The Hour of Separation (Sherlock BBC)

Spoilers: All three episodes, especially The Great Game.
Rating: Still depressingly tame (PG), but it's at least Sherlock/John, so I'm making some progress.
Disclaimer: Conan Doyle owns Sherlock and BBC owns this incarnation. I own very little. Practically nothing, really.
Summary: "Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation." - Kahlil Gibran.

John is in the middle of deciding between chickpeas and kidney beans when he catches, just outside his periphery, a spot of dark, unruly hair. Even before his mind has consciously made the connection, John's already off running after the shadow that's turning the corner, the cans of beans and his cane carelessly abandoned. It takes several more aisles for his treacherous mind to recall the fact that he should not, cannot, be chasing after this ghost. Especially if this isn't some figment stemmed from his memory, showing him what he's desperately wanted to see.

He stops on his track and steadies himself against a shelf filled with oatmeal packets. The pain in his leg eventually catches up with him, as does his breath. His hand trembles, but this has little to do with pain.

After a moment, he retraces his steps and along the way picks up the items he's so thoughtlessly discarded.

The self-checkout machine no longer puts up a fight with him. It knows better.

"Good morning, Mrs. Hudson."

"'morning, love." She scurries about the kitchen for a good half an hour before she brings him a cup of tea. "How's your knee keeping you up this morning?"

This is a routine that neither of them seems to be able to forgo. It makes her feel useful, and he's willing to put up with some unpleasant pleasantries if they could bring her any comfort which is lacking otherwise. He puts down the post and accepts the cup graciously. "Tolerably well, thank you."

"You mustn't work yourself so hard, John. Can't have you land on that dreadful hospital bed so soon after that last time."

He smiles a little, just as practiced. It's still not easy. "I'll be sure to be careful, Mrs. Hudson."

After that, like clockwork, she fusses over the state of the kitchen for some time, even though there's no need. As the results of their united efforts over one weekend a few months ago, the kitchen is as spotless as it's ever been. The chemistry set has been carefully put aside, piece by piece, and all and every unidentified experiment has been faithfully wrapped and stored away.

John doesn't have to look to know there's no severed head in the fridge.

Every week there's a coffee session with Mike. This is more for Mike's benefit than his. John suspects Mike may be regretting his decision to introduce him to Sherlock, but John has yet been able to tell on whose behalf Mike's feeling that regret, his or Sherlock's.

"Come back as a surgeon." This is Mike's second attempt, and it isn't any more persuasive than his first. "We have a room for you at Bart's, John, and God knows we can use you."

"Thank you, but somehow I doubt that very much." John cannot remove the note of self-deprecation from his voice, so he brings up his cup to his lips to cover it. "Besides, I already have a job I quite enjoy."

"Ah, well, that's how it's going to be, then? The company you get to keep trumps over a great career opportunity?" Mike asks, his voice kept light with effort. "How's Sarah?"

John doesn't correct Mike's assumption. "She's fine. Thanks for asking."

Mike looks at him for a long quiet moment, and John lets him. "You should move out, John."

This is the first time for Mike to make this suggestion. Coffee's finished, so there's no convenient and available distraction to hide behind.

"It's been more than months," Mike presses.

"So it has."

Mike has always been a mate, solidly tolerant and understanding, but John isn't certain how he's going to react if Mike pushes this any further.

Fortunately, Mike has always been perceptive as well as tolerant and understanding, so he drops it after a moment of silence. For the rest of their conversation, their discussion topic stays on the unseasonably warm London weather.

Sleep is, as always, a struggle.

When John wakes up, invariably, in the middle of the night, he buries his head in his arms until he can breathe steadily again. At this point, nothing can induce sleep. He's tried everything he can think of, and he's reached the point of contemplating the idea of learning to play the violin. His surgeon's hands, even roughened by war and damaged by scars, may still be able to pick it up. But he thinks he lacks the imagination that music requires.

The violin is kept safe at one corner of their flat. John doesn't know how to take care of the musical instrument, so he takes it to a specialist once a month, just to keep it clean and used. The last time he visited, the man played Massenet's Meditation from Thais as a practice while John listened. It was harrowingly breathtaking, but what John wanted to hear was the cacophony of petulant screeches, not its indefinable beauty.

John watches as the clock ticks itself by until the morning comes again.

There was a ticking sound.

When he finally surfaced from the oily darkness that had held him captive for so long, the first thing he heard was the telltale sound of the IV drip. One. Two. One. Two. Steady. Rhythmic. Incessant.

He knew what it meant.

"Don't get up. John, no, you shouldn't be getting up."

John gave the suggestion a moment of proper consideration before disregarding it completely and continuing on with his effort. When a hand gently nudged him down, he grasped at it until he was able to pull himself up. The lean, small, capable hand belonged to someone he knew. Sarah.

"For Christ's sake, Johnny! Just do as the lady says."

The second voice gave him a pause. Harry was here. That told John all there was to know about the gravity of the circumstance.

He managed to open his eyes and waited for eternity until the world came into focus. When it did, it still took a few more moments to fight the white-hot burn forming in the back of his head, but he eventually warded it off long enough to start interpreting what he was seeing. Sarah was looking pale at his side, her hand still on his. Harry was standing at the corner of the bed, her hair a bundle of mess that it never was, her hands knotted and nails bitten down to the very bottom. Lestrade was pacing at the window, his steps brisk and so quick that he almost seemed glimmering and shrouded against the faint florescent light of the hospital.

John swallowed the ashes in his throat. "Where is he?"

The three heads turned to him as one. No one answered.

His blood turned into ice. "Someone's going to tell me what's happened, right now."

He couldn't bear to see another second of the stricken look on Sarah's face or the panic in Harry's eyes. Neither could he stand the carefully blank expression that one would suspect Lestrade would liberally employ on any next of kin that he had to inform and notify.

John held out the IV tubes connected to his arms. "I know perfectly well how to pull them out. I will do it if you don't tell me. Where is he?"


"Please." His voice, to his own ears, was flat and dead. He knew the answer, he felt it, but he needed it confirmed. "Someone please tell me."

"John." It was Lestrade. "Sherlock's gone. He's long gone, John."

Once or twice a month, John's assistance is enlisted by Lestrade. There's little contribution John can make, but after the first couple of times, he's realized this isn't just for his benefit. His presence seems to be a familiar thing to have around, comforting even, and rather inexplicably everyone seems to be in considerably better moods with John around. Donovan is haltingly kind. He even catches Anderson closing his mouth as if he has been about to say something nice and thought better of it. If John didn't know any better, he would even dare to guess that Anderson seems crestfallen of late.

John looks over the site of a hit-and-run and turns to Lestrade. "So, nothing, then?"

Lestrade is glum. "No. Nothing. Nada. Never thought I would say this, but I would take Sherlock's gloating face over this lack of any lead any day."

The DCs and the rest of the coppers collectively freeze at that. John thinks Donovan actually winces. Lestrade either doesn't notice, or pretends not to.

John chooses his answer carefully, "I'll be sure to tell him he's been desperately missed by all of you."

"You'll do no such thing," Lestrade grunts. "Oh, all right, hell, why not? Facts are facts, and you'll be the one living with his already sizeable and inflated ego, not me."

Lestrade does not shy away from utilizing the firm future tense. John wonders if this conversation has been planned this way to cheer him up or it's purely accidental. Either way, John's still appreciative.

The scene is wrapped up without much result. John thinks Lestrade looks tired, the corners of his eyes visibly sagged. Lestrade, too, is searching for the way out of this, this terrible predicament they're stuck in, John knows; and, just like everyone else, he's also suffering from the lack of success.

"Have you eaten?" John asks, his tone properly falling into that of a medical doctor's. "You look like you could use some food."

Lestrade looks at John, but unlike others, he knows not to look too hard. "Make it a pint," Lestrade makes a counter-offer, "and you've got yourself a deal."

He picks up more and more shifts at the clinic. The colours of the bright jumpers that kid patients are made to wear by their dotting mothers dazzle offensively against the monotone of the white. It reminds him of the days, weeks, months after Afghanistan, when everywhere he went and saw felt so saturated with too much colour that it was almost impossible to endure.

He has come back from another war. Things are different, and yet so unrelentingly the same.

On the way home, if he thinks there may have been a flickering flash of a camera lurking at the corner of the street, he bears it, as much as he bears this continued existence. John's used to it, not unlike how he's already used to knowing that every conversation he has, in public or otherwise, is likely being recorded, observed, and listened to.

Someone's always watching.

Mycroft pushed a plain white envelope across the table toward him.

John still hadn't quite recovered the use of his right arm, so he made no move to open it. "What is this?"

"It's an envelope."

Both of the Holmes brothers possessed this vexing ability to drive John utterly mad with less than five words. It truly was a skill to be admired. "Yes, I can see that."

"Within it, John, is a piece of letter which dictates that all of my brother's possessions are to be entrusted to you."

John met Mycroft's eyes. Mycroft had that genial paper-pusher sort of look that was conveniently trustworthy and suspect at the same time. "You must be joking," John said, finally.

"Oh, absolutely not."

He reached for the envelope and opened it as carefully as he could manage with only one hand. He read the document. Once. Twice. He folded it with one hand and put it back into the envelope. "I won't take this."

"This is only a piece of paper, John. You can take it or not, but it hardly makes any difference in that legally all of Sherlock's possessions are now yours."

"I don't - why me? We've only known each other for a few months."

Mycroft gave him a reproachful look, and for the moment John understood what it might have felt like for Sherlock, constantly being on the receiving end of that look while growing up. "If you have to ask, then my brother and I are poor judges of characters. Which we are not."

John closed his eyes for a moment. "Why would you let him do this?"

Mycroft didn't actually look incredulous, but for a consummate politician, it was a close thing. "You've met my brother, yes? A bit singular-minded fellow, wouldn't you say?"

John stared at the envelope on the table. Its very existence, that it had to exist, was an ache to him. "Where is he - no, sorry, no. I know I can't know. I know I shouldn't - " he stopped. "At least tell me he's safe."

"Would you like me to lie, John?" Mycroft asked, but not unkindly.

The questions he'd had ever since waking up in the hospital - they had to be asked, now. "I don't understand. You're a powerful man with seemingly unlimited resources. Why is that you cannot help him capture Moriarty? Help him get out of this?"

"My goodness, Dr. Watson, are you suggesting that I misappropriate government resources just so I could -"

"- Yes, yes, that's exactly what I'm suggesting, yes, that you save him from having to fight alone against an insane criminal hell-bent on destroying him and the society at large. Since when did you give one bit of damn about misappropriation of government resources where your brother's concerned?"

Mycroft watched him without a change in expression. After a moment, John closed his eyes again.

"That was unmitigatingly selfish and thoughtless of me," John said. "I'm sorry; that was out of line."

Mycroft would have done everything within his not so inconsiderable capability to help Sherlock. Which meant Moriarty's criminal network was more vast and impenetrable than it'd been previously thought, and Sherlock was out there, out of other options and all by himself, finding the only way to bring down Moriarty.

"We're a handicap to him," John summarised, though in his head, it was "I", not "we". The thoughts, when articulated, were not as bitter as they were rotting inside of him. "Nothing but liabilities to Sherlock. You cannot go to a war with someone like Moriarty when you have something to lose."

Mycroft was somber without his typical half-grin on his face. "You're wrong, John."

John smiled. It felt devastating. "No. No, I'm not."

"No, John. You would go to a war with someone like Moriarty only if you have something you cannot lose."

There comes a time when John begins to ask himself important, soul-shattering questions - how do you know Sherlock's ever been real? That he's ever existed? How can you ever know that the days and nights spent with the maddening creature that is Sherlock Holmes have ever been real?

There also comes a time when John wants to tempt Sherlock into coming back by threatening to purge all his chemistry set collections.

For a while in the beginning, he's jumped at every unknown text message with a blocked sender, at every unheard call, at every sign that may tell John he's out there, still. Now, days have become weeks and weeks have turned into months which changed into a year, and even his precious memories are no longer reliable; the stories he's shared with Sherlock are feeling and sounding a little more implausible, a little more ridiculous, with every passing day.

Except, looking back, it's never the big things John misses, the extravagant, heart-thumping adventures that he's always believed, that even Sherlock has believed, to be the reason John was staying at 221b Baker Street. But it's always been the little things that anchored him here.

Like, the sounds of footsteps frantically pacing in the living room in the middle of the night. Yet another house appliance shanghaied for a scientific experiment of undetermined nature. A rare, crooked grin that John was able to tease out of Sherlock after his somewhat more spectacular temperamental fit. Granted, these moments are often equal mixes of irritation and fondness, but those are what mattered, and John's gotten used to the lack of them, as one would with a missing limb or a missing heart.

He volunteers with Sarah at the Soup Kitchen every week.

"For crying out loud, John," Harry practically screams when she finds this out. "If you were looking for a title, St. John is already taken, didn't you know? You've already given enough for the country, for the society, for the all of bloody humanity. What more do you think you'd have to do? Donate your extra kidney while you're at it, why don't you?"

He doesn't exactly tell Harry that he's the reason why the unsolved crime rate in the city is steadily climbing up, that he's the reason the only man in London who could've reduced that number to zero is currently out of commission. That he feels the palpable need to give it back, somehow, in every way possible.

Once on the way back home, a homeless veteran tries to rob him. John relinquishes his wallet without resisting. Next morning, that man is found dead in the alley next to the church. John almost throws up. The message is obvious.

But he needs to be sure, so he asks one of Sherlock's contacts on the streets to find out.

"The words are that you're off-limit," the girl at the corner of Lexington and Brewster comes back to him with the answer. "Never to be touched or bothered with. Otherwise, there'll be hell to pay, some nasty guys up there said."

Of course, John thinks. A hostage is only useful if he's alive and unharmed, at least for the time being.

Sometimes, in unthinking moments, he can still feel the vest weighted against his chest.

With or without the bomb strapped to him, John's still a hostage.

There comes a time when he begins to wonder if Sherlock's still out there.

Once a week, John cleans all the unused equipment of Sherlock's, takes each of them out from their respective shelves and washes and dries them and puts them back with all the care he can imbue on mere objects, on mere things. When finished, the shelf cabinet always looks like a mausoleum, never to be used again. No, it's not just these shelves. This flat is everything that Sherlock is, was, this is where everything is Sherlock, surrounding John's every moment awake and asleep.

For one mad moment, he doesn't think. He takes an Erlenmeyer flask in his fist and flings it against the wall. It flies in an arc and the pieces of it scatter over the floor like the late spring rain drizzling on the streets of London, heavy and silent.

He grasps at the edges of the sink. His left leg hobbles, and his knuckles whiten with efforts to steady it.

Is Sherlock still out there?

The answer to this particular question requires a little more analysis. If Sherlock's no longer out there, Moriarty would've made some kind of move by now. But then, that can easily be explained away with the possibility Moriarty would not give a rat's ass about John if the threat Sherlock still represents has been already dispensed with.

No. If Sherlock's dead, you would know, John tells himself. You would know.

This line of thought is inevitably followed up by anger. At himself. For not being out there and helping Sherlock. Being this beaten down and sluggish and helpless thing, for being that shackle around Sherlock's ankle.

On a particularly difficult night, John has considered the option of walking up to Moriarty with a gun and forcing a confrontation.

- And then what? Exactly what would that accomplish, other than ruining the plan I've so exactly devised in order to defeat him? Be reasonable, John. Be logical.

You're one to talk reason and logic, John thinks. We're not worth this. I'm not worth this. How could I be, when there's nothing, absolutely nothing I can do to help you? You're a genius. How could you not know, Sherlock?

- Would it have been better, then, if I didn't care? There's a hint of amusement in his voice, rolling of his eyes. If you haven't mattered to me?

And the answer is no, of course. Always no.

John's own hypocrisy makes himself sick.

After a moment, he grabs a broom and a dustpan and picks out the broken glasses from the floor. If he steps on one of the pieces, he doesn't notice.

The headlining article of the Daily Telegraph is on a set of mystifying murders which have all of the Scotland Yard stumped. Something about the way the murders have been committed makes John think, so he goes home and spreads out his collection of Sherlock's illegible scribbling on journals and notes and flyers and pieces of toilet papers.

He makes a couple of calls to Lestrade and asks a few questions that may lead to somewhere.

Next day, a yellow envelope arrives at his doorstep. It's filled with black and white photos, taken with a telescopic lens, or, conceivably, a sniper's scope. John is in all of them. And in all of them is also Sherlock, standing or sitting or pacing beside John's bed at the hospital, his expressions mostly hidden.

The last photo, and the last one only, has caught Sherlock's eyes on John, who was then still lost to the world.

No. No.

Sherlock looks like a child, wounded and confused and all so lost. As if emotions, cold and hot and burning, are hitting him at once as one, a floodgate that's been keeping them out now irreversibly damaged. And John can't believe having been the one to cause all this, that he's done this to Sherlock, of all people.

John's been told he's been comatose for nearly three weeks. He's also been told that Sherlock has kept watch all the while, day and night, until one day he just simply disappeared. John was the one who caused this, this exile of Sherlock's. John's done this to him. And now –

And now they're each other's hostage.

Moriarty doesn't have to warn him twice.

John picks up extra clinic duties and does not look into the series of murders taking place all over London.

The drizzle outside does not stop, and finally one of the million broken things at 221B Baker Street manages to spring a leak. Mrs. Hudson barely makes the ends meet, with John contributing so little as he is, so he promises to fix it himself somehow. It goes unfixed for almost two days, what with a series of car accidents that occupy most of the available doctors everywhere in the city.

His knee doesn't hurt more just because of the rain. It's all in his head, he tells himself.

- Yes, John. Your coxal bone hasn't at all been shattered, and your left femur didn't have to be put together again because of the bomb fragments. All in your head, truly.

You're not here, and I'm broken all over again, John firmly squashes Sherlock's voice in his head, so you don't get any say in it.

He takes careful steps down to the basement, listening out for the water drops. Nothing catches his ears, so he puts his palm over a low-hanging water pipe and traces it until he feels a crack. Or what used to be a crack, once.

He stares at the patched hole over the pipe. He stares at the floor, which shows the only real hint of a leak ever having been here before, with faint water stains that are now mostly dry.

A second later he's running up the stairs and through the doors and on the street, and he's screaming.

"You idiot! Why would you even risk - why must you - why do you have to care? Who asked you to care about me?"

A few pedestrians hurry their steps, but no one answers.

John clutches over himself, at his leg, already strained and aching. He clutches at his chest, beating painfully as if it's already been ripped out and no longer an active part of him.

If you're going to linger, if you're going to haunt me like this, why bother? Why bother with all of this, then?

Why this, then, why so unfair? Why can you see me, when I can't?

And why now, when the chance of seeing you again disappears and dies, little by little, with every single second I'm left to breathe?

There are so many things he doesn't know about Sherlock Holmes, so many things that may never be known, and John wants them, wants him, but to get him back is to get him killed.

This thing, this thing gnawing at his chest, love, is beginning to feel like nothing but a destructive force not worth holding onto, certainly not at the risk of Sherlock's life, even though he knows better.

One day at the clinic, he sees a patient, and two, and three, and they all have connections to the bizarre murders that have haunted the city streets and the tragic traffic accidents that already stole dozens of lives.

John figures it out, which means he was led specifically to the answer, which means Moriarty is making his move.

He goes home and thinks it over. Thinking doesn't help, so he puts a hand over the violin, which still looks used and alive and precious. There are dozens of people involved. Dozens. He knows what Sherlock would say, that putting these dozens of people over taking Moriarty out of equation permanently is not a mathematically sound solution. Then he recalls the tears of a young mother who's been forced into these schemes and knows he's had no chance, after all, that it's been perfectly set up so John would make an ill-advised move. Moriarty wouldn't touch Sherlock, not over this, but if it's between John's one life over these dozens', a sound mathematical solution presents itself.

Sherlock wouldn't agree, of course, but he'd still know what John would do, so more than likely Moriarty also does.

He remembers the tears on the woman's face again. Once he helps her, he will probably never get to see Sherlock again.

John thinks to himself, sardonically, that this is why he cannot be anything more than a pawn.

He calls Lestrade. A day later, the people who need to be locked up behind bars are arrested and the things that need to be stopped are put a stop to. Not Moriarty, never Moriarty, but the tears on the young mother's face are those of relief this time, and John thinks it's worth it. All of it.

Next night, when John comes back to his flat, Moriarty's sitting on Sherlock's sofa. "Has anyone told you sentimentality may be your downfall, John?"

John thinks about telling him to get off the sofa, but it's more likely to make Moriarty want to obliterate the sofa from existence than to persuade him to get off, so John sinks warily on his chair, across from the sofa. "I think someone may have in the past, yes."

Moriarty tsks loudly. "Sentimentality, John, sentimentality. I mean, really, you choose to fight me over this instead of so many other things you could've picked up on, and break our nice stable status quo that we've got going here?"

The man has not changed, John thinks. John isn't sure what he's been expecting exactly, but certainly the time has changed John, wearied and older, while Moriarty is still in his cheerfully insane self, as if he's been carbon-copied at some point in the past and his current and future versions are all the exact copies, the possibility of change never been written in his, likely impressively advanced, genetic codes. "You made me choose, and you knew I'd choose this. I think you can probably stop acting surprised."

"Acting? Moi? John, you're really hurting my feelings."

"That's too bad," John says, already too tired. His gun is locked away under the cabinet, not that he's planned to use it. Neither does he expect Moriarty to give him a chance to do so. But if Moriarty keeps this up, John may as well be forced to do something drastic.

"Do you know, John, what's been keeping me up at night lately?"

"I'm sorry, but what was it about me that made you think I would be able to even venture a guess at anything that resembles your headspace?"

Moriarty waves off his question. "I've been wondering about why I haven't killed you yet."

Moriarty's selling himself so short that it's somewhat incredible. "I think you've made a couple of quite solid attempts, at least."

"Obviously I can't just kill Sherlock – there's no one quite like him, and I don't want this game stopped anyway, at least not while I'm enjoying it too much. But then lately my only leverage to get him to play is you. I suppose I can always try the last scheme again, try to blow off a few innocent people and see if that does the trick, but I've already done it once, and he rarely falls for the same thing twice. So I'm thinking, while I'm here, why don't I just kill you, for the heck of it, right now, and deal with Sherlock when he comes charging back at me all in mad rage?" Moriarty waves both his hands to make a point. "It'll certainly be a change of pace, wouldn't it? Especially since you keep trying to get in my way, which, I have to say, John, not a lot of sane people who know me try to do."

Well, John has been exposed to these two for too long, so maybe some things are bound to rub off on him. "I think, if I heard you correctly, you've just said I was the only leverage you had over him."

"True, which is how you've managed to survive so far, but that little incident of almost killing you got me a lifetime's worth of attention from him – just think of what it would get me if I killed you in the most grotesque way possible. I will burn my name and drill it with your blood in the back of his exquisite mind. I wouldn't even mind getting my hands dirty, for this particular pleasure."

Moriarty looks genuinely giddy over the prospect, and maybe John's losing his mind, but he's not all that afraid anymore. "Nothing's stopping you here. I'm sorry, but I'm not quite following what you expect from me. I'm not begging for my life."

"Oh, of course not, you're so above that, aren't you, John? But there are so many things I can still take from you – you just don't know them yet."

More than likely, John thinks. John's mind isn't that creative, but he can imagine that there are a few things Moriarty could still do. But nothing that really matters. Not anymore.

Moriarty shakes his head in the fashion of a theater actor in a Shakespearean tragedy. "Ever stoic and patient and good, John. All very reticent and taciturn, like a dog patiently waiting for its owner, and when you make a sacrifice, it's only for the good of the others. Oh, John, I can take him away from you."

"You already have," John says, locking his jaw. For that only, John gives some serious thoughts over using that gun, regardless of the chance of success.

"No, I have not," Moriarty suddenly snarls. "I have not yet torn apart what he is, what makes who he is, right down to its very building structure. I can tear him apart limb to limb, julienne his brain and strip his mind so that all he can think about, his entire world, is me, and me only. You know what it's like to have his attention to yourself, to have his incredible mind on you and you only, that feeling of elation that you'll find nowhere else. Having known it, you cannot go back, can you?"

Obviously neither can you, John thinks savagely. "No, no more than you can."

Moriarty's face suddenly turns carefully blank, and John knows, somehow, he's gotten to him. A second later, Moriarty suddenly flashes him a brilliant, friendly grin. "No, of course not, not while things are so uniquely exciting."

Changeable, John thinks. Oh so changeable and oh so bloody insane.

"You're right, John, this is fun, and I see why I may be encouraged not to change this status quo for now." Moriarty rubs his hands and gets up. "I really enjoyed this, John. We should do this again sometime."

John swallows "Let's not" that's about to slip out from his lips. "Of course," he agrees, knowing that likely the next time they meet, if they ever do, one or both of them would not survive the meeting. He hopes it's Moriarty that would be gone, but then John has no illusions that the threats haven't been real. Probably the most effective way of garnering Sherlock's attention is to do exactly what Moriarty's promised to do, and Moriarty will do it, once the fun is over, or once Sherlock stops being interesting – or threatening.

John would rather not die, that hasn't changed, but as for the other threat, John doesn't care as much.

The point has never been for John to remain in Sherlock's thoughts; it's that Sherlock remains in John's.

The bizarre and perplexing traffic accidents have slowed down, but horrifying murders haven't stopped occurring altogether. It's only a small success, but one that does count, because his patients return to him, safe and sound, once again. John's thankful for that, at least.

Especially on every night, when the violin remains still without a sound, when Sherlock feels unreachable as ever.

Sarah tells him one day, "You used to know how to laugh."

John touches the rim of his teacup with his fingertips and pushes. The cup spins slowly, lazily on the plate.

Yes, I used to, John thinks. Just like there used to be a life before Sherlock.

"I still do," he offers instead. "Sometimes."

He takes her out to a cinema that night, just to assuage her worries.

At the end of the night, they go home to their own respective flats. Misery is a private thing that may lessen through sharing. But this misery over Sherlock, he guards it carefully, zealously, somewhere in the back of his heart, not even where Moriarty can peek into.

When John returns from work, Mycroft is sitting on John's chair. There has been no reason whatsoever to put a lock in for their flat, John decides, when clearly it'd be more advantageous to have people come and go as they please.

"Have you heard from him recently?" Mycroft asks even before John sets a foot across the door.

"From whom?" John asks when worry begins to edge out a hint of irritation. Mycroft has decided to do without the usual fanfare of secrecy, and that cannot be a good sign. "The last time I've heard anything from Moriarty was - "

"Not him," Mycroft cuts him off impatiently, "Sherlock. Have you heard anything from him at all?"

The question unsettles him and weakens his already unstable legs, so John decides to sit down on the sofa. "No. Not since we were in an explosion together that put me in the hospital for months and had him disappear to the end of this world or another." Then John recalls the repaired water pipe. "Actually, a couple of months ago - "

"Ah, yes, the pipe incident. No need to elaborate on that, as I'm well aware of the details. I've already given him an earful." Mycroft sighs. "I truly regret the day I've promised him I'd keep him in the loop about you."

The audacity of the man is more than simply staggering. John swallows a sudden bout of anger and tries hard to sound somewhat collected when he begins, "You mean to say, all this time, you've been in contact with - "

"Yes, yes, yes, John, that's exactly what I'm saying. Of course I've been in contact with Sherlock. How else do you think he could secure enough resources to fly under Moriarty's radar? And no, we couldn't possibly let you in, since the entire point of this exercise was so you would not know where he is and how he is doing, so that Moriarty doesn't, either."

The anger's not entirely gone, but something else here seems more pressing. "But now? Why are you telling me this now? What's changed?"

Mycroft loses all the trace of irritation. "For the last few months, we've managed to close in on Moriarty and his band quite significantly, mostly in Western Europe, and just last week, we've gotten to the most, if not all, of his lot."

"That," John pauses and blinks, not sure how to process this news that there may actually be the end of the tunnel in sight, "that's fantastic news. Then what's the problem?"

"Sherlock, of course, is the problem. He's deduced where Moriarty was heading, which, in and of itself, is not a problem, but he's been quite overtly agitated over Moriarty's last visit to you. All we know is that he's confronted Moriarty, somewhere near the Reichenbach Falls in central Switzerland, about a week ago. Both of them have been missing since."

No. No, please god, no. "Please tell me - "

"No bodies were found, John," Mycroft supplies immediately. "It's been thoroughly searched so we can be at least sure of that. But we still don't know what's become of them. Neither of them has shown up again anywhere since, and we've been keeping tabs everywhere. And," he adds warily, "from the look on your face, you've clearly heard nothing from him, either."

"No," John whispers, numbness sipping through his every bone. "No, I haven't."

"I don't have to remind you, I hope, that the second you hear from him, you will let me know."

"Of course," John answers, though later he cannot recall ever having spoken, or even when exactly Mycroft has left the flat. When John comes to, he's alone in the flat, in silence, and with the knowledge that Sherlock is out there still, and utterly alone. Or worse, with Moriarty.

Sherlock. Sherlock's done it. He's finally gotten to Moriarty, except now he's missing and gone again and, no. God, no.

John buries his head under his hands. There's still nothing he can do to help. While Sherlock's gone on to fight, all John's done has been to wait. All he can do now, still, is wait. That's all he knows how to do.

Until he comes back. When he comes back. Until then, John waits and bears every excruciating day just as he has done so far.

Every tick of the clock, just like all of his everyday things, feels like a thousand little deaths.

One afternoon, John is reading a medical journal over his lunch at their Chinese restaurant, when someone slides onto the seat across from him.

"Hello, John."

The journal slips from John's hands and drops to the floor. A plate of dim sum follows it and empties its content onto the open pages.

"Uh, well, that's a horrifyingly ill-researched article anyway. You'd be well advised to skip it altogether."

John's not sure whether his voice would work, but it manages to produce something that sounds somewhat close to words, "Would I be?"

"Oh yes. That entire research on the limitation of human pulmonary functions is demonstratively fallacious."

It's Sherlock's voice speaking to him; those ever-familiar gray blue eyes are also his, and it's Sherlock, all of him, from the mop of his unbelievably unruly hair to those overly large sized feet currently bumping against John's. John can't quite make himself believe any of them.

"John," Sherlock says, a little uncertainly this time.

And it is Sherlock. It truly is him, and John - John begins to laugh, hard, and he cannot stop, not until the tears in his eyes can easily be justified.

"Well, I've missed you, too," Sherlock says drily, but even though John's eyes are too blurred to tell, John feels it in Sherlock's voice, the same tremble he himself feels in his chest.

John blindly grasps at the collar of Sherlock's coat and pulls him forward, not minding that more plates are following the example of the dim sum plate onto the floor. "Never again, do you hear me? Never again. Never."

"No," Sherlock promises, and his voice, too, is frayed around the edges. "No. Never again."

Sherlock's hands, no longer hesitant, are around John's shoulders. The grips are tight, as if they're making sure John's tangible and whole in front of him.

"Moriarty?" John asks, eventually, once he can speak again.

Sherlock's eyes harden at the mention of the name. "He's been taken care of. I'll not let him take away one more second of our time."

John leans back and observes his friend. Sherlock looks older, weathered down, but not beaten down. His eyes, still sharp, seem kinder, deeper, and maybe more haunted, but there will be time to change that. There's an angry, red gash over his right wrist and another against his left temple. John wants to ask what's happened. He wants to kiss them. But there will be time for that, too. They have that time now. He sees Sherlock doing the same, cataloguing John's every feature, memorizing them all over again and set them against his memory.

Sherlock catches his look; he clears his throat and raises an eyebrow. "How attached are to your lunch?"

"Considering it's mostly gracing the floor right now, not so much. Why?"

"There seems to be a case, a development, even, that's obviously so beyond anything Lestrade's capable of solving himself -"

"- That you feel obligated to give him a hand?" John smiles. It's been so long that he's forgotten what it feels like.

"Or, two, actually. If your practice can spare you for an hour or two, that is. Can it?"

"There's a chance I may regret this, but I will tell you this once and for all: Sherlock, you will never have to ask me that again."

The haunted look in Sherlock's eyes is lost as a smile tugs at his lips. "No, I don't suppose I will."