"You all right?"
John's eyes were on Sherlock, but he was very aware of Sally hyperventilating to his right. He didn't spare a glance for Tim, knowing that his shot had left no room for doubt.
Sherlock nodded tightly. "See to Sally."
John held his gaze for a moment, then moved to obey, setting down his gun on the dressing table with some regret. With Sally at the scene he could hardly stash it away and claim a random shooting.
He crouched at her side, running a practised eye over her bruised face. "Do you have any other injuries?" he asked, his voice gentle.
Sally shook her head, her eyes wild. "Get me..." She sucked in a breath, struggling to speak. "Get me out of this chair!" She was pulling against the restraints, her movements increasingly desperate. "I can't... please!"
John was taken aback by her vehemence, but God knew what she'd been through down here. If she wanted out of the chair, then he would get her out of the damned chair. He looked at the binding holding her wrists together. She wasn't attached to the chair, but her arms were looped around it.
"Use Tim's scissors," Sherlock advised, but Sally flinched and just trembled harder.
"I'm going to lift you, all right?" John offered and she nodded frantically. He scooped an arm under her knees and pushed the other around her upper back, curving under her armpits, then he straightened, lifting her up and off the chair, grunting slightly with the effort. "Good job you don't eat biscuits," he joked weakly, not bothering to put her on her feet since she looked as if she would just fall over. He carried her across the room and set her down on the edge of the bed.
"All right?" he asked and she managed a small nod, breathing deeply. "Just let me free Sherlock, then we'll get you out of here, OK?" She nodded again, producing a shaky smile this time. "Good girl." John patted her on the shoulder then turned his attention to Sherlock.
"On the floor." Sherlock nodded to where the scissors had fallen close to Tim's outstretched hand and John stepped over the body to retrieve them, regarding them doubtfully. This was going to be hard work.
It wasn't. The scissors cut through the tough material around Sherlock's wrists like tissue paper, revealing injuries which John knew would develop into deep bruising. He reached out to examine them, but Sherlock quickly pulled his hands away.
"Sally," he said, nodding towards where she sat with her head bowed, still shaking.
Sherlock took the scissors and moved round behind her, while John sat down on the edge of the bed and put a tentative arm around her shoulders. She sagged against him with a sigh and he could feel some of her tension easing. After a moment he heard a quiet, frustrated sound and looked over his shoulder to see Sherlock struggling with the scissors. He'd managed to get his fingers through the handles, but his hands were shaking and he couldn't seem to manipulate the blades. He looked up.
"I can't..." His mouth tightened, hating to acknowledge any weakness.
"Your fingers are numb from the bindings," John realised. "I'm sorry, I should have thought." He was absently rubbing Sally's upper arm as he spoke and it was obvious the contact was soothing her. "Um... swap places?" he suggested.
Sherlock's eyes widened as he took in John's pose, but then he nodded and moved to sit on Sally's other side. She seemed to feel safe between the two of them, sitting with her eyes closed and breathing more steadily now. She didn't object when John tipped her the other way so that she was leaning against Sherlock instead.
Taking the scissors, John pushed himself back onto the bed and made short work of her restraints. Once her hands were free, he moved round in front of her and crouched down, easing her arms forward as she winced.
"Your shoulders are going to be stiff, obviously," he said, examining her wrists, which were red but not as bruised as Sherlock's, "but I think you'll be fine."
She nodded, giving him a weak smile, but then her face crumpled. "I'm sorry," she said, trying to wipe her eyes on her jacket since John still had hold of her hands. "I'm OK. It's just reaction."
Sherlock looked totally out of his depth and oddly blank, as Sally's tears kept falling.
"Hey, it's fine," John promised her, releasing her hands and resuming his seat on the bed. "Completely normal release of stress. Nothing to be embarrassed about." He put his arm back round her shoulders and Sally immediately turned into the embrace, pressing her face into his jumper. John raised his other arm as well, then sat rocking her, murmuring soothing words and stroking her back as she cried.
He looked at Sherlock over her shoulder. "Are you all right?" he asked again.
Sherlock nodded tersely. "Of course I'm all right." He got up and went over to Tim's body, although what he was finding to deduce at this stage of the game, John had no idea.
It wasn't long before Sally's tears subsided and she became self-conscious, easing herself away and offering a muttered "Thanks" in response to the packet of tissues John produced.
"No problem," John told her firmly. "Like I said, absolutely normal reaction."
Sally sniffed. "I feel like a complete wuss," she said, blowing her nose.
Sherlock snorted, without turning round. "Now you're being stupid," he said. "Might have known it wouldn't last."
"Oy!" Indignation made Sally sound much more like herself and John chuckled, nudging her shoulder with his own.
"He means that you're brave," he explained. She gave him a disbelieving look and he grinned at her. "Need to work on your Sherlock translator," he said.
She looked doubtful for a moment, then shook her head. "I was afraid."
There was another derisive noise from Sherlock's direction and Sally looked to John again.
"That would be the 'brave' part," he told her. "Without fear, you don't need courage."
"Of course, it's possible to have too much courage and not enough bloody common sense," Lestrade's voice came from the doorway. "Which applies equally well to the lot of you."
He raised a radio to his lips. "Situation secure," he reported into it, taking in the scene. His eyes fell on the gun and his mouth tightened. "Ah," he said. There was an awkward pause. "And that would belong to...?" He surveyed the room. John opened his mouth.
"Him." Everyone looked round as Sally spoke. She pointed at the body on the floor.
"Of course," nodded Lestrade. "I assume there was a struggle of some kind, during which..."
"John..." volunteered Sherlock.
"...John. Indeed," agreed Lestrade. "John managed to get the gun away from - presumably this is Tim?"
Sherlock's eyebrows rose at the identification, but he nodded.
"Right," said Lestrade. "Well, that seems straightforward enough. I imagine that there will be no way to tell where Tim got it from?"
"Wouldn't have thought so," said Sherlock. "Looks like the markings have been filed off."
"Shocking," said Lestrade, as footsteps started thundering down the stairs. He turned his attention to Sherlock. "So, is this it, then? Case closed?" he asked. "Or are we still looking for a Moriarty connection?"
All eyes were on Sherlock, but he avoided everybody's gaze. "No connection," he said, looking down at Tim. "Just a serial killer with a grudge against me. The case can be closed." His tone was flat and it made John uneasy.
Lestrade moved on to Sally. "You all right?"
She nodded. "I'd be glad to get out of here, Sir," she said, rising to her feet.
Lestrade looked around the basement room again as it filled with officers. "Come on then," he agreed. "We can talk outside."
"How did you find us?" Sally asked him as they climbed the stairs.
Lestrade reached into his pocket and produced a note scribbled on the back of a Tesco receipt. "Turns out one of you wasn't quite such an idiot as the others," he said, passing it to Sally as they emerged into the hallway.
"'For D.I. Lestrade'," she read out. "'If I don't come back, check out our neighbour, Tim'." She paused, shooting a glance at Sherlock, who looked equally disconcerted. "'PS Sorry about the breadsticks'," she finished.
"Ah," said John. "Didn't think you'd get that quite so soon." He looked embarrassed.
Lestrade rolled his eyes. "If you honestly thought I was going to fall for 'I've got a date even though Sherlock is missing' then you're mad," he said. "I sent Hopkins to follow you and he saw you put this in the letterbox as you left. Unfortunately, by the time he retrieved it, you'd disappeared, which is why we were a little way behind, since for all we knew you'd headed for his place of work or something. By the time we'd identified which neighbour was Tim and got to the right house, his landlady said she'd heard a disturbance next door."
"And how did you get in?" Sherlock asked, casting an eye over the undamaged front door as they passed through it and out into the glare of flashing lights which dominated the street. His eyes kept flicking to John and he was frowning.
Lestrade smirked. "You're not the only one who can pick a pocket, you know," he observed. "I thought a copy of your key might come in handy and I guess I was right. A quiet entrance certainly seemed wise given the circumstances."
Sherlock grunted in response, then twitched as John put a hand on his arm.
"Sorry." John backed off immediately. "Here." He held out the coat he had picked up as they left the basement.
Sherlock took it absently, his eyes steady on John with the oddest expression on his face. It was the sort of look you might give your dog if it fetched the newspaper and you found the crossword already filled in.
"Thank you," he said, shrugging into the coat. He produced an evidence bag from an inside pocket and started checking the others until he located the phone Tim had planted on him, then extracted it using the bag as a glove. "Evidence," he announced, handing it over to Lestrade. "This is the phone Sally called last night, which Tim used to lure her here."
Lestrade took it. "About that," he said. "Don't think I'm not going to get into exactly what you," he pointed at Sally, "and you," his finger moved to Sherlock, "thought you were bloody well doing, each going off into dangerous situations without any sort of back-up plan and without letting anybody know." He glowered at them both.
"But for right now," he continued, "I want to know how you," he turned to John, "came up with this?" He took the note back from Sally and waved it around a bit. "And," he added emphatically, "why you didn't see fit to share with the class, but rather went off on your own just like these two clowns before you?" He shook his head. "You're supposed to be the sensible one!"
John looked uncomfortable. "Well, it was something Hopkins said," he started. "Um, when we were watching that CCTV footage of the girls with the short skirts."
Sally snorted, throwing him off track.
"Go on," insisted Lestrade.
"Well, Jamieson said they would catch cold, and Hopkins pointed out that colds are viral."
Sherlock's eyebrows rose as he put the whole thing together. He looked at John. "Extraordinary," he said. John's ears turned pink.
Lestrade looked helplessly at Sally, who shrugged. "Tim coughed quite a lot," she told him. "I guess he was maybe getting over a cold, but I don't see..."
"Why don't you explain it?" Sherlock invited, still focused on John. "Take us through your deductions."
John started to shake his head but Sherlock forestalled him, touching a hand very briefly to his shoulder. "Go on." He smiled. "You've seen me do it hundreds of times. Your turn."
John regarded him uncertainly, but Sherlock nodded again and he cleared his throat. "Well, Tim just popped into my head because he was blowing his nose when I saw him earlier. He was the one on the doorstep when you dropped me off," he added to Lestrade.
"John texted to say he was coming home, and Tim had my phone," interjected Sherlock and Lestrade gave him a look. "Sorry," he added to John. "You carry on."
"So he left these two downstairs and pretended to be knocking on the door instead of closing it behind him?" Lestrade asked. "Bold move. But why?"
"He wanted to know if I had a key to the basement," said John. "And probably just checking what I was doing there, I guess."
"But how did you go from 'Tim has a cold', to 'Tim is an insane, murdering, psychopathic bastard'?" asked Sally.
John blinked at her. "Nicely put," he said. "Er, well, then I was thinking about Sherlock and I remembered him deducing that the victim had a cold on that first case we were called into, because he said..." he nudged Lestrade, "do you remember? He said that thing to Anderson..."
Lestrade snorted. "Oh yes! That he'd get through a box of tissues in a week if he wasn't being regularly..." His voice petered out.
Sally exhaled in a long-suffering manner.
"So, anyway," John resumed quickly, "then I thought, what if her killer caught her cold?" He glanced up at Sherlock to check how he was doing, then persevered. "Cold symptoms usually begin two to three days after infection and peak two or three days after that," he advised. "And I remembered that Tim was sneezing when I first saw him on Wednesday night, and then on Friday, Peter said he was off sick."
He looked round at the doubtful faces. "I notice symptoms," he said. "I'm not like Sherlock, I don't see everything, but I notice illness or injury, it's just automatic. Like with your knee when you'd banged it on the bookcase," he added to Lestrade. There were nods, and he pressed on.
"So, then I dismissed the idea, because... well... it was just Tim." He spread his arms in a wide shrug. "And anyway, he doesn't look anything like you," he addressed Sherlock, "with his floppy blond hair and his round face and the killer was supposed to be at least superficially similar."
He shook his head. "But... then I remembered that I've twice mistaken him for Peter when he had his hair covered, and that Peter does look like you. From the back at least," he added swiftly. "Obviously, no one could confuse your features for Peter's."
"Er, thank you," said Sherlock dubiously. John grinned at him, getting into his stride now.
"And then I thought about the wigs, and Tim is a hairdresser," he said. "And he has access to our place, he could get the I.D. card and plant evidence," he was picking up speed, "and I remembered him asking about a key to the basement this morning, then hearing the front door bang but not actually seeing him go out, and Sally getting off the Tube at Baker Street and..." He trailed off, looking embarrassed again. "So, I decided to check," he finished.
There was a short silence. Sally looked impressed. Sherlock looked proud. Lestrade just looked pissed off.
"So." Lestrade spoke first. "That's all well and good. Bloody good, in fact, I don't mind admitting. But why the bleeding blithering hell did you decide to go on your own?"
John looked down, apparently seeking inspiration from his footwear. "Um, well..." he delayed, before straightening his shoulders and answering the question. "I'm nearly always wrong," he admitted. "Sometimes I think I've got the whole thing worked out and it all seems as plain as day..." He glanced at Sherlock, then back down at his feet. "But then it turns out it's actually something completely different." He shrugged his shoulders. "I thought I'd probably just got the wrong end of the stick, as usual, and I didn't want to make a fuss if it turned out to be nothing," he said. "I figured I could check it out, then..." He trailed off.
"Well, I think you were brilliant," Sally said loudly. She stepped forward and hugged him, and Sherlock's eyes narrowed with interest, because this was a very different embrace from the one he had witnessed in the basement. There was no weakness here, no need of comfort. This was appreciation and gratitude from a strong woman who was back in charge of herself.
"You saved my life," she said, kissing his cheek, and John blushed but looked pleased.
"I'm glad you're all right," he said as she released him and stepped back. "These two were frantic when you went missing."
Sherlock quickly adopted an affronted expression, but it was wasted as Lestrade jumped in with another question.
"But how did you get into the basement if you didn't have a key?" he asked. "I mean, obviously you'd left the door open, which was why I noticed it, but it didn't look damaged and you must have been trying to keep the noise down anyway." He raised his eyebrows. "Did you lie to Tim about not having one?"
John shook his head. "Not at all," he replied. "But Mrs Hudson has a key, of course, and we have a key to Mrs Hudson's." His face grew serious as he looked at Sally. "I'd just collected it when I heard you scream. So I opened the basement door a little faster than I would have otherwise and it made a bloody awful creaking noise." He grimaced. "I thought the game was up, but then someone - well, it must have been Sherlock - started making a right old racket, so I got away with it."
"You heard the door," Sally addressed Sherlock.
"I heard the door," he agreed, looking down at his hand and flexing the fingers.
There was a shout from farther up the road and everyone looked around as Anderson dashed towards them. He grabbed hold of Sally and she winced as he squeezed her shoulders.
"You're all right!" he exclaimed. "God, I've been so worried!" He pulled her into a hug. "As soon as they said your phone was off I knew you were in trouble," he announced. "Because you never turn that bloody thing off - I've even had to hide it sometimes just to give us some time together!" He set her back from him again, gripping her upper arms now as he looked her over.
"You've had to do what?" Sally asked.
He raised a hand to her face, not quite touching her swollen eye. "God, what happened? Did he...?"
"What do you mean, you've 'had to hide my phone'?" Sally interrupted.
Anderson waved his arm dismissively. "Never mind that now," he said. "Let's get you seen by a proper doctor." He tried to steer her towards the nearby ambulance.
Sally didn't budge. "I have been seen by a proper doctor," she said pointedly, nodding towards John. "When did you hide my phone?"
He shrugged, glancing at the others uncomfortably. "Oh, just once or twice," he dissembled. "Can we talk about this later?" He tugged on her arm but she pulled it free.
"You didn't..." she said, but her words were full of suspicion. Anderson squirmed as she studied him. "You did," she decided. "I always wondered how my mobile fell down the side of your car seat that time. It never occurred to me that you might have deliberately shoved it there." She glared at him. "And you never said a word. Not one sodding word. Not while I blamed Sherlock and got him banned."
"Well, it was his fault," Anderson defended. "I mean, who just sends a text? You said yourself he should have called, then he would have known you didn't have your phone and could have tried someone else. He didn't bother!"
"Er..." John drew Sally's attention. "Sherlock didn't call in case it put you at risk," he told her quietly. "Because you were following up leads and often you don't..."
"... put my phone on mute," finished Sally, looking at him with dawning understanding. She turned to Sherlock, who was standing silent and subdued on her other side. "Why did you never tell me that?"
He shrugged. "No point." He threw a glance at John, who smiled encouragingly at him. Sherlock grimaced. "And..." There was a long pause. "And you were right," he acknowledged, his expression pained. "I should have ensured that the message got through." He gritted his jaw, but held her gaze. "I apologise," he got out at last.
Sally's mouth fell open in shock, and she wasn't the only one. John wondered if he was alone in thinking that there was more behind Sherlock's apology than met the eye.
"About time too..." started Anderson in his snidest tone, and Sally let out an unidentifiable curse, spun on her heel and punched him in the face.
John whistled. "Nice right hook," he murmured to Lestrade, who nodded.
Anderson staggered back, raising a hand to his nose. "You're not defending him?" he protested, his eyes wide with disbelief.
Sally advanced towards him. "You absolute tosser!" she exclaimed. "This is about me, not him. You knew how much I blamed myself for what happened and you never said a word! You complete and utter shit!"
"You can't just hit me!" exclaimed Anderson, his eyes watering as he lowered his hand and checked for blood. "Especially in front of witnesses."
Nearly a dozen heads suddenly swivelled away, although most kept watching out of the corner of their eyes.
John stepped forward briskly. "She's in shock," he explained, putting a soothing hand on her back.
Sherlock waved an arm at an approaching paramedic. "Get this woman a blanket," he demanded.
It was late in the evening when John finally opened the door to their flat and led the way inside. They had been at Scotland Yard for hours while statements were taken and explanations made, after which Lestrade had given Sherlock an unequivocal bollocking. John was glad to get him home.
He glanced now at the blank face next to him and sighed, then headed for the kitchen. Picking up the kettle, he was startled to find Sherlock right behind him when he turned around.
"Er, do you want a cup of tea?" he asked, sidestepping and moving over to the sink. There was no answer and John filled the kettle then plugged it back in. "Pass the mugs?" he requested, since Sherlock was now standing in front of the draining board. There was still no response, so John reached carefully around him to pick a couple up.
"I suppose it's your turn now." Sherlock's voice was low.
"What do you mean?" John reached up for the tea bags then turned to the fridge, stopping short when he found his route blocked again. "Look, why don't you go and sit down?" he suggested. "You're just getting in the way."
Sherlock moved away from the fridge and went to stand by the table. "I'd rather get the shouting over with first," he said.
John collected the milk and set it down, then turned and leaned back against the counter, studying the defensive posture of the man in front of him.
Sherlock's lips twisted. "I can see what you're thinking," he said. "I don't need a blanket."
"Well, you need something," John retorted. "And being shouted at a bit more certainly isn't it."
"I fucked up."
"Well, you did warn me that might happen again."
Sherlock shook his head dismissively. "Yes, but I meant with all the..." he waved his arm around, "... fiddly, emotional bits, not on a case!"
John tipped his head to one side. "What you do... well, it's not a 'trick' like that wanker Sebastian described it, but it does seem magical at times. You take the tiniest hints and clues and you weave them into a deduction which no one else could even dream of and you're nearly always right - but there are always going to be times when 'Harry' is a sister. That's what makes it so impressive, in a way, because otherwise it really would seem supernatural." The kettle was starting to get noisy and he reached around to switch it off.
He frowned, marshalling his thoughts as he turned back to face Sherlock. "I've been thinking about this one ever since you laid it out and even I can follow your reasoning: why bring Sally here, to Baker Street, if not to get round your alibi? And why get round your alibi and then not take advantage of that fact? Your deduction was totally logical." He shrugged. "But Tim... wasn't."
"I was playing against Moriarty."
"Yes, you were," John agreed. "In a way, you were too clever; you assumed that your opponent was smarter than he was." He thought for a moment. "But your big mistake was going off on your own. You should have told me."
Sherlock exhaled sharply. "I fully intended to investigate a crime scene without reporting it. Taking you with me would have put you in an untenable position."
"You let me worry about my position," John told him firmly. "I think you know perfectly well where I consider my position to be."
John's eyes narrowed and he watched as Sherlock tensed his jaw and ducked his head as if annoyed that those words had escaped. "I only heard the tail end of it earlier," he said slowly. "What other rubbish did Tim come out with?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Just more of the same," he said. "That I'm a cold, emotionless bastard. That I don't care about anybody and that nobody cares about me." He produced a half-smile, but it was a pretty pathetic effort. "The usual." He shifted awkwardly under John's scrutiny, leaning back against the edge of the table.
"You know that's bullshit, right?"
Sherlock shrugged again.
"Mrs Hudson positively dotes on you."
"I got rid of her abusive husband," Sherlock pointed out. "I'm sure she's grateful."
"Right," said John. Sherlock didn't have a lot of confidence in his emotional awareness, and the little he did have had clearly taken a pounding. John briefly considered bringing up family, but 'Mycroft' was rarely a calming topic. "What about me?" he asked instead. "Because I seem to recall making a rather dramatic declaration to you less than twenty-four hours ago. Have you deleted that already?"
Sherlock scoffed, but then seemed to grow fascinated by his shoes. He looked so alone, John badly wanted to rest a hand on his shoulder, or to ruffle his hair, but he couldn't allow himself to forget Sherlock's aversion to touch. He folded his arms across his chest and stayed put.
"It was suggested that you were just 'dazzled' by me." Sherlock sniffed at the word. "The implication being that once the novelty wore off you would... well..."
"Piss off?" suggested John, trying to raise a smile.
"Something like that," Sherlock said, turning his attention to the window.
"And do I strike you as a changeable sort of character?" John asked. "One who doesn't know his own mind?"
"I don't want to be normal," Sherlock muttered, apparently going off at a tangent.
"Well, I don't think there's any imminent danger," John said warily, wondering where this was heading.
Sherlock shot him a frustrated look. "You said Sally's reaction was 'absolutely normal'," he pointed out. "Well, that's not me, is it? Tim's description was much closer. No emotions. No heart. Cold. A sociopath, albeit high-functioning. That's the 'me' I've built up over all these years. That is who I am."
John was taken aback by the anger in his voice. "I've never believed that," he said quietly.
"Why would you?" Sherlock acknowledged, raising a hand and rubbing it over his face. "Better to say that's who I was." He dropped his hand and looked at John again. "Now I buy gloves," he said, in a despairing tone. "I take the lift instead of the stairs when your leg is bad. I watch dreadful television programmes which clutter up my brain and I play Bach when I want to play Tchaikovsky. I eat when I'm not starving and I sleep when I'm not exhausted and the worst thing - the absolutely terrifying thing - is that I don't want to go back."
John stared at him. He looked miserable.
"You don't have to go back," John said. "I'm your friend." He straightened up and took a step forward. "I'm your best friend and I see you clearly. I am not dazzled, or mistaken, or expecting you to be anything that you're not. And please tell me if I'm reading this wrong, because the last thing I want is to make you uncomfortable, but you mentioned Sally's reaction, and you followed me around the kitchen, and you look as if you bloody well need one, so unless you say something to stop me, I'm going to hug you now."
Sherlock's mouth fell open as the very thing he had found it so impossible to ask for was suddenly offered to him. John's approach was slow, giving him time, and all Sherlock had to do was... say nothing. He shut his mouth. And then there were arms around his shoulders, but they weren't clawing at him. There was a hand on the back of his head, but it wasn't trying to direct his movements. There was a body pressed against his own, but it wasn't squirming or rutting against him, it was just there, warm and solid. And Sherlock raised his own arms and wrapped them around his friend, and felt comforted right down to his bones.
"Is this all right?" John asked, and the rumble of his voice reverberated through both their chests.
"I'm still here," Sherlock promised, and closed his eyes.
"'The Green Blade'?" scoffed Sherlock, reading over John's shoulder a week later. "That sounds like a comic book character!"
"Well, I thought green for envy," explained John, continuing with his laborious typing. "It was all about jealousy and so forth. And he did use a blade. And that moly-wotsit steel had a bit of a green tinge to it, I thought."
"Molybdenum." Sherlock sniffed disdainfully and moved round to sit on his own side of the desk.
"If you want to type up the cases, you go right ahead," invited John. "See if anyone wants to read it when they need a dictionary every third word. This is my blog." He peered at the screen a bit more closely, then sat back. "Plus, it ties in with some of our other cases: A Study in Pink, The Blue Barnacle, it's like a theme."
"I suppose I should be on the lookout for The Purple Pitchfork." Sherlock rattled the newspaper open and started scouring it for anything interesting.
John looked up at him. "Well, what would you call it?" he demanded. "'The Crepuscular Killer'? That sounds like a giant pancake!"
A distracted expression appeared on Sherlock's face, which John saw quite rarely but always welcomed. He saved his work and shut the laptop. "That place in Soho?" he asked.
Sherlock looked startled, but then smiled ruefully. "The one near The Breakfast Club?" he checked.
"That's the one." John got to his feet. "CrepeAffaire. Your treat."
"We'd best stop at a cash point then; it's cost me a fortune to feed you this week. I don't know why shooting people gives you such an appetite."
John opened his mouth to point out that Sherlock kept eating half his meals, but was cut off by a knock on the doorframe.
"Morning," Lestrade greeted. Hopkins was hovering just behind him.
"Be nice, remember," John muttered under his breath. "You got Hopkins into a lot of trouble."
"New case?" Sherlock sat back in his chair and clasped his hands over his abdomen, regarding Lestrade quizzically as he entered the room. "Anything interesting?"
"No, no, just checking in," said Lestrade. "Social call, you might say." He produced a hearty chuckle which was so obviously fake that even Hopkins looked embarrassed for him. He sighed. "Fine. I've been thinking that perhaps I was a bit harsh last week and I wanted to make sure you weren't..." His eyes strayed betrayingly towards the skull.
"Shooting-up my sorrows?" suggested Sherlock sardonically. "Don't worry. John's keeping me on the straight and narrow. Well," he added with a wicked grin. "I say straight..."
"Why don't you go and put the kettle on?" suggested John loudly, moving around behind Sherlock. "Make some effort at being a half decent host for once. Let me get your chair for you." Sherlock sprang to his feet just as John yanked his seat away.
"Thank you, honey," he said flirtatiously, winking in Lestrade's direction before striding off to the kitchen.
"Er, I'll see if he needs a hand," Hopkins volunteered, disappearing after him.
"Close the doors," Sherlock's voice could be heard instructing. "Your boss wants to talk to John." The doors slid shut.
John shook his head. "Don't ask me, because I have no sodding idea," he said to Lestrade. "He's been like this all week. Most of the time he's fairly normal, then he just has these... episodes." He ran a hand over his face. "Keeps introducing me as his partner. I don't know what's got into him."
"Not you, then?" Lestrade asked, then immediately held up a hand. "Sorry. Sorry, ignore that," he said. "That was out of order." He looked around, his gaze settling on the sofa. "May I?"
"What? Oh, yes. Sure," John waved an arm, still a little poleaxed by the suggestive remark. He took a seat at the other end.
Lestrade hesitated. "So, you and Sherlock: you're not actually..." He trailed off. "It's just... I never really thought you were, but then it seemed that you might be - and that was fine, whatever you're both happy with - but then you made that excuse about having a date, and..."
"Not the world's best liar, obviously," said John. "Don't get a lot of practice living with Sherlock, since it's completely impossible to get anything by him."
"Well, there's that," acknowledged Lestrade. "But it was more the way you came out with it so thoughtlessly, as if having a date with a woman was a perfectly normal thing for you to be doing."
John whistled. "You know, you're not bad, are you?" he said. "It's less obvious when you're standing next to Sherlock, but you don't miss a trick."
Lestrade shrugged, looking both determined and uncomfortable. "So, you're not messing him around then?"
John stared at him. "Are you giving me the 'Break his heart and I'll break you' talk?" he asked incredulously. "Seriously?"
"Oh, God." Lestrade leaned back in the seat, staring up at the ceiling. "It's none of my business. I do realise that." He sighed. "But you didn't know him back then, John. And frankly I can't imagine what you would have made of each other - whether you would have persevered past the 'posh junkie', and whether he would have recognised what he sees now in you." He closed his eyes for a moment.
"To be honest I don't even like thinking about those days," he admitted. "And it's ridiculous to describe someone who got up to half the things he did as in any way innocent, but at the same time he is." He turned to look straight at John. "I've never known him to have any kind of real relationship before, whatever it entails, but he's clearly let you in and I am worried about what will happen if you leave him."
"I'm not going to leave him," John said. This wasn't a conversation he'd envisaged himself having, and certainly not with Lestrade, but he'd have to be blind not to see the genuine concern behind it. "Oh, I'll date," he added. "And Sherlock will know all about it, obviously - as if anyone could ever mess him around!"
"Fair point," acknowledged Lestrade, sitting up straighter.
"I might even get married one day, if I find a woman who could survive him," John quirked a brow at the improbability of this scenario, but then his face grew more serious and he looked down.
"But, when I came back to London," he said slowly, "I was a crippled, sad shadow of a man." His voice was low. "And Sherlock saved me. And he's gone on saving me every damned day since." He raised his head again, meeting Lestrade's gaze. "So we may not be 'together' in the traditional sense, but we're more 'together' than anyone else I know and I would no more leave him than I would suddenly decide to shoot myself in the other shoulder just to even things out. Does that answer your question?"
Lestrade exhaled slowly. "It does. And I am honestly sorry to intrude." He shook his head, spreading his hands wide. "I have no idea why I worry so much about someone so obnoxious."
John laughed. "I know what you mean."
"Are you done yet?" Sherlock pushed the sliding doors apart slightly and stuck his head through the gap. He was immediately hit by two warmly affectionate smiles and reared back in alarm. The doors slammed shut again and the two men on the sofa dissolved into giggles.
John got his breath back first. "It actually no longer bothers me what terms people apply to us, because nothing really covers it," he said. "It's a mystery for the ages." He started to get up.
"Can I ask one more question?" Lestrade checked his progress.
John paused and regarded him slightly warily. "Which is?"
"What's the deal with the neck thing?" Lestrade asked. "You know, when you grabbed the back of his neck that time, and he just shut up. What is with that? And do you think it would work for anybody? And by anybody, obviously I mean me."
John chuckled. "Complete fluke," he reported. "He was sitting in his armchair, wittering on about something and I got up from the desk then tripped over some crap he'd left on the floor. Threw a hand out to save myself and accidentally grabbed the back of his neck. It was only when he didn't start talking again until I released him that I realised what had happened. But he's very twitchy about it, so I wouldn't try it except in an emergency, and I wouldn't rely on it working either, because it could just be me, I've no idea."
"Probably just you," Lestrade grumbled. "When I think of all the times I carted his sorry arse home from wherever he'd passed out... there's no bloody justice."
"Come on." John got to his feet this time. "Let's see what they're up to."
He walked over to the kitchen and pushed the doors open, to reveal Hopkins bent over the microscope while Sherlock swapped one slide for another and talked about differences in mould types.
"Did you make Constable Hopkins a cup of tea?" John enquired.
Sherlock looked affronted. "I said I was going to be nice," he pointed out. "I didn't say I was going to be you."
"We need to be off anyway," said Lestrade. "See if we can dig up any interesting cases." He clapped John on the shoulder and opened his mouth, then seemed to be at a loss as to what to say.
"Cheers," said John.
Lestrade nodded at him. "Oh, before I forget. Couple of loose ends." He pulled a notebook out of his inside pocket. "We found a wig in Tim's flat." He glanced up at Sherlock. "Another wig," he added pointedly. "This one a damned close match to your hair. We also interviewed the ex." He checked his notes. "Adrian. Who said that he'd been looking for an excuse to leave Tim for years but never quite dared, and that your outing of his affair had given him the push he needed."
"I saw Adrian the other day," nodded John. "His new boyfriend looks as if a strong wind would knock him over. Very different type to Tim, and he must be nearly a foot shorter. Shut it," he warned Sherlock quickly, then waited through the resultant snort. "Anyway, he seemed very shocked, obviously, but not actually completely surprised. He said Tim had always had a lot of anger, which he bottled up. No doubt a job where he had to be nice all day was absolutely the worst thing for him."
"So what you're saying," suggested Sherlock, with a hint of glee in his voice, "is that he was quite frankly..." John joined in and they finished together:
"... a bloody awful hairdresser!"
They both seemed to find this hilarious and Lestrade and Hopkins looked at each other in bewilderment.
"Sorry, sorry," muttered John after a minute, shaking his head. "Ongoing joke, don't mind us."
"Come on Hopkins," Lestrade prompted. "I think we're superfluous." The young man tore himself away, with earnest and repeated thanks for the impromptu lesson on mould, and they made their exit. Vague exclamations of "Brilliant!" could be heard as they retreated down the stairs.
John looked back round to find himself under scrutiny. "Did you know what Lestrade was going to say?" he challenged.
"I nearly always know what people are going to say," replied Sherlock, tipping his head to one side. "Didn't manage to warn you off, then?"
"Still here, aren't I?"
A smile was playing at the edges of Sherlock's mouth, but he kept it under control. "Breakfast?" he offered.
"More like brunch by now, but yes. Definitely." John reached for his coat, then groaned as footsteps sounded on the stairs again. "What now? Does he want me to put it in writing?"
"Not unless he's changed into heels," Sherlock observed, looking to the door as Sally appeared.
"Hi," she said, a little awkwardly, holding her hands behind her back. There was a somewhat uncomfortable silence, then John waved her towards the chairs.
"Come in," he invited. "How are you? Do you want a cup of tea? Or coffee?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm not staying," she said. "Just came to say 'Goodbye'. And to give you this." She produced a blue gift bag from behind her back and took a few steps forward, handing it to John.
He took it with a surprised but pleased expression and peered inside, seeing a beautifully wrapped book-shaped package. "You shouldn't have."
Sally's lips quirked. "You're probably right about that," she acknowledged. "But it seemed the thing to do."
"You're leaving?" Sherlock queried.
She turned to him, then blinked a few times. "Sorry," she said. "It's like I'm seeing two of you. There are all the old auto-responses, and then there's this new stuff on top." She shook her head. "It's confusing."
"Well, I'll just disregard any sarcastic comments then, shall I?"
"Right, because you never used to do that at all."
Sherlock raised an eyebrow, but he looked amused.
"You're going somewhere?" John echoed Sherlock's question, and Sally turned back to face him.
"Leave of absence," she said. "Just for a few weeks. I could do with a break after... well, everything that's happened and something's come up, so..." She shrugged.
"Oh, right," John nodded. "Something nice, I hope?" he enquired politely.
"America, actually." Sally seemed unsure whether to explain, but they were both regarding her with interest so she kept going. "My little brother - well, not so little now, but you know what I mean."
"The one who likes comic books?" John remembered.
She nodded. "Yeah. Well, he's brilliant, actually. Not in an annoying way," she flicked a glance at Sherlock, who rolled his eyes, "but brilliant. Anyway, he was invited to this conference thing in the States a while back, but we couldn't afford for him to go. I mean, we tried, and we've all been applying for grants to anywhere we could think of, but it was just too expensive. But one of the applications has just been approved, so it's on. And it covers a partner, which he doesn't have, so I'm going with him. We leave at the weekend."
"That sounds great," said John. "I hope you have a fantastic time!"
Sally beamed at him, suddenly looking younger and more carefree than he'd ever seen her. "Can't wait, actually," she said. "I've been so flat out on my career for the last few years, I've hardly taken a break at all and D.I. Lestrade promised to keep my spot open, so..." She spread her arms wide. "'Goodbye, rainy England' and 'Hello, probably also rainy America'!"
"E-mail if you come across any interesting cases," Sherlock offered.
"No cases!" Sally insisted. "And don't get him killed." She nodded towards John, then turned to face him. "Same goes to you," she added, waving a hand at Sherlock.
"We'll do our best," promised John as she turned to leave.
"Are you going to get into trouble for this?" Sherlock asked, and she paused in the doorway.
"Doubt anyone will notice," she said. "There's never going to be a court case, it's just an empty box in a room full of boxes." She turned up the collar of her coat, refastening the belt more tightly. "Can't be linked to me, anyway. Just don't do anything stupid." She grimaced. "More stupid than usual."
"Thank you," Sherlock said and she nodded.
John's mouth was hanging open as her footsteps faded. "She didn't!"
Sherlock just grinned at him. "Aren't you going to open it?"
Less than a minute later, John sat in his armchair, looking down at his gun inside the unwrapped box. "I can't believe this."
"It seems the prospect of a holiday put her in a good mood," Sherlock said, taking his seat opposite. "Or at least a less officious one."
John tore his eyes away from the gun and looked at Sherlock closely. Sherlock looked back, his face smooth of expression and John studied him for a long moment. "You did something." His face didn't flicker. "What did you do?" There was still no reaction. "Did you ask Mycroft to..."
"No, I did not ask bloody Mycroft!" Sherlock exploded. "I do have some contacts of my own, you know. Not everything is Mycroft!"
John gave him a smug smile. "Gotcha."
Sherlock's stare was disbelieving, then he slumped down in his chair. "I'm broken," he complained, petulantly. "You've broken me."
"You might as well tell me now," said John. "You obviously fixed something with the grant. But how did you know about it in the first place?"
"There were applications behind the clock in her living room," Sherlock admitted begrudgingly. "Saw them when she was missing."
"Do you actually have an eidetic memory?" John asked him. "You barely glanced through those documents."
Sherlock shrugged. "Irrelevant. I remember things until I delete them." He sat up straighter, a concerned look crossing his face. "Don't tell anyone about this," he instructed. "It would ruin my reputation."
John smirked at him. "You like her."
"I do not."
"Yes, you do."
"You're being ridiculous. I will not be drawn into such a juvenile argument." Sherlock reached round to the table and grabbed his newspaper.
"You do, though."
"For God's sake! I called in a favour, that's all. One phone call." He shook open the paper and held it in front of him.
"So, why bother? A phone call is more effort than you'll make for most people and you can't have known she would end up going too, or that it would in any way lead to the return of my gun." John paused, then added sneakily, "You did it just to be nice."
"I may vomit."
John fell silent for a while. "Did you feel that you owed her?" he asked. "Because of what happened? Because you made a mistake?"
Sherlock lowered the paper. "You are the most tenacious person I have ever known."
"It wasn't a..." He broke off and sighed. "Fine. The idea crossed my mind when we were leaving the basement, are you happy now?" He started to raise the paper again, but then his lips twitched. "But that wasn't when I definitely decided to do it."
"When was that, then?"
Sherlock quirked a brow at him and John laughed as he caught on.
"When she decked Anderson!" he realised. "Brilliant." He smiled. "You're brilliant."
Sherlock looked somewhat mollified. "Lunch?" he suggested, putting the paper down.
John checked his watch. "Bloody hell, no wonder I'm starving. Let's go before anyone else turns up."
They donned coats and scarves and headed out, ignoring the flocking taxis since it was only a twenty minute walk.
"Do you think we should tell Mrs Hudson that Lestrade has a key?" John asked, setting a brisk pace.
"Well, if the Urban Dictionary is correct as to the meaning of 'silver fox', then I don't imagine she would have minded too much," replied Sherlock.
"Is that what she calls him?" John snorted. "Oh, I've got to get that into a conversation!" He chuckled for a minute as they walked on, then frowned. "Hang on... would have minded?"
Sherlock smirked, then produced a key from his coat pocket.
John rolled his eyes. "You two are going to be back and forth with that thing for months, aren't you?"
"I hardly think so," Sherlock replied. "This is a copy of your key."
"What?" John goggled at him. "He picked my pocket? That cheeky bugger!" He fumed for a while. "And to think I poured my bloody heart out to set his mind at rest. I should have told him I was just using you for sex."
"Feel free," invited Sherlock. "To tell him that, I mean," he added quickly. "Obviously." He shut up.
They walked on for a while, then Sherlock spoke again. "So, what did you tell him?"
"You mean you weren't listening?" John adopted an amazed expression.
Sherlock sniffed. "Hopkins proved a lot more interested in mould than I had anticipated," he admitted. "Kept asking questions."
"Sounds like someone has a protégé."
Sherlock ignored that, still waiting for an answer. There was a hint of tension visible in his face if you knew where to look for it. John knew where to look.
"I told him I wasn't going to leave you." He saw the smile begin, but Sherlock suppressed it.
"And was there a time frame attached to this statement?"
"There was not."
Sherlock frowned. "That's a bit vague, isn't it?"
"That's one way of looking at it."
"Ah." The effort of controlling his expression was taking its toll: Sherlock looked as if he had acquired a nervous tic.
John stopped walking. "All right?" he asked.
Sherlock came to a halt, then turned and took a step back until they were face to face. "Am I all right?" he echoed. "Honestly, I'm not completely sure." He frowned in a rare moment of introspection. "I think I feel a little high."
John tipped his head to one side. "And is that all right with you?" he asked. "I suppose I'm taking a lot for granted here, really. Are you OK with being this invested in another person? With having a friend this close?"
He took a small step forward and put his hand on Sherlock's chest. "Close enough to touch," he emphasised. "It's not exactly normal for you."
Sherlock grinned at him.
"Normal is boring."
Can I ask that, if you leave a review, you please DO NOT NAME THE KILLER?
I've put a 'Spoiler Warning' on the summary, but lots of people do look at the reviews before deciding whether to read a story, and it would be a shame if they know 'whodunnit' right from the start.
A huge, huge vote of thanks to my tireless beta and friend Ariane, without whom this story would have made much less sense (and had a lot more commas!)
Much appreciation also to those of you who have encouraged and supported me along the way, especially staceuo, mattsloved1, JennaEf, lege et lacrima, Lonewolfe001, Mirage992, toeki, enigma-kar, Manny Maarie, Nicole Gruebel, Umi Ungalad, musse, Authoressinhiding, ImLostForever, akuma-river, Superbly Mundane, Pilikia18, BeautifulApparition, SeenaC, TrudyW, MiyukiChan14, Httw, Cyrano's Ghost, Marz1, PhantomInspector, CountryGrl, Jodi2011, Lumoa, CJaMes12, ruby890, akaAuroraBorealis, LittlePippin76, Loveliest Tragedies, chironsgirl, Blackcurrant Bonbons, broadwayb, Catindahat, D-Syfer, Eyebrows2, genderless-but straight, Lectorem, Mercedes no Inuarai, Rayn12, The Red Leper, Uncanny-dreamer, Vicki, wumee, Chick, Aubergine 28, BlueRaven, Caligo Origuu, Charm and Strange, Cliocat, Dinogeek, HOS70, Madame Minuit12, RainingSunDrops, Shadowxwolf, ultraviolet128, XmillieX and Linwe Elendil. Your comments and messages have been absolutely brilliant, thank you so much!