Thank you for your lovely reviews as always. This one's a little shorter than normal. The next (and I think last) chapter should be up within the month. Enjoy.

Ruby :o) x

October 2010

"Did he love her, then?"

That was the first logical question that had struck him, although he could barely comprehend the idea, and he let it out without thinking about it. There was something awful about it all though, John thought, something horrific. Did it explain a lot?

He glanced with unease at the figure by the window, the umbrella clasped in an iron grip, a comfort to him, perhaps. A way of dealing with everything.

"What a delightfully naïve thought. My brother is not capable of it, Dr. Watson."

"Well it sounds to me like he did."

Mycroft cast a horrible shadow, John thought, something sinister about his movements, the way he spoke in such a slow and deliberate manner, the disdain in his eyes as he'd told the story Sherlock had refused to. He thought back to the morning, to the icing on the wall, to the great purple tin, to the violin in pieces, to the clouds of smoke. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sherlock vanished without a word; there was some dull emotion in his eyes, and John's heart suddenly and inexplicably ached for him, unknowingly and unthinkingly. The pain, the unmistakable pain that had surfaced in his roommate, that had shattered his face without mercy; it had scared him a little, the idea that he had such a tumultuous past not truly understandable. He'd thought of him as part of the city, unchanging, a man who'd sprung from the pavement fully formed, and he laughed at the absurdity of it, laughed at the thought of him being more than what he was- a man.

So he needed to know the story.

"I don't presume to know how he feels…" Mycroft said, his eyes heavy "But love, Dr Watson, is a different kind of beast when it comes to my brother. And certainly nothing like what he shared with her."

He'd shared something with her, though. Something meaningful, some connection- it was something worth holding on to, surely. And John was shocked at himself, shocked that he thought such a turbulent relationship was worth salvaging, after all the horror they put one another through.

But it was Sherlock. It was a connection with another human being. It was significant.

"Did you know she was alive?" he asked in a quiet voice, shifting in his seat before the desk, pulling at the collar of his jumper, anxiety crawling up his spine.

"Of course. I knew of her every step."

"You kept it from him."

"I saved his life."

He felt some odd feeling then, some protective urge in him. He didn't know where it was from. He felt cheated, though, felt a dull kind of horror pressing at his temples.

"You could have saved her." His voice was broken, impossibly quiet. "You could have helped her recover, helped her get clean…"

Mycroft let out a despairing sigh, summoning the strength to glare at him, the entire situation obviously having some profound effect on him.

"You are far too simplistic, John. Things are never black and white."

"You left her there…" John said with sudden authority, finding his voice, finding some strength that was fuelled by unbridled, white-hot anger. "You left her! Just left her laying there, a bullet in her stomach! Even Sherlock wouldn't have condemned her to that!"

"She was alive," Mycroft muttered, and John thought he saw a spark of guilt in his eyes for a split second, but it vanished. "She was strong. Too strong for her own good."

"She was terrified!"

"Irene Adler single-handedly destroyed him, John," Mycroft all but yelled at him, taking one sweeping step towards him. "She brought it all upon herself."

John stood up in a sudden rage, feeling a little sick, feeling lost. Irene. Irene. What had she been like, for Sherlock to hold her in such deep regard? Had it been love, that awful burden that he couldn't possibly imagine plaguing the man- had they shared some deeper, infinitely darker bond? He didn't understand how it worked, no one did, but he knew you didn't go through a trauma with someone without being inexplicably linked to them in the aftermath, didn't escape it without leaving a piece of yourself behind. Their roots went farther back into history than he could have possibly imagined and he thought that there was something unfair there, thought there was unfinished business, words left unsaid.

Thought that the real pain for Sherlock must have been never solving the puzzle.

"He made his own decisions, Mycroft," John muttered darkly, grabbing his jacket from the back of the chair and pulling it on aggressively. It sounded like a weak argument but he could do nothing but defend the man who wasn't here to defend himself- and, John thought, even if he had been there, he'd likely be defending him anyway. "But at least he was always honest about it."

"Well I'm sure I don't have to tell you about the grueling rehabilitation that followed the incident; that's another story."

"I've had enough stories from you, thanks."

"You're unlikely to get anymore from him."

And as he turned to leave, Mycroft's departing words rang like a wail in his ears.

"She hasn't tried to contact him in ten years. She wants something from him, John. She always does."

Oh, it was the smell. The stench that had drowned the flat, that had woken him up like nothing else, it might as well have been a gunshot. It was like a punch to the stomach and his first instinct was to vomit.


Not interesting. Not fascinating. Not all the glorious things he'd once associated with her; this was like horror, like pain, and that awful smell of butter cream was the source of it, the source of her, and the only way to get rid of it, the only way to steady his hand was to smoke it out. In a way, that was worse, because the combination of the two, the icing and the tobacco, well; it was as though her ghost had possessed the room, her smile dripping from every ridiculous letter on the wall, her deranged gaze fixed upon him from within the shadows.

He'd stared at it numbly for a long, long time, trying to process it but feeling something that hadn't risen within him for a decade, something he'd banished from his system, something rotten and thick with despair. And it wasn't from the realisation that she was still here, still in the world, it wasn't from the realisation that she'd not tried to find him before this moment; it wasn't even the thought that his brother had lied to him.

It was the thought that he'd been wrong for all these years. The idea that she'd outwitted him in the worst possible way.

And in a fit of rage that hadn't plagued him since he was little more than a teenager, he'd grabbed the first thing he could reach with his hand and smashed it into the wall. His violin. The sound was quite satisfying.

He didn't even look in the tin.

The cab hadn't cost as much as he'd thought it might- or perhaps he was a little numb, a little lost, and hadn't even paid attention as he'd handed the money over and mumbled the long-lost address to the shadow behind the wheel. Words he was sure had never passed his lips, because that place was so far from him in every possible way, not even a distant memory anymore, something less. Nostalgia- at the end of the day it was pain, weakness, and he'd had no use for it because he'd had nothing to be nostalgic for, nothing he cared to reminisce about. He only lived in the now.

But instead of blindly disregarding his past, it was thrust into his life once more, each dark nuance of it clawing its way into his carefully ordered life, a steady thrum of activity he'd fought so hard to maintain. It seemed all it took was one mention of her to send it all into chaos.

He sat silent and still in the back of the cab, the sky outside so dark it might be nighttime, the weather beginning to turn cruel and he was sickened at how appropriate it all was. It was cold. Too cold.

And somehow, he made himself remember the worst of it all.

December, 1999

Always cold, now. The sun would rise and fall, rise and fall, and it felt like it was mocking him, smiling merrily in the sky beyond the horizon, beyond the trees and the hills and the glass barrier that separated him from the rest of the loathsome world. That window had become his only companion and he supposed on some quiet, peaceful days he quite enjoyed it that way. Found a little solace in the grey, rolling clouds and the frost on the glass and the white sun that strived on anyway, even though everything he could see on earth would have you believe it didn't exist at all.

Everything was dying.

So was he.

Rehabilitation. It had come to a point where not a single thing on the earth made any sense to him, where nothing mattered, not life, not love, not everything that had happened to bring him here; it was all pointless, all trivial, all…nothing. Sometimes he cried out with the pain of it. Hurt his throat, thought in his most wild moments that if he hurt it enough it might kill him completely. It was much worse during the day because that meant it was all real, that he'd really arrived here, the penultimate stop on the line.

He'd die soon. He held on to that thought.

At night, though…night seemed like a comfort. Because night was an endless mystery, the darkness always home to something sinister, something hidden, and his mind adored it on the most basic, primitive way possible.

It was on the worst night of all did he finally turn the corner.

"Is this madness?" he croaked, heavy eyes staring at the shadow of a figure in the corner. The room was so thick with darkness, the sharp slits of orange light from the corridor beyond his room making phantom shapes appear across the walls, and by this point he was used to it. This time though- it was a figure he knew, a figure he knew couldn't be there. He must have finally reached that point, he thought, the moment that either helped you survive or broke you completely.

"You're hallucinating," the shadow responded. It shared her voice.

"A sound deduction, seeing as this is quite impossible."

"I thought that's what you liked best about me."

He felt his dry, cracked lips curve up into a painful, self-mocking smile, quite impressed with his own mind for conjuring up such an accurate representation of her. She must have become far more attached to him than he realised- or maybe it was he that had fixed himself to her. Either way, he decided to appreciate the moment for the gift that it was, tried to ignore the horror that came with it, the thought that his mind, his most loyal companion, was letting him down.

Tried to ignore the guilt at the sight of her.

Unthinking, his hand was reaching out to her and he was sure if he blinked she would vanish. He tried it, closing his eyes in a slow, endless manner, the darkness complete. When he opened them she'd moved closer, her outline a ghostly orange line, the curve of her cheek, the stray hairs that danced around her head. He thought she might be a child again, the fairy-tale girl he'd met in the woods. His hand fell limp onto the mattress when she didn't take it.

"Haunting me, are you?" he asked quietly. He could have been loud- he didn't care if they came in and found him talking to himself- but the moment, it seemed, required something subtler, more delicate.

"You could say that," she replied, the quiet laughter in her voice gone, replaced by something sinister. "I'd argue that it's the other way round."

"Contradicting me, even in death."

The word shattered the air around them and he felt something in his chest constricting, like a bullet, like a familiar pain. He groaned; she was still.

"No…" he muttered, clamping his eyes shut. "Leave me…just leave me…"

"I'm unsure if I like seeing you suffer. I'm not sure it's what you deserve."

"People die. Everywhere, every moment."

"And would you die a thousand deaths to take back that night?"

He heard the laughter this time, her words so melancholy and dramatic and she knew it, knew it was teasing, knew it was cruel. His palm covered his eyes; he was sweating, rigid with some fever, wild, trapped. He forced himself to remain still.

Suddenly there was a frozen sensation on his jaw- her palm rested there. He didn't move his hand, didn't open his eyes, the sensation so real, so well-constructed, he marveled once more at how perfect this hallucination was, at how his memories had somehow given him her touch, her skin upon his. He choked, missing it so completely, grieving for her at last, here, in the throes of madness. He could smell butter-cream.

"I'm not asking it of you," she whispered, and he heard the sorrow there.

"I might," he said, his voice low and heavy with something mournful. "If I could. I might."

"You wouldn't. And if you did I'd hate you for it."

Again, that bitter smile that only hurt to surrender to, the simple pleasure of having someone who truly understood him. Her greatest tragedy, she'd said.

"I've lost you," he finally admitted, felt his throat constricting, and he blindly reached for her wrist, finding it miraculously, hating his mind now, hating this torture, this cruelty. Hating that he was too slow, that he'd realised everything too late, too late. He felt her thumb dance in a slow movement across the stubble on his neck.

"You should never have had me to begin with," she said; he could hear the effort of holding back tears. "I lead you here. I lead us both here."

"Never a dull moment though," he forced out, and he felt his mouth form a grimace of pain, felt the sting behind his eyes. And he realised that this struggle, that these endless days locked away from the world, well, it wasn't in an effort to escape the drug, it was to rid himself of her. Get her out of his system. Cleanse himself, get rid of the poison.

And the horrible truth of the matter was, he was afraid. Afraid of having to face that awful world without someone who truly knew him. Afraid of living without that constant presence, that being that had become such a comfort to him he hadn't even noticed, took for granted the fact that there was someone there to call on, to fight with, to share his view of the world, to understand.

He realised the irony of it all, of course.

"All this time trying not to feel," she whispered, as if reading his mind. "You didn't see it coming did you."

It was like a cry, a hollow sound in his throat, and she gripped the hand that covered his face, held it to her own, pressed her lips against it. He did not dare open his eyes.

"But it's not real, don't you see?" she all but sobbed. His fingers brushed against the thick, wet tearstain on her jaw. "It's a passion. It's…all consuming. It's not love. It'll just leave you hurting. One day you'll feel simply happy. Rid yourself of this hate, all this sorrow. You'll find someone who makes you content. "

"I don't know anything else. Only you."

He heard a sigh. The last breath of her she had left to give, all the rest stolen by him.

"It's a good thing for you I'm dead then, isn't it."

He should have questioned it at the time, the accuracy of it all. He'd written it off as nothing but insanity, a dream; he'd been so lost in those weeks, could barely remember them now. But that memory refused to leave him; he managed to bring it to the surface with no effort, as if it had been there all along, waiting for him to catch up, waiting for him to see the truth.

He saw it all, now. Every lovely, awful moment spent with her. A passion. All consuming. He'd fallen asleep that night with her palm still resting on his jaw, he remembered it so clearly, so impossibly, and by the time the sterile, cold morning had arrived she was of course gone. A phantom, a nightmare even, because those emotions, that terrible guilt that had plagued him that night as it did now; he couldn't allow it, it almost frightened him. It seemed that this was a fear far greater than that of simply being alone; he'd managed that well enough.

Then he'd found John. Then he'd found contentment. She had been right.

That was the worst of it all.

By the time he arrived it was almost dusk, the burnt out streetlamps flickering obnoxiously above him, the horizon dense with the bronze glow. He walked along wearily, the road empty, the first signs of frost starting to creep in on the pavement below him. He thought of cigarettes.

His eyes wandered to the row of houses to his left, searching for his own lost home. His mother didn't live there anymore, she had moved out long ago- remarried. He hadn't attended the wedding, which had upset her, but Mycroft had, which somehow upset her even more. Didn't do to think about his mother, though. He'd cut that tie long ago.

The building meant less than nothing to him now. He could see the silhouettes of its current inhabitants; the rich glow of life from within didn't alter his course, didn't stop him in his tracks. They were mere anomalies, another group of faceless strangers that made up the swell of people around him. He was linked to them in no way whatsoever.

Step after heavy step, his eyes fixed solemnly on the ground now, he almost missed what he was looking for. Except it wasn't what he was looking for. What he was looking for was gone completely.

No more blue bricks. No more empty, haunted house. It was a pile of rubble.

And there was a small figure stood amongst it all.