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Sherlock looked up as John entered the pub: he was sitting at a table by the window, half-empty pint in front of him. John nodded, curt, and then went to get his own pint. He thought he could feel Sherlock’s gaze on his back, but he didn’t look round. He took his drink over to the table and sat down.

Sherlock cleared his throat, self-consciously. “Thank you for coming,” he said.

John didn’t trust himself to say anything. He looked down into his glass, and then took a long drink. Sherlock was looking at him now, his pale eyes still shockingly odd under short, scruffy blond hair. The dark roots had started to show through. He wasn’t wearing the old Sherlock’s clothes, but jeans and a V-neck jumper over a T-shirt, almost like John, just like most of the male clientele of this pub. The bruise on his cheekbone from last week was fading but still just visible, if you knew it was there.

Sherlock looked down at his glass, fiddling with it. John noticed that the back of one of his hands was scarred, small round marks. Cigarette burns, perhaps, he thought, with a lurch in his stomach. His anger rose up again and he tried to tamp it down. He’d agreed to come, and this was a public place. He’d have one pint and then go home.

“I didn’t know you liked beer,” he said. It came out antagonistic, naturally.

“Staropramen,” said Sherlock. “I developed a taste for it in – in Prague. I spent some time there, and I needed to, to blend in. In bars.”

“Right,” said John. “Prague.”

“If you wanted to hear – ”

“I don’t,” said John, cutting across him. “Just – don’t. Don’t tell me.”

Sherlock looked out of the window, expression frustrated. John took another swallow of his pint, following his gaze, looking at the people rushing by outside, eager to get out of this grey November afternoon and back to their warm houses. His beer tasted of nothing.

Sherlock sighed, and turned back to face John. “I’ve moved back into Baker St,” he said. “I wanted to ask – your old room is still free. If you were interested.”

John looked at him, incredulous. He hoped Sherlock could read the thoughts he knew were written on his face, that he’d been suppressing since he’d walked into the pub; he closed his throat on them.

“I have a flat,” he said. “In Blackhorse Road.”

There was a pause where old Sherlock would have said something cutting, something snobbish about John’s chosen area, something brilliantly derogatory about E17 and all who lived in it. John hated it that he knew this, and that he knew that Sherlock did too.

“Of course,” said Sherlock, turning round his beer glass. “I was aware.”

“It’s not a bad area. Near my job, on the Victoria line,” said John defensively. “And walking distance from Mary’s.”

Something complicated happened to Sherlock’s face and then it smoothed out again, before John could parse it.

Sherlock took a drink. “Is Mary…well?”

It was painful: like watching an alien trying to act human. Her boyfriend is completely fucked up and spent a whole night crying on her shoulder last week, do you think she’s fine?, John thought. But he had no intention of having a truthful conversation with this Sherlock. Or, to be honest, any conversation of significance.

“She’s fine,” he said. “Working hard.”

Silence fell between them. Sherlock was staring out of the window again, apparently lost in thought. John glanced at his watch. Only fifteen minutes had passed; it felt like hours.

“Was that what you wanted to discuss?,” he said. “Baker St? Because I thought you might have some news about the man you mentioned, you know.”

Sherlock’s attention snapped back to him. “Moran,” he said. “No, I – some leads, but we haven’t found him. Yet.”

We, thought John.

“Mycroft’s helping,” Sherlock explained.

“Is he,” said John. That Mycroft could forgive Sherlock so easily felt like another betrayal, like John was supposed to feel guilty on top of everything else. He would have liked Moran dead, this sniper who’d allegedly once held a gun on him and then, after Sherlock’s death – apparent death – decided he wasn’t worth pursuing. But he’d washed his hands of this, the Holmes family firm could sort it out between them.

Sherlock was studying him, clearly wanting to say more, but abruptly John had had all he could take.  He made a show of checking his watch.

 “If there’s no news – I am meant to be meeting Mary after work, about seven, in Walthamstow. So I should probably get going quite soon.”

Sherlock’s shoulders hunched, fractionally.

“I did say I could only drop in, in my text.”

“Of course,” said Sherlock. He seemed as though he was about to say more – John waited – but then he picked up his beer glass again and drank instead.

John frowned. Old Sherlock would know that this was a limp excuse to leave and would have called John – anyone – on it without compunction: there was no way it would take an hour and a half to get to Walthamstow from where they were now, just round the corner from Euston. But then, he supposed Sherlock had asked what he wanted to ask, the conversation was over. Clearly they had little to say to each other, now. 

“OK,” he said. “Probably best if I do head, with rush hour and everything.” He drained the rest of his pint, and pushed his chair back.

“Well.” He paused. None of the niceties for ending a conversation seemed appropriate. He didn’t know if he wanted to see Sherlock soon, to see him around, to be in touch. He couldn’t tell Sherlock it had been good to see him, to catch up; he couldn’t tell him to take care, to have a good weekend, to pass on his regards to their mutual acquaintances. It struck him that this, here, now, could be the last time he spoke to Sherlock, if he had the willpower to make it so.

“John,” said Sherlock quietly, looking up at him.

“No,” said John, though he didn’t know to what. He didn’t want Sherlock to say his name like that. He stood up, abruptly. “I have to – I really have to go.”

“Can I – ” said Sherlock. He ran his hand through his short hair. “Can I text you if – if there’s a case?”

John stopped short. “I have a full-time job,” he said to the window.

“Is that – would you prefer not to hear from me?” said Sherlock.

John met his eyes. He steeled himself to give the right answer. But he’d always been hopeless at the clean break.

“You can text,” he said. “I won’t answer during my surgery hours, though.”

“Good” said Sherlock. He looked visibly relieved. “That’s – thank you.” He half-smiled at John, tentative.

John didn’t smile back. This whole meeting – everything about it had been a sign of how much the old Sherlock-and-John had gone, and couldn’t be resurrected. He had to get out of there. He couldn’t say anything else, he just nodded, again, and headed through the growing crowd to the door, pushing out into the chill with immeasurable relief, walking as fast as he could, away.

***

Mary took one look at his face as she came off the escalator, and slipped a hand through his arm.

“Bad?” she said.

“Terrible,” said John. “Just, really fucking terrible. I need – God, I need a stiff drink.”

Mary squeezed his arm comfortingly, and maybe a little guiltily. She had encouraged him to go, when John got Sherlock’s message; John’s main inclination had been to delete the message and change his number.

‘White Horse and then a pizza?” she said. “Or did you want to come back to mine now, and pick up stuff on the way?”

“Let’s go out,” said John. It was Friday night, they always ate out on Fridays. He couldn’t start letting Sherlock mess up the stability of his life with Mary.

Mary, bless her, told him some inconsequential anecdotes about the ridiculous behaviour of her co-workers and the young offenders she worked with on the way there, so that he didn’t have to talk or think. It wasn’t till they were sitting with their drinks, squeezed into the last available table and surrounded by raucous fellow-drinkers, that she brought it up.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she said.

“Not really,” said John. “Sorry.”

“It’s OK, I get it,” Mary said. “Can you tell me what he wanted, though? I was curious.”

“Asked me to move back in with him,” said John shortly.

“Seriously?” said Mary.

“Yep,” said John. He tried to force himself to smile casually, though he felt that he hadn’t quite pulled it off.

“I mean, doesn’t he understand how you might feel? About this whole situation, I mean. It just seems a bit like – like he doesn’t get it, that you’ve moved on. That you got over him.”

John rubbed at his forehead. Since Sherlock had returned barely a minute had passed, it felt, when John hadn’t been thinking about him. Whether he wanted to or not seemed beside the point. The content of the conversation he’d had with Sherlock had felt like the kind of stuff you’d say to an ex, meeting them for an awkward conversation years after; but the things that he hadn’t said, but only thought…. They didn’t suggest “over.”

“John?” said Mary, concerned. She rested her hand on his, interlacing their fingers.

“Sorry,” said John again.

“I know you don’t want to talk about it,” Mary said. They both heard the implied “to me”.  “But maybe you should speak to a professional, like your old therapist? Anyone would find this a lot to deal with.”

“I know,” said John. “I can’t – ” He swallowed. His throat was threatening to close up. “Just – just leave it.”

“OK,” said Mary. “I shouldn’t have pushed.” She took her hand back. “Let’s finish up here and go on, shall we?”

Now he’d made Mary feel hurt: yet another thing to chalk up to Sherlock’s account. And she was going to be even more hurt when John went back to his flat, alone, but he didn’t think he could sit through an evening of small-talk, making the right noises and responding properly to Mary’s thoughtful kindness. He wanted to get viciously drunk and then punch someone, preferably Sherlock again, but in his absence, it was probably best for him to be away from anyone else who might do.

***

John’s phone trilled, in the middle of Mrs Hassan telling him in great detail about her lower back pain.

“Excuse me a moment, just need to check this,” he said, reaching for it and glancing at the screen.

“Could use your help. Interested? – SH”

A rush of adrenaline went through John. He set the phone down, trying to disguise his reaction.

“So you were saying the pain is much worse at night?” he said.

He only half-heard Mrs Hassan’s response, wondering whether to reply. As he wrote out a referral for a physiotherapy appointment, nodding sympathetically, his phone trilled again.

“With Lestrade – SH”

John hadn’t heard anything from Sherlock in the three weeks after that disastrous meeting in the pub. Did he think John wouldn’t come if he might be alone with him? A fair guess, John thought. He wouldn’t mind seeing Greg. He shepherded Mrs Hassan out, reviewing what was left for the afternoon: only one more appointment, and Mina owed him a favour; then he’d been going to write up his notes, but he could catch up with that in his lunch-break tomorrow.

Alone in his office, he looked at the texts again. He hadn’t forgiven Sherlock, not in the least, but since that awful encounter he had perhaps – softened towards him a bit. Sherlock had texted him about ten days after it:

“Arrested Moran. Finished – SH”

That had seemed to deserve a response. “Good”, John had replied. It seemed neutral enough. Not “good for you”. Just: good, that someone dangerous and linked to Moriarty was off the streets. Sherlock hadn’t replied. John hadn’t told Mary, but then he hadn’t told her about Moran in the first place, just that Sherlock’s reason for disappearing for three years was that he wanted to take down Moriarty’s empire.

He rang Mina, checked she could take his last patient, and then texted back, quickly.

“OK. Where are you? – JW”

The address came through almost immediately. That Sherlock was alive and texting him…. He might look and act like a stranger in person, but hearing him in his messages was still hard to resist, after years of silence. John put on his coat and headed out, to the tube.

***

Greg had been reinstated ten months after Sherlock’s suicide – fake suicide, that was – when the long police enquiry had finally concluded that there was no evidence that Sherlock had done anything wrong other than treating paperwork as optional. John had still been pretty far from OK, then, so he hadn’t properly registered this through the fog, and he still felt bad that he hadn’t been there for Greg at all in those lost months. Since he started seeing Mary every weekend and most nights in between, his evenings in the pub with Greg had inevitably grown less, too. 

When he walked down the alley Sherlock had specified, round the back of a standard high street Wetherspoon’s, though, it was Greg who saw him first as he hesitated, suddenly unsure, and he came over to him with an unaffected grin.

“John Watson”, he said, clapping him on the shoulder. “The man himself. Just in time. Sherlock – shit.” He looked around, furtive. “Sorry, I’m not supposed to say his name out loud, since he’s not what you might call officially here. Anyway, he’s a bit over-excited to be back on the job; made the pathologist storm off in a huff in the first thirty seconds, and none of the rest of us know sod-all about the medical stuff.” He gripped John’s shoulder and looked in his face: his eyebrows came together.

“You OK?” he said, a bit quieter.

“Course,” said John.  He smiled back, reassuring. “Sounds like I’m needed. Where’s – ” He hesitated for only a moment, though Greg would almost certainly pick it up. “Where is he?”

“Through here,” said Greg, steering him under the familiar yellow tape, past officers carefully bagging detritus. “He’s with me,” he said firmly, to an unfamiliar officer who gave John a startled look.

John looked first towards the body of a young man lying sprawled in the alleyway: cause of death not instantly obvious, but probably stab wounds from the red-tinged puddle beside him. It was starting to drizzle again, unpleasantly.

Sherlock wasn’t by the body. John looked around and before he registered what he was seeing, all the muscles in his body clenched, frozen, and his breath caught: Sherlock lying on the ground, broken, blood in a puddle spreading from his head. But then the figure on the ground shifted and made a noise of annoyance, air rushed back into John’s lungs and what he was seeing made sense. Sherlock was pressed to the ground trying to reach under a huge recycling bin for the pub’s bottles, probably too heavy to shift.

John swallowed. Sherlock was breathing, and perhaps for the first time since he had found this out, he remembered it with unmixed relief instead of a sick anger.

He went over and crouched beside him. Sherlock’s hair was black again: he must have dyed it back, and although he wasn’t wearing his coat, the coat, he had on a not dissimilar (to John’s eyes) long dark grey thing. As John took in the details Sherlock rolled over abruptly and saw him.

His face lit up. John would have thought the expression hackneyed, but that was what it was, like a light switching on, illuminating nothing but delight that John was there. John almost fell backwards under its force.

Then Sherlock dropped his eyes and the instant was past. “John,” he said, cautiously. “You, er. You came.”

“Yes,” John allowed. “Thought I might – be able to help.”

“Good,” said Sherlock. Then, as something occurred to him. “Look, I found the knife.” He gestured under the bin. Then he frowned. “Hell, I’ve ruined this coat.” He started scrambling up, John half-extended a hand to help him and then drew it back. He stood up too.

“Lestrade,” called Sherlock. “Kitchen knife, 10 inch, serrated edge, probably used for vegetables and the like. You’ll need to get someone to empty this if you want it in situ.” He turned to John, business-like.

“Come and confirm that the wounds look likely, will you, and then we can all go home.  The killer was obviously a cook from the pub; victim’s one of the bar staff, got into a tiff over some thefts from the till.”

The script called for John to ask how Sherlock knew and then be impressed, but he wasn’t going to. He bent over the body.

“I’ll need some gloves,” he said.

Greg, coming up beside them, fished some out of a pocket and handed them over.

John put them on and then moved the man – boy’s – clothing aside gently. He realised, guiltily, that he was happy to be doing this, to be examining stab wounds in the increasingly heavy rain in a filthy, cold, back alley rather than sitting in his cosy office diagnosing someone’s sore throat. He called on his professionalism and looked at each stab wound, though the first had been enough. Then he stood up, stripping off the gloves.

“Well?” said Sherlock, impatiently. Then he looked stricken, as though, John thought with a twinge of guilt, he thought that rudeness wasn’t acceptable, any more.

“Yep,” said John. “Serrated edge, definitely. Kitchen knife would be a good bet, I think.”

Sherlock smiled at him tentatively.

“Excellent,” said Greg. “Doesn’t seem too complicated. Might not even need all your deductions, if we’ve got fingerprints on the knife.”

“And one of the other bar staff will likely crack if you interview them carefully,” said Sherlock.

Greg nodded. “I’ll put in the calls, get them down to the station now.” He took out his phone, then looked from Sherlock to John.

“You,” he nodded at Sherlock, “had best clear off in a moment, given that you were never here and all that. I can get another pathologist down to confirm once we have the knife, if you’re heading off too, John.”

“I – ” said John. If he left now, he could probably get his consulting notes done today after all. “I suppose I should do, yes.”

“Someone can give you a lift to the overground, if you’re headed out east, save you walking in this,” said Greg. He jerked his head towards Sherlock again. “Has he asked you to move back to Baker Street yet, then? Told him your bachelor days were long over.”

“Mary and I don’t live together,” said John, though he wasn’t sure why he felt the need to clarify. Sherlock already knew, after all. “I’ve got my own flat.”

“Of course I asked him,” said Sherlock to Greg, apparently ignoring this. “He turned me down.”

“Course he did,” said Greg. “She’s a good thing, Mary. Domestic bliss – you’re a lucky man, mate.”

“Yeah,” said John, “Yes, she’s great.” It came out sounding a bit hollow.

“In the market for a new flatmate, then?” said Greg to Sherlock.

“Not in the least,” said Sherlock. He glanced at John. “My offer stands. And I – am accustomed to being alone.”

John waited to be angry, but instead he looked at Sherlock, and for the first time he let himself be fully aware of what Sherlock had been doing for the last three years, of how terribly alone he had been. And if he had died, in that time, doing whatever ridiculously dangerous and doubtless stupid things he’d been doing, perhaps no one would ever have known, not Mycroft, not Greg, not John.

He swallowed. “I didn’t say thanks. For the offer.” Sherlock’s eyes widened in surprise, almost comically. “But I am sorted, so.”

Greg was looking between them, puzzled, clearly sensing something.

“Lift would be great, if you could manage it,” John said to him.

Greg nodded. “Give me a moment, I’ll get Sergeant Davis to take you.” He walked over to the group of police at the mouth of the alley,

Sherlock and John were left standing together, a little awkwardly. Sherlock put his hands in the pockets of his coat and hunched his shoulders slightly. There was a streak of mud on his face from lying in the alley; John wondered if he should mention it.

“Well,” said Sherlock. “At least we learnt one surprising thing from this case.”

“Oh?” said John.

“Wetherspoon’s actually serves fresh food,” said Sherlock.

John laughed before he could stop himself. Sherlock was half-smiling, watching him carefully.

“John,” Greg called. “Got your lift.”

“That’s me, then,” said John. He was reluctant to go, but he didn’t want to hang around, giving the impression he was back to being Sherlock’s sidekick or something.

“I wanted to apologize,” said Sherlock, quickly.

“What?” said John. He must have misheard.

Sherlock turned to look at him, full-on. Rain was dripping off his short hair onto his cheek and he brushed at it, impatiently.

“Last time we met – and the first time – I meant to. I’m sorry. I mean, not for failing to apologize, there were other things happening. For everything else. With hindsight – that is, I thought, I did think, that I should have” – he gestured, frustrated – “Asked you to come. That it would have been – helpful. If you had been with me.” He took a pair of leather gloves from one pocket and fiddled with them, pulling them on, looking as tense as John had ever seen him. “Though, statistically speaking as well as in the light of events as they happened, there would have been a far stronger probability that neither of us would have survived.”

John couldn’t remember Sherlock – the old Sherlock – ever stumbling over his words like this. He looked over to where Greg was. He felt that there were hundreds, thousands of things he wanted to say, but he needed to get away to think about what they were. This was both what he had wanted to hear most, and least.

“OK,” he said. “Thanks. Um. My lift is waiting, so – ”

“Go,” said Sherlock. “I’ll text you?”

John nodded, and went, not looking back.

***

He didn’t go back to work after all. He found himself getting off at Mary’s stop and then wandering round the local shopping centre, wanting to buy something nice; flowers maybe, or some good wine. Unfortunately all that Asda could offer was some dodgy looking roses and a bottle of something claiming to be extra special sauvignon blanc, but this didn’t dampen his good mood. For the first time in – nearly a month, it must be – he felt like himself, not dangerously unbalanced.

He waited for Mary on her doorstep: she had the first floor flat in a nice Victorian terrace. She’d been saying that she ought to give him a spare key for ages, but they hadn’t got round to it. It was nearly half an hour before she arrived back, and the porch didn’t offer much shelter from the rain, but John wasn’t bothered. He didn’t want to think too hard about Sherlock, just to enjoy the respite from constant anger and hurt.

Mary looked frazzled from work, worry lines etched into her forehead, as she came down the street rapidly. The lines smoothed out when she saw John, though, and her smile made her warm brown eyes light up.

“You must be freezing,” she said, kissing him briefly on the lips and then fumbling for her keys. “Must get you that key. You’re here early – someone miss their appointment?”

“No,” said John, following her through the main door and up the stairs to her flat. “I skived off this afternoon.”

“Mina said she was covering for you,” Mary said, unlocking the door.

“Oh?”

“Don’t worry, I wasn’t checking up on you. We were just texting about plans for the weekend.”

“The weekend?”

Mary looked at him, exasperated. “Honestly, John. Mina’s birthday, remember? We’ve booked a table at Eat 17.”

“Right, yeah”, John said. He had of course forgotten. Mina and Mary had been best friends since school, and it had only taken a week after he’d started working at the practice for Mina to introduce them, in full matchmaker mode.

“I got you some stuff. For dinner,” he said, handing over his bags.

“Flowers and wine,” said Mary, taking them out. “Very impressive. You get all the good boyfriend points.” She moved around her small kitchen area, fetching glasses and a vase.

John went and leant against the counter, close to her. He accepted a glass of wine.

“Cheers,” he said.

“Is this in aid of anything special, then?” Mary said. “What have you been up to?” She opened the fridge and frowned at the contents. “I’m just doing pasta for dinner, is that OK?”

“Lovely,” said John. He shifted out of the way a bit as Mary took some vegetables out of the fridge and set to work chopping them, with her usual efficiency. He tried to choose an explanation that would fit.

“I – I saw Sherlock,” he said. Mary stopped cutting an aubergine into tiny pieces and looked over at him.

“That is, he wanted my help with something he was working on.”  He shrugged. “He texted me. So I went, and – it was OK. I mean, I’m still pissed off with him, but I didn’t – it wasn’t awful.” I didn’t want to hurt him, he thought, but the less said about that the better.

Mary was looking a bit puzzled, searching his face. He hadn’t really talked to her much about helping Sherlock with his cases, he’d been eager to draw a line under all of that, start afresh. And he wasn’t entirely sure she would approve.

“That’s great, isn’t it?” she said, sounding unsure. “I mean, if you’re feeling better about the stuff he did.”

“I think I am, a bit, yeah,” said John. “I’m not happy with him or anything, but he did have his reasons. And he actually apologized to me today, I couldn’t believe it.”

But Mary had never known Sherlock before, so she wouldn’t get how impossible this had been.

“So are you going to be  - friends with him again?” she said, turning back to the chopping board, so that John couldn’t see her face.  Early in their relationship, when they’d been having the conversation about exes, Mary had been insistent that Sherlock counted. “You loved him,” she’d said, with certainty. And John hadn’t denied it.

“Not in the same way” he said, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t think – I don’t think that’ll ever happen. I mean, we’re both different people now, right? But, I don’t know, maybe I’ll see him the odd time. As long as you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t mind,” said Mary. “He was your - your best friend, after all, wasn’t he. The whole situation is still really weird, but if you can forgive him, then that’s great.” Her tone suggested otherwise, though, and she sounded reticent. As though there were things she wasn’t telling him. John shifted, uneasily. Maybe he was being too forgiving of Sherlock. Or Mary was being over-protective.

“Hey,” he said, putting his wine down reaching out to touch her shoulder, drawing her into a hug. “If you’re not OK with it, I won’t see him.” 

Mary half-hugged him back, awkwardly, kitchen knife still in one hand. “I’m OK with it,” she said. “I just don’t want you to get hurt again.”

“I won’t,” said John. “I promise.” He let her go. “How was your day, then?” he said.

After dinner, Mary made coffee and they sat on her sofa together, Mary with her shoes off, her feet curled up, leaning against him, warm and familiar. John reached for the TV remote, Mary put her head on his shoulder, and they watched rubbish television for a bit together, peaceful, laughing at the worst bits.  This was what it should be like, being a couple, John thought. Sometimes he’d watched TV with Sherlock, but as with everything he did with Sherlock, it’d been pretty much a spectator sport with Sherlock as the performer. He had an image of Sherlock in Baker Street, at that moment, watching TV on his own. Would he still berate the screen with no-one to hear him? John frowned, and tightened his arm round Mary.

Their programme ended and Mary sighed and stirred beside him. Then she sighed again, more noticeably, and shifted away to sit up. She reached for the control and switched the TV off, then turned to look at John, drawing her legs up so that she was sitting on the sofa facing him. He felt a twinge of unease.

“Hey” she said. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

There was a moment when John experienced pure panic. If he lost Mary, he had no idea what he would do. But she was stroking his arm, reassuring, this couldn’t be a break-up conversation.

“I meant to tell you last week,” she was saying, “but with Sherlock, and everything – well, it didn’t seem to be a good time. But. The thing is, I’ve had another job offer.”

“OK,” said John cautiously. “That’s good, isn’t it?”

Mary grimaced, and sighed. She ran her fingers through her brown curls, which were still endearingly frizzy, from the rain earlier.

“You remember on our first date? When I told you I’d been thinking of applying for VSO?”

John nodded. Mary was adventurous, well-travelled, it had been one of the things that had drawn him to her.

“And I told you I had friends out in Africa, and that I’d always thought I’d like to spend a few years there. But, you know, then – things got serious. With us, so I kind of gave up on the idea.”

‘Mmm,” said John, trying to look sympathetic. He still wasn’t sure where this was going.

“So last week, I had an email from my friend who works in Uganda, and he said that in his local town, they’ve just got funding from an NGO for a new school, or more like a training centre for sixteen to eighteen year olds, getting them set up as apprentices, helping them find some work experience, that kind of stuff, and anyway, they’re advertising for someone to run it and so – well, she thought of me.”

John’s heart sank. “That sounds – it sounds like a good job. For you,” he said.

“That’s the thing,” said Mary. “I mean, I’d definitely get it, I think I would, and it would be my dream job, in lots of ways.” She took John’s hands. “But I said I’d have to talk to you, of course. I thought maybe you – I told Emil about you and he said that they always need doctors, that they could find something, they think they have the funding – it would be good work, you’d be brilliant at it…”

“Wait,” said John. “Hold on. You mean we’d both go? To Uganda? Together?”

Mary nodded, clearly nervous. “I just, I know it’s a really big thing to spring on you, and I haven’t done anything about it, I’m still thinking. But I.” She sighed. “We haven’t really talked about stuff for a while. You know, anything serious. We’ve just been going along, following our little routines.”

John felt a pang: he liked their routines. They were his safety-net, his insurance against too much remembering, too much thought.

“I’m thirty-eight,” Mary was continuing, talking rapidly. “And all this – it’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not what I want for the rest of my life. I mean, I’ve always wanted to live abroad again, properly live there. And it’s not as though – it’s not as though you want to settle down here and buy a house and have kids, is it? I might – if that was what you wanted, then maybe. I love you, I do think we could try to make it work. But I know you, John. I feel like you’re into the quiet life now, because, you know, because of what happened, but you miss the excitement. You’re not stretched, being a GP, are you? You’ll get bored.”

Mary knew him pretty well. John looked down at their clasped hands. She’d obviously been thinking about this for a while, some of it he’d heard before, and everything she said was pretty much true, he couldn’t deny it. In a brief flash he saw him and Mary getting off a plane into blazing sunlight – he hadn’t felt proper heat in years – sitting on a veranda batting off the mosquitoes, looking up at the tropical night; lying on a bed together watching the fan turn; out in the heat, a makeshift clinic full of people desperately needing his care; good work, work that would make a difference.

The irony was that even a month ago he would have said yes unhesitatingly.

Mary was waiting for his response. He met her eyes.

“I love you too,” he said. “I don’t know, you’re probably right about me. And this job, in Uganda.” He tipped his chin up slightly, resolute. “It sounds as though if you don’t go for it, you’ll always regret it.”

He thought Mary might disagree with this, but she pulled a face and then nodded.

“So you should get more of the details, find out exactly what’s going on. I think – I think we should wait until you’re offered the job. You can always turn it down, right?”

“Yes,” said Mary. “You’re right. But should I – will I ask about jobs for you, too?”

John licked his lips. “You could find out, yes. But I would – I’d need to think about it. There’s stuff, here…”

Mary rubbed the back of his hand with her thumb, nodding. “Harry,” she said. “I know you don’t always get on, but she is your family.”

John looked at her, disbelieving. She knew him well, yes, but how could she not know that he wasn’t remotely bothered by being half the world away from Harry? But if he told Mary that he couldn’t leave Sherlock, at least without things being more resolved between them, he would sound like – he would sound like a fool. Or worse.

“Yes,” he said. “And, you know, I would find it hard to leave London.”

“I know,” said Mary. “I know this is a shock. There’s time to think – I’ll ask Emil to send the application details, but even if I do apply, it’ll take a while. He said they were looking for someone to start before Easter but I’m sure – I’m sure they could be flexible.”

John tried to smile at her. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling. “Go ahead and apply,” he said. “I mean it.”

“And you’re not ruling it out?” said Mary, searching his face.

“No,” said John. “No, I’m definitely not ruling it out.”

***

John’s phone trilled as he helped Mary to unpack the takeout boxes. They were having a break from talking about Africa that night, by mutual agreement, since the last two nights of discussion had ended in vague decisions to postpone the decision. But, feeling a little guilty for not being more happy for Mary, John had come round with some posher curry than usual as a tacit celebration of her job offer. He checked his phone.

“Interview out tomorrow – SH”

John hadn’t seen Sherlock in person, but Sherlock had started texting him after that first case, every other day. Apart from on the Christmas and New Year holidays, that was. John had found himself wondering, more than once during his blessedly quiet Christmas with Mary and her parents, if Sherlock was with Mycroft, or alone. His messages carefully didn’t ask questions or demand a reply. John wondered if he had precisely calculated how much exposure to him John was prepared to take, and was proceeding according to a master-plan – designed to do what, though, that was the question. Caution seemed characteristic of Sherlock now, along with the kind of careful thought about John’s likely reaction that he’d so completely failed to apply the one time it had really mattered.

Or perhaps John was reading too much into a series of text updates from an old friend. He usually replied, though not always immediately, and then Sherlock would reply, and then that would be the day’s round of texting over. It couldn’t exactly be called a conversation.

“Looking forward to your official resurrection?” John typed, and hit send.

“Who’s that?” said Mary.

John’s phone trilled again.  “It’s Sherlock,” he said.

“Hardly- SH”

John smiled, and then his phone trilled again:

“But I do need clients – SH.”

Two texts, breaking the rules John had worked out. And strangely honest, too.

“Sherlock’s interview with the Observer comes out tomorrow,” he explained to Mary. “Remember I told you he texted me about it? His brother made him do it, so that he could clear his name properly, let everyone know he’s back.” He smiled at the thought. “I’d love to have been at the interview. Sherlock hates reporters.” His smile faded a bit.

“We’ll read it first thing,” said Mary.  “Unless – unless it’ll upset you, of course.”

“No, it’ll be fine,” said John. “Interesting to see what he says about the last few years. I bet most of it’s classified.”

“Hmm,” said Mary, and the conversation turned to the merits of the new Thai place round the corner.

John woke up the next morning with a sense of expectation, that something unusual was going to happen. Mary wasn’t stirring, she liked to sleep in on weekends. Good. He would go out, get some pastries and the papers, and then maybe he’d be able to read Sherlock’s interview alone and undisturbed. Mary would probably suggest they just looked it up online, but John felt that he wanted the physical copy, hard evidence in his hands. He had a quick pang of guilt that he didn’t want Mary there reading it alongside him, but then dismissed it.

When he sat down with his croissant and unfolded the paper, it wasn’t exactly hard to find Sherlock’s interview. There was a picture of him and a headline and teaser on the front page of the paper – "Resurrection Man: Sherlock Holmes Exclusive", with a couple of brief paragraphs under it – and then the cover of the magazine was a photograph of him, back in one of his old sharp suits, hands in pockets, face half-averted, as though he was avoiding the photographer’s gaze. There had been photos of Sherlock in all the papers and all over the net after he jumped, ambushing John in every corner shop, every supermarket, on every trivial celebrity website. He had to take a breath and remind himself that it was over, before he could open the magazine and read.

The reporter – John thought he recognized her name, she must be quite famous – had done a good job of making Sherlock’s explanation sound at least plausible. John skimmed the first paragraphs, in which Sherlock apparently expressed regret at misleading the press and the public, but reluctantly said that it had been necessary in the service of a greater good and that he’d been a temporary employee of the British Government for the last three years. John snorted. He bet Sherlock had objected vociferously to Mycroft trying to smooth it all over retrospectively by casting him as some kind of double-O agent. And the photos with the article, Sherlock in different suits and poses, were a bit ridiculous. It was like a GQ photoshoot, not an interview about taking down an international crime syndicate.

He turned to the next page and saw his own name, again with a jolt of pain before his brain caught up with the here and now. He brushed a crumb out of the way, fingers sliding over the smooth paper bearing his name, and started to read properly, heart beating a little faster.       

    

'Before his disappearance, Holmes was rarely seen without his constant companion Dr John               Watson. When I admit to Holmes that I believed, with many others, that Watson and he were a couple, he smiles, perhaps a little ruefully, and tells me that Watson is happily living with his girlfriend. According to Holmes, Watson, a former member of the RAMC who now works for a GP practice in East London, disapproved of his plans to fake his death and warned him not to take the risk.

“John would have come with me,” he says now, “but I wouldn’t let him. And if both of us had disappeared, it would have been less believable.”

Watson adamantly refused to talk to the press after Holmes’s apparent suicide. It seems now that this may have been his way of keeping his friend’s secret.

“If I hadn’t known that John was walking round London, free and well, and that I had his support and that of my brother, I couldn’t have done it,” Holmes admits.  Asked whether Watson will be joining him on his future cases, he ducks his head and looks at his hands, seeming almost shy.

“I would certainly hope so,” he says. “Though of course, John’s position as a doctor is very important to him, and I entirely respect that.”

Holmes has already acted as an informal consultant on one case, and sources tell me that Dr Watson may have been briefly in attendance. Also present was Gregory Lestrade, the police inspector whose friendship with Holmes nearly cost him his career.'

 

John stopped reading. He put the magazine down on the table and stared at it, a slow rage building. Not all at Sherlock though, at the journalist, and maybe at Mycroft, if he was behind this, this travesty. These were lies. Sherlock had saved his life, he’d saved all their lives, he hadn’t had a choice, he hadn’t had the help of the bloody government. And what the fuck – ‘would have come with me’? Support? Respect? He got up and paced into the kitchen, fast, staring at the magazine as though it might bite. His phone was on the counter. He picked it up and turned it over, willing himself to calm down a bit before he called.

Mary wandered in from her bedroom, in her dressing gown. “Hey,” she said. “Almond croissants, brilliant.” John watched her eyes fall on the paper.

“Oh,” she said, sitting down on the sofa and picking it up, then flicking it closed to glance at the cover. “Wow. He’s really – you never said he was so good-looking.”

“Is he?” said John. He turned away from Mary, so that she wouldn’t see his face, unnecessarily putting a few dishes in the sink. He could hear her turning pages, and then there was a brief silence.

“But this sounds as if you knew he wasn’t dead,” said Mary, puzzled, nothing more. John braced himself against the counter for a moment, then turned to face her.

“It does a bit, yeah,” he said.

“I don’t get it,” said Mary. “They didn’t interview you, did they? Do you think he’s trying to make it up to you, implying you were involved? I mean… you did think he was dead, right?”

The uncertainty in her voice hit John like a slap in the face. “How can you – ” he said, and then caught himself, he was almost shouting. He took one deep breath, and put his phone in his pocket.

“I’m going out,” he said. “Just for a walk.”

“Oh God, John, I’m sorry, it just came out,” said Mary. “I know you didn’t know, of course I know that. Look, I’ll get dressed and come with you.”

“No,” said John sharply. Then he relented. “No. Sorry. I just want to think about this a bit. On my own.” What he actually wanted to do was ring Sherlock and get an explanation from him, and he didn’t need an audience.  He picked up his coat and left the flat, purposefully refusing to look at Mary as he left.

Once outside, he hesitated a moment, and then dialled Sherlock’s number. It rang five or six times before it was answered.

“Sherlock,” John said. “What the hell – ”

“Hang on, is that John?” said a familiar voice. “It’s Greg, I’ve got Sherlock’s phone. He can’t get it right now.”

“What?” said John, derailed. “Where is he?”

“He’s here,” said Greg. “I mean, we’re both in my flat.”

“In your flat.”

“Sherlock came over last night, wanted to keep away from the reporters.”

“Sherlock stayed at yours?”

“Yeah, he crashed out on my sofa,” said Greg. “You’re calling about the interview, I take it?”

“Yes, I am,” said John, remembering that he was angry. “I want to know what the hell he and Mycroft are playing at.”

Greg sighed. “Can’t answer that one for him. Look, do you want to come over, talk to him in person? He’s in the shower. I was just going to nip to the shops for some bacon, do a proper fry-up.”

John hesitated. Greg was only about twenty minutes away by tube, and he was half-way to the station already. He thought of Mary, guiltily, and then dismissed the thought. He’d make it up to her later.

“OK,” he said. “On my way.”

“Good, see you then,” Greg said, and hung up.

***

The smell of bacon and coffee rolled out when Greg opened the door to John. John nodded at him, and Greg clapped him on the shoulder in his usual greeting.

“You up for some breakfast?” he said. “I’m just finishing up in the kitchen.”

“Sounds good,” said John, automatically.

“Sherlock’s still getting dressed, I think,” said Greg. John followed him into the small kitchen.

“So is this is the first time Sherlock’s stayed with you?” he said, aiming for casual.

Greg shot him a look suggesting that John’s tone wasn’t remotely fooling him.

“No,” he said. “He’s stayed with me quite a few times since he came back. Think he finds Baker St a bit – well, a bit lonely, to be honest.”

John swallowed. Then another, shocking but perhaps not impossible idea hit him. “You’re not, I mean, you and Sherlock aren’t – ”

Greg barked a laugh. “God, no. No, half the time he just shows up, we watch a DVD, have a few beers, I go to bed and he’s passed out on my sofabed in the morning.” He looked at John. “He’s different, you know. Not quite so much of a bloody know-it-all. Keeps it to himself. I think he’s trying to be a bit more, I don’t know, to make it up to people.” He shrugged, looking a bit embarrassed. “Maybe he missed us.”

“He can’t just make it up,” said John. “That article – ”

“John?” said Sherlock’s voice. John turned away from Greg to find him standing in the doorway, wearing jeans and a soft-looking T-shirt. John hadn’t seen him without a coat or jumper on since his return, and he looked alarmingly young and thin, jeans loose on his hips. The hair, still shorter than John was – had been – used to, didn’t help. There was also a scar on his upper right arm that John was sure he hadn’t seen before.

“Breakfast’ll be ready in a few,” said Greg, breaking an egg into the pan. “We’ll have to eat off our knees, I still haven’t got a proper table. You go to the living-room, I’ll bring it in.”

John followed Sherlock into Greg’s living-room, and sat on the sofa, rather aimlessly. Sherlock was standing by the window, looking out, fiddling with the blind cord.

“I read your interview,” John said. He thought he saw Sherlock’s back stiffen. “Why did you – Did you tell that interviewer that I knew what you were going to do?”

“Yes,” said Sherlock, not turning round. “I had to tell her something. We – I – couldn’t release the full story, and this seemed. It seemed preferable.”

“Preferable?” said John. “But it wasn’t true.”

Sherlock made a derisory noise. “None of it was true. There’s no merit in the truth. No-one cares. I told her a version of what could have happened. I thought it was one you might find more – palatable.”

John sighed, anger fading a bit. He could see what Sherlock meant. After all, he’d made it pretty clear how much he hated the fact that Sherlock had deceived him, that his grief and remorse had been for nothing. Which was better, to come across as a hapless dupe, or to come across as smart enough to fake those emotions for years? Put like that, Sherlock’s point made a certain amount of sense.

John rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. “Sherlock – “ he said. “Maybe I wish you had just told the truth, but I suppose I get it. Just, this is another thing you did on my behalf without bothering to tell me first, do you get that?”

Sherlock turned around, so that he was leaning against the window, looking at John. He was frowning slightly. “But you would rather not talk to me,” he said. “You said you didn’t want to know, about anything I was doing.”

“Hey, that’s not true,” John protested. “I’m talking to you now, we’ve been texting each other.”

“Texting,” said Sherlock, with a trace of the old scorn. “You’re only talking to me now because you’re angry with me.”

“No,” said John. “I mean, OK, to some extent. I do – look, I’d be happy to, I don’t know, see more of you. And I may have said some things, when you were first back, that I shouldn’t have. I don’t. I don’t not care, OK?”

“Move back to Baker St,” said Sherlock, fiercely, staring at John.

“What?” said John. “Jesus, Sherlock, you can’t keep asking me this.”

“Three times. I’ve asked you three times. And yes, I can.”

“Look,” said John, trying to be gentle, “You know it’s not possible. We can’t just go back to the way things were.”

“Do you think I don’t know that?” said Sherlock. The depth of bitterness in his tone was shocking. “I know I can’t have what I want. But you’re paying rent on your own flat. I wouldn’t charge you anything, and you could still get to work, to Mary’s. Even if you were only there sometimes, if your things were there….”

“Sherlock,” said John. His throat felt tight. “Stop. Just stop it.”

“Why should I?” said Sherlock. “I’ve got nothing to lose by trying. Even –“ He stopped, biting his lip. “You must see the logic.”

Greg came through the door, balancing three plates precariously in his hands. “Grub’s up,” he said, then looked up and saw them. “Forgot the, emm – I’ll just get it,” he said, and backed out again.

John took a deep breath and then let it out. “Nothing about this is logical,” he said.

Sherlock looked to the side. He crossed his arms around himself, defensive, and then pressed one hand to his mouth.

“I might be moving to Africa,” said John. “With Mary. She’s had an offer of a great job, in Uganda, a couple of days ago.” He ducked his head and rubbed the back of his neck, purposefully not looking up at Sherlock. “I’m still thinking about it,” he told the floor, “but it could be a good thing, for me.” He looked up. Sherlock was staring at him, his expression unguarded, stricken. John couldn’t hold his gaze. He looked away.

“I just wanted to let you know,” he said. He was already regretting the impulse to tell Sherlock.

“I see,” said Sherlock. “I have to go now. Please excuse me.”

“What – ” said John. “Wait a minute – ”

But Sherlock was already at the door, and as John stood up to follow him, he wrenched the door to Greg’s flat open and started down the stairs, fast; the door closed in John’s face as he got to it. Damn it.

Greg came out of the kitchen, glanced at John’s expression and winced.

“Sherlock off, is he?” he said.

“Looks like,” said John. “Hell. I told him something I shouldn’t have, he took it pretty badly.”

Greg half-shrugged. “Have some breakfast, it’ll cheer you up,” he said, and John nodded acceptance.

They sat on the sofa eating their fry-ups in companionable silence for a few moments, but John could feel Greg’s restrained curiosity.

“Mary’s got a job offer in Uganda,” he said. “She’s probably going to take it, and she’s asked me to go with her. It’s not official yet, so don’t tell anyone. I’m still trying to make up my mind. Sherlock was just – you know, every time he sees me, he asks me to move back in with him and I just, he doesn’t get it.”

“Africa, eh?” said Greg, raising his eyebrows.

“Pretty big move. Would this be permanently?”

“I don’t know,” said John. “Indefinitely, I suppose.”

Greg put his plate down on the floor. “Look,” he said. “I’ve never really known what the deal was with you and Sherlock. I know you probably don’t want to hear this, and God knows I’m the last person anyone would ask for advice on how to deal with this kind of shit, but I think Sherlock’s in a bad way, and some of it’s about you.”

John felt guilty, and then angry, and then he tamped both down. Greg wasn’t being interfering, he was trying to be a friend. He waited for more.

“I reckon he – ” Greg looked embarrassed. “I reckon he really cares about you. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.”

“It’s not like I don’t give a shit about him,” said John, defensive.

“I’m crap at this,” said Greg. “I mean, he doesn’t care like a friend. He’s.” He coughed. “He loves you, I suppose. He’s kind of – desperate about it.”

“Sherlock doesn’t love anyone except himself,” said John, reflexively.

“Maybe that used to be true,” said Greg. “But I told you, he’s different. Look, obviously you’re with Mary and all that, he knows it isn’t reciprocated or anything. Just – he’s taking it really hard, thinking that you hate him and that you’ll never forgive him.”

“He said that?” said John.

“Not exactly, but it’s pretty fucking obvious.”

John took a couple of breaths. He really didn’t need Greg lecturing him on being nice to Sherlock. “I don’t owe him anything,” he said, clipped.

“John,” said Greg. “You owe him your life. I owe him my life. Whatever you may think about his methods – “

“His methods?” said John. “His fucking methods? He made me watch him jump off that fucking building: he fucking destroyed me. Three years without one single word, one hint, and now all of a sudden I’m supposed to say that everything’s fine and we’re right back where we were?” He stopped abruptly, aware that his fists were clenched, and he was almost shaking.

“Shit, John,” said Greg. “I’m sorry, I told you I’d fuck this up. No-one would think you should – oh, hell. Look, I shouldn’t have said anything. Just forget it, OK?”

John swallowed, trying to get himself under control; he felt dangerous. “OK,” he said. “OK, sorry.”

“No problem,” said Greg. “You’d be missed, if you went off to the other side of the world, you know. Who knows, though, maybe it’d be the best thing for Sherlock, get him over this.”

“Yeah, maybe,” said John. “Look, thanks for breakfast. I’d better get back to Mary, I sort of walked out on her this morning.”

Greg nodded. “Fancy a pint sometime?” he said, tentative.

“Yes,” said John, trying to smile at him. “Yes, that’d be great. I can get away most weekdays, just give me a ring.”

As he left Greg’s flat he still wasn’t absolutely sure where he was going, but he knew that he needed to walk a bit, to think. He was still shaken by the strength of his anger at Greg, at Greg’s words. And it wasn’t as if Greg hadn’t been making a fair point. Sherlock had saved his life. John – almost – hated him for it.

He found that he was almost at the tube, and abruptly he knew he wasn’t going to Mary’s, or his flat. He was going to Baker St. He was going to have it out with Sherlock. He’d apologize for springing the Uganda thing on him, and he’d try to explain firmly and kindly to Sherlock that John would always be his friend, but that he had another life now, and that Sherlock ought to move on. 

At the back of his mind Greg’s words were floating around: “desperate”, and worse, "love". But how would Greg know, he told himself firmly. John would talk to Sherlock, and he would see for himself that Greg was mistaken.   

Chapter Text

A couple of minutes after John got off the tube at Baker Street, still determined, he sensed rather than saw one of Mycroft’s fleet of black shiny cars drawing up beside him. He walked on, not turning to look. The car kept pace with him. John considered his options, then turned down a side-street and waited. Sure enough, Mycroft was in the back seat, opening the door for him. John bent down.

“I’m not getting in,” he said, then straightened again.

He expected some protest, but Mycroft slid unfussily across the seat and unfurled himself from the car. His hair was visibly greyer than when John had last seen him, but then, so was John’s own.

“Dr Watson,” said Mycroft. “How are you?”

“Since you’re here, I’m assuming you already know,” said John.

Mycroft inclined his chin slightly. “We haven’t been watching you, John,” he said. “Try to conceive that I might simply be interested in your welfare, under the – under the circumstances.”

John sighed. It had been years since he’d had to decode Mycroft, and now it all seemed like too much effort.

“Just say whatever it was you wanted to say to me, and then go,” he said. “Nothing I do is your business, not any more.”

“Sherlock is my business,” said Mycroft. “His well-being. There are some things I believe you have not fully appreciated.” He looked around.

“I take it you are on your way to Baker St, but I suggest that if you wish to avoid the press, you might instead make your way to the Diogenes Club, where Sherlock is staying in one of our private rooms. I would be happy to escort you there.”

“No,” said John.

Mycroft’s lips tightened. “Very well,” he said. He stooped down and tapped on the front window of the car, and the engine shut off. “I will be brief.” He cleared his throat. “Whether or not my brother chooses to acknowledge it, he suffered from significant mental and physical trauma during his – absence.”

He looked at John for a response. John half-shrugged: tell me something I don’t know.

Significant,” said Mycroft. “If you ever wish to know the details, I have,” he waved a hand towards the car – “documents, evidence…” He looked at John questioningly for a beat, then, seeing no response, over his head, apparently fascinated by the grimy bricks of the building behind.

“Delighted as I am that Sherlock has returned to me – to us – I have some concerns as to his recovery. He has not been…altogether himself. I believe that a, how shall I put it, a beneficial relationship with you would assist this recovery.”

“A beneficial relationship,” said John bitterly. “Like to tell me what that would be? Because you’re the second person this morning to lecture me on being nice to Sherlock, and I’m already fucking tired of it. I don’t know what you think’s been going on, but I’ve hardly seen him since he got back.”

“Indeed,” said Mycroft.

“I have a life,” said John. “I have a job, a girlfriend, a flat – I have things going on that you don’t know about, that Sherlock doesn’t know about, because he wasn’t fucking here.”

Entirely unexpectedly, and so fast that that John didn’t have time to react, Mycroft took hold of his upper arms, pushed him against the car and pinned him there, leaning into him. John automatically fought his grip, but it was unbreakable.

“And while you were recovering and getting on with this life,” Mycroft said, leaning in, softly but with cold steel beneath it, “my brother was beaten and tortured” – John flinched very slightly at the word and felt Mycroft notice – “and pursued across two continents, so that you and all the other hapless people walking these streets could carry on with your petty affairs. You particularly, John.”

He abruptly let go of John and stepped back, smoothing his lapels as though wiping himself clean of emotion. He breathed in, and then exhaled, once and then twice, while John stared at him. Presumably that was what Mycroft caring about someone looked like.

“Africa,” Mycroft said. “It might be for the best. Go home, John. Going to see Sherlock now, in your current mood, what purpose will it serve?”

John straightened up warily. “You didn’t set this up, did you?” he said. “Mary’s job?”

“No,” said Mycroft. He sounded suddenly tired. “Your situation was recently brought to my awareness, and of course I could – interfere. Either way. It has crossed my mind.” He seemed to shake himself slightly, and then drew himself together, formal.

“I apologize for the turn this conversation has taken. I had originally planned to offer you a substantial incentive to move back in with Sherlock, and to keep an eye on him. But I am no longer sure that this would be in his long-term interests, even if you choose to remain in the country. I cannot, of course, prevent you from speaking to or seeing him, but I would suggest that if you are not prepared to help his recovery, do not give him false hope of your friendship.”

“I don’t – ” said John. But he wasn’t even sure what the end of the sentence was going to be, and Mycroft had already stepped past him and was opening the car door, getting inside. John was left standing on the pavement. He hadn’t even mentioned the sodding newspaper article to Mycroft, and he was uncomfortably aware that although he wanted to protest what Mycroft had said, it hadn’t been far removed from the speech to Sherlock he’d been planning in his head, on the tube.

He started walking, almost glad of the distance to the Diogenes Club; he’d been an idiot to think of going to Baker St, and the thought of walking like an innocent into a herd of reporters made him shiver. He stopped outside the door, deeply reluctant to enter Mycroft’s territory. Mycroft and Sherlock were probably watching his hesitation. Oh, fuck it, he had to go in. He was – he wanted to know, hopeless as this desire was, he wanted to know what Sherlock was thinking.

He rang the doorbell. There was a pause. He rang it again, feeling suddenly foolish – maybe the club was closed. But he heard steps inside, coming down the hallway, and then the door opened to a lackey.

“Sherlock Holmes,” said John, with a confidence he didn’t feel. The man nodded and gestured up the stairs; John followed him up to the third floor, past the door that hid Mycroft’s office, up to a narrower corridor lined with doors, like a hotel. The servant or whatever he was gestured towards the first door on the right, bowed slightly and then went back downstairs. John lifted his hand to knock, but before he’d readied his expression the door opened and Sherlock was there, looking wary. 

“I, umm, I wanted to explain, after Greg’s,” he said.

Sherlock looked past him, narrow-eyed, up and down the corridor, as though expecting to see Mycroft training a gun on John’s head.

“Mycroft told me I shouldn’t come,” said John. “But, well, I wanted to. Can I come in?”

Sherlock still didn’t say anything, but he stepped aside, and John entered the room. It was bigger than he’d expected, like a posh hotel room, with a marble fireplace, leather armchairs in front of it, a desk and bed, heavy red velvet drapes drawn. There were no signs of Sherlock’s occupancy, so maybe he was just there for the day, avoiding the press.

Sherlock was watching John look. He cleared his throat. “I could ring for some tea or coffee,” he said.

“I’m fine, thanks,” said John. “Do you mind if I?” He gestured towards one of the armchairs.

Sherlock nodded, and John crossed the room and sat down, carefully. After a discernible hesitation, Sherlock came over and sat across from him, hands clasped in his lap, poised to leap up. He looked tense, thought John, as though he was braced to hear bad news, and he wouldn’t quite meet John’s eyes. Maybe that made it easier, though. John took a deep breath.

“OK,” he said. “So. The thing is. Look, about the Uganda thing” – he sensed Sherlock stiffening – “look, nothing’s fixed. I haven’t made my mind up. This morning I was pissed off – justifiably pissed off, but I don’t want you to think. You’re acting like I hate you – no, that’s not it – it’s like you need me for something, but I don’t know what, I don’t understand what you want from me. You keep asking me to move back in with you, when you know I can’t, you text me, but we’re not – we’ve barely spoken. And, umm, Greg, Mycroft…..I feel like I don’t have a fucking clue what’s going on with you and that pisses me off more. And I’m trying, I’m really trying to stop being so angry with you; I know you apologized, I get it, but it’s not like it makes me feel better, knowing you maybe wish you’d done things differently. Because you made that choice, and, I don’t know, you got hurt, and I was, I was not OK. And then I was OK, and then you came back, and now…”

He looked at Sherlock, who was bent over his clasped hands, still and silent. “Sherlock? Are you listening?”

“Yes,” said Sherlock. John couldn’t read his tone.

“We can’t just go back to the way things were,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be – that we can’t be friends.”

Sherlock said something, but too low for John to pick up.

“What?” he said.

“I said, I can’t be your friend,” said Sherlock.

John felt the words hit him, with such sharp pain that he almost raised a hand to his heart.

Sherlock raised his head and looked at him, but he didn’t look pissed-off or coldly disdainful, he looked agitated.

“While I was gone,” he said. “There was time, there was too much time, too much space in between the work, too much waiting between the planning and the execution, and I kept thinking – I couldn’t stop thinking, John, and then there was Shanghai, and there were times after that when you were all I could think of, especially when they, when I was in Kazakhstan, later – and I let myself, because I didn’t think it mattered, when I wouldn’t be coming back, and it helped but it didn’t, and then when – ”

“Sherlock,” said John, breaking in, “Sherlock, stop, I’m not following – just, back up, explain it to me.” His heart was hammering. He hadn’t heard Sherlock say this much since his return.

Sherlock made a noise of frustration and then pressed a hand against his mouth, as though keeping something in.

“You were in Shanghai,” said John carefully. Wouldn’t be coming back echoed in his head.

“Trying to bring down a highly placed businessman in Moriarty’s network,” said Sherlock. “He was very cautious. Except in bed.”

John struggled to control the shock that he was sure Sherlock could see on his face. He swallowed. “I don’t understand,” he said.

“I thought of you,” said Sherlock.

Don’t ask, John willed himself, but it was as though he could see the cliff beginning to crumble and was helpless to stop it. “Thought of me when?” he said.

“Every time he fucked me,” said Sherlock. “I have a certain amount of control over my physical responses, but – not enough for every situation. I needed to make it convincing, at that point.” He looked away. “I hadn’t necessarily expected to see you again, so you would never know.”

“Oh,” said John. He had absolutely no idea what to say. His mind was a roaring blank. He took a breath. “And. And Kazakhstan?”

Sherlock frowned at him, as though it were obvious. “I got caught,” he said. “Inexcusably. I knew they would get bored and kill me eventually, and I let myself....”  He broke off, biting his lip. John waited.

Sherlock gripped his short hair with one hand, grimacing, and then pushed himself out of the chair. John almost jerked back, thinking Sherlock was somehow launching himself at him, but instead he paced over to the window, stopped a moment, and then wheeled back, stopping in front of the mantelpiece and staring into the empty grate.

“I can’t,” he said. “This is intolerable. You should go. Please.”

John stood up. There were a lot of things in what Sherlock had said that were setting off alarm bells, flashing for his attention, but one still stood out.

“You said you can’t be my friend, now,” he said, slowly. “Because you thought – you thought about us, together.”

Sherlock was now braced with one hand on the mantelpiece, in a pose that would have looked theatrical on anyone else. “Please leave, John,” he said.

“No,” said John. “No, you don’t get to make these – these fucking declarations and then just tell me to leave. Because you know what, everyone’s told me to leave you today. But here’s the thing: you left me, but I can never leave you. You were all I could fucking think of, for years. Why do you think I’ve been so angry with you – you – “

He broke off, breathing hard. Sherlock hadn’t even turned round.

Look at me,” said John, and he walked over, pulled on Sherlock’s arm until he yielded, half-turning, and then, without consciously thinking, leant up and pressed his mouth against Sherlock’s, firmly. He felt Sherlock stiffen in shock, not responding, but when John drew back, Sherlock made a sort of gasp and bent down to meet his mouth, and John opened his mouth, without even thinking about it, and so did Sherlock, and then they were kissing properly, nothing gentle about it, fierce and wanting.

Yes, thought John, and, this is what I should have done, and a small part of his brain whispered that there was a bed just across the room, and surely he could push and Sherlock would take, and it would be like fighting, like the moment of clarity after that first punch. He grasped the back of Sherlock’s neck and pushed against him, letting Sherlock feel that he was getting hard, and Sherlock made a low noise that John could hardly bear. He was losing himself in the slide of their tongues, slipping away like sand in water, and he pressed himself against Sherlock more urgently, fumbling with his shirt buttons with his free hand, thinking about walking him backwards and then crawling over him, on the bed.

Sherlock swayed a little and John followed the motion, crowding him until they were actually walking backwards, the few paces needed to bring Sherlock up against the foot of the bed. John broke off from his mouth and bit at his shoulder, his chest, all that skin he was exposing as he undid the rest of Sherlock’s buttons. He paused to pull his own jumper and T-shirt over his head and then pressed his chest against Sherlock’s and reached up for his mouth again, gasping at the contact of skin on skin.

Sherlock let John push him down on the bed, his hands moving restlessly over John’s back. John shoved himself up a bit and reached between them for the buttons on Sherlock’s trousers, but as he did he saw that Sherlock’s eyes were squeezed shut, as if in pain. The alarm bells, which he’d been successfully ignoring, sounded again. Maybe only a couple of minutes had passed, but John came back to himself enough to realise that Sherlock was surely being unusually passive, though who knew what was usual for him, at this point.

“Are you OK?” he said.

“I,” said Sherlock. He didn’t open his eyes. John saw his throat work. He slid a hand down Sherlock’s bare chest, half reassuring, half hopeful. Sherlock caught his wrist. He opened his eyes and met John’s. His eyes were clear, and wide. He looked scared, John realised, with a jolt.

“No,” he said. “No, I can’t, I’m sorry.” He pushed at John as he spoke, and John moved as fast as he could, clumsy to the side, to sit on the bed, still shocked. Sherlock struggled up and swung his legs off the other side of the bed, so that John couldn’t see his face, and then up to standing, pulling the edges of his shirt together. John tried to gather his wits: he was still half-hard, he was dazed by the feeling of Sherlock under him, of his mouth. He had no idea what the hell had just happened, but the imagined alarms were now sounding as loudly as a fleet of emergency vehicles.

 “Sherlock?” he said.

Sherlock was buttoning his shirt. John saw with mounting concern that his hands were shaking. He paused when John spoke, and then sat down abruptly on the end of the bed. 

“Are you not - Was that – not good?” said John.

“You,” said Sherlock, and swallowed. “You didn’t read Mycroft’s files.  I know he offered.”

“I didn’t read them,” John confirmed. “Sherlock, it’s OK, whatever it is.”

“It is not OK,” said Sherlock, clipped and impatient. “I want you, I’ve wanted you for years but this, all of this – ” He gestured towards them, to the disarranged bed. “I didn’t anticipate this, it’s too – I can’t, John. And you, you’re not thinking – the consequences…”

“What?” said John. Sherlock creased his brow at him impatiently, in perhaps the first glimpse John had had in this whole encounter of his old self, and John remembered with a sickening rush that he had Mary, and that he hadn’t thought of her once until now.  

Sherlock saw the realisation hit. “Go,” he said, tiredly. “And you should probably ask Mycroft for the files on the way out. I’m staying here for a few days, until the fuss dies down, but then he has a case for me in Italy. Rome, I believe.”

John couldn’t come up with a single thing to say. He was vibrating with anxiety, though whether about Sherlock or Mary he couldn’t tell. He stood up and put on his clothes, noting that his hands were completely steady.

Sherlock wasn’t watching him, he was rubbing a thumb over the back of his right hand, quiet. When John hesitated before going to the door, he looked up. John met his eyes. He didn’t want to leave, like this, but Mary – and probably Sherlock wanted him to go, he couldn’t read him at all. In the end he didn’t say anything, he just nodded and let himself out, feeling as though he’d failed at something of such importance that he couldn’t quite take it in.

John went down half a flight of stairs and then stopped, thinking that he should go back. To find Sherlock doing what? Not my place, he thought, at random, and kept going. He knocked on the door of Mycroft’s office as he passed, feeling deeply guilty, as though Mycroft would take one look at him and know exactly what had happened in Sherlock’s room. Mycroft opened the door, a wedge of manila files already in his other hand.

“Sherlock said I should read them,” said John.

“Did he,” said Mycroft. He hesitated a moment, and then held them out. “You should know that he has been offered every assistance,” he said. “Once we retrieved him I took him to a private clinic, but he insisted on leaving as soon as he regained his mobility. He has refused counselling or any other form of therapy.”

“He, um,” said John. “He mentioned that he’d been captured in Kazakhstan. Is that where you…?”

Mycroft half smiled at him, pitying. “John,” he said. “Kazakhstan was over a year ago.”

“Oh. Right.” said John. He tucked the files under his arm and made to leave.

“Take care, John,” Mycroft said to his retreating back. John didn’t have a response to that, so he kept going.

When he got outside, he checked his phone. There were three messages from Mary, which he hadn’t even heard arrive. The files were burning a hole into his jacket, and he could still feel Sherlock’s mouth on his. He couldn’t speak to her. He sent a brief text. “I’m fine. Caught up in something with Sherlock. Not angry, see you later” and then walked towards the nearest café to sit down and read.

**

John skimmed the files twice. Then he forced himself to read them again, more carefully, like watching a car crash in slow motion. He didn’t really remember leaving the café and walking aimlessly, until he registered that his feet had taken him back to Greg’s area, and he started to walk more purposefully: he desperately needed to talk to someone, and obviously his subconscious knew that there wasn’t anyone else. Greg buzzed him in and was waiting at his door, expression of concern deepening as he saw however John was looking.

“John,” he said with alarm. “What the hell happened? Is everything OK?”

“No,” said John. “No, everything is – it’s so far from fucking OK that I can’t even tell you.”

“Shit,” said Greg. “Come in, sit down, do you need a drink?”

“Yes,” said John. “Please, if you’ve got.” He sat down heavily on the sofa, as Greg disappeared for a moment and then came back with a glass of what smelt like whisky. John took a large gulp and let it sting his throat, immediately feeling a bit better.

“So I’m guessing this is about Sherlock,” said Greg, sitting beside him. “You saw him, after you left here?”

“I was just going to talk to him,” said John, “and then we nearly had sex – ”

“Oh, Christ,” said Greg.

“Yes,” said John, “but that’s not even the worst of it. He was – he was panicked, I don’t know, so we stopped, and then he said to get his file from Mycroft, and I read it, and fuck – ” His voice wavered, and he realised that his eyes were wet, the alcohol lowering his last defences.

“I’ll get the bottle,” said Greg grimly, mercifully giving John a moment to pull himself together. He came back carrying it and a glass for himself and topped up John’s. John took another substantial swig.

“I had no idea,” he said, though as he said it, he knew it wasn’t entirely true. “I mean, I knew he’d done some dangerous things, been injured – that’s usual, isn’t it, for Sherlock? But this – he was barely even trying to stay alive. All these things he did. Did you know that one of Moriarty’s cells caught him?”

“No,” said Greg. “He hasn’t told me anything. Though to be honest, it’s pretty obvious that some fucking terrible things have happened to him.”

“They held him for six months,” said John, looking at his hands clenched round the glass, and seeing Sherlock, across the table from him in that pub, making painful small talk. “I don’t think Sherlock told Mycroft anything, but Mycroft found one of them. Six months. He was – he was abused, tortured. They think, umm, they think it was sexual. Partly. The – the abuse. I mean, he didn’t tell them, but that’s what, what the files say.” He took a drink without looking up. “And he still managed to find a way to escape. After six months of that. And I was here, all the time, meeting Mary, moving on.” He drank some more whisky, turning it round. “I want to kill them all,” he said. “Everyone who touched him, everyone he touched. I want – I want to hurt him myself, for letting this happen. “

“John,” said Greg, and sighed. “Hell. There’s nothing you could have done. Nothing I could have done, either. You can’t blame yourself for this.”

John snorted, without humour. “This afternoon I nearly had sex with a – with a traumatized rape victim. I was going to cheat on my partner and I didn’t even care. You know what the worst is? All this time I’ve thought: at least I’m in the right, what he did was unacceptable. But I couldn’t have done any of the things he did to take down Moriarty’s network, I’d have broken a few weeks in. He said he should have taken me, but I would have been fucking useless. It’s not a fucking comfort to know there’s nothing I could ever have done.”

“Look,” said Greg. “First off, I’m willing to bet everything I own that Sherlock would cause you serious bodily harm if he heard you talking about him like that. I can’t believe I have to go into this, but he was happy to, to snog you or whatever, right?”

“Yes. Maybe. But I was the one – ”

“But nothing,” said Greg. “I’m not going to touch the Mary issue, you can sort that out yourself. But as far as Sherlock’s concerned, you need to stop this. He’s here, isn’t he? He may not be a hundred per cent, but he’s got time. He did it. He made it home. If you want to help him, go for it, but for fuck’s sake, I’m not having the two of you both coming round here wallowing in self-pity.”

 “Shit,” said John. “Sorry I – sorry I lost it like that. It’s just – ”

“Yeah,” said Greg, taking a good slug of whiskey. “Yeah, I know.”

John knocked back the rest of his drink. “I should go and see Mary,” he said. “And I should probably ring Sherlock.” He didn’t move.

“Stay a bit if you want,” said Greg. “Or stay the night if you need to, seems to be what I’m here for. There’s a good Chinese down the road if you want to eat.”

John willed himself to stand up and take his leave, to go and make it up to Mary, to act responsibly, but he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t go and see her. He couldn’t begin to convey what had happened, the magnitude of it, but nor could he look her in the eye and lie with the evidence of what he’d done with Sherlock written on his face, on his body. He didn’t know what he would say to Sherlock, either, if he saw him. None of his complicated feelings seemed fit for expression. But still less could he go back to his empty, soulless flat with Mycroft’s files for company.

“Are you sure?” he said to Greg. “I’m not exactly good company right now.”

“That’s what friends are for,” said Greg, shrugging. “Though if you keep crying on my shoulder about Sherlock I’m kicking you out, mind.”

John couldn’t quite smile, but he nodded in gratitude, and when Greg held out the bottle, he took it. He’d need to ring Mary, and he needed to decide what to do about Sherlock, but first, he needed to lean back on Greg’s sofa and drink a great deal more Scotch.

**

After they finished the bottle and the takeout, he called Mary, and told her, again, that something unspecified was up with Sherlock and he was talking it over with Greg, not to worry, he’d call her in the morning at work. She was worried, then angry, then understanding: the understanding was worst. He started five texts to Sherlock, but didn’t send them. Luckily Greg made an off-licence run while John was on the phone. By midnight they were a third down the new bottle of whisky and on Die Hard 3; both slumped on the sofa.

“Is this what you do with Sherlock?” John asked, bored by the new round of things exploding onscreen.

“With a bit less alcohol involved, pretty much, yeah,” said Greg.

“I miss watching TV with him,” said John, then frowned. He hadn’t really intended to say that.

Greg stretched out an awkward hand and patted him on the shoulder.

“Things’ll work out,” he said.

“They didn’t work out with you and your ex,” said John. “Sorry,” he added as an afterthought.

“True,” Greg admitted, sliding a bit further down the sofa, “Maybe they won’t work out, then. “ He sighed. “I should turn in, I’ve got work tomorrow. Need any help with the sofabed?”

“No,” said John. “I’m good. Think I might finish watching this, if it won’t keep you up. Then I should – I don’t know, I should go home. Out. Somewhere.” He wasn’t paying any attention to the film, but the noise and chaos was pleasantly distracting.

“Whatever suits,” said Greg. He rubbed a hand over his face and then pushed himself up with a groan, heading into his bedroom, and then coming back with a duvet, which he tossed at John.

“Night, then,” he said. “I’m leaving at 7:30, by the way, if you’re still here then.”

“No problem,” said John. “Thanks. I’ll go in a bit, maybe get some sleep and then try to catch Mary before work.”

“See you later, then,” said Greg.   

John half-listened to the comforting sounds of Greg getting ready for bed, and then his door closed and there was silence, other than the noise from the television. John shook his head to clear it. Tempting as it was to slump down where he was and go to sleep, he felt restless, awake, and not nearly as drunk as he should be. It was nearly midnight. He thought he might go for a walk, maybe back to his flat, maybe not, work off some of his nervous energy.  He must have walked at least three miles or so earlier, but he didn’t feel it.

He switched the television off and picked up the files. He thought about leaving a note, but in the end decided against it, simply letting himself out quietly. The night air was cold and clear, sobering, the frost already glinting off the pavements.

He’d walked a couple of hundred yards along the street, when he heard a car behind him, slowing. He looked round, not surprised to see one of Mycroft’s fleet, though he wondered whether Mycroft had come to get his files back, or if he were there because Sherlock had told him about the afternoon’s events. It didn’t seem to matter much, either way. The door opened and Mycroft leant out, looking somehow agitated even though every hair was in place.

“Get in,” he said. “Sherlock’s gone.”

“What? Gone where?” John found himself getting into the car. He set the files on the seat between them, leaving them there.

“I had hoped you would be able to answer that question,” said Mycroft. He reached over John and pulled the door shut, then pulled open the panel to speak to the driver. “Headquarters,” he said, and sat back, pulling out a tablet and tapping on it impatiently as the car pulled out.

“He left the club via a – an unorthodox route around two or three hours ago. He’s not answering his phone, and he’s not in Baker St or with Mrs Hudson, or at Barts. From your location, I assume he’s also not with Inspector Lestrade. I have people monitoring the CCTV network and searching in person, but we lost him twenty metres from the club and he hasn’t reappeared.”

“Shit,” said John. He scrubbed a hand over his mouth and wondered whether he had to tell Mycroft what had happened, earlier. “Are you worried about – about drugs?”

“I’m worried about everything. Though in reference to Sherlock’s addiction, I believe I have no cause for particular worry, right now.”

John made a noncommittal noise. Mycroft stopped typing and turned to look at him.

“You’re drunk,” he said, disapproving. Then his gaze narrowed. “Anything you’d like to tell me?” 

“It’s – it’s private,” said John. “But we have to find him, I don’t know if – he might not be OK.”

“I’m aware. Can you think of anywhere he might go?”

John tried to think, through a haze of whisky and panic. He hadn’t even known that Sherlock liked to hang out at Greg’s, how was he supposed to – wait. He took out his phone.

“I’m calling Greg,” he said. “He knows Sherlock – “ he paused. “He knows what he’s been doing, since he got back.”

The phone rang. John willed Greg to wake up and answer. Eventually, after six endless rings, he did, sleepily.

“It’s me,” John said. “Sherlock’s missing. Mycroft’s tried 221 – is there anywhere else he would go?”

“Missing?” said Greg. “Hang on, let me think. Umm. What did Molly say, she hangs out with him more than I do?”

“Molly?” said John. “Molly Hooper?” He turned to Mycroft, who was frowning and had started typing rapidly again.

“Yeah. Do you need her number?” John glanced at Mycroft, who shook his head minutely.

“No, got it, thanks.”

“Look, I’m getting dressed, I want to help.”

“Just think of anywhere else he might be, would you? I’m going to try Molly, I’ll call you back in a bit.”

Greg grunted and hung up.

“07896 555786,” said Mycroft. John started typing but couldn’t keep up, fingers awkward. Mycroft took the phone from him and made the call. It rang and rang, then went to answerphone. Mycroft hung up and redialled, twice, with no effect. He shifted forward and drew back the glass to speak to the driver.

“Redirect,” he said. “234 Ormsby Drive, Brixton.”

“She might not be in,” said John.

“Then we can keep up with events just as well from the car.”

John lapsed into uncomfortable silence, staring out of the window. There were things – a lot of things – he would have liked to ask Mycroft about the information in the files, but it didn’t precisely seem like the right time. And it was uncomfortably like prying into Sherlock’s personal life, even though he’d as good as asked John to read them.

Brixton seemed to take forever, but in fact it was less than twenty minutes. They pulled up on a quiet street and got out. Mycroft looked up at the house, which was, John noted, not unlike Mary’s. Molly apparently lived on the ground floor, though. While he thought this, Mycroft strode up the path and rang the doorbell, holding it down: John winced for the neighbours.

After seven seconds or so, there was a muffled shout from inside and then the door opened, on a chain.

“Who is it?” said Molly’s voice, wary.

“Mycroft Holmes and John Watson,” said Mycroft.

“Oh!” said Molly. “Hold on.” There was the noise of her taking the chain off, and then the door opened properly. Molly was wearing striped cotton pyjamas, hair loose; she shivered in the cold air. John hadn’t seen her since Sherlock had left. He’d tried to get in contact, at one point, but she hadn’t responded: he knew why now, at least. He’d contemplated going round and shouting at her in the immediate aftermath of Sherlock’s return, but had had enough self-control to let it lie.

She was looking nervously from one to the other. John gave her a half-smile, which was all he could manage in the circumstances.

“I cannot locate Sherlock,” said Mycroft. “Do you know where he might be?”

“Oh,” said Molly. “You mean, right now?” She frowned at John. “Didn’t you – haven’t you seen him?”

Mycroft turned to look at John, discernibly more menacing than he had been a moment before.

“Not since this afternoon. I left him at about – mid-afternoon, I don’t know.” He was about to ask what Molly meant, but she interrupted.

“Yes, I know, but he was, er, he was looking for you this evening – ”

“He came here,” said Mycroft.  Molly looked from him to John again.

“Just for a – chat,” she said. “About some stuff. That’s not weird or anything, he’s over a lot. Was he supposed to be somewhere else?”

“Possibly,” said Mycroft. John had the impression that he had relaxed, at least a fraction. “It may be he has, as usual, caused me considerable worry over nothing. Though if you don’t know where he is now…?”

“I think he was going to John’s flat,” said Molly, carefully.

“I haven’t been back there,” John said.

“If he’s not there, then I’m not sure – Greg’s, maybe?”

“I just came from there. Molly, was he – was he alright?”

Molly’s mouth twisted. “I can’t really – he’s my friend. If he’s in trouble I want to help, but it was personal. A personal – chat.” She gave John a meaningful and somehow disapproving look. He felt his cheeks heat.

“Sorry,” she said. “Will you let me know when you find him? He left here about half ten.”

“Yes,” said Mycroft. “My apologies for disturbing you.” He nodded, almost a little bow, and Molly smiled at him gratefully, tilted her head at John, and shut her door.

“Your flat, then,” said Mycroft, as they walked back to the car. “Quite the tour of London. I was on my way there when I picked you up, in fact.”

“Oh,” said John. He thought about that. It made sense, he supposed, that Mycroft would have checked with Greg first, if Sherlock stayed with him often. He had the uncharitable thought that at least Mycroft had rated him as more likely than Molly, for Sherlock to visit.

The journey back across London took an age. John stared out of the window, in silence. He spent the time replaying the scant few occasions he’d seen Sherlock, since his return, and recasting all of his own behaviour in an increasingly unpleasant light. He’d known Sherlock was different, he’d known perfectly well that whatever had happened to him in his three-year absence hadn’t been good, or rather, he hadn’t wanted to know. Sherlock had offered to tell him and he’d refused. Sherlock had as good as told John that he couldn’t face living alone, and John had ignored him. He was a doctor, he was a soldier, he knew about PTSD – according to his therapist he still had PTSD – but the concept had never even crossed his mind in relation to Sherlock. He hadn’t thought for a minute of being understanding or sympathetic to whatever Sherlock was going through, until today. And it was all very well to tell himself that he’d had other things to focus on, but he hadn’t been thinking of Mary at the time, either. He’d barely been thinking of her at all. In being so angry with Sherlock, he’d been distracted and unfocused on what should have been a massive decision in his life, his life with her.

Then there was this afternoon. The impulse to kiss Sherlock had been a shock, but John couldn’t say that it had been entirely a surprise. He’d had those thoughts about Sherlock, of course he had. But he’d assumed that Sherlock was both untouchable in general and uninterested in John, specifically. In the years when Sherlock had been gone, he’d learned to think of Sherlock – to think of him as someone who hadn’t truly understood how John valued him, how important he had been in John’s life. It seemed that he’d been wrong. He heard Sherlock’s voice, impatient, saying that he’d wanted John for years, as though it were an obvious statement of fact.

Sherlock had kissed him back: he held on to that. There was no way that Sherlock hadn’t been enthusiastic, up to the point when he – . John wanted to rest his forehead against the cool glass of the window, but he already felt that Mycroft was probably interpreting his thoughts from his breathing patterns, or something.

Finally, they were nearing John’s street, and now he thought with a rush of panic that the journey had been too short: if Sherlock were there, what would he say?

The car drew up outside John’s nondescript block of ex-council flats. John opened the door on his side and got out, looking around. Mycroft was doing the same, scanning the other side of the street.

“Inside?” said John. “He could have picked this lock.” He fumbled for his keys and opened the main door to the hallway, then set off up the concrete stairs, two floors up. When he was close enough to see his door he halted. Sherlock was there, sitting with his back against John’s door and his knees drawn up, looking deep in thought. He turned his head and took in John and Mycroft without changing expression, and then stood up, gracefully. John stopped at the top of the stairs, to let Mycroft past, and to let relief sink in.

Mycroft and Sherlock looked at each other, and John saw something pass between them.

“I’m sorry to have troubled you,” said Sherlock. He sounded sincere.

“You might alert me next time you evade my security measures,” said Mycroft, mildly.

Sherlock shrugged. “They’re not necessary now that Moran’s dead, and I don’t like being followed.” He sighed. “And if I wanted to kill myself or overdose, I’d do it in my room, quietly. You know I’ve been clean for over three years, anyway.”

“I know,” said Mycroft. “Well. I should have checked here first, it seems. I will place Ms Hooper higher on my list of contacts, next time.” He looked between them. “Since I assume you wish to speak to John, I’ll leave you to it. Good night, gentlemen.”

John was muttering a goodnight just as Sherlock said, again sincerely, “Thank you, Mycroft.”

“My pleasure,” said Mycroft, and he smiled at Sherlock with what seemed like genuine warmth. Then he gave John a look that could only be described as ominous, and left, his precise footsteps echoing all the way to the bottom of the stairs

John unlocked his door, Sherlock standing aside to let him do it. John was very conscious that there was only about a foot of space between them.

“You seem to be – getting on well with Mycroft,” he said, for something to say.

“Yes,” said Sherlock, which left John no better off. He led the way into his flat and into the tidy but painfully boring living room, decorated in shades of beige. John hardly ever spent much time there, and it looked distinctly unlived-in. Sherlock looked around curiously.

“Umm, have a seat,” said John, sitting down in an armchair himself without stopping to take his coat off. The flat was freezing anyway, the heating would be off for the night.

Sherlock surprised him by crossing to the sofa and then sitting down not on it but on the floor, leaning against it, so that he was looking up at John.

John opened his mouth to say something apologetic, but instead what came out was, “So you’ve been going over to Molly’s a lot?”

“She’s my friend,” said Sherlock, carefully.

“Yeah, she said.” John knew he sounded bitter, and that he had no right to, but it was – he had been Sherlock’s friend, Sherlock’s only friend, and now –

“She told me I should fight for you,” said Sherlock, abruptly. “That’s why I – “, he gestured at the room. “She thought – she seemed to think that I could stop you, from leaving. But I don’t know how. This afternoon, I never intended – it was a disaster, I don’t know what I can do to – ”

“Sherlock,” John broke in.  “Hell.” He slid off his chair, so that he was on the carpet too, almost close enough to touch. “I’m the one who needs to apologize. You said all this stuff and it took me by surprise and I didn’t mean to – “ Sherlock was frowning. “The thing is, you don’t need to – you don’t need to do anything. It’s you, it’s just, you, yourself…”

He broke off. “I’m not making any sense, sorry.” Sherlock was looking at him, wide-eyed, lips parted, but still seeming unsure. John suddenly, fiercely wanted to touch him, to hold him. He held himself back. 

“I’ve been – I’ve been confused, I’m still confused. About a lot of things. But I’m not going to Uganda.” He bent his head, looking at his hands. He hadn’t said it out loud before, but now he had, he knew it was true. He looked up, taking in Sherlock, there, on his living room floor.

“I have to talk to Mary,” he said, then, as Sherlock’s face shuttered, “No, I mean I have decided, but I need to tell her. We’ve been together for years.”

“John,” said Sherlock. He closed his eyes for a moment. “I thought it would be fine, being back, even without you. But it’s not - tolerable. I want you to stay in London. I want you to move back into your old room, so that I can know you’re there, so that I can see you every day. And more, if you want that too. I want these things enough that I won’t play fair any more. Molly said, months back, that it would be…emotional blackmail” – Sherlock pronounced these words carefully, as though they had been learnt from a foreign language – “and that I shouldn’t make you feel guilty or that you had to take care of me. But I don’t care, after today.” He looked at John, nothing in his eyes but openness.

“If saying that you’re the only one, the only person that I’ve ever been able to tolerate living with, doing – doing everything with – and that sometimes it’s seemed that everything was pointless with you not there, if saying that will make you do these things then I don’t mind if you’re only doing them because you’re a good person, because you’re a doctor and you like to fix things. I don’t even care if I have to share you with someone else. It wouldn’t be good, but it would be better than nothing.”

“That’s – I still don’t know what to say,” John confessed. “Sherlock, I’d no idea you felt like this. About me, I mean, about us. I’ve never heard you say anything so - ”

“Sentimental?” said Sherlock. He half-smiled. “I’ve had some time to think about it.”

“No, not sentimental. I don’t know, romantic? If you meant it to be.”

“I have watched rather a lot of Molly’s favourite films, recently,” said Sherlock, smiling a little more, almost shyly.

John snorted. “Seriously, Sherlock, look at us. I’m beyond middle-aged now. I’ve got grey hair, and a paunch, and I live in the world’s most boring flat. Before you came back, I was settled, you know? Now – I’ve never even been in a relationship with a man. I don’t know what that would mean, for me. And you think you want all this but you haven’t been home all that long, you’ll get better and you might change your mind.”

“I won’t,” said Sherlock, decisively.  

“Plus you were all over the papers today, you’ll be a celebrity. Everyone will want to know you. If I move back in with you – ”

“Then everyone will know,” said Sherlock. “I want them to. John, if you’re going to say no, I would rather you said so directly.”

“I’m not saying no,” said John. “God help me, I think I’m saying yes. But not till after I’ve sorted things out with Mary, and I won’t even think about moving in with you until the fuss has died down. We need to take things slow, get to know each other again.”

“Slow,” said Sherlock. “I can do slow.” He met John’s eyes with unmistakable intent. John felt his pulse pick up, he’d been trying to say something sensible, but it was drowned out by a wash of desire. He was pinned by Sherlock’s gaze.

“Can I kiss you?” said Sherlock.

“Is that a good idea?” said John, weakly.

“Yes,” said Sherlock. He moved, in a scramble of limbs, to sit with one leg on either side of John’s, almost in his lap, before John had processed what was happening. Then he paused. “If you want to, of course. Earlier – if you don’t mind, maybe we could just…kiss, for now.”

John licked his lips. He thought about Mary. But then he’d already done more than snog Sherlock today, or yesterday by this point. He’d burned his bridges there. He nodded a fraction, and Sherlock bent forward, hair brushing John’s forehead, and kissed him gently, tentatively, a brush of lips and then a pull back. John didn’t follow his mouth, he wanted Sherlock to take the lead, to be comfortable. Sherlock closed the space between them and kissed him again, this time opening his mouth, and sliding a hand into John’s hair, and John kissed back, trying to pour into it all the things he wanted to say about how much he cared about Sherlock, how sorry he was, how much he wanted to wipe out everything that had happened to Sherlock in the last three years.

Sherlock broke off and leant his forehead against John’s, and they breathed together. Then Sherlock kissed him again, this time harder, with desire behind it. John wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to grab Sherlock and hold on; his hands were clenched into fists at his side, fighting not to pull Sherlock down, or to grind up against him. He broke off.

“This isn’t slow,” he said, breathless.

“No?” said Sherlock, also slightly out of breath, and moved so that his weight was in John’s lap. John gasped, trying not to thrust, and Sherlock made a soft noise.

Sherlock,” said John. “Oh fuck – I think we should stop. This is a really bad idea – you – and I – “

“Stopping,” said Sherlock, through gritted teeth, and with obvious reluctance he moved over to the side, so that he was sitting next to John, arms barely touching.

John groaned, and tipped his head back onto the armchair.

“I apologise,” said Sherlock.

“Don’t you dare,” said John, turning to look at him. Sherlock didn’t look upset or distressed, he was relieved to see. He was flushed, and if anything he looked hungry, tense. John was sure he looked the same. “If you apologize, then I’ll have to apologize, and then we’ll be stuck sodding apologizing to each other for ever and we’ll never get anywhere.”

Sherlock met his eyes, his own still blazing. “I want us to get somewhere,” he said. “But I can’t tell if I – ” he grimaced. “The spirit is willing.”

John sobered up, remembering, desire fading a bit. “It’ll be fine. Slow. We’ll do whatever you want.” A reckless promise, he thought, but it was too late to pretend otherwise. They were silent for a moment. “I should – go to bed,” he said. “I’ll need to speak to Mary before she goes to work, I think.”

“May I stay?” said Sherlock. “On your sofa, I mean.”

“Here?” said John, surprised. But it was now nearly 2am, of course.

Sherlock looked nervous again. “I find it difficult to sleep, in my own flat.”

“Oh,” said John, thinking of Sherlock on Greg’s sofabed, in Molly’s flat, in Mycorft’s club. His heart ached. “Yes, of course. I’d say – I mean, you can have my bed, but I don’t think it would be a good plan for us to share, right now.”

“Agreed,” said Sherlock. He raised an eyebrow at John, looking much happier. Happier than John had seen him look yet, he thought.

“Good,” said John, smiling at him, unforced.

***

When John let himself out quietly the next morning, Sherlock was still asleep on his sofa, seemingly fully dressed, under his spare duvet. John had taken the luxury of a moment just to look at him, something he hadn't done since Sherlock had returned, to study the once-familiar lines of face, and think about how they would become familiar, again. He had barely slept, mind spinning, acutely aware of Sherlock’s presence disturbing his sterile flat. He’d woken from fitful dreams that played out conversations with Mary over and over, and finally he’d lain awake for an hour, in the chill of 5am, thinking about his and Mary’s life together and how easily he’d let go of it, in one day. Everything they’d built up, all their memories and in-jokes and shared friendships, everything they knew about each other: Sherlock had reappeared and it had folded up like a house of cards.

John loved Mary, he knew he did, but part of what he loved about her was that their relationship had been simple from the start, no massive ups and downs, no drama, no heart-stopping lust, just growing affection and grown-up mutual desire. He’d thought it was enough. It had been enough. But set beside all his feelings for Sherlock, it was like a candle in the harsh light of day.

He walked to Mary’s flat in the cold morning, no sign of dawn in the sky. She’d be up, she always got up by 7, spending an hour reading with her tea and preparing for the day. It was cruel to interrupt her, but he thought that it might be worse, more artificial, to wait until the evening.

He rang her doorbell, she’d know it was him. She came down to let him in, and he felt a pang at the sight of her, in a dressing-gown that he knew as well as he knew his own clothes. She looked stressed, tired.

“John,” she said. “Are you OK? What’s been going on?”

“Can I come in?” said John.

Mary’s eyes widened. She let him in, and they went upstairs together. John looked around with an awareness that he might not see Mary’s flat, this space where he’d been so content, again. He sat down at the table, awkward. Mary picked up a mug of tea from the counter and sat down opposite him. The fact that she hadn’t offered John any suggested, he knew, that she was very upset or very angry. Either way, she wasn’t going to be surprised by what he said: she wasn’t a fool.

“I decided about Uganda,” he said. “Yesterday. I’m really sorry, but I can’t come.”

“I see,” said Mary. She took a sip of tea, obviously thinking. Then she looked up, pushing her hair behind one ear with a familiar gesture. “This is because of Sherlock,” she said.

“Yes. I found out some stuff yesterday and it – things are different. I was wrong about him. And I can’t – he needs me, he needs my help. I can’t leave him.” He suppressed the urge to offer an explanation. Sherlock hadn’t given him permission to share his secrets. 

“What if I stayed?” said Mary.

John bit his lip. “I don’t know,” he said. Then he took a deep breath. “No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t do this, because I do know.” He looked at Mary squarely, willing her to understand. “Before Sherlock left, I used to think that when I died, it’d say on my tombstone, ‘John Watson: Sherlock Holmes’s Friend’. That that’s how I’d be remembered, because of him. You didn’t know me before I met him: I’d nothing left, I was a waste of space. And then I met him, and he saved me. You see, I would’ve been proud to be remembered as his friend, that was what mattered most. And then he died and for a long time I didn’t know how to go on, until I met you. But it never really went away, that feeling that he was – that he’d been the most important thing in my life. And now he’s back – ”

“I get it,” said Mary. “I’m not an idiot, I knew that. I just thought that we – that what we had might be good enough, one day. I’ve known since he came back that you wouldn’t be able to stay away from him.” Her voice broke.

“I’m really sorry,” said John, helplessly.

“So’m I,” said Mary. She wiped at her eyes and then looked up, fierce. “I was going to take the job anyway, you know. I wasn’t completely honest about Emil asking me about it. I asked him, if there was anything I’d be able to do there. Even if you didn’t come, I was going to say yes. I thought you probably wouldn’t.”

“If Sherlock hadn’t come back…” said John.

“Yeah,” said Mary, tiredly. She got up and went to the kitchen, fetching a tissue and blowing her nose, standing behind the counter.

“Are you sleeping with him?” she said.

“No,” said John. “I haven’t – before yesterday, I didn’t even know if I wanted anything to do with him. But then we talked and – some stuff happened.”

“Stuff,” said Mary. “I don’t want to know.” She looked down at the counter. “You’d better go, John. I have work.”

“OK,” said John, standing up. “Is this – is this it? Can I maybe – ring you in a day or two?”

“Give it a week or two, and then maybe. I don't know.”

“OK. Look, I really am sorry, Mary. I hope – you’ll be brilliant at that job.”

“I know I will. And I’m sorry too, John. But now you should go, or I’ll – or I’ll start throwing cutlery at you.” She wrapped her arms around herself, defensive.

John nodded. It felt wrong to leave Mary like this, but it would have been worse to stay. He left her there, awkward. The whole conversation had taken less than ten minutes: ten minutes to put an end to two years of his life. Though it had been the five seconds in which he’d first kissed Sherlock, the day before, that had really done it, John thought.

He stood on Mary’s doorstep for a moment. He didn’t feel happy, exactly. But he felt clearer. He was still guilty, he was still unsure, but for once he knew what he wanted. He set off towards his flat, wondering if Sherlock would have woken up yet, hoping that he was still asleep, waiting without knowing it for John’s return.