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The Norwood Love Builders

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John woke up with only one thought in his head, a thought that stayed firmly in place through his shower, drummed against his mind while he dressed, and refused to budge while he was having breakfast.

Sherlock killed himself a year ago today.

Technically, it should have been Sherlock faked his suicide a year ago today, but John still found it difficult to get his head around that after so many months spent saturated with grief. It still felt real, even after Sherlock had been back for over a month.

He'd booked the day off work months ago, long before Sherlock had arrived home. After breakfast, for want of anything better to do, he sat down with his laptop to check his email but he couldn't keep his attention off Sherlock as he huffed around the flat. He was hoping to see some sign that Sherlock had realised the significance of the date but apparently, he was far too caught up in sulking over the lack of interesting cases to notice the anniversary.

“I don't know what's wrong with criminals lately,” he said, flinging himself backwards onto the sofa. “Nothing even a little bit clever! There hasn't been anything truly worth my time since-”

He cut himself off, but John could hear the end of sentence as loudly as if he'd kept speaking.

Since Moriarty.

John paused, wondering if Sherlock had censored himself because he'd suddenly become aware of the date, but the expression on Sherlock's face was instantly recognisable, at least to John, as I shouldn't admit to having enjoyed any part of Moriarty's reign of terror rather than a year ago today I played one of the cruellest tricks possible on my supposed best friend.

Anger rose up in John, the same anger that he had been suppressing since Sherlock's return one month and four days ago, which was another date his brain wouldn't stop keeping track of. He drew in a long breath through his nose and then let it out his mouth, settling the feeling back down. What was the point in being angry with someone who would never understand the reasons behind it, let alone apologise? Since he'd come back, Sherlock had shown absolutely no sign that he had any idea how over-the-line it was to fake your suicide in front of your best friend. He'd given John a brief explanation of why he'd jumped, a longer explanation of how he had pulled it off, and left it at that. He'd settled back into 221B as if he'd never left, apparently having decided that the events were irrelevant and not worth remembering.

John had spent those first few days torn between joy at having him back and blinding anger at the deception, all mixed up with a whole host of other emotions that seemed to change hourly. In the end, it had just seemed easiest to fall in with just ignoring the whole thing had happened. It wasn't as though he wasn't already ignoring certain other feelings about Sherlock, after all. Repressing his anger would be nothing compared to repressing less-than-platonic affection, surely?

He hadn't realised just how long the anger would linger, though. Today was a case in point; just knowing that Sherlock hadn't even stopped to think that the date might affect John was enough to make him feel as if his blood was boiling in his veins. He could feel his hands tingling with the desire to shake Sherlock and his throat filling up with angry words he wanted shout at him. Words about just how it had felt to watch his best friend plummet to his death, and how much worse it was to think they had done it deliberately, that they had felt their life was so awful that they had to end it. John couldn't count the hours he had spent going over everything he could have done or said to make Sherlock realise that he was worth so much more than his reputation, and that death was never the answer.

“It feels like my whole brain is atrophying from lack-of-use,” moaned Sherlock. “How is anyone meant to stand this?”

John thought about spending whole days just sitting in his chair, staring at nothing, while the memory of Sherlock's body toppling through the air repeated itself endlessly in his mind's eye. A few days without a case was nothing compared to that.

This was no good. If he stayed here, feeling like this, he was going to explode. He needed to get out of the flat.

He shut his laptop down and stood up. “Going for a walk.”

Sherlock made a pathetic noise, tipping his head back so that he could keep John in view, exposing the long, pale line of his neck. John wasn’t sure if he wanted to lick it or choke it more. Both, probably. He could bite his anger into it with his lips, leaving red marks to prove he’d had some impact on Sherlock, even if it hadn’t sunk below the surface.

“You can't leave me alone when everything is so boring,” whined Sherlock.

John thought about being left alone for nearly eleven months and about how dull and empty his life had been without Sherlock in it. “I'm sure you'll cope.”

He headed for the door, but was cut off by footsteps hammering up the stairs.

Sherlock sat up, his face transforming with excitement. “A client! You'll stay for this.”

John had to bite his tongue to stop himself from yelling with frustration.

The door burst open to reveal an extremely panicked-looking woman. “Sherlock Holmes?” she asked. “You have to help me! I’m Jill McFarlane. I’m in desperate need.”

Sherlock looked her over with a quick glance. “You look it,” he said, with far more glee than was called for. “Sit down and tell me all about it. Shut the door, John.”

John paused for a moment by the door, still tempted to go out of it, but the lure of a case was too much. He shut the door and returned to his chair while Jill McFarlane collapsed into what was usually Sherlock's chair. “You don't recognise my name, do you?”

“No,” said Sherlock. “Other than that you're single, a shop assistant, a gambler, and asthmatic, I know nothing about you.”

John had reached the stage with Sherlock's deductions that he was usually able to locate the observations that had led to them, particularly when they were easy ones like that. Jill McFarlane wore no wedding ring, had a Debenhams name badge and a couple of scratch cards sticking out the top of her handbag, and was breathing with a distinctive wheeze after her run up the stairs. None of it was particularly startling to him, although he caught Sherlock glancing at him as if looking for approval. John resolutely gave him no reaction.

Jill was far more impressed. “Oh, wow,” she said. “You are as good as they say! Please, you have to help me. Let me explain my situation – if they come to arrest me before I get through it, you have to make them let me finish. You need to clear my name.” She glanced over her shoulder as if expecting hoards of police to burst in at any moment.

“Arrest you?” said Sherlock, sitting forward as his eyes lit up with interest. “Fascinating. On what charge?”

“Murder,” said Jill, with desperation.

Sherlock made an extremely pleased noise. John glared at him until he plastered on a falsely sympathetic look instead.

“It's been on all the news sites already,” said Jill. “Especially the tabloid ones – The Sun won’t leave me alone. There was a murder at Lower Norwood last night, and all the evidence points to me. I came straight here when I saw about it, but I'm sure I was spotted at London Bridge and followed. Oh god! They're probably already on their way to arrest me!”

“Laptop,” Sherlock demanded, holding out his hand. John glared at him. Sherlock narrowed his eyes. John resolutely sat further down, trying to make it very clear that he wasn't moving to pick up Sherlock's sodding laptop from the table barely a metre from where he was. Sherlock huffed out a sigh and held his hand out slightly higher, as if that would make a difference. John just glowered.

“Oh, for-” muttered Jill, and got up herself to hand Sherlock his laptop. Sherlock looked briefly startled and then turned a betrayed look on John. John cleared his throat, embarrassed to have been caught out in such a childish moment of stubbornness, even if it was Sherlock who had started it.

Sherlock didn't bother thanking Jill. Instead, he just started typing, no doubt looking for the news story she had mentioned.

“Thanks,” John said for him as Jill sat back down. The look she gave him in reply was exhausted, and he thought that they should probably try to avoid taxing her patience too much. Maybe he should be offering tea.

Sherlock found the relevant story before John could speak.

“'Is this bikini babe hiding a murderous heart?'” he read.

“They stole that photo off my Facebook page,” interrupted Jill. “They’re not allowed to do that, are they?”

“There’s nothing to stop them. You put in the public domain,” said Sherlock, and then read on. “'Jill McFarlane (23) is wanted in connection with the murder of Joanna Oldacre (57) of Lower Norwood. Ms. Oldacre is feared dead after police discovered she was missing late last night.

“'At approximately 3.14 last night, a fire was reported at Deep Dene House, where Ms. Oldacre lived in the South Wing. Firemen attended the scene and extinguished the fire, and discovered human remains amongst the ashes. At the same time, it was discovered that Ms. Oldacre's rooms were empty and her bed had not been slept in. Police officers are looking for the whereabouts of Jill McFarlane, a shop worker, whose umbrella was found at the scene and who was reported to have met with Ms. Oldacre late last night. If anyone knows her whereabouts, they are asked to contact Scotland Yard immediately.

“'What possible motive could this attractive young woman have had for such a terrible deed? Jill McFarlane, shown here enjoying a Mediterranean island holiday, has been described as bubbly and vivacious.'” Sherlock made a face. “And the rest is tabloid nonsense. This was posted very early this morning. How have you avoided being arrested so far?”

“I live in Blackheath with my dad,” said Jill. “By the time I'd left Lower Norwood last night, it was way too late to get home. I found a Travelodge and then headed to work from there this morning. I only saw the news reports when I was on the train and I realised I was likely to get arrested the moment I got to work. I came here instead. Please, Mr. Holmes, you have to- oh god, they're here!”

She jumped up as two cars pulled outside the flat, red and blue lights flashing through the window. The doorbell rang violently and she started, looking around as if for an escape. “Shit, shit! They're going to arrest me! You have to make them wait until I've told you my side of the story. I can't go to jail without knowing I've got someone working for me on the outside, not when the papers are being so awful!”

“That’s what they tend to be like,” said Sherlock, shutting his laptop and putting it to one side.

John felt himself twitch at the reminder of the witch hunt just before Sherlock had jumped.

Jill cast a wide-eyed look at Sherlock. “You understand, right? You’ll help me?”

Mrs. Hudson opened the door downstairs and heavy boots pounded up the stairs. A moment later, Lestrade burst in, followed by two uniformed officers.

“Jill McFarlane?” he asked. “I'm here to take you in for questioning in regards to the murder of Joanna Oldacre.”

“Oh god,” she said, turning panicked eyes on Sherlock.

Sherlock let out a long sigh. “Lestrade, she was about to give me her account. I'm sure you can wait ten minutes before marching her off.”

Lestrade gave him a hard look. John wasn't the only one who hadn't forgiven Sherlock quite yet, and the official stance at the Yard was still that officers shouldn't work with Sherlock. That was the main reason why Sherlock hadn't had a proper case since he'd come back.

John pictured how Sherlock's mood was likely to disintegrate and poison the rest of the day if he got shut out of the case at this point, and reluctantly stepped in. “Come on, Greg,” he said. “It won't hurt. You'll need to hear it at some point anyway.”

Lestrade let out a sigh. “Oh, fine,” he said. “I'll be staying though, and anything you say will be going on the official record,” he warned Jill.

“That's fine,” she said. “Thank you. I promise, what I am about to say is the absolute truth.”

Lestrade raised a sceptical eyebrow, but sat down on the desk chair that wasn’t stacked with newspapers to listen.

The two uniformed officers stood awkwardly in the doorway, glancing at the only free seat in the room, which was next to Sherlock on the sofa. Sherlock subtly shifted to be closer to the middle, widening his stance and leaving his dressing gown draped across the cushions in a clear marking of territory.

John took pity on the officers and waved them at the kitchen. “There are more chairs in there,” he said. “Just don't touch any of the equipment.”

“Right you are,” said one of them, popping in to grab himself a chair.

“We've heard the stories,” added the other as he followed him. Sherlock looked rather satisfied at that, as if having a reputation for filling kitchens with safety hazards was something to be proud of.

“Right,” said Jill when everyone was settled and staring at her expectantly. “Well, I suppose I should start by saying that I'd never met Joanne Oldacre before two days ago. I knew of her, because my parents had mentioned her as I grew up. She shared a flat with my mum for a year or two before she inherited Deep Dene House and, um, she dated my dad for a bit. Before he got with Mum, of course. At any rate, I was very surprised when she came into my shop the day before yesterday, and even more surprised when she told me why. She wanted to leave me everything in her Will. She had a draft of it with her, and she showed it to me. Actually - hang on - I think I've still got it here.”

She reached into her bag and pulled out some crumpled bits of paper, which she smoothed out and handed to Sherlock. He glanced at them and then nodded at her to continue.

“I asked her why she’d picked me and she just said that she didn't have any children or other relations of her own, but that she still remembered my parents fondly and had heard I was a decent sort. I was really excited – it's a lot of money, and all the property as well. I mean, I’m just a shop assistant, I wasn’t ever expecting that much money. She waited until my shift finished, then we went to a solicitor who sorted it all out for her.”

“Just like that?” asked Sherlock. “Usually these things take longer than one short visit.”

Jill frowned. “I don't know. I’ve never had enough money to bother with a Will. Joanna was in with him for ten minutes or so, then they got me in to witness it and we were done.”

“Interesting,” said Sherlock. “Go on.”

“Right, well, she said she wanted to get to know me a bit – which seemed fair under the circumstances – and that she wanted to go over the details of the estate with me. A company leases most of the house and all the grounds from her, and some of the details are a bit fiddly. She wanted to make sure I understood it all, so she asked me to visit her, where she could get all the paperwork out and we could go over it. That seemed like a good idea, even if I wasn’t sure I’d understand it all. I thought I should try though, even if I had to get my dad to go through it again after. We arranged that I'd come to dinner at nine last night.

“So, I went out there. I was a bit late; the bloody trains were all delayed. I was let in by one of the staff of the company that use the house to run couples retreats. Then-”

“Which staff member?” interrupted Sherlock.

Jill stopped. “Um, I think he said his name was Chris,” she said. “Maybe Carl? He said he was the general manager.”

“Chris Greenstock,” supplied Lestrade.

“Yes, that was it,” said Jill. “Does it matter?”

“He's the one who told the police you were there,” said Sherlock. “I don't know, do you think that matters?”

“Well, I was hardly going to keep it a secret,” said Jill. “I'm an honest person, Mr. Holmes.”

“How prosaic,” said Sherlock. “Go on.”

Jill gave Sherlock the disbelieving look that people used after a few minutes in his company, the one that meant she was trying to work out if he was deliberately being that rude or if he just didn't realise how he was coming across. After a moment, she continued.

“We had dinner, and then she took me to her study and we went over all the documents to do with the property. It took ages; I didn’t get some of it at all. I thought she was going to get impatient with me but she was so nice, she just kept explaining it until I got it. By the time we were done, all the lights in the rest of the building were out. She let me out of her French windows because the entrance would have been locked by then.”

“Were the French window curtains open?” interrupted Sherlock.

“Um,” said Jill, clearly having to think back. Sherlock let out an impatient sigh. “Uh, yes, yes I think they were. I couldn't find my umbrella, but she told me not to worry about it, it wasn't raining, and she told me we were bound to see a lot more of each other. That's all I knew until I read about it this morning. I didn't kill her – you have to believe me!”

“Right,” said Lestrade. “Well, if you’re innocent, you’ve got nothing to fear. We want to find the truth just as much as you do.”

Sherlock let out a snort. Lestrade shot him a look and there was an awkward pause during which everyone was clearly thinking the same thing.

A year ago, John thought, and the emotions that Jill’s arrival had pushed aside began to rise up again. A year and a day ago, they’d all been in this room together so that Lestrade could take Sherlock in for questioning.

He pulled in a ragged breath and then had to stand up to escape the moment.

Sherlock’s head snapped around to stare at him and John plastered on an apologetic expression. “Sorry, excuse me,” he said, and escaped to the bathroom.

He sat on the toilet for a minute or two, taking deep breaths, then flushed it, washed his hands, and headed back to the sitting room to find that Jill and the constables had disappeared, and Sherlock and Lestrade were having an argument.

“Lestrade, don't be so-”

“No,” interrupted Lestrade. “I've told you this, Sherlock. There are strict instructions about letting you get involved with any of our cases. If you're seen anywhere near this investigation, I'll be the one getting it in the neck. I'm doing the best I can to get it sorted, but it's taking time. If you interfere with this, it'll set back all the progress I've made.”

“By 'interfere', I suppose you mean 'solve',” said Sherlock. “I thought the police were meant to want to uncover the truth, not hide behind 'procedure'.” He said the last word in a deeply scathing voice.

“I do,” said Lestrade. “That's why I've been working so hard to get them to let you back in, but you have to prove you can follow the rules, and messing about with this case will ruin that. I just need a couple more weeks to get them onside, and then I can consult you again. You need to stay in the background until then. If you've got anything on this, then tell me and I'll look into it, but you can't be seen investigating.”

Sherlock let out a very long sigh, and then gave a short nod. “Fine,” he said. Lestrade's shoulders slumped in relief.

“Make sure you go and interview Jill's father, will you?” said Sherlock. “He knew Oldacre in his youth, there might be something there.”

“I'll go myself,” said Lestrade. He gave John a nod goodbye and left.

Sherlock let out a disconsolate sigh and slumped onto his side, sprawling back into the position he’d been in before Jill arrived. “I'm not sure what's worse: no case at all, or a case that I'm only allowed to glimpse from the sidelines.”

“It'll be worth having been on the sidelines for a bit once Lestrade gets his bosses to agree to let you consult officially,” John reminded him.

“Yes, yes,” said Sherlock. “That's the only reason I'm not already on my way to Blackheath. Doesn't stop it from being completely hateful, though.”

He curled up on the sofa in his classic sulking pose. John looked at him, wondering what right he thought he had to sulk over this when he’d faked his own death a year ago and left John alone.

Not helpful, he told himself, and escaped the flat to go on the walk he’d been planning before Jill McFarlane turned up.

He spent over an hour walking aimlessly around London, trying to get his head back in order.

He looked up to find his feet had taken him, on automatic, to the graveyard where Sherlock’s grave had been. His headstone was gone now, but John knew exactly where it had stood. He stared at the empty place for several minutes, then took a deep breath and turned around again. This wasn't getting him anywhere.

When he got back to the flat, Sherlock didn't look as if he had moved. He looked up at John's arrival, eyes tracking rapidly over him, and John waited for some pronouncement about where he'd gone and what he'd done, but Sherlock just frowned and slumped his head back down.

“Yes, I do want a cup,” he said.

John was about to make tea and he had been about to ask Sherlock if he wanted one as well, but hearing the lazy arrogance in Sherlock's voice made him abruptly change his mind.

“Good for you,” he said, then turned around and went up to his room instead. Let the bastard make his own sodding tea.

****

That afternoon, Lestrade emailed them both the transcript of his interview with Jill McFarlane's father, which John was willing to bet was completely against orders. He looked it over in his bedroom, but wasn't able to see anything that might have any bearing on the case. Geoff McFarlane had dated Joanna Oldacre for a bit when they were younger, but he'd broken it off and then gone out with Jill's mother, Joanna's housemate, instead. He was brutal in his description of Joanna's personality, as well as her reaction to being dumped.

She was a cunning and malignant witch, and she always was, ever since she was young. I broke it off when I heard she'd set a cat in her aunt's aviary, just to see what would happen. When I started seeing Carol – my wife – she told us that she would see us both rot in hell. She set all the things of mine that I'd left at hers on fire, and then sent me all the photos she had of us together, but she'd scratched my face out with a knife first. It was horrific. Carol moved out of the flat as quickly as she could, and I spoke to the police, although I never bothered getting a restraining order.

Lestrade pointed out that she seemed to have forgiven them both by the end, as she'd left all her money to their daughter, but Geoff wasn't convinced.

She was a crazy bitch. Neither I nor my daughter want anything from her, alive or dead.

John thought that Geoff's hatred for Joanna was only making the case against Jill worse. If she'd heard her parents talking about Joanna in such a way, surely she'd been predisposed to hating her?

He read it over one last time and then went downstairs to make sure Sherlock had seen it. Halfway down, he heard Sherlock's violin start to play and when he got to the sitting room, Sherlock was stood in the window, playing in the frenzied way that meant he'd hit a stumbling block. His laptop was open on the desk, showing the email from Lestrade. Clearly, he hadn't seen much more in the interview than John had.

John watched him play for a few minutes, watching the movement of his shoulders and back as he swept the bow back-and-forth, before he realised he was mooning again and went to make the cup of tea he'd been craving since he got home instead. He made one for Sherlock as well and then settled down to listen to him play.

A year ago, I'd have done anything to be able to hear this, he thought, remembering how alone he'd felt that first, terrible night after Sherlock's suicide. He'd sat in his chair for nearly seven hours without moving, unable to think beyond the memory of Sherlock's broken body and all the recriminations he was already starting to heap on himself. Why had he left him alone? Why hadn't he made sure Sherlock knew how loved he was, and how much there was for him to stay alive for?

Sherlock didn't play for long before he put the violin aside in favour of the tea.

“Thank you,” he said after he'd taken a sip.

John raised an eyebrow. “I'm sorry, was that actual manners? From Sherlock Holmes? Are you feeling okay?”

Sherlock made a face at him. “If you're going to be sarcastic, I won't bother in future.”

John snorted. “Yeah, that'll be the reason,” he said. “It won't be because you've completely forgotten politeness exists.”

“Politeness,” said Sherlock with a sneer. “Waste of time.”

Like sending a quick text saying 'By the way, not actually dead. SH' would have been? thought John and took a careful breath. Enough. He needed to stop letting this anger control him and move past it, at least for today.

“Well then,” he said, “I suppose we'll have to talk about the case instead. Go on, what did you get from Lestrade's email that I missed?”

Sherlock made a face. “Almost nothing,” he said. “Lestrade sent me the initial forensics report as well and there are definite traces of human organic material in the ashes from the fire. They also found a handful of buttons, ones that are identical to those on the cardigan Joanna Oldacre was reportedly wearing that evening. It’s so frustrating! There must be something they’ve missed, it’s just too distant for me to see it.”

“You can't investigate too closely,” John reminded him.

Sherlock waved an impatient hand. “I know, I know. No getting in the way of the police until they give me permission, even though that could mean an innocent person ends up in prison.”

“It's only for a bit longer,” John reminded him.

The scowl on Sherlock's face only deepened at that. “A bit longer is all it takes to make a case cold. The evidence will all have disappeared.”

There was nothing John could say to that and they sat in silence for a few minutes, while Sherlock glared at nothing as if that would pull new evidence out from thin air. When it became clear that the conversation was over, John picked up his book.

It was half an hour before Sherlock spoke again. “Will you tell me what was wrong with you earlier?”

John looked up to find that Sherlock had shifted his gaze to John, and was giving him the intense look that meant he was trying to read his mind. “It was nothing,” he said.

Sherlock's gaze only grew stronger. “Don't insult my intelligence, John. You've been in an odd mood all day. What is it?”

John looked at him for a long moment. There was no point in reminding him of the date, especially not now the day was mostly over. What would be the point in complaining about it when he had spent eleven months desperate to have an evening like this one?

“It's really not important, Sherlock,” he said.

Sherlock made a disbelieving noise, but didn't push the issue. “Hand me my laptop, then,” he commanded.

John looked at it on the desk, and then back at Sherlock with a raised eyebrow. “Yeah, I'm not getting up for that. You can move your lazy arse and do it yourself.”

It took Sherlock another ten minutes of huffing and whining to actually get up for it, by which time it felt like a victory for John. He smiled down at his book as Sherlock flipped the laptop open and turned it on, letting the anger and old grief that had been preying on him all day settle back down into his stomach where, hopefully, he'd be able to ignore them until they'd gone away for good.

****

Sherlock stayed on his laptop until John went to bed, and was still on it when John came back down the next morning, looking as if he hadn't moved. He looked up at John with the manic, excited look he got when he hadn't slept.

“John! I know what we're going to do!”

“Well, you're going to have a nap,” said John. “Jesus, Sherlock, is it so hard to just go to bed like a normal person?”

Sherlock made a face. “Normal,” he said. “Hideous concept. Besides, I have slept. I napped between two fifty-six and six eighteen.”

“In a bed?” asked John, without much hope.

“God no, why would I bother moving?” asked Sherlock. He was curled up in his chair in a position that should have given him some kind of permanent back strain. God only knew how he'd managed to sleep like that. “Stop wasting time with trivialities and listen. I've worked out how we're going to get close to the scene of the crime.”

“Oh no,” said John immediately. “We're not going to sneak onto Lestrade's crime scene. He'll kill us.”

Sherlock let out a long sigh. “We won't need to sneak; we'll be right there on site. It's brilliant, look!”

He held out his laptop to John, who took it warily, and looked at the screen. Love Builders Inc. Couples Retreat said the website. Strengthen your relationship though our shared activities and counselling sessions; all while enjoying the privacy and beauty of Deep Dene House, an historic stately home surrounded by 18 stunning acres of land. Let your love be rebuilt!

“What's this?” asked John.

“It's the company that lease the majority of Deep Dene House and the grounds from Joanna Oldacre,” said Sherlock. “Keep up, John.”

“Yes, fine, but what's it got to do with us getting onto the scene?” asked John. “I mean, it's not-” A terrible realisation came to him. “Oh, no,” he said. “Sherlock, no. We're not-”

“We’re booked in for this weekend,” said Sherlock, confirming John's fears.

Chapter Text

“Obviously I've had to use false identities,” continued Sherlock. “But the charade won't be particularly difficult. No-one will be looking for it, after all.”

“I am not pretending to be your boyfriend,” said John with as much firmness as he could manage. “No, Sherlock. Just no.” Maybe saying no enough would actually work on Sherlock this time, even though it never had in the past.

“Why not?” asked Sherlock. “It makes perfect sense. We can get close to the crime scene and all the information we need about Joanna Oldacre without getting in the way of the police. I'm sure once I've had a look, I'll be able to see what Anderson has missed, and we can clear this up so that Jill McFarlane can go free.”

The problem was that John couldn't actually tell Sherlock why he didn't want to do it. We can't pretend to be boyfriends, because too much of me wants that in reality wasn't something he could say to Sherlock without causing a whole wave of new problems. He cast around for another excuse.

“You'll be recognised,” he said. “You were in all the papers. Someone is bound to know who you are.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “That would rely on people actually observing. I will be adopting the persona of Simon Hollande. I managed to live as him for nearly three months without being recognised while I was away. He even made one or two minor breakthroughs in the field of alternative fuels. Trust me, John, I can be someone else for a weekend without being spotted.”

“I can't,” said John, clutching at the next excuse. “I can't act, remember? You said that was why you couldn't possibly have let me know you were alive.” He couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice as he said that, but Sherlock didn't seem to notice.

“You won't need to,” said Sherlock. “You're even less likely to get recognised. You're so generic-looking that people just look past you.”

John felt himself still. “Generic-looking?” he repeated, insulted.

“Oh, don't be like that,” said Sherlock. “You're hiding in plain sight. Everyone looks past you without seeing all the things that make you unique.”

John had absolutely no idea how to take that. Was it meant to be a compliment? What things did Sherlock think made John unique? His gullibility? His willingness to continue to let Sherlock take advantage of him without complaint?

Sherlock continued without waiting for a response. “At any rate, John Fredrickson is very similar to you. He was in the Army, although as a regular officer rather than RAMC, he got shot in Afghanistan, and since he came home he's been working as a PA.”

And John was back to insulted. “A PA?” he repeated. “Sherlock, I am not your PA!”

“Of course not,” said Sherlock in the tone of voice that meant we both know you really are but I'll pander to your pride by pretending you're not. “However, the ways you assist me in my work are similar, and I needed a career for Fredrickson that wasn't medical. John-the-Army-doctor would have been too close to the truth.”

“So you went with me being your PA instead,” said John. “Because that's not what most people seem to think my job is anyway.”

“No, no,” said Sherlock. “You're not Simon's PA, that would invite all sorts of comments from the so-called 'relationship counsellors'. You're the PA of Gemma Welch, an executive at Lloyds TSB. You can make up whatever you like about her; I haven't worked out any of those details.”

The way Sherlock said 'those details' made John frown. “What details have you worked out, then?”

Sherlock brightened. “I've sent the dossier to your email,” he said. “It includes all the differences between your life and John Fredrickson's, and mine and Simon Hollande's, as well as the entire arc of our – their - relationship. First date, events of important emotional significance, all that sort of thing.”

Sherlock had spent the night creating a fake relationship history for them. John didn't know whether to laugh or cry. “You're aware we could just use our real history,” he said. “It's not as if people don't tend to think we're dating anyway.”

“It is heavily influenced by the truth,” acknowledged Sherlock. “I felt that would make it easier for you to remember. Besides which, a lie is much easier to maintain if it is surrounded by the truth. Still, we can't exactly say 'our first date ended with John shooting a taxi-driving serial killer'.”

“Given that you were trying to poison yourself at the time, that wouldn't really say much for my dating skills,” agreed John.

Sherlock huffed. “I was not trying to poison myself,” he said. “I chose the correct pill. I would have been fine.”

John snorted, but didn't continue the argument. They'd had it plenty of times before. “Look, Sherlock,” he said, wondering how he was going to get out of this given the effort Sherlock had put into it already. “We can't do this.”

“Of course we can,” said Sherlock. “It will be simple. And if you're worried about Lestrade, remember that he said 'you can't be seen investigating this'. Those words were chosen deliberately. He doesn't mind me investigating, as long as it doesn't get back to his superiors.”

“Not my point,” said John. “We don't – Sherlock. We can't pretend to be a couple.”

Sherlock frowned. “Why not? As you said, it's not uncommon for people to think we are anyway, without any pretence from us. You hardly ever bother correcting them anymore.”

“Because,” said John, and then stalled. What reason could he possibly give? Sherlock was right, half the people they met seemed to think they were shagging anyway – which John tried very hard to tell himself wasn't because they'd picked up on how much he wanted to be. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. It would just be like one of the many times when he hadn't bothered correcting them. If they were at a retreat for couples with relationship problems, no-one would expect them to be all over each other.

Sherlock watched him think for a moment and then nodded. “Exactly,” he said, as if he could read John's thoughts. He probably could, although hopefully not all of them. “I realise that you are worried about the threat to your heterosexual masculine pride, but this-”

“No,” said John, because that wasn't true at all, and made him sound like an utter arse to boot. “It's-” He cut himself off.

Sherlock raised one eyebrow. “Yes?” he prompted.

John made a face as he realised he had nothing. Apparently, he was doing this. Bugger.

If he was, then he needed to lay down some rules in order to keep this from getting out of control. “No kissing,” he said. “No inappropriate touching. No telling people about the details of whatever fake sexlife you've decided Simon and John are having.”

Sherlock tipped his head to one side. “Define 'inappropriate',” he said. “We shall likely need to engage in touching that is outside of the bounds of our normal behaviour, but I do not expect it to be more than a hand to a shoulder, or a closer sitting position than we generally settle into.”

“That's fine,” said John. “Just – don't touch me anywhere below the waist. Or anywhere not covered with clothes, other than my hands.”

If Sherlock started groping him, he wasn't going to be able to hide his reaction. And that was the real danger here – not that the police would recognise them and Sherlock would be banned from all future crime scenes, or even that someone else would recognise them and it ended up in the papers that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson had gone on a romantic weekend away. The biggest danger was that Sherlock would realise John's true feelings for him and it would ruin their friendship. John couldn't bear that, not when he was struggling so hard to keep his anger from doing precisely that. He'd just got Sherlock back, there was no way he was going to let any of his uncontrollable emotions take that away from him.

“Fine,” said Sherlock. “I can work with that. We will be going more for affection than lust, anyway. I felt that would be easier to maintain. It's all in the dossier.”

Great. Well, as long as they kept it at that, hopefully John would be able to get through the weekend without fucking anything up.

“Right,” he said. “Well, my shift tomorrow ends at four, so I'll come straight back and we can go after that. I'm working Monday, so whatever happens I need to be back for that.”

Sherlock pulled a face. “Can't you just skip it?”

“No,” said John firmly.

“You always used to,” said Sherlock.

“Yes,” agreed John. “And then I lost the job, remember?”

“I thought that was because you broke up with Sarah.”

It was probably because of both things, but as the main reason that he and Sarah broke up was his unreliability as a boyfriend, it could all be traced back to his willingness to drop everything as soon as Sherlock announced he needed him. John wasn't falling into that pattern again. He was damned well going to hold onto his job this time. He needed something in his life that didn’t revolve around Sherlock.

“I'll be back by four-thirty,” he said.

Sherlock made a grumpy noise, but John ignored him in favour of going to make breakfast before he had to go to work. He even made Sherlock some, although the look he gave the plate as John set down didn't make him hopeful that he was going to eat it.

When John put his coat on, the toast was still untouched. “Do try not to pass out from hunger or sleep-deprivation while I'm out,” he said.

Sherlock was still glued to his laptop, but he spared a moment to give John a disgruntled look. “I am perfectly capable of looking after myself,” he said.

John laughed as he went out the door. What an utter load of bollocks.

****

Sherlock was ready and packed when John got home from work the next day, clearly itching to start investigating. When he came out of his bedroom to greet John, John wasn't able to stop himself from doing a double-take at how different he looked. He began to see how Sherlock had gone unrecognised for three months whilst being Simon Hollande.

He had done something to his hair, slicking it down to his head and hiding any trace of his usual curls. While he was dressed in a shirt and suit trousers, they looked as if they'd come from Marks and Spencer's rather than a bespoke tailor. The trousers were brown, the shirt was brown-checked and he'd put a sleeveless beige jumper over the top. John couldn't remember ever seeing him in brown before. His transformation was completed by a pair of thin-framed spectacles making him look like the particularly boring kind of science geek. The dossier Sherlock had compiled said that Simon was a chemist, specialising in something so complex that John wasn't sure he'd understood it, even with his medical degree.

“This is Simon Hollande, then?” he asked. “Christ.”

Sherlock glanced down at himself. “I told you I wouldn't be recognised,” he said, and then underwent one of those transformations that meant he was becoming someone else. His shoulders rounded over slightly, his jaw shifted so that his chin appeared weaker, and he blinked a few times before he spoke again. “You should go and pack, John.”

His voice was lighter and had a faint Birmingham accent to it. John wasn't sure he'd have recognised it as Sherlock's voice if he hadn't been looking right at him as he spoke.

“I hope you're not expecting this kind of thing from Fredrickson,” said John.

Sherlock straightened back into his own, familiar posture. “Of course not,” he said. “I told you – your strength when it comes to disguise is your ability to blend into the background. However, I would suggest the shirts your sister bought you last Christmas, and a jacket rather than any of your jumpers.”

The shirts from Harry were some sort of expensive designer label. They’d been a guilt gift because she’d been too busy scraping the bottom of a month-long bender when Sherlock jumped to be there for John in those first few horrific weeks. By Christmas, she'd been sober for a month or two and was trying to make it up to him in all the wrong ways. The shirts hadn’t come with an actual, out-loud apology, so John had just put them to the back of his wardrobe and tried to forget about them.

“Right,” he said. “So, John Fredrickson wears outrageously-priced shirts?”

“He dresses with more care than you do,” corrected Sherlock. “He’s image conscious - PA, remember?”

“Great,” said John with a sigh. That meant he was going to have to wear his nice shoes rather than his far more comfortable boots, and proper trousers rather than jeans.

“And do something about your hair,” added Sherlock.

John narrowed his eyes. “There's nothing wrong with my hair.”

“Of course not,” said Sherlock. “Perfectly fine, John Watson hair. Bit longer than normal, but that will work in our favour. John Fredrickson, however, would not be seen with it like that. He puts gel in his; borrow some of mine if you need to. Spike it up - he wants to look younger than he is. He's started a new career at a relatively old age and his peers will all be far younger than him.”

John glanced at the clock. Suddenly the hour before their train didn't seem long enough. “This is all a lot of hassle.”

Sherlock shrugged. “You were the one worried we'd be recognised. Creating a good disguise is all about getting the persona behind it right. You did read the dossier I sent you, right?”

“I skimmed it,” said John. He'd opened it, seen it was fifteen pages long, and settled for scanning the subheadings.

Sherlock scowled. “You can read it properly on the train,” he said. “You'll need to bring your laptop anyway. Your boss keeps you on-call even when you're on a romantic weekend. It's one of the problems with our relationship.”

“Sounds like most of my actual relationships,” muttered John. He’d gone to New Zealand with Sarah and been bombarded with a constant stream of texts from Sherlock, half of them demanding he return immediately to do something petty and menial for him. The weekend at Claudia's sister's cottage had ended with John rushing back to London because Sherlock had called him while trapped inside a forgery ring's headquarters. It had been something of a pattern, one that had eventually led to his decision not to look for another girlfriend after Jeanette had dumped him.

Sherlock shrugged. “I told you, it's best to keep lies based on reality. Now, hurry up and get ready.”

****

 

John threw his most expensive (and least worn) clothes into a bag, and then fiddled with his hair until it looked incredibly silly, which he thought would have to do. When he came out of the bathroom, Sherlock gave it a narrow-eyed look and stepped forward to run his fingers through it a few times.

John ducked away from his hands. “Hey, remember the touching rules.”

“Those only apply to Simon,” said Sherlock. “I suppose it will have to do. Fredrickson will have to be not particularly good at seeming young and trendy.”

John glared at him. “All right, that's enough, or I'll start to take offence.”

Sherlock looked puzzled. “Why would you? We're talking about Fredrickson, not you. There's no reason for you to look trendy. You're far too confident in yourself to need that.”

As always when Sherlock threw out one of his sideways compliments, John was surprised into silence for a moment. He never felt particularly confident, but he liked the idea that Sherlock thought he was. Not for the first time, he wondered exactly what it was that Sherlock saw when he looked at him.

“You usually look trendy, and you're the most self-confident person I know,” he said once he'd got his brain restarted.

Sherlock let out a long sigh. “I don't look trendy,” he said. “I look stylish. That you are unable to tell the difference is probably why you haven't yet learnt how to dress yourself properly.”

And they were back to the insults. “Right, can we just go?” asked John. “I don't need my dress sense dissected by someone who'd live in his dressing gown if he thought he could get away with it.”

“Don't be ridiculous, John,” said Sherlock, sweeping his bag up and heading for the door. “A dressing gown would be terrible to wear outdoors. Imagine trying to chase a criminal in one.”

John followed him out, thinking that if they were dressing with chases in mind, then Sherlock really needed to start buying different shoes.

****

Once they'd boarded the train at London Bridge, Sherlock glared at John until he got out his laptop and started to read the dossier on their relationship. No, on Simon and Fredrickson's relationship - not that there seemed to be a great deal of difference.

John Fredrickson's life had continued much as John Watson's had, with only the absence of a medical degree. He'd been a career officer, working his way further up the ranks than John had before being shot in Afghanistan and invalided home. He'd then been introduced to Simon Hollande by a mutual friend, because they'd both been looking for a flatshare.

The differences only properly started after that. Sherlock had detailed the first time Simon and John had gone out together in far more detail than John would have expected.

They'd gone to look at the flat, and then out to dinner to see if they could stand each other enough to live together. However, it became clear by halfway through the dinner that the chemistry between them was far more than friendly, Sherlock had written. John, far more accomplished at seduction than Simon, began to flirt once he'd established that they were both single and that Simon considered boyfriends to be more his area than girlfriends.

The phrasing seemed familiar, but it took John a few moments to remember that it was the same thing that Sherlock had said that first night they'd gone to Angelo's. Jesus, he wasn't kidding about basing as much of this on the truth as possible. No wonder he'd been up all night writing it.

Chasing a cab through – and above – the streets of London was omitted, but Simon and John did get drunk and giggly together, and ended up back at Simon's flat, where they stood in the hallway and laughed until Simon couldn't stand the distance between them any longer, and took a chance by kissing John.

They spent the night together. The next morning, they discussed whether or not to pursue a relationship and a flatshare at the same time, and the problems that were likely to arise from that, but ultimately decided to go for it anyway.

Both of them tend to jump into potentially problematic situations with both feet, Sherlock had written. John thought that was possibly the truest statement in the whole document.

John stared at the laptop for a while after he'd finished reading. This was a version of his life that – barring a couple of changes – felt as if it was only a hair's breadth from reality. He could easily imagine a different ending to that first evening when they'd walked away from a crime scene laughing together. They'd gone for Chinese and then back to 221B, because it had been the middle of the night and John hadn't been able to summon the energy to think about getting back to his flat. He'd even thought about kissing Sherlock when they'd got there, but shut the thought down with the memory of how definite Sherlock had been about being married to his work. If he hadn't said that, what could have happened that night? John probably would have flirted with him, at least a bit, just to see where it got him. If they'd gone to bed together, what would his life be like now? Would they have been able to make it work as easily as they had their friendship? Would Sherlock still have thought faking his suicide and leaving John alone for months was a good idea?

He had to take a deep breath to cope with the pressure in his chest. Sherlock had rewritten their history with only one tiny difference – that he had returned John's interest that first night - and changed his actions to reflect that. Christ, John would gladly give a great deal for that to be real. If Sherlock had wanted him, they could have had the life Sherlock had detailed for Simon and John together. It could have been-

No. No sense in thinking like that. It was what it was, and Sherlock was no more interested in a relationship – especially with someone like John – than he was in going down the pub to watch rugby. Their friendship was enough, more than enough, compared to not having Sherlock at all.

“Well?” asked Sherlock. “Have you read it?”

“Most of it,” said John. He looked over the section on Simon Hollande, who was obsessed with his job, had few friends, and liked to spend his free time playing the cello. “Pretty sure I could have winged most of this,” he said. “It's pretty close to the truth.”

“Precisely,” said Sherlock. “I told you, a lie is-”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember,” interrupted John. “Does that mean one of our relationship issues is body parts in the fridge?”

“Not at all,” said Sherlock. “Simon has no interest in the biological or forensic sciences, only in pure chemistry. Besides which, you actually don't mind that. You just like complaining about it because you know a normal person would and it makes you feel like one, briefly.” Well, that explained why Sherlock never paid any attention to his complaints. “You're happy with the story, then? Now is the time to fiddle with the details. We can't change our story halfway through the weekend.”

“How much of our history do you think we're going to have to talk about?” asked John.

Sherlock shrugged. “I have no idea what 'relationship building therapy' might entail, and it seems likely we'll have to go to at least one of the counselling sessions. If anything comes up that we haven't covered, just stick as closely to the truth as possible. Use real details to sandwich a lie. When people tell the truth as opposed to a lie, they tend to include far more details.”

“I thought you said no-one was going to be looking for us to be lying,” said John.

“They won't be,” said Sherlock. “That doesn't mean we shouldn't create the best charade we can. There's no excuse for sloppiness, John.”

Of course not. God forbid that their pretence to be a couple so that Sherlock could examine a crime scene should be anything other than perfect. John wondered just how many details Sherlock had in his head about Simon's life, ready to be trotted out if need be. If he'd spent three months as him already, it was probably thousands. John felt the burn of anger as he thought about Sherlock going about pretending to be a chemist while John had been blindly wandering through the routines of his life with an empty space in his chest.

He pushed it aside. They had a case, the first proper one since Sherlock's return. He needed to focus on that.

“Seems like a lot of effort,” he said, closing the dossier. “I suppose there’s no chance you’re going to tell me why you’re so convinced that Jill McFarlane is innocent enough to warrant all this, then?”

Sherlock huffed out a sigh. “Isn’t it obvious?”

John shrugged. “Not to me. I mean, she doesn’t look like a murderer-”

Sherlock snorted. “By which you mean 'attractive',” he said. “People who look ‘nice' commit crimes too. Remember Bert Stevens?”

John did. Bert had seemed extremely nice and mild-mannered, right up until Sherlock proved that he had ripped open his wife's stomach and pulled her intestines out onto the carpet. Then he'd turned a bit nasty and John had been forced to hit him with a chair.

“Yeah, okay,” he said. “Point taken.”

“And I don’t necessarily think that she is innocent,” added Sherlock, “I just think there’s a lot more going on here than appears on the surface. Lestrade does too, or he wouldn’t have emailed me. I’m hoping he’s going on more than ‘she doesn’t look like a murderer’.”

“Like what?” John asked,.

Sherlock sat forward. “You didn’t get a close look at the draft of Oldacre’s Will, did you? It was written rather untidily, except for a few sentences at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. There were two points where the writing was almost entirely illegible.”

“Right,” said John. Sherlock gave him a meaningful look. John searched his brain for any connection between handwriting and murder, then gave up. “And what does that mean?”

Sherlock made a pained noise. “Think!” he said. “It was clearly written on a train. The tidy handwriting is when the train was in a station, the rest is bad because of the movement of the carriage, and the very bad bits are when it went over points. An expert would immediately be able to tell you that it was a suburban line, since nowhere but in the vicinity of a big city would there be such a quick succession of points. If we say her whole journey was taken writing it, then the train was an express: it only stopped once between Norwood and London Bridge.”

John found himself lost in the familiar sense of disbelief that anyone could get so much from so little. “Incredible,” he gasped.

Sherlock gave him a pleased grin. John was struck by the memories of all the times they had repeated the pattern of deduction-flattery-pleasure since the very first time, at their first crime scene together. He cleared his throat.

“Right,” he said. “So, she wrote it on the train. What does that have to do with anything?”

“It means,” said Sherlock, speaking slowly as if talking to a small child, “that she wrote it on the way to see Jill McFarlane. Doesn't it strike you as a bit odd that she wrote such an important document in such a slapdash manner? It can't have been of much importance to her.”

“No,” agreed John slowly. “And Jill said she barely spoke to the solicitor before getting Jill to witness it.”

Sherlock huffed a sigh. “Which meant that she’d already been to the man to get it all sorted out – she must have done that earlier in the day, and then gone to see Jill at her workplace. Clearly, she was in a hurry to get the thing done quickly.”

“Okay,” said John. “So, what does that mean?”

Sherlock sat back again. “I’m not sure yet. I need more information. The right kind of information, not the rubbish that was in the report Lestrade sent me.”

“And that’s why we’re going to a couples retreat,” said John, unable to hold in a sigh at the thought. “Honestly, Sherlock, the things I do for you-”

“Yes, yes, I know,” said Sherlock quickly. “I’m very grateful.”

He didn’t sound grateful, but John wasn’t interested in badgering him about it. He let it go, hoping that the evidence Sherlock needed would be immediately obvious once they got to Norwood, so that they could skip the whole charade and go back home again.

Chapter Text

Deep Dene House was larger than John had expected. The main part looked Georgian, but he could see at least two or three other architectural styles represented in the various wings and outbuildings that surrounded the main entrance.

“Wow,” he said as he got out of the taxi, looking up at the white columns that stood either side of the front porch.

Sherlock was already in persona as Simon. He'd slid Simon's glasses on as they'd got off the train and dropped into the role so completely that he'd even made polite small talk with the taxi driver, while John wondered why Sherlock couldn't have managed that level of social interaction when he'd met Harry, instead of listing off all the failures in her life that had led her to start drinking wine with breakfast.

“Yes, it's rather impressive,” Sherlock replied in Simon's light, accented voice. “Expensive to maintain, though. That'll be why Joanna rented out most of it. Very few people can afford a stately home without attaching some kind of business to it these days.”

“She kept the oldest part for herself, right?” said John.

Sherlock nodded. “The original Tudor building is at the back. It became the South Wing when Sir Reginald Oldacre added the Georgian section that we're looking at now in 1789.” Apparently he’d found time to memorise the history of the house. John was impressed, and then annoyed with himself for always being so easily impressed by Sherlock.

They went inside to the main hall, where a long, wooden reception desk ran all the way along one side. There was a man behind it who gave them a beaming grin.

“Welcome to Deep Dene House!” he said. “You must be Simon and John.”

“Yes,” said Sherlock. “I hope we're not too early.”

“Not at all!” said the man. “Just gives you a chance to try out the jacuzzi before the others arrive, right?” He gave them a knowing wink, although how he presumed to know them when he’d just met them was beyond John. “I'm the manager here, my name’s Chris Greenstock. Anything you need, just come and find me. Or any of the other staff, they'll all be happy to help!”

John was rather taken aback by the level of enthusiasm radiating from him, but Sherlock seemed to take it into his stride. “Very kind of you,” he said. He gave a small, careful smile that was completely unlike anything John had seen on his face before. John felt himself twitch at how unnatural it was and had to look away.

“I just need you to register here. Just a signature will do, I can fill in the rest from your booking information,” said Chris, placing a piece of paper on the desk. “And then I'll take you up to your room. You'll love it – the bedrooms here are incredible! And the beds are all huge.” He gave them another wink.

Even if John had been planning to have sex with Sherlock – or Simon – in the bed, he still would have found the display unpleasant. As it was, he was hard-pressed not to grimace.

Sherlock put his hand on the small of John's back and gave Chris another smile. “Sounds great.”

John felt his back tense under Sherlock's hand at the unexpected touch. How was he meant to react? What would John Fredrickson do? he asked himself, but he had no idea. Fredrickson seemed like an unknown quantity. Fine, well, what would John do if he actually was in a relationship with Sherlock, then? That was easy. He relaxed into Sherlock's touch, swaying his body closer to him.

Chris's smile grew wider until John had to force himself not to step in front of Sherlock to protect him from it. Sherlock patted his back and then gave him an amused look that didn't contain a trace of Simon the moment that Chris's turned his back to find their room key. Well, as long as someone was having a good time.

Their room was as large as promised, with a bed that John was pretty sure they could have had a small orgy in. Maybe this place encouraged sexual experimentation as a relationship-building tool. God, he hoped not. He could just about deal with a fake relationship with Sherlock, but a fake sexlife was too much.

“Excellent,” said Sherlock, dumping his bag on the bed and striding to the window, all traces of Simon's posture and voice disappearing. “We have a view of the crime scene.”

“How romantic,” said John.

“Look,” said Sherlock. “There's the South Wing. I suspect those are the French doors into Joanna's study that Jill left through, but I'd need to be closer to be sure. And over there, behind those trees, are the remains of the abseiling tower. The murderer would have taken the body in a direct line; no-one carries a body the long way round, even small corpses are heavier than you'd expect. There should be some form of evidence in the grove, even after a couple of days have passed. It hasn't rained, that's in our favour.”

He was clearly bursting with enthusiasm at the prospect of the case. John wondered why Chris's enthusiasm had made his skin crawl while Sherlock's made him want to step closer and kiss him until he'd absorbed some of it into himself. He looked at the bed again and took a careful breath. He definitely shouldn't be thinking thoughts like that if he was going to get through this weekend with their friendship intact.

Instead, he picked up the information pack that was on the desk and flicked through it. “We've got dinner in an hour,” he informed Sherlock. “Wait, no, we've got pre-dinner drinks in an hour, then dinner after that, followed by a reception that's meant to give us a chance to get to know the other guests.”

Sherlock made a disgusted noise but didn't turn away from taking in every detail of the view from the window.

“Might not be that bad,” said John.

“Small talk with a group of people whose only thing in common is that they're all having relationship difficulties?” asked Sherlock. “It'll be hell.”

“We can't not go,” said John. “It'll look odd.”

Sherlock waved that away. “We'll merely go for a few minutes and then leave early with the implication that we're going to have sex. No-one will quibble about that.”

“I thought our relationship was meant to be in trouble.”

“It hasn't affected our sexlife,” said Sherlock. “In fact, that's the one thing that has always worked extremely well between us. Didn't you read chapter four of the dossier?”

“Is that the one that started with a detailed description of the first time Simon and Fredrickson had sex?” asked John. “Yeah, I skipped that. I'm not reading what is basically porn about myself, Sherlock, especially not when it's been written by you.”

Well, he wasn't going to read it on a train while in front of Sherlock, anyway. He might well find himself reading it next time he was alone in his bedroom and in the mood for a good wank.

Sherlock grunted in an agitated manner. He still hadn't turned away from the view but when John looked over, he caught Sherlock watching him in the window's reflection. “I had no idea you were such a prude.”

John couldn't hold in a laugh at that. “I'm really not,” he said. “I just – some things are way too weird, even for me.”

Sherlock sighed. “Fine. I shall summarise. Simon and Fredrickson have always had a vibrant and healthy sex life, and none of their current emotional problems have affected that. We shouldn't need to talk about it more than that. The focus here is on strengthening relationships, not on nitpicking every tiny problem.”

“Okay,” said John. “Then if you think you can pull off desperate-for-a-shag, we'll just nip off early tonight.”

Sherlock finally turned around from the window, drawing himself up to his full height. “My acting skills are excellent, John. I can assure you that it will be no problem to pretend I am incapable of waiting to get you naked.”

Oh god. John felt his face begin to heat up just from hearing those words from Sherlock's mouth, and he had to bury himself back in the brochure to hide it.

“We will merely need to become a little handsy with each other in the later stages of dinner,” continued Sherlock, who didn't seem to have noticed anything, thank God. “It will be best if it appears that we have both drunk too much. From there, it will be easy to give the impression that alcohol has stimulated our libidos. Even you should be able to manage that.”

Yeah, John didn't think he was going to have any problem acting as if he was desperate to get in Sherlock's underwear. “Exactly how handsy?”

Sherlock waved a hand. “I will remain within your boundaries,” he said. He turned back towards the window. “It should be noted that I have no such qualms about you touching me,” he added. “If you can bring yourself to manage it without having a sexuality crisis.”

John had to bite at the inside of his lip to hold in a dry laugh. Bringing himself to touch Sherlock was never going to be a problem. It would only be a problem keeping himself from going too far now that he apparently had permission, even if it was only for the weekend. Part of him wanted to try and get in as much as he could, using this as an excuse to hoard up moments that he was unlikely to ever get a chance at again, but that would be taking advantage. Sherlock would never allow John such an open permission if he knew the truth about John's feelings.

“Right then,” he said, trying to get the conversation back on to safer topics. “Are we going to investigate the grounds before dinner, then?”

Sherlock shook his head. “There won't be enough time. Besides which, the other bedrooms are likely to have similar views to ours and we can't be seen poking around out there. We'll wait until after dinner to start the investigation. Not with the grounds, though, it'll be too dark, even with your torch.”

John had slipped his torch into his bag at the last minute and hadn't mentioned it to Sherlock, but he knew better than to ask how Sherlock knew that. It was just easier to accept that Sherlock knew everything – almost everything, he thought, looking back at the bed. Hopefully there were some things he would never find out, like that John's sexuality crisis had been over with long before Sherlock had even appeared on the scene. It worked in his favour that his bisexuality was one of Sherlock's very few blind spots. Straight men didn't fall in love with their male best friends, after all.

****

They turned up as late as they could for the pre-dinner drinks, but still had to suffer through twenty minutes of small talk. There were about twenty couples all together, but John and Sherlock immediately stood out as the only gay one.

The third time John had to suffer through, “Are you married then? Oh, wait, it's called something different for you lot, isn't it?” he downed his drink and got another. Sherlock wanted it to seem as if they'd drunk too much? Well, the easiest way to manage that was to actually drink too much.

Sherlock shot him a narrow-eyed look when he got his third drink, but didn't say anything. When they finally sat down to dinner, he was the one to get them a bottle of wine to share.

“It's funny,” said one of the other men on their table, a large, bluff man with an unpleasantly loud laugh who'd introduced himself as Terry. “You don't think of your type needing relationship help. Surely without a woman harping at you all the time, it's much easier. No convenient headaches every night, right?”

He gave them a wink. His wife, Jessica, who was dressed in a very unflattering brown colour, pursed her lips and stared at her plate.

“Well, yes, the sex is rather good,” said Sherlock in Simon's soft voice, ducking his head slightly as if embarrassed by the admission. “Still, every relationship needs to have effort put into it. You can't spend all your time in bed.”

John took a large gulp of wine to distract him from that mental image. It worked, not least because the wine was a far better quality than he'd been expecting.

“Oh, this is really nice,” he said, looking at the bottle.

“Only the best for you,” said Sherlock, and reached over to pat John's arm. John felt himself twitch at just how out-of-character that was, but forced himself to give Sherlock a happy smile rather than a puzzled stare. If he also leaned in so that he could touch their shoulders together, well, that was merely good acting, right?

“And I'm drinking the cheapest wine on the menu,” said Jessica, pointedly.

Terry frowned. “You said that would be fine.”

She let out a tetchy sigh. “It's a Chardonnay,” she said. “Eleven years, and you still don't know that I prefer Pinot.”

“Oh, as if I can keep track of all your little fancies,” said Terry, and John took another gulp of wine. This was going to be a very long dinner.

Terry and Jessica bickered throughout the entire meal. John eventually managed to tune it out, but it wasn't as if the other two couples on their table were much better. His only consolation was that if he was finding it annoying, then Sherlock must be close to committing mass murder. That only seemed fair, given that it was his fault they were there.

Having dinner with Simon was very different from having dinner with Sherlock. He ate more, for one thing, and he actually paid attention to what people were saying to him. At no point did he deduce something personal and awkward about anyone, or even unleash any insults. John enjoyed the peace to start with, but by the main course he was rather tired of Simon's fake little smiles and wanted to see Sherlock's intense glare again.

When the pudding course arrived, Sherlock started to touch John's arm or shoulder with every other word that either of them said. He also took to giving John the occasional lingering look that made it very hard for John to focus on anything else. Just shamming it so we can escape quickly after dinner, he reminded himself, but the wine had gone to his head a bit and he couldn't help building a fantasy where Sherlock actually wanted him and they really were building towards a night of wild passion.

He found himself touching just as much in return, even going so far as to put his hand on Sherlock's leg once he’d finished his cheesecake. Sherlock's leg was warmer and more muscular than he'd expected. Somehow he'd thought it would feel as cold as Sherlock's attitude towards being touched was. Sherlock's muscles twitched under John's hand and then he turned and gave John a pleased smile.

“How much longer do you think this will go on for? I want to get you alone,” he said in a tone that was clearly pitched to be heard by the others but still appear to have been meant for John alone.

“There's the reception yet,” John reminded him.

Sherlock made a face. “We can nip off early though, can’t we?” He bent forward until his lips were resting against John's ear. “Look as if I am whispering a sweet nothing to you,” he said in a low voice that made a shiver pass down John's spine. Yeah, that wasn't going to be much effort. “If we don't get away from these people in the next fifteen minutes, I will not be responsible for my actions.”

He leant back and John gave him his best faintly-embarrassed-but-mostly-turned-on look, which was also not hard to fake. “Yeah, I thought that might be the case,” he said. “We'll go as soon as the tables are cleared.”

“Can we go early so we can have sex as well?” Terry asked Jessica.

“I'm still drinking Chardonnay,” she said. “So, no.”

There was the sound of a fork tapping against a glass, and John looked over to see Chris standing at a microphone. The room hushed.

“Hello, everybody,” said Chris with a wide grin. “Welcome to Love Builders! It's wonderful to see you all here! For those of you who haven't yet met me, I'm Chris Greenstock, and I'm the general manager. It's my job to make sure you all have a truly excellent weekend, so if you have any problems or questions, don't hesitate to come and find me. I'm usually either at the reception desk, or the person there knows where I am.”

He looked around the room. “Love Builders is all about working on relationships, creating the building blocks that will keep your love strong through the hard times as well as the easy ones, but it's also about having fun. After all, the couples who have fun together are the ones who stay together! There's a whole range of activities here, all of which you're more than welcome to try. Some you'll need to book in for, which you can do at the reception desk. Others you should feel free to just go along to whenever you feel like it – and yes, that does include the hot tubs.” He gave them all a wink and John felt Sherlock shudder. “Full details of what's on offer, where it all is, and what needs to be booked in advance are in the welcome packs in your rooms. The only restriction is that you must be with your partner for all of them – you can't build your relationship while you're apart, after all.”

John's mind flew to the eleven months he and Sherlock had spent apart and he had to take a careful breath. He took his hand off Sherlock's leg and pulled away from him a little, hoping to hide the sudden surge of anger.

“In your welcome pack will also be the times of your group sessions. I know they sound a bit daunting, but really they're just a chance to talk about your relationship and get advice from our trained counsellors. Please do your best to attend your sessions – it's important to take the time to talk these things through. If, after your first group session, you feel that you need an individual session, talk to your counsellor and we'll arrange some time for that.”

He paused for a moment, tipping his head to one side. “I think that's everything for now,” he said. “There's a reception now in the ballroom just down the hall. I do hope you'll all attend and get to know each other.”

The minute he stopped talking and stepped away from the microphone, Sherlock was on his feet. “Come on, John,” he said. It came out as more like one of Sherlock's commands than a request from Simon, and John saw him take a moment to relax his posture into Simon's slouch.

“I thought we were going to the reception for at least a few minutes,” said John, getting to his feet and finding himself swaying slightly. That had possibly been a bit too much wine but, screw it. All he had to do for the rest of the night was watch Sherlock examine things and possibly occasionally compliment him. At this point of an investigation, it probably wouldn't be too difficult to train a monkey to take John's part, if he just gave it some cue cards saying, Incredible! and You're brilliant! and How on earth do you know that?

Oh, there was the anger again. John was beginning to wonder if he'd spend the rest of his life see-sawing between wanting to shout at Sherlock and wanting to snog him.

Sherlock shook his head firmly and then melted his face into another lust-filled look that John couldn't seem to remember was fake while it was aimed at him. He felt his blood begin to move faster, arousal rushing through him as if he was actually about to get laid. Damnit, he needed to get himself under control. Maybe the wine had been a mistake after all.

“I have a far better plan for us,” said Sherlock in a purr, put his arm around John's shoulders and propelled him out of the dining room.

Chris was in the corridor outside, talking to another member of staff. He looked up as they came out. “Eager to get to the reception?”

“Eager for something,” said Sherlock, with a smug tone to his voice. “We're actually intending to go and have sex.”

So much for keeping their sex life private. John felt himself flush red and he ducked his head to hide the blush. Somehow that seemed to end with his face pressed to Sherlock's shoulder. Okay, he really had drunk too much wine, although he couldn't find anything to complain about right now. Sherlock's shoulder was just the right height.

“You'll have to forgive John,” said Sherlock. “He's occasionally a bit shy.”

John's head whipped up at that, despite how nice Sherlock's shoulder felt beneath his cheek. “That is the very last thing I am, Sh-Simon,” he said. Shit, nearly got the name wrong then. Hopefully it had just sounded as if he was drunkenly slurring his words. “Which of us is the one with a reputation? A reputation amongst soldiers. That takes some doing.”

“Then it shouldn't bother you if I voice what is an extremely obvious truth then,” said Sherlock. “Besides, it's not as if I gave details.”

John looked at Chris and the woman. “I'd apologise for him,” he said. “But if I started doing that, I'd never have time to say anything else.”

Chris gave him a wide, amused grin. “Well, this is a relationship-building weekend,” he said. “A healthy sex life is vital for that. Just don't stay up all night; breakfast stops being served at nine thirty.” He took care to emphasis stay up so that they wouldn't miss the innuendo. “And you'll want to be well-rested for the activities tomorrow. This is Trisha, she runs some of them for us.”

“We'll be doing the clay pigeon shooting,” said Sherlock.

“We will?” asked John, and then winced. He probably should have just agreed as if they'd already discussed it.

“Of course,” said Sherlock. “You love shooting things. I knew you'd want to do it first.”

“Oh great, that makes me sound like a psychopath,” said John, but he couldn't disagree. He'd run his eyes down the list earlier and that had been the only one that had stood out. He'd also noted a few he definitely didn't want any part of. Tennis for one; pointless game.

Chris laughed. “Oh, I'm sure you're not,” he said. “That's one of the ones that you need to book for. We like to keep it intimate by only having one couple do it at a time.”

Sherlock nodded. “We're going to stop at reception on our way upstairs,” he said.

“Well then, I'll see you tomorrow,” said Trisha. “I'm the instructor for the clay pigeon shooting.”

“Oh, right,” said John. He gave her a smile.

Sherlock's arm had found its way around his waist, slightly above his belt, John noticed. At least Sherlock was sticking to John's rules, although the way Sherlock's fingers were stroking over his shirt was making his skin tingle as if they were somewhere more obviously erogenous. He wondered if he shouldn't have drawn the line elsewhere.

“Good night,” said Sherlock to Chris and Trisha. He barely allowed John enough time to say the same before he dragged him off towards reception.

“All right,” said John in an undertone, pulling away from Sherlock's hands – with reluctance, but he was still sober enough to know that it wasn't a good idea to stay too close to him. “Bit less of the pulling me about would be great. I thought Simon wasn't as much of a dictator as Sherlock is.”

Sherlock gave him a frown and then glanced about. “Don't say that name,” he said, ignoring the rest of John's statement.

John ground his teeth together. “You sort out our activities, then. I'll be in the room.”

He turned without waiting for a response from Sherlock and headed upstairs. He needed a few minutes alone.

****

Sherlock came up less than five minutes later but that was long enough for John to take several deep breaths and remind himself just what was and wasn't true in their current situation. He and Sherlock were just friends. There was no point in being angry with him. They needed to focus on the case. He needed to get his emotions under some sort of control.

Sherlock gave him a puzzled frown as he came in, which meant that he had stopped being Simon and was now trying to work out what John's outburst had been about. John gave him a careful smile. “Time to finally start the investigation?” he asked.

Sherlock's look continued for another moment and then cleared away as he accepted John's unspoken 'let's forget all that and get on with this'.

“Not quite yet,” he said. “There are still a number of people moving around the building. In order to avoid arousing suspicion, we will have to wait another hour or so.”

“So we could have gone to the drinks reception after all,” said John.

Sherlock gave him a black look. “Only if we wanted our minds to rot,” he said. “Bad enough that we have to waste so much time with these people as it is.”

John reached over and snagged the welcome pack from the desk. “We've got breakfast with them tomorrow, and then an activity session.”

“During which we will be clay pigeon shooting,” said Sherlock. “Or, rather, you will be. Once you have exhibited enough shooting prowess to convince Trisha that she doesn't need to stay with us, I will use the time to examine the area. Clay pigeon shooting is the activity that occurs closest to where the abseiling tower used to stand before the fire on the night Joanna Oldacre disappeared.”

Ah, so all that stuff about choosing John's favourite activity to do first had been a cover. John supposed he should have expected that. “Okay,” he said. “Well, after that we've got our first relationship session, I'm afraid. Don't suppose you've thought of a way out of it?”

Sherlock shook his head. “Not so early in the weekend,” he said. “I'm afraid we shall just have to suffer through it.”

John let out a sigh. “Some use you are, Mr. Genius,” he said. “Well, after that’s lunch, then more activity time, and then a communication and intimacy workshop, whatever that means.”

“I may be able to get us out of that one,” said Sherlock. “We'll have to see how the rest of the day goes. If we're lucky, I'll have solved it by then and we’ll be able to go home.”

“Pretty confident you'll find something the police missed, then,” said John.

Sherlock gave him a pointed look. “Anderson was on forensics.”

John nodded. “Yeah, fair enough,” he said. “Let's hope for that then, or at least that we'll be done before our second relationship building session on Sunday.”

“I will do my very best,” said Sherlock. He wandered over to the window and stared out at the grounds again, no doubt trying to spot forensic evidence from where he was. John watched the way the light shone off his cheekbones and thought about how different Simon's slicked-back hair made his silhouette. An itch ran through him to go over and run his hands through it until all the gel had gone and it fell as it should, so that he looked like Sherlock again.

He cleared his throat. “If we've got some time, I'll take a shower,” he said.

Sherlock didn't bother replying.

****

A shower and a lengthy pause later, the wine had mostly worn off and John was ready for Sherlock’s plans for the evening.

The building was a lot emptier as they carefully made their way through the corridors, although John could hear chatter from the ballroom as they passed by. Sherlock led them unerringly towards the back of the building where the entrance to the South Wing was. John wondered if he'd somehow managed to get hold of the blueprints of the house.

The entrance was locked, but it didn't take Sherlock long to pick it. In fact, he managed it far faster than John had expected, faster than he would have been able to before he'd ‘died’. He wondered how many buildings Sherlock had broken into while he’d been away. How much illegal trespassing had he done without John there to watch his back?

Sherlock led him through a series of rooms that clearly functioned as somewhere someone actually lived, in contrast to the hotel-like atmosphere of the rest of the building. Joanna Oldacre had a lot of heavy, antique furniture and oil paintings in gilded frames, no doubt inherited with the house. They reached a door that had police tape across it and Sherlock stopped again.

“Don't disturb anything,” he said to John. “In fact, it might be best if you waited out here.”

John glared at him. “What's the point of me being here again?”

“I'll need you in a moment,” said Sherlock. “I just need to see it all first.”

He opened the door and ducked under the tape, leaving John to glare after him. More bloody waiting for Sherlock.

'A moment' turned out to be nearly fifteen minutes. John got bored, and then he got irritated, which fed into the ball of anger in his stomach, and he had to force himself to calm down and not just storm off. Sherlock had said he'd need John, after all.

That thought only made him feel more pathetic. Was he really going to spend his life waiting around for Sherlock, putting everything on hold so that he could jump the minute Sherlock decided he needed him?

“Okay,” called Sherlock. “Come in now.”

John started moving before he'd finished the sentence. It seemed that was going to be his life's work. Fantastic.

Joanna Oldacre's office was a large, old-fashioned room decorated in dark wood and deep red fabrics. Bookcases stood against every wall, although none of the books looked as if they'd been touched in years. There was a heavy desk in front of the French windows and a large iron safe set into what had been the fireplace, which was standing open. Papers were scattered over the desk and on the floor in front of the safe. Sherlock was examining the curtains as John came in, but he turned around to throw John a pair of gloves.

“They've already done the forensics,” he said, “but we shouldn't risk them rerunning them. One day they'll catch on to the fact that they shouldn't be trusting Anderson with anything even slightly complex.”

“Right,” said John, pulling the gloves on. “So, did you find anything?”

“Nothing yet,” said Sherlock. He walked to the desk and turned on the computer. “You should go through all those papers and see if you can spot anything unusual. I'll do the same with her digital information.”

“Uh, right,” said John, looking at the many, many pieces of scattered paper. “Surely the police will notice if we move them?”

Sherlock waved that away. “I will be able to replace them exactly as they are. Get on with it.”

John started the long, tedious business of going through someone else's records and trying to build up an overview of their financial situation from it. Sherlock settled in front of the computer in silence, occasionally making the quiet humming noises that meant he'd found something worth taking a mental note of.

It was peaceful - almost domestic, if you ignored the breaking-into-a-crime-scene part of it. John couldn't count the number of times that they'd worked in silence together on a case like this, going through data and looking for anything suspicious. It was one of the things that made John feel like he was actually useful on cases, and not just as back-up for when things got violent. Sherlock could do it all on his own, of course, but it would take him twice as long.

John wondered if there had been much of this sort of thing while Sherlock had been away, and if Sherlock had ever missed his help with it. Was he ever even likely to find out if Sherlock had? The more time passed, the less likely it seemed Sherlock was ever going to mention any details from his time away. Even if he did, John wasn't sure he'd be able to listen without letting his anger get the better of him.

An hour or two passed before either of them spoke again. “The only unusual thing I can find is a series of large cheques that Joanna Oldacre paid to someone called Samantha Cornelius over the last year,” said John. “They've just about wiped out her bank account. Mind you, it wasn't looking very healthy even before that. The rent from Love Builders Inc. is just about her only income, and it's not been enough to cover all her outgoings for years.”

Sherlock made an interested noise. “There's no record of a Samantha Cornelius on here,” he said. “In fact, her computer is rather boring. It doesn't look as if she has any friends. The only emails are business-related, or spam. She doesn't have any photos on here, or much that's personal at all.” He spun around in the chair to look at John with a frown. “This hasn't helped nearly as much as I'd hoped.”

John started trying to put the papers back where he'd found them. “Maybe there'll be something at the scene of the fire tomorrow.”

“We'll have to hope there is,” said Sherlock. “Otherwise Lestrade will end up getting a conviction against our client, and he'll be so tediously smug about it. Oh, good God, John, have you no visual memory at all? Get out of the way.” He shifted from the chair to the floor beside John, taking the papers from him.

John sighed and sat back, letting him get on with it. He was getting very tired and he hoped Sherlock didn't have any more investigating planned for tonight. It definitely felt like bedtime.

“Right,” said Sherlock once the papers were all placed to his satisfaction. “Let's get out of here.”

John looked at the papers. “Are you sure no one's going to notice that they've been moved?”

“They are all precisely as they were before,” said Sherlock.

John couldn't keep the sceptical look off his face. Sherlock's memory was impressive, but surely no-one could get the exact placement of so much paperwork correct?

Sherlock let out a long sigh. “One day, you will cease doubting me,” he said. He pulled out his phone and held it up so that John could see a photo of the crime scene as it had been before John touched it. “You can check my work, if you must.”

“If you have a photo, why didn't you use it?” asked John, taking the camera and starting to carefully comparing it with the carpet.

“I didn't need it,” said Sherlock.

A couple of minutes later, John had to admit he was right. He hadn't been able to find a single sheet of paper that was so much as a millimetre out of place. “Brilliant,” he couldn't help saying as he handed Sherlock's phone back to him.

Sherlock gave him a small, smug smile as he tucked his phone away.

John followed him back under the police tape and through the South Wing to the door that linked it with the main building. They paused there for a moment while Sherlock listened for signs of life, and then they darted back through it.

“If we run into anyone, just act drunk,” said Sherlock as they started back towards their room.

Before John could even question the order, they turned a corner and nearly walked into Chris. John started back in surprise, and then immediately let his body relax into the slightly off-balance posture of a drunk person, taking the opportunity to lean into Sherlock's body.

“Oh!” said Chris, clearly as surprised to see them as they were to see him. He was carrying a tray with a sandwich, a bottle of water and a slab of chocolate cake on it.

“Sorry,” said Sherlock, slurring his words. “We got a bit lost. John wanted to see the swimming pool.” He slung an arm around John, bringing him in closer to his body, and John felt his skin tingle with the unexpected contact. He gave Chris a smile that he hoped hid his reaction.

“The pool's shut at this time of night, I'm afraid,” said Chris.

“Oh yes, of course,” said Sherlock. “We just wanted to, um, look at it.”

There was a note in his voice that clearly indicated that that hadn't been all they'd intended to do in the pool. John felt himself begin to blush as he pictured getting Sherlock naked and wet, and then taking advantage. “I like looking at water,” he added, rather lamely, but that was probably in-character for a drunk man who'd been interrupted on his way to an against-the-rules shag.

Chris's eyes narrowed. “It's locked,” he said. “You should go back to your room and get some sleep instead.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said Sherlock. “That way isn't it?” he said, gesturing off in entirely the wrong direction.

“The main staircase is that way,” corrected Chris, using his chin to point as his hands were full with the tray.

“Right, of course, thank you,” said Sherlock. “Enjoy your, um, snack.”

Chris glanced at the tray. “One of the staff members is sick,” he said. “She wasn't able to make it to dinner, so I'm taking her something up.”

John opened his mouth to offer to have a look at her, as a doctor, and then remembered that he actually wasn't one at the moment. “That's nice of you,” he said instead.

“I do what I can,” said Chris. “Good night,” he added, pointedly.

Time to escape. “Come on, Simon,” said John. “Our bed probably is the best place to be right now.”

Sherlock's arm tightened around him and he looked down at John with a look of amused arousal that was exactly how John had always imagined him looking at John in the fantasies he tried to pretend he didn't have, the ones that started with a shared drink after a case and ended with them snuggled together, naked on the sofa.

“Most definitely,” Sherlock agreed in a low voice that vibrated through the places where they were pressed together.

John had to look away. He managed to find a smile for Chris. “Good night,” he said, and let Sherlock lead him away towards the main stairs. As soon as Chris was out-of-sight, he pulled away, trying to get himself back under control. If he had to spend all night in the same bed as Sherlock, he couldn't let this get the better of him.

Chapter Text

John shut himself away in the bathroom when they got back to their room. By the time he emerged, with clean teeth and in his pyjamas, he felt much more able to cope with the presence of Sherlock while he slept. The bed was huge, after all, it was unlikely John would even notice he was there.

Sherlock was still fully-clothed, sitting cross-legged in the centre of the bed with his laptop on his knees.

“Are you going to be on that all night?” asked John. “Because I don't mind, but you're going to need to get off the bed so I can sleep in it.”

Sherlock looked up, but didn't say anything immediately. It looked as if his mind had gone miles away and John wondered if he was still concentrating on what he'd been looking at on-screen, rather than on what John had said to him.

“I-” said Sherlock, and then he cut himself off. He looked back down at the laptop. “I'll just be a moment, then I'll be going to bed as well,” he said. “Nothing much more we can do until daylight, unfortunately.”

“Right then,” said John, and sat on the bed while Sherlock finished up. He thought he'd probably have to start making pointed comments and tugging at the duvet after a few minutes, but in fact Sherlock was as good as his word. It was less than a minute before he slammed his laptop shut and got off the bed, disappearing into the bathroom.

John got down under the covers, setting his back to the empty half of the bed. The best case scenario would be that he managed to get to sleep before Sherlock got out of the bathroom. That way there would be no temptation to fake a sleepy roll in his direction, or risk of just lying awake listening to Sherlock's breathing and quietly torturing himself with impossible fantasies.

Naturally, even though Sherlock took far longer than John would have expected in the bathroom, John was still awake when he emerged. He turned out the light before climbing into bed and John braced himself to defend his share of the duvet; if anyone's personality had 'duvet hog' written all over it, then it was Sherlock's.

Sherlock only took his fair share though. John's death grip on his half was apparently unnecessary. John wondered if Sherlock was more the stealth duvet thief type, waiting until John's guard was down before yanking it away. He tucked a corner under his leg just in case and then resolutely shut his eyes. The atmosphere in the room seemed saturated with awkwardness, but he couldn't tell if that was just his interpretation, or if Sherlock was feeling the same. Either way, the best thing to do was still to get to sleep as quickly as possible.

Which, of course, was when Sherlock started talking. “I was unable to find any record online of a Samantha Cornelius,” he said. “Or, at least, not one that might have any connection with Joanne Oldacre.”

“Right,” said John as shortly as possible, hoping to cut off any chance of conversation before it started.

“It is suspicious, though, that Joanne had nearly depleted her accounts,” continued Sherlock. “I wonder if Jill McFarlane knows that the 'generous inheritance' that Oldacre was leaving her was mostly a house that costs so much to upkeep that it would bankrupt her within a year, and a series of nearly-empty bank accounts.”

“There were some shares as well,” remembered John. There was something intimate about having this discussion in the dark while lying in bed together. He could feel his resolve to go to sleep as early as possible crumble in the face of how close this felt to something he had wanted for far too long.

“Largely worthless,” said Sherlock. “I looked them up. It seems as if the only ones that had any real value were sold off earlier this year. No, Joanna Oldacre's financial situation is such that killing her for the inheritance would be an idiotic thing to do.”

“Surely Lestrade's team must have worked that out?” asked John, rolling over onto his back to be able to talk to Sherlock easier. “They'll have looked over her finances as well, won't they?”

“No doubt they have decided that Jill had no idea that her exciting new benefactor was far worse off than she made out. When she told us about it, she certainly sounded as if she was expecting it to be a lot more than it is.”

“As much as it would be if Joanna hadn't sent so much to Samantha Cornelius?” asked John.

“Possibly,” allowed Sherlock.

John thought about that for a while. “Do we think she was, what, being blackmailed or something? It doesn't seem like it was a legitimate business transaction.”

“It could still be something innocent,” said Sherlock. There was a note to his voice that John had only rarely heard, a drowsy note that meant he was falling asleep. John wondered if he always sounded like that when he talked himself to sleep and then, abruptly, if he ever had before. His knowledge of Sherlock's past, especially when it came to things like relationships, was too sketchy for him to guess at whether or not Sherlock had ever shared a bed with someone before, let alone indulged in drowsy chat while they both nodded off.

“Blackmail might be a motive for the crime, though,” Sherlock continued. “If the money was running out, perhaps Joanna told Cornelius that she couldn't pay any more, and Cornelius killed her in response. Or maybe the payments have no bearing on the case at all. Mustn't theorise before the facts, John.”

“No, of course not,” said John, amused by just how sleepy Sherlock's voice had become within only a few minutes. He wondered just how much sleep Sherlock had bothered with since Jill McFarlane turned up at Baker Street.

He shut his eyes and made himself comfortable. All the awkwardness had faded away, leaving only the warm feeling of falling asleep close to someone you cared about.

He was mostly asleep when Sherlock let out a contented sigh and turned over to sprawl across most of the bed, and John as well. John woke up just enough to realise that he was now trapped under several limbs, but that they were familiar and therefore not to be worried about, and let himself drop off the rest of the way.

****

When John woke up the next morning, Sherlock was wrapped around him. John lay very, very still until he was awake enough to realise that Sherlock must be deeply asleep. John had a brief internal struggle over whether or not he should stay where he was or move, before he made himself admit that no matter how much he might want to stay, it was probably crossing a line to take advantage of Sherlock's unconscious actions in order to indulge a fantasy.

It took him another minute to find the willpower to pull away. Sherlock's arms were warm and comfortable, and his head was at the perfect position for John's hand to sneak into his hair and trail through the curls. The temptation was almost too much, but he pulled himself together and carefully extricated himself instead. Sherlock would know in an instant how John felt about him if he woke up to find John stroking his hair.

Getting out of Sherlock's grip was trickier than John would have expected. Every time he pulled a part of himself free, Sherlock made a tiny huffing noise and grabbed at somewhere else instead. By the time John was finally free, he'd had rather more of his body groped than he'd bargained for. He went straight into the bathroom and locked the door behind himself. He leaned on the sink, stared at himself in the mirror and tried very hard not to think about going back into the bedroom and waking Sherlock up with a series of lazy kisses, followed by the application of his mouth to quite a different part of Sherlock's body.

No. No, he had to stop this. They were just friends and John needed to remember that. If Sherlock found out he had thoughts like that, he'd lose him again, and John couldn't bear that. He was all too aware of just how terrible life was without him.

He had a long, hot shower and emerged feeling better able to cope with another day of pretending to be Sherlock's boyfriend.

Sherlock was sat up in bed with his laptop back in front of him when John left the bathroom. His hair was all over the place and there was something still half-asleep about his face that sent a wave of affection through John, breaking through all the calm he'd found in the shower. Christ, why couldn't this case have involved crawling through sewers or something else easier than this bloody charade?

“You took your time,” said Sherlock, not looking up from the screen. “We'll be late for breakfast.”

John glanced at his watch. “Still plenty of time.”

Sherlock let out a short sigh and finally looked up to meet John's eyes. “I’m not ready yet,” he said. “Simon's haircare regime is excruciating.”

John couldn't hold in a laugh. “And yours is better?” he asked. “Tell that to someone who doesn't know how many products you keep in the bathroom cabinet.”

“Those are for disguises,” said Sherlock, putting the laptop aside and climbing out of bed.

“No, they're not,” said John, turning away from the sight of Sherlock in his pyjamas under the pretence of looking for some clothes to put on.

“Some of them are,” amended Sherlock.

“No, they're not,” said John again.

Sherlock made an irritated noise as he went into the bathroom but didn't reply, which meant John was right.

He did take longer in the bathroom than he usually did and emerged with his hair tightly slicked back again, dressed in another checked shirt that looked more like it should be in John's wardrobe than Sherlock's.

“Sit,” he commanded, pointing at the bed.

John raised an eyebrow. “I'm not actually a dog, you know.”

Sherlock held up a pot of hair gel. “We need to do Fredrickson's hair.”

John made a face. He'd been hoping to avoid that part of the disguise today, but apparently not. “I can do it.”

“You proved yesterday that that's not true. Come on, just sit down.”

John sighed and settled on the edge of the bed, tipping his head forward so that Sherlock had access to his hair.

Sherlock ran the gel through it, fingertips rubbing over John's scalp, and John felt himself shiver at the sensation. He shut his eyes to try and block out just how close Sherlock was standing to him and how good it felt to have his hands in John's hair, gently teasing it into different shapes.

It seemed an eternity before Sherlock stepped back. “Good enough,” he said, and disappeared back into the bathroom to wash his hands. John took a long, ragged breath and wondered how he was going to survive a whole day of being John Fredrickson.

****

They made it down to breakfast just in time, and John quickly gulped down some toast and a cup of tea while Sherlock worked his way through two cups of coffee and picked at a croissant.

Chris stood up as the meal was drawing to a close and Sherlock let out a faint groan. “Not another enthusiastic speech,” he muttered. “What have I done to deserve this?”

Faked your own death, thought John immediately. “What haven't you done?” he said out loud as Chris started speaking.

“Good morning everyone! I hope you all slept well or, at least, used the time for something else worthwhile.” He looked over at John and Sherlock and gave them a wink, and John wanted to crumble and die as everyone turned to look at them. Great, now he had a reputation for having ridiculous amounts of sex with Sherlock. If it had been true, he wouldn't have minded holding his head up high under the scrutiny, but as it was, it just made him want to crawl under a rock.

“I hope you've all had a chance to look at your packs and decide how you want to use your time today,” continued Chris. “If you still have any questions, I'll be staying here for at least half an hour, and then I'll be around reception. Feel free to come and find me, and I'll try and help you find something fun to do. Remember, it has to be something you'll both enjoy. This weekend is about creating memories and strengthening your bond with your partner through shared experiences. That won't work if one of you doesn't want to be doing whatever you choose! And one final thing, you're more than welcome to go wherever you like on our grounds – the limits of them are clearly marked. However, there is a section that's surrounded by police tape, where there was a small fire earlier this week. The police are still investigating and they've asked us to make sure everyone keeps away, so please don't cross the tape. Thank you.”

He turned away from the microphone and Sherlock let out a snort. “Playing down the whole possible-murder thing a bit, isn't he?” he said.

“Well, it's not exactly good publicity,” said John. “I take it we're going to the clay pigeon shooting now?”

Sherlock nodded and stood up. “Yes. We're meeting the instructor in the lobby. Remember, it's important that we impress on her how unnecessary she is, so that we get left alone. I'll need you to play up your weapons expertise.”

“Fine, but I don't think she'll leave us alone with their guns, no matter how much I show off,” said John, getting up and following him out of the dining room.

“Leave that to me,” said Sherlock. “This whole weekend is geared towards encouraging couples to 'bond'. If she thinks that leaving us alone will help that, then she'll make an excuse and leave.”

“Yeah, but how are we going to make her think that?” asked John.

Sherlock's only response was a rather smug smirk and John began to get a very bad feeling about this. What on earth did he have planned?

****

Trisha was waiting for them in the lobby with a couple of rifle bags propped against the wall next to her. She gave a broad smile as they appeared. “Hello,” she said. “I hope you're looking forward to this morning.”

“I am,” said Sherlock. He glanced at John and gave him a smile that definitely fell into the 'adoring' category. It looked creepy and out-of-place on Sherlock's face. “I haven't ever seen John shoot, but I've heard a number of impressive stories.”

Trisha looked at John. “You've got some experience, then?”

“You could say that,” said John. “I was in the Army.”

“Oh,” she said, surprised. “Then this will probably seem a bit tame to you.”

John gave a shrug. “I haven't had a chance to shoot since I was discharged,” he lied. He'd actually done more shooting since he'd left the Army than he had while he was in it, given that he'd been a non-combatant and now he chased after criminals with an illegal handgun. John Fredrickson wouldn't have had a chance to do that though, the poor bastard. “It'll be good to see if I've forgotten anything.”

“I'm sure you won't have,” said Sherlock. “I'm hoping you haven't, anyway.”

“Do you have experience as well?” Trisha asked him.

Sherlock shook his head. “I think I might have had a go with an air rifle when I was in the Scouts,” he said. “But nothing since.”

John had to cover a laugh with a cough at the idea of Sherlock being in the Scouts. Jesus, he'd have lasted five minutes before he was thrown out for doing something incredibly dangerous and stupid. And managed to get every single badge possible in those five minutes, of course, because he was an over-achiever. Was there a Forensic Investigation badge? Probably not.

Sherlock shot him a quick, sideways look that made John think he knew what John was thinking and was just as amused by it.

“Well, I'm sure between John and myself, you'll be an expert in no time,” said Trisha. “I've got everything set up already, if you just want to come with me out to the field.”

It was a ten minute walk out to the shooting field and they skirted around the edge of the copse that had held the abseiling tower as they went. John could see the strips of yellow police tape around the area. He tried to see the remains of the fire through the trees, but he couldn't see much of anything.

Whilst he was craning his neck to see, fingers crept into his and then took firm possession of his hand. Startled, he whipped his head around to stare at Sherlock. What was the purpose of holding hands now? Trisha seemed completely convinced by them and besides, she was a step or two in front of them and not even looking.

Sherlock bent his head towards John's and said, in a voice too quiet for Trisha to hear, “Don't panic. It's part of my plan to get rid of her.” He hesitated, and then added, “I should reassure you that I will be sticking firmly within the boundaries you drew, even if it appears I am about to break them.”

“Right,” said John. Sherlock was holding his hand and walking so close to him that their arms were pressed together, and it was making it difficult to think of anything more than how easy and comfortable it felt to be like that, almost as if they'd done it before. It was with a start that he remembered that they had. They'd held hands when they'd escaped from the police, handcuffed together and feeling as if a trap was closing in around them. At the time, that had felt like the start of something, something that had ended abruptly the next day when Sherlock jumped off a building.

John took a deep breath. It hadn't meant anything at all, not to Sherlock. It had merely been the easiest way for them to manoeuvre while they were attached to each other. And this didn't mean anything either, it was just the easiest way for Sherlock to get a look at the crime scene. John had to remember that, or he was going to end up tying himself in knots.

They got to the field, and Trisha stopped. “Right,” she said, putting the rifle bags down. “I'm going to run through all the safety rules before we go any further. I'm sure it's all old hat to you, John, but it's always good to refresh them and, of course, it's important Simon knows them.”

John nodded. “Of course,” he said. He couldn't help giving Sherlock a quick smile as he added, “Given his usual attitude towards safety rules, it's probably best if you repeat them several times.”

The very few times he'd seen Sherlock with a gun, Sherlock had usually managed to break at least one of the major gun safety rules. It might actually be a good thing if Trisha took them through them now, although only if Sherlock deigned to pay attention, which seemed unlikely.

Sherlock looked wounded. “I am an extremely safe person,” he said.

John laughed. “Yeah, try that on someone who hasn't watched you do chemical experiments in a dressing gown, without even bothering to put on gloves.”

Sherlock made a disgusted noise. “That would only matter if I was likely to make a mistake,” he said. “I haven't made a mistake during an experiment since I was fifteen.”

“Okay,” said Trisha. “Well, these rules are vitally important, okay? If I can't trust you to follow them, I'm not going to be able to let you handle a gun.”

“There's no need to worry,” said Sherlock. “John is being over-dramatic. I am perfectly capable of following a handful of safety regulations.”

“You better,” said John.

Sherlock gave him a narrow-eyed look and then a worrying smile spread over his face. “How about a deal, then?” he said. “I'll follow every safety rule perfectly, and if I don't, you can-” he cut himself off, glanced at Trisha, and then leaned in close to whisper in John's ear. “React as if I am detailing a sexual act you find particularly titillating.”

Having Sherlock's head bent so close to his was more than enough to make that easy. John let the shiver he had been trying to hold in as Sherlock's breath tingled across his ear run down his spine, and then raised his eyebrows, widened his eyes, and drew in a quick breath. Hopefully that would be good enough.

“Right,” he said in a voice that came out more croaked than he'd intended. He cleared his throat and Sherlock gave him a wide, smug grin. Damn him for managing to wind John up so easily.

“That doesn't actually seem like a great idea,” said John, his mind racing. If Sherlock was going to play this game, then John was going to play back just as hard. Besides, he was meant to be the one reassuring Trisha that they could be trusted alone with the guns, right? “You forget, I know just how much you enjoy that as well – that doesn't seem like much incentive, and this is important. How about we do that if you manage to stick to all the rules without a single slip.”

“And if I slip up?” asked Sherlock.

John gave him a firm, no-nonsense look. “Then we don't do anything,” he said. “For the rest of the weekend.”

The look Sherlock gave him was so taken aback that John could almost believe that he would actually be giving something up if that happened, that they actually were going to be having sex this weekend and John was threatening that. It was a good thing it was all just a charade, he thought, because there was no way he'd be able to stick to a threat like that if there was any chance of getting Sherlock into bed.

Sherlock turned on his heel and gave Trisha his full attention. “Go ahead.”

Trisha gave them both an amused smile before running through the safety rules. John realised it was one he'd seen before, usually from people who didn't know Sherlock that well, although Mrs. Hudson had given it to them a handful of times. It meant 'aw, aren't you two adorable?' and usually got John's back up, because it implied all kinds of things that were never going to be true. This time, he supposed it just meant that their charade was being convincing.

Trisha made very sure Sherlock was clear on the safety rules before she handed them each a rifle. Sherlock gave his a careful look, and then lowered it to point at the ground before giving John a smug grin that was clearly meant to say Look! I was listening! John wondered if he should be giving him a biscuit and a pat on the head as a reward.

“John should go first,” he said. “Let the expert show me how it's done.”

“Okay,” said Trisha. She held up the trigger mechanism for the clay pigeon trap. “Whenever you're ready, then, just say, 'pull'.”

John glanced at Sherlock for a clue as to whether or not the plan called for him to hit it. Sherlock was giving him an eager-eyed look that was out-of-place on his face. Clearly Simon wanted to see him hit it, even if Sherlock didn't care either way.

He brought the gun up to his shoulder, sighted along it, and then said, “Pull!” Trisha pressed the button and a clay pigeon flew up into the air. John took a moment to aim, and fired. The pigeon shattered into several tiny pieces.

“Good!” said Trisha.

Easy, thought John. “Pull!” he said again, and this time caught the pigeon before it had reached the apex of its curve and begun to slow down.

“John,” said Sherlock in a low rumble of a voice. John lowered the gun and glanced over, and then had to draw in a quick breath. Sherlock was giving him a heated, intense look that said, louder than words ever could, that he was incredibly turned on.

Not real, John reminded himself. It's for Trisha's benefit, not mine.

“You are amazing,” said Sherlock. He took a step towards John as if unable to keep his distance.

John managed to pull on a smile. “It's not that hard,” he said.

“It's starting to be,” purred Sherlock.

John felt himself go instantly, burningly red.

Trisha cleared her throat. “Would you like a go, Simon?”

Sherlock didn't take his eyes off John. “Oh yes,” he said. “And at shooting as well,” he added as he finally turned away.

John felt as if he'd been freed from a tractor beam as Sherlock's attention left him. He took a long breath, wondering how he was going to survive this if Sherlock was going to keep looking at him like that.

Sherlock took his turn at shooting, accepting Trisha's instructions with far more grace than he would have if he wasn't pretending to be someone else. He missed his first attempt, but clipped the second one, taking a chip out of it.

“It's not nearly as easy as you make it look,” he said to John.

John shrugged. “Practice,” he said.

Sherlock snorted. “Skill,” he corrected. “You know how I love watching you be skilled. Your turn again.”

That meant it was time to show off. John took a careful breath, brought his gun up, and then called, “Pull, pull,” in quick succession. Two clay pigeons flew up into the air and he shot them down with two smooth shots. He was starting to actually enjoy himself – he'd forgotten how much he enjoyed aiming for something and knowing he was going to hit it when that something wasn't a person who was threatening his or Sherlock's life.

“Oh, John,” said Sherlock in that hopelessly-turned-on voice again. He took a long step towards John, waiting until he'd lowered the gun before reaching out for him as if unable to stop himself. For a moment, his palm hovered over John's cheek and John thought he was going to touch him. It suddenly became rather difficult to breathe.

Then Sherlock's gaze cut to Trisha and he pulled away.

“Sorry,” he said to John. “I just- I didn't realise how hot it would be to watch you be so good at this.”

“Don't mind me,” said Trisha. “Just pretend I'm not here.”

Sherlock shook his head. “John has rules,” he said, with some bitterness. “He's not a fan of PDAs.”

John blinked. His brain was still rather stalled by the look that Sherlock had given him and how close their faces had been. He'd forgotten all about his rules – damn it, he couldn't let himself forget that easily. This was all fake. He couldn't let himself believe, even for a split-second, that Sherlock actually meant any of it.

“This is hardly public,” said Trisha.

John shook his head stiffly. “It counts,” he said. He had no idea what Sherlock's plan was, but it wasn't going to involve conning John into a kiss. He couldn't handle that and still manage to keep a lid on his feelings.

“Even our landlady counts,” said Sherlock, with even more bitterness. He looked away across the field and took a deep breath. When he looked back, he'd apparently pushed it aside, although John could see traces of it still in his eyes. He was impressed with just how much depth there was to Sherlock's portrayal of Simon's hurt.

“My turn,” said Sherlock. “What did I do wrong last time?”

“You need to aim slightly ahead of it,” said Trisha. “Follow its path for a moment before shooting.”

“Right,” said Sherlock with a little nod. He raised his gun. “Pull, then.”

Trisha pushed the button, the clay pigeon flew up, and Sherlock fired. And missed. The narrow-eyed glare that he gave the clay pigeon was far more Sherlock than it was Simon.

“You're holding the gun wrong,” said John. “You need to bring it in closer to your shoulder.”

Sherlock glanced down at his shoulder, and then over at John. “Show me,” he said.

John hesitated. There was only one believable way to show your significant other how to hold a gun. Well, no choice in it, and no doubt it would only help out whatever Sherlock's plan was. He stepped in close behind Sherlock, his chest pressed to his back as he adjusted his grip.

“Like this,” he said, desperately trying to ignore how close their position was to an embrace, and how much of Sherlock's body he could feel against his own.

“I see,” said Sherlock. He braced himself, and then said, “Pull!” while John was still behind him, his hands on Sherlock's arms.

The clay pigeon flew up, Sherlock fired, and this time he hit it dead centre. “Got it!” he said happily, lowering his gun. He turned in John's arms. “Thank you,” he said, smiling down at him.

John's heart leapt in his chest. The only thing that kept him from pulling Sherlock down into a kiss was the look on his face, the happy, relaxed expression that was most definitely Simon rather than Sherlock. John didn't have nearly as much interest in kissing Simon as he did Sherlock.

He cleared his throat and stepped back, glancing at Trisha in an attempt to signal that her presence was the reason for him pulling away.

“You really shouldn't let my presence put you off,” she said.

John shook his head. “I just can't,” he said. “It's not- I just can't.”

No doubt he sounded like the worst kind of emotionally-repressed man, but that seemed to be what Sherlock was aiming for. John took another deep breath. This was all a game, he reminded himself. Sherlock was trying to get Trisha to leave them alone so that he could investigate the crime scene. Standing too close and looking at each other too long and all that other stuff was just a means to an end for him. It didn't mean to him anything like what it meant to John.

He looked up at Sherlock then and immediately regretted it. Sherlock had apparently decided that Simon's reaction to that would be a heart-breaking, lost look that made John feel like an utter bastard.

“I'm sorry,” he offered, because if he was truly John Fredrickson, he wouldn't be able to bear a look like that from someone he loved. “You know it's not you.”

“I know,” said Sherlock. There was a little silence, and then he looked at Trisha. “I don't suppose there's any way you would mind leaving us alone for half an hour or so? I promise we'll take very good care with the guns. John is more than qualified to handle them, and I promise I won't do anything other than what he tells me to.”

“Ah,” said Trisha. “I'm not sure about that. We have rather strict rules.”

Sherlock gave her his very best persuasive look. “Surely those are only meant to apply to amateurs, though? John probably has more experience than you do. I know it's a big ask, but- well. It feels like our relationship would benefit from some privacy right now.”

Trisha looked torn. Ordinarily, John would have been on her side on this one but he knew they needed her to go away, or the investigation would never get off the ground.

“I promise we'll be incredibly sensible,” he said.

“I don't even want to shoot myself,” added Sherlock. “Not really. You could leave us with only one rifle for John, couldn't you?”

She sighed and then glanced back at the house, as if wondering what her bosses were going to say. “Okay,” she said. “Fine. But do me a favour and don't tell anyone, okay?”

“Of course not,” said Sherlock.

“And use this time well,” she added. “It feels like you really need to discuss your issues over this, and come to a mutually-acceptable compromise.”

John looked at Sherlock, who gave an earnest nod. “It's one of the things we've come on this weekend to sort out.”

“When’s your communication and intimacy workshop?” she asked. “That will help give you some guidelines on how to work through it.”

“It’s the session before dinner,” said John, hoping again that they’d be long gone by then.

Trisha hesitated for a moment longer, and then gave in. She took Sherlock's gun away from him and handed him the clay pigeon trap trigger instead, and told them she'd be back in half an hour. “Not a moment longer,” she added. “Please don't make me regret this.”

“We won't,” promised John.

She walked away. Once she was out of earshot, he looked at Sherlock. “I can't believe that worked.”

Sherlock shrugged. “She has rather more faith in the power of alone time when it comes to resolving issues than the evidence would support,” he said. “It seems to be a common failing at this place. All these joint activities, as if all it takes to solve emotional problems is half an hour in a hot tub, or mutual enjoyment of a game of tennis.”

“We're not playing tennis,” said John quickly.

“No,” agreed Sherlock. “Competitive sports don't agree with me. Last time I played tennis, I destroyed the racquet.”

John could picture that. He laughed.

Sherlock gave him a pleased smile, and then his eyes focused over John's shoulder. “She keeps glancing back at us,” he said. “We need to make sure that she doesn't have second thoughts. Shoot something, and show off a bit.”

“Right,” said John. He turned back to the field, raising his gun. “Pull! Pull!” He hit both clay pigeons without any difficulty.

As he lowered the gun to reload, Sherlock stepped in very close to him, although he kept a thin layer of space between their bodies. His face dropped close to John's. “Don't panic,” he said as John felt himself freeze up. “She's looking again. This should be enough to convince her that she did the right thing.”

He put his hands on John's waist, and then slowly ran them up his back to his shoulders, sending a tingle up John's spine as he did so. John shut his eyes, desperately hoping to keep his reaction a secret, but he couldn't stop himself from reaching out blindly for Sherlock's hips and holding on as if they were the only solid thing in the world.

They remained frozen in that position for a handful of seconds that seemed to stretch on for hours. John held his breath, kept his eyes firmly shut, and used every scrap of willpower he had not to close the tiny distance between his mouth and Sherlock's.

“She's gone,” said Sherlock eventually, and John immediately let go of him and pulled away, getting distance between them before he opened his eyes. Sherlock was looking at him with a frown, the hands he'd just removed from John flexing as if he were trying to wipe the memory of the touch away.

Oh god, he knows, thought John. There didn't seem any way that Sherlock could miss just how turned on John was right now, or how much he had wanted to kiss him a moment ago. This is it, he thought. Any minute now, Sherlock would tell him that he was disgusted by John's feelings or, worse, try and let him down gently.

Instead, Sherlock gave John a long, puzzled look and then turned away to look across the field. “You keep shooting, so she can hear that we're doing what we're meant to be doing. If she comes back while I'm gone, tell her I've got to find a tree to urinate behind.”

“Right,” said John with a dry mouth. Apparently, unbelievably, he'd got away with it. He jerked a nod. “Will do.”

With one final look, Sherlock handed him the trigger, then turned and set off in the direction of the crime scene. John watched him go for a dazed moment and then turned away to shoot some more clay pigeons. He had a lot of frustration to let out on them now.

Chapter Text

It was bang on half an hour later when Trisha returned. Sherlock had arrived back barely a moment before, looking thoughtful in a way that meant John wouldn't be getting any details of what he'd found until he'd been through it in his head thoroughly.

John had spent his time littering the field with shards of clay pigeon and wondering just how much longer he could keep Sherlock in the dark. A fatalistic part of himself was beginning to wonder if Sherlock didn't already know and this whole thing had been some kind of experiment on John's emotions. That seemed a bit cruel, even for Sherlock. Or, it did until John considered that he had faked his own suicide in front of John and apparently still hadn't thought about the emotional repercussions.

“Did you have fun?” Trisha asked them, taking in the arm that Sherlock had slung around John's waist as she'd walked towards them.

“Loads,” he said with a smug grin. John itched to pull away from him and put some distance between them, but instead he plastered a smile on his own face.

“It was great. Thanks,” he said. “I think we're done now, though.”

She nodded. “It's nearly time for this activity session to end, anyway,” she said. “I've got another couple in fifteen minutes. Do you have plans for the next session?”

“It's our first counselling session,” said Sherlock. John couldn't keep a grimace off his face at the thought.

“No need to look so worried,” Trisha said to him. “It won't be bad at all. It's just a chance to discuss your relationship and how you feel about each other in an open and understanding environment. It can even be rather fun, if you let it be.”

“Right,” said John sceptically. In his experience, nothing about counselling was ever fun, even when you weren't being asked to delve into the oceans of grief that were the only thing you could feel.

“I'm sure it will be fine,” said Sherlock.

“Just go in with an open mind,” said Trisha. “The more relaxed you are, the more you'll get out of it.”

John sincerely doubted that he was going to get anything out of this other than unwanted insights into the love lives of the other couples in their session, but he gave her a smile and nodded as if he were going to say a word of truth in the session.

****

The other couples in their session included Terry and Jessica. John almost groaned when he saw them.

Sherlock put a hand on the small of his back as if he knew how tempted John was to just turn around and walk out of there. He bent close to John's ear. “It's only an hour,” he said. “We just need to get through it, and then we can go to our room and focus on the case again.”

John nodded and forced himself to find a seat in the circle. There were two other couples as well as him and Sherlock and Terry and Jessica, and also a man wearing a Love Builders Inc. polo shirt.

Sherlock sat in the chair next to John, then dragged it closer so that he could talk into his ear again. “Remember, use as much truth as you can. If you can't remember a specific detail from the dossier, just make up something that seems believable and I'll back you up.”

John nodded again.

Sherlock let out a small sigh. “And do try to look less like you're facing your own execution.”

John forced himself to relax and pinned on a smile before leaning over to reply. “I think I'd prefer an execution,” he said. “And I'm willing to bet you feel the same way. It's not as if you're ever eager to talk about your feelings.”

“They're not my feelings,” said Sherlock. “They're Simon's.”

“Okay, you two,” said the counsellor. “That's enough sweet nothings.” He looked around at the rest of the circle with a smile that was probably meant to relax and welcome them all. John felt his shoulders begin to tense and had to force them to stay down.

“I'm Imran,” said the counsellor. “I can see that some of you are a bit worried about this.” He smiled at Terry, who looked less worried and more belligerent. “There's no need to be. I promise, we're not going to do any deep-delving into your psyches, or blame everything on your mothers, or anything like that. This is going to be much easier than that. It's simply a time to actually think and talk about your partner and your relationship. When you're with someone for a long time, it's easy to just keep moving forward without stopping to talk or think about these things, so that's what we're here to do. It's a completely safe space – no-one here is going to judge or disparage anything you say. The more honest and open you are, the more you'll get out of it. And, by that standard, please don't make any negative comments about anyone else here. The best sessions are those that foster an atmosphere of positivity between everyone.”

He paused to give them all a smile again, and John pulled himself together enough to smile back, trying not to show just how horrific he had found that whole speech.

“Okay, let's all go around and introduce ourselves,” said Imran. “Tell me your name, how long you've been with your partner, and the first thing you noticed about them.”

He looked expectantly at the man sitting next to him, who froze like a rabbit in headlights.

“Um,” he said, then cleared his throat. “I'm Kevin,” he said. “I've been with Laura for thirteen years, and married for nine. And, ah,” he glanced at Laura, who was sat next to him. “I'm not sure what I first noticed. It was a long time ago.”

“Think back,” said Imran. “I'm sure you do. Don't be embarrassed.”

Kevin cleared his throat again and gave a little shrug. “It was her laugh,” he said. “I could hear her from across the room, and I thought she sounded like someone who knew how to have a good time.”

Laura gave him a smile that Kevin returned for a brief moment before ducking his head to stare at the floor.

“Excellent!” said Imran, and looked at Laura expectantly.

“Uh, well, I'm Laura,” she said. “Obviously. Ah, and Kevin's said how long we've been together. And the first thing I noticed was...um, probably his glasses. I've always had a thing for men with glasses.”

Imran smiled at her and then moved on to Terry.

“I'm Terry,” he said. “We've been married seven years, and the first thing I noticed about Jessica was her tits.”

He turned to her and leered at them in a way that made John also looked at them, automatically. When he realised everyone else in the room – except Sherlock – had done the same, he hurriedly looked away. Christ, he had to come up with something better than that about Sherlock. He started mentally going through the dossier Sherlock had written, trying to remember if there had been anything about first impressions. Sherlock hadn't written about John and Simon’s first meeting in that much detail, probably because it was largely the same as John and Sherlock’s.

“Right,” said Jessica in a frosty voice. “Well, I'm Jessica, we've actually been married eight years, and together for eleven, and the first thing I noticed about Terry was his best mate, who was rather better-looking than him. Still is.”

“Okay,” said Imran. “Perhaps we should try to focus on the positive a little more, yes? What was it about Terry himself that first caught your eye?”

Jessica sighed and glanced over at Terry, looking him up and down. “His clothes,” she said after a pause. “I could tell he was a man who knew how to dress himself to best advantage.”

“Okay, good,” said Imran. “Remember, this session is about strengthening your bond with your partner, not letting out your grievances. Next?”

The next person in the circle was a older-looking woman. “I'm Miyu,” she said. “We've been married for fifteen years, but we were together for six years before that. I think it was his eyes that I first noticed.”

“I'm Kaito,” said the man next to her in a quiet voice. “The first thing I noticed about Miyu was her smile.”

“Oh, lovely,” said Imran, and then turned to look at Sherlock. John braced himself.

“My name is Simon,” said Sherlock. “John and I have been together for two years and five months, and the first thing I noticed about him was the confidence with which he held himself.”

John had been expecting something either completely generic and easily faked, or ridiculously specific, like 'the tanline on his wrists'. He blinked in surprise and turned to Sherlock. “I was limping,” he pointed out.

“That didn't change the sturdiness of your posture,” said Sherlock.

John had no idea what to say to that. He suddenly realised that what he had been going to say about Sherlock – that the first thing he'd noticed was his hair – would sound horribly superficial after that. He took a deep breath and thought back to that day in the lab and the strange man bent over a microscope. “I'm John,” he said. “And the first thing I noticed was his focus.”

“Focus?” asked Imran.

John gritted his teeth, but forced himself to elaborate. “He was doing some research. He was completely focused on it – he barely even looked up when we came in the room.” It was amazing how clear that moment still was in his memory. He'd wondered, during the time when Sherlock was dead, how long it would be before his memories of him faded away completely. Now he wondered if they ever would – it felt as if every moment was indelibly etched in his mind. “I remember wondering what it would be like to be the subject of such focus,” he added.

Imran gave him his widest smile yet. “Good! Very good.”

John kept his eyes on him rather looking over at Sherlock's reaction, but he felt Sherlock's body lean closer to his. That was Simon's reaction though, not Sherlock's, he reminded himself. Sherlock's comment about John's posture had really been Simon's as well – there was no way Sherlock could have said 'The first thing I noticed about John was that his limp was psychosomatic' without raising a few eyebrows.

“Okay, we're going to run through a few quick exercises to help us all relax a bit, and to get us used to talking about each other in an open and honest manner,” said Imran. “No need to look worried! They're fun and easy, I promise. First of all, I want you all to come up with a compliment about your partner's physical appearance. Don't worry about making it complex, just say the first thing about how they look that you like. We'll go the other way around this time – John, you start.”

Oh god. John turned to look at Sherlock for inspiration. Well, he'd already come up with one and not used it, right? “His hair,” he said.

Sherlock raised an amused eyebrow. “You complain about it clogging up the shower drain.”

John shrugged. “Well, it's not attached to you for that. Besides, would it really be so hard to just clean it up when you've finished in there?”

“Ah,” interrupted Imran. “No bickering. Simon, your turn.”

Sherlock fixed John with a look that meant he was about to say something outrageous, but he didn't give John more than a split-second to prepare himself. “John's bum. It's extremely pleasant to look at.”

John felt himself go pink. What on earth reaction was he meant to have to that?

“He keeps himself in shape, so it’s very finely muscled,” Sherlock added.

When the hell had Sherlock even been looking at John's arse? And why?

He hasn't, John reminded himself. Simon has been looking at John Fredrickson's arse. The question really was, how would Fredrickson react to that? Hopefully with embarrassment, because John had already let that show on his face.

“Uh, thanks,” he managed.

“Okay,” said Imran. “Kaito?”

John took a chance to settle himself as Imran continued around the circle. He needed to get his head together – this was nothing but pretence, and if he kept confusing it with reality, he was going to slip up. He needed to be Fredrickson as completely as Sherlock was being Simon.

“Okay,” said Imran, once everyone had paid their partner a compliment. John glanced around and saw that most people were looking happier. Laura and Kevin were giving each other tiny smiles, and Miyu and Kaito had taken each other's hands. Only Terry and Jessica still looked tense – probably because of how unimpressed Jessica had been with Terry's compliment to her breasts and how they hadn't sagged as much as he'd thought they were going to. John was starting to really wonder why they had got together in the first place, let alone stayed together.

“The next thing is very similar, but this time I want you to compliment your partner's personality in some way,” said Imran.

He started with Kevin, which gave John plenty of time to think of what he was going to say. He ran his mind through the dossier, trying to remember how Simon's personality was different to Sherlock's. Should he just make something up, or find some aspect of Sherlock that was equally applicable to Simon? Sherlock had said to tell the truth as much as possible.

They made it around the circle, everyone taking slightly longer to think of these compliments than they had the last ones. When they reached Sherlock, John braced himself. Given the last compliment he'd got, he was a little afraid about what was going to come out of Sherlock’s mouth.

“I suppose the thing I admire most about John is his loyalty,” said Sherlock, and John relaxed. He could handle that. “But that seems a little bland as a compliment,” continued Sherlock, “so I think I'll say the way his sense of humour matches up with mine, when most other people find it a little black.”

John thought about giggling at crime scenes, and smiled. “Your sense of humour is black,” he said. “Luckily, mine is too. Comes of being a-” Sherlock's eyes widened and John suddenly realised that he'd been about to say 'doctor' when John Fredrickson wasn't any such thing. “-a soldier,” he finished instead.

“You were a soldier?” asked Kevin, sounding surprised.

John glanced over at him. “Yes,” he said.

“Oh,” said Kevin. “Sorry, just you don't look much like one.”

John frowned. “What, because I'm not in uniform?” he asked.

“No,” corrected Sherlock. “He means because you're sitting next to your boyfriend.”

Kevin flushed. “No, no, that's not what I meant at all,” he said in a voice that indicated that was exactly what he’d meant.

John felt his eyes narrow. “I never found that my sexual preferences had any impact on how well I was able to do my duty.”

“Of course not,” said Kevin, very quickly.

Imran cleared his throat. “What's your compliment for Simon, John?”

John turned back to Sherlock, who was giving Kevin a hard stare that meant he was coming up with a number of cutting insults. “It's- I like his intelligence,” he said.

Sherlock looked back at him, and then gave an amused smile. “You've made that rather obvious, at every possible opportunity.”

John ignored him. “I like how it feels to be next to him when he's having a genius moment,” he said. “It spreads out from him, so that I feel like I'm part of it too.”

That wiped the smirk of Sherlock's face. “But you are. You know that – you stimulate my brain in ways I've never experienced with anyone else.”

John nodded, remembering a long ago day in Devon when Sherlock had apologised by saying the same thing. He couldn't help the bitterness creeping in that Sherlock had managed well enough without him for nearly a year, without any apparent loss of his brain power.

“Okay, good,” said Imran. He gave the circle a beaming smile. “We're all feeling more relaxed now, I see. It's amazing what a couple of compliments from someone you care about can do, isn't it? Remember that. It's easy to stop saying nice things to each other when you've been together a while, but it can make such a difference if you just take the time to remind your partner that you love specific things about them as well as the overall package. It facilitates a more understanding relationship. Now, I'm afraid the next bit is a bit less nice, but it's just as necessary to maintaining a sturdy relationship. We need to be able to talk about areas of conflict with our partners. Remembering that this is an open and honest space, and that we're here to listen and understand rather than to argue and criticise, I want you all to name one thing that you think puts strain on your relationship. We'll start with John.”

Imran looked right at him, and John froze. Had there been any mention in Sherlock's dossier about what they argued about? He couldn't remember anything. The only thing he came up with were John Fredrickson's rules on public displays of affection, but that didn't seem like the kind of thing he'd bring up – presumably that was what Simon would say.

Time to channel some of their real life conflicts, then. Not the body-parts-in-inappropriate-places one, Sherlock had said Simon didn't do that.

“I'm sure you can think of something,” said Imran encouragingly. “Don't worry about what, this is just to teach you how to deal with conflicts, not to rehash old arguments.”

John took a breath. He needed to come out with something – it might as well be the thing that weighed most heavily on his mind. “I suppose Simon's tendency to leave me behind without thinking twice about it,” he said.

“I don't do that anymore,” said Sherlock.

John turned to him with disbelief. “You went off for months,” he said. “You've only just come back!”

Sherlock frowned. “That doesn't count,” he said. “That was work, John, you know I didn't have a choice.”

“Of course you had a choice!” said John, and then he had to stop and take a deep breath. Be Fredrickson, not Watson, he reminded himself. “Besides, that's not my point. You didn't mention it to me, didn't bother discussing it at all. You just went and did it.”

“Okay,” interrupted Imran. “Right, rather than getting involved in an argument now, let's talk about how to deal with such things when they come up. John, you said Simon leaves you behind a lot in general, but did you really mean on one specific occasion? It's best to be clear about precisely what you're upset about, rather than bringing in old incidents for the sake of it, unless they are relevant to expressing concern over a pattern of behaviour.”

John took a breath and looked back. “He used to do it a lot when we first met,” he said. “We'd be somewhere, and he'd just disappear without bothering to tell me. I'd get a text, if I was lucky.”

“I have stopped doing that,” said Sherlock. “I have made sure that you are with me on every occasion since- since March 2010.”

That was when Moriarty had kidnapped John and arranged the pointlessly dramatic showdown at the swimming pool. John thought back and found himself nodding. “That's true,” he said.

“Right, good,” said Imran. “John, did you express how being left behind made you feel?”

“Sort of,” said John. He'd sent some angry texts, but there hadn't seemed much point in properly getting in to it. They both knew that John would always be less important than one of Sherlock's epiphanies. “It did stop though, so I thought it was sorted. And then it happened again.”

“That was a completely different situation,” said Sherlock.

“Bollocks,” said John. “It was the same thing, just on a bigger scale. You needed to dash off somewhere and you didn't spare a thought for me, being left behind.”

“I spared several thoughts, actually,” said Sherlock stiffly. “It was still the only option available.”

John took a deep breath, and then stared down at the floor to stop himself from losing his temper completely and blowing their cover with a long, passionate rant about how faking your suicide should never be an option.

“Ah, can I ask for details?” said Imran.

Sherlock huffed out a sigh. “An opportunity came up at work that meant I had to spend several months abroad,” he said. “There was no notice on it and I had very little choice except to take it. All my work would have been destroyed if I hadn't.”

“He didn't bother telling me,” said John. “He just went.”

“Okay,” said Imran as Sherlock drew in a breath to respond. “Right, so, can anyone else come up with ideas on how they can deal with this conflict?”

He looked around the circle and there was silence. John could feel Sherlock's leg vibrating with tension next to his, and he clenched his fists. Bringing this up had been a terrible idea. He should have just made up something stupid about 'Simon' leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor. Or never buying any milk – that one was actually true – instead of a topic that came with this rushing, uncontrollable anger.

Miyu cleared her throat. “Well, Simon could apologise?”

“I shouldn't have to,” said Sherlock. “John knows how important my work is to me.”

“Okay, right,” said Imran. “Yes, apologies are always good, but we shouldn't just apologise because it's what we think the other person wants to hear. We have to be properly sorry, or it's just empty words that stop meaning anything, even when we do mean them. Anything else?”

“Well,” said Laura slowly. “It sort of sounds like John maybe hasn't made his feelings clear about this before. So, maybe if he'd told Simon back before that it upset him, Simon would have known to be more forthcoming this most recent time?”

“Yes, good,” said Imran. “If something like this is making you upset, make sure you let your partner know so that they can amend their future behaviour accordingly. That doesn't mean you should be nagging at each other about every little thing, just about the things that really matter to you, and you should make sure not to say it in an attacking way. So, John, you would say, 'it upsets me when you leave me behind, because it makes me feel...'” He trailed off and stared at John expectantly.

“Right now?” asked John.

“Yes, yes,” said Imran encouragingly.

John began to wonder what terrible thing he had done in a past life to deserve this. “Uh, right,” he said. Best just to get through it and move on as quickly as possible. “It upsets me when-”

“No, no,” said Imran. “Say it to Simon, not me.”

John took a deep breath and turned to Sherlock, who was wearing his best 'I am paying attention to you' expression, the one that tended to mean he was thinking about something completely different and wouldn't remember a word of the conversation later.

“Simon,” said John, trying to put some distance between this nightmare exercise and reality. “It upsets me when you run off without me, because it makes me feel, um, abandoned.”

“Excellent!” said Imran, as if John were a small child who had just learnt to tie his shoelaces. “Now, Simon, do you have a response?”

Sherlock's eyes widened slightly and John realised he'd been hoping to keep all the emotional confessions on John's side. He didn't look away from John though, and he looked sincere when he said, “I will endeavour not to do it again, John. You are far too important to me for me to ever abandon you.”

John managed a nod and a smile, and then glanced over at Imran, hoping that the torture was over.

“Okay, that was an excellent start,” said Imran. “We'll move on now.”

John deflated with relief.

“Simon, what would you say was an area of conflict for you two?”

Oh god, there was more. John tensed again.

“John's job,” said Sherlock immediately.

John stared. “My job?”

“Well, obviously not mine,” said Sherlock. “You understand the importance of it, both to myself and to the wider community. Your job, on the other hand, takes up a large amount of time that you could be spending with me, could be done by a whole crowd of other people, and it's not as if we need the money.”

John gaped at him. While Sherlock had been dead, he'd finally dedicated himself to his career enough to get the first full-time medical work he'd had since he'd come back from Afghanistan. It did mean that he wasn't constantly at Sherlock's beck-and-call like he used to be, and he'd been wondering how that was going to work out once Sherlock started taking cases again, but he'd never once thought about leaving it. It was the only thing he had that was properly his, and one of the things that had helped him get through the morass of grief he had been wading in for the first few months after Sherlock jumped.

“Okay,” interrupted Imran. “Simon, do you want to express your concerns in the format we just discussed?”

Sherlock shot him a glare that was a lot more him than it was Simon, but he did then fix John with a tense look and say, “John, it upsets me that you spend so much time at your job, because it cuts into the time we spend together.”

“And that makes you feel...” prompted Imran.

Sherlock clenched his jaw. “And that makes me feel lonely,” he gritted out.

“Lonely?” repeated John, flabbergasted. “You don't have the first bloody clue about-”

“Ah, no negativity,” said Imran. “Simon has taken a brave step revealing his feelings about this, John, you need to take that into consideration when you respond.”

John sent him a glare that probably matched Sherlock's earlier one. “Right,” he gritted out. “Well then, I'm sorry if you don't like that I don't spend all my time waiting around for you to spare me a moment of your attention, but my job is important to me. That you don't understand makes me feel that you're a dick who doesn't have any concern for my feelings.”

“No name-calling please,” said Imran.

“He's got a point, though,” said Miyu. “Why should John have to give up his job in order for them to spend more time together?”

“He doesn't have to give it up,” said Sherlock. “I just want him to spend less time there. He's a PA, but he doesn't work 9-5, he works whenever his boss decides she needs him. Last weekend, she announced she was going to be working all Sunday, and so he had to go off and join her, even though we had plans.”

John stared at him. There was absolutely nothing true about any of that. Sherlock had spent last Sunday doing some experiment that had created a ghastly smell and John had gone for a three hour walk to avoid it, and to avoid the rage that had begun to rise whenever he thought of how easy Sherlock had found it to come home and carry on exactly as he had done before he stepped off a building in front of John.

Sherlock twitched his eyebrows at him and John realised that this was part of the charade. Sherlock had picked an area of conflict that they didn't actually have, rather than bring up anything closer to home. He let out a breath and then gave a little nod to show he understood.

“That was a one-off,” he said. “She had a very important meeting on Monday to prepare for. Besides, I wanted to make sure everything was done so that I wouldn't have to worry about anything this weekend except spending time with you. I've been looking forward to this, you know.”

Sherlock gave him Simon's smile. “Me too,” he agreed.

“Good!” said Imran. “You see how once you have expressed your concerns, and your partner has responded with theirs, you can resolve the conflict without an argument? And now John knows how Simon feels, he'll be able to take care to talk it through with him next time he has to go into work.”

“Or not go in at all,” said Sherlock.

John rolled his eyes. “We'll see,” he said.

Sherlock beamed at him and reached out to take his hand. John made a point of rubbing his thumb over the back of Sherlock's hand. If they put on enough of a show of unity, maybe Imran would leave them alone.

“Lovely,” said Imran. “Let's move on. Kaito, do you want to talk about one of your areas of conflict with Miyu? Try to use the format we've already discussed.”

The discussion moved on to Kaito's annoyance over the way Miyu let her mother interfere with their lives and John felt himself finally start to relax. Christ, that had been a nightmare. There was no bloody way he was ever discussing his feelings in a situation like this again. Whatever Imran announced they were all talking about next, John was making something up for it.

Sherlock leaned over as Miyu started in on Kaito's jealousy over her friendship with a co-worker. “You can relax. The length of the session and the amount of time this particular segment is likely to take means that this should be it.”

“Thank fuck,” John whispered back.

Sherlock gave him an amused look that said he completely agreed and then they both settled down to listen to Jessica's laundry list of complaints against Terry.

****

John and Sherlock were the first people out of the room when Imran announced that the session was over.

“I don't care what happens with this case,” said John. “We are not going to the second session of that.”

“No?” said Sherlock. “You didn't find it useful to find out how to express your feelings about the areas of conflict between us?”

John glared at him. “The areas of conflict between Simon and John,” he corrected. “It's hardly relevant to...”

He trailed off because Sherlock wasn't listening. He'd spotted something out of the window and had stopped to look. John glanced out to see what it was.

“A police van,” he said.

“A forensics van,” corrected Sherlock. “They've found something new. Come on.”

He darted off in the direction of the lobby with John a step behind him.

“Sherlock, we can't be seen by the police,” he reminded him.

“I know,” said Sherlock. He stopped before the corridor turned to lead out into the lobby, and glanced around the corner. John did the same.

Chris was in the lobby, talking to two police officers whose faces John vaguely recognised, although he wasn't sure he could have come up with their names. A metre or two away, Lestrade was on his phone.

“I need to know what they've found,” said Sherlock.

“Sherlock, we really can't-”

“Yes, yes, I know,” said Sherlock. He turned back to John and looked him over calculatingly. “It doesn't matter if Lestrade recognises us,” he said. “And the other two only know us from a distance, and that's when we're both dressed rather differently. This is what we're going to do.”

“Oh god,” said John. “This is going to be one of your schemes, isn't it?”

“It will be very simple,” said Sherlock. “Simon and John are going to walk through the lobby and up the stairs to their room. We just need to make sure we look nothing like the picture we usually present. You will need to change your walk. Something more metrosexual, I think.”

John stared. “How on earth am I meant to do that?”

Sherlock sighed. “Come on, John, don't be difficult. Just concentrate on your hips more – don't swing them purposefully or you'll look like a woman, just keep their movement in your head. And slouch your shoulders. Your bearing is far too military.”

“Fredrickson is a soldier too,” John pointed out as Sherlock pulled out his notebook, scribbled something on the top page and then tore it off.

“This isn't about being Fredrickson, this is about not being Watson,” said Sherlock. “We just need to make sure that nothing about us seems familiar, and then I doubt they'll give us a second glance. Don't look at them – no, only glance at them - not looking will look just as suspicious as staring. And put your arm around me as if you're guiding me, they're more used to seeing me being in charge, so-”

“You are not in charge,” interrupted John.

Sherlock gave him an impatient look. “I am at crime scenes,” he said. “Don't be difficult, John.”

John took a deep breath and wiped his hand over his face. “Okay, okay. Christ. Right, so we're going up to our room.”

“Yes,” said Sherlock. “If you would find it easiest to have a scenario in mind, imagine that we are going to have sex. Act like you do when you've brought a woman home and you want to get her up the stairs to your room with the minimum amount of time spent on the first floor, for fear that if she interacts with me, she'll leave before you get off.”

“That's not-” started John, and then gave up. “Okay, right, fine. We're nipping off for lunchtime nookie. Let's get this done.”

Sherlock gave him a little nod and smoothed his hand over his hair to make sure it was still in Simon's slicked back style. John braced himself and then stepped in so that he could put his hand on Sherlock's back, just between his shoulder blades.

How would I do this if I really were trying to get him away for a shag? he thought. He'd do it fast. So, fast steps, while he concentrated on his hips, slouched his shoulders, and tried to look not too obvious about what they were planning to do next.

“And make sure we pass close to Lestrade,” added Sherlock, putting his arm around John's shoulders and pulling him in closer than John was really comfortable with. He could feel almost the entire line of Sherlock's body pressed against his and it made holding the pieces of this act in place very difficult.

Lestrade was facing away from them, still on his phone. John nodded and then set off, concentrating on all the tiny details and feeling like a complete idiot.

“Facial expression,” murmured Sherlock.

John became aware that he was frowning slightly to himself as he focused on the bloody movement of his hips. You're on your way to have sex with Sherlock, he thought to himself, and felt the frown get overtaken by anticipation. With Sherlock pressed against him, and his back muscles shifting under John's hand, it was all too easy to imagine what it would be like to get him up to their room. He’d press him back against a wall, slowly strip away his clothes and then-

He cut off the thought when he realised he was becoming aroused. That would help the performance, but if Sherlock noticed and thought that John was suddenly able to act a lot better than he’d expected, it could lead to disaster. Instead, John pushed Sherlock slightly further away from his body under the guise of moving him closer to Lestrade as they passed by. Sherlock's hand darted out and put his note in Lestrade's pocket. Lestrade didn't show any signs of having noticed.

Sherlock pressed back against John to say, in a very low voice that made his chest vibrate under John's hand, “Just up the stairs now. Quickly.”

Chris glanced up and John gave him the briefest smile he could and sped his steps up. The faster they got out of sight, the sooner he could step away from Sherlock and take a breath of air that didn't smell faintly of him.

One of the police officers looked over as they started up the stairs and Sherlock bent his head, pressing it close to John's in order to hide their features from him. This put his mouth within inches of John's, so close that it took all of John's willpower not to close the distance and kiss him. He could probably get away with it, said a treacherous voice in the back of his head. If he told Sherlock that he was just making sure that neither police officer could see their faces, he could feel Sherlock's lips against his right now. Sherlock had as good as said that he didn't have any boundaries about this charade, after all. It would be so easy.

Sherlock remained close until they were up the stairs and down the corridor to their room. John pulled away from him as soon as he could under the pretence of pulling out his room key. It was getting harder to resist temptation every time they ended up in one of these situations. He hoped, fervently, that whatever evidence Lestrade and his team had found was enough to wrap up the case so that they could go home without the need for any more play-acting.

Chapter Text

Inside their bedroom, Sherlock strode over to the window and looked out. “There are no police by the site of the fire,” he said. “Whatever they’ve found must be in the South Wing.”

John sat down on the bed. “Did you find anything out there earlier?” he asked.

Sherlock's only reply was a half-shake of his head.

“Great,” said John. “Well, it's lunchtime now, are we going to get something to eat?”

“Possibly,” said Sherlock, but there was a distracted note in his voice that told a different story. John sighed and got up to use the hotel's kettle to make tea. He'd slipped some biscuits into his bag when he'd been packing. Those would have to do for now.

John had just finished making the tea when there was a knock on the door.

“Ah,” said Sherlock. “Earlier than I'd predicted.” He crossed the room and opened the door to reveal Lestrade.

Lestrade gave Sherlock's altered appearance a long look, one eyebrow raised. “Christ, it really is you.”

“Who else?” asked Sherlock. He grabbed Lestrade's arm and pulled him inside so that he could shut the door. “Do try not to blow our cover by standing about in the hallway.”

Lestrade scowled at him. “Do I need to point out that you're not meant to be here anyway?”

“I'm not,” said Sherlock. “Simon Hollande is. And his boyfriend, of course.”

Lestrade glanced over at John, who gave him a little wave.

“How the hell did he rope you into that?” he asked.

John gave a shrug. “I'm still not entirely sure, to be honest.”

“This is all irrelevant,” said Sherlock. “You've found new evidence. What is it?”

“I'm not sure I should tell you,” said Lestrade. “If my superiors find out about this-”

“They won't,” said Sherlock. “Stop acting so surprised – you knew I'd do something to get at the crime scene.”

“Maybe,” admitted Lestrade, “but I didn't picture anything this over-the-top. What the hell did you do to John's hair?”

John twitched and then held on to his tea cup tighter to stop himself from touching it self-consciously.

“Nothing that unusual,” said Sherlock.

Lestrade snorted. “Looks camp as hell. Uh, no offence, mate.”

“None taken,” said John. “I think that was the point.”

“Why do people think that paying more than a few seconds attention to your hair makes you camp?” asked Sherlock petulantly.

John caught Lestrade's eye and had to compress his lips to stop himself laughing.

Sherlock scowled at them both. “Oh, just tell me about the evidence already. After all, the sooner I solve this case, the sooner John can wash his hair and make it boring again.”

“There's no need for you to solve the case,” said Lestrade. “We already have. Jill McFarlane's guilt is now without doubt. I'm afraid you've wasted your time – and your hair gel.”

Sherlock's eyes narrowed. “The new evidence proves it conclusively?” he asked.

“Pretty much,” said Lestrade. “It's certainly enough for the CPS now.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out his phone. He flicked through it for a moment, and then handed it to Sherlock. “It's a thumbprint, in blood, found on the dining room door in the South Wing. And, here-” He handed Sherlock a piece of paper. “This is McFarlane's thumbprint. Obviously, we have to take it back to the lab to get a proper analysis, but they look pretty identical to me.”

Sherlock spent several long minutes minutely examining both prints, even going so far as to get his pocket magnifying glass out. It was obvious to John from the length of time he took and the silence he maintained as he did so that he couldn't fault Lestrade's conclusion. Eventually, he put his magnifying glass away and handed the phone and the picture to John.

John looked at them, at the similar whorls and arches, and didn't know whether to feel relieved or disappointed. He didn't want Jill McFarlane to be guilty, but on the other hand, this meant they'd be able to go home and stop playing at being lovers.

“That's pretty final,” said Lestrade as he took the evidence back from John.

“Yes, it seems so,” said John.

“Oh yes, it's final,” said Sherlock, but he sounded far from defeated. In fact, when John looked at him, he seemed almost amused, so much so that John was half-convinced he was about to burst into laughter. “And she seemed like such a nice woman, too. Well, I suppose that's further proof that appearances can be deceiving.”

“Yeah, that's true,” said Lestrade.

“Who found it?” asked Sherlock. “I presume it wasn't Anderson; he misses everything of importance.”

Lestrade rolled his eyes. “If he was that bad, we wouldn't still employ him.” Sherlock snorted to show his opinion of that. “At any rate, it was on the door of Oldacre’s dining room, which forensics hadn't gone over. She must have been looking around at the property she was expecting to inherit. Chris Greenstock found it this morning and alerted us immediately.”

“Ah,” said Sherlock. “Well, that seems pretty conclusive.”

“Yeah,” said Lestrade, but he was clearly beginning to be suspicious of Sherlock's attitude too. “Well, if you've not got anything further to add, I'll be heading off to start on the paperwork.”

“Of course,” said Sherlock. “Well, we'll no doubt see you again soon.”

Lestrade gave him a very long look and then glanced at John, who just shrugged at him. At that, Lestrade let out a sigh and clearly gave up on understanding Sherlock's mood. “No doubt,” he said. “See you then, Sherlock, John.”

John turned to look at Sherlock the moment Lestrade had shut the door behind himself. “All right, what's going on?”

Sherlock did his best to look innocent but it was, as usual, a complete failure. His face just didn't lend itself to 'innocent'. “What do you mean?”

“You've clearly got something,” said John. “What is it?”

Sherlock's mouth stayed firmly shut.

“Well, at least tell me that you're close enough to solving it that we'll be out of here before we have to go to this bloody communication and intimacy workshop,” said John, collapsing back on the bed with a sigh.

“After how the therapy went, perhaps we should go,” said Sherlock.

John groaned. “God, no way. I'm so sick of professionals nagging at me to talk about my emotions. I'm not sitting through another session of that.”

Sherlock looked at him with his eyebrows drawn together. “You went back to your therapist after I left,” he said, as if he'd just worked it out.

“Yeah,” said John. “You must have known that. Mycroft would have told you.”

“I specifically asked him to only give me the most basic information about your well-being,” said Sherlock.

“Oh,” said John. He'd assumed that Mycroft had been sending Sherlock regular updates on every detail of John's life, given how obsessive Sherlock tended to be about knowing everything. Apparently he'd been too busy taking down an international crime ring to care about how pathetic John's life had become without him.

Sherlock sighed impatiently. “I thought it would be easier if I knew less,” he said. “I thought knowing would only make me miss you more. Obviously it is impossible to say whether or not it would have, but-” he paused. “I am not sure it is possible to have missed you more than I did.”

John propped himself up on his elbows to stare at him. He hadn't expected that at all. He was touched, but he couldn't help thinking that at least Sherlock had known that one day he would be reunited with the person he was missing. John had gone through the same thing, but with the added weight of thinking that he would never see Sherlock again.

Sherlock cleared his throat after the silence had stretched on for several moments. “I wouldn’t have thought you'd go back to your therapist. You hated having to go after you were shot. What on earth could have forced you to go back?”

John let his head fall back onto the bed so that he was looking at the ceiling rather than at Sherlock. “When I was shot, I lost my career, what had become my home, and my sense of who I was,” he said carefully. “When you jumped, I lost all those things, and my best friend as well. I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't- It was just really hard. I was looking for anything that would make it easier.”

It was Sherlock's turn to be silent. John just stayed as he was, trying to breathe through the memory of how terrible those first few weeks and months had been. He'd felt as if there was nothing left for him anymore, nothing that would make getting out of bed worthwhile. His therapist hadn't been able to help. All she'd done was press him to talk about all the things that he could barely stand to think about, all the things that he had ultimately pushed down as far as he could, and yet which still kept threatening to consume him.

“You didn't lose your career,” said Sherlock, in the end. “You're still a doctor.”

John let out a bitter laugh. “We both know that's not my career any more. However much I protest it, I'm your bloody PA now.”

“No,” said Sherlock sharply. “Not my PA – colleague, perhaps. Biographer, certainly. You are far more than a PA, John.”

The anger was a burning ball in John's chest, growing with every breath as John thought if that was true, you'd have bloody told me you were alive. Or even taken me with you. You didn't need a colleague, or a PA, or a bloody biographer to take down Moriarty's web though, so you just left me behind, abandoned me like an old- He cut off that train of thought before the anger overwhelmed him. There was no point in letting it out.

He concentrated on settling it back down, breathing in and out as slowly and evenly as he could. When it began to feel like he was back in control, he sat up and gave Sherlock what he hoped was a passably friendly smile.

“Well then, care to let your colleague in on what the next part of this investigation is?”

Sherlock made an aggravated noise in his throat. “This!” he said, throwing a dramatic gesture at John. “This is why we should be going to that communication and intimacy workshop! You were clearly thinking something, something important, and then you just shut it all down and put it away. John, how on earth can you expect anything to get resolved if you won't tell me about it? I know you think I can read minds, but I'm not nearly as gifted as you make me out to be.”

“What makes you think it's something that you need to know?” asked John. There was no point in denying that there was something, not if Sherlock had already deduced it, but that didn't mean that John had to talk about it.

“Of course I need to know!” said Sherlock. “It keeps happening! You keep thinking about whatever it is and then going for a walk or hiding in your room rather than letting it out.” Apparently John wasn’t as subtle as he'd thought he was with that. “It's affecting our partnership, John, I can't-”

This is affecting our partnership?” interrupted John. His shaky control over the anger was splintering. “You think it's something that I'm keeping from you that's the problem? Sherlock, you-!” He cut himself off and just made a frustrated noise instead. This wasn't good. He couldn't have this conversation, not here, not now. He was too emotional after the bloody counselling session and all the mess of trying to pretend he was only pretending to be in love with Sherlock. If they kept talking about this, he'd end up losing any grip he had and just blasting Sherlock with everything.

“Finish the sentence!” demanded Sherlock. “Tell me what it is and stop hiding from me! I can't- John! You need to let me in, or it will never be resolved.”

“It might not be anything to do with you,” said John. “You're so bloody arrogant – not everything about me revolves around you.”

“Of course it does,” said Sherlock. “You just said as much! You just said that when I jumped you lost everything. Of course whatever it is concerns me – even if it's not directly, then your inability to deal with it is certainly impacting on us both.”

“I'm terribly sorry,” said John as sharply as he could. “I'll do my best to keep my personal issues from troubling you.”

Sherlock glared. “You know that's not what I meant,” he said. “John, come on. Please, let me in. I want to help.”

John choked out a humourless laugh. “Help?” he repeated. “How the bloody hell do you intend to do that? It's your bloody fault in the first place!”

Sherlock froze. “Then you definitely have to tell me,” he said. “What did I do?”

John stared at him. The atmosphere had gone deathly still, tension crackling through both of them as he tried to search for a way out of this. There wasn't one. He’d said too much, and now Sherlock would never relent until he had dug up every detail about it. He let out a long breath, resigning himself to finally trying to fit words to the raging torrent inside him. He ran his hands up through his hair, remembering too late that it was sticky with John Fredrickson's hair gel. Sod it, that hardly mattered right now.

“Do you remember when you first came back?” he asked. “When you walked into 221B and I saw you alive for the first time?”

“Yes,” said Sherlock. “Vividly. You went alarmingly pale and had to sit down. For a moment I thought you were going to faint.”

John had thought the same thing. In fact, he wasn't entirely sure that he hadn't for a second or two but the last thing he was ever going to do was admit that.

“Yes,” he said. “And then you started to explain.”

Sherlock nodded. “The more I talked, the more colour came back to your face,” he said. “I thought it was best to give you the whole story so that you could recover fully.”

John huffed out a laugh and shook his head. “Yeah, that wasn't why I got my colour back,” he said. “It was anger. I thought I was going to start shaking with it by the time you got to the Norwegian traveller part.”

Sherlock frowned. “You didn't say anything.”

“No,” said John. “I didn't – Sherlock, do you have any idea what it felt like to have you back? You were gone. I watched you die, I was there when you were cremated, I stood by your grave. I went through several of the stages of grief, I packed up your belongings, I started to let go. You were gone. I knew I was never going to see you again. And then you just walked in. It was- I can't describe it. I'd spent nearly a year desperately wishing I could see you again and yet knowing I never would, and then you just walked in.”

Sherlock frowned. “I don't see where the anger comes in,” he said.

John let out a breath. “That wasn't the anger,” he said. “That was why I didn't mention it. I was so relieved to have you back, how could I start by shouting at you? And then we went after Moran, and when all that was over, you acted as if the whole thing hadn't even happened. It seemed as if it would be best to just go along with that and put everything behind me.”

“I see,” said Sherlock, although John wasn't sure that he did. “I take it that it hasn't been that easy.”

“No,” said John. “I just- Sherlock, I'm still furious. You jumped off a building in front of me! I thought you'd killed yourself - that I'd been such a bad friend that I hadn't even noticed the signs that you were suicidal, let alone made sure you knew that you were cared for, regardless of what the papers said about you.” The anger was rising up in him again and this time he let it, clenching his fists as it surged through him. “I was miserable and alone, and the whole time you were just gadding about the globe, not even sparing a thought for me! Not a single bloody clue that you were alive! And you still haven't even bloody apologised!”

Sherlock was staring at him with wide-eyed surprise at John's outburst and it only served to make John angrier. How dare he just sit there, looking confused, as if it wasn't obvious to anyone with a heart made of flesh rather than clockwork that John would feel like this?

“Just look at you,” he said, getting up off the bed so that he and Sherlock were more of a height, and using the movement to burn off some of the energy that was coiling through him. “You still don't bloody get it, do you? Of course not – that would require actually caring enough to understand why I feel like this. I spent eleven months missing you every day, torturing myself over how empty my life was without you, and you don't give a damn!” The urge to punch Sherlock just to wipe the look of his face was rising rapidly, and John had to shut his eyes and take some careful breaths to push it back. “This,” he said. “This is why I didn't say anything. Because I knew it wouldn't make any bloody difference if I did. You do what you want, and bugger anyone else's emotions, right?”

He shook his head and then, abruptly, it was all too much and he needed to get out. “Sod this,” he said. “I'm going for a walk.” He turned towards the door, but Sherlock's hand darted out to grip his wrist and stop him.

“If you would allow me to respond,” he said. John was tempted to walk out anyway, but it was probably only fair that Sherlock had his say. If he started to tell John how pointless his emotional response was though, John was getting the hell out of there.

“Right,” said Sherlock as John turned back to look at him. “Well, the first thing I should probably address is the misconception you seem to have that I enjoyed any part of those eleven months. I did not. They were unpleasant, dangerous and, as I have already indicated in this conversation, I missed you far more than I was expecting to. You are correct that I have been treating them as if they never happened, because as far as I'm concerned, the world would be a much better place if they hadn't.”

“You always knew they'd be over though, that you'd be coming back,” John pointed out. “I had no idea. I thought that was the rest of my life, Sherlock.”

“Actually, there were frequently times when I didn't think I was coming back,” said Sherlock. “But I take your point. It had to be like that, though. I did tell you that it was imperative that anyone observing you would know for certain that I was dead. It was your life at risk as well as mine; I couldn't risk that for sentiment.”

Sentiment?” repeated John. “What about my bloody sanity!?”

“I had no idea that you would be so affected,” said Sherlock.

“My best friend jumped off a building, right in front of me!” shouted John, losing all control over his temper. “Of course I was bloody affected!”

“Yes, I see that now,” said Sherlock. “I had no idea, John, believe me. I told you that Mycroft was only sending me very basic reports on your condition, and they largely revolved around whether or not you had been approached by any of Moriarty's men.”

“You're meant to be a sodding genius,” said John. “Surely you could have worked it out.”

“That anyone would care about me so much that they would suffer that much? Even after I had been exposed as a fraud?” asked Sherlock. “No, I couldn't have. You know that I often find your reactions very difficult to predict.”

John didn't know what to say to that. He didn't even know if it should be making him angrier or calmer. How could Sherlock have not known how important he was to John? But then, emotions of that sort had always been his weak spot. Had he really thought that John would cease to care just because the papers said Sherlock was a fake?

“Christ,” he said, wiping a hand over his face. “You just- Sherlock. Just never do that to me again. I couldn't cope with it a second time.”

“That I can definitely promise,” said Sherlock. “I never wish to experience such a thing again either.” He hesitated, and then added, “I haven’t apologised because my actions saved your life, and for that reason I wouldn’t change them, even knowing they would lead to this situation. However, I did not adequately realise the effect it would have on you, or work to ameliorate that as much as I could have, and for that I do apologise.”

John gave him a very careful look. As apologies went it was a bit weak, but it was probably the best he'd get from Sherlock. Apologies weren't exactly his forte. John sighed and sat back down on the bed. He felt wrung out from emotion and he was more than ready for this conversation to be over. It hadn't helped to get it all out in the open, not in the way therapists always claimed it would. Sherlock had said very little that John hadn't already known, and none of it changed the facts. Sherlock had still been dead, and John had still been alone. There was no cure for that.

“Fine,” he said. “Accepted, I suppose.”

Sherlock gave a little nod. “Right,” he said, and then appeared to have no idea what to do next.

John took a deep breath, and glanced at his watch. “If you're not going to solve the case immediately, we should go down for lunch,” he said.

“Yes,” said Sherlock. “Lunch, and then I should be able to bring the final pieces together before the communication and intimacy session. If you're sure that we shouldn't-”

“Very sure,” interrupted John.

Sherlock's eyes drifted to his hair. “You'll need to redo that,” he said. “You've messed it up entirely.”

John made a face and went to look at it in the bathroom mirror. His hair was a dishevelled mess, both from his hands and from lying on the bed.

“Or,” said Sherlock, moving to the bathroom doorway to watch John's attempts to make it look less ridiculous, “you could leave it, and it would add credibility to the story that we came up here for a pre-lunch sexual liaison.”

Oh god, it did look like sex-hair. John made a face at Sherlock in the mirror. “Your hair is still perfectly in place,” he pointed out.

Sherlock shrugged. “Perhaps Simon was in a better position to avoid being messed up,” he said. “I can think of seven that would fit the evidence. Nine.”

Damn it, and now so could John. If he'd been kneeling at Sherlock's feet, clinging to his hips as he sucked down his cock, Sherlock's fingers clutched in his hair as he came; or if John had been laid out on the bed, head thrown back as Sherlock-

He cut the thought off with a great deal of difficulty. “Just do whatever you did to it this morning,” he said. “It's not as if we really need to work on convincing people if we're going home in a few hours.”

“Very well,” said Sherlock. He reached past John for the hair gel and then spent a few minutes concentrating on doing whatever it was that John Fredrickson felt made him look 'trendy'. John watched him in the mirror, noting the tiny furrow between his eyes as he concentrated all his attention on John – or at least, on John's hair. There's the focus that I noticed in the lab at Barts, he thought. It wasn’t being pointed at him in the way he wanted, but he'd take what he could get. With Sherlock, that was all he ever seemed to do – take whatever Sherlock dished out, even when it was months of grief.

Sherlock looked up and caught John's eye in the mirror. John hoped that his thoughts weren't obvious from his face.

“This really doesn't suit you at all,” said Sherlock. “It looks even worse than I’d hypothesised.”

“So you're aware you're making me look like a tit,” said John. “Great.”

“The others won't realise how little it suits you,” said Sherlock. “It has to do with knowledge of your personality more than it does your physical appearance.”

“Right,” said John. Whatever that meant.

Sherlock's hands left John's hair, but he didn't step away. Instead he rested his hands on John's shoulders and gave him a long, serious look in the mirror. “Your emotions are important to me, John,” he said. “Please don't keep them hidden from me in the future.”

John had a horrible moment when he thought Sherlock was talking about John’s feelings for him, that he'd worked it out and knew everything, but then he realised that Sherlock was talking about his anger over the faked suicide instead. He managed a curt nod, but couldn't find words to reassure Sherlock when he knew that he was keeping rather a lot of his emotions hidden from Sherlock and, would continue to do so.

Sherlock's mouth twisted unhappily but he stepped away without saying anything else on the subject. “Lunch,” he said.

“And then the case,” John reminded him.

Sherlock nodded, but didn't look as excited at the prospect as John would have expected. He hoped that Sherlock really did have a thread that would unravel Lestrade’s case, or his sulk was likely to be incredible.

****

Lunch was already underway when John and Sherlock made it down to the dining room. They slipped into the only spare seats, which happened to be on the same table as Kevin and Laura. At least it's not Terry and Jessica, thought John.

“Did you get lost?” asked Laura.

“Not so much,” said Sherlock. “We went to have sex.”

John tensed and then forced himself to relax and plaster a smile on. “Sorry,” he said to Laura, who looked rather taken aback. “He's a bit blunt sometimes.”

“That's okay,” said Laura. “It's not as if Kevin and I have never crept off for a quick shag when we were meant to be doing something else.” She glanced at Kevin. “Remember my parents' thirtieth anniversary?”

Kevin smiled at the memory. “That was good,” he agreed. “Long time ago now, though.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Maybe we should be inspired by Simon and John's example to indulge in some spontaneity of our own.”

“Don't let Chris catch you,” said Sherlock. “He insists on making bad jokes about it.” He draped his arm casually over the back of John's chair as he spoke, resting his hand on John's shoulder.

John wanted nothing more than to relax back into it and feel Sherlock's arm surround him. All the emotions he'd been through that day had already left him exhausted, and it was only lunchtime. What he really wanted was to be able to go somewhere quiet so that he could put his feelings back in order but failing that, slumping against Sherlock seemed like a good second choice.

Instead, he felt himself tense automatically, his body still not used to such touches from Sherlock and his mind far too confused over everything to be able to just give in. Kevin's eyes darted over his shoulders and John immediately felt like kicking himself. Sherlock wasn't the only observant person in the world, after all.

He forced the tension to run out of his muscles and relaxed back into Sherlock's touch, trying to make it look as if he'd merely hesitated rather than flinched away. Sherlock moved his arm from the back of John's chair to embrace his shoulders properly.

This is so pointless, thought John as Kevin's gaze relaxed and focused back on his lunch. We'll be gone by dinner. What does it matter what he thinks?

He couldn't deny that it was rather nice to sit like this with Sherlock holding him in what was almost a possessive manner, as if he knew that John was his for the asking.

“What are your plans for after lunch?” he asked Laura in an attempt to redirect the conversation.

“We were going to have a go at croquet.” She glanced at Kevin. “We might be a bit more spontaneous than that, though.”

Kevin gave her a smile and reached out to lay his hand over hers on the table. “Or we could do both,” he suggested. “Winner of the croquet gets to decide exactly what kind of spontaneous we indulge in?”

She smiled back. “I like that plan.” She looked back at John. “What about you guys?”

“We're going for a walk,” said Sherlock, which was the first John had heard of it. He supposed 'we're going to solve a murder' wasn't exactly in character, even if it did fit the bill of a couples’ activity they both enjoyed. “Explore the house and grounds a bit. They seem rather interesting, don't you think?”

“I suppose,” said Kevin doubtfully. “You're not interested in any of the activities, then?”

Sherlock shrugged the shoulder that wasn't around John. “It seems we have some things to discuss, and the activities only really give us an excuse not to talk about them,” he said. “And once we're alone in our room – well, I've always found it extremely difficult to resist John when we're in private.”

Kevin looked awkward and nodded stiffly. “I see.”

John remembered his attitude towards gay soldiers during the counselling session and wondered just how deeply his discomfort ran. He glanced at Sherlock's face and saw a glitter in his eyes as he took in Kevin's reaction.

He's doing it on purpose to wind him up, he thought. That made sense – more sense than that Sherlock was bothering to put so much effort into a charade that was soon to be unnecessary.

Well, pissing off homophobes was a goal that John was happy to help work towards. He gave Sherlock a smile and put his hand on Sherlock's thigh, high enough to be obvious despite the table. “We won't be walking too far, right? I'm pretty tired now, what with last night, this morning and just now.”

Sherlock looked briefly startled and then his face took on Simon's pleased expression. “Don't worry,” he said. “I don't intend to wear you out. Not before tonight, at any rate.”

John gave him the soppiest look he could manage, and then glanced back in time to see the grimace on Kevin's face. Mission accomplished.

****

They did actually go for a walk after lunch. Sherlock took John's hand and then instructed him not to speak.

“I'll be concentrating and not interested in dealing with your chatter,” he said, and then strode off without waiting for John to respond. John did his best to keep up without breaking into a trot and wondered what it said about him that he was glad to see a resurgence of Sherlock's usual rude brusqueness after a lunch of Simon's polite smalltalk.

They walked around the outside of Deep Dene House while Sherlock frowned and stared down at his feet. Then they went inside to wander through all the hallways, for no discernible reason that John could work out. He didn't bother asking why. He was well aware that his sole purpose was as prop. Whenever they ran into anyone else, Sherlock plastered on an intense look and started up an emotional monologue about their imaginary relationship difficulties that was enough to prevent anyone from talking to them.

“-I know your job is important to you, John, but you must realise that the amount of time you dedicate to it makes me feel as if I come secondary in your considerations. Occasionally, I would like to be put first, or at least considered, before you-”

He cut himself off as soon as the person was out of earshot, only to start up with something else the next time someone came into sight.

“I just want you to understand that your dislike of PDAs makes me feel as if you're ashamed of being with me. I know that's not true, but it still hurts every time you deny me in front of others. Are you sure there's-”

John took his cue from him and settled into a routine of looking concerned and nodding understandingly, occasionally going so far to make a thoughtful noise in his throat.

They reached the top floor and paced the length of the corridor. There was no-one around, so they did it in silence, until Sherlock finally stopped by the wooden panelling at the very end. “Ah,” he said, with a broad, beaming grin. “And there we are.”

Chapter Text

“Where are we?” asked John.

Sherlock just gave him an infuriatingly enigmatic look and turned to go back down the stairs. He kept hold of John’s hand, pulling him along behind him as he got out his phone.

“Lestrade? I understand that you're anxious to get to your paperwork, but may I suggest that you should speak to an important witness before you do? Yes, yes, I can produce them, but I'll need a little trust from you first. Do you have any constables with you that you can trust with the knowledge of our presence? One will be enough. Excellent, then bring him to the top floor corridor. John and I will join you in a moment.”

“Sherlock, what's going on?” John asked with irritation at being on the outside again.

Sherlock sent him a smug smile. “It's all about to be revealed, John. We just need to get- ah, here.”

He stopped at a table in the lobby that held a stack of the day's newspapers. “Let's see, we'll definitely take the Mail, and the Sun. And, dear Lord, they have the Sport as well.”

He handed the papers to John and then turned to go back up the stairs. John grabbed his arm. “Sherlock, don't do this bloody mystery thing again.”

Sherlock let out a short sigh. “John, we both know that you enjoy my dramatic reveals almost as much as I do. Why would you want me to ruin one?”

Damn, that was true. The only comeback that John could think of was that he'd liked them a lot more before the dramatic reveal that Sherlock was alive, but the last thing he wanted to do was open up that can of worms for a second time today.

Sherlock took his silence for agreement. He pulled his arm from John's grip so that he could take his hand again and led him back up the stairs. John went without comment, falling back into John Fredrickson's persona automatically as they passed another couple on the stairs and giving them a smile that hopefully said, 'my boyfriend and I are on our way to do something relationshippy' and not 'my flatmate and I are on our way to solve a murder'. It took a few more steps before he realised that, as far as John Watson was concerned, those two smiles were the same.

Lestrade was on the top floor waiting for them with a round-faced constable who John vaguely recognised as having been new just before Sherlock's fall. Lestrade's eyes instantly dropped to their joined hands and he smirked. John pulled his hand from Sherlock's. The last thing he needed was some good-natured banter about this the next time he and Lestrade went to the pub together.

Sherlock sent John a quick frown and then looked back at Lestrade. “This man can be trusted?” he said.

“Oh yeah,” said Lestrade. “DC Hopkins is one of your biggest fans. Not in the psychopathic criminal mastermind way.”

“What do you- Oh!” said Hopkins, obviously recognising Sherlock through his disguise. His eyes went wide. “Sherlock Holmes! It's an honour!”

“Probably,” said Sherlock dismissively.

“I told you that it was vital we keep this quiet, Hopkins,” Lestrade reminded him. “Don't mention to anyone that Sherlock was here, okay?”

“Of course not!” said Hopkins fervently.

“Excellent,” said Sherlock. He turned back to the stairwell, where there was a small fire extinguisher on the wall. He pulled it off and handed it to Hopkins, who looked at it as if he'd been given a trophy. “Hold that, and do precisely as I say, when I say it.”

“Yes, of course!” said Hopkins.

“What sort of game are you playing, Sherlock?” said Lestrade. “I don't have time for this.”

“Yes, you do,” said Sherlock. “John, open that window, and then set fire to the newspapers.” He handed John his lighter, and John looked at it for a moment.

“Sherlock,” he said slowly, “are you sure-”

“Always,” interrupted Sherlock. “Get on with it.”

John exchanged long-suffering looks with Lestrade, but did as he was asked. Smoke began to fill the hallway as the fire crackled through the newspapers.

“Time to get you your witness,” said Sherlock to Lestrade. “Everyone shout 'fire'. Loud as you can.”

“Fire!” shouted Hopkins with enthusiasm while John and Lestrade were still exchanging another look. They joined in, followed by Sherlock and, a moment later, the smoke detector overhead. It all created a racket that must have been audible several floors away.

One of the wooden panels at the end of the corridor swung open like a door and a worried-looking Joanna Oldacre stumbled out of it. She gaped at the scene in front of her and froze in front of the entrance to her hidey-hole.

“Good!” said Sherlock. He nodded at Hopkins, who was staring at Oldacre with a look of complete shock. “You may extinguish the fire now.” Hopkins didn't move. “Before the carpet goes up would be best,” added Sherlock.

John let out a sigh, grabbed the fire extinguisher from Hopkins' hands and put out the fire.

“What the bloody hell is going on?” asked Lestrade. “Where have you been?” he said to Oldacre. “You're meant to be dead!”

She shifted and glanced over her shoulder as if contemplating diving back into her hiding place. She resisted the urge, probably realising that it wasn't going to do her much good now that it was discovered. Instead, she drew herself up and said, with remarkable composure, “I haven't done any harm.”

“I'll say you have,” said Lestrade. “We've got an innocent woman in lock-up because of you. We were going to charge her with murder – that could have been over twenty years in prison!”

“It was just a joke,” she said in a cold tone of voice that made John doubt she'd ever made a proper joke in her life.

Sherlock snorted. “Then your sense of humour is abysmal,” he said.

“Right,” said Lestrade. “I'm taking you in for questioning. Not sure what we'll be charging you with – fraud, possibly, but we'll find something. Handcuff her and take her downstairs, Hopkins.”

“Yes, sir,” said Hopkins, apparently having regained his wits. He shot Sherlock a look of pure adoration before he did so. “That was incredible.”

After he and Oldacre had gone, John let out a snort. “Well, with Hopkins around, it seems I'm out of a job. He does awed admiration even better than I do.”

Sherlock shot him a black look. “Don't be ridiculous, John, we both know you're here for more than that. Besides, it means more coming from you.”

John didn't know any such thing but he gave Sherlock a smile anyway, and said, “Well then, that was incredible, Sherlock. How the hell did you know she was in the wall? Or even that she was still alive?”

“Yeah, I'd like to hear that too,” said Lestrade.

Sherlock gave a little shrug. “It was obvious once Lestrade mentioned the fingerprint that was 'found' this morning. John and I were in that room last night and I can assure you that there was no such fingerprint there then.”

“How can you be sure?” asked John.

Sherlock made an impatient noise. “Because I looked, John. Just because you walk through the world with your eyes shut doesn't mean the rest of us do. Trust me, if there had been any evidence anywhere in the South Wing, I would have noticed it. It's why we were there, after all.”

“Wait,” said Lestrade. “You were at the crime scene last night? Sherlock, you know you can't do that – you'll have contaminated the evidence!”

“I wouldn't need to if you'd just get permission for me to go to crime scenes at the proper time,” said Sherlock. “Besides, you must have known I'd had a look once you saw us earlier, don't act surprised now. You know my methods.”

“Bloody illegal methods,” muttered Lestrade.

“Methods that work,” corrected Sherlock. “I am not the one who was eager to sentence the wrong woman to a life in prison.”

Lestrade made a face. “All right, fine,” he said. “This is the last time, though – you need to play by the rules, Sherlock, or they'll ban you from investigations again.”

“Ban me again?” repeated Sherlock. “Then-”

“Yeah, I got word this morning,” said Lestrade. “They're going to allow us to consult you again from next week, provided you follow the rules and we document everything you do.”

Sherlock's whole face lit up and he glanced at John as if to share his happiness with him. John couldn't keep himself from beaming back. There was something so infectious about Sherlock's joy, even when it was about murders.

“Then everything is as it should be,” Sherlock said, with immense satisfaction.

“Yeah, yeah, it's all roses and butterflies,” said Lestrade. “Now, tell me how the hell you worked this one out, and just how stupid I'm going to look in my report.”

“You needn't look stupid at all,” said Sherlock. “Merely amend a detail or two and you'll look rather cleverer than you actually are. After all, John and I were never here, and someone needs to have followed the clues to uncover Oldacre's scheme.”

That made Lestrade look happier. “Okay then, so the finger print was an obvious addition that wasn't there when I looked over the South Wing on Wednesday.”

Sherlock nodded. “And if we look-” He ducked inside the hole Oldacre had emerged from. John bent to look after him and saw that it was a tiny space that was mostly taken up with a campbed and lit only by an electric lantern. Sherlock rummaged through the pile of books and other things she had been using to pass the time.

“Ah, here,” he said. “A cast of Jill McFarlane's thumbprint. Easy enough to make if you have the right tools.”

Lestrade took it and put it in an evidence bag. “And the rest?”

“Last night, Chris Greenstock was taking a tray of food upstairs. He claimed it was for a sick staff member,” said Sherlock, climbing back out of the hole, “but all the staff are listed on the website and they were all at dinner last night. You'll want to arrest him, too, as an accomplice.”

Lestrade nodded. “Actually, I saw him with a sandwich and a bottle of water when we were looking at the fingerprint this morning. That's some cheek, taking food to her while we were still in the building.”

“Perhaps he knew you were too dim-witted to actually pay any attention to him,” said Sherlock. “At any rate, after those two clues it was apparent that she must have a hiding place somewhere in the building. Given the age and history of the house, a priesthole seemed most likely. It merely took some careful measuring of the various floors to work out where it might be.”

Lestrade nodded. “Right, so I spent part of my day pacing out the rooms here. Sounds like fun.”

“It wasn't,” put in John. “Although it might have been if I'd known what we were doing.”

“That would have spoilt the big reveal, John,” said Sherlock with impatience.

“What I don't get,” said Lestrade, “is why she did it? Why go to so much trouble to get someone you've never met arrested?”

“You'll probably find that the incarceration of Jill McFarlane was only a secondary consideration in this scheme,” said Sherlock. “The main reason was the normal, boring one, I'm afraid. Money. Oldacre transferred almost all her money to someone called Samantha Cornelius, who will almost certainly turn out to be herself under another name. I expect she took out a life insurance policy as well, probably with Chris as the beneficiary. Her debts were mounting and she wanted a way to escape. That she got to lock up the beloved only daughter of the man who spurned her so many years ago was just a bonus.”

“Christ,” said Lestrade, shaking his head.

“She doesn't seem like a very nice person,” added John.

“Criminals don't tend to be, John,” said Sherlock dismissively, without even turning to look at him. John gave him an irritated glare that was ignored. “When you question her, Lestrade, you might think to ask where she got the human material that she put in the fire. I suspect there's a crooked morgue attendant or hospital porter somewhere in this mess.”

“God forbid that anyone should be handing out human body parts to anyone who wants them,” said John blandly. “Imagine where that might lead – we might all end up with thumbs in our fridges.”

Sherlock did look at him at that. “I'm not intending to use mine to fake my own murder.”

“No, you went to far more convoluted lengths to do that,” said John before he could stop himself. Bugger, he was supposed to be letting that go, at least for today.

“That wasn't murder, that was suicide,” corrected Sherlock.

“Right,” said John. “So, rather than implying that your death was caused by an enemy, you left your friends to blame themselves. Clearly, that's a lot better.”

Sherlock looked actually shocked at that. “Of course I didn’t! If I chose to kill myself, then the only person to be blamed is myself. Obviously.”

“No,” said John, rage surging up in him so that he took a step towards Sherlock and had to clench his fist to stop himself from punching him. “Not obvious. Wrong, in fact. Dead wrong. You know, for a genius, you're pretty crap at basic human psychology.”

Sherlock stared at him, obviously completely taken aback. John could count the number of times he'd seen that expression on Sherlock's face on one hand, but he didn't derive any pleasure from seeing it now. Instead, he just felt sick, deep in his stomach.

Lestrade cleared his throat awkwardly. “Ah, I'm to have to ask you two to go back to your room or somewhere, so I can get forensics up here. If Anderson sees you-”

“Yes,” interrupted Sherlock, whirling away from John in a flurry. “Quite. We'll retreat to our room, and then go back to London. Good day, Lestrade.”

He practically ran down the stairs, leaving John behind.

John caught Lestrade's eye and winced. “Perhaps I shouldn't have said that.”

“I can't believe you hadn't before, mate,” said Lestrade, frankly. “Please tell me you've at least thumped him.”

John shook his head and Lestrade made a flabbergasted noise. “I don't understand how you can be so forgiving,” he said. “You deserve a sainthood.”

John laughed. “Or I need to grow a spine,” he said. “I don't know, I just- Having him back is such a miracle that it seems wrong to quibble about the details.”

“It's a bit more than details,” said Lestrade. “Besides, don't you think he needs to know that his actions have consequences, so that he never does it again? Or anything else like it?”

John pressed his lips together. “Yeah, probably,” he said. “We talked about it a bit earlier, actually. It's just taken me a while to get up to it.”

“Well, better late than never, I suppose,” said Lestrade doubtfully. “You better get after him, anyway.”

John nodded. He went down the stairs slower than Sherlock had, thinking that by the time he got to their room, Sherlock would have shaken the moment off and would be pacing about, impatient to get home now that the case was over.

Instead, Sherlock was lying on the bed, fingers steepled under his chin and eyes fixed blankly on nothing. John regarded him with surprise but didn't bother asking what Sherlock had found to have a deep-thinking moment when the case was already solved. Sherlock never bothered answering when he was in a reverie.

John pottered around the room packing his things up and then, with a sense of inevitability, Sherlock's as well. He looked up the times of the trains back to central and wondered when they'd be able to sneak past the police in order to catch one.

It was nearly half an hour later that Sherlock let out a sudden, almost pained noise, and sat up. He fixed his gaze on John.

“John,” he said.

John waited a moment, but nothing further was forthcoming. “Yes?” he asked.

Sherlock stared at him, and then gave a curt nod. “I apologise,” he said. “When I said, earlier, that I did not fully realise the consequences of my actions, I should have added that I still did not. However, I have now completed a full run-through of a hypothetical situation in which our situations were reversed, and I see that the emotional implications were, ah, considerably worse than I had thought.”

John stared at him. “Sorry, what? Run-through of a hypothetic- You mean, you just imagined what it would be like if I faked my suicide.”

“Yes,” said Sherlock tersely. “That's what I said.”

“I- Right,” said John, thrown. “Well, okay.”

Sherlock huffed out a sigh. “John, pay attention. I am saying that I'm- that I'm sorry.”

“Yes,” said John, nodding. “I get that.”

Sherlock continued to stare at him expectantly.

“Thanks?” offered John.

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “This is the part where you say that it's okay,” he prompted.

“Right,” said John. “And what if it isn't?”

Sherlock frowned. “It has to be,” he said. “Things can't go back to how they were before until it is. Your anger is throwing our dynamic off.”

As if mentioning it summoned it, John felt that emotion surge up in his chest. “Oh, well, we can't have that, can we?” he snapped.

“No,” said Sherlock. “No, don't be angry now, John. I told you – I understand. I apologise. I will not do anything like that again. What more do you need?”

John had no idea. He stared at him, wondering why hearing the words he had wanted so much wasn't calming the rage. Surely an apology and a promise not to do it again was what he had been wanting? It was what he'd told himself he'd been wanting. If that wasn't it, then what was?

He shook his head. “I don't- Sherlock. I do appreciate that,” he said. “I just- I think, maybe, it's going to take me a bit longer to move past it.”

Sherlock made an aggravated noise. “What's the point in that? If you're going to forgive me eventually, why not do it now and save time?”

“It doesn't work like that,” said John. “Look, I'll do my best not to let it affect anything, but I can't – I can't forgive you. Not just yet.”

Sherlock stared at him with a wild, desperate look in his eyes and then surged to his feet. “Fine,” he bit out and snatched up his bag. “Let's get our train then, as nothing more productive is apparently going to happen.”

He swept out of the room without waiting for John to follow him, so that John had to hurry to get his bag and catch up, trotting along behind Sherlock's furious strides as they took the back stairs down to the dining room.

Sherlock headed straight for the doors to the veranda, but as he put his hand on them to open them, there was a voice behind them.

“Oh, hello again. What are you up to?”

John watched as Sherlock’s whole body tensed and then abruptly relaxed into Simon’s posture. There was a sheepish smile on his face as he turned around. John did his best to put on his own false persona, but he knew he was not nearly as successful as Sherlock.

Trisha was paused in the doorway, giving them a smile which didn’t hide her knowing eyes. “Didn’t you say you had your communication and intimacy workshop now?”

Busted. John felt like a schoolboy caught sneaking off school grounds before double maths. The only saving grace was that the nearest table would be hiding her view of their bags, so she wouldn’t be aware that they were trying to leave for good.

“We thought it might be best if we worked on those aspects in private,” said Sherlock, quietly shifting his bag behind a curtain and setting it down. John slid his forward under a table.

Trisha shook her head. “It’s much better to go to the workshop,” she said. “Our counsellors are trained to help you. You can always continue in private afterwards, but it’s best to get a grounding in some of the techniques first.”

John could feel the frustration rolling off Sherlock, although Simon’s expression didn’t waver. “The truth is that John is uncomfortable with discussing such things in front of people,” he said.

“Even more reason why he should,” said Trisha firmly.

There was movement outside the window and John glanced around to see two police officers walking past. Crap, they couldn’t be seen. He took a small step to one side of the window so that he was hidden by the curtains.

“John,” continued Trisha, “I really think you need to face your issues rather than continuing to hide behind them. It’s clearly upsetting Simon. Don’t you want to make him happy?”

Sherlock turned to look at him with Simon’s look of earnest interest. John found it rather creepy how completely he was able to subsume his earlier anger beneath the façade of Simon.

He grimaced. “Of course I do,” he said. What would John Fredrickson say to get out of this?

Sherlock glanced out of the window and a purely-Sherlock look of frustrated annoyance passed over his face. John followed his gaze to see a police forensics officer hurry past with some equipment. Clearly Lestrade’s investigation was in full flow.

“She’s right,” said Sherlock. “We should go, John.”

“Uh,” said John. Shit, no, god no, he couldn’t handle another bloody counselling session, especially not one that focused on communication and intimacy, of all things.

“If you feel uncomfortable, we’ll leave,” said Sherlock. He reached out and took John’s hand in a way that probably looked gentle to Trisha, but that involved John’s bones grinding together. Ah, still angry then. “I really want to work out our issues, John,” he added.

John glanced out of the window at the police and sighed. They probably did need to find somewhere to hide for the moment, but surely there was somewhere better than a sodding workshop.

Trisha glanced at her watch. “Come on, you’ll have missed the start,” she said. “Who’s your counsellor?”

“Imran,” said Sherlock.

There was a moment during which ‘Simon’ looked at Fredrickson with a pleading look, and John found himself unable to say no to that look on Sherlock’s face, even when he knew it was fake.

“Bollocks,” he said with resignation. “Come on, then.” Maybe that wasn’t in character for Fredrickson, but John was getting rather sick of the guy. He was actually in a relationship with the man he loved, after all. Why was he making it so difficult? If John were with Sherlock, he’d touch him as often as he could, in public or in private.

“Great!” said Trisha. “This way.”

They followed her back through the corridors and up the stairs with John’s hand still in the vice of Sherlock’s grip. He tried to pull it away while she wasn’t looking, but Sherlock just shot him a fierce glare that contained nothing of Simon, and held on even tighter.

“Here you are!” said Trisha brightly, knocking on the door and then pushing it open. “Found you a couple of strays, Imran.”

He glanced over and gave them a welcoming smile. The other couples in the room, who were standing in pairs, looked over at them with curiosity. John felt himself twitch at the scrutiny.

“Hello!” said Imran. “Come in, come in! You haven’t missed much.”

They shuffled in and Trisha gave John a smile as he passed her. “Good luck,” she said earnestly. John had to suppress a glare, and settled for a queasy smile instead.

“Find a space,” said Imran, gesturing at the room. “Stand as close to your partner as you’re comfortable with.”

Sherlock dragged John to an empty space and then turned to loom over him from only a few inches away. John stopped himself from backing away and tried out John Fredrickson’s ‘besotted’ smile instead.

Got to keep in character, he thought. They couldn’t drop it now without causing a fuss that might attract the attention of the police that were swarming the building.

“No touching at this point,” said Imran.

Sherlock clenched his hand around John’s one final time, as if he was trying to squeeze all the blood out of it, and then let go. John couldn’t stop himself from letting out a quiet sigh of relief and flexing his hand a few times to see if it still worked.

“Okay, let’s start up where we were,” said Imran. “Look into your partner’s eyes. I don’t want you to look away at any point until I say so.”

John felt like groaning. Oh god, this would have been hell even if Sherlock hadn’t been silently bursting with anger. He looked up into Sherlock’s eyes, which were rather closer than he was used to seeing them. He could see all the detail of his irises, the myriad colours they were shot through with, including the chestnut spot on his right eye that was always a surprise whenever John was close enough to catch sight of it.

“Okay, we’re going to talk about communication and intimacy in this session,” said Imran. “It’s important to remember that it’s impossible to have intimacy without communication – even if it’s non-verbal communication - and that relationships which lack intimacy are only going to be able to operate on a very shallow basis.”

Sherlock’s eyes shifted minutely, his focus going from one of John’s eyes to the other. John thought desperately about jumping through one of the windows to get away. They were only on the first floor; he’d probably only break one or two bones. It would be worth it.

“Intimacy is one of those words that can be quite scary in a relationship context,” continued Imran. “But it’s really nothing to fear. You probably share far more intimacy with your partner than you’re aware of. We all tend to focus on sexual intimacy within relationships, but there are several others forms, some of which are arguably more important.”

John found himself curling his hands into fists to stop himself from- from what? Reaching out for Sherlock or pushing him away?

“The first type we’re going to look at is intellectual intimacy. If you can exchange thoughts, share ideas and enjoy similarities and differences between your opinions in an open and comfortable way, then you’ve experienced this type of intimacy. If you can think of a time when you’ve experienced this with your partner, tell them when it was now.”

He paused and John felt himself panic. Bad enough that he was feeling as if it was possible to drown in Sherlock’s eyes without having to add words to it as well. Just make something up, he thought. John Fredrickson was the one who needed to work on his intimacy issues, not him.

“Our debate over the Prime Minister’s current health policy last week,” he said. The ‘debate’ had actually involved John getting furious after reading an article in the paper and ranting about it for ten minutes before Sherlock had told him to shut up because he was trying to concentrate on his experiment.

Sherlock’s left eye twitched slightly. “Every time we discuss a case,” he said quietly. “Obviously, you’re usually wrong, but that doesn’t mean we don’t both enjoy the exchange of ideas.”

John flinched at the mention of something that Simon and Fredrickson had nothing to do with, and glanced away to see if anyone was listening.

“Keep looking into Simon’s eyes, John,” said Imran.

John tried to keep the irritation at being spoken to like a schoolchild off his face and dragged his eyes back to Sherlock’s.

“No-one’s listening,” said Sherlock. “They’re all far too caught up in their own partners.”

“So you’ve decided to do this as Sherlock rather than Simon?” asked John, lowering his voice on Sherlock’s name.

Sherlock shrugged. “I dislike lying to you, John, even when we both know that’s what I’m doing.”

“Okay,” said Imran, cutting through the low hum of conversation before John could respond. “Good! Don’t worry if you couldn’t come up with anything. It’s not necessary to share every form of intimacy with your partner, and we’ll be talking about barriers to intimacy later.”

John wondered if they’d be covering faking your own suicide and disappearing for most of a year.

“The next form of intimacy is experiential, or intimacy activity. This is when you engage in mutual activities with each other, even if you don’t talk much whilst doing so. The activities you’ve been doing here all count as that kind of intimacy, but see if you can’t come up with an activity you’ve done together outside of here, one where you haven’t talked much but when you’ve reached the end of it, you’ve felt closer to the other person.”

“Chasing after criminals,” said Sherlock. “Specifically, chasing the taxi during the Jefferson Hope case.”

That had been a long time ago. John bit his lip at the reminder of how quickly they had fallen into this pattern of John following Sherlock around with stars in his eyes. “The bike ride last Saturday,” he said stubbornly. He’d never seen Sherlock on a bicycle. In fact, he couldn’t even picture it.

Sherlock’s jaw clenched. “Why are you so determined to avoid resolving our issues?”

John snorted. “This is not the way to resolve our issues,” he said. “This is just a hoop to jump through so we can go home. I told you, time is what we need.”

“What you need,” corrected Sherlock.

“Okay, good,” said Imran. “Sounds like you all found that one rather easy, so let’s move on to a rather harder one. Emotional intimacy. Times when you’ve comfortably shared your feelings with each other or when you’ve empathized with the feelings of your partner and really tried to understand their emotional side.”

John snorted. “Go on, then,” he said. “Come up with something for that.”

Sherlock let out an impatient sigh. “Think, John. What do you think just happened? I empathised with your feelings surrounding my absence, and expressed my own emotions in return.”

Bollocks, he had as well. John glared at him, then dialled it back before Imran could spot the expression. “Fine, then,” he bit off. “Sunday mornings in bed together, when we discuss our hopes for the future.”

He didn’t even think Sherlock had any hopes for the future, other than for a constant supply of interesting cases. And as for himself, well, he’d learnt to not bother plotting a future when he’d been shot, and that had only be reinforced when Sherlock had jumped. What was the sense in making plans when the basis of them could be yanked away from under you in a heartbeat?

“And the last one,” said Imran, “is sexual intimacy. This doesn’t just cover sex though, it’s any moments of sensual intimacy, whatever form that might take.”

“Sex in the swimming pool last night,” said John promptly.

Sherlock was silent for a while before saying, “Leaning shoulder-to-shoulder when we’re exhausted after a case and waiting for the police to stop their faffing and let us go home.”

John knew exactly the kind of moment he meant. The relaxed feeling of having solved the case and caught the culprit, combined with the solidity of Sherlock’s shoulder against his, was something he always treasured. He hadn’t realised that Sherlock had thought twice about those moments.

“Okay!” said Imran brightly. “Well done, everyone! Why not indulge in some sensual intimacy now and give your partner a hug?”

There was an awkward pause throughout the room and then people began to reach out for their partners. Sherlock’s eyes narrowed with decision and he swayed forward to enfold John in his arms.

It wasn’t the most proficient hug John had ever received. Sherlock seemed to be all bony limbs holding on too tightly, as if he was considering crushing John to death. He probably was, if the way he’d held John’s hand earlier was anything to go by.

John put his arms around Sherlock in response, but it felt awkward and wrong. It won’t work like this, he thought. It seemed likely that this would be the only hug he’d ever get from Sherlock. He shouldn’t squander it. He let out a small sigh and just let himself relax into it, pulling Sherlock in closer and tucking his head against his shoulder.

The moment went on for longer than John had expected. With his eyes shut, he couldn’t see any of the changes that marked Sherlock out as Simon and it was all too easy to pretend that this was an unprompted hug between them, that Sherlock wanted this level of physical contact with him. The way Sherlock’s hands spread out to press against John’s back didn’t help with that.

Just an act, John reminded himself.

“Let’s get a bit ambitious, and add emotional intimacy in,” said Imran. “Tell your partner something about your feelings towards them right now, in this moment. Even something as simple as ‘I love you’ is fine.”

There was a quiet murmur of voices while John felt himself panic again. What could he say? What would John Fredrickson say?

“I love you,” said Sherlock, close to his ear.

Chapter Text

John felt himself jerk as if he’d been given an electric shock. Christ, hearing those words from Sherlock, especially when they were pressed together, was enough to wipe all rational thought from his mind. He wanted, more than anything, to be able to respond with the same words but there was no way he could say it without Sherlock realising that he meant it.

Why did he have to go back to the act now? wondered John. Why couldn’t he have come up with something else that was actually applicable to them, even if his current feelings towards John were mainly anger?

“Oh! What’s going on down there?” exclaimed a woman who was next to the window, staring down at the front driveway.

The hugging couples all broke apart in favour of rushing over to see. John caught a glimpse of Joanna Oldacre being bundled into a police car before his view was blocked by the crowd.

“If you fake a breakdown over all the intimacy and storm out, we’ll be able to go home,” said Sherlock in a quiet voice.

John nodded without looking at him. He wasn’t sure he could take much more of looking into his eyes without just giving in and admitting everything. “Right,” he said, watching Imran’s attempts to get everyone’s attention back on the session. “Uh, how do I do that?”

“Nothing over-the-top,” said Sherlock. “Just proclaim you can’t handle it any more, then walk out. Your usual reaction to an excess of emotions that you feel incapable of dealing with is escape, after all.”

John felt a spurt of anger at that. What else was he meant to do? Stay and have it out, and say things that he might later regret? No, walking away and calming down was a much better idea.

He took a deep breath, and let the emotion he’d felt at Sherlock’s declaration of love fill him up again. “I don’t-” he said, and then raised his voice so that other people could hear him. “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this.”

“John-” said Sherlock in Simon’s pleading voice, putting his hand on John’s arm. “Please, just try and-”

“No!” interrupted John, shaking the hand off. “I’m sorry, Simon, I just can’t.” He turned on his heel and marched out of the room, very aware of all the eyes on him.

He carried on straight down the corridor and after a moment Sherlock appeared beside him.

“Good enough,” he said.

“It wasn’t entirely faked,” said John.

There was a pause. “No,” said Sherlock in a low voice. He sped up his steps until John had to almost jog to keep up.

They went back to the dining room to collect their bags and this time managed to escape out of the veranda, ducking behind a hedge to avoid a pair of police officers.

“Sherlock,” hissed John. “Slow down.” The only response was a glare before Sherlock took off again, keeping in the shelter of the hedge until they reached the drive at the front of the house. Great, apparently they were back to anger.

“We need a taxi,” John reminded him.

“No, we don't,” said Sherlock. He strode to a grey saloon car that was parked among the police vehicles, pulling a set of keys out of his pocket and unlocking it. “We can use Lestrade's car.”

He threw his bag in the back and slid into the driver's seat, and John rushed to get in the passenger side before Sherlock drove off without him.

“When did you get the keys?” he asked, and then realised, “Oh god, you pickpocketed him. Sherlock, we can't steal Lestrade's car.”

“Of course not,” said Sherlock, turning over the engine and pulling away. “We can borrow it, though. I'm sure he won't mind.”

“I'm sure he will,” muttered John, which Sherlock ignored.

When they got to the station, Sherlock strode up to the ticket office. “An angry, grey-haired man in a cheap suit will be in within the next hour, looking for his car keys,” he said. “They're here.” He put them on the desk and then turned away without waiting for the perplexed clerk to respond.

John gave him a commiserating look but followed Sherlock without adding any explanation. Sometimes it was easier just to let these things go.

He caught up with Sherlock on the platform for the London train. “Did you at least let Lestrade know where his car is?”

“If he's any kind of detective, he'll work it out,” said Sherlock.

John sighed and pulled out his phone.

Sherlock borrowed your car to get us to the station. He's left the keys at the ticket office. Just want to make it very clear that it's entirely his fault.

Sherlock let out a sigh as the message sent. “He'll never learn to use his brain if you mollycoddle him.”

“And he'll never start to trust you if you steal from him all the time,” said John.

Sherlock's only response was an eye roll.

Lestrade didn't reply until they were on the train.

Tell that arrogant bastard that one day I really will arrest him. And don't give me any of that 'innocent bystander' crap, John, I know you too well for that.

“Well, you've managed to piss him off,” said John, tucking his phone away without bothering to reply.

Sherlock just grunted, apparently too busy staring blackly out the window to bother with conversation. John left him to it.

****

It was getting dark by the time they got back to Baker Street. John thought about going all the way to the nearest shop to find something for dinner, but even the idea was just too much.

“Chinese?” he suggested.

“As if it matters,” said Sherlock bitterly, and he turned to sweep off into his bedroom.

John was sick of this. The whole bloody weekend had been a nightmare, culminating in that god-awful communication and intimacy workshop, and he was damned if he was going to let Sherlock get into a snit and spend the next few days sulking just because John wasn’t yet ready to forgive him for the worst thing that had ever happened to him.

He chased after him, grabbing his arm in the doorway to the kitchen. “Christ, Sherlock,” he said, “is this really necessary?”

“Apparently,” said Sherlock stiffly. “Please release me.”

“No,” said John. “No bloody way. You're not going to lock yourself in your room for a sulk just because I’ve told you I need time to get over eleven months of mourning you. That's hardly going to get me to forgive you, is it?”

Sherlock whirled, breaking John's grip. “Forgive me,” he fumed. “I'm angry too, you know. Furious, in fact. I had eleven months of my life stolen, during which time I was alone and in a series of very unpleasant situations, driven to things that-” He stopped and took a deep breath. “The point is, I am not angry with myself for that; it's hardly my fault, no matter what you persist in believing. The whole affair is completely, and solely, Moriarty's fault, but he's dead. He's dead, his men are all either dead or incarcerated; there's no-one left to be angry at. That you have chosen to blame me in lieu of them is- it's akin to insanity.”

John blinked at the sudden flow of vehemence. “Sherlock,” he said. “Sherlock, that's not the point.”

“No, it's exactly the point,” said Sherlock. “If you spent as much time thinking through your emotional responses as you do endlessly repressing them, you'd realise that.”

He turned away and disappeared into his bedroom, leaving John to stand in the kitchen and wonder what the hell he was meant to do now.

****

He made tea and ordered Chinese. Focusing on the familiar motions of their post-case ritual was enough to push back all the unwanted emotions that had been churned up by the weekend, especially the memory of holding Sherlock in his arms while he whispered ‘I love you’ in his ear. John didn’t have any idea how to deal with that. Ideally, he needed to forget about it, but he’d never been as skilled as Sherlock at ‘deleting’ unwanted information or memories.

Keeping to the routine was oddly relaxing, even if Sherlock wasn't standing next to him adding things to the order while John tried to speak to the woman at the takeaway place, or strutting about with his tea, explaining precisely how he had put together the solution.

It had been a very long time since they’d actually done that. After the thing with Moran, John had been too shell-shocked to manage anything and Sherlock had been so exhausted that he'd just gone straight to the room that had always been his bedroom, even though John had tried his best to refer to it as 'the spare room', and slept for sixteen hours.

The thought made John realise just how terrible Sherlock had looked when he'd first come back. At the time, he'd been too overcome with the fact that Sherlock was there at all to take in how pale he was, how dark the shadows under his eyes were, or how skinny he'd become. John thought about the way Sherlock's voice had broken off when he'd said during which time I was alone and in a series of very unpleasant situations, driven to things that-

What had he been hiding with that cut-off sentence? What exactly had Sherlock been up to over those months? The explanation he'd given John had focused on the places he'd been and broadly why he'd been there, but glossed over the precise details of how he had neutralised each of Moriarty's men.

When the Chinese arrived, John tapped on Sherlock's door. “Food's here.”

There was a sulky silence.

“I got prawn toast,” added John.

There was a huffed sigh. “Coming.”

John nodded to himself and took the food and a couple of plates into the sitting room.

It took Sherlock another five minutes to emerge, wrapped in one of his dressing gowns as if it were armour, although his hair was still slicked down in Simon's style. He scowled at John as he served himself from the takeaway dishes and then slumped on the sofa with his plate and a fork.

John allowed him to get halfway through his food before he spoke. “Tell me about it.”

Sherlock looked caught for a split-second before the look was replaced with a glare. “The case? John, you were there for almost all of it. Surely even your feeble brain-”

“No,” interrupted John. “Your time away.”

There was a very long pause, during which Sherlock stared at him with narrow eyes. “Hearing about it made you angry.”

“Yeah,” agreed John. “But ignoring it hasn't exactly helped that, has it? Besides, I want to hear what you were up to. It seems weird that I know so little.”

Sherlock looked at him for another moment, and then gave a little nod and started to talk.

He told it as if it was a story that he'd heard rather than experienced. It was just a listing of a series of actions and events, without any emotions attached to them. If John hadn't interrupted with questions whenever he tried to gloss over something, he'd have skipped over the worst parts – the parts where he had to kill someone, or where someone came close to killing him, or he lost the trail for weeks and began to despair.

Other than prompting him to fill in those details, John listened in silence. They finished eating and Sherlock kept talking as John put the dishes away and made tea for them both. Sherlock held his in his hands when John handed it to him, but didn't drink any.

“And then I came home,” he eventually finished. “And we dealt with Moran together.” He finally took a sip of his tea, which must have been cold by then.

John was silent for a moment, just processing it all. Sherlock's eleven months had been far more unpleasant and dangerous than John had realised, and not at all the kind of intellectual game that Sherlock enjoyed and that John had been imagining.

“I wish I could have been with you,” he said, in the end.

Sherlock let out an exasperated sigh. “John, I have told you how impossible that-”

“Yes, I know,” interrupted John. “I get why you thought it would be risky to let me in on the secret, but, still. I just wish I could have been there to help.”

Sherlock was silent, staring at his cold tea. “Yes, me too,” he said quietly. “Rather often over those months, in fact. The idea of being able to come home and have things back as they were was rather important to me.”

“And now you are back,” said John.

Sherlock looked up. “Things are not quite as they were,” he pointed out. “That’s all I want, John, for things to be as they were. Nothing more.”

“They're getting there,” said John, which was the most he could promise. Hearing Sherlock's side of things hadn't calmed the anger. If anything, it had only increased it, but on Sherlock's behalf. It was just wrong that Sherlock should have had to give up everything that made him who he was to hunt – and be hunted by – Moriarty's people. He had a lot more sympathy with Sherlock's claim that his anger was misdirected now, although that didn't mean he was letting him entirely off the hook.

Sherlock nodded. “Good,” he said, and set the tea down. “That's- good. I would regret anything that interfered with that.”

He looked as if letting out the events of his time away had drained him. His shoulders were hunched over and he'd tucked up his feet under his dressing gown as if to make himself a smaller target. He looked brittle and alone, and John wanted nothing more than to go over to him and give him a hug.

Instead, he let out a long breath. That was enough emotion for the day, he decided.

He pulled his laptop towards himself. “The Adventure of the Arrested Heiress?” he suggested.

Sherlock snorted. “Awful. Besides, you can't put it on your blog, John; half the Met reads it.”

“I know,” said John. “I wasn't going to. I want to keep copies of all your cases, not just the ones that are fit for public consumption.” He'd read and reread the entries on his blog while Sherlock had been dead, trying to fix the memories firmly in his head. The cases that he didn't have records of had started to fade away, and he'd bitterly regretted not writing them down while they were still fresh.

“Ugh, if you must,” said Sherlock, but John wasn't fooled for a second by his put-on disgust. “And, they are our cases, you know. You were invaluable on this one.”

“Would have been tricky to pretend to be a couple with only one of you,” agreed John, opening a Word document.

He started to type, leaving the title blank for now.

He had reached the part where Lestrade turned up to arrest Jill before Sherlock cleared his throat and said, in a formal voice, “John, I think you should know that I deeply appreciate your assistance in this case, especially given how uncomfortable you find it when people think we're a couple. I think you should also know that your acting was rather better than I had anticipated.”

John stared at him. “Did you- was that a compliment?” he asked incredulously.

Sherlock shifted awkwardly. “I have been given to understand that compliments facilitate a more understanding relationship.”

It took John a moment to place the words. “Oh god, you're quoting Imran,” he said. “Sherlock, seriously, don't pay any attention to any of that rubbish.”

Sherlock frowned. “I thought it was worth taking some things away from it, as we clearly have some weak spots in our relationship.”

John made a frustrated noise. “Sherlock, we are not a couple!”

“I am very aware of that fact, but it is immaterial,” snapped Sherlock. “We have an extremely close friendship, and therefore many of the same processes are applicable. I do not want us to become like Terry and Jessica.”

“Okay, fine,” said John, giving up. “Well, thanks for the compliment, I appreciate it, I suppose.”

“Don't strain yourself,” said Sherlock.

John clenched his teeth. “I'm serious, Sherlock. I do appreciate you taking the time to let me know that.” Sherlock grunted an acknowledgement but he still looked rather unhappy, so John cast around for a way to smooth things over. Bugger it, he might as well take Imran's advice as well. “It was a pleasure to watch your brain in action,” he offered.

Sherlock straightened his shoulders and his face smoothed over. “Of course it was,” he said, but John could see that the compliment had worked.

“Although, I could do without seeing your hair like that again,” he added.

Sherlock reached up to feel the coating of gel on his hair and made a face. “Yes, it is rather unpleasant,” he said, and stood up. “Time to shower Simon away, I think.”

He swept off in the direction of the bathroom and John reapplied himself to the write-up with a smile. Sometimes Sherlock was entirely too easy to manipulate.

****

A considerable amount of time passed before Sherlock emerged again, his hair righted to its normal state. John looked at it and felt something inside himself relax, as if it hadn't really felt as if Sherlock was there while his hair was out-of-place. A wave of affection at the familiar sight washed over him.

“There you are,” he said.

“Where else would I be?” asked Sherlock.

John just shook his head and let it go in favour of trying to work out how to describe Chris. Sherlock retreated to his chair and curled up in it, and then did the thing where he sat very still and stared at John as if he contained the secrets to the Universe. John knew that when he did it there was only a small chance that whatever he was thinking about was actually related to where his eyes were, and so ignored him.

“You didn't like Simon,” said Sherlock after another few minutes had passed.

“Simon wasn't a real person,” John pointed out.

Sherlock waved that away as if it was unimportant. “He put you on edge. I would have thought you'd like him. He is essentially me, but incorporating all those elements that I do not bother with but that you wish I would: tact, politeness, awareness of normal social interactions.”

“Yeah, but he wasn't you,” said John. Sherlock did not look enlightened. John sighed. “Look, you said yourself that we're really close friends. Surely you must have realised that means that I like who you are, and that I'm not interested in that changing.”

Sherlock made a 'huh' noise and steepled his fingers.

John rolled his eyes. “You're an idiot.”

“So it would appear,” said Sherlock in a distracted half-tone.

He didn’t speak for the rest of the evening, although John could tell his mind was still working at a mile-a-minute. But then, when wasn’t it?

It gave John the time to get down more of the case, although he left out as much about their charade as he could. He might not be writing this for any particular audience, but that didn’t mean he had any idea how to write about it without giving away his conflicted emotions about the whole thing. After all, it was a given that Sherlock would get bored and hack into his computer at some point to read it.

“I believe I shall go to bed,” said Sherlock, eventually.

John glanced at the clock. It was late, but not incredibly late. “I expect I don’t want to know how little sleep you’ve had over the last few days.”

Sherlock hesitated. “Probably not, no,” he said. There was a pause, and then he drew himself up stiffly. “John, I should like you to know that I appreciate your understanding and willingness to dedicate yourself to the maintenance of our friendship despite- well. Despite the way I have taken advantage of our situation this weekend.”

John blinked. What was that meant to mean? “I did agree to it,” he pointed out.

Sherlock jerked a nod. “Yes,” he said. “Well. Good night.” He strode off to his bedroom, leaving John staring after him, wondering what that had been about.

It took him another ten minutes of slow typing to really think about it. He reached the hours spent sifting through financial data in Joanna Oldacre’s study, and his mind began to drift. Inevitably, it ended up at Sherlock, and all the things that had happened this weekend that John had never expected to experience with him. Holding hands, sharing a bed, standing in his arms – even hearing his voice tell John that he loved him – it all seemed so unlikely.

If anyone was taking advantage, it was me, he thought. He was the one who felt the kind of things for Sherlock that made those moments mean something, after all. Sherlock wouldn’t have thought of them as any different from pretending to be policemen, or concerned neighbours, or even ninjas.

Surely asking John to dress in black and stage a comic book fight was far more of an imposition than a weekend of activities? What had he meant by his little speech before he went to bed?

It all came together in a rush.

I dislike lying to you.

A lie is much easier to maintain if it is surrounded by the truth.

I love you.

Sherlock had told the truth throughout the rest of that session. What if he had been telling the truth then as well?

Just the thought was enough to paralyse John under the sudden inundation of emotion. For the first time, he actually let himself consider the idea that Sherlock returned his feelings. The leap in his chest made him drag in a ragged breath. Oh god, what if Sherlock did feel the same? What if all John had to do was walk through the flat to his bedroom and tell him that he hadn’t taken advantage of anything, and that John had wanted it too?

But what if John was wrong, and Sherlock had meant something else entirely? Was it worth the gamble?

It took another fifteen minutes of sitting there, struggling with his emotions, before he realised that of course it was. The chance of having more with Sherlock was worth almost anything. Besides which, they were both committed to maintaining their friendship despite anything. If they could survive a faked suicide and eleven months of separation, they could survive a bit of emotional blundering from John. Sherlock would be able to pretend it never happened; he might even be able to delete the memory. And John – well. At least John would know, for certain. Now that he had hope, he wouldn’t be able to carry on every day without looking for signs that he was right. He had to know, one way or another.

He stood up with resolution and walked to stand outside Sherlock’s bedroom door. Should he wait until the morning? No. It was far easier to talk about this kind of thing in the dark, and far easier to pretend it had never happened afterwards, if they needed to.

He tapped lightly on the door.

“What?” came Sherlock’s voice, annoyed at being disturbed but not sleepy enough for him to have already dropped off.

John pushed open the door. Sherlock was sat up with his bedside light on, holding a book. He looked at John as he came in with a puzzled look that was probably justified. John very rarely came into Sherlock’s room, and especially not when he hoped Sherlock was sleeping.

“Uh, hi,” he said.

“Hello,” said Sherlock.

John hesitated. How was he going to phrase this? ‘Are you in love with me?’ seemed a bit forward.

“I just-” he said, and paused.

Sherlock watched him for a moment, and then carefully shut his book and set it to one side. “You have questions,” he said.

“One question,” said John. “I just wanted to know exactly what you meant by taking advantage of our situation.”

Sherlock tensed. “I should have thought that was obvious,” he said, tersely.

“Yeah,” said John. “Probably is, but I’m an idiot, remember?”

Sherlock clasped his hands in his lap and looked down at them. “I meant that I took advantage of the situation we were in this weekend in order to experience a number of things that I have been interested in for a considerable amount of time, but that you would not normally grant me.”

John stared at him. Oh god, he had meant it like John had thought he’d meant it. Like he’d hoped he meant it.

“For example,” continued Sherlock, and John realised he was clutching his hands together tightly enough to make his knuckles white, “it was not entirely necessary for us to hold hands while I searched for the hidden room this morning. Nor was the act with Trisha the only way for us to be left alone in order to examine the crime scene; I could think of four other schemes that had a higher chance of success, but that did not involve getting to put my arms around you. The compliments I paid you in the counselling session were all things I have long thought about you. At dinner on Friday night, we could have left early without-” He had been speaking faster and faster as he continued his list, but was forced to break off at that point to take in a ragged breath. “John, I would appreciate some response,” he said in a voice that was filled with tension.

John felt frozen in place, as if moving would break the spell and wake him from what had to be a dream. “I-” he said, but it came out as a croak, and he had to stop to wet his mouth. He saw Sherlock's jaw clench at the pause. “I meant all the things I said in the first counselling session as well,” he said. The whole world felt deathly silent, as if it was balancing on a knife-edge, waiting for him to say the right words to push it one way or the other. “I do like your hair, I do want to touch it, and I- I want you to turn your focus on me.”

Sherlock let out a dry, rough laugh. “John, I am always focused on you.”

“Oh,” breathed John. For a moment he felt foolish, caught in the doorway with one hand still on the handle while Sherlock stared at him from his bed. He forced his feet to move, stumbling towards the bed and sinking down onto the edge of it. Sherlock immediately unclasped his hands and reached for one of John’s instead.

John let him take it and just watched as he raised it to his hair, moving carefully, as if he was just as afraid of breaking the spell as John was. Once he'd made contact, John ran his fingers through Sherlock's hair. It was unmistakeably his and not Simon's, and he couldn't resist stroking through it again and again, revelling in the look Sherlock gave him as he did so, a disbelieving, hungry look that John was sure was on his own face as well.

It was too much. He knotted his fingers into the curls at the back of Sherlock's head and pulled him towards him until their lips met. Sherlock made a noise deep in his throat and abruptly came to life, wrapping his hands around John's shoulders to hold him close as he kissed him, plunging his tongue inside John's mouth as if attempting to claim him.

When they pulled back, Sherlock stared at him, his eyes darting across John's face. “Is this real?” he said frantically. “Please tell me this is real.”

“Of course it's real,” said John, euphoria bubbling up in him. “Who else could there ever be for me once I met you?”

The grin Sherlock gave him was blinding, but only lasted a second before they were kissing again, John concentrating on showing Sherlock just how real this was. He couldn't seem to keep his hands out of Sherlock's hair now that he finally had permission to touch it.

“I was so worried that you would have found someone by the time I came back,” said Sherlock in gasps. “I thought you'd have found a woman.”

“How could I possibly think about dating when you were dead?” asked John.

“I'm sorry,” said Sherlock. “John. I am sorry.”

With his face so close that John could only just focus on it and his eyes as serious as John had ever seen them, John couldn't help but believe him. The final knot in his chest eased open, and he dropped his head to rest his forehead against Sherlock's. “I know,” he said thickly. “Just- please. Don't ever do it again.”

“Never,” vowed Sherlock. “I never could. I could never leave you again, John, not now I know how hard it is.”

“Good,” said John. “Good, that's- good.” He wasn't close enough to Sherlock. He shifted further onto the bed, turning so that he could press his chest closer to Sherlock’s.

The sense that this was just some sort of surreal dream was fading and John started to believe it was really happening. That was really Sherlock's body against his, Sherlock's hands running down his back and holding him close, Sherlock's tongue caressing his. There was no charade here; it was all real.

This is definitely not going in the case write-up, he thought.

Sherlock pulled back again. “Stay here tonight,” he said. “We can act out Simon and John's first time together.”

“I never read that,” John reminded him.

Sherlock grinned. “That's fine. I am more than happy to show you how it went.”

John couldn't keep from grinning back. “Well, as you put so much thought into it,” he said.

“Exactly,” said Sherlock and clasped his hand into John’s so that he could pull John further onto the bed. It was the same hand he had held when they'd been handcuffed, and John thought to himself that this time, they were definitely starting something, and nothing was going to put an untimely end to it.

He pushed Sherlock back against the headboard, straddling his lap so that he could press their bodies together and kiss him again and again and again. Sherlock clung to his shoulders, holding him close, and then smoothed his hands slowly down John’s back to his waist, where they paused.

“John,” he said in a low, rumbling voice that made John’s toes curl. “John, may I-?”

It took John a moment to catch on, but when he did, he laughed breathlessly. “Of course,” he said. “Those rules were for Simon, not you, remember?”

Sherlock beamed at him and his hands continued down below John’s belt to grasp at his arse.

“I’m going to touch you everywhere,” he promised, and John had to bend to kiss him again. He couldn’t seem to get close enough to Sherlock, and the layers of clothes between them weren’t helping.

He cupped his hand around Sherlock’s neck, sliding his fingers under the neckline to trace over his collarbone, while his other hand dropped to Sherlock’s waist, beneath the duvet that was still trapped between them. He rubbed his thumb against the line of Sherlock’s hipbone, enjoying how much easier it was to circumvent Sherlock’s pyjamas than it would have been with one of his suits. Sherlock let out a breathy noise, pushed up into his hands, and then abruptly pulled away, pushing on John’s chest to separate them.

John sat back, wondering if he had gone too far, but Sherlock just looked at him with fierce resolution. “We need fewer clothes.”

“Yes,” agreed John. “God, yes.” He started with his shirt buttons, fumbling in his haste to get them open.

Sherlock’s hands settled over his. “Slow down,” he said. “We’ve got all night.”

John stilled his hands and then pulled them away, happy to leave Sherlock to slowly undo all his buttons and then push his shirt off his shoulders. He pressed the palm of his hand to the centre of John’s chest and gave him an intense look that took John’s breath away.

“We have considerably longer than all night,” Sherlock added. “If you want.”

John stared at him. “Of course I want,” he said, reaching out to push Sherlock’s hair away from his forehead so that he could see his expression clearly. The satisfaction and pleasure that spread across Sherlock’s face at his words was more than enough to make him want to add to them. He took a deep breath.

“I love you,” he said. Letting the words out after having them locked inside his heart for so long was like the rush of water when a dam broke open.

“Oh,” breathed Sherlock with wonder. “Oh, John.”

He surged forward to kiss him again, clinging to John’s shoulders as if he thought he might drown.

“I can’t believe you didn’t see that,” said John, resting his forehead against Sherlock’s. “I thought I’d given myself away a hundred times.”

“You did,” said Sherlock. “I was just unable to tell whether or not it was hope implanting false deductions in my mind.” He ran his hands over John’s skin, down his shoulder blades and then back up his spine. John couldn’t hold in a shiver at the sensation. “Some of my actions this weekend were intended as a test,” Sherlock confessed. “I was hoping to gain conclusive proof one way or another, but I just couldn’t tell. And then you told me about your anger, and I thought I had been confusing one strong emotion for another.”

“You’d be surprised how many strong emotions I can feel for you at one time,” said John.

“The workshop was my last chance,” said Sherlock. “Communication, John. I thought I might as well be completely honest during it and see where it got me. I knew that-” He took a deep breath, and John realised just how difficult he was finding this confession and held him closer.

“I knew that once the weekend was over, I would have to accept that the experiment had been a failure, and that my feelings were entirely unrequited. I wanted to have given it the best chance I could.”

“So you told me you loved me,” realised John.

“Yes,” said Sherlock. “And you- you didn’t react at all.”

“I thought it was just part of the charade,” said John.

Sherlock pulled away. “Everything else I said it that session was true in ways you must have been able to recognise. Why would I have suddenly reverted back to pretence for that?”

John shrugged. “I don’t know. It just seemed far more likely than that you were actually in love with me.”

Sherlock stared at him with his why do I surround myself with idiots? expression, but it was watered down with something else. “I am, though,” he said. “I am in love with you, John.”

John couldn’t hold in a shudder at the words. “Yeah,” he said in a voice that didn’t sound much like his own. “Yeah, god, Sherlock.” He pulled Sherlock back in to kiss him, clinging to him with a desperation he couldn’t explain to himself. He had already known that, and yet hearing the words out loud, and this time knowing that Sherlock meant them, was enough to melt away the last few remnants of his doubt.

Sherlock kissed him back fervently, as if trying to impart the truth of his words with just his lips and tongue.

“Enough talking,” he growled, and pushed John over onto his back, kicking the duvet out from between them as he climbed on top of him.

“Sherlock,” gasped John at the sensation of having the whole length of Sherlock’s body against his. “God, Sherlock.”

“Yes,” agreed Sherlock, and he bent to kiss John into insensibility.

Chapter Text

John woke up with Sherlock sprawled across him and clinging on to his wrist. His first reaction was to tense, but then the events of the previous night sunk in. Sherlock loved him. In the light of day, it seemed unbelievable but the evidence was right there, lying on his chest and making breathing a bit of a challenge. John relaxed again, moving his hand to press against Sherlock's spine.

“Good morning,” said Sherlock. John had assumed he was asleep, otherwise he’d have got bored and wandered off, but apparently Sherlock had been perfectly content to lie there waiting for John to wake up. John felt himself smile as a wave of contented happiness ran all the way down to his toes.

“Morning,” he replied.

Sherlock shifted until his head was close enough to John's for him to press a kiss against his lips, and then collapsed back on top of him.

“Ooph, careful,” said John. “You're heavy, you know.”

Sherlock made a noise that expressed how little he cared about that. John’s smile widened and he moved his hand up to Sherlock's hair, which was all over the place. He started to gently card through it, trying to get it back into some sort of order. When it became clear that was going to be impossible, he gave up in favour of just playing with it.

“You really do like my hair,” commented Sherlock after several minutes.

“Yeah,” agreed John. “Problem?”

“Not in the slightest,” said Sherlock, turning his head so that John had better access and pressing a kiss to John's chest as he did so.

There was silence for a while, but it was the kind of silence that spoke of contentment and mutual enjoyment of a moment rather than awkwardness.

“Should we be discussing the future?” asked Sherlock eventually.

John felt himself tense. “What aspect?” he asked. Was there going to be a lengthy negotiation over the precise terms of this thing? He could easily imagine Sherlock telling him that it would have to be put on hold during cases, or making other such stipulations.

“I don't know, that's just what you said during the communication and intimacy workshop,” said Sherlock. “'Sunday mornings in bed together, when we discuss our hopes for the future.'”

John laughed with relief. “Oh yes,” he said. “Well, I suppose we can discuss the immediate future. What do you want for breakfast?”

Sherlock lifted his head, moving to cover John's body more fully with his own. “You,” he said with certainty, and bent down to kiss John properly.

****

It took several hours for them to emerge from Sherlock's bedroom, but eventually John's hunger and need for tea prompted him to throw on one of Sherlock's dressing gowns and venture out, ignoring Sherlock's huff of irritation at being left alone in the bed. He wasn't surprised when Sherlock followed him out a moment later and collapsed into a chair at the kitchen table.

“There's nothing to do today,” said Sherlock. “There's no reason for us to leave bed at all.”

John put a cup of tea in front of him. “We can always go back after breakfast,” he said. “But I need to eat something if I'm going to be any use to you.”

Sherlock let out an earth-shattering sigh as he wrapped his hands around the mug and brought it up to his lips, but didn't comment as John set about making toast.

“Besides,” added John, “you know Mrs. Hudson likes to pop in after she's been to church.”

“Yes, yes,” muttered Sherlock into his tea. “I know.”

They took the toast into the sitting room, where they sat opposite each other at the table and shared the kind of blissful grins that John suspected would have counted as sickeningly soppy if anyone else had been there to observe them.

Mrs. Hudson did come up, and John made her a cup of tea while Sherlock went to stand in the window, staring down at Baker Street as if he was paying no attention to Mrs. Hudson's gossip about internal church politics, when John knew for a fact that he was noting down every word. He had once told John that he was convinced the convoluted nature of the divisions between the various women on the flower rota, not to mention the tea-and-coffee helpers, was bound to lead to a murder one day. He was determined to make sure that he already had all the information on what June Harris had said about Cynthia Richmond's altar display, and how that had affected the structure of power within the church, before that happened.

“...which made Katrina Barber – I told you about her, she's the one with the dog that has to go everywhere with her – well, when she heard, I'm sure you can imagine the fuss. She told Mavis Young that-”

“You should have made a fourth cup of tea,” Sherlock observed, cutting through the stream of gossip. “Although, perhaps not – we don't really want to encourage her to stay.”

“Who?” asked John, just as the doorbell rang.

“Jill McFarlane,” said Sherlock with a sigh.

“Oh, I'll let her in, shall I?” said Mrs. Hudson, standing up. “I should be getting on with my day, anyway.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Hudson,” said John when Sherlock ignored her. “That's very kind.”

“Not at all,” said Mrs. Hudson, and headed off downstairs.

“Be polite,” said John to Sherlock as he heard Jill McFarlane being let in and fussed over. Sherlock had a poor record with being nice to clients once their cases were over and done with.

Sherlock shot him a wounded look, as if he couldn't imagine being anything other than polite. John wasn't fooled for a second.

Jill McFarlane knocked on the door before she came in, even though it was open. John gave her a smile and tried to ignore the way Sherlock didn't even glance around at her.

“Hello,” he said. “How are you?”

“Oh, I'm so much better than I was,” she said. “I just came to thank you for all you did. You saved me.” This last was directed at Sherlock's back.

John cleared his throat rather pointedly, and Sherlock finally deigned to face their guest. “There's no need,” he said, with minimum interest in his voice.

Apparently, John was going to have to lead their side of the conversation. “We're just glad we were able to help,” he said. “I hope everything's okay for you now.”

“Oh yes,” she said. “The papers are being much nicer now – The Sun offered me lots of money for an exclusive interview!”

“I wouldn't take it,” said Sherlock. “You can't trust those vultures to report your story accurately.”

Jill looked deflated. “Yeah, that's what my dad said,” she said. “Still, the money would be nice.”

“I suspect that's what Judas thought,” said Sherlock.

There was an awkward pause.

“Would you like some tea?” asked John in an attempt to cover it.

“Oh, no, thank you, I can't stay long,” said Jill. “I've got work this afternoon. I've got to make up the hours I missed while being questioned.”

John frowned. “That seems a little harsh.”

Jill just shrugged. “Retail,” she said, as if that was explanation enough. “I just wanted to tell you both how grateful I am. Detective Inspector Lestrade told me how you discovered Joanna's plot. I can't believe she'd do something like that. What a bitch!”

“Did he also explain that you can't tell anyone about my part in your case?” asked Sherlock.

“Yeah,” she said. “It's a shame – I'd love to be able to tell people that Sherlock Holmes rescued me from prison.”

“Resist the urge,” said Sherlock in a tone of voice that threatened violent retribution if she disobeyed.

John cleared his throat. “It really would cause a lot of problems for us,” he said.

“Uh, yeah,” Jill said, giving Sherlock an uncertain look. “The Detective Inspector was really clear about that. I know this whole thing has made me look like a bit of a fool, but I'm not a complete idiot. I won't tell anyone.”

Sherlock gave her a sharp nod. “Good,” he said, and then turned back to the window as if that ended the conversation.

Jill stared at the back of his head, then clearly gave up and looked at John instead. “Anyway, I've got to get work, and I can see you two are, um, busy.” She glanced down at John's body, and John realised that it must be blindingly obvious that he wasn't wearing much of anything underneath his dressing gown, and that neither was Sherlock. Oh god, and it wasn’t even his dressing gown. Had she noticed that it was too long for him? He felt his face go pink.

“I just really wanted to thank you,” she continued. “If there's ever anything I can do for you, just say the word.”

“Your silence is all we require,” said Sherlock loftily.

“Thanks for coming by,” said John, holding his hand out. “I hope you have a good day at work.”

Jill made a face as if that was impossible, but shook his hand, directed a, “Good bye,” at Sherlock, and left.

Sherlock immediately turned away from the window, strode over to John, and engulfed him in a furious kiss. John was more than happy to go along with it, gripping tightly to the back of Sherlock's dressing gown and pulling him in close.

“What's that for?” he asked once Sherlock allowed him a moment to breathe.

“It's been ages since I've kissed you,” complained Sherlock. “People keep interrupting!”

It had been a little over an hour, but John didn't argue Sherlock's assessment of the situation.

“No one here now,” he said. “Pretty sure there's no one in your bedroom either, and I'm done with breakfast.”

Sherlock's face lit up with a grin. “Come on, then,” he said, and pulled John off in the direction of his bedroom. John was more than happy to go.