Exhaustion had forced him from the chair to the sofa some time after four in the morning. He woke in daylight to the sound of Mary's voice and the gentle touch of her hand on his forehead.
"John? Mycroft Holmes wants to talk to you."
He clenched his eyes shut and opened them again, trying to focus. "Yeah, okay. Just give me the phone." He felt as if he'd been asleep for days. As awareness came flooding back, his chest went cold with dread. If Mycroft was calling, something had happened to Sherlock. He sat bolt upright, nearly knocking Mary off balance as he swung his legs to the floor.
"No, John. He's here." She glanced over her shoulder. Mycroft was standing stiffly on the other side of the room.
"What's happened? Is Sherlock all right?"
Mycroft looked pained, and John's heart turned over. "Tell me."
Mycroft and Mary exchanged a look. Something passed between them that not even John's shocked and exhausted brain could miss. "I'll be out here, if you need me." She went into the kitchen and closed the door.
Mycroft walked to the armchair next to the sofa and sat down. "Nothing has happened to Sherlock. He wanted me to tell you that he's fine."
His emotions were back online with a vengeance. He took a deep breath. "You have to get me in to see him."
"I will send a car for you later this afternoon. He wants to tell you good bye."
His mouth went dry. "What do you mean, 'good bye'?"
"There won't be a court case. I've called in a favor, and he's to be exiled instead. Permanently. You won't see him after this. None of us will. It was his choice, John. You must abide by it."
Mycroft's smooth certainty flipped the switch, and John was instantly furious. "Like hell, I will! Don't tell me there's nothing you can do because I don't buy it. Call in a better favor, for Christ's sake! Say he was temporarily insane, which has to be the truth anyway. He killed a man in front of armed witnesses. If that's not insanity, I don't know what would be. You can't let him do this." He ducked his head and closed his eyes, breathing to dissipate the rush of adrenaline that was making his hands ball into fists. When he looked up, Mycroft was studying the wall over his head. It reminded him so much of Sherlock that he wanted to scream.
"John, you know as well as I do that prison would kill him as surely as an executioner's noose, but much more painfully. This way, he will be able to work. It's the best we can do."
John shook his head, jabbing a finger a foot from Mycroft's face. "It's not even close to the best you can do, and you know it. You're the British Government, for fuck's sake. You can't let this happen. This is my fault. Tell them it was my fault. I'll tell them it was my fault. I put him up to it. I-" He broke off and took a breath. "It was my gun. I should have known. I should have..." The list of his failures was endless.
"Making yourself culpable would serve only to render my brother's sacrifice pointless." Mycroft regarded him calmly for a long moment. "The car will be here at three o'clock to take you to the airstrip. Pull yourself together, John. Do it for Sherlock. He doesn't have a choice, and neither do you. Don't make it harder on him than it already is."
The anger drained out of him and left his voice flat. "You can't let this happen."
Mycroft stood up. "There's nothing I can do. The car will be here at three." He turned and walked out of the house.
A moment later, Mary came out of the kitchen. "John, are you alright?"
He didn't look at her. She didn't need to see what he knew had to be in his eyes. "I'm fine." It might be the biggest lie he had ever told.
Mary waited until she heard the shower running before she took the phone from her purse and stepped outside. She was about to destroy her last cover identity, but the alternative was unthinkable.
Mycroft had called her before he arrived this morning, and he had told her what Sherlock's exile would mean. It was a suicide mission, and Sherlock knew it. Her heart broke for all of them. "You can't tell John."
His voice had gone eerily calm. "I don't intend to tell him, because he would never let Sherlock get on the plane. I need you to know the truth because Sherlock may not last six months. John will need all the support we can give him when it happens." He had paused. "And I wanted you to know that our arrangement is nullified, for obvious reasons. Sherlock has paid far more for your freedom than you could ever repay. I do hope you will make the best of the life he's given back to you."
She had been unable to speak. A moment later, Mycroft had ended the call. Five minutes later, he was at her door to talk to John.
She could not allow this to happen. The person she was about to contact would be bound to reveal that he had heard from her. It would only be a matter of time before they found her. She would deal with the consequences later. Right now, she had one goal in mind. Keep Sherlock from being sent away. Whatever it would cost her came a distant second to keeping John from that kind of pain. Mycroft was right. If John lost Sherlock again, not even she would be able to save him.
She dialed the number and waited for the international call to connect. John had given her the idea. She needed to create a threat that was dangerous to the entire country. One that was immediately visible to everyone at the same time, and one that Sherlock was uniquely suited to address. There was very little time to set it up, but she knew someone who could do it. He just had to make sure it happened before that plane took off.
Mycroft was doing his best to follow the advice he'd given John Watson a few hours ago, but it was proving to be more difficult than he had imagined. He was driving his own brother to his execution. A slow death. And he would die alone.
Sherlock was quiet, sitting against the door as far from Mycroft as he could manage. Looking out at the passing countryside, and surely seeing none of it.
They had spent the past twelve hours tying up loose ends. Sherlock had updated his will, leaving everything to John and his child. There would be the matter of proving Sherlock's death, which could be difficult. Sherlock had insisted that Mycroft make every effort to have his body found and returned to England. He wanted John to have proof this time. John would be shocked by the value of Sherlock's estate. It had all been placed into trusts to keep him from using it for drugs, long past the point where that had been necessary. Sherlock simply didn't care about the money. It amounted to more than three million pounds at this point. John's family would be well cared for. Mycroft had casually suggested that the will be amended to include the child, and Sherlock had agreed without asking why. Mycroft would not have been able to tell him the reason, if he had. Sherlock did not need to know that he doubted John would survive him by more than a few months, if that.
Mycroft had told his brother that he'd gone to see John, but he'd omitted how upset John had been. Sherlock certainly knew that John would be affected by this, but he had never understood how much John actually cared about him. That was a blessing now.
He had tried for most of Sherlock's life to protect him from the consequences of emotional involvement and the dangerous vulnerability that came with it. He had succeeded quite well until John Watson entered the equation. In retrospect, Mycroft could clearly trace the path of destruction to its origin, and see his own hand in letting it happen. There had been warnings, and he had ignored them all. He had allowed himself to feel gratitude for Watson having saved Sherlock's life, when what he should have done was recognize the reason Sherlock had taken such a risk. Mycroft believed Sherlock's attempt to take down Jeff Hope alone had, for the first time, been about wanting another human being's approval. John Watson was the only person who had ever honestly admired Sherlock's abilities. He had become, over those first few days, the only person in the world whose opinion seemed to matter to Sherlock. Every decision Sherlock would make from that moment on would be influenced by how it might affect John, or John's opinion of him. Murdering Charles Magnussen had been Sherlock's ultimate sacrifice for John's safety, which included the safety of his wife and child. He had traded the rest of his life for John's, and there was nothing Mycroft could do now to change it. The knowledge that he had failed his brother so completely would torture him for the rest of his days.
"There is a point where guilt becomes self-indulgence. You're not omnipotent, Mycroft. Get over it."
Mycroft looked over at Sherlock, slightly startled to hear his voice. He was still looking at the window. "This from the man who threw his life away for a friend."
Sherlock turned to look at him then. He smiled. "He's a really good friend."
The pure emotion in his brother's eyes stunned him. Sherlock allowing him to see it so clearly told him that he was not going to hide it from John, either. "You have to let it go, Sherlock. Telling him now would be the worst thing you could do."
Sherlock studied him for a moment, then turned back to the window. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do."
Mycroft let the silence stretch out. "Sherlock, I need you to tell me clearly that this is what you want. We can still go back and go through the legal process. You might even find a jury who would understand. Prison for a time-"
"No." He turned and locked his gaze with Mycroft's. "This is the next best thing. It's what I want now."
Realization hit him like a blow to the chest. "You expected to be killed when you pulled that trigger."
Sherlock's smile was chilling. "Your men have alarmingly slow reflexes. You might want to consider a refresher course in tactical response."
John was right. It really had been an act of insanity. Whatever hope he'd had that Sherlock would somehow manage to prove him wrong and come out of this mission alive had just evaporated. He didn't want to come out of it alive. He never had.
"Don't. Just leave it, Mycroft. It's over."
They reached the plane ten minutes before John's car arrived. Mycroft watched Sherlock's entire demeanor change when John stepped out of the car. It was the last time he would see his brother smile, and it shattered his heart.
When John had come out of the shower, he'd found that Mary had laid out his clothes for him. He should have appreciated her kindness, but it had made him wince at how badly he was handling this, and how pathetic he must seem to her. But it also made him step back and regroup. He took hold of the guilt that was paralyzing him and redirected it. Anger was harder to control, but it got his brain moving again. Nothing was making sense, therefore he was missing something, and he was rapidly running out of time to figure out what it was.
Sherlock had killed Magnussen because he'd run out of options. Mycroft had let him be arrested because he needed time to devise a proper response, one that he could hardly have been expected to come up with in the immediate aftermath. Witnessing his brother commit murder had to have affected even Mycroft's unflappable thought processes. He had claimed this morning that there was only one option open to them, and there was nothing he could do to change that. John hadn't believed him, but he was beginning to wonder if Sherlock had fooled them both.
This would hardly be the first time Sherlock had withheld a plan from him. It wouldn't even be the first time he'd disappeared 'forever'. So there was every reason to believe that the same thing was happening now.
Even if Sherlock had wanted to tell him what was going on, when would he have been able to do it? He had been in custody, or under Mycroft's watchful eye since it happened. This afternoon's meeting would be his first chance to let John in on it. Sherlock would pull him aside and tell him what to do, and this nightmare would end.
By the time Mycroft's car delivered them to the airstrip, John was so convinced that this was a ruse that he was rehearsing in his head how best to tell Sherlock what a bastard he was for putting him through this again.
The car pulled up on the tarmac a few paces from where Sherlock was standing next to Mycroft. John got out and walked around the car to join his wife. Suddenly he was in no hurry to move any closer, and he stopped at Mary's side. Something in Sherlock's posture seemed too controlled. Too formal. He hesitated.
Mary didn't wait for him. She headed straight for Sherlock and wrapped him in a hug. That almost made John smile. Sherlock hugged her back, and that did make him smile. The two people he loved most in the world, sharing a good bye hug.
No. Not good bye. John squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. He walked over to join them.
Mary kissed Sherlock's cheek, and he kissed her back. They exchanged a few words that made them both smile, but their expressions sobered as soon as they broke contact. Mary came back to John's side and took his hand.
Sherlock turned to his brother. "Since this is likely to be the last conversation I'll have with John Watson, would you mind if we took a moment?"
Mary and Mycroft walked away, and Sherlock looked directly at him for the first time. There was something in Sherlock's gaze that made John want to look elsewhere. Both of them seemed suddenly awkward, and it made John's certainty waver a bit.
The silence was unbearable. John took a breath. "So, here we are." Come on, give me a clue.
"William Sherlock Scott Holmes."
For some reason, John's brain supplied an unhelpful memory. U.M.Q.R.A. As clues went, what Sherlock had just said was equally cryptic. "Sorry?"
"That's the whole of it. If you were looking for baby names."
John suppressed an impulse to give his head a clearing shake. It was so far from what he was expecting that he chuckled. "We've had a scan. We're pretty sure it's a girl."
Sherlock smiled. "Oh. Okay."
John glanced at Mycroft and Mary, wondering if they were still too close for Sherlock to be able to speak freely. They could start walking, but Mycroft would probably tackle them. The silence stretched, increasing the tension. John cleared his throat. "Actually, I can't think of a single thing to say." Because it's your bloody turn. Tell me what to do.
Sherlock dropped his gaze. "No, neither can I."
They were running out of time. John stepped closer and lowered his voice. "The game is over." There's your opening. Get on with it, for God's sake.
Sherlock's gaze came up and fixed on his. "The game is never over, John."
Thank Christ. Now tell me what to do. Even in his head, it was starting to take on an edge of desperation that was making his heart start to pound.
"But there may be some new players now. That's okay. The East Wind takes us all in the end," Sherlock continued the thought.
John asked him what he was talking about, but he barely listened to the answer. He was busy regrouping. Obviously, there was not going to be a daring escape here. Not with Mycroft hovering nearby. John gave himself a mental slap for not thinking this through. It must be something that would take place after the plane took off. Maybe an unscheduled landing. Sherlock would contact him then, and-
"He was a rubbish big brother." Sherlock glanced at Mycroft.
He really, really needed to get confirmation of some kind. "So what about you, then. Where are you actually going now?"
"Oh, some undercover work in Eastern Europe."
John recognized the exaggeratedly bored tone, and his heart rate kicked up. "For how long?"
"Six months, my brother estimates. He's never wrong." Flat. No eye contact.
"And then what?" Lying. Why is he still holding to this story?
There was real pain in Sherlock's eyes in the seconds before he looked up to break contact. "Who knows?" His lips were pressed tight.
"John, there's something I should say. I-I've meant to say always and never have. Since it's unlikely we'll ever meet again, I might as well say it now."
Sherlock held his gaze for a moment, then looked down. John blew out a shaky breath, and Sherlock pulled one in. Maybe the same one.
"Sherlock is actually a girl's name." He smiled at his own joke.
John chuckled softly at his own stupidity. Said the most neutral thing he could come up with. "We're not naming our daughter after you."
In the end, it didn't matter what words they used. John had seen it all in his eyes, and there was no longer any question that it was the truth. Sherlock knew he wasn't coming back, and now John knew it, too.
This is the way the world ends.
He couldn't imagine five minutes from now, let alone the weeks that remained before his daughter would enter a world that would no longer include the man standing in front of him. She would never know him, or what he'd meant to her father. No matter what he told her, she could never understand.
And then Sherlock was holding out his hand. The only other time they had done this was in front of Baker Street, the first time.
"We don't know a thing about each other. I don't even know your name."
And suddenly, all of the memories were there, flooding his mind and blocking out what was happening in front of him.
"To the very best of times."
Sherlock was still offering his hand. John took it, and held on.
It's over. When I let go of his hand, it's over.
Sherlock gave his hand one final squeeze, and let go. He turned and walked to the plane, mounted the steps, and disappeared. He never looked back.
John stood there with the world crashing down around him. Mary came to his side and took his hand, then pulled him to the edge of the tarmac. Mycroft got into his car, and the plane lifted off.
"John, it's time to go home."
Home just left on a jet to nowhere.
It had been right in front of him all along. Sherlock was right. He truly was an idiot. A blind idiot. And he had just wasted his last chance.
As always, John, you see but you don't observe.
He wondered how long it would take before Mary realized that she was left with an empty husk. Welcome to the world, little daughter. Your parents are a semi-reformed assassin and a hollow shell. Happy birthday.
"I want to talk to Mycroft." He wanted the violin. And the skull. And his heart back. He wondered if Mycroft still had any part of his own.
But before they reached the car, Mycroft was getting out, and the expression on his face stopped John dead in his tracks. "What's happened?"
He heard only the first few words. Moriarty was alive. Apparently. Mary asked him how that could be, and he said something back that he would never be able to remember. His entire focus was the plane in the distance, coming closer. Coming back. The rush of emotion made him dizzy. Exhilaration. Relief like nothing he'd felt since the last near miss, but this was nearer than anything that had gone before. The impossibility of Moriarty actually coming back to wreak havoc was barely a footnote. John would never again let Sherlock face him alone. Not Moriarty. Not anyone.
The plane was on the tarmac. Gliding past them to the other end of the strip. Turning around and coming back to where it had been five minutes before. As if nothing had ever happened.
The door opened, and Sherlock came down the steps, blinking in the sunlight like a man coming out of a cave. He saw John and stopped.
John started toward him, and Sherlock took a step backward. John paused, but only for a moment. We're not playing this game. Not anymore. Not ever again. Just how many second chances do you think we're going to get?
Sherlock stood still. John strode up to him and took a breath to steady his voice. Sherlock's eyes were red-rimmed and damp. Blinking, but not from the light. "You've got this razor's edge bit down to a science, don't you?"
"I had nothing to do with it, John, but it's just a reprieve. Not a pardon."
John shook his head. "I don't give a flying fuck what it's called or how it happened. You're back, and the only bloody way you're getting out of here again is over my dead body. And don't give me that look. I'm not gonna die, and neither are you. We are going to do whatever it takes to fix this."
Sherlock looked past him. John didn't need to follow his gaze to know he was looking at Mary.
"All of it, Sherlock. We're going to fix it all." The empty look that he got in response made him want to throw a punch. Instead, he surprised them both by pulling Sherlock into a hug. There was a moment of the same resistance he'd gotten at the wedding reception. He tightened his grip. Don't you dare back away from me now.
And then Sherlock hugged him back.
End of Something Borrowed
Author's Notes: This is as far as we can go without running headlong into series four. Since my goal is to explain and enhance what Moftiss provided, I'm out of material until then. I hope I've accomplished a bit of the illumination I set out to provide for this amazing treasure of a television series. The characters and the actors who bring them to life are simply the best.
My most sincere thanks got to my tireless betas, sevenpercent and Jolie_Black. As always, I could not have done it without them. Any errors that remain are mine alone. I tend to tweak (and introduce typos etc) at the last minute, and usually in the middle of the bloody night, as I'm doing right now. They get to see the final version at the same time you do.
I would very much like to hear your comments on my efforts. There will be a number of one-shot stories that fill in a bit more, but that just didn't fit into this one. Thank you so much for coming along with me. -GW