws a weary, resigned breath.

‘Alright, send me the addresses.’

‘Will do. If I were you I’d stake them out tonight: you might catch young Mr Strickner red handed.’

Sherlock reaches out one lanky arm, bats the ‘end call’ button and then retracts it. He folds his hands on his chest and looks pleased with himself. John drops his hands and clasps them between his knees.

‘You’re not really leaving it there, are you?’

‘Of course not, you know they can’t cope without me.’

John snorts.

‘Will you be going for just the crook and bonnet or the whole ensemble?’

Sherlock grins.

‘I don’t plan on doing any herding, even Lestrade can probably manage that. But there is still a puzzle to be solved.’

‘Which is?’

‘What makes a young man like Alex Strickner throw away a promising career in the nepotistic elite of the criminal underworld, to form his own ragtag band of idiots?’

‘I really couldn’t say.’

‘Hmm, me neither.’

With a sudden burst of energy, Sherlock is off the sofa and stretching with an expansive yawn. This accomplished, he pads across to his usual chair and the violin case resting beside it.

Quick, John thinks, act now before you lose him again.

‘Uh, Sherlock?’

‘Hmm?’ Sherlock turns partially to face him. No going back now, full attention drawn.

‘About, er… last night. Are we… okay?’

Sherlock pauses his movements but doesn’t say anything. John presses on.

‘I mean, I’d just like to know it wasn’t all due to you being dosed to the eyeballs on rohypnol, really. But, you know, if it was, that’s fine, we can move on and draw a line under it, we’re both adults and I’m sorry if I was out of turn, it was just, well… No, no actually there isn’t really an excuse –’

‘It wasn’t’ Sherlock says, carefully.

‘Oh, ah. Right. Well, that’s… good.’ John bites his lip. Sherlock is giving him the look of fond puzzlement, the one he uses when John is being unpredictable in a pleasing way. John has always liked this look, as it makes him feel both appreciated and important. He squares his shoulders. ‘Will it be, er… happening again?’

‘I don’t know, will it?’ Sherlock's cautious smile shifts into a smirk ‘You got into my bed.’

‘I was keeping a check on you.’

 ‘Oh really, doctor?’ Sherlock swallows, he holds John’s gaze. ‘Clearly I’m behind on modern medical practice.’ He quirks his eyebrows and reaches for the violin.

John bites his lip, tries not to blush too much and decides that if Sherlock is taking the piss out of him then there is nothing much wrong with the world. Sherlock shoots him a smug victory look over his shoulder as he starts to play. Bastard.

But no, sorry Sherlock. You can be the genius at everything else, but this? This is very much my area of expertise.

John clears his throat.

‘Well, if you’re very lucky you might get a full examination next time.’

The violin squeaks as the bow stutters over the strings.

~

Much of John’s morning is taken up with being the token man in Mrs Hudson’s negotiations for a new boiler. She likes having one of them partake in such discussions, so she doesn’t get taken advantage of for being ‘a little old lady’.

John isn’t really sure how likely that is, given that, when not chatting amiably to John or clucking and fussing round Sherlock like a mother hen, she has a shrewd business mind, a keen eye for liars and a tongue that could strip paint.

‘And don’t you come back here with language like that!’ she shouts, as she slams the door on a carelessly foul-mouthed cowboy plumber. John winces. Between her and Sherlock, 221b must have been a no-go area for tradesmen before John arrived.

His phone buzzes in his pocket.

Hearing things

about loud explosion

on Baker Street.

Sherlock?

Greg

John replies with:

Small bomb under

stairs. Strickners,

most likely.

John

 

His phone rings.

‘Alright, Greg.’

‘A bomb? A fucking bomb, and you don’t call me? Or think to mention it earlier?’

‘Well it’s gone off now, there’s not much more you can do about it. Unless you know a good plumber, in which case we’re all ears. Pretty soon Sherlock’s going to need a coffee and I’m not turning errand boy.’

‘For Christ sake, be serious. Is anyone injured?’

‘No, we’re all fine. Boiler took most of the force, that and the cupboard door. Sherlock fell through a weak spot on the stairs and cut his leg, but otherwise nothing.’

‘Bloody hell.’

‘Hmm.’

‘You alright? You seem very calm about it.’

John flushes, grateful Lestrade can’t see him.

‘Well, it’s not the weirdest thing to happen to me this week, let alone ever.’

Lestrade doesn’t press the issue, just sniffs and murmurs an assent.

‘Well, I’ll send someone round anyway.’

‘No need, you’ll only accelerate the need for coffee.’

‘If you’re sure.’

‘Positive.’

~

When John returns upstairs, Sherlock is lying on the sofa again, and the disembodied voice of Mycroft Holmes is issuing from the phone on the table.

‘I understand there has been… an incident.’

‘I thought as your brother I had the special privilege of 24 hour surveillance. Clearly I’ve been doing you an injustice.’

‘Not at all, Sherlock. Though I’m afraid I’ve rather overestimated the dedication of some of my staff.’

John has always pitied the people Mycroft puts on Sherlock Watch. Especially when Sherlock gets bored and decides to ‘take them out for a run’, dashing at random around town to panic and confuse them, before attempting to sneak up on one or two and alert them to their loss of cover by sending a suitably scathing text message to a government phone, for which he shouldn’t have the number.

It sounds as though a couple are going to be permanently removed from duty, although John doesn’t like to dwell on what ‘permanently removed from duty’ might mean to Mycroft Holmes.

‘Goodness, a miscalculation, Mycroft?’ Sherlock feigns expansive surprise at John, who struggles not to laugh ‘Shocking.

‘I am looking into the matter, naturally. But if you could try and behave yourself for a day or two –’

Sherlock blows a raspberry at the phone, swats at it to hang up and then settles back into the sofa, a pleased expression on his face, eyes closed.

‘Very mature’ says John.

Sherlock hums contentedly. John drops into his favoured armchair.

‘So, any ideas then? Which Strickner’s calling card was it?’

‘Hard to say. Alex went out of his way to bring our attention to his father’s new venture into poisons, so unlikely he’d want to take any sort of revenge on us. But, of course, Lestrade broadening his net means Alex is now on the run, too. So it could be either of them.’

John nods. Sherlock frowns.

‘Though given Alex’s flare for the dramatic over the fatal, I’d say he’s our man.’

‘You mean if it had been old, bluff traditionalist Jack Strickner, we’d both be dead?’

‘Precisely.’

‘Nice.’

‘Only if you want to be poisoned to death.’

John settles back in his chair. Lestrade’s right, he feels oddly calm about all this. He can’t seem to muster any worry over it though, not when the longstanding dilemma of his love life has been so conclusively resolved. Everything else is just decoration, today.

Sherlock shifts position on the sofa, and John watches him fondly for all of thirty seconds, before Sherlock is suddenly a whirl of activity again, launching himself off the sofa, rushing past John, and vanishing in a swirl of dressing gown down the corridor like a cyclone through Tornado alley.

There is a cacophony of sliding drawers, clattering hangers and banging wardrobe doors. John waits expectantly, wondering who is going to emerge from the dressing up box today.

The answer turns out to be someone John hasn’t seen before, but who he would very much like to see again. John hears the padding of footsteps down the hall carpet and makes to stand.

Sherlock is wearing a hoodie (loose), a t-shirt (very fitted), and jeans (quite possibly skin tight everywhere above the knee).

John’s own jeans start to feel rather tighter. He decides against standing up. However, this does nothing to hide his facial expression and judging by Sherlock’s look of confusion, realisation and sudden embarrassment, it’s quite telling. He looks down and around at the floor, avoiding John’s eyes.

‘Wow’ says John, before he realises. He clamps his mouth shut. Sherlock’s gaze flicks up to meet his and he swallows, awkwardly.

‘Thank you’ he says, to a compliment John clearly doesn’t need to give any further voice to.

They stare at each other a bit, before Sherlock huffs out a very determined breath and begins looping a belt around his waist. John tries not to look. He clears his throat, wishing this was all as easy as it had been last night. Earlier predictions of fineness rapidly starting to look overly optimistic.

‘Are we off out somewhere?'

Sherlock still won’t look at him. John feels an uncomfortable churn of anxiety in his stomach.

'Well, I need to go and speak to my network again, see if I can pre-empt where Alex is going to strike back. He’s bound to, judging by the activity last night. So, change of clothes: suit and shirt isn't going to blend in'

John nods, this is a sensible idea, one of Sherlock's least insane, in fact. But then something about it starts to niggle him. He reruns the conversation as he watches Sherlock tuck in the pockets of his jeans and zip up the jacket.

Then it hits him.

'You er... Don't want me to come with you?'

'No, no, it's fine. Besides too many people will make them nervous.'

And too few makes you vulnerable. ‘Friends protect people.’

'I can blend in. We should go together.'

Sherlock looks up. He studies John carefully for a moment.

'I'll be fine, John.'

John swallows. Sherlock smiles, looking mildly embarrassed again but for an entirely different reason.

'I always am, remember?'

Yes, John thinks, always. Right up until you aren't.

Sherlock tugs on a rather beaten up leather jacket and turns up the collar – homeless people apparently don't trust people in scarves – and beams at him.

'I'll be home in time for tea.'

~

Except he isn't, of course.

Not by a long chalk.

~

The homeless network, ably represented by Liam and Jezzer, are about as keen as Lestrade to clean up the mess. Historically, Jack Strickner has been lenient on trespassers and a reliable provider of work. Now some of their less intelligent associates have sided with the son, the outlook is, as Liam sees it ‘a bit fucking bleak, you get me?’

They too have been caught up in last night’s reprisals. Sam is currently comforting the bereaved.

They’ve done a lot of digging, and Jezzer silently hands Sherlock a scrubby piece of paper, listing the time and place of Alex Strickner’s planned retaliation.

Sherlock knows better than to ask the provenance of this information and accepts it gracefully.

Once outside the building, he considers his options.

In retrospect, he makes the wrong decision. This is all the more galling, because it’s not simply a case of being wrong, that can happen to anyone, even Sherlock occasionally. Not all the variables can be known.

No, what is particularly upsetting is that he is wrong for the wrong reasons.

What he ought to have done, dull and hateful though it might be, was call Lestrade, give him the address and tell him to marshal all the troops at the appointed time. That done, he should have returned home, got changed and then set out with John for ringside seats to the capture of Alex Strickner and an end to the whole business.

He would have reasoned Alex’s motivations for turning on the family out of him later. Lestrade’s customary form of payment: interrogating the prisoner. In lieu of actual payment, of course, but far more valuable to Sherlock.

At a push, he might even have got John to do the boring part of calling Lestrade.

What he actually does, in the moment, with the sky growing darker over his head and the wind getting chiller around his shoulders, is do everything he can to delay going back to the flat.

He feels quite prepared, as always, to face down all manner of criminal masterminds and psychotic geniuses. This is a role he is very familiar with and extremely good at. He has an excellent track record in that area.

Unbeaten, in fact.

But he feels wholly unprepared to go back to a flat in which John Watson kisses him, sleeps next to him and says ‘Wow’ when he puts on a pair of jeans.

This is a role he has no previous experience of whatsoever, his track record is non-existent and he isn’t entirely sure he will ever know how to be that person, that other Sherlock, who had surfaced last night but who has now disappeared entirely.

This is still more proof, Sherlock thinks bitterly, that I am much better high than sober.

He had tried, this morning. And he hadn’t been lying; it wasn’t all just the drugs talking. But they made things easier, and this morning’s conversation had been hard work, trying not to just choke on his own tongue, and then the moment with the jeans and the expression on John’s face…

So he doesn’t call Lestrade, or John, and he doesn’t go home.

He turns up his collar, stuffs his hands into his pockets, and heads off to Hammersmith.

~

John wakes in his own bed, to the sound of his mobile buzzing across the bedside table. Blearily he reaches out for it, cursing under his breath.

He hopes it's Sherlock, calling at an unreasonable hour with some unreasonable request for John to do something unreasonable that he could very well do himself.

It is Lestrade.

John's stomach plummets. This means it's going to be about Sherlock, having already done something unreasonable and then having fallen into a very great deal of trouble.

'Hello? Greg?'

'John, how quickly can you get to Hammersmith?'

John is already pulling on a pair of jeans.

'Half an hour? Twenty minutes?’ He shifts the phone to his other hand ‘What is it, what's happened?'

'There's been an explosion, a bloody big one. We think that, uhh... Shit, John. We think Sherlock was inside at the time.'

John shuts his eyes. It's that call, he realises. The one where they ask you to identify the body. He swallows.

'You've found... You've found a body, then.'

'No, no we haven't. Well, we, have, lots of them, far, far too many, but they're not... We have names. I just, I thought you'd want to be here, Christ, it's...'

He can't finish. John says 'I'll be there as soon as I can.' And hangs up.

There isn't a body, he repeats to himself like a mantra, there isn't a body.

They haven't learnt their lesson, either of them, with regard to this friends protect people concept. Sherlock doesn't quite believe it and John doesn't always stick to the strength of his convictions.

But John has learnt this over the last three and a half years:

If there isn't a body there's still hope.

~

Jezzer’s information was right again, Sherlock thinks, as the fire rips through the upper storey and blows out most of the glass. Flaming window frame and flickering scraps of still-burning upholstery tumble out of the dark sky onto the street below.

Sherlock shrugs into his hoodie against the chill, and looks about. No showing of Lestrade or his colleagues, though he can hear sirens beginning to wail in the distance.

Took a gamble, only staked-out some of the locations. But not this one, not the right one.

Perfect.

Sherlock wanders up alongside, looks about, then scrambles over the wall.

~

John is still getting his coat on as he pulls the cab door shut. He gives the address and fumbles his phone back out of his pocket.

Hits ‘Sherlock Holmes’.

It rings interminably, until finally it picks up.

‘Hello? Sherlock? What’s happening, where are you? Lestrade called, he said –’

‘ – that we’d found his phone? I’m… I’m sorry, John. It’s Sally.’

John’s breath lodges in his throat. Sally sounds very contrite. Neither of them says anything for several seconds.

‘We found it… outside. Outside the, er… house, where the explosion was.’ Sally sounds as if she’s genuinely trying to make things better but only has bad news to do it with. John swallows a lump in his throat.

‘I’m sorry, we are trying to… we’ll know more soon.’

John hangs up.

~

Alex Strickner is tall and thin, the sort of kid Charlie Strickner might have been roughing up for lunch money some years ago.

He is watching the blaze with a can of petrol in his hand, outlined against the fire, his back to Sherlock.

‘Alex Strickner, I presume?’

The boy turns. Sherlock feels a sudden pang of age: Alex Strickner is probably in his early twenties. He’s no more a boy than Sherlock is.

‘Alright, Mr Holmes? Enjoying the fire?’

‘Not especially. I don’t believe in roasting one’s relatives, however awful they are.’ Though God knows they’ve given him enough reason to over the years. Mycroft isn’t the worst of them.

Alex shrugs.

‘Bunch of pimps and drug dealers.’ Alex smiles, lazily ‘And that’s just the women.’

He puts down the petrol can, tucks his hands in his jeans and takes a few steps towards Sherlock.

‘We’re better off without them, really. Don’t you think?’

Despite himself, Sherlock rather likes Alex Strickner.

‘They’re your family.’

‘Only in name. Dad’s never liked me. ‘Too clever by half’, he used to say. ‘Smartarse’, was next. ‘Fucking weirdo’, last time we spoke.’ He sniffs ‘Can’t say I’ll miss him.’

‘I can see why you wanted out’ Sherlock allows. ‘Seems a bit extreme, though. All this. Poisoning the dog, hunting you down. Family pride, is it? Didn’t want you having a better selection of criminals than he did?’

Alex laughs.

‘You’re clever, Mr Holmes, I give you that. I thought you’d like the dog. But I’d be a fool to tell you, you see. I’m still in the running. We don’t need any more entrants.’

He begins to walk off towards the wall. Sherlock wrinkles his nose.

‘In the running?’

Alex smiles again. He keeps walking and he has to raise his voice over the creaking of the house and the shouts of the people inside.

‘I know, you see! I know about number seven!’

And then he’s gone, up, over the wall, and Sherlock is left alone with the dark garden and the glare of the burning building.

It occurs to him that people are inside, screaming. Door handles are rattling, fruitlessly.

He locked them in. Like rats.

The sirens are getting louder, almost here, but Alex Strickner has been wonderfully efficient in his work.

Sherlock decides he should probably do something about this situation. He may be a reasoning machine but he isn’t Jim Moriarty and it’s things like this that keep him on the straight and narrow.

He starts towards the house, reaching for the rolled set of lockpicks in his jacket pocket with one hand and for his phone with the other.

He starts to tap out a message to Lestrade.

A large hand reaches from behind his head and covers his mouth. He twists on instinct, releasing the lock picks to tug at the hand and dropping his phone, but he’s already choking on chloroform, stars flaring in his vision with lack of air and everything is going dark, dark.

~

John arrives to find an almost completely gutted building being doused with water. People with various degrees of disfiguring burns are being shifted into ambulances.

There are a good many black cover-alls.

John keeps his eyes straight ahead and aims for the squad car where Lestrade is directing operations. Sally is leaning on the door beside him, looking pale.

As John approaches, Lestrade rings off the call he’s making. His face is ashen.

‘There’s no body. For definite’ says Lestrade. John lets out a breath.

Not killed in an explosion then, that’s good. But not here, either.

Lestrade holds out Sherlock’s phone.

‘We found it in the garden, behind the building.’

John nods, turns it over in his hand. Sherlock never goes anywhere without his mobile phone.

Except when he went off around the world for three years.

John swallows, flicking it on.

There is one saved, draft email message. It is titled ‘To Finder’.

John looks up at Lestrade.

‘We’ve read it, but you’re welcome to. And before you ask, there were no finger prints – wearing gloves, most likely.’

John opens it.

To whom it may concern,

Please be assured Mr Holmes is quite safe, and will continue to be so if we are left undisturbed. He will be assisting us with a personal matter, in his capacity as consulting detective.

At the conclusion of his investigation, he can be returned to the police in exchange for £250,000, in used notes, at a location and time to be decided.

Otherwise, and if any attempt is made to contact him sooner, he will be returned to the police in a weighted bag, via the canal.

Sincerely,

Jack Strickner

 

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock wakes up on a neatly made bed in a windowless room. He feels groggy and bruised, and it takes him a moment to reassemble his recent past.

When he does, his eyes snap open. He sits up quickly, determines he is alone, and inspects the room.

A desk, a chair, the bed he’s sitting on. Two doors: one shut and sturdier than the average bedroom door, the other ajar to reveal the edge of a shower. Bathroom.

A small, self-contained suite, neatly made-up and smelling of fresh laundry. None of it detracts from the fact that it’s really a cell.

A series of his beloved locked-room murders spring to mind. He dismisses them. That seems highly unlikely at this point. More likely a hostage.

He frowns to himself, with a pang of annoyance.

Should have called Lestrade.

Another, deeper, frown: a sharper pang of regret.

Should have called John.

~

John had forgotten that Lestrade had Harry’s number.

He’s very grateful for it, now.

Greg drives him to Baker Street, helps him put things in a suitcase and then drives him across town to Harry’s flat. She comes down to the communal door, nods at Greg, takes John by the shoulder and leads him upstairs.

At least, John assumes this is what happened, but six hours later, in the dark of Harry’s spare bedroom, he can’t really remember it. But he has a case full of clothes and no receipt for a cab. So something like that must have occurred.

Harry had made him eat something, at some point.

This isn’t helping Sherlock, he thinks, viciously. But there is currently very little he can do that will.

He had been ready to storm a fortress, reading that email, standing beside the police car. Take on an army, infiltrate a terrorist cell and live under cover. He was keyed up and ready, fuelled by adrenaline and his natural reaction to fear.

But there was no fortress, no army and no secret base. Or if there are, they’re all still secret. All there is to do is to detect and deduce and wait and these things have never been John’s forte.

Greg had promised to call him.

~

It’s a quiet part of London. That much Sherlock can work out.

Unless he’s not in London, anymore.

He imagines a large house, out in the country, miles from anywhere. No artificial light beyond the house, only freezing fields and winding roads, nowhere to hide or take shelter but scrubby outcrops of trees or treacherous, unfamiliar woodlands.

Sherlock hates the country.

The room is scrupulously clean and everything gleams in the bathroom. He scours the place from top to bottom for a sign of anything. He taps the walls and determines they are not ordinary plasterboard – rather thicker. Potentially soundproofed.

Could be London after all, then.

The floor doesn’t creak, either.

Eventually he decides to save his energy for future developments, and stretches out on the bed. He examines the binding on his knuckles. Hard to believe the boxing match was only two days ago. He unwinds the bandage, which is starting to unravel of its own accord, and flexes his fingers. His knuckles are still bruised but mostly healed now. He thinks of John wrapping the gauze carefully around his fingers.

He can now be almost certain that he is the reason John had been calling Harry, that afternoon. Sherlock doesn’t like this, as a concept. He doesn’t like the idea of John discussing how he feels about Sherlock with anyone, especially not his sister, who is brash and loud and has the sexual morality of an alley cat.

Not that that matters, especially, he thinks. I couldn’t care less, in fact. But I don’t like the fact that someone like her finds it all so easy.

Sherlock flexes his fingers again. He thinks of punching Charlie Strickner, and wonders if he’ll need to do that again anytime soon.

John’s face, staring at him agog, floats into his vision. John’s face again, this time looking down at him, while Sherlock tied his shoes, Sherlock’s clothing still clasped in his arms.

Oh.

Sherlock feels the flush rise up his neck and out from his nose across his cheeks.

He’s going to have to be more careful, clearly. Try and avoid that reaction in future.

Better, this way. Now I know it’s a problem, I can solve it like any other.

He wishes it weren’t a problem. He wishes he could be the person John thinks he is.

Boyfriend.

God, no. Awful, juvenile, hateful.

Lover.

Worse, possibly. The word makes Sherlock think of flowers and Shakespeare and people falling in and out of bedrooms in some kind of gaudy melodrama.

Love interest.

No, doesn’t fit either. Wrong.

Sherlock is none of these things. He doesn’t even know where to begin to contort himself into any one of the categories. Doesn’t really want to – what he is already is the only thing that works without chemical assistance.

John, without effort or serious deformation of his character, fits easily and comfortably into all three.

John the boyfriend, going on ‘dates’ and buying women chocolates and stupid little gifts that are apparently ‘cute’ or ‘funny’ or ‘sorry Sherlock, you had to be there’.

John the lover, scrubbed up well and wielding an exquisite bunch of flowers, writing flirtatious and occasionally lewd emails and not coming home till the next day.

John, the love interest. Smiling, frowning, looking serious. Buying the milk, cooking dinner, shooting people. Doing all kinds of terrible things to Sherlock’s heart.

No, Sherlock thinks, sharply, no. He mustn’t be allowed to do that anymore. It was a bad idea, I knew it was. Last night was a regrettable lapse into something unsustainable. Mustn’t happen again.

This thought hurts, quite a lot actually, certainly more than thoughts usually do. Sherlock tries to dismiss this as lingering sentiment brought on by lingering chemicals in his bloodstream. It’s only partially successful.

Thinking of lingering chemicals reminds him of something else. It bothers him that he might not have perfect recall from last night. He doesn’t remember how he ended up in the chair, has only the vaguest impression of John coming home and has no recollection at all of how he got to bed. He hopes, futilely of course, that he slept through the worst of it, and that the holes in his memory are actually spans of unconsciousness.

He hopes he didn’t tell John anything too incriminating.

This morning was a complete tactical error, of course – should have blamed the drugs, told John to forget it all, damnit, but he’d been feeling optimistic and hopeful that maybe he could be that other Sherlock, even if just occasionally. That he could have John, after all.

Sherlock swallows. This is dreadful and self-indulgent to a part of himself he doesn’t have. Or tries not to. Foolish, sentimental, pointlessness.

He shifts position on the bed, steepling his fingers under his chin. He needs to stop thinking about all this.

(Give it up, stop trying. No good.)

He needs to focus on the matter in hand, on his impending and daring escape.

(He hopes John won’t be too upset.)

~

John is woken, at 8am sharp, by his phone ringing. He must have dosed off, eventually, but he feels fragile and exhausted on opening his eyes. He swings the phone into view.

Unknown number.

‘Yes?’ his voice barely works, and feels dry and cracked in his throat.

‘Hello.’

John groans.

‘Fuck. Off.’

‘Oh for goodness sake! You could really do with my help.’

‘It’s your fault!’ he shouts, struggling into a sitting position so he can get more air into his lungs ‘it’s your fucking fault! ‘Oh Sherlock, I know where they all live, I can send you straight to them.’  Well congratulations, Irene, you did. Are you getting a cut of the ransom, or are they just putting some more clients your way?’

Irene clucks her tongue on the other end of the phone.

‘Neither, you’ll be pleased to know. I want to help.’

‘Oh right, I see. I’m supposed to believe that, am I?’

‘Why not? I’ve never once hurt him, quite the opposite in fact. I took good care of him while he was away.’

John licks dry lips, decides to ignore the ‘taking good care of him’ comment.

‘You’ve never hurt him? That’s a joke, is it? Must be. You’ve drugged him, twice, tricked him into giving away government secrets –’

‘Hmm, no real harm done to Sherlock though, on any occasion. Possibly a bruise or two from the riding crop, but that was just playing.’

‘I don’t want your help, stop interfering  and just, just… leave me alone!’

He hangs up and throws the phone away. He sits against the wall, panting and, stupidly, on the verge of tears. He thinks about where he is, Harry’s flat, versus where he was yesterday morning, Sherlock’s bed.

God he can’t be gone again. He just can’t. I’ve only just got him back.

He drops his head into his hands, wondering for the hundredth time why he hadn’t gone with Sherlock, hadn’t pushed the issue. He might still have been kidnapped of course, but it would have been both of them. Both of them, together.

He thinks of Sherlock, yesterday morning; in bed, on the sofa, in those jeans.

He thinks of the awkward look on Sherlock’s face – unusual, to say the least – and the reappearance of the smile-frown shuffle of his mouth.

John massages his scalp and then lifts his head. Two days ago he thought one thing about his and Sherlock’s relationship. Then he came home and began to think quite another.

Now… He lifts his head and looks unseeingly at the wall, replays Sherlock’s look of mild embarrassment. Not good.

Not that it matters a damn, of course, in the present situation. Getting Sherlock back, that’s the main thing. That’s what really matters, at this point in time. Anything else is just… unimportant, right now.

John huffs out a breath.

It occurs to him that Irene does know things about the Strickner family. She could be useful. Might suddenly remember some new names and addresses.

No, bad plan. Don’t even think about it.

Besides, it will be a cold day in Hell when John Watson asks Irene Adler for help.

~

Sherlock allows himself to sleep for a few hours at a time, switching the lights off but waking every so often to see if anything changes.

It doesn’t.

Eventually, he wakes to the lights flicking on of their own accord, artificially signalling daytime. There is a knock on the door and then it opens.

Two men stand on the other side, both bearing a passing resemblance to Charlie Strickner, but both younger. One of them gestures over his shoulder.

‘Morning, Mr Holmes. Dad wants to see you.’

Sherlock swings his legs off the bed, straightens his hoodie in lieu of a suit jacket, adopts his best expression of hauteur and allows them to lead him out of the room.

~

Jack Strickner isn’t at all how Sherlock expected. For one thing he’s thinner, tall and lean, with a long, sallow face. His piercing eyes sit above a Roman nose and hollow cheeks, skin taut between cheekbones and jaw. He has dark grey hair, flecked with silver.

He sits behind a simple wooden desk, with some papers stacked neatly on top of it. There are six photos in a row – six Strickner children, and he’s kept Alex, interesting – all in silver gilt frames.

Strickner watches him over folded hands, eyes hooded.

Sherlock feels rather self-conscious, out of his normal attire. He tries to sit as confidently as possible in the chair, leaning back and steepling his fingers.

The watching, now in both directions, goes on. Eventually, Strickner draws a deep breath and sits back in his chair, lowering his hands to his lap. He looks, if anything, bored, his eyes hooding over, and he speaks in an even measured tone, as if relating a familiar, oft told story.

‘I need your help, Mr Holmes, with a small family matter.’

‘I’m delighted to hear it, but I choose my clients, Mr Strickner. I don’t take kindly to being abducted.’

Strickner carries on as if he hadn’t heard him.

‘It’s quite a tricky little problem, I’m afraid. My son, young Alex, who I think you’ve met, got quite close to solving it. But, as you know, we have had a difference of opinion and he has decided to work independently.’

Sherlock says nothing. But Strickner appears to be pausing for his own convenience rather than in expectation of Sherlock saying anything. He breathes out and refolds his hands.

‘I am of course working to recover his information, but I believe I have more than enough still in my possession for a man of your considerable talents. But I digress from the problem itself, something which I know you find tiresome.’

He clears his throat.

‘Some years ago, when I was a much younger man, I enjoyed the company of a woman known at the time as Lydia Black. This was not her real name, which I never did find out, and she went under several other aliases which I can provide for you. When I met her, she had been married some years, but was tired of her husband and longed to return to the glamour of her youth. She was still young and attractive and she was greatly admired by several of my little group at the time. She loved our lifestyle: the thrill of the chase, the money, the drugs. We lived very well, Mr Holmes, very well.’

‘You still do.’

Strickner smiles, all teeth and thin lips, but doesn’t open his eyes.

‘Happily, yes. I prospered, in my chosen career. Though like you, I’ve never been much motivated by the money.’

Sherlock sneers.

‘How refreshing. Don’t tell me, you enjoy the delicate intricacy of a crime perfectly set-up, a heist gone well.’

Strickner’s mouth closes but the smile remains in place.

‘Oh no, no I’m not an intellectual. Alex is, certainly, which is why we don’t get on. And your friend, James, he most definitely was.’

Sherlock feels suddenly cold. Most people use the surname, or try not to use the name at all. And they speak with fear, with awe.  Strickner’s voice has neither.

‘But I’ve noticed, Mr Holmes, that you intellectuals always come to a sticky end. James certainly did, and I fully intend that Alex does. So no, not the puzzles for me, or the money. No, I just enjoy a good, juicy murder. The thrill of the kill, you might say.’

Strickner draws a deep breath again and refolds his hands. Sherlock’s mind starts to work double speed.

‘But I was talking about Lydia. As I said, she loved the life and she loved us, some of us more than others, as you’ll hear. She decided she wanted a piece of it, but not like a common whore. No, she was much too good and clever for that. So she started her own little business, nothing too fancy, and she did very well. Only the best clientele, Miss Black. She could pick and choose, you see. I don’t know what the young people call it these days, I’m out of touch, you might say. We used to call her Lydia ‘Lashes’ Black, and we weren’t talking about her eyelashes. If you liked being chained to a woman’s bed for an astronomical fee, she was the woman to see, if you get my drift.’

Sherlock does. He thinks of Irene and the riding crop. Irene had told him, when they were in Italy, that some men paid thousands for that. Sherlock wonders at the existence of people who are willing to go anywhere near Irene with any kind of weapon at all, especially in a state of undress. But then he has seen her kill a man with a shoe, which is probably not common practice in S&M circles. He’d have been asked to investigate one, by now, if it were.

‘I can see that, like me, you don’t see the point of it, Mr Holmes. I was never one of Miss Lashes’ clients. We had a more, informal relationship. One that continued after she gave up her life as a professional femme fatale, and decided to work full time for us. She smuggled hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of cocaine, never once caught. Always had a special way with the customs officials: ‘lucky we live in such a man’s world’, she used to say. But I’m digressing again, Mr Holmes, and you must forgive an old man his memories.’

Strickner lifts the top document from the pile in front of him and holds up a photograph. The woman pictured has long, wavy hair, brushed to look bigger than it is naturally and wears a crop top and flared jeans. 70s, going by the fashion.

‘A lovely woman, Mr Holmes. And very discreet: my own wife, God rest her soul, never suspected a thing.’

‘Charming. And now you want me to track down Miss Lydia Black, or whatever else she calls herself, so you can be reunited?’

Strickner chuckles, lightly.

‘A good trick, if you could do it, Mr Holmes. I can even tell you where she is. Could be quite the journey to reunite us, though I understand these days you do work beyond the grave. So perhaps it is possible, after all.’

He replaces the photograph on the table.

‘I don’t need you to find Miss Black: she’s buried in a cemetery in Brookwood. I should know, I put her there myself.’

‘I take it you don’t mean by attending the funeral.’

Strickner smiles again.

‘Very good, Mr Holmes. No, I don’t want you to find Miss Lydia Black. I want you to find her daughter. Our daughter.’

Number seven, Sherlock realises, with a flash. The answer to Alex’s mystifying parting words has been staring him in the face.

Six Strickner children (six photos on the desk) and Alex knows about number seven.

Number seven. The seventh child.

~

John gets up and makes breakfast. He is pouring coffee when Harry appears in the kitchen.

‘You alright?’

‘Yeah, well. You know.’

Harry rubs his shoulder and takes the coffee he passes her.

‘He’ll be alright, you know, your Boy-Wonder.’

John makes a face.

‘Less of the ‘boy’, please, I feel old enough already.’

‘Pet Genius? Tame Sociopath?’

John manages half a smile.

‘No, seriously though. He’s going to be okay. In a few weeks you’ll barely remember all this. It’ll all be forgotten in the mad rush of all the sex you’ll be having.’

John colours. He must have spoken to her last night, in his dazed stupor. He doesn’t say anything to her now. She’s doing her best.

He stirs the milk into his coffee and mentally prepares himself for the phone call from Lestrade, trying not to replay that other phone call, the one that wakes him up at night and which, as it plays out in his head, taunts him even now, as he stands in his sister’s kitchen.

‘Keep your eyes fixed on me.’

Why hadn’t he? Why why why.

~

‘I should stress that, if you don’t help me, I can make life very difficult, for you and your friends. So, what will it be, Mr Holmes?’

Strickner pulls the not-really-a-smile again, and though he speaks calmly and politely, it’s perfectly clear he couldn’t give a damn about the nature of Sherlock’s actual reply.

It was so much easier, Sherlock thinks, when I didn’t like anybody. When everyone else was just a faceless rabble of mannequins, who had no impact on Sherlock’s life other than to bring him puzzles.

But these days he can’t think of Mrs Hudson without feeling sheltered and warm, can’t think of Lestrade without feeling his handshake and seeing him lifting the tape on yet another crime scene.

Can’t think of John without feeling… too much.

‘Fine’ he says, through gritted teeth.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

John does get a call, but it isn’t the one he expects.

‘Hello, John.’

John doesn’t like Mycroft using his first name. It sounds overly familiar. As far as John is concerned, they are not, and never have been, friends.

‘Mycroft.’

Paradoxically John does use Mycroft’s first name, largely because he likes to think it annoys the older Holmes brother. He realises, of course, that this is almost certainly why Mycroft does it to him, but he refuses to give in. An unspoken battle of wills over social pleasantries.

‘I understand that Sherlock is, ah, missing, again.’

John swallows, uncomfortably.

‘He’s been taken hostage by some gang leader, yes. Apparently he’s consulting on something. But surely you don’t need me to tell you this.’

‘I like to verify my information. Ordinarily of course I would be very happy to share my knowledge of his whereabouts with your colleagues at Scotland Yard, but I find myself somewhat short of staff, at present.’

The newly unemployed Sherlock-watchers, John thinks. Mycroft doesn’t hang about.

‘So you’re saying you don’t know where he is either?’

‘Regrettably not, no. But I think I can offer you some assistance in locating and releasing him. If you’d care to meet the car outside in five minutes…’

‘Fine.’

~

Strickner draws breath as if to begin again, when the two men who had escorted Sherlock in burst suddenly into the room. Strickner looks up, eyes fully opened, looking distinctly annoyed.

‘News about Kurt, Dad. He’s –’

‘Keep your mouth shut, Derek, coming in here like a bloody school kid. Take Mr Holmes back to his room. Tom, you stay here, tell me what’s happened.’

The man identified as Derek, the younger of the two, clamps his mouth shut and then, to cover his embarrassment, grabs Sherlock roughly by the shoulder. Sherlock pulls out of his grip with relative ease.

‘I can walk myself, thanks.’

Derek looks daggers at him, but lets him walk out of the room unaided.

Previously they had used a small, plainly decorated staircase that had clearly once been for the servants of the house. However, there appears to be some commotion in that direction – raised female voice, and a lower, male one: Charlie? – so instead Derek leads him down the main stairs.

This journey, though brief, is very informative. There are a series of photos on the wall down the staircase, and Sherlock submits each to as close an analysis as possible on his way past.

At the top is the happy couple: Jack Strickner and his apparently simple, unobservant wife – a blonde, watery-blue-eyed creature with a pretty smile and a vacant expression. ‘Jack and Julie’ reads the caption.

Next is the oldest son, quite literally the blue-eyed boy: ‘Kurt Strickner’, a man with all his mother’s colouring and all his father’s cunning, his smile an unpleasant smear on his narrow features.

The next photograph is astonishing for the resemblance to Jack Strickner, especially considering the feminine face the features are laid over. The woman has long, brown hair, and a cruel twist to her lips. Sherlock reads ‘Alicia’.

The following four photos he pays less attention to: Charlie, looking obnoxiously pleased with his own appearance, Sherlock’s two bodyguards, Tom and Derek, each with their mother’s gormless expression and lastly, young Alex, thin and gawky, with eyes like cut glass.

Sherlock would be impressed, if he hadn’t grown up with a much longer corridor of imposing photos and portraits, judging him every time he had to walk to his father’s study and back. But there is still no denying the Strickner’s are quite a clan.

Derek shoves him, unnecessarily, through the door into the small, neatly appointed room, and then slams the door shut with dramatic force. But Sherlock has no intention of going anywhere. He lies back on the bed and shuts his eyes.

He wonders what evidence Strickner already has regarding his elusive daughter, what Alex had already found.

It promises to be quite an intriguing little problem – a run of the mill missing persons case with a twist. Could be quite diverting, and he doesn’t seem to be in any immediate, personal danger.

He hopes the same can be said of John and Mrs Hudson. And Lestrade, he allows, as an afterthought.

Not that it makes sense to threaten them, at this stage. Not unless Strickner needs to satisfy his passion for violence. Although hunting down his youngest son must be keeping him fairly well occupied at the moment.

A tricky one, Alex. Though his plan clearly wasn’t a success – his father and most of his siblings escaped unscathed, if they were ever there to begin with. Though it sounds like Kurt may not have been so lucky…

(Sherlock doesn’t give much thought to the other people who were, very definitely, in the house – mere associates, probably. Not important.)

He wishes they hadn’t been interrupted. Strickner had just been getting to the actually interesting part. He doesn’t have all that much to think about just yet, running through potential avenues of enquiry aside, and he desperately needs something to distract him from the plain, dull room outside his head and the imagined, newly-uncomfortable home situation inside his head.

No, that lock on the door and the lack of windows is laughable, just at the moment.

He has no intention of going anywhere, least of all going home.

~

The anonymous black car, this time devoid of any of Mycroft’s glamorous assistants, drops him off in a quiet and expensive looking street, outside a restaurant with tastefully-reserved signage and a selection of very expensively dressed clientele filing in through the glass door.

John has come out in his best casual shoes, his second best jeans and a leather jacket. If he was the lead guitarist in an international rock group he could probably pull this off, but he isn’t and so he doubts it’s going to cut much ice with the maître’d.

Good, he thinks savagely, it will do Mycroft good to get a complaint about lowering the tone of someone’s restaurant.

With an air of belligerence and the words ‘Mycroft Holmes invited me’ poised on his tongue, he goes in.

~

‘More wine, John?’

John says nothing and continues to glare at the fourth occupant of the table. To his left, Mycroft waves the waiter away and to his right, Anthea, or whatever the hell her name is, taps silently away on her Blackberry.

‘The food here is quite superb. I ordered for you, but I am sure you’ll enjoy the selection.’

John continues to say nothing. The waiter comes over for the second time to ask timidly if he can take sir’s coat, and for the second time John ignores him.

Mycroft clears his throat, genteelly. Anthea shifts the phone to her right hand, continues typing, and lifts the tall glass of water to her lips, never moving her eyes from the phone.

Across the table, Irene sits back in her seat, lifts the glass of red wine in silent toast and winks at him.

John grinds his teeth.

‘John…’ Mycroft tries, and then, when this fails to get a response ‘Dr Watson, I really think you’d be more comfortable if you let this young man take your co–’

‘What the fuck is she doing here?’ says John, voice rough with anger and rising in volume, causing nearly everyone else in the room to look round. Mycroft draws in a breath, Anthea pauses in her typing: Irene sips her wine.

‘John, I –’

‘No, don’t John me, we are not friends, I don’t even like you, alright?’ he hisses, angrily, cheeks flushing at the disapproving stares of the other diners ‘I didn’t like you before Sherlock ju–’ he can’t finish that sentence so he tries again ‘before what happened at Barts, and I really didn’t like you after, and now, frankly, I –’

‘Yes, yes, I can quite see your position, of course. But please, just sit and listen for a few moments. I assure you it will be worth your time.’

John has a sudden and vivid fantasy of escaping. He could pull the table cloth, upset the numerous table settings, incapacitate the hovering waiter and make a break for it via the kitchen, possibly escaping over a wall at the end of an alley. That’s probably what Sherlock would do.

What would actually happen, of course, is one of Mycroft’s concealed bodyguards would shoot me with a tranquiliser, if I was lucky, or a bullet, if I wasn’t, before I’d even turned to punch the waiter.

John sits back in his chair. He’s in for the duration, he realises, whether he likes it or not. Resignedly, he pulls off his jacket.

~

In between bites of pheasant and artfully griddled carrot, Mycroft outlines how impressed he was with Miss Adler’s talents after the Scandal in Belgravia fiasco, and how, on discovering she was alive and well after all – ‘Bless my little brother and his sentimental moments’ – he had decided to hire her as one of his staff.

John picks at his food and refuses to look at either of them. He is furious. Absolutely-fucking-furious. How Mycroft can sit there believing that that is an offer of help is beyond him. Mycroft knows, he knows, how John feels about that. That woman. To have dragged him halfway across London on the pretence of offering ‘assistance’ and then showing up with her… John spears a piece of asparagus with undue force and imagines he’s stabbing Mycroft in one of his pudgy fingers.

He also doesn’t know how Mycroft can sit chewing fine food and drinking fine wine quite so calmly while his ‘little brother’ is being held at the mercy of dangerous criminals.

Given the frequency that Sherlock is held at the mercy of dangerous criminals, Mycroft would be a lot thinner if he sat and chewed his fingernails instead, he thinks, viciously.

Mycroft then sets out a plan to rescue Sherlock, without having to pay the ransom or ‘involve the police unnecessarily’.

This is generally the sort of cracked plan that Sherlock comes up with, except that this one involves being civil to and actually co-operating with Irene Adler. Consequently, John feels he would rather formulate a rescue team with Donovan and Anderson.

But it is clearly not his choice and his opinion isn’t sought on anything, other than the food and the wine. Irene is also rarely addressed and she says barely a word throughout the entire meal, merely smiling sultrily at everyone and sipping her wine, her water and her coffee.

Which is why, once the coffee has been cleared away and Mycroft and Anthea have been swallowed up by a large, black, shiny Audi, John finds himself waiting on the pavement, hands thrust deep into his pockets, waiting for Irene to fetch her car.

He considers whether the glass of wine has put her over the limit, then decides he doesn’t much care. He wonders what Her Majesty’s Government have provided in the way of transport. Whether it has rockets in the taillights or spikes on the wheels.

Or an ejector seat, he thinks, hopefully, on the driver’s side.

There is the throaty growl of an engine from around the corner, and suddenly there is a large, blood red Maserati purring down the quiet street. Irene swings the car to John’s side of the road and stops in front of him. The window rolls down and she turns her head.

‘Coming?’ she says, laying on the double entendre with a trowel. John scowls, walks round the car and climbs into the passenger seat. He looks stubbornly out of the window as Irene sweeps the car back onto the left-hand side of the road and begins to accelerate down the street. They negotiate the congested London network in silence, the faint tinkle of piano music from the stereo barely audible over the hum of the engine and the muffled roar of traffic outside. Eventually, John realises that they are heading out of town.

‘Where are we going?’

Irene smiles mysteriously at the windscreen.

‘I hope you brought your gun.’

‘I was going to see Mycroft, of course I brought my gun. You didn’t answer my question.’

‘The Strickner’s have a house in Surrey. We’re going there.’

‘Oh, right. I don’t see what rolling up in a sports car has in common with Mycroft’s plan for a ‘swift, subtle rescue mission’.’

‘Well, Mycroft is very old fashioned and he doesn’t like being corrected or ignored.’ Irene throws the car round a roundabout, strikes off down a slip-road and accelerates hard onto the motorway. ‘I find it’s easiest just to agree with whatever he says and then do whatever I want. It’s worked very well up till now.’

John huffs in mild disbelief.

‘You haven’t changed, have you?’

‘I do hope not.’ Irene shoots him a look. ‘You have, though. Very recently.’ She eyes him narrowly again; John tries not to look uncomfortable. ‘Yes, yes you do seem different. You had sex with him, didn’t you?’

‘What? No, no we did not –’

‘Mmmm, yes you did, oh how wonderful. I’m very pleased, for both of you.’

‘No! No, we didn’t, alright? We very definitely didn’t!’ He draws in a breath, hard, and blows out rather aggressively, folding his arms.

Irene pouts. She looks at him again.

‘Well, something happened.’

John snorts out an aggrieved breath through his nose and stares resolutely out of the window.

‘Do you want to talk to me about it?’

‘No, no I fucking do not. Just, shut up, and drive the sodding car.’

~

Sherlock is brought food, which he duly ignores.

He can feel himself growing bored, so he begins to formulate several escape plans, none of which he intends to use, each more elaborate than the last.

He is mentally running through the latest – hit next person to open the door with small drawer from bedside cabinet, run upstairs (unexpected direction) before climbing out of nearest accessible window, using guttering and / or wall-climbing foliage or windowsill – when the door actually does open.

Sherlock isn’t anywhere near prepared with the drawer, so he remains perfectly motionless where he is.

‘I must apologise, Mr Holmes. Family matter.’

Jack Strickner is standing beside the bed. Sherlock dislikes the height advantage this gives him. Trying to correct matters would look too obvious, though, so he affects nonchalance and stays where he is.

‘I imagine you have a lot of those. Six children, all in the family business? Must have your hands full. Not to mention mysterious number seven.’

Strickner settles comfortably down in the chair, resting his elbows on the arms. He folds his fingers under his chin.

‘Yes, about that, Mr Holmes. Lydia cut me out of her life shortly after the baby was born. I was able to track her down eventually through old contacts, of course, but she was very good at keeping her private life separate. I’ve never seen the baby girl.’

Strickner takes a deep breath, as if the next admission pains him.

‘Alex, though, appears to have found her. I don’t know how and I don’t know how genuine his information is. He even managed to track the young woman down to her place of work and take photos – those are what I have here.’ Strickner removes a series of papers from his jacket. Sherlock sits up.

‘However, while Alex doubtless has her name, place of work and maybe even her address, all I have are these. He took them on one of our business phones, which he carelessly neglected to take with him when he scarpered. I know they’re the woman in question because he told Alicia he’d taken them. Do take a look.’

Strickner holds out the papers, but not far enough that Sherlock can reach them: he has to scramble forward to take hold of them.

‘Very nifty, these camera phones. Even got a location tag on it. So, Mr Holmes, do you think you can help me? Not much to go on, of course, but a man of your talents…’

Sherlock turns over the papers.

He feels the déjà vu wash over him.

He’s been in this situation before, looking at pictures of a woman and being asked to seek her out.

Of course last time it was Irene Adler, pouting at him out of glossy prints.

This time the photos are blurrier: camera phone, as Strickner had said.

This time, they are pictures of Molly.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sherlock is a master of controlling his emotions, but Strickner is watching him very closely, and Molly Hooper is just about the last person he had expected to see.

‘Aha’ breathes Strickner ‘Even better than I’d hoped. You recognise her, don’t you?’

It’s useless to deny it. Strickner is too smart a man. And Sherlock is still reeling.

Molly? How can it be Molly? Of all people?

‘So go on, then, Mr Holmes. Who is she?’

~

Ten minutes later, Sherlock is barricaded in a laundry cupboard, dialling Lestrade’s number into a cordless phone he swiped on his way past. Outside the door he can hear the general hue and cry of a closing manhunt: dogs are barking outside the house.

Come on, he thinks desperately, as the phone rings and Lestrade fails to pick up. Finally, Lestrade’s voice sounds, but in the stilted tones of an answerphone message. Sherlock curses, mentally. By the increasing volume they’re getting closer – this is going to be his only chance.

‘Lestrade, you need to get to Molly, now. Strickner is looking for his long lost daughter and Alex has worked out it’s her. I don’t have time to explain, just get to Molly and get her out –’

The door is ripped off its hinges, and then the trunk-like arm of Tom Strickner reaches in and lands a solid blow to Sherlock’s right cheek. He drops the phone, ducks down to avoid the second lunge, and then propels himself forward through Tom’s legs. Reaches out, pushes up –

A small foot connects sharply and powerfully with his ribs, flipping him onto his back. Winded he looks up and finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun. Alicia Strickner smirks down at him.

‘So her name’s Molly, is it? Get the van round, Tom. Can’t be that many Mollys who work at St Bartholomew’s hospital.’

Tom’s eyebrows furrow.

‘The hospital?’

‘Yes, idiot, the hospital. The pictures were location tagged and the girl is wearing a doctor’s outfit. Hardly a leap.’

Tom shrugs, sees that Sherlock is making to sit up, and presses his foot over Sherlock’s sternum, pinning him to the floor. Alicia crouches down beside him.

‘It’ll be easier for you if you help us, Mr Holmes. I promise you that.’

And then he’s being hauled upright, hands pulled back behind him and marched out of the house.

~

‘Alright then, what are we getting ourselves into?’

Irene shifts slightly in her seat.

‘Well, it’s a large house in its own grounds, about a quarter of a mile back from a quiet little lane.’

‘Right, I get it, in the countryside no one can hear you scream. What else?’

‘All of the Strickners are currently at home, bar three: Mrs Strickner, who has been dead some years, the eldest, Kurt, who was badly injured in that fire last night, and, obviously, Alex. So, Jack Strickner and his four darlings Alicia, Charlie, Tom and Derek. Plus assorted heavies and hangers on.’

‘All with ready access to guns and God knows what else, I take it?’

‘Naturally.’

‘Brilliant’, John mutters, huffing out a breath and resuming his gaze out of the window.

~

Sherlock lets his head fall back against the wall, and lets the dull roar of a small van travelling at speed wash over him. He is sat on a bench seat in the rear compartment, strap loosely across his body and his hands bound behind his back – cable tie, by the feel of it – and a dull ache in his ribs and cheek.

 He wonders if Lestrade has picked up the message.

~

‘I don’t envy you, you know.’

Startled out of his reverie, John looks round. Irene is gazing calmly at the traffic ahead.

‘What?’

‘I said I don’t envy you. Being in love with him. He’s not the easiest man to seduce: lord knows I’ve tried.’

‘Nice time in Italy, was it?’ John retorts, sharply.

The corner of Irene’s mouth twitches up.

‘He hasn’t told you, has he? Oh, Sherlock. You are a very silly boy, sometimes.’

John purses his lips, takes a deep breath.

‘Well, what happened, then?’

Irene grins.

‘Oh, lots of things. Hiding, not hiding, running about shooting at people.’

John huffs quietly to himself. While he can’t deny that is exactly the kind of thing he likes doing, especially with Sherlock, it isn’t what’s making him jealous. Irene’s grin relaxes a little.

‘But nothing important. Nothing you need to worry about.’

John snorts again.

‘I’m serious. Like I said, he’s a difficult man to seduce. I gave up after the first three days, and that’s not like me at all. So you don’t need to worry, Dr Watson, our favourite virginal consulting detective is still as sweet and innocent as he was when he left London. I didn’t dishonour him even a little bit, I promise.’

They drive in silence for a while. John feels, at best, horribly confused.

‘Why are you telling me all this? And, and how do you even know, any of that, anyway? Has Mycroft given you Sherlock’s life history as well? The stuff the papers couldn’t print, Christ.’

‘If I ever need Mycroft to tell me about anyone’s sexual history I am not the woman I was. Call it a knack, if you like, but I promise I’m right.’

Irene shoots him a look which makes John shift in his seat and look away.

‘And I’m telling you this because I like you. Both of you. You’re a couple, remember?’

‘We’re not a couple’ John says quietly, but it’s less vehement than before, less indignant. It sounds regretful, even to his own ears.

‘Yes, you are’ says Irene, softly, almost fondly, and they lapse into silence again.

~

Sherlock has never before approached Barts hoping that Molly isn’t in. He keeps forming half-ideas for escape plans but there’d be too much collateral damage and besides, they know who she is now. He has no leverage so they don’t really need him, which makes him an expendable hostage. He’s no good to anyone dead, least of all Molly, if she’s still here.

It occurs to him that Alex Strickner might well have beaten them to it.

He’s not sure if that’s better or worse.

Alicia waits outside in the van and Tom and Derek follow him in, trotting nonchalantly through the busy corridors – no one notices, God they’re all so blind – and then the emptier corridors leading down to the morgue.

Sherlock steps up to the familiar double doors, his pulse hammering in his throat. Tom reaches round him and shoves one open.

Molly is stood at a bench across the room – Sherlock’s heart plummets – and at the sound of the door she turns round: takes in his jeans, his hoodie; his injuries and his uncombed hair. Jumps to understandable but erroneous conclusions. She leans back against the metal bench, white knuckle grip.

‘No, Sherlock, no! I won’t… I, I can’t do this again! I won’t lie to them, I won’t lie to John, not again. Do you have any idea –’

Heavy footsteps either side of him announce the entrance of Tom and Derek. Molly suddenly goes very white. Her shoulders sag.

‘S-s-Sherlock…? Who are, ummm, these people?’

He looks at her. He’s amazed really, now that he looks at her, that he hadn’t seen this coming. Her nose, the set of her eyebrows… Poor, sweet little Molly. What an inheritance.

Sherlock takes a deep breath, reaches out a hand, and lies through his teeth.

‘It’s alright, Molly. You’ve got to come with us. It’s going to be fine.’

~

Irene pulls the car up outside an impressive, modern-build mansion of a house, leaving the Maserati bold as brass at a rakish angle on the shingle driveway. She steps out, motions John to do the same, and he complies, pushing the car door shut.

‘Right then, business.’

Irene reaches into her small, designer handbag and pulls out a gun. John reaches around to pull his from his belt.

‘I’ll have that, thank you.’

John’s head snaps up.

‘Wh – ’

Irene is pointing her gun at him. She beckons.

‘The gun please, John. I don’t really want to shoot you, it’ll mess up the paintwork.’

John stares. He can’t believe it – not that she’s betrayed him, that one barely flickers an eyelash, but the fact he fell for the listening ear, the bad girl turned good. Christ, he really is an idiot.

He slams the gun down on the bonnet. Irene frowns. She walks around the front of the car, retrieves John’s gun, and then waves her own momentarily in the direction of the front door.

‘Off you trot.’

John bites his bottom lip, fuming inside. He marches across to the front door, the sound of Irene’s heels spiking the shingle behind him.

~

They’ve been in the back of the van for thirty two minutes and fifteen seconds when Molly says:

‘What’s going on?’

Sherlock lets out a breath. He’s been dreading this, in all honesty. If it were John tied up beside him in the dark who had asked that question, Sherlock would tell him about the remote house, the family of gangsters and the no doubt numerous henchmen, all heavily armed and on their home turf.

And John would probably say ‘Brilliant.’

And at least halfway mean it.

The van lurches around a roundabout and Molly sways helplessly across, knocking into his shoulder.

He quells any un-Sherlock thoughts about the other potential benefits of it being John in here with him.

‘Sorry’ Molly mumbles, as if social pleasantries, pointless at the best of times, mean anything while trussed up in the back of a transit van.

‘How much do you know about your mother?’ he opens. If it were someone other than Molly, he’d have said ‘father’ and then moved swiftly to the big reveal and the suitably scathing insult about most people’s observation skills. But this is Molly, who he quite likes, in a baffled sort of way, and who has been consistently on his side despite being on the receiving end of his lack of interpersonal skills.

Besides, he needs her to hold it together.

‘My mother?’

‘Yes.’

‘Ummm… what?’

‘Did you know much about her social life?’

‘Ummm, well, she had lots of friends, but I don’t really understand…’

Sherlock sighs. Molly clamps her mouth shut. Sherlock shuts his eyes in the darkness and tries to think, but not like himself, like a normal person, like John. How would John go about this?

The effort is extraordinary. Eventually he sees a way.

‘Molly, this is going to be difficult to hear.’ Fore-warning her, cushioning the blow. That’s good, that’s what John would do. Time-consuming and extraneous but maybe it will help.

‘Hear what?’

Sherlock tries out a few variations.

Couching the painful truth with lesser evils: ‘Molly, your mother was a woman of negotiable affections with a clientele in the organised crime industry, where she met your real father, Jack Strickner, now head of a leading London gang.’

The direct approach: ‘Molly, your mother was a part-time prostitute, who cheated on your supposed father with Jack Strickner, and you are their illegitimate daughter.’

Neither sounds anything like John, but then Sherlock suspects John would spend a good deal more time laying the groundwork and Sherlock simply hasn’t the time, energy or ability. She’s going to hear it from him or Strickner and he’s probably the lesser of two evils.

‘Molly, your mother had a double life as a dominatrix. One of her associates was Jack Strickner, the man at the centre of the recent gang skirmishes you’ve seen in the papers.’ He draws a breath, turns to look at her in the semi-darkness. ‘He’s looking for his lost daughter.’

Molly gazes at him, taking these two facts in and stirring them together – he can see her working it out, she is smarter than most of them, after all – and then her eyes go very wide.

‘No! No, no, it can’t be, my dad was… no!’

‘Molly…’

‘Who says so? They’ve got it wrong, my mum wouldn’t, she wouldn’t…’

She could be right, Sherlock thinks, detachedly, no DNA test done yet. But the brows, and the nose…

He shakes himself out of it.

‘Not after you were born, no, she didn’t. But when she was younger…’

Molly heaves a rather messy-sounding sob. Sherlock doesn’t do anything. He can feel her shaking beside him. He searches wildly for something to say.

‘I’m sorry’ he tries, the words awkward and insincere on his tongue.

Molly sobs louder. He can’t put an arm round her, but he carefully leans against her in what he hopes is a comforting way. The sobs turn into sniffs and in a few minutes she seems to have recovered herself.

‘Where are we going?’ she asks, in a tiny, high-pitched voice.

Sherlock decides discretion is the better part of valour and says nothing.

She’ll only fret about it.

~

‘More victims have been identified, sir, but nothing on Alex Strickner.’

Sally falls into step with him as they walk the corridor to Lestrade’s office. Having handed him the files, she holds out a coffee, which he takes an appreciative sip from.

‘Any good news then?’

‘Hah, you’ll be lucky. More cuts, by the sound of it. Pretty soon it’ll just be me, you and Sherlock, the combined detective strength of the Met.’

Sally snorts.

‘Just you and me, at the moment.’

‘Still no trace, then?’

‘None. We’re going to check up on Jack Strickner’s known address, but that doesn’t cover the unknown ones.’

Lestrade nods gloomily, drops the papers onto his desk and flops into the chair. Setting down the coffee, he pulls his phone from his pockets, hits the power button and tosses it on the desk.

‘I ought to call John, at least. Poor sod’s probably worried sick.’

Sally nods and Lestrade’s phone buzzes violently, registering a vast array of missed calls and text messages. He sighs, picks it up and starts working through them all. Sally leaves him to it.

Three minutes later, as Sally is filling her bottle at the water cooler, Lestrade’s voice sounds loud and urgent across the office.

‘Donovan!’

~

John Watson is very, very angry.

He is sat, silently fuming, in a small, windowless room, with a very heavy duty looking door barring his escape.

Why? Why did I trust her? I don’t trust her, that’s the whole of our relationship – she teases me about Sherlock, and I don’t trust a word she says. That’s it. Why the hell did I even get in the car?

Because Mycroft told me to, he realises, and despite everything, part of me still trusts Mycroft. I shouldn’t, not after what he did, but I do. I trust him, I rely on him. When I can’t rely on Sherlock.

Shit.

It doesn’t make any of it less humiliating. Having been made to ring the bell at gunpoint, the front door had opened to reveal Charlie Strickner. He and Irene were clearly old business associates, if not friends, and Charlie had been gleefully delighted that she’d managed to bring John Watson, under his own free will, right into the Strickner den.

And now, here he is. In need of rescue on my own sodding rescue mission.

He hangs his head, clasps his hands between his knees, and focuses on calming his breathing.

Something on the floor catches his eye – a smear of dark, rusty red.

Blood.

John feels his own go cold. It’s not a large amount, but any amount of blood is mildly concerning.

He wonders who it belongs to. No way to tell, of course, so not worth fretting about it.

He remains in the chair for all of thirty seconds.

He stands up investigates the room a little more. There is a small bathroom – no window – and a smattering of other furniture, including a small bed and bedside set of drawers. John sits down on the mattress and examines the slightly crumpled sheets. He tries to think like Sherlock.

Is there a pattern in the shape of the cotton? Not really. Is there any physical evidence of who was here – a hair, a cigarette, an item of clothing?

John looks around, under the bed, in each of the drawers. The top one sticks a bit and there’s an oddly metallic smell, just a hint, that mixes with the wood. He pulls it out.

The back corner is stained with blood.

John sits very still. This is… unexpected. He considers how it must have been pulled out, swung around…

The blood was near the chair, so that was the point of impact, or rather, where the victim fell. Anyone sitting or standing at that end of the room couldn’t have reached the drawer, so it had to be someone by the door or on the bed.

John licks his lips, turns the drawer over in his hands. Sherlock would have seen this half an hour ago. He shoves the drawer back into the cabinet and massages his face. He has the weapon and the location, but the victim and attacker are no clearer. It likely doesn’t matter, anyway, it could be anyone: the Strickner’s have a lot of enemies. With a sigh, he flops backwards onto the bed.

The scent of expensive soap and a certain brand of shampoo wafts delicate and light off the fabric. A week or so ago and he would probably have dismissed it as simply fabric softener. But it isn’t. It’s familiar. It’s a scent that John is, or rather was, albeit briefly, intimately familiar with.

He rolls over, presses his nose into the pillow.

Yes, unmistakable.

He presses his forehead into the pillow and breathes a little easier. His breathing gets shakier and he isn’t sure if he’s going to laugh or cry with the relief, until he rolls onto his back and the helpless giggle forces its way out of his lungs,

He can see it all now, plain as day.

Sherlock, mad, wonderful Sherlock, has hit some poor sod in the head with a drawer and done a runner.

Scratch that, John thinks, not ‘some poor sod’ at all, but one of the Strickners. Or their hired help. Either way, someone thoroughly deserving of being smashed in the head with a drawer.

Fantastic.

~

Donovan hasn’t time to buckle her seat belt before they’re accelerating out of the parking bay and into mid-afternoon London traffic. She clings to the door handle round a particularly high-speed left hand corner, and narrowly avoids getting her teeth knocked out on the window when Lestrade hurls the car round a roundabout, civilian cars pulling out of the way in frantic panic.

They arrive at St Barts in record breaking time, the cars of uniform division some way behind. Sally mentally congratulates herself on wearing her flats to work this morning, as she leaps out of the car and barrels after Lestrade, who is holding his badge out before him like a battering ram.

The morgue, when they arrive, panting and gasping for breath, is empty.

‘Oh fuck’ says Lestrade, and Sally can’t help but agree.

~

The back doors of the van open, and Sherlock and Molly are roughly hauled out. Sherlock has a brief and slightly baffling glimpse of a familiar red Maserati outside the house before he and Molly are pushed inside.

They are led to the back of the house, to a picturesque little conservatory complete with exotic plants and bamboo armchairs. Jack Strickner is sat at the far end of the room, an ice pack held to his head. He gives Sherlock a taut little smile that doesn’t even go near his eyes.

‘Good work, boys and girls. I hope the pigs didn’t give you any trouble?’

‘No sign of them’ confirms Alicia, tightening her grip on Molly’s shoulder.

Strickner laughs, a little dry cackle, and Charlie, who is sat beside him, smiles wickedly.

‘Probably out on a coffee run. So much for your pet favourite Gregory Lestrade, eh, Mr Holmes.’

Probably not far from the truth, Sherlock thinks, uncharitably. He looks over at the third chair, whose occupant is obscured from view. As he looks, it swings round on the base, to reveal a pair of slim, female legs, tucked primly together beneath rather a short skirt. Irene pouts sweetly at him.

‘Hello.’

It was her car. Interesting.

‘Miss Adler. Always a pleasure.’

‘I do my best.’

‘Alright, Miss Adler, you can network on your own time. Now then, my dear, you must be Molly.’

Strickner rises, and crosses the room to stand directly in front of her. Molly stares up at him, eyes like saucers, hardly breathing.

‘I presume Mr Holmes has already told you why you’re here?’

Molly opens her mouth but doesn’t quite say anything. Hey eyes dart sideways to look at Sherlock.

‘I’ll take that as a yes’ Strickner steps closer, and studies her face. ‘Hmmm, you got your mother’s eyes, I see. Still, I’d like to be certain. Ali, is Mr Gillespie with us at the moment?’

‘Downstairs in the basement.’

‘Excellent – take Miss – , I am sorry, my dear, what is your last name?’

There is a long silence. Molly stares at him, her eyes slowly brimming with tears. Sherlock wonders what it must be like, feeling that frightened, that timid and lost.

A dizzying height swinging into view below him. Jim Moriarty crowing behind him and the uncertainty, of the jump, yes, but also of not being able to say goodbye. Of the short, sharp row that was nearly his and John’s last conversation.

Sherlock catches his breath. Molly recovers her voice.

‘H-hooper. I’m Molly Hooper.’

‘Lovely. Alicia, take Miss Hooper to Mr Gillespie and when she’s done there, put her in one of the guest rooms would you? I hope you enjoy your stay, Miss Hooper.’

He reaches out, brushes his fingers against her hair. Molly jumps, lets out a little squeak, and the motion causes a tear to roll down over her cheek. Strickner’s face pulls into what might be a smile of pity.

‘Now, now, none of that. Off you go, ladies.’

Sherlock finds himself suddenly violently and uncontrollably angry. He’s not given to being protective but Molly isn’t supposed to be involved in any of this, that’s not who she is and it’s wrong, wrong wrong wrong that she’s even here. He should have done something at the hospital, collateral damage be damned, Molly is important. His voice, when it sounds, is cold and hard and even Molly looks frightened.

‘If you hurt her –’

‘You’ll what, Mr Holmes? Find another drawer to hit me with? Why do you think you’ve both hands tied behind your back?’

Sherlock glowers at the other man. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Molly shoot him a look of wild disbelief.

She’s going to be in for a shock or two, he thinks, grimly. Just as soon as I get out of this.

‘Miss Hooper is quite safe, Mr Holmes. I’m not a monster, I wouldn’t lay a finger on my own daughter. I just want to be sure that she is my daughter. Mr Gillespie is, you might say, our man of science. He will be doing a little DNA test, nothing more. No, Miss Hooper is quite safe.’ Strickner turns away and goes back towards his chair. ‘You, on the other hand…’

‘No! Please don’t, don’t hurt him, he’s just defending me, please…’

Molly has suddenly found the ability to speak and pulls out of Alicia’s hands. Strickner looks up at her in surprise.

‘My, my, Mr Holmes. I had no notion when I started all this I was talking to my future son in law.’

Charlie laughs nastily again, but it’s Irene that catches Sherlock’s eye. She lifts a delicate cup of tea to disguise the smile which threatens at the corners of her mouth. Her left eyebrow arches, knowingly.

Sherlock scowls. He hates feeling transparent. That’s for everyone else, not him.

Molly has gone both quiet and scarlet. She hangs her head. Alicia begins to lead her from the room again, and Strickner goes back to his chair.

‘Now, Miss Adler, before we were interrupted, you were saying about your new venture…?’

Strickner sits down, lifting the ice pack back to his head and making an odd motion with his right hand. Irene sets down her tea.

‘Yes, I’ve gone into the art trade. I’ve a lovely pair of Vatican cameos you might like –’

Sherlock feels something heavy collide with the back of his head. Molly screams. Charlie laughs. Sherlock drops, blacks out.

The last thing he sees is Irene rolling her eyes.

‘For goodness sake…’

Chapter Text

 

Witness statements are famously unreliable. Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade knows this, and has spent many a sleepless night grappling with the fallibility of human observation.

Nevertheless, when he looks up from the paper in front of him, to the broken-nosed thug across the interview table, his expression is incredulous. He cannot believe anyone can have got it quite this wrong.

‘You are kidding me, right? Is this supposed to be funny?’

‘Don’t mess us about’ Donovan chimes, from the corner.

The thug, or Arnie Piker as he is officially known, snorts back what sounds like a pint of blood through the wreckage of his nasal cavity. He coughs and splutters when he talks.

‘’m telling you. It was ‘er. The little’ – snort, cough: spit of blood into handkerchief – ‘the little doctor girl. Hooper.’

Lestrade shares a sideways glance with Donovan.

‘Right, yeah. Of course it was. You aren’t getting confused with Irene Adler?’

The other man rolls his eyes.

‘No, I sodding told you!’ – cough, wheeze, retch: spit of blood into handkerchief – ‘She was one what shot Winston in the head.’

Winston Croop. Born 1971, died 2015, aged 44. Cause of death: bullet to left temple, at point-blank range. Murder weapon: handgun found on the scene, with all serial numbers professionally scrubbed.

If they were ever there to begin with, Lestrade thinks darkly. He thinks of the anonymous black car that had arrived at the house to ferry the newly discovered and less-deceased-than-expected Irene Adler back to London.

He rubs a hand over his face.

‘So you’re telling me that you, a fifteen stone heavy-weight with form for GBH and a glittering career as a no-questions-asked bodyguard for the rich and nefarious, were bested in a fight by a nine stone female mortuary attendant, who you were supposed to be guarding? Pull the other one mate, it’s got fucking bells on.’

‘She had a big lump of iron’ Piker volunteers.

Arnold ‘Arnie’ Piker. Born 1973, current age 42. Found in a pool of his own blood at the scene with a severely broken nose, caused by a strong blow with a blunt instrument. Large, iron scientific clamp stand found nearby with traces of Piker’s blood.

Lestrade shares another look with Donovan. The thing seems incredible.

But then it wasn’t the weirdest discovery at the Strickner residence to be made last night. Lestrade has Donovan take Piker out, and goes back to his office, head churning with the evening’s events, both personally experienced and reported.

He makes himself a black coffee and wonders if it’s still too early to call 221b, given the circumstances.

~

‘John?’

‘Piss off’ John says, conversationally. He continues winding the torn bed sheets around the short, solid pieces of wood he’s wrenched apart from the drawer. No sense in getting splinters.

‘I can explain.’

‘So can I. You’re a two-faced, witch-hearted harpy. I should have shot you as soon as we got inside your sitting room, saved us all a lot of bother.’

‘Now, now, you don’t shoot defenceless, naked women.’

‘Believe me, I’m prepared to make an exception.’

‘Fine then. You can stay there and I’ll go and check on Sherlock, before singlehandedly taking down the entire Strickner family.’

On most people it would be sarcasm, but on Irene it sounds like a shopping list. John pauses in his winding.

‘What’s wrong with Sherlock?’

‘Not a lot, in my opinion. But I’m sure if I looked close enough I could find something…’

‘That’s it, let me out, let me out right this instant–’

‘Mmm, no. I don’t think so, actually. You might try and shoot me. I’ve reconsidered – maybe you should stay there a little longer and cool down a bit.’

John grinds his teeth together until his head hurts.

Fine, I’ll help you. Let. Me. Out.’

There is an infuriating silence on the other side of the door. John realises he doesn’t know what he’ll do if she opens it: actually trust her again, or just smash her skull open on blind, instinctual impulse. His fingers tighten around his make-shift weapon.

If I kill her I’d have two guns. One for me, one for Sherlock.

Christ that’s a terrible thing to think.

John shuts his eyes and tries to force himself to breathe normally.

Sherlock’s a dreadful shot, for a start. Much better I keep both of them.

Irene sighs loudly on the other side of the door.

‘I’ll do you a compromise if you like?’

‘What compromise?’

‘I’ll let you out… but I’m going to check on darling Sherlock first.’

John sucks air in with almost painful force, but by the time he replies, he can already hear her footsteps receding down the hallway.

~

Sherlock wakes up on the floor. His vision is blurry and the room swims before his eyes. There is something constricting his throat. He blinks, trying to resolve his surroundings, and drags an unsteady hand up to his neck: feels clumsily at the weight against his skin. Leather. Metal. Padlock. More metal. Square metal – buckle.

Collar. Dog collar. And not the religious kind.

Sherlock groans. This has Irene Adler written all over it in lurid red lipstick.

Carefully, he pushes himself up into a sitting position, looking around. Irene’s idea of a joke is decidedly unfunny.

The room is large and well-appointed, with floor-length velvet curtains, a modern chaise-lounge and a truly enormous bed, dressed in cream silk sheets. Irene is sitting with her back to him, brushing her hair at an ornate dressing table. She’s wearing a matching cream-silk robe, and, knowing Irene, probably not much else.

‘Alright, point proven.’

Irene turns and grins at him, sweeping the brush through her hair again.

‘And you said I’d never do it.’

Sherlock rolls his eyes.

‘Congratulations. And now do you think we can get on with the case?’

Irene smirks and sets down the brush.

‘I don’t know. Now that I’ve finally succeeded at getting you on a leash, it seems a pity not to enjoy it.’

She stands, reties the sash of her robe, and wanders over to him. Sherlock makes to stand up, but the chain is linked to a neat little loop in the wall, and is too short. He has to drop back onto his knees again. He frowns.

Irene stands in front of him and bends down, hair falling forward on the right of her face. The waft of her shampoo and perfume rolls over him. She pouts, mouth rounded and protruding almost to the point of caricature, as if she’s parodying herself on a particularly bad day.

‘Who’s my good boy?’ she whispers, and strokes his hair. Sherlock glares at her. He considers twisting her knee, but decides this would be a short-sighted manoeuvre.

Irene’s pout subsides and she straightens up with a sigh.

‘Dr Watson is a very lucky man. More so even than usual, recently. Or so I gather.’

Sherlock swallows. He finds it hard to read Irene. She might know everything. Or, she might know nothing, and just be making insinuations in the hope of making him talk. She sashays away from him, shrugging off her robe as she goes and yes, naked, of course.

‘Not that I’ve had the scandalous details, of course. Dear John is certainly not one to kiss and tell.’

‘You’ve spoken to him?’ Sherlock feels his heart rate quicken, tries not to analyse why.

Irene reaches out for her underwear, which she has laid out on an armchair along with the rest of her clothes, and proceeds to dress herself.

‘Oh yes, on the way here. He’s currently languishing in one of the secure guest rooms, I believe. Though I suspect that isn’t going to last.’ She steps into a pair of snugly fitting jeans.

‘He’s currently under the impression that I’m working for Jack Strickner. But before that we had a delightful little chat in the car. He’s mad on you, you know.’

‘It’s a misconception of his that I intend to correct at the earliest opportunity’ Sherlock swallows, rather harder than should be necessary ‘but thank you for bringing it to my attention.’

Irene pauses in buttoning her shirt. She fixes him with a spear-like gaze, one that stills the breath in his lungs, all her playfulness and faux-girlish softness gone.

‘Don’t bullshit me, Sherlock Holmes. It doesn’t work.’

No, no it doesn’t, does it? That’s the joy of you, and the problem. Sherlock swallows again. Irene continues buttoning her shirt.

‘When we last spoke your excuse was that John didn’t feel the same way, which, I think, I have conclusively disproven.’

Sherlock scowls. Counter arguments rise to the fore, involving Irene’s use of rohypnol and frankly aggressive levels of flirting, but the fact is if John really hadn’t been interested, none of that would have made a damn bit of difference. But it did. So he is.

‘Fine’ he grits out.

‘So there’s really no problem, then’ she smirks, eyes flickering over him ‘Perhaps I should fetch him now. Man of the world that he is I’m sure he can think of a few things to do with you on your knees.’

Sherlock colours, despite himself. Irene grins, shrugs on a jacket and then retrieves two guns from her small overnight bag. She tucks one into her jeans, and tucks the other – John’s gun – into her jacket pocket.

‘Well, that’s me sorted. I’d better go and see if John has calmed down a little. We’ll pick you up on the way out.’

‘I’m not coming with you? You can’t just leave me here chained to a wall, what if someone comes in?’

‘That’s precisely why I’m leaving you – more realistic. Besides, they went to all that trouble to find a collar for me, it seems a shame to let you off just yet. Be a good boy while I’m gone, won’t you?’

And she leaves, shutting the door with a definitive click.

~

Irene remains true to her word, for once, and picks the lock of the door. John exercises all his restraint and doesn’t knock her unconscious.

She holds out his gun by the barrel, like a peace-offering. John takes it, checks the ammunition and then flicks it closed.

‘Shall we?’

‘Yes. But you make one wrong move and Mycroft will be writing Kate a letter of condolences.’

‘Duly noted. Now, there’s a little complication I didn’t tell you about.’

John’s fingers twitch against the gun metal.

‘Oh?’

‘Molly Hooper is down in the cellar, having a DNA test.’

John stares at her. He narrows his eyes. He widens his eyes. He starts to speak, thinks better of it. Licks his lips.

‘Sorry, what?’

~

‘You know, I don’t think it was Adler who hit Piker.’

Lestrade lifts his head out of a forensics report and focuses on Donovan, who is standing in front of his desk holding a print-out.

‘I just received her official statement via email. He was on the floor before she and John got there, apparently.’

‘Really?’

~

They had gone to the bedrooms first. Irene had said ‘let’s work from top to bottom – Sherlock then Molly, clear out as we go’. John had agreed.

John had nearly been shot through the temple thirty seconds later, by a surprised Charlie Strickner who hadn’t expected to see John out of his cell any more than John had expected to see him emerging from what looked like a broom cupboard.

The bullet had lodged itself in the wall.

The other bullet had lodged itself in Charlie Strickner’s forehead.

If there is one thing John has learnt in the course of a long and varied career, it’s how to multitask the sensation of surprise with the action of self-defence.

Irene looks down at the body.

‘Well that’s the last session I’m getting from him.’

~

‘We know they were in the top corridor, up from that self-contained room with the heavy duty door – ballistics found the bullet in the wall, and the one in his head was from John’s gun.’

Lestrade scrubs his hands over his face.

‘Alright, so they come out of John’s prison cell, and get what, twenty paces down the corridor? Charlie-boy comes out of the, er…’

Sally’s mouth does an uncomfortable twist. The contents of that room really had taken, eaten and digested the biscuit for ‘weirdest discovery’ that night. It had answered a lot of questions they’d wanted to ask about how Irene knew Charlie Strickner, and how she knew where the family lived.

As well as a lot of other questions that no one had wanted answers to. At all. Possibly ever.

‘Out of the small room’ she says, quickly.

‘Yes, out of the small room, sees them, shoots and then John retaliates by shooting him in the head.’

‘Seems fair.’

Lestrade makes a non-committal noise and takes a bite out of his pastry.

~

In a show of goodwill, Irene makes a judicious early shot through the bannisters, saving John from a punctured lung, before the two of them hurl themselves across the stairwell and into an alcove on the other side.

‘I thought the whole idea of you sneaking in here and playing pretend was a stealth mission?’ John gasps, pressing his back into the wall. Irene peers round him.

‘It was, until you shot someone.’

‘It was him or us!’

‘Alright, don’t take it personally. Just don’t blame me if you didn’t fit a silencer. Dopey brother, three o’clock.’

She dips back, John swings round, sees, fires, swings back into the wall, hears a heavy object hitting the ground.

‘Good shot, doctor.’

~

‘So from there, they get to the landing: that’s where we found Thomas Strickner.’

‘That’s right.’

‘But then we’ve got nothing until the blood-bath downstairs. Where did they go? Does she say?’

‘Nothing – just starts a new paragraph.’

Lestrade sits back in his chair.

‘Well, something must have happened. There’s at least ten minutes unaccounted for – we know that from the cameras.’

~

No one else seems forthcoming, so they step out from the wall. Irene checks her gun and then tips her head to indicate the corridor behind her.

‘He’s down there, second door to the right’ Irene arches an eyebrow ‘He’s waiting for you.’

John doesn’t dwell on what this means, just jogs off down the corridor. He tries not to examine any of the competing emotions in his chest too closely. Any one of them could overwhelm him, and he needs to focus.

He throws open the door.

Sherlock is sitting cross-legged, back against the plasterboard, hands steepled under his chin, eyes closed.

There is a collar around his neck, chaining him to the wall.

John rolls his eyes, lowers his gun and shuts the door.

Sherlock looks round and John holds his gaze for a few moments. He doesn’t know what to say. Admonishing Sherlock is futile, pointing out the strain on himself mostly futile, and making an appeal to the ties of their relationship – whatever the hell that might be now – has ‘terrible idea’ written all over it. He decides to limit conversation to the directly practical and other, third parties.

‘Charming woman, Irene’ he says, finally. Sherlock nods minutely. He lowers his hands.

‘Is there a key anywhere?’

‘Dresser.’

John turns and searches about on the table. There is indeed a set of numerous keys, with little indication which is the right one. He stuffs his gun into his belt and walks across to where Sherlock is sitting. He drops to his knees as soon as he can – the alternative sets his mind down avenues he really can’t waste time exploring right now.

He reaches out a hand to fit the first key into the padlock, which doesn’t fit. He sighs and rearranges the bunch of keys.

‘I was worried about you.’

‘Why?’ Sherlock fires back, sharp and prickly. John looks up at him.

‘Well, I… I care about you, of course.’

‘Don’t. It was a mistake, John. Just a mistake. Forget about it.’

John stares at him, a cold, unpleasant sensation curling in his stomach. He tries to keep his voice level.

‘I’m your friend, Sherlock, that’s why I care about you.’

‘Friends with benefits, is that the term?’

John feels suddenly cheapened and incriminated. Cold sweat starts to prickle on his shoulders.

‘No. Look, I didn’t… I didn’t mean for… oh Christ, look I never meant to do anything that–’

‘You didn’t.’ Sherlock’s expression softens ever so slightly and John breathes a very small sigh of relief. But then the grey-blue eyes are cold and flint-like once again. ‘But it was a mistake. It didn’t work. It won’t happen again.’

John tries to say something but Sherlock looks away to the side and is clearly no longer receiving opinions. John licks his lips.

‘So it really was just the drugs talking, then.’

Sherlock doesn’t say anything. John watches his face: Sherlock carefully avoids his gaze.

‘At least give me a yes or a no’ says John quietly. He feels sick.

'It was a mistake' Sherlock repeats firmly. Coldly.

But he still won't look at him.

‘I see.’ John looks down at the keys, clears his throat, starts rifling through them looking for a likely candidate.

'It was a mistake' Sherlock says again, voice quieter, more hoarse: entirely without prompting. John looks up and sees his eyes are squeezed shut. He’s suddenly not entirely sure Sherlock is speaking to him.

Sherlock takes in a very shaky breath. He’d had this planned, meticulously, down to the details of John’s reaction. But now it comes to it, he’s struggling with the execution. He hadn’t factored in the unquantifiable influence of how John makes him feel, precisely because he can’t quantify it, and now it’s laying waste to his whole scheme. He curls his fingers tight against the carpet until his knuckles ache.

'Everyone's allowed mistakes. Isn't that true? Why not me, I'm not good at this, you know that, why can't you-'

‘Is that what this is about?’ says John, who has apparently chosen now, of all times, to have one of his blindingly perceptive moments.

'John, please, not now, this isn’t –’

‘The time, I know. But it’s never the right bloody time with us. Look at me.’

He does, because it’s John asking and because John usually has a plan if Sherlock doesn’t and Sherlock trusts him. John swallows nervously and Sherlock watches the motion in his throat.

‘What happened the other night… look, if it was just the drugs talking, then, fine. We can, I don’t know, try and forget about it. But if it wasn’t, Sherlock, I… Bloody hell, I don’t even know how to say this, but I’d like to… I’d like to try, you know? I think… I think it would be worth it. Don’t you?’

Sherlock examines John’s face – the rounded end of his nose, the slight shadow of stubble on the cleft of his chin, the hopeful expression.

‘I’ll ruin it’ he says.

‘I’ll forgive you’ John counters.

Sherlock catches his breath and swallows his enumeration and elaboration of the many ways and means of exactly how he would ruin it.

‘I promise’ John says, pressing his advantage.

'I don't know how to do this' Sherlock murmurs, miserable. John bites his lip.

‘Neither do I. But I’m pretty smart and you’re a genius, so I’m sure between us we’ll sort it out.’

Sherlock swallows, tries to fight the involuntary smile fighting its way onto his lips.

Too late, he’s seen.

‘What do you think?’ John asks, eyebrows quirking, mouth lifting in triumph at the corners.

Sherlock blinks, licks dry lips. This is unwise, so very unwise. And yet it doesn’t feel like the wrong decision.

‘Alright.’

John smiles, properly and Sherlock can’t stop himself joining in and then they are both laughing, or giggling, as John insists on calling it, and it’s fine, this trying, it’s alright, maybe he could do this after all.

John stops laughing and his eyes fall to Sherlock’s throat. Sherlock suddenly feels very conscious of his own bare skin and John’s gaze and it’s as though someone has sucked all the air out of the room – which is ludicrous, how would they do that without me noticing? – and his eyes are refocusing on John’s mouth which is saying –

‘I think we should get this collar off, before anything else happens.’

Yes, Sherlock thinks, masking his embarrassment with another smile, yes, excellent idea. Good, sensible, John.

Can’t have Irene being right too much of the time.

~

Unfortunately, no sooner has John removed the collar than ‘anything else’ decides to happen.

It takes the form of Irene throwing the door open, taking one look and saying ‘I’m glad you’re dressed, if a little disappointed. We’ve got another princess to rescue, don’t forget.’

‘I’m not a princess’ Sherlock objects, angrily.

‘No? Well, you certainly pout like one. Come on, John, I need a shooting partner.’

John stands up, retrieves his gun and clears his throat. Sherlock stands to follow him and notes the flushed skin at the back of his neck. He feels a rush of heat at the thought that he might now be allowed to do something about that.

Distraction. Focus.

‘Do I get a gun?’ he asks, by way of avoiding thinking about the nape of John Watson’s neck.

Irene snorts.

‘I don’t think we have any barn doors that need missing, but thank you. Just stick close,’ she flicks her gaze at John ‘I’m sure you won’t have any trouble.’

Sherlock scowls. Irene smirks.

John says ‘Can we get on with this?’

~

‘There they are’ says Sally, pausing the footage from the Strickner entrance hall camera. At the top right of the screen, coming down the stairs, the two figures of Irene and John are clearly visible. Irene has her knee in some unfortunate’s throat, and John appears to have just punched Derek Strickner, and is captured in the act of kicking his knee out from under him and shoving him back down the stairs.

‘So where was Sherlock then?’

Sally shrugs.

~

Irene dips to check the man’s pulse and John flexes his fingers. A movement catches his eye to the right and he sees another, be-suited thug creeping out of a door from the back of the house: he fires over Irene’s head, and she drops to the floor instinctually. It’s pointless of course – John is an excellent shot – but he admires the training.

‘You might have warned me.’

‘If I’d warned you one of us would be dead’ he glances back up the stairs ‘Sherlock, you can come out now, coast is clear.’

There is a distinct lack of snide commentary or sarcasm. John turns round fully.

There’s no one there.

‘Sherlock?’

Nothing.

Oh for God’s sake not again –

‘He’ll be fine – come on, we need to get to Molly.’ Irene is off, darting with unerring precision through another door. John lingers, acutely aware of the fact that neither Jack nor Alicia have been sighted.

As if on cue, he hears the roar of an engine outside and, running to the window, he is just in time to see Irene’s car reversing at speed out of the driveway. He has a momentary sensation of betrayal, before he resolves the scene properly and sees that it’s Alicia at the wheel and, despite the fleeting glimpse, John is certain that the passenger is her darling father.

‘Shit’ he says, and beats his fist on the window frame.

‘John!’

Irene’s shout from the kitchen brings him abruptly back to events inside the house, and he darts across the hall and through the door. He slides to a halt on the tiles, stopping dead at the sight before him.

There is a wooden door, leading up from the cellar, and at the foot of it is a man lying prone on his back, coughing and choking on the blood fountaining out of his ruined nose. Standing over him, clutching an iron clamp stand wrapped in a tea cloth, is Molly Hooper.

‘Hi!’ she squeaks, skirting mild hysteria.

The man coughs once, as if for emphasis.

The sound of running footsteps pounds over their heads as someone moves at speed down the stairs.

~

‘Well he can’t have come down the main stairs – we’d have seen him on the CCTV footage. Must have come down the other set. These big old houses have two, right?’

‘This one does, for sure.’

‘So where was he?’

~

Sherlock is running, sprinting, out of the office, pelting down the old servants’ stairway and through the hall, heart bursting against his ribs, lungs on fire, caught between burning air for speed or burning air for calling out.

He opts for speed, and the shouted message is only in his head.

Get out, get out, get out!

~

John hears the feet hit the hall floor outside, turns, expecting to see the errant Sherlock returned from whatever he’s been up to.

As the door opens, Irene raises her arm and coolly shoots him in the head.

Molly screams, and John’s world stops.

~

Lestrade sits back in his chair and massages his face. Donovan stifles a yawn across the office.

‘Well, it’s a bloody mess, and no mistake.’

Donovan nods, morose.

‘Bastards got away, again.’

‘Always do.’

Lestrade checks his watch and groans.

‘I can’t call now, can I. Not given the circumstances.’

Sally nods again.

‘Poor bastard, Sally. I do feel for him.’

‘Yeah, I don’t envy him.’

Lestrade blows out a defeated breath.

‘Come on, we’ll get some sleep, if we can, and get back to this tomorrow.’

Sally clicks off the television screen and straightens the nearest pile of paperwork. Lestrade follows her out and flicks off the light.

 

Chapter Text

The truth is Sherlock hasn’t really been chained to the wall in the guest bedroom at all.

Oh, his body might have been stuck there, certainly. But Sherlock tries to associate himself with his body as little as possible. When he does, it only gives him problems.

I need to eat.

I need to sleep.

I need to be intimately acquainted with someone else’s body and share their warmth and personal space.

His body’s demands remind him of John, in many respects.

Especially when his body’s demands are specifically for John.

Erase erase erase.

So no, body aside, Sherlock has not been confined in the guest bedroom, but instead in the almost infinite corridors of his mind palace.

He has a mystery to solve.

Why is Jack Strickner so keen to find his long lost daughter?

~

Sally Donovan drops her bag onto her desk, mouths the word ‘wanker’ at the back of Anderson’s head out of force of habit, and then switches on her laptop. Lestrade is already in his office, chewing a croissant in a reflective manner. He his reading something on his screen, most likely Irene Adler’s witness statement.

Donovan sighs, stands, says the word ‘fuckwit’ to Anderson’s face as she passes and then knocks on Lestrade’s door.

~

Sherlock does not follow John and Irene down the main stairs. He has no interest in being shot at or ducking behind things while other people are being shot. 

He goes to Jack Strickner’s office.

He rifles through papers, wrenches open drawers. Finds irritatingly little. Swiping a hand through his hair, he stands up straight with a sigh.

Looking up and out through the window, Sherlock sees two figures across the lawn.

One is the weedy form of Alex Strickner, shoulders slouched, like a teenager beside his embarrassing parents.

The other is – Sherlock narrows his eyes – familiar.

And then a realisation strikes.

And he’s running.

~

‘Reading Irene’s statement?’

‘Yeah, all seems pretty straightforward. Still nothing from John?’

Sally shakes her head. Lestrade bites his lip.

~

When Sherlock arrives in the kitchen, he hasn’t time to wonder who it is that he nearly trips over on the way in. Instead he barrels forward, one hand taking hold of John, the other reaching out for Irene, who mercifully catches on fast enough to grab hold of Molly.

The four of them stagger and tumble out of the kitchen door, managing a semi-controlled fall down the stone steps, before colliding painfully with the gravel.

He hauls John up by the sleeve of his jacket, lets go of Irene and catches Molly by the arm: Adler can take of herself, but he isn’t quite so confident about Molly.

(John can certainly take care of himself, but Sherlock isn’t prepared to leave that to any sort of chance whatsoever.)

They manage a stumbling run at first, which gains co-ordination as Irene joins them and by the time they reach the expansive lawn they are accelerating well.

And then everything is force and light and percussive sound as the back of the house gives way and flies apart.

~

Lestrade chews his lip a bit more and squints up at Donovan.

‘Do you think it’s safe to call now? It has been a day.’

Donovan smirks ‘And two nights.’

‘Alright, alright. Bloody hell, I don’t want a picture.’ Lestrade blows out a breath of air. ‘Poor sod – can you imagine it?’

‘Doesn’t bear thinking about’ Donovan agrees.

‘Well, I suppose the bastard knows what he’s doing. He’s lived with him long enough.’

Donovan ‘s eyebrows go up a fraction and she looks decidedly unconvinced.

‘I dunno. I still think he’s mad. Not really sure he’s relationship material.’

Lestrade shrugs.

‘Well, John seems to think so. I’d better give them a ring.’

He flicks through his contacts, hits ‘call’ on John’s name and lifts the mobile to his ear. Sally smiles, pushes off the door frame and goes back into the main office. She writes the word ‘tosser’ on a post-it and sticks it to Anderson’s monitor, right in the middle where the gluey residue will interrupt his view, and then makes herself and Lestrade a cup of coffee apiece.

She carries the two mugs back through the office, mouths the word ‘nice’ at the Sergeant and Office Manager who are drawing cartoon penises on Anderson’s latest forensic report, winks at the young work experience girl who is taking an intelligent and commendable interest, and pushes open Lestrade’s door.

Lestrade puts the phone down. He looks a bit flustered. Sally quirks an eyebrow.

Lestrade furrows his brows.

‘He sounded naked’ he says.

‘Very naked?’ Sally enquires.

‘Yeah, I’d say at least 90%. Minimum.’

‘Try not to think about it’ Sally advises, and holds out the coffee.

~

Twenty minutes later, Lestrade and Donovan are in the video room, reviewing the CCTV.

Donovan hits ‘stop’ as the footage reaches its abrupt and spectacular end. Lestrade unfolds his arms and puts them behind his head.

‘Right. So they find Molly, fresh from having whacked our man in the face with a…’ Lestrade pauses, checks the file in front of him ‘…with an iron clamp stand, which she found down in the little laboratory of horrors in the basement. While they’re stood about in the kitchen, they hear footsteps down the stairs: up pops villain number three, Mr Winston Croop, and Irene plugs him square in the head. Seconds later,  Sherlock appears from lord knows where, and bundles them all out before the place blows up.’

‘Sounds about right.’

‘Well we’ll see what the Baker Street contingent say when they get here. Sherlock’s bound to tell us we’re wrong on at least three points, if not all of them.’

~

The blackening ball of fire collapses in on itself, glass tinkling and popping at the edges of hearing, and the air being consumed is a hot rush of wind against the eardrums. Brick, charred wood and plaster clatter on the gravel and against the walls of the structure that is still standing.

Molly coughs grass out of her mouth and sits up, arms shaking almost too much to support her weight. Irene sweeps a smear of mud off her cheek with calm efficiency. John and Sherlock merely prop themselves up on their elbows, John staring with a look of shocked bewilderment, Sherlock frowning at the scene, as if scoring it out of ten.

(He has already checked, and neither the youngest or oldest sibling is anywhere to be seen. Of course.)

After a few moments of awed silence and contemplation, John turns his head, looks Irene up and down, and says:

‘How the bloody fuck did you know it wasn’t Sherlock?’

Irene shrugs, as if she doesn’t see the problem in shooting people in the head without looking.

‘I’d know his stride anywhere – it didn’t sound like him.’

John grinds his teeth. He looks over at Sherlock, just to make sure. Breathes a sigh of relief. Silly, really, because once he’d had a second to look at the dead body it was quite obviously not Sherlock at all, and the man sat next to him, currently surveying the ruins of the explosion, very definitely is Sherlock.

But still.

‘Right’ he says, with forced calm. Irene turns to look at him.

‘Yes’ she smiles, her cheekiest, sassiest, most honest smile ‘So everything’s fine.’

 

Chapter Text

John and Sherlock arrive at Scotland Yard. The desk sergeant, who has a Pekinese, a mother who smokes too much and a passing interest in John, shows them up to Lestrade’s office.

Lestrade says ‘Right then’. Or at least tries to, but Sherlock cuts in quickly before he gets much past the ‘r’.

‘This will all go a lot quicker if you let me tell you what happened, you pay attention, write it down and don’t ask any idiotic questions.’

Lestrade shuts his mouth.

‘In a rush to get back, are we?’ Donovan smirks.

Oh fuck it, John thinks, and says ‘Yes.’

~

After the explosion, it’s the local police who show up first. But it isn’t long before Sherlock makes them wish they hadn’t.

By the time Lestrade and Donovan arrive, Sherlock is under arrest and cuffed up in the back of a squad car. Irene makes a filthy comment that causes Molly to choke on her own tongue and spontaneously stop crying.

John pretends not to hear.

When Lestrade arrives, he has barely swung the door shut before John is marching up to him.

 ‘You didn’t phone me, did you?’

Lestrade guiltily realises that no, in fact, he hadn’t phoned John and had no real idea that John had been involved until arriving on the scene.

‘Sorry mate’ he offers. John shakes plaster dust out of his hair in a peeved manner.

~

Sherlock relaxes into his role as storyteller, surrounded as he is by anxious faces and gawping wonderment in Lestrade’s office. He describes his first meeting with Alex Strickner, the revelation of the missing seventh child. He covers his kidnap, as best he can, and his two interviews with Jack Strickner himself. He tells them about Lydia ‘Lashes’ Black and her double life, about her connection with Jack Strickner and the camera phone image young Alex had taken of Molly.

‘Shit – so this dominatrix woman is Molly’s mother?’ Lestrade looks amazed.

‘Yes, weren’t you listening?’

‘Alright, Sherlock, alright. It’s just, well… quite a shock. Knowing Molly.’

Sherlock looks a bit disgruntled but doesn’t actually bite John’s head off or make some cutting remark about first impressions. From this, John, Greg and Sally assume that Sherlock was equally as amazed on turning over the photo.

Or, that a night of unbridled passion with John has mellowed him.

Seeking to derail this train of thought, Lestrade says ‘Alright, press on.’

Sherlock continues his story, fielding further questions about how Alex got his information – unknown – and, the most burning question of the day: how and why all this came to cause a dead, waterlogged dog to be left in an alleyway.

Sherlock grins.

‘I went to Strickner’s office to find some clue as to why he was suddenly so keen to find his long lost daughter. I didn’t find much – the only thing of interest was a will on Strickner’s desk – but when I looked up and out of the window, I saw two of the siblings outside. The first was our friend Alex Strickner – which was why I thought it best to make a speedy exit –’

‘Given his usual trademark of blowing shit up, you mean?’ says Lestrade.

‘Precisely. He hated his family and would feel no compunction in destroying the family home with all of them – and us – inside. However, I said two siblings. The second was the eldest, Kurt Strickner.’

Lestrade lifts his hand from beside his cheek and sits up rather straighter. Sally raises her eyebrows.

‘Don’t think so, freak. Kurt Strickner was hospitalised by that explosion in Hammersmith.’

Sherlock smirks nastily in her direction.

‘Oh, was he? I think you’ve been taken in along with Derek and Tom – not the brightest minds in the Strickner family. No, Kurt Strickner is alive and well, and he’s been helping his youngest brother all along.’

Lestrade waves a hand at Donovan to silence a rising tirade of indignation, and gestures for Sherlock to go on. Sherlock, quite clearly enjoying himself, takes a sip of water to further prolong Donovan’s enforced silence, and then continues.

‘As I said I’d found a will on Jack Strickner’s desk – newly updated to cut Alex out of any inheritance. Naturally Alex would know about this – the old man probably made a point of telling him. So, Alex wants back in on the family fortune, but he isn’t going to go crawling back to his father: he persuades his brother, the blue-eyed boy, to help him and ensure he gets his share.’

‘But why would Kurt help him? If he is the blue-eyed boy, surely he’d want to have as few other claimants as possible – he could pocket the lot.’

Sherlock grins again.

‘Well done, Inspector, an excellent question, for once. Why would Kurt want to share his inheritance with his turncoat little brother, when he could cut him out, just like his father? Because, just like his father, he was greedy.’

‘What do you mean?’ asks Lestrade, leaning forward in his seat. Sherlock rolls his eyes.

‘When I saw the two of them outside the house it became simple – two brothers joining forces, the one disinherited, the one very much in favour. Must be something at stake worth more than the rest of the inheritance, then, and Alex must have information or Kurt wouldn’t be bothering with him. What does Alex have information on? Molly, of course. Therefore she must be valuable in some way, or – meaning no disrespect to Miss Hooper but looking at the more likely scenario – she has something valuable. That’s why Jack Strickner was looking for her and why he was so keen to check she really was his daughter – Lydia Black presumably stole something from him several years ago and he wants it back. Strickner had just worked out the source of this long lost, very valuable family possession, and Kurt wanted to make sure he got his hands on it. And only Alex knew where it could be found.’

‘What is it?’ asks John, attention rapt.

Sherlock flops back in his chair.

‘No idea. I doubt Alex or Kurt even know what it is. But we all know now that Molly has it.’

Everyone sits back in their chairs, apart from Donovan, who remains distinctly unimpressed. Lestrade swipes a hand over his mouth.

‘We’ll need to keep an eye on her, poor girl. They’ll be breaking into her flat next.’

Sherlock sniffs, apparently wholly unconcerned.

‘Unlikely. Only Jack Strickner knows what it is – he’s no fool, he won’t have told any of his cutthroat children – and breaking in looking for an unknown item is hardly likely to appeal to any of them.’

‘What about the daughter, Alicia?’ Donovan pipes up ‘She’ll know what it is – presumably he told her once they’d escaped the house.’

Sherlock snorts.

‘If he has any sense, which unlike you he has, he won’t tell her anything, daughter or not. She’d kill him soon as look at him, especially if this… whatever it is, is as valuable as this whole thing suggests. Besides, they know we’ll be watching Molly and her flat very closely.  They’re going to need another plan. Presumably your officers are watching her flat?’

Lestrade shifts uncomfortably. Sherlock untents his hands and lands them heavily on the arms of his chair.

‘Dear God, did you leave the team brain cell at home this morning?’

‘Alright, alright! We’ll get some of uniform round there as soon as we can.’

Sherlock relaxes again and smirks.

‘Molly will enjoy that.’

‘Sherlock!’

Lestrade picks up his phone and has a hurried conversation with his opposite number in uniform division, a burly Scot named McPhearson who, despite his general air of ill-temper, could be relied upon to come good in a crisis. Having arranged some interim surveillance for Molly, he set the phone down, mind slightly more at ease.

After the explosion, Molly had taken the most comforting, not unreasonably, in Lestrade’s opinion. But really, she had been no trouble at all, and had been making rather less fuss than Sherlock.

~

Sherlock is making a quite enormous amount of fuss, even for him.

Lestrade watches as John has a quiet word with the arresting officer. What John says to the man – what riches he promises him, what nubile beauties or what extents of power – God only knows, but John convinces him to uncuff Sherlock.  John has a way with people in general and Sherlock in particular, and the local boys clearly sense this, and decide to let the sociopath-whisperer do his work.

Finally, and much to everyone’s relief, Sherlock mutes his temper to merely ‘foul’, and quiets down.

Later still, Lestrade is helping Molly into the squad car for the journey home, when he glances round and sees.

John and Sherlock are sitting side by side on the front steps of the house. Sherlock has his legs drawn up and his hands wrapped around his knees like a sulking child, scowling at the gravel as if it had personally offended him. John has his hands clasped between his knees, looking up at the tree tops opposite with an optimistic expression.

It does Lestrade’s heart good just to see it.

And then, without looking, John reaches over and uncurls the fingers of Sherlock’s right hand, twining them with his own.

Lestrade feels quite unable to look away.

John turns his expression of sunny optimism on Sherlock, who looks round, looks down at their joined hands, and then looks a bit deer-in-the-headlights.

Lestrade keeps staring, becoming aware that people are staring at him. Most notably, Sally Donovan, who is saying ‘Sir, are you –’

And then Sherlock sort of smiles. Properly. Looking rather less like a maniac than usual.

~

Lestrade sets the mobile down on the table, and leafs quickly through the folder of case notes in front of him.

‘So… alright. You see the two brothers, likely working together, and having seen the will you figure out Alex knows something Kurt needs and, yeah alright, Molly must have inadvertently inherited something via this mother of hers. But how the hell does this explain the dead dog?’

Sherlock sighs, adopts a faux-bashful smile.

‘Because, as brilliant s young Mr Strickner is, he needed to consult a professional. He couldn’t find out who Molly was on his own – he needed to ask me. As for the dog, like I said before it was meant  as a warning to Alex, but Kurt, as an insider, clearly set up the diversion of the van to allow Alex to use it to get my attention. Obvious.’

‘Right,’ says Lestrade, weakly ‘but… didn’t Jack Strickner ask you to find out who Molly was?’

Sherlock rolls his eyes again and opens his mouth. Sensing a fairly paint-stripping insult on the way, John leaps into the conversation.

‘Yes, but presumably Alex couldn’t just up and ask, could he Sherlock, so he worked it so that his Dad got you to work it out and then… I dunno, maybe he’d hacked the CCTV or something, goodness knows, but somehow he picks up the information second hand and then… well, yeah he blows us all up. One way of stopping us getting to the treasure I suppose. And, I guess if he takes out more siblings, there are fewer of them to split the inheritance with. That right, Sherlock?’

John is prepared to take any number of insults, expletives or physical attacks for stealing Sherlock’s thunder like this. But he wants to save Lestrade, who is a good man and who, if he feels he owes John a favour, might just avoid telling everyone at the Met what John and Sherlock have been up to the last couple of days. Nights. Both, really.

He looks round at the detective. Sherlock is staring at him, shell-shocked. No one says anything for about five seconds. And then, in a much quieter, fainter voice, Sherlock says:

‘It… it was the phone lines. Alex hacked the phone lines – he heard me talking to Lestrade.’

Lestrade looks from Sherlock to John, apparently stunned by this about-turn in personalities. When it becomes clear that normal service won’t be resuming any time soon, he clears his throat, shuffles his case notes and stands up.

‘Well, that about settles it then. We won’t keep you any longer.’

John looks over to find Sherlock’s stare has morphed into one of quiet awe, as if he can’t quite believe John exists.

Hot, fluttering sensations erupt violently in John’s chest and stomach. He has the sudden mad urge to kiss the other man until he has sucked all the air out of his lungs.

Startled by this, he forgets to breathe, and has to put in an unexpected burst of conscious thought to untangle his own breathing.

He contents himself with a bit more looking. Suddenly, as if taken by surprise, Sherlock yawns. This is the single most adorable thing John has ever seen Sherlock do. He keeps watching, until he remembers they aren’t the only two people in the room. He looks round.

Sally raises her eyebrows. Lestrade shoots a look at John, who does nothing, and keeps his face carefully blank.

‘Tired, are we?’ asks Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade, fluent reader of body language. He rounds off the blow with a reckless flash of a smile.

 ‘Yes’ says Sherlock coldly, from the other end of the room.

‘All that exercise’ says Sally Donovan.

~

The journey from the Strickner’s house back to Baker Street is a very quiet one. Having put up the screen between back and front, Donovan makes no attempt to even look at either of them, let alone speak, and clearly feels put upon with having to drive them at all.

For his part, Sherlock appears to be having a slow-motion heart attack, and seems disinclined to conversation. He sits very primly on his side of the car, studiously looking straight ahead and breathing so shallowly he keeps having to take deep, shaking breaths at periodic moments throughout the journey.

‘You alright?’ John says, once they are stood on the curb outside 221b.

‘Fine’ says Sherlock, very unconvincingly.

John fumbles for his key. The rain has decided to fall down in bucket-like lumps and given the current meteorological conditions, this bit of small talk is probably quite sufficient preamble to going inside. Sherlock is actually shivering in the cold, unused to be being out without his coat and scarf.

You could help him warm up says a little voice in John’s head. John takes one look at Sherlock, undeniably cold but also undeniably uncomfortable, and ignores it.

‘Come on, in.’ He jogs up the steps, opens the door, and goes in, as if there can be no other conclusion to this journey than both of them sitting down with a nice cup of tea, just friends, nothing to see here, no sir, not us.

He wishes he knew how to make this sudden awkwardness disappear. Everything had somehow been a lot easier when they were waiting for a ride home – Sherlock had even seemed rather contented, sitting there, holding hands with John and both grinning like idiots. But now…

He hears Sherlock follow after him and shut the door. John sheds his jacket and tries to think calm, positive thoughts.

It was, John realises, as the familiar things closed round them – police car, Greater London, Central London, Westminster, Baker Street, 221b – that Sherlock had seemed to shrink further away from him. Change looks more pronounced in familiar, unchanged surroundings.

Sherlock appears in the doorway, looking rather tired and travel worn. He shrugs off his jacket and then pulls the sodden hoodie over his head, chucking it carelessly at the sofa. He regards John for a moment and his voice, when it finally leaves his mouth, is rather low and flat.

‘John, I don't know how to do this, how to be your –’ He waves a hand vaguely ‘Boyfriend.' Even from four feet away the venom is palpable.

John makes a mental note never to call him that as long as they both shall live. He clears his throat, not quite ready for this direct approach.

‘Well, just be you.’

Sherlock snorts.

‘Oh yes, brilliant plan. I'll just be me. Fantastic idea.’

John frowns, perplexed.

‘Well, it's suited us well so far.’

‘I am so much like your various girlfriends.’

John furrows his brows. Sherlock is glowering in the door and the combined effect of the jeans and hoodie make him look like a moody teenager. All gangly limbs, fearsome temper and poor interpersonal ski –

Oh. Oh yes.

John feels rather silly. He had forgotten, somewhere along the line, that while Sherlock is a genius, he has the emotional maturity of a sixteen year old at best, and a two year old at worst. John feels suddenly on rather firmer ground – he can’t outthink a genius but he can relate to being a socially awkward teenager. Longer ago than he’d like to remember, but still pretty clear for all that.

Ex-girlfriends, Sherlock’ he says, firmly. (Admittedly, in the Sherlock-era, this had rather more to do with John’s faults than theirs. John barely had time to discover those, although, looking at it another way, perhaps he just found out about their low Sherlock-tolerance very quickly).

But still. Ex-girlfriends. Didn’t work out, however you slice it.

Sherlock says nothing. John presses on.

‘And no, you're nothing like them. They are my exes for a reason you know. I've never ‘broken up’ with you and, thwarting psychopaths aside, you've never left me. So –’

‘But I don’t know how to be that… that person I was the other night!’ Sherlock scrubs a bit wildly at his hair, and John senses this distress has been brewing a while.

The detective huffs out a very large breath.

‘I don’t know how to be a romantic interest, or someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, I don’t –’

‘Whoa, alright, hang on a sec, there. What are you on about? You already are a bloody, ‘romantic interest’, as you call it.’  John can’t quite examine the second half of Sherlock’s sentence: it’s like looking at a light that’s much too bright, so he mentally throws a cloth over it and shoves it away in a corner. Sherlock stares at him, apparently frozen mid-flow.

‘But…’ Sherlock’s eyebrows draw together in quizzical astonishment.

John speeds onwards, brain incautiously peeking at the too-bright light and wincing, the luminous phrase burning itself onto his consciousness through repetition – rest of your life, rest of your life – while his mouth keeps going:

‘You don't have to be someone else, you know. Especially not ‘drugged-Sherlock’, I mean, Christ, I can’t see him solving crimes and running rings round Scotland Yard, can you? Good at lolling about in bed, but you manage that quite well anyway, and besides I’ve never found it your most attractive quality. Bit dull, really, on the whole.’

‘No, I suppose… John –’

‘No, exactly. I mean’ John coughs, trying to keep up momentum in case Sherlock decides to lob another grenade into the conversation – rest of your life, rest of your life –  ‘it was an interesting night, all told, but I think I prefer you. As you are, without chemical additives. You’re a lot more interesting, if a lot harder to read.’

Sherlock huffs out another breath, but says nothing. He appears to have calmed down, and now the mad rush is over, John finds he doesn’t know what else to say. They stare at each other, breathing rather harder than standing still in a living room would seem to merit.

‘I meant it you know’ Sherlock says. John doesn’t need to ask what.

‘I know you did. That’s what makes it so terrifying, Sherlock.’

Sherlock frowns a bit, sadly.

‘I can take it back?’

‘No, you can’t.’

Sherlock swallows. He looks sad again. John finds this unbearable.

‘Does it bother you?’ Sherlock’s voice is rather quiet. It’s John’s turn to swallow.

In his mind’s eye, he pulls away the cover and feels the full force and brightness of the concept hit him. The rest of your life. It’s blinding, in the full sense of the word. It’s an unimaginable commitment on the strength of a few very recent confessions, and John knows damn well it wouldn’t just be duration but breadth, because Sherlock isn’t going to share him with other people. Sherlock is selfish and possessive enough as it is. And he has clearly spent time thinking about this, because he isn’t being capricious and flighty, he’s being serious and Sherlock takes being serious very seriously indeed. He doesn’t do half measures. Quod erat demonstrandum, John thinks. We’ve barely discussed this life-changing development and already it’s forever.

But then, if the last three and a half years have shown anything – John’s sense of loss, sense of grief and sense of almost disbelieving thankfulness – it’s that John had always believed it would be forever, too.

‘Come here’ he says, and catches hold of Sherlock’s wrist.

Chapter Text

 

On returning from the Strickner house, John climbs the stairs to his room alone, crawls exhausted beneath the covers and thinks every curse he can think of at the ceiling.

He curses Harry, and her innate ability to pick bad moments for emotional phone calls.

(‘Where the fuck have you been, precisely? It’s sodding midnight and there’s not even a note, you tosser. This isn’t a bloody guest house –’

‘Shit, Harry, I’m… Christ, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, things just sort of happened.’

Sherlock pulls gently away and peels off to the kitchen, bathroom, kitchen again and finally bedroom, silent and spectral, like something on the far side of a window. John watches helplessly, like a man watching an accident: a car crash, a train wreck, a man falling from a roof.)

He curses Mycroft, Holmes senior and all the other Holmes’s as far back as they go, for being stuck up, emotionally unavailable robots, who believe some tripe about ‘caring not being an advantage’.

(And he curses Sherlock, otherwise clever, perceptive Sherlock, for believing them.)

But mostly he curses himself, for his own, terrible cowardice.

He’s an idiot.

~

The next day, he and Sherlock play at ‘Nothing has happened’.

It is not an enjoyable game.

At half four John’s phone lights up with Irene’s number.

He doesn’t answer it.

~

That night, John climbs the stairs alone, crawls dejectedly beneath the covers and thinks of plans and schemes, of words and phrases. Of whether this is all Sherlock’s subtle way of telling him that the next attempt is going to end in a scathing reply, a swift punch on the nose or a sexual harassment case.

At three in the morning, he decides he doesn’t care, and reaches four, simultaneous conclusions:

1)      That he can give up on the idea of getting any sleep.

2)      That he is, first and foremost, a man of action. Considered, evaluated action, but action nonetheless.

3)      That Sherlock is an adult, if not always a grown up, and is therefore not made of china.

4)      That he, John, should stop being such a bloody coward.

John throws off the covers, pulls on his dressing gown and steps into his slippers. He stamps downstairs as if he has just thought of an excellent retort in a bitter argument, and is intent on sharing it with his adversary.

He stops at Sherlock’s door and draws a breath.

He reaches out to knock, but in the moment his hand drops, twists the door handle and then he is stepping in, in and there is Sherlock lying curled in bed and awake, for all the world as though waiting for him, eyebrows winging up and expression a mixture of expectation and confusion.

There is a second, unspoken discussion about on-going sleeping arrangements.

John shrugs off his dressing gown, steps out of his slippers. He crawls into Sherlock’s bed.

There is another moment of silent discussion, and John watches Sherlock’s silvery eyes in the darkness, while Sherlock watches John’s and Sherlock hasn’t moved so much as an inch, even now, with John under the duvet with him.

Bit not good? John wonders.

(No, movement is unnecessary, Sherlock wills him to understand.)

John takes hold of Sherlock’s wrist.

Sherlock’s mouth is soft against his own.

The tip of John’s nose presses against Sherlock’s cheek. Sherlock doesn’t move.

John puts his free hand on Sherlock’s hip and shifts slightly so he can lean back.

Sherlock is smiling at him.

~

'Go on then' John says, brushing light, warm kisses along Sherlock's jaw 'when was your first kiss? Proper kiss, mind. First where you kissed back. Who was it?'

Sherlock thanks any benevolent power there might be that John added this addendum, otherwise he'd have to say Alice, in year five. Or worse, Irene.

'He was a doctor' he manages, as John's hand strokes possessively up his thigh.

'Hitherto unsuspected kink for the uniform?' breathes John, nipping at his earlobe.

'Hmmm, don’t think so, but he did also used to be soldier.’

John freezes, then sits back to look at him, removing the hand from his thigh but mercifully leaving the hand on his cheek. Sherlock feels his stomach go over.

'Sherlock...' His eyes search Sherlock's face 'are you trying to tell me that your first, proper kiss, was with me. Two nights ago?'

Sherlock sighs, inwardly. Surely this is beyond obvious and into simple paraphrasing.

'Yes.'

John looks astonished. Sherlock considers that sex, or even the prospect of it, really must make people increasingly stupid, a sliding scale to utter mindlessness. He frowns. John regains the power of speech.

'Bloody hell. Why didn't you say anything?'

‘Did they not cover rohypnol in your pharmaceutical exams?’

John blushes somewhat. Sherlock fixes him with a glare.

'Anyway, why? Going to scatter rose petals on the bed?'

'No, of course not, I just...'

John licks his lips – his thumb strokes absently over the detective's cheek and Sherlock leans into the touch before he knows he’s done it. John's expression softens.

'What about, you know, at uni?'

I’m losing him, Sherlock worries, he was never a genius to begin with but this is ridiculous. What if it happens to me?

He shakes his head, rolls his eyes for emphasis.

 'No one, really?'

'Really' says Sherlock, more sharply.

 It occurs him that this isn’t idiocy, this is plain disbelief that anyone managed to bypass such an apparently basic part of reaching adulthood. He can bear being different when he knows he’s right – being a genius isn’t common but it is, indisputably, better – but this is… not that.

He’s not wrong, of course.

But then maybe he hasn’t done exactly the correct thing where this is concerned? And it transpires that teasing about actual inadequacies, rather than poorly masked jealousy over merely perceived freakishness, is far more painful. Especially from John.

He leans back and away, feeling suddenly smothered by the expression of pity and sound of condescension. He needs to get out, out.

'Sorry to disappoint you.' He makes to get out of the bed.

'Hey, no, come back, Sherlock!'

John launches himself across the sheets and grabs Sherlock's wrist.

'No, look, sorry, that was umm... Look, come here.’

There is an awkward moment where neither man moves. Sherlock swallows, loudly, too loud in the quiet room. John tugs gently at his arm. Finally, he allows himself to be pulled back onto the mattress. John replaces the hand on his cheek.

'It doesn't matter.'

Sherlock swallows again and then John leans forward and brings their mouths together.

Except this time it is different. John has always been careful with him, even before, as if he is remembering how to kiss another man or just being wary of kissing Sherlock in particular, the detective doesn't know which. But this time it is gentle and exploratory, a slow, inexorable invasion of Sherlock's mouth. John lets him catch his breath without stopping kissing him, sucking gently on his lower lip or stroking his tongue against the upper. Sherlock feels dizzy and lightheaded and his mouth aches with the warmth and pressure of John's mouth: soft, intimate caresses of his lips punctuated by the electrifying slide of Johns tongue against his own.

It's breath-taking. Sherlock is panting when John lets him go, hand still on his cheek.

'I wish I'd known' John says, very softly, 'because I'd have kissed you more like that.'

His hand returns to Sherlock's thigh, firm, warm pressure of his splayed fingers and Sherlock doesn't really know what he wants, he has nothing to go on, it's off the map and here be dragons and John Watson, looking at him as if he wants to return the favour of the last few years and give him the time of his life.

Several responses go through his head: things he's read in books, seen in films or on television, asinine phrases which he's picked up and been unable to delete, the detritus collected by an unoccupied but highly observant mind – the white, background noise.

They're all awful.

But he has nothing of his own, he isn't this person, he needs a template, he needs to not quite be himself in this moment. He swallows – he can feel John's breath on his cheek, John's hand straying into his hair, John's other hand massaging the muscle of his thigh. Everything is warmth and closeness and the whole room smells of clean linen and John.

'Take me to bed' he says, eventually, and immediately regrets it as trite and nonsensical because they're already there. John chuckles and Sherlock feels a momentary stab of annoyance before John presses their mouths together again, firmer, more insistent, nipping at Sherlock's mouth and drawing a wordless little noise out of his throat.

'Yes, God, yes' John whispers, and the hand on his thigh becomes a hand on his hip, stroking and pushing and pressing him back to the bed.

~

In the very early morning, in the stolen, uncounted hours between dark and light, John wonders what he has got himself into.

Sherlock is twisting his fingers desperately in the sheets and moving about below John’s hands. His breathing is erratic: harsh and ragged one moment and then short and stifled the next. He's trying to be quiet, to be calm and in control and he's failing miserably, body and mind unravelling despite himself. He's desperate, so close John fancies he can taste it on Sherlock's skin.

John could keep him like this forever.

Sherlock’s fingers twist tighter still after one especially deliberate stroke, and John carefully loosens his grip, slips his hand around shaking, clumsy fingers. He kisses Sherlock's jaw.

'Not yet.'

Another little growl of frustration. John closes his mouth over Sherlock’s, shushes him, presses kisses to his cheeks and forehead.

Christ, John, touch me.’

His voice is panting and higher than usual at the edges. John kisses the bridge of his nose. Tries to invent sobering reasons why he shouldn’t just give in and do as Sherlock asks.

 ‘No.’

John.

‘Shhh, no. Not yet.’

Sherlock’s hips twist and lift in an unsteady rhythm, his hands lift and try to pull John closer. Methodically, John peels them from his waist and shoulders and pins them above Sherlock’s head. Sherlock is apparently too far gone to resist him or even try. He tries to push up with his legs instead.

 ‘No, no, just lie still, let me look at you’

Sherlock does, squeezing his eyes shut and chewing his bottom lip.

Fuck, John thinks. Fuck am I in trouble, now.

There really is no going back from this, he realises. The point of no return was quite some way back, when Sherlock was still wearing his pyjamas and John didn’t know what the skin tasted like at Sherlock’s navel.

John strokes his knuckles very, very lightly against Sherlock’s hip. The detective opens his eyes and watches him. Neither of them says anything.

Or perhaps it was earlier than that. Perhaps the point of no return was when John decided to kiss him.

Decided to move back in.

Decided to stop dating.

Decided to move in at all.

John swallows the lump in his throat.

Sherlock’s breathing has calmed to a merely shaky rhythm.  John reaches out and smoothes Sherlock’s fringe back from his forehead.

‘What are you doing?’ he asks, breathless.

John withdraws his hand, replaces his fingers around hot, sensitive skin. Sherlock whines, or tries not to, and John leans down and kisses him hard.

~

John's fingers gently flexing around him, John's soft, wet mouth against his stomach, his sternum, his throat.

John’s fingers, though. John’s hands, John’s perfect doctor’s hands and Sherlock had never quite imagined this, for all his supposed genius, had never quite realised how very much it would feel if –

~

'You back in the room?' John asks, dropping a kiss into Sherlock's hair.

He sounds the same, Sherlock thinks, mind, heart and lungs racing, How can he sound the same, after that? How are we ever going to go back to being how we were?

John rests a hand on Sherlock's hip and tangles his fingers in Sherlock's hair, and strokes gently at the nape of his neck.

~

On the second day after their return from the Strickner house, John’s phone lights up with Lestrade’s name. It is morning, although not especially early. Lestrade knows John’s habits, and John knows he knows them.

John is normally up and reading the paper. He likes to be up fairly early, making the most of the day if he’s not sleeping off a case.

Today, the phone buzzes against the top of the bedside table, and is nearly pushed to the floor as the duvet unfurls in front of John’s questing hand. Once safely in John’s grip, the phone rests against the pillow under his head.

John has to push the duvet off his face with his elbow, because his other hand is full of Sherlock’s nape and neck and lovely soft curls and John isn’t going to let go unless the bed is on fire.

‘Hello?’ he manages, groggy. Sherlock murmurs something into his chest that sounds like annoyance at the British constabulary.

‘John, mate, how’re you?’

‘’m fine. Yeah. Good.’ John yawns. He knows he sounds oddly furtive, as only a man lying naked in bed can. He feels an urge to put some clothes on, which is insane given that he is covered by the duvet, and that Lestrade is in another part of London entirely. Even so, he tries to drag the duvet up with his arm.

The bedclothes rustle incriminatingly. Sherlock purrs, unnecessarily loudly.

John swats him lightly on the back of the head.

‘Uhhh… I was hoping you two could come in today…?’ Lestrade clearly has good hearing and a quality phone. He sounds mildly embarrassed and regretful. John pities him.

‘Ummm… maybe –’

‘Urgh, no’ says Sherlock, too loudly and conspicuously close to the microphone.

‘No, sorry, don’t think so’ John says, too loud and too quick. Lestrade coughs. He wants this conversation to be over, John thinks. Makes two of us.  

Sherlock lifts his head, rubs his nose and cheek against John’s chest. His hair brushes John’s mouth and chin and jostles the phone.

‘Hang up’ he murmurs, in the low, treacly baritone that melts all of John’s bones.

Three of us.

‘Alright then, tomorrow. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?’ Greg sounds suddenly very keen on the idea of tomorrow. John shares his enthusiasm, albeit for wildly different reasons.

‘Yeah, yeah, that sounds good. Yup. Alright then, see you. Bye.’

‘Ciao!’ Sherlock calls, from John’s chest.

~

Later in the morning, they get out of bed, shower, get dressed, and eat breakfast.

Getting dressed takes at least twice as long as usual, and John feels it can only be a matter of time before showering also becomes an activity for two.

Cooking breakfast remains solidly an activity for one, and John supposes he should really accept this and be grateful that Sherlock does at least eat it this morning. Even if all he eats is toast.

John has never known anyone survive quite so much excitement on toast. Coffee, tea and toast. The diet of geniuses, apparently.

He can’t deny that Sherlock looks well on it. Very well indeed.

He smirks into his tea and avoids Sherlock’s eyes. The two of them only own a finite number of shirts, after all, and any more of them crumpled on the bedroom floor is simply indulgence.

John coughs and does a creditable impression of a man reading a newspaper. This lasts all of twenty minutes, after which, tired of the criminal underclasses and apparently uninspired by chemical experiments, Sherlock sighs dramatically, opens his eyes wide and pouts at him.

‘John, I’m bored.’

~

At around one in the morning, John fleetingly wonders if having more sex than meals in a 24 hour period is a good thing.

Then Sherlock, ever the fast learner, does something with his hands and John decides that yes, yes it fucking well is.

~

Explaining things to the police next day is less harrowing than expected, and barring some mild personal embarrassment, largely of his own making, John feels they escaped unscathed.

Back at the flat, he whistles as he makes tea.

Sherlock shuffles the papers on his music stand and smirks at nothing in particular every time he catches John’s gaze in the corner of his eye.

All is domestic bliss for about twenty minutes.