AN: Thank you so much for making it this far!

We are at story's end and, I have to say, I'm actually really pleased with how all of this came out. The Muse constantly amazes.

Now, remember, this chapter has Parts Five and Six plus the Epilogue. Hopefully, the summary makes sense after this.

There are some things that might come across in a way that I was not intending, but I wanted to just point out that - while I do *not* support or condone terrorism - I understand that something as massive as 9/11 changes lives. Sometimes - as much as we might hate to admit -, it doesn't actually end up horribly.

That said, I sincerely hope you take something meaningful away from this.

Have a very Prosperous New Year,

HM.


Part Five: Joan


It hurt.

It hurt on a scale she'd never previously thought survivable.

How could anyone stand the – the empty, lost, hollow feeling that ached with every passing day, hour, minute, second, heartbeat, breath she took?

For some reason, she had always – foolishly, it turns out – believed that the worst day of her life had been the very first patient she had ever lost or the last official patient that had ended her career. Or even the death of Andrew, something she'd believed would always prey on her conscious.

But she was wrong.

The worst day of her life was when she'd been summoned back to the Brownstone after running errands. The fire had only gotten more apparent and she'd been worried that Sherlock had come home early from whatever personal thing that had spooked him so badly that she was even more rarely out of his sight since whatever it is had begun. Relief had immediately swamped her when her frantic gaze locked on his figure surrounded by familiar faces from the 11th Precinct.

Until her eyes absently found where her room had been and she realized.

The very thing she had tried to prevent for so long.

The very things she had tried to protect for what seemed like half her life.

Gone.

All of it.

Up in flames and smoke, not unlike the circumstances in which one had been put in her possession to begin with. From the ruins of one sense of identity to the destruction of another.

She would laugh at the irony if she wasn't afraid of breaking down.

She knew that all of her friends were worried about her, she did. In a vague sense of numbness as she was shuffled from one location to another.

Sherlock and Marcus and Gregson were the faces she remembered, drifting along as the numb/empty/hollow feeling swept her past any awareness of her surroundings.

The Brownstone was gone.

That realization came a little later, of course.

That symbol of home that meant safety and so many other undefinable things.

It had connected her to Sherlock, then to something amazing that she'd all too willingly dove into headfirst.

It became a sense of identity for who she'd become and it was – as Sherlock had once said – her home. Her home and the most tangible connection to Sherlock and their shared work – shared passion – that she could've ever imagined.

The connection to the most important people in her life had started at the Brownstone.

Sherlock.

Alfredo.

Ms. Hudson.

Mycroft, wherever he was.

Bell and Gregson.

Kitty, later on.

But Sherlock, Marcus and Gregson were the people she knew she could fall back on if she ever needed anything.

And she knew it was… childish, perhaps, but a part of her truly believed that objects and places… personified? Put into the physical world sentiments that she had no words for.

The Brownstone had become the third most important … thing in her possession and – and it was gone now.

That hurt, too, but nothing compared to the hollowness generated by the loss of the two most precious things she'd held onto for years above all else.

They'd brought her such comfort during the hardest moments of her life since – since.

She'd likened it to her security blanket and teddy bear and she felt incredibly alone and like the little girl she didn't remember being now that they were taken from her.

She was at a complete loss, slowly coming out of the numbed world that she had so readily taken refuge in and reality was crushing down on her.

Her family knew something was wrong, but only Oren knew something of her loss because they'd both gotten drunk after… and she'd told him a little of it, but not all. She wanted to keep as much of it as secretive as she could – something not easily done around the likes of Sherlock Holmes – and that meant keeping it all locked up inside.

Well, not entirely.

Sometimes, she'd found herself whispering to the pouch she kept them in, to the man whose memory at least one of the objects personified.

She'd never went looking for him after… that.

It was something she toyed with doing, but after a while realized that she didn't even know where to start.

He might've quit or transferred out.

Or something happened to him, but she never wanted to even entertain that possibility because it was a possibility and she didn't want him to be gone, yet.

If he was still alive, there was the chance that they would meet again. Something she held onto just as tightly as her objects, so she could show him that she'd kept them safe.

That she still remembered and thought about him all the time, especially when she'd felt like she needed a friend. He'd done that for her before and she had always wondered – wished, hoped, prayed – that he would do so again one day.

But now, she couldn't help the fear that they would meet again and one part was actually a direct result of living and working with Sherlock for so long. If there was one thing she'd learned, it was the fact that memories had a glow about them after so much time had passed until most of it ended up being a product of imagination and far different to reality.

Plus, people change. No reason to suspect otherwise in this case, either.

And, she no longer had either of the objects only the two of them really knew anything about. What would she even say to him after that?

It was something that haunted her every dream, but Oren had managed to help her like when he played the big brother when they were kids. It's why both of them constantly woke up pressed back to back, even when they got older.

'So, we can watch each other's backs from the monsters,' he'd told her with seriousness that she just as easily accepted and returned. 'It's what big brothers do. And it'll be up to you to tell me if any of them are trying to sneak up on us.'

Oren had said those words after – after she'd been rotated out. He'd showed up at her apartment a few days after he'd gotten back from a trip overseas and she'd simply let him in, the two of them claiming their usual places and sleeping for the first time in what had felt like years at that point.

Oren hadn't slept on the other side of the bed until she – feeling completely numb and in desperate need of a – a hug or a teddy bear or something – showed up at his bedroom door at their mother's house. His family was completely understanding about him wanting to look after her and he let her in with that solemn look on his face.

"Come on," he patted her usual place with a hand. "I'll take the other side. So we can watch each other's backs from the monsters, right?"

"Thank you," she whispered, buried down and pressed up against her big brother.

"It's what big brothers do," he whispered back. Then, "I'm sorry about what you lost."

He didn't know the full story or the extent, but he knew enough.

She simply squeezed her eyes shut and pressed even harder back into him without a word.


Eventually, she had to actually see other friends, so she allowed Chantal to pick her up and fill the silence with what they were going to do with Joan's half-sister as she tried desperately to work up some kind of emotion or excitement that she couldn't feel.

Chantal had a nice place, kind of like Marcus', and Lin greeted them with a slightly uncertain smile despite her determination to be there.

It was a big step for Lin to be not only spending time with Joan for the sole purpose of 'sister time', but to also introduce herself to Chantal as such. Joan knew that, but couldn't bring herself to be any kind of supportive.

She drifted through the afternoon as they played card games and the other two eventually understood that she needed some time to herself for a bit. She would probably feel bad a few weeks down the road, but it couldn't be helped.

Leaving the others to their checkers battle, she found her attention drifting to the walls and corners and seeing the adornments and pictures left out for her perusal.

One picture in particular, however, caught her attention more than anything else.

It had been taken little more than a month ago on the Brooklyn Bridge.

She remembered it very well.

A beautiful supper afternoon, she and Sherlock having been on one of his experiments when they had run across Marcus and Chantal out on their own lunch date. Captain Gregson had been running errands when he came across them and they all could've just gone back to their separate lives and activities, but they ended up hanging out for the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening.

The time the picture was taken, they were crossing the bridge into Manhattan when Sherlock had spied an exemplarily beautiful specimen of a bird gliding overhead and had pointed it out.

Joan had found her gaze caught by the graceful flight and had followed it with her eyes, Sherlock giving them some kind of lecture on it, but had had no idea that Marcus and Gregson were watching it, too. Chantal had managed to get their picture as they watched, focusing on them as they watched the bird out of frame.

Sherlock and herself were closest to the rail with Gregson and Marcus behind them. And further beyond them, the Freedom Tower soared over the Manhattan skyline.

Joan had traversed the bridge several times before 9/11 and she could still see in her mind's eye the two Towers nestled amidst the others they soared over – like birds nesting into similar surroundings, waiting for unsuspecting eyes to dismiss them before coming out with full gleaming coats on display.

And now.

It was a punch to the gut to see the space left behind.

Tears gathered in her eyes as she reached out a shaky hand and she was suddenly in the guest room, curled on her side on the farthest side of the bed, the picture clasped to her chest.

What she'd told the boys was correct about her being behind hospital walls the entire day.

She'd waited just like the others had, only allowing the barest trickle of news reach them so they didn't get distracted, waiting for patients that never came.

She knew the Towers had come down, she had, but it simply hadn't looked like two buildings when she had volunteered to work Ground Zero with thousands of other rescue workers and volunteers.

Perhaps she just never wanted to realize how the giant mess of steel came to be as she wandered around to keep busy. Maybe her mind had been trying to protect her, but it had ultimately been for naught.

She had watched a stretcher come out with a bundle of white in the middle of it and she'd been struck with the thought that the body bag was being brought out empty. She didn't know why it was empty and had thought to ask, but someone had commented almost callously that it was the largest part of a person they'd seen this shift and her thoughts had screeched to a halt.

That – that little –

That was a person?

What –

"Think they jumped from above the 80th floor?" another person almost absently asked.

Above the 80th floor? Jumped?

Why would the victim had jumped?

Above the 80th floor?

Of what?

"Maybe they rode the collapse down to the ground," the first speculated. "The Twins were the tallest Towers in the fucking city. Even the world, for a couple years. If someone rode 80 stories plus down to the pavement and all those pounds and tons of what used to be above them came crashing down on top of them, it's a miracle anything was left to be carted out of this mess."

"110 stories," the words echoed in her memory all these years later. "Hard to imagine, you know? Took three years to build them up and almost two hours to bring them down. Damn."

110 stories.

That was how tall the Towers were.

She found her eyes scanning the skyline, her frown growing deeper and deeper when she couldn't find them.

But…

She'd always been able to find them.

No matter where she was, what she was doing or what was happening.

So…

Where were they?

Her Detective friend was kneeling next to her with concern when she started looking around.

"Hey," he watched her with sharp blue eyes. "You okay?"

She stared at him wordlessly, her thoughts unable to coalesce in the silence.

"Talk to me," he urged. "What's goin' through your head?"

"I – I can't find them," she whispered, her eyes blurry as her mind screamed at her to be silent. But she needed to know. "I can't find them," she repeated, shaking her head. "I can't find them."

"Can't find who?" he gentled his voice, something in his expression telling her that he had an idea.

"The Towers," something started falling down her face as his eyes lowered. "Where are they?"

There was a gigantic pile of steel and metal that she saw all the time. The smoke and fumes and burning fuel contaminating the air came from it.

And then she had a thought.

"The Pile," she didn't feel good as her voice shook. "How did it get here? What… what did it use to be?"

He didn't look at her, not sure what to say.

Why wouldn't he look at her?

And why wasn't he answering?

It – it couldn't be that difficult, right?

The Pile…

Something about it had always seemed… familiar, somehow.

Especially…

Especially the parallel beams folded like aluminum sticks, laying everywhere.

Strange how similar they looked to the parallel façade of the Twin Tow-

"Oh my god," realization came crashing down and arms crushed her to a solid chest, struggling to hold her together as she fell apart.

She honestly didn't remember much after that, but she did – above all else – remember the soothing voice in her ear.

'We're okay,' it told her. 'We're okay. We're okay.'

She clung to it as her world turned upside down.

We're okay.

It echoed in her thoughts as she remembered flashes of time passing, a hand holding hers tightly as it led her around.

She never doubted her trust in the hand that led her away from – from…

From there.

She didn't know where it led her, but she trusted it and followed wherever it led.

At one point, there was a hot dog in her hand and she ate it without tasting.

She was vaguely aware that it was completely dark as they walked to some undisclosed location, vaguely aware of the other wandering souls, the pictures plastered on every conceivable corner and surface of people still missing and would probably always remain missing.

Time had no meaning as she was led down one street, then another. She'd never noticed before how sad everything was.

Completely, utterly, heartbreakingly silent.

No one spoke a word.

She didn't even know if she could speak anymore, her mouth dry and something lodged in her throat that wasn't coming out no matter how many times she swallowed.

And then they were on the Brooklyn Bridge, walking.

"We're going in the wrong direction," she whispered, not sure if she was actually speaking words.

"Trust me on this," he squeezed her hand, his other in his pocket. "We're just goin' on a small trip. We'll come back."

"Okay," she nodded simply and followed.

They reached the other side and found a place to sit as they faced away from Manhattan.

"Just sit and breathe," he instructed. "We'll head back pretty soon."

She sat with her side pressed against his and tried to breathe, but it took a long time before she could do so easily and without choking on whatever was in her throat.

Her nose felt raw as she scrubbed with another clean tissue or napkin – maybe even a leaf – and something felt empty as she finally sat back and let his arm wrap around her.

"It's okay, you know," his voice sounded rough, like he'd been crying, too. "We're okay. Only way to go, now, is up."

They sat there for long moments before she finally managed to ask the one question that surfaced above all else:

"Why?"

"Been askin' that myself since that Tuesday," he shook his head. "And I was in the middle of that hell. I look at what's left and can't believe how I'm still alive."

"Maybe… maybe there's a reason," she pressed closer, ducking her head under his chin.

"Maybe," his voice rumbled in her ear, "but I wouldn't know what that reason could be."

As she half laid there against him, she couldn't help thinking that maybe he was there for her.

She didn't really know if she truly believed in a Higher Power, but she had friends who did. Maybe who or what was up in the clouds wanted something different for her - though she wouldn't know what since the medical field was her life.

Maybe there was a reason for him to have survived, a reason that may not have anything to do with her, but maybe.

It could even have been because of this moment and the secure feeling he was giving her. He'd been at Ground Zero since she'd begun, so maybe this had been inevitable.

Regardless, though, she couldn't even begin to articulate how grateful she was to have him there, a person who watched her back like Oren did.

A partner, in a sense.

Just the two of them against… whatever this was.

A team.

And that's when she remembered something that Oren had given her a number of years ago.

'I think I still have it,' she frowned, but ultimately decided to look later. She didn't want to move right now.

She felt tired and wrung out, but she didn't want to go to sleep if it meant that she had to let him leave.

"You can close your eyes, if you want," the Detective took the decision out of her hands, holding her more securely. "I'll stay up and then we'll walk back in about an hour or so. We're okay," he told her again and he kept saying it a few more times until she let her eyes slide closed and allowed the rumble against her cheek to give her an anchor to focus on in a dreamless sleep.

She'd either slept longer than she'd thought or it had been a lot later than it felt because dawn was breaking the next time her eyes opened.

Next to her, he'd fallen mostly silent with half-lidded eyes, but a slight hum still rumbled against her.

Silently, they gathered themselves up and made their way back to the bridge with an arm wrapped around the other. When they got to the halfway point, they stopped to watch the sunrise blanket Manhattan.

Her eyes were pulled to the gaping hole in the skyline and she swallowed roughly as her eyes burned with tears she didn't have the energy to spare. "I miss them," she rasped. "I miss them so much."

"I do, too," he answered simply.


"Joan?"

She blinked at the darkened room and turned slightly to see Chantal backlit against the hallway. "Yeah?"

"Dinner's almost ready," she announced. "If you want."

"Okay. I'll be there."

Chantal left her alone and she sat up with a sigh, the picture still cradled in her arms.

The lap next to her spilled soft light across the room when she turned it on, her gaze drawn back to the picture and the four of them standing in the foreground.

So much had changed between that morning on the bridge and the afternoon on the bridge, both to Joan herself and to the skyline.

Both had lost something and the skyline's addition stood tall.

But she had lost something and was still a mess – not unlike the Pile she'd worked from the edges.

And the hole left inside her own skyline still hadn't healed the way the other one had.

Yet…

Her eyes looked at her image nestled amidst three of her best friends like they were their own skyline and she wondered if maybe she wasn't – all along – part of that skyline long before her own had had a hole ripped through it. She herself was a building with smoke pouring out, about to buckle if not for someone who had started repairs on her the first time.

Those repairs had worn down over time and buckled at the loss of her room's contents in the Brownstone's fire, but arms of gentle steel encased her frame to keep her from toppling, a voice commanding repairs as yet another pair of arms reinforced her to keep her steady.

All of them building her up again to make her soar like the Freedom Tower over what used to be, all the while leaving a space to remind the viewer that something else had once stood nearby. Not to say it was bigger or better, but to pay homage to what had made it possible for it to have been born.

With the loss of her pouch of two precious items, born from that Tower's same beginnings, she gained the knowledge that she had a sturdy foundation built by three who, on some level, recognized their role in that foundation that wouldn't let her fall.

The Detective she had befriended had unknowingly kick-started this entire chain of events that had led her to this moment. And he would never know it, much like an architect never truly realizing the potential greatness he held in his hands or what it would turn out to become.

Losing her pouch had led her to this picture, the physical reminder that she wasn't alone.

She had traded one reminder for another and a fierce protectiveness suddenly welled up in her to keep it safe.

Chantal wouldn't mind her borrowing it.

She would keep it safe, after all.

Something she had vowed to do once before, a small medallion clutched in her fist, but she would take extra measures this time.

She couldn't get the pouch and contents back, but she had a new anchor. One she could keep in several places at once, though maybe just at her bed to start with.

She would miss the feeling of both medallion and bracelet – miss them like nothing else –, but she couldn't just remain a pile of ashes. Her friends had begun the rebuilding process and it was up to her to finish it – something she would have to do if for no other reason than to prove to herself and the Detective that she still had a team. One that she had more or less stumbled across and built on her own and she wouldn't have had that had it not been for him.

She was no longer afraid to cross paths with him.

If she ever did, she would thank him profusely for what he'd done for her – something she probably wouldn't be able to fully make him understand because there were just no words to explain – and show him the picture of her team.

Because that's what they were.

A team.

Maybe he would want to meet them one day and she would probably be okay with that, but she would want to catch up with him first, having listened to him talk about his own family. She would also want to hug him again one last time, so she could always remember what it felt like and maybe try to figure out why it felt similar to the few times that Captain Gregson wrapped her up in a hug. She still felt kind of ashamed to have imagined her other friend, but it helped.

She didn't know why Gregson reminded her of her friend, only that he did.

Maybe it was their similar personalities or something, but it kind of gave her some hope now that maybe the Detective would understand that she hadn't meant to lose either of her things and wouldn't be upset if he still remembered.

Assuming he was still around, of course.

But Joan had a feeling that he had remembered.

Instinct?

She didn't know.

"Joan?" Chantal cracked the door open again. "Dinner's ready."

"Sure," she looked up with a smile, the picture safely stowed under her pillows and out of sight.

For possibly the first time since the Brownstone was destroyed about a week ago, she felt a renewed sense of being and an accompanying hunger that had her restraining herself lest she start inhaling everything in reach.

"Looks like that nap did good," Chantal seemed relieved as she and Lin watched with matching smiles.

"I guess so," she smiled to herself.

She was much more sociable after that, though more quiet to observe them interacting with each other. She was glad they were fast friends – and hers -, but she felt the urge to see her boys growing stronger the longer she watched.

Finally, however, they all had to go to bed and she found herself in the guest room with Lin eyeing her uncertainly from the door.

"Come on," Joan finally waved her over, climbing into her side of the bed and sliding the picture to the floor under a sweater. "It's okay. We can watch each other's backs from anything that dares to sneak in here," she told her in all seriousness. "That's what Oren and I do when we share a bed. It's new for me to be the older one, but I think I'm up for the challenge. What do you say?"

She watched her for a long moment and must have seen something on her face or in her body language, because she softened and climbed in on the other side. "So," she spoke in the darkness as her unfamiliar warmth pressed back against Joan. "This is normal for siblings?"

"Normal for siblings?" she hummed. "I'm sure there are siblings who do this. Normal for me and my big brother? Yes. It – it helps, sometimes."

She heard silence for a long moment before the quiet answer, "It's nice. I can see the appeal."

Joan hummed and may have said something, but she fell asleep before another thought had the chance to form.


"- and then I came home to the news that the Brownstone's been reduced to a pile of rubbish!" Kitty's familiar accent drifted over the line and into Joan's ear as she waited for Chantal to finish her shopping, her foot anxiously tapping the air as she waited to see the boys.

"I know," she restlessly looked around, "but there were so many things going on."

"I know that," she huffed, "but Alfredo's not even in New York and I had to hear it from him! Not that he isn't lovely, because I adore him, but…"

"I'm sorry," she told her. "Maybe next time, you'll be the very first person we call."

"You'd better," she threatened, "or the three of us will kidnap the lot of you and haul you back to London."

She would likely leave Archie with the Nanny and kidnap her, Sherlock and Clyde herself.

"I'll let everyone know to not worry when we go missing," she promised.

"But you're alright, though, aren't you?" her voice flooded with the concern she couldn't reveal to Sherlock the way she could with Joan. "And Clyde? And the bees?"

"Clyde and the bees actually weren't there, as strange as that timing was, and I assure you that we're okay."

"Good, that's good. I'm glad," Kitty sounded so much more relieved than she was when the call began almost twenty minutes ago. "Tell Sherlock I called, yeah?"

"Are you sure you can't hold on a little longer? I'll be meeting him in a bit."

"I wish I could, but you know how it is. Have witnesses to speak to and such. But it really is good to hear you and talk to you. You should visit London while the Brownstone is being rebuilt."

"Demolition hasn't even started, yet," she told her. "Investigators are double and quadruple checking everything to make absolutely sure of what happened. And Sherlock got his hands on the report, so everyone's going over it with a fine toothed comb."

"It really was faulty wiring, then?"

"That's what it's looking like, but you know how it is. I'm just waiting to hear something about covering up a robbery or something," both snorted knowingly.

With Sherlock Holmes around, nothing was ever actually simple.

"I'm just hoping it really is faulty wiring. The neighbors that this started with are taking legal action and everyone else is doing the same. I have to let the investigation run a little longer before we do so, but Chantal assures me that she has associates she can contact to help us out."

"Will everyone be moving back in?"

"It looks like it so far, but at least one had been thinking of moving somewhere upstate, so we'll see."

"I know you'll be moving back," Kitty sounded confident in her statement. "You and Sherlock wouldn't be Holmes and Watson without the Brownstone. And if all else fails, you can move to Baker Street."

It wouldn't feel right to her, but, "Thanks for the offer, Kitty, but I don't think it'll get to that point. Sherlock's father has a few properties we can move into if we need them and my sister is looking into other properties, so I'm sure we'll be fine."

"Keep me apprised of the situation, yeah? I'd rather not drop by and find that Sherlock up and moved elsewhere without a forwarding address. Don't quite think that'll happen, though. Oh, when you do visit, Detective Bell and Captain Gregson are more than welcome to tag along."

"I'll be sure to let them know," she assured.

They hung up a moment later and she checked the time.

If Chantal didn't come out soon on her own, Joan was either going to go after her or leave her and leaving was the choice that pulled at her if she didn't think Marcus – and Chantal – would be upset with her.

Seriously, they really had to leave in the next fifteen minutes or –

"John? John Watson, as I live and breathe!"

She twirled around at the familiar voice and grinned. "Guillaume! How are you?"

The senior waiter grinned toothily back as he opened his arms. "Better now that I've seen the best Doc in New York," he gave her a tight squeeze that was every bit as good as she remembered.

"Best former Doc, you mean," she muffled into his shirt. "Consulting Detective now, remember?"

"And I'd say the best damn Consulting Detective in New York if I didn't think your Sherlock would take exception," he pronounced.

"And I've told you, he's not 'my Sherlock'. That's not how it works," she corrected again, a light heat on her cheeks at the playfully unconvinced side-eye he always gave her when she said it.

"Uh… huh. Sure it's not."

"Why do I bother," she stepped back with a half-hearted huff. "And didn't you accuse me two years ago of being in the closet?"

"I revised that while I listened to your swooning last time, didn't I tell you? All it takes is one person."

"I was not swooning, I was venting. Seriously, ever since Jason agreed to move in with you –"

"Now, John, don't you blame Jason. You know you love him," he chided, wagging a finger at her. "Why, if we managed to be half as in love like you and your Sherlock –"

"It's not like that!"

"I fail to see why not. Has a ring to it, you know? Holmes and Watson, Sherlock and John."

"Except my name is not, never has been and never will be 'John'."

"You should probably stop answering to it, then," he smirked, knowing he just got her and why she would probably never stop answering to it.

She was trying to come up with a response when she spied an amused Chantal watching with interest.

"I'm not in love with Sherlock," she said flatly.

"I… wasn't aware that was in question," Chantal crossed her arms, bags hanging from an elbow, as she looked from one to the other. A beat passed before she held out a hand. "Chantal."

They stared blankly at her for a moment before he perked up. "Oh! Guillaume," he gave her hand a warm squeeze before giving a slight bow over it. "Enchanté, fair lady. I suppose you're about to steal our dear John away for another engagement."

"'John'?" she raised a bemused brow at her. "Funny. I always thought I was pronouncing it 'Joan'. I guess I'm sorry for saying it wrong."

"You're not," Joan hastily assured. "I'm actually not too certain how I even started answering to 'John', anyway." Which may or may not be true, but that was neither here nor there.

"And how is it that you're acquainted with our John, if I may be nosy enough to ask?" Guillaume returned to Joan's side, draping a casual arm around her.

"Friend of a friend," Joan answered. "I've been staying with her the past couple nights and we were just on our way to see her boyfriend Marcus, Sherlock and the Captain – I told you about them, remember?"

"Well, aren't you two best friends," Chantal noted. "And how did you two meet?"

That stopped them both, exchanging uncertain looks and realizing that they'd never actually talked about meeting Joan's friends – or explaining their shared history.

"We… actually met in a bathroom," she turned back to the other woman with a shrug. "It's been so long that I don't even remember how that happened."

Which was a complete and utter lie.

"She tracks me down once in a while to visit," Guillaume shrugged. "There have been a number of times where we've actually run across the other like this. Always a treat, don't get me wrong, and I'm constantly on the lookout for John lurking in the shadows."

"I don't 'lurk in the shadows'," she rolled her eyes.

"Boston Cream Pie."

"And can you let that go? I bought you a new one. Three."

They were in the middle of one of their usual debates when Joan suddenly looked down at her watch.

"Oh, we're running late. Guillaume, I'm sorry, but we have to run."

"By all means," he smiled knowingly. "Give Sherlock a –"

She pulled her arm back and punched his arm as hard as she could.

Every time since she explained about her new life to him, Guillaume had always ended their visits by telling her to 'give Sherlock a kiss from me', but Chantal didn't need to know that.

"So violent, our John," he lamented, not missing a beat as he rubbed his arm. "Makes me wonder how Sherlock can live with it."

"I'm honestly not sure I want to know," Chantal deadpanned, unwittingly already knowing enough to paint her own picture. "But we really have to leave, so it was really nice to meet you."

"Likewise, my dear," he gave her hand another squeeze before turning to Joan, who willingly went to get another hug. "And you, John, I'll be looking for around Thanksgiving this year. Same place, same time. Don't be a stranger."

"I'll see what I can do," she promised.

The girls were making their way to the agreed upon meeting place sometime later when Chantal finally spoke.

"He was nice," she commented.

"He is," Joan confirmed. "One of the nicest people I know."

They walked in silence for a long moment before Chantal nodded and changed the subject. "So, about this temporary place Sherlock's moved the two of you into. I'd like pictures, okay?"

"Okay," she agreed, curious herself.

It was actually why they were meeting Sherlock and Marcus – potentially along with Gregson, since no one was sure he would be there.

Sherlock had found a place for them to stay and she talked to him earlier, not certain why she thought he seemed rather disappointed at the prospect but unable to shake the impression.

It was the second least renovated of Morland Holmes' properties – which explained why it was temporary, but didn't explain why Sherlock seemed a little satisfied with the arrangement – and actually wasn't that far from the Brownstone. One day, she was actually going to sit Sherlock down and force him to cough up all the locations of the properties he had at his disposal.

For all she knew, there was actually a possibility that she kept walking past it on her way to and from the Brownstone.

They found Sherlock and Marcus right where Joan expected to see them outside a coffee shop, Sherlock's hands flying through the air as Marcus watched with a coffee cup in his hand. Whatever he was talking about had Sherlock whirling to pace when he spied them down the street.

"There you are, Watson!" he suddenly halted and clasped his hands behind his back as he rocked on his heels. "I was just explaining to the Detective –"

"We thought we missed you or somethin'," Marcus broke in with a snort. "Now that Joan's here, we should get goin'."

"Ms. Hudson will be a moment," Sherlock gave him a slight glare. "I hope you don't too terribly mind, Watson, but she is our housekeeper and should know where we currently go home to. For now."

She hadn't seen the blonde in about a week or so – probably before the fire – and nodded agreeably. "Was the Captain joining us, too?" she couldn't see him as she glanced around.

"Haven't heard from him, but if he doesn't show, I'll just have to bring him the next time I visit," Marcus shrugged.

Ms. Hudson appeared a moment later with her own beverage to-go and they all stood to the side near an alley to allow customers to stream past. "It's great to see you again, Chantal," she grinned widely at her.

"Great to see you, too," she beamed back. "You're hosting Thanksgiving this year, right?"

"As far as I can tell, yes. Still available?"

"I will keep the Circle updated on the message board," Chantal sighed.

Mason had set it up awhile back so that Joan could get in touch with the Irregulars she knew, even allowing her to invite people to become one of her own Irregulars and she was still marveling over the fact that she even had Irregulars to really be upset that Sherlock was constantly stealing them.

One of the Irregulars Joan made sure to always consult was Harlan the Mathematician. He really did think the world of Sherlock and Joan found it sweet that Harlan constantly wanted to impress him.

Sherlock – despite what he kept saying – did have a bit of a soft spot for him and Joan hadn't been surprised to see him at last year's little Christmas bash at the Brownstone.

'The Circle', as Mason called Sherlock's closest people, was a special forum branching out from the main message board that involved Sherlock, Joan, Hudson, Marcus, Gregson, Alfredo and at least two others at last check. Chantal had been recently invited into the group herself and everyone knew to keep an eye on it as far as holidays or gathers were concerned.

It really was a very inspired way to keep in touch with everyone and Joan used it constantly.

"As will I," Hudson agreed. All of them knew that schedules changed.

They caught up for a bit before Chantal sighed. "Alright, folks. I best get going. Paperwork will not fill itself out. Marcus, I'll see you soon," she gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek. "Sherlock, Ms. Hudson, great to see you."

"And you," they returned before Chantal turned to Joan with an innocent look she knew all too well.

"I expect those pictures very soon," she grinned, "so don't keep me in suspense for long, Johnny boy."

"That smells like a story if you ask me," Ms. Hudson pointedly nudged Joan as Chantal made her way back down the street and out of sight. "Any takers?"

"It's not that interesting," Joan sighed. "I ran into an old friend while I was waiting for Chantal."

"And how do you know this 'old friend'?" she asked.

Joan thought about not answering, maybe not even the truth, but if she couldn't tell them, then who would she be able to talk to?

"I don't know if I told you," she rubbed her temple for a moment, "but I actually worked at the Pile after 9/11. It was crazy back then, you know? I met Guillaume my second day, really."

Her friend had confided a lot later that he'd actually been trying to track down his roommate near Ground Zero and had had a front row seat to the events that unfolded. They really had met in a bathroom, but it was he that had ended up in the women's restroom.

He'd been standing braced on the sink bank as he stared at his reflection when she appeared to wash her hands.

By the end of that day, they'd become fast friends. Along with the Detective, they'd both found their little niche with each other. She never asked about his experiences, though. Neither one of them.

"Oh, honey," Ms. Hudson drew her into a comforting hug. "I'm so sorry."

"It was great to see him again," she insisted, "but 9/11 is coming up soon and it's bringing back a few things."

"Oh, honey," she gave her a squeeze. "I can't imagine how anyone feels about 9/11 who actually experienced it themselves. I wasn't living in New York at the time, but you and Marcus and the Captain were and Marcus wasn't anywhere near Ground Zero, right, Marcus?"

"No," he looked down. "Not directly."

Sherlock smiled slightly at him, but it missed Joan's notice as she realized for the first time that she wouldn't have the two things she always turned to every September 11th, without fail.

While true that both represented her connection to one person, there was also the… connection to 9/11 itself. It was the reason she'd volunteered at Ground Zero, a decision that had allowed her to meet the Detective.

Funny how it was only now that she realized how much other things were also tied in to what she lost.

Or how much she would miss the pendant's smooth weight against her chest as she wore it under her clothing.

Because the pair of items were never just about the connection to one person.

Maybe it never had been, but it was also only now that realization dawned:

It had been bigger than she'd always believed and, yet, there was too much to accurately put into words.

Words failed at a lot of surprising things, none more so than at that moment.

None more so than the enormity of 9/11 or what came out of it.

Emotions, sentiments, fears, hopes, loss.

Truly, for the first time, the phrase 'words fail' had never been more accurate as moisture began to gather at the corner of her eyes and she simply had no response.

"That's what you lost in the Brownstone," Sherlock spoke – deduced? Maybe it didn't need to be deduced, because it was writ on her features. "Something about 9/11 was lost and that is why you haven't been yourself."

Maybe.

Maybe he was right.

At the end of the day, maybe it really was all about 9/11 regardless of what other connections she'd assigned to her objects.

She had given the Detective something in direct response to taking care of her as she struggled with 9/11. She had assigned a deep connection to her lost items, because of circumstances almost designed by 9/11 and her attachment to someone she had met as a result.

At the end of the day, there were actually a few things that couldn't be attributed to 9/11 in some way, shape or form.

And sometimes, even before all of this – the fire, losing the Brownstone -, she would pause in the midst of a case, in the midst of the chase riding high on what medicine could ultimately never give her, and wonder.

Wonder for a moment what she would be doing or where she would be had she not received something given to her by someone she could very well had never met if it hadn't been for 9/11.

Back then, she'd never actually thought on that – on that thought or the implications she suddenly couldn't stuff back in a box once the thought existed.

She couldn't do that anymore, because she realized just how far reaching 9/11 really was.

"Your loss," Sherlock was going on despite the epiphany Joan was having, "has something to do with 9/11 – possibly something that was given to you during your time in the aftermath. It might have been something that reminded another too much of a lost loved one and you kept it for sentimental obligation reasons or you simply gained whatever it was from another for reasons only clear to the both of you and you became attached to that object because of whatever meaning you may have attached to the person themselves. That object symbolizes that meaning or attachment and the loss of it has… has…" he seemed at a loss, hands waving as words struggled to present thoughts. "Unmoored you," he finally found.

"You've hung on to it ever since 9/11 – next to your person – and it is so very much important to you, perhaps even because of the possibility that you forgot the details of your original regard to the person or object in question. The whole… thing of September 11, 2001 – that I have found in recent weeks – is that there are some objects that may seem … unnecessarily important in other circumstances, but are almost revered in a sense because it is a connection to 9/11 itself. Something inherently is important after 9/11, but the original details and impressions may have faded the way some details are wont to do. Nothing to really be ashamed of, Watson," he felt it necessary to assure. "It is, at heart, simply a trait of human nature. Such as a circumstance only imagined as child's play, yet – to the observer's surprise – , the reality being much more… severe. If nothing else," he finally wound down, "you have my sincerest condolences for a loss you will never truly recover from."

Joan simply let Ms. Hudson hold her, tears slipping down her cheeks.

"Maybe I should stay the night," the blonde suggested. "Especially if Sherlock, of all people, is going on about sentiment of all things."

"Also in recent weeks, I've come to understand sentiment as it pertains to the … event here in New York," Sherlock informed her. "Not all sentiment is baseless or without merit."

"But other kinds of sentiment are?" Marcus had to ask.

"Of course. Just because I understand sentiment as it pertains to 9/11, does not – by any stretch of imagination – mean that I understand it in other areas. As you already are aware, Detective, I am not like everyone else. I am different and above such trifles. That said, however, I find the event – the – the ethos – exceptional not only on a personal level, but it is perhaps the single most defining event in the City's history. Being part of the City, I find myself being likewise affected by something I wasn't even physically present to witness. Mostly through the reactions of everyone around me in certain… circumstances."

They fell into silence before Joan was given a slight nudge.

"Speaking of circumstances," Ms. Hudson produced a tissue from a pocket and Joan gratefully accepted it. "If it's alright, I'd really like to know how this whole 'Johnny boy' nickname came to be. I would understand if you would rather not, but –"

"It's okay," she shook her head, wiping her eyes with a slight smile as she thought about one of the best memories she had about the time. "I'm not sure how it actually came about, but I remember that first day. The, uh, firefighters were the ones mostly on the Pile and I think it was one of them that called out 'John!' I guess I must've responded or something, because then I started getting all these firefighters who were calling me 'John'.

"Soon, it spread to the others and now all these people were calling me 'John' no matter what I said – even the volunteers who set up shop down the street. I was the only 'J' in two medical teams and the only female 'J' in five. Maybe one of the others got my name wrong or something, but everyone seemed to have a lot of fun with it and then I realized that there was just… so much to be sad over that I just didn't have the heart to really put a stop to it. If one person thinks of the Pile and remembers the girl that went by 'John' and feels a little better, then what's the harm of answering to 'John'? It honestly sounded enough like 'Joan' that I answer to it without even realizing it, even all these years later. Guillaume and his partner and all their regular customers and co-workers took to calling me 'John', too. Even other people actually named 'John'."

She grinned slightly as she tilted her head, "I can't help wondering, sometimes, if they figured my last name was 'Johnson' and went for it or they thought something else, but it was the least I could do if I could get a smile out of someone."

"Yeah, you're real good at that," Marcus agreed with a slight smile. "Wonder if they knew how lucky they were that they had you."

"You're just saying that because you're my friend," Joan denied, her heart feeling a little lighter with the three of them immediately jumping in to insist it was true.

"But are you well?" Sherlock eventually asked somewhat uncertainly, once the laughter faded.

Joan gave it a serious thought before nodding. "I think I will be."

"Yeah, we're okay," Marcus reached out a hand and Joan absently reached out her own, the feel of his hand a physical comfort on a possibly higher level than the arm Ms. Hudson still had around her.

A hand around her wrist drew her gaze to Sherlock, who had come so far from shying away at the slightest suspicion of being touched. "We most certainly are 'okay'," he proclaimed with a squeeze.

She looked down at their connected hands with the slight hum of surprise at the … the feeling of connection she'd once only attributed to the pendant and a flash of red at her wrist.

This?

This was just as good, just as grounding, as she used to feel.

She looked up at the two pairs of eyes – one as dark as her own, the other constantly between blue and green – and knew that she was part of something.

Something possibly even on the level of what she'd felt with the Detective.

She never imagined to every really feel it again after losing the pouch and all that the contents stood for.

"I guess so," she smiled back at the both of them, squeezing the hand in hers and feeling the grip tighten on her wrist.

She didn't know how long they stood there, but she reveled in the feeling of connection until Ms. Hudson cleared her throat.

"I'd really love to keep watching the three of you like this, but I don't actually have much time before I start running late for one of my appointments."

"Right," Sherlock squeezed Joan's wrist again before the three of them simultaneously let their hands fall. "To our new residence. For the moment."

"I guess the Captain couldn't make it, after all," Joan suddenly remembered why they'd been waiting to begin with.

"Guess not," Marcus shrugged. "But, hey, you know. Not like he couldn't track you down if he really tried."


Part Six:


The place might've been a virtual stone's throw from the Brownstone, but it most certainly wasn't.

Upon arriving yesterday, the first thought Joan had ran along the lines of, 'It's so… open.

The living room, kitchen and door were all in plain sight, the upstairs had a few rooms and a library already half-stocked with replacements of the books Sherlock had lost.

It was quite honestly a shock, considering how much Sherlock adored the Brownstone and its concealing walls.

She wasn't sure how long they would be there, but she at least hoped it would be long enough for her to get used to the new place. It had honestly surprised her with how she struggled with adapting when the Brownstone had basically felt like home after the first week.

Her room was a cousin to her old one – right down to the mattress on the floor -, but was by no means identical. She hadn't been sure what to make of it when she woke up, but reasoned that she was going to have more time to get used to it.

Sherlock had told her that he would see her around dinner tonight and he had very much so absent since she'd woken some hours ago.

Not like she wasn't used to it already, so she simply went about the morning as if she was still at the Brownstone and was just cleaning up from lunch when she heard a knock at the door.

A peek through the peephole showed Captain Gregson outside the door with his hands in his pockets and an odd smile on his face.

"Captain?" she opened the door and waved him in before closing and locking it behind him. "None of us heard from you all day, yesterday. Is everything alright?"

"Yeah," he looked around as she went back to her clean up. "Sorry… I," he breathed a deep sigh, "I just… There was something I needed to take care of."

"Well, I hope it works out. Tea?"

"Yeah, I hope it works out, too," he made his way to a sofa and Joan settled on the other end after arranging the tea service tray on the table in front of them. "I hope it's alright that I'm here," he told her, his attention mostly on the tea.

"Of course," Joan smiled slightly at his bent over profile. "You and Marcus have a standing invitation here, did Marcus forget to tell you?"

"Nah, he told me," he gave his head a shake. "Holmes sent the same message not long after Bell left."

"Oh."

Joan sat and sipped her tea as they fell into silence.

Having nothing else to really do, she studied Gregson, who seemed… a bit nervous, if she was any judge. He didn't exactly avoid her gaze, but he also wasn't inviting it, either. Usually, he would catch and hold her gaze, but he just didn't seem interested in trying.

It also seemed like he had something on his mind.

"Is everything alright?" she questioned, her concern growing the longer the silence held. "Captain?" she reached out to touch his arm, the touch seeming to draw him a little out of his thoughts.

"Tommy," he roughly wiped at his eyes.

"What?"

"My name," he huffed a slight laugh, the laugh sounding a little like a sob. "You of all people should know that."

"Oh," she frowned. Of course, she knew that. She just never actually felt that comfortable using it.

"Should've told you a long time ago."

"Did you want me to use it?" she asked.

He wordlessly nodded and she did the same in response.

"Okay," she agreed. "Tommy. It's nice to meet you."

"Probably should've led with that," he shook his head. "All this time…"

He seemed kind of … upset?

"It's alright," she hadn't thought it was such a big deal, but she'd been more preoccupied with keeping Sherlock clean at the time. "I understand."

"I don't think you do. But." They sat in silence for a long time before he drew in an almost shaky breath. "I – uh. I'm sorry I didn't tell you that."

"I don't hold it against you," she assured again. "Please don't beat yourself up about it."

They were silent a bit longer before she continued, "Is everything alright? I mean, I guess it's unusual to apologize to a friend for not telling her to use your first name, but I've been living with Sherlock for about five years or so now, so maybe it's not that unusual. Was that what you came here for? I mean, I can fix you a sandwich if you want something to eat."

"Not ready to eat, yet, but thanks. I actually…" he hesitated before continuing. "I'm actually here to… well. 9/11 is next week."

She couldn't exactly forget that, but it was hard for a lot of the Responders and maybe – for whatever reason – he finally wanted to … to pass this 9/11 doing something different.

"Did you want to talk about it?" she gentled her voice. "You know I'll listen. After you listened to me… it's the least I could do. You don't have to talk if you don't want to, but I'll still be here for you."

He seemed to think and acquiesced with a nod. "We might be here all day."

"I can handle it. Whatever it takes to help you," she said in no uncertain terms, ready to hear everything he wanted her to know and experience right along with him.

He nodded, but didn't say anything right away. He sipped his probably stone cold tea without complaint and slowly leaned back into the couch with a sigh that came from somewhere deep inside. "How're you holdin' up?" he finally glanced at her.

"Me?" she blinked. "What do you mean?"

"You volunteered to help at the Pile," he lifted a shoulder. "You know the end of the story, so you have just as much of a stake in the memories as I do – and I was there from the start. Just because you weren't there when the Towers fell, it doesn't mean you're any less important – your memories are the same as a lot of others who came in after. Yeah, I understand that the Responders who were there are the heroes and heroines, but you didn't have to keep going day after day for less than a month. You could've just cut out after – hell – the first day.

"But you kept coming back and you kept experiencing and you kept making memories. Yours being different than mine, but no less important in the story. And I get that the ones actually working the Pile had the worst of it, but what about those on the outside? The ones on the edges? We weren't the only ones that 9/11 happened to, we were just at the heart of it. I was there from start to finish, but you didn't come in until the end. That said, the end of the story was probably just as unbelievable as the start or the middle. And after the number of years we've had with Holmes, I think one of the best things that we can take away is that those on the edges are just as important as everyone else. So, how are you doin' with 9/11 looming overhead? I know you were on the edges, where not a lot of attention went, but I also know that you were still affected."

Joan stared at him for a long moment, blue eyes watching back.

She'd never actually thought of that before, how she had felt.

It had been all about the firefighters in those first days, then the other Responders – and they deserved all the attention they got.

Attention she never truly expected to turn her way, because she didn't deserve it.

She never got to the action, never knew why she and so many others waited for patients, so others got attention and recognition. They actually did something.

To be asked about 9/11 like she'd actually been at the heart of it…

"All things considered," she swallowed unnamable emotions because it was really not about her right now. "All things considered, I'm doing okay."

"Only place left to go is up, right?" he smiled slightly, almost knowingly.

"Yeah," she smiled back. "But thank you," she got choked up again.

"Welcome," he faced forward with another sigh. "I guess I got lucky after. Luckier than most others. I, uh, actually… I guess you could say I made a friend after all that. She … she was a medical… volunteer, I think. One of the first things I found out about her was that she wasn't a Doctor, yet. I think there might've been a test or something. If there was, pretty sure she aced it," he gave a smile at the thought. "She definitely struck me as someone who succeeded in her chosen career. Sometimes, I really can't be sorry she was there, because… she ended up giving me something that I still hold on to even to this day. Maybe not entirely on an emotional level, but she actually gave me an object I still have. It's helped to the point that I actually can't put into words the gratitude I feel for her."

"She sounds great," Joan smiled, thinking of her Detective friend. After a long moment, she peeked at him almost shyly before adding, "Sounds kind of like the friend I made in the middle of all the destruction. He helped me, too, both as actual emotional support and by giving me something of my own to hold on to. I don't think he'll ever know how much it meant to me," her smile faded.

"Yeah?" he turned back to her. "What happened?"

"To him? I don't know. But what he gave me… it. It was lost in the Brownstone the night it went up. So, even if I did see him again, I wouldn't have what he gave me to show him how important it was for so long."

"It's not important, anymore?"

"No, I – I wouldn't say that. It's not… so much that it's important as the loss of it has made me realize that the – the reason I was attached to the two things I had latched onto so hard in the aftermath… It wasn't just those objects or that person that I was connected to, but I now have others who will go out of their way to show me the very thing I had thought to never feel again. And – and now I don't feel as empty without it. So. Did that make sense?"

"It did," he nodded, still watching her. "I'm glad to hear that you're doin' better. Especially with what you lost."

"The objects," she shrugged. "I still have the memories." And the picture she took from Chantal. Even if she had noticed its absence, there didn't seem to be any rush to retrieve it and Joan wasn't about to draw her attention to it in the off-chance that she hadn't noticed, yet.

"But, sometimes, you need the object, too," he pointed out. "There are feelings you attach to things that are only present when you touch them. It's the same with me, you know. I take out that necklace and just hold it. Maybe wear it for a couple hours. I'm really not sure that anyone can truly understand what someone else has done for them until they're in the same spot strugglin' to find words to describe their own feelings."

She had to agree, especially with all the support group meetings she'd gone to over the years.

It's why Sherlock and Alfredo were such a good match.

They understood.

Maybe not much beyond the addiction, but they understood and that was enough.

"Yeah, I guess so. But at least you still have your object, right?"

"Right here," he patted his suit jacket pocket. "And while I'm thinking about it," he opened his jacket and dug into one of the interior pockets before extracting a small drawstring bag. "Found this last night in a shoebox. I know it's not exactly the same, but I hope this will replace the necklace you lost."

She put her empty tea mug back on the coffee table and carefully took the offered bag. Whatever was inside definitely had some weight to it… almost familiar.

Her brow was furrowed, trying to capture something that was on the tip of her tongue, when she suddenly stilled. "Wait," she said slowly, her eyes slowly meeting his expectant gaze. "I never said what I lost."

His eyes dropped to her hands and came back up, his nod encouraging her to look.

Something niggling in the back of her mind, she tilted the bag and watched the object slide onto her waiting palm.

Her thoughts crashed to a halt as her eyes locked on a pendant that was too familiar to be a different necklace. It was exactly the one she had lost, the round medallion the exactly identical twin to the one her Detective friend had given her so many years ago.

It took a long, long minute as she stared at it, a suspicion – a deduction, a revelation – taking over everything else before she had to ask, had to know:

"No one knew what it was, never mind what it looked like," emotion making her voice shaky as she kept her head down, almost afraid of what she would see. "I mean… the only way that you could – could know about me having a St. Michael's medallion is – is –"

"If I was the one that gave it to you," his warm voice had her looking up into his smiling eyes. "That friend I told you about? The one I made in the days after 9/11? I never did actually get her name, but I only know her by what everyone was calling her. I overheard you yesterday when you were telling Holmes, Bell and Hudson abut meetin' your friend – the waiter friend who force fed us sandwiches once, wasn't he? – and some things were startin' to sound a little familiar, so I had a good long think and came up with a deduction. And I'm pretty sure it's a sound deduction, judging by your reactions, John."

Her breath caught as a younger voice echoed the nickname in the same tone she'd heard so many times before.

"Oh my god," her vision was suddenly blurry as she stared at him, her memories rolling back to every incident, every interaction since they'd met because of Sherlock, every momentary pause because of something Gregson had done that gave her déjà vu.

And now she realized why.

"Then I realized," Gregson – Tommy – huffed a laugh, "that I never actually got a chance to tell you about me – especially my name."

"I – I didn't –"

"Recognize me? I'm not surprised. Holmes has a habit of making the rest of us forget our lives before he crashed into them. And so much has happened to the both of us since 9/11. Hell, I didn't really recognize you, either, even though I could've sworn I'd met you before in the early days. Didn't think much of it since ethnic features consistently bring up the feelin' that someone met someone else before. Figured it was somethin' like that."

What was she supposed to do with this information?

Someone who she'd convinced herself would never cross her path again actually turned out to be one of her closest friends?

"Hard to take in, I know," he acknowledged, suddenly holding out a second drawstring bag. "To be honest, I wasn't sure if I even wanted you to know about this, but I remembered how devastated you were after having lost your bracelet in addition to the pendant. Remember what you said when you gave it to me? After realization hit and you checked out til dawn the next day? You said that you thought somethin' about being a team and that's why you gave me this," he gave the bag a slight shake. "To remind me that no matter what else happens –"

"You're not alone," she finished, unable to look away from that bag. "That you're part of a set. You may not remember me, but you will remember that someone's got your back."

"And you hold on to that," a hand wrapped around hers, the one clutching the pendant. "You believed that – so I did, too. I've never regretted that – not once –, because you were right. You might not have been there – not intentionally or physically -, but you did have my back. Ever since you rotated out, not a day went by that I didn't think of you somehow. You only entered into the picture at the end of the story, but you were influential in how I got through the rest of it once it started actually sinking in. John – Joan -," he held her gaze with complete seriousness, "you will never know the ways that you helped me. And you will never know how much of my life that I owe you."

"I think I – I do," she swallowed and couldn't look away from his intent gaze for a long time.

He must've seen something in her expression, because something that looked an awful lot like understanding flashed on his face before he looked down.

She tipped her own head down and watched blankly as he tipped the bag over in the space between them, a flash of red with thin lines of black identical to the same flash of red with thin lines of black that she'd gotten so used to seeing on her wrist in the dim lighting of outside lights and candles and lamps that always – always – caught the colors.

Arms were around her, crushing her as gently as they could to a familiar heartbeat as she struggled to breathe, her hands fisted around both necklaces as she tried to speak.

"I got your back," a voice whispered into her ear, a hand around the back of her neck in a comforting grip. "Just breathe. We're okay. We're okay."

'We're okay,' a British accent chorused as a deeper voice joined in.

We're okay.

We're okay.

She squeezed her eyes shut as the mantra slowly became her lullaby and she listened to the heartbeat underscoring the voices she clung to, no words coming forward in comprehensible language as she pressed closer. The rumble against her cheek harked back to that one night so long ago and she knew without a doubt that it was the same rumble that anchored her so handily the first time.

Funny how it worked just as thoroughly the second time.

Eventually, the emotions settled like sediment in churned waters the longer she listened to the heartbeat and felt the rumble echoing around her.

She was completely wrung out as she sat there and let him hold her together the way he'd done the first time, the way he'd continued to do after Sherlock came into their lives and neither had realized how significant their meeting actually was. She trusted him so completely now, having gone through so much with him over the years, on a much deeper level than she had ever really believed possible.

She'd trusted him back then, too, but there was honestly something different between a pair of strangers brought together by unimaginable circumstances and that same pair of strangers becoming friends. There was something more… thorough? Complete? … solid in their connection.

"How're you feelin'?" Tommy asked after a fashion.

She wasn't sure, exactly.

If nothing else, there was this feeling of … contentment? Now that it was starting to really sink in that Tommy was the Detective she'd – she'd revered, in a way, there was an odd sense of something missing that had been found and she was content to simply sit back and bask in it.

"Joan?" he shifted, uncertainty creeping in and poking at that part of her that constantly wanted to take care of the people closest to her.

She was tired, emotionally drained and ready to fall asleep right there in his arms, but that uncertainty still poked at her to comfort him. She didn't know if she had any barriers left standing right now, so she simply snuggled into him and curled in tighter.

"John?" he tried again.

"'kay," she answered. There was no other response she could find.

No other response could work.

No other response mattered.

"'m 'kay," she said again.

"Only place left to go is up?" he must've been worried about something, because he relaxed at her weak nod.

She would probably think about that later, but she wasn't thinking right now.

She didn't want to.

"We okay?" he checked again.

She wasn't sure why he would be worried about the state of their – 'friendship' wasn't deep enough and 'relationship' seemed too broad – connection, but he didn't need to be.

The objects – jewelry? – she'd lost had represented him and their fragile, unnamable bond as a direct result of their circumstances at the time of their first meeting. Now that she actually had him, the void left by the objects was filled again – or no longer there at all.

She was moored again.

Anchored.

Grounded.

Perhaps she'd substituted them for him, in a way, and now he was here so she didn't need the bracelet as a reminder that she had someone already connected to her.

She had Tommy, Marcus and Sherlock and they were reminder enough since they were constantly with her.

But Tommy had a concern about the both of them where the concern had no place.

"Yeah," she hoped he was convinced, because he couldn't come up with anything else.

He just hugged her closer in response. "Good."

They sat there in comfortable silence and her eyes were drawn to her slightly uncurled fists, the medallion's weight in one palm and the almost unnoticeable weight in the other.

Her wrist suddenly felt … naked, even though she didn't always wear bracelets.

Why was that?

"Hey," a hand squeezed her arm. "You haven't said anything for a while."

After a long moment, she managed, "What can I say?" she swallowed and went on. "I don't…"

"I know," Tommy didn't need her to finish. "I didn't know what to say, either."

Joan shifted thoughtfully. "Do we need to say anything?"

"No…" he thoughtfully responded. "I'm not sure we do."

She gave a hum and breathed. "It won't… this won't change anything."

Except, maybe it had.

She was still wrung out, but also serene that things had – somehow, for whatever reason – come full circle and her Detective friend had been revealed to have been her Captain friend all along.

Maybe Tommy suspected and agreed to the same thought. "Really believe that? Because I'm not sure it's true. But if something has changed, maybe only time will tell."

"Maybe," she confirmed, brow furrowing as she suddenly looked around, a thought suddenly occurring to her. "What time is it?"

"Probably almost time to make dinner," Tommy responded, almost in bemusement as he looked around, too. "Or eat it."

She felt her stomach grumble and felt her lips quirk in a smile. "I could eat."

Neither made a move to disentangle themselves and she was grateful for that. They would have to eat eventually, though, but she'd missed literal years of this so she could be given some leeway.

Plus, she was comfortable and could easily fall asleep right there.

Which probably meant it was time to move.

"I should get up," she wiped her cheek against her shoulder.

"Yeah," he sighed slightly. "But… it's not like I'll leave right away. I still have a story to tell you."

"You don't have to," she pushed back slightly to look at him, their gazes locking. "I – I'm not… You went through this… realization on your own and then you - you had to sit through my… whatever and I don't think it's a good idea –"

"Why not?" he tilted his head. "We're on the subject, anyway, so it's not that much of a stretch, is it? Besides, it's still fresh and 'a burden halved' and all. Better talk now while we have the chance or who knows what I'll do."

She gave him a look. "What, you want to do a support group meeting?"

"Not as public, but I don't see why not. I have to talk to someone, so why not you?"

Why not her, indeed.

"Come on," he gave her one last squeeze before coaxing her up. "I'll help with dinner."

She reluctantly dragged herself up, already wanting to reach out and anchor herself but resisted and went to go find her phone. Tommy went to the bathroom as she noted how much time had passed and saw a series of texts from Sherlock telling her of a few stream of consciousness thoughts and a new task he was helping a few Irregulars clear up.

He also told her not to expect him back until late if he deigned to go back at all.

"We should be clear for the night," she told Tommy as they made sandwiches, neither one capable of anything beyond that. "So, we won't be interrupted."

"Right," he nodded, keeping an eye on the tea she couldn't quite believe he actually knew how to make.

After eating at the table, they set up a kind of nest against the sofa and settled in close together.

"I can put that on, if you want," he noticed her holding the medallion.

"No, that's okay," she shook her head as she ran her thumb over it. "I'd like to hold it for now."

He nodded and watched her for a minute before reaching up to grab his necklace from the coffee table, wrapping around his wrist a few times before holding out his hand. The small red pendant was sitting in his palm, the writing glinting up at her in the late afternoon sunlight, and she slowly slipped her own palm over it until their fingers sat comfortably threaded through each other.

It took a lot to get to that moment and the significance of it didn't pass her notice like the last time.

The lights were off to help create the right atmosphere and Tommy squeezed her palm against the trapped pendant for a long moment before he gathered his thoughts and started.

"I'm Tommy," he quietly began, the words staying only between them as she inched closer to rest against his side, "and I'm a 9/11 Responder."

They sat there until the sun went down, until the words dried up and only images remained.

Until she'd heard about the battlefield he'd stepped onto, what he saw, what he would never forget until the day he died.

Everything she suspected that only the trapped necklace knew as it lay between their palms.

Every fear, every joy.

Every nightmare, every dream.

She heard it all.

She heard and tucked away every scrap of information he gave her, gathering it all up and sealing it into mental boxes stowed carefully into a vault that not even Sherlock could get into.

Everything that only she and Tommy would ever know, through his eyes.

They sat and faced all of it together, like the team she'd once imagined them to be.

Then, after there was nothing left, she curled into him and let him hold her as tight as she could stand – as tight as he'd clutched the pendant in her stead when he needed to feel some semblance of comfort that he couldn't get anywhere else.

Her eyes opened to see dawn streaming into the living room, Marcus bundled up on the opposite couch and Sherlock sat against it with a stillness she wasn't sure she ever saw in him before.

Tommy was just as out as Marcus as Sherlock's eyes opened halfway to meet her own, legs crossed, palms on his thighs and not a single restless twitch to be seen.

He tilted his head slightly in question, she smiled slightly in response and that was that.


Epilogue:


The sun shone down on the proceedings as the names were called out over the crowd, the Freedom Tower watching from high overhead.

Joan stood at the very edges of Ground Zero as a slight breeze trickled over her.

She'd always visited here after the site was cleaned up, ran into a few faces who would light up as 'John' jogged jaded memories to find the bits of shine still left and forgotten, but never when it was crowded like this. Part of her wondered if it was because she hoped she would by chance pick the time that then Detective Gregson would decide to visit.

He told her just a few days ago that he'd only come a couple of times, but never on 9/11.

Marcus never did explain why he never came before and Sherlock had clammed up so tightly on the matter that not even acid could get him to talk.

Not that she'd threatened her roommate with acid, but still.

From Tommy and Marcus' looks, however, she suspected that she was the only one who didn't know the story her own partner refused to tell. She would be upset, or at least disgruntled, had it not been for her own shared secret with Tommy.

One day, maybe Sherlock would tell her in that roundabout way he favored and maybe she would simply find out on her own. Right now, though, she wasn't worried about that.

This was about what happened here, in this place, so long ago now.

Stories about heroes and lost loved ones soaked every inch of the place and everyone present by default.

People were still struggling in ways that she could only suspect, maybe even in ways that Sherlock couldn't deduce or wouldn't understand even if he could.

Others, in more visible ways.

One really couldn't get over 9/11, though some nevertheless tried.

Some addicts from the recent meetings had come out with their own stories about 9/11 and at least one had traced hers directly to 9/11 and the loss of three people she'd been close to.

At least one had confessed to volunteering at Ground Zero and not being able to keep the horror from overwhelming him.

Kitty had called the other day to check in and both she and Joan remembered one meeting and one woman they'd confronted about lying to the group, who had confessed to being grateful that 9/11 had happened. She'd been conflicted and scared to tell the truth and Kitty hadn't been able to understand, but Joan could and hadn't able to judge her for it. With the amount of lives lost that day, there had to have been at least one person whose death was celebrated instead of mourned.

Harlan had stopped by for dinner the same night, completely at a loss until he'd finally told them that he could've ended up a name on a panel, too. According to him, pure luck had saved his life.

Alfredo never said where he'd been, but he was never in New York City the week of 9/11 if he could help it.

All the Irregulars old enough to remember, who were present in the City that day, had either holed up somewhere or was uncharacteristically reserved.

For the first time, Sherlock had actually expressed concern and – dare she think it – empathy for his Irregulars and had set up a small gathering for them to show that they were not alone.

She didn't know what to make of it, even now.

'The Nose' had dragged her out in that subtle, gentlemanly way he had and she'd ended up with new perfume, new tea and new toiletries she'd been meaning to replace anyway.

Gay the Geologist had taken it upon herself to teach Joan and Sherlock about her passion and Mason – who wasn't old enough to really remember – had shyly confided to Joan that she reminded him of a cousin.

She didn't ask what happened to her.

"Watson," she blinked, brought back to the present to see Sherlock take up post at her side.

"Hey," she smiled tiredly. "You okay?"

"Mm," he bobbed his head. "Quite." They listened to a few names before he spoke again. "It really is a lovely ceremony."

She turned to him and saw the button hole poppy that he'd spent the better part of an hour fussing over. "I'm actually surprised you haven't cut out and left, yet," she admitted.

He took a moment to think before answering. "Perhaps, in other circumstances, you would be correct. In this case, I thought it prudent to pay my respects to the living as they mourned the dead. It has been a struggle for many and I must applaud those who still wake up every day. I don't condemn those who do not, because that would be hypocritical of me considering my own failings of which you are well aware. For those that remain and persevere, I must recognize their struggle."

His features held a solemn expression as he looked over the crowd and their surroundings. "It is… extraordinary, you know, how humans are wont to bounce back," he continued in a softer voice. "How a city bounces back. This place is a testament to that. Places, Watson, invite a type of sentiment such as rebirth with the Freedom Tower overhead, freedom and liberty with the Lady in the harbor or a sense of home and belonging as the Brownstone. Even the original World Trade Center was, in part, a symbol of power. What sentiment these places inevitablely draws, however, is… ultimately unpredictable. Here, in this particular place, reflection – more than anything else – is to be encouraged. Perseverance is on display and resilience permeates every corner in every soul touched by the destruction of what the Towers ultimately came to be."

Security.

Happiness.

Belonging.

Innocence.

Home.

"A calm, peaceful lake," Sherlock quietly went on. "A rock crashes into that lake and the ripples are still felt even by the ones most removed from the point of impact. You cannot go back and stop the rock, but you can look forward and deal with it as best you can."

She couldn't find a response and maybe that was for the best.

Some responses simply didn't exist.

They were silent as the names went on.

"Watson?"

"Mm?"

It took him a moment to get the words and push them out. "You… you said a few weeks ago that you said you were not there during the initial attacks. For that… For that, I am grateful."

She sent him a glance to see if there was anything else, but he was nodding to himself and fell silent. She gave a slight nod, too, deciding to leave it there as she turned her attention back to the crowd with a small smile and an ember lit with warmth in her stomach.

"Hey," Marcus appeared on Sherlock's other side in a black suit. "You two holdin' up?"

"I believe the collective term is 'we're okay'," Sherlock answered.

"You?" Joan wanted to know.

"Yeah, I'm okay," Marcus sighed. "Never realized how overwhelming all of this is."

"You've never been here before, right?" Joan frowned. "Can you explain why or…"

Marcus looked out around them with a distant look on his face. "I was a kid who didn't really know what had happened here," he finally told them, Sherlock nodding as if this wasn't news to him somehow.

"I would imagine everyone else in the world didn't quite understand, either," he offered. "For someone like myself, who hadn't been in America at all, the only exposure was through pictures, television and eyewitness testimony. Even a majority of America itself wasn't actually in or around New York City and, thus, were several degrees removed. In order to actually 'really know what had happened here,' you would actually have had to have experienced the entire morning yourself."

"Yeah," Marcus quirked a smile. "Guess you're right."

"So, what changed?" Joan wanted to know.

He was silent for so long that she almost gave up on getting an answer. "I got a taste of it," he finally shrugged.

She'd been there after the Towers came down and that was all the taste she could handle.

The three of them stood silently as names continued to be called out.

This place was unlike anywhere else on earth. Maybe there were others that had a similar history, but this was unique.

Joan had been in this area in the days and weeks after 9/11, seeing things with other volunteers that no one should have to see, experience or recognize.

If she hadn't, she wouldn't be who she was today where she was today.

She looked at Sherlock beside her and Marcus beside him and couldn't imagine herself with anyone else in any other situation.

She didn't want to.

Because this place with these people, in this moment, was where she belonged.

It was almost scary how 9/11 had altered her life even before she realized it.

It was even scarier to think what her life would be like had 9/11 not happened at all.

She honestly didn't know what to think about that.

But they were there now, in the place where it all began.

Where the circle had started.

There was a sense of completeness there, on a different level than Tommy being the one she'd met at Ground Zero, the sense of a story – not ending, exactly, but – turning the page and saying, 'Okay, that part is finished. What's next?'

It was a question she couldn't wait to answer.

"Hey," she glanced to her other side as Tommy appeared, sweeping an appraising gaze over the three of them.

"Hey," Marcus gave him a nod. "How're you doin'?"

Tommy rubbed his mouth and looked over the scene around them. "Okay," he finally decided. "Could be better, but, for now, I'm okay. You?"

"We're okay," he nodded. "Holmes?"

"Of course we're okay," Sherlock told him matter of factly. "Why on earth wouldn't we be? Watson?"

She looked from one to the other two and absently let a hand slip into hers as she thought about her answer.

She and Sherlock were essentially homeless, having lost all of their possessions.

She was still emotionally wrung out from near back-to-back incidents and Chantal was never getting her picture back.

She found the friend she'd made almost twenty years ago and realized that 9/11 was basically the reason she had friends like Tommy and Sherlock and Marcus. And was aware enough to realize that it was kind of a bit not good that she would take 9/11 again if it got her to this point with these men.

As horrible as it was, it was true.

That's what she felt and she would probably hate herself for it when she was alone someday when there were four victims needing justice and a killer that needed taking down.

When kids were showing up in pieces and she would scream her heart out, cursing 9/11 with every sob that made her sound insane.

When one of her boys would sit next to her (Sherlock), touch her hand (Marcus) or pull her into a rib-cracking hug (Tommy) after another case that dredged up nightmares of 9/11 itself.

If that wasn't a love-hate relationship, then she didn't know what was.

And on top of that, she still couldn't shake the naked feeling on her wrist even when she wore a bracelet – like now.

But you know what?

Despite all of it, as long as she had the three of them, her heartbeat echoed with a familiar mantra.

"Yeah," she squeezed his hand and smiled.

"We're okay."


END OF STORY


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