Note from Author (addendum after first posting): thank you so, so much to people who have taken the time to review this, you have no idea how appreciated it is after writing til the early hours on so many nights! All and any reviews welcome!

Just a warning about this chapter. There is angst. A lot. A GREAT deal.

Winter

37

John doesn't tend to receive post. All his bills and admin are done online, and he prefers the immediacy and relative anonymity of email. Nobody writes. Why on Earth would they?

So when the postman hands him a package, to be signed by one John H Watson, early one morning in the middle of the week, it's certainly a surprise. And John pulls a little 'eh?' face as he carries it upstairs and deposits it on the table.

John holds it with a tentative fingers. It's a normal temperature, no ominous ticking, that's reassuring.

He huffs a breath. It looks innocuous enough, but then again the last thing deposited anonymously through his letterbox had contained a dirty bloody syringe.

John takes the risk, and takes the package back up the stairs.

John's noticed that when dealing with things he predicts are going to be difficult, he makes a cup of tea as a comfort blanket.

In Afghanistan, he'd found himself leading boys out, boys. Downing pints like they were water, just out of Sandhurst and Blackheath. University students, not soldiers. God he'd needed tea then, made it in his tranger religiously, every morning, bitter black stuff. But it was tea. The familiar tang of tannin, the warmth through his belly, even against the oppressive heat of an Afghan summer, the familiar taste of calm.

Anything to calm the terror of taking soldiers who had been children mere weeks ago, out to active service.

Now, he reverts to tea, as he always does. As a comma in life, a moment of pause and comfort and gathering together of the self.

John harnesses the whisper of panic in his mind, "At ease," he murmurs, taking a sip from his cup.

"Oh well, nothing for it," and he puts his tea down and tears open the package, pawing through the padding, to reveal it's innards.

A … little statue, of some sort.

John allows himself a flip little smile, "Anticlimactic."

He scrutinises it - it's cast bronze, he can tell that much, but what on earth is it a statue of? A sort of lion, dragonish thing, with a circular, open mouth and a fearsome glare. John turns the statue over in his hands, traces the words etched on the bottom, Made in Singapore.

Singapore? He knows next to nothing about Singapore. Has never travelled there. Has no friends, or even acquaintances, there.

He turns to Google, browsing through the first few pages of search results: Singapore Heritage Centre, plenty of tourism sites, a couple of articles about the growing financial sector in the country. And then, something that does pique his interest:

"Singaporean drug cartel, See Tong, brought to knees."

John reads the article thoughtfully. It's badly translated and melodramatic, but very recent.

He skims through it again: "Mysterious hero vanishes into the night, accepting no reward."

John gives the little statue one last perusal, and decides it will look well on Sherlock's windowsill. He places it there.

"No, actually, that's slightly creepy," he feels like the bloody thing's watching him. Knowing how his life seems to have turned out, it probably is.

He turns the statue slightly, so it's not staring directly at his head.

Two days later, another package. The postman gives him a streetwise nod, "Been doing some shopping, then? Never normally have anything for you."

John mumbles something about Amazon, and shuts the door as quickly as he can without seeming too rude.

Inside, a miniature Eiffel Tower made of cheap plastic, the sort you could buy at any street stall. Paris. Obvious. John puts it on the window behind the kitchen sink.

More interestingly, a macaroon wrapped in expensive looking tissue paper.

"Hmm."

Immediately, John turns to his computer, and Google. He taps the keys thoughtfully.

Paris; crime; solved

A few generic press releases from Police Nationale, but little else. Some Poirot clips from YouTube.

Paris; crime; dead

"Aha..." on the fourth page, John clicks, "Crime Lord Alphonse DuPointier, found dead in his bathtub. Cause of death unknown."

Apparently a man dressed all in black was seen leaving the scene. The French journalist calls him 'The Dark Knight'.

"No imagination," mutters John. He sniffs the macaroon suspiciously. Pistachio.

He eats it with his next cup of tea. It's delicious.

Two days later, another. This time he opens it without pause. A pair of cufflinks, they look like ivory, in an exotic design he has never come across before. No identifying marks.

It takes an afternoon of trawling around jewellery dealers in Mayfair before he hits on something. The well-groomed, slightly oily looking man behind the counter sniffs at John's tatty parka and beanie, but quickly becomes interested when John unwraps the cufflinks.

"Ohhhhhh, yes. How sweet. From Mali, I should think. Beautiful country. A fine example, antique, eighteenth century by the design."

John nods along, "You can tell all that? I have a friend who'd like you."

The man smiles, a flash of gold incisor,"Mmm, oh yes. Here, I have a book," he rummages around under the counter for a second, finding a large, hardback tome, "African artwork is something of an interest of mine, and naturally that extends to jewellery." He flicks through the book's thick pages,

"The design is based on a tribal pattern - Kel Tamasheq, or the Tuareg as you may know them."

He looks enquiringly at John, pointing to a picture of a man swathed in a white headdress, sitting on a camel. John shakes his head, he's never heard of them.

"Well, quite. This pattern denotes ... depending on the context, faithfulness, loyalty or fidelity. It can be given from a warrior to his chief before a battle, or more likely during a battle that is going badly, to reassure the chief that he still has a loyal soldier. It is also given by a husband to his wife, if the husband is to undertake a long journey. To symbolise his plan to return to her. A lovely gesture."

John thanks the man politely, wrapping the cufflinks carefully in their paper. As he leaves, the man says,

"I do hope you get good use out of them."

John shrugs, "Probably not. All my cuffs have buttons."

When John gets home, he logs straight on to his laptop, and looks up Mali. It takes an hour, but he finds it:

"International slave trading ring's headquarters mysteriously blown up. Police have no leads."

John leans back in his chair. After a while, the laptop's screen goes black. Night rolls in. Foxes fight and mate outside, he can hear them screaming. John sits in the jaundiced light of the lamp post outside. Thinking.

38

All is quiet on the Baker Street front.

John buys a shirt that requires cufflinks. Not that he wears shirts, anymore.

But still.

39

There is a difference, John has found, between drinking towards oblivion, and drinking towards that fleeting, magical, admittedly delusional state of mind in which he is able to conjure the spectre of Sherlock.

For this, beer won't do. It must be wine or preferably something sweeter. Port, if he can stand the pain. Tonight, port. Sweet and syrupy, like cough medicine, he drinks it by the tumbler, groaning as the thick weight of a headache begins to press behind his eyes.

He pours another, keeping the bottle close to hand, and settles down to watch Downton Abbey on the telly.

Smiles to himself, feeling as if he's conducting a rain dance.

Half of the bottle's downed before Sherlock appears, from his peripheral vision, as if stepping directly from John's optic nerve.

Spectre Sherlock leans against the mantelpiece, all louche, long limbs and dangerous sinew. His hair curls darkly over one eye.

"Alcoholic." But he's smiling, and stealing across the room to collapse next to John on the sofa, disregarding personal space entirely.

The sheen of Spectre Sherlock beats back the imposing night, and John is warmed through, feels his thought processes dissipate like a nimbus cloud. He draws Spectre Sherlock to him, strokes him, constructs him, a miracle.

Spectre Sherlock growls against his neck. Their bodies mould together in the darkness.

He quivers, shaky as a gelding about to take a jump. Feels Spectre Sherlock's lips brush almost imperceptibly against his exposed neck, a kiss. John's skin trembles with happiness.

"I'm not real, John, that's the beauty of it," Spectre Sherlock whispers, "What do you want me to be?"

"If you were real-"

Spectre Sherlock pulls away gently, resting his head on John's shoulder. "Which I'm not, patently."

"You're my fantasy," John objects, "could you not perhaps just-"

"On the contrary, I am your fantasy of myself. You can manipulate me to an extent, but some things are universally true."

"Like what?"

"I am universally unwilling to listen to your stupidities." Spectre Sherlock nuzzles John nonchalantly, smug and satisfied.

"Right. Well hypothetically, if you were real ... would you have ... you know. Kissed ... my..." he gestures ineffectually towards his torso, "Kissed me?"

Spectre Sherlock blinks up at him, "I haven't the foggiest, John. I'm not

real. Look, I'll prove it."

And with that, Spectre Sherlock transmogrifies into a giant, black moth, as big as a labrador, and flaps gently out of the window.

John awakes to the most disgusting hangover he has ever experienced. He's forgotten to turn the heating on. It's so very cold.

40

John, after ignoring almost twenty phone calls, grudgingly agrees to have coffee with Harry.

They meet at the Amphitheatre Restaurant, at the Royal Opera House. It's warm and comfortable, and Harry leverages this slyly, managing to turn 'coffee' into 'lunch' without John really noticing. He finds himself tucking into pan-fried salmon with pickled cauliflower, wondering why he eats beans on toast every day when there's this sort of food to be had in the world.

He manages to keep the sour look on his face, nonetheless.

Harry chats inanely about her job, Clara, the people at AA. John supplies grunts every now and again, to show he's compos mentis.

She pauses, fork halfway to her mouth. John studiously avoids her eyes - he forgot to grunt at something, he realises, and has attracted her attention.

"John ... how are you? Is everything ... alright?"

John sighs, he knew this was coming.

"I'm fine, Harry. Just, you know, muddling along."

"You look exhausted."

"I spend most of my life sleeping!"

"Excessive sleep is a sign of depression, you know," she finally takes her mouthful, talking through the spinach, "and you're incredibly isolated. It hurts to see you living such a half life."

John lays down his cutlery with a sharp thud, "I am fine, Harry. I am where I want to be in my life."

Harry frowns, "Living with a ghost?" she asks.

And John nods.

"Quite."

41

Tonight, John dreams. Oh, he dreams.

The first time he met Sherlock. Iraq, or Aghanistan?

The first time he felt like that, about the man. Get OFF my sheet!

He dreams of advancing armies, trench warfare, dreams up Sherlock in a Major's greatcoat, at the head of a cavalry of spirited horses. His sabre drawn, carbines strapped up at his thighs.

The muffled burial beat, afterwards, the faceless soldiers with their moist eyes, straight backs, parade rest.

He wakes, overheated, and is surprised to find his eyes are leaking tears.

42

John goes for his morning walk. It's raining. He gets soaked through, everything saturated with water, chilled to the bone.

His teeth begin to chatter, still a mile from 221B. By the time he makes it back to the flat, the sneezing has already begun.

He trudges to Sherlock's bed and, still fully dressed and soaking, throws himself face first onto it. He stays there all day, and into the night, pretending he has drowned.

43

Molly comes over. John hasn't invited her, she just appears at his door, at about 2pm. John is never out of the flat at this time of day. And Molly seems certain he's in, banging on the door for five minutes,

"I know you're bloody in there, John Watson!"

A pause. He hears her voice murmuring, must be on the phone. Then,

"Bloody hell, fine! Though I hope you realise how ridiculous this is!"

The banging begins again. Alright, thinks John, the balance of the noise versus having to talk to Molly has just shifted, in favour of Molly. He wraps Sherlock's dressing gown more tightly around himself.

He swings the door open, gives her a glare, and turns back into the flat.

"Oh!" Molly quickly stuffs her phone into her pocket, and follows him inside.

They stand, awkwardly, for a moment. John, shooting daggers, Molly shifting nervously.

She speaks, eventually, "Got you some bits," too bright, too chirpy.

John's eyes flick to the ceiling. He sighs.

Molly reaches into her bag, "Here."

She's holding out an umbrella, "It's an umbrella," she says.

"Um. What?"

Molly continues talking, all of a rush, "So you don't get wet. On your walks? It's Scotts of Stowe. A proper gentleman's umbrella. Um. Apparently."

Realising he's not going to take it from her, she puts it on the table.

"I ... also ... some food. I ... get the impression that you're not really eating enough."

Her phone buzzes in her pocket, and again, like an angry bee. She ignores it, "Um. So. Orange marmalade biscuits."

The biscuits go on the table, next to the umbrella. John likes marmalade ... he resists looking at them.

"And, um, Shropshire cheese. It's got whisky in it." She shudders with delicate distaste. did she buy it for him if she thought it was so horrid?

Molly rummages around in her bag a bit more,

"Aha. There. Don't worry, it's wrapped." She brings out a rectangular package wrapped in brown paper, "Beef wellingtons! From Fortnums, all you have to do is put them in the oven for half an hour."

John stares at Molly. He really likes beef wellington, has he ever told her that? And why on earth is she doing this? He's not had enough social interaction recently to remember how to be polite. So he continues to stand there, silently, scratching his ear absently.

Molly sighs, "I'll just pop it in the fridge."

Her phone buzzes again, a high-pitched trill of irritation. Molly closes the fridge. Checks her phone furtively.

"I'd better go."

She moves as if to give John a hug, but thinks better of it.

"Molly!" John stops her in her tracks, "Thanks."

Molly nods, smiles, gives him a jaunty wave. Her phone buzzes yet again, and as she closes the door behind her, she answers it,

"For god's sake, what's wrong with you? Yes, I'm just leaving. Yes, everything's fine. No, he isn't. No. No. Well you'll have to wait and see won't you? I do not know why I put up with you..."

Her voice gets quieter and quieter as she descends the stairs. John considers the umbrella. Picks up the cheese. He opens the jar and scoops out a bit of it, sucking the crumbling mess off his finger.

Mmm, whisky. He loves whisky.

44

John eats the biscuits in two sittings. His stomach pleasantly distended, he lies on the sofa savouring the taste of orange marmalade in his molars.

He browses through Sherlock's books, looking for something to entertain himself with before he can get to Gaunts to buy a new job lot of crime thrillers.

"dead every enormous piece

of nonsense which itself must call

a state submicroscopic is-

compared with pitying terrible

some alive individual"

John grimaces. No wonder Sherlock is - was - a bit funny in the head, if this is what he'd been reading.

45

The beef wellingtons last slightly longer. John has them for tea on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and the last for a desperate breakfast on Thursday when he's run out of milk. And muesli.

Molly has left a couple of messages, but John doesn't bother to get back to her. He does, however, venture into Fortnums on one of his morning walks, and buys another packet of biscuits.

46

Another Saturday night, another binge drinking session to dance in the rain of Spectre Sherlock.

John had been hoping for more teases, more strokes, more closeness. He is denied.

Spectre Sherlock looks grave, "Those who have found their cause are blessed, John. Animal rights, pensions for soldiers, the conservation of the wetlands. The righteous, the evangelists, may be deranged, but their fight restores their belief in goodness."

His gaze bores into John, torturing in its intensity, "What is your cause, John?"

John is uncomfortably aware that Spectre Sherlock is simply quoting the chorus his subconscious has been singing for a few weeks now. But hearing this, from the mouth ... from the image of the mouth of Sherlock, is very difficult.

Pain sustains John, digging the fingernails of one hand against the palm of the other.

"You," he pauses, thinking, "Your memory."

Spectre Sherlock raises his chin in challenge, "And what have you done to honour it, exactly?"

John drops his eyes to the floor, ashamed. He finds he has no answer.

Spectre Sherlock supplies one for him, "Nothing. You've shrouded my memory in a dropcloth, and hidden it in a dusty room. And you've created in yourself a shrine to me."

Footsteps ring out as Spectre Sherlock walks across the room, stopping just in front of John. His shoes were Sherlock's favourite pair – black leather, sleek and comfortable enough to run across London in. John looks up, up past Spectre Sherlock's unfeasibly long legs, his compact hips, chest, neck, chin, mouth, to those extra-terrestrial eyes.

"If you want to honour my memory, John Watson, be a man and live!"

John is angry, now – his endless ennui, a grey world, his continued devotion, and now this attack - "I've been grieving, Sherlock! FOR you, because - because -" he suddenly realises that he has stood, is toe-to-toe with Spectre Sherlock. He pauses, no, this is … good … cathartic.

"Because you filled my life. Everything that I did, every day, had you inside it, you were the salt in my blood. And once you were gone … it all fell away." He shakes his head, resisting the urge to cry, "I don't know if there's a word for that but 'love'".

Spectre Sherlock's eyes don't have quite the depth of the man himself. But the shape is there, and the colour is better than approximate. And the look in them is enough to make the first tear fall from John's right eye.

Spectre Sherlock touches the tear, gentle now, "What I didn't dare do in my life, dare in yours. Live. Please."

John resists the urge to squirm under the microscopic gaze – reaches up to knits his hand in Spectre Sherlock's hair, a convulsive movement, he doesn't even feel his arm move.

Spectre Sherlock's hands reach around him, stroking against the waistband of his jeans in soft, teasing movements. John hears himself groan, feels his mouth open, panting, his head thrown back neck exposed -

But Spectre Sherlock's skin is wrong. It's too smooth, feels like silicone, and is neither warm nor cool. Room temperature. The temperature of nothingness.

John needs another drink, to ward of reality. He is aware, more than ever, that Spectre Sherlock is not Sherlock, is not even the lingering ghost of Sherlock. That Sherlock, hisSherlock, is less even than bones, was burned, is nothing but ash. His vibrant, vital Sherlock is dust.

John's temples scream. He closes his eyes against the almost-perfect face of Spectre Sherlock, who watches him neutrally. And understanding grips him like a wolf-bite, grinding fangs. No Sherlock. No more. Not ever.

And, no longer able to delude himself through alcohol and determination, he opens his eyes.

There's nothing there. There never was.

47

Anything but this, John thinks miserably, stirring golden syrup into his porridge, the slow, long degradation into disgusting mediocrity. It has been days since he has felt even the faintest flicker of hope. His life circumnavigates tragedy, simply by trudging on and on, alone. Without end and with no discernible meaning.

He can no longer claim to be in the first, violent throes of grief. At week 37, John admits to himself, he is belligerently refusing to create a life in which Sherlock is not the North Star. His delusion is exposed when he opens the door to 221B and is still shocked to find Sherlock ... not there.

He takes a long walk on Hampstead Heath, where the first thin frost crackles under his boots, and the bare trees roar in a gale. It's four in the afternoon and the pale moon is already risen, appeared over the cityscape, fighting with mournful clouds as they roll. It casts a weirdish light along the sunken roads like grey washboards. The river is as thin and reflective as a scalpel, the light dies, a sinking ship.

Like many of the important moments in John's life, he isn't aware of having made any decision. He buys one packet of pills at Tesco, two at Boots, and one at Superdrug. Does not think about these small purchases, buys a new toothbrush in Superdrug, as if he might use it tomorrow.

John doesn't have it in him to take his wrists, or fashion a noose. He just doesn't, and he knows it. He is, however, able to take an awful lot of pills - urged on by the shrieks and laughter of clubbers wandering past the flat - and that evening, without shaking or crying or thinking, this is what he does.

Slow, methodical. Popping the blister packs, getting four or so in his palm, washing them down with lukewarm water.

For an hour or so, he feels no different. Then, nausea. Crippling, whirling nausea that has him crumpling against the cold tiles of the bathroom floor, eyes shut tight against the bright lights. He lets the chill drift through his bones, through his jumper. His stomach rolls on a sea of stormy drugs. It's a dream, he lives it but doesn't live it.

The taste of sucrose is a film across his tongue, his mouth is impossibly dry. His hands are shaking worse than they ever have done before. It hurts, good god it hurts.

He struggles to his knees, collapses again.

A while later, he realises he might have hit his head. He watched blood pool lazily along the floor, forming a shallow puddle against the bathtub.

This is it, then, the glorious end of John H Watson. How wretched.

The floor is uncomfortable, his limbs wedged under him awkwardly, but he's too concussed to move. He lies for hours, wishing for oblivion. He vomits, the vomit tastes impossibly sour. He has enough left in him to make sure he's on his front. Oblivion doesn't come.

The sun rises. He misses his morning walk. He passes out, finally, and unconsciousness is blissful, deep and sweet. Unconsciousness tastes like victoria sponge.

To be honest, John isn't surprised when he wakes up.

People like me simply go on, the donkeys of the world, until we drop in exhausted, disappointed old age.

He is, however, surprised at being in Sherlock's bed. Clean. Warm. Lifting a hand to his still-throbbing head, he finds it neatly bandaged. He's wearing Sherlock's dressing gown over his own boxers, as he prefers.

And, though his entire body aches and his stomach is emptier than he can ever remember, it all feels incredibly alive.

He tentatively slides out of the bed, finds he can walk - just about - and makes his way to the kitchen, leaning against the wall for support.

The porridge in the bowl is warm, golden syrup already stirred in perfectly. A pot of English Breakfast sits alongside, one cup already poured, with just a splash of semi-skimmed.

"Oh my God," he breathes, "Oh. Oh my God."

John whirls around, and runs through the house, filled suddenly with a manic energy. He throws open doors, checking the bathroom, the study, even the stairwell. Nothing.

"Sherlock?" The voice of a child lost in a supermarket, he can't help it, "Oh, please ... Sherlock?" Silence.

John's chin trembles with the effort of forcing tears back down his throat. Almost, just a low whine escapes.

He sits heavily down at the table. Deliberately tries to take a mouthful of porridge. It's delicious, but he gags.

John spends the morning lolling on the sofa in a depressed heap. Thus, it's mid-afternoon by the time he notices it: a new envelope on the mantelpiece.

He's not aware of crossing the room, of ripping open the envelope (though later, the detritus will look as though it had been attacked by an angry dog), though he must be doing it, because the paper is there in his hands, and he's reading it:

'John,

If you ever, ever do that again, I will kill you myself to ensure that it is done properly. I will never forget seeing you broken, bleeding. Never.

Could you not be content, John, with the level of dialogue I was able to safely give you? Was this revenge? Making me to see you as you saw me? If you were trying to force me to come forward, you have achieved, in the worst way possible.

When you didn't appear for your morning walk, I knew something had happened. You're a creature of extreme habit these days. I did not, however, expect that you had happened to yourself.

Mycroft was kind enough to do a little research. Interesting shopping list, John Watson. That was when I began to run. No time to don a disguise, or to move subtly. I had to make my way to you. God knows who saw me. Let's hope nobody connected to Moriarty ... they are watching you, still, and closely.

You're a fool. You may have ruined us both.

Nevertheless, I'm sorry I couldn't stay to see you wake. The one positive I take from this (grudgingly, you're still a complete twit) is that it seems you miss me rather more than is normal. I am ... relieved.

But please, John, learn patience. I'm so close, so close to making you - and us - safe again. All I require of you is time.

Your s Ever,

SH'

Typical Sherlock. Typical John. Sherlock, believing his hints and shadows were akin to a sign screaming: "I'm still here! I still want you!" and John, receiving less than a tenth of the message.

John collapses where he stands. Sherlock has blown out death with a breath. John feels trapped within his own body, needs to scrabble free from his tormented flesh, needs to run, needs to choke, needs to - he gulps, he shakes, and finally, he hugs himself so tightly that his bones creak, and he screams, screams, and screams again.

48

He calls Molly on the landline.

"I hate you."

He slams the phone down.

He calls again. A little less furious this time.

"How is he?"

He can hear his own breathing, and hers - can practically hear her panicked pulse.

"Um..." she makes a mouseish squeak, "Who?"

He slams the phone down. Waits to calm a little.

He calls again.

"Sherlock, and don't you dare lie to me. I know. That is, I'm certain."

Molly lets out her breath in a whoosh. Her answer is relieved, when it comes, "He's alright, John. He misses you, a lot. Constantly whining. And he never washes up."

John can't help but give away a weak little chuckle, despite his rage.

"Why doesn't he come home?" Plaintive, he hates sounding so needy.

"Still killing. Moriarty's men, all of them. He has to."

John nods, forgetting Molly can't see him.

"You watched me suffer."

"I had to! Sherlock made me!"

"Well, quite."

He slams the phone down.

49

John tries to be patient.

50

Patience is difficult, John discovers. He has always thought of himself as a relatively patient man. The sort who doesn't need instant gratification in every instance.

The epitome of good grace.

Not so. John spends the next two weeks in the biggest sulk of his life, snapping at anyone he comes into contact with. He kicks a squirrel in Regent's Park.

How long? An angry, jealous little voice in his frontal lobe mutters, how long?

He measures out his life in cups of tea.

In these two weeks, John oscillates from soaring relief and joy, to absolute bloody apoplectic rage at Sherlock's machinations. He both hates and loves Sherlock, wants to strangle him, shag him, beat him senseless, wrap him in cotton wool. Wants to kill him so he can't ever, ever pretend to die again.

But mostly, he wants to see him.

51

John wakes to his alarm. Sherlock. Always. Always the first thought of a new day.

He stretches, slowly, opening his eyes creakily, allowing the tepid light to infiltrate slowly. A beep from his phone. A new voicemail message.

"John." John's eyes snap open, "Could you convene to the kitchen, please. I … well, yes ..."

John's mouth goes dry, his breathe in panicked little pants.

"No, old voicemail, caught up in the system, oh god," he can't stop his eyes from flicking towards the bedroom door.

"... I have a surprise for you. Though you might have guessed, by now. Kitchen, as soon as is convenient. This is Sherlock. Holmes."

And John flies to the bedroom door, tearing it open.

"John."

Thinner, so pale, John can see the skull beneath the skin. And exhausted. But his eyes. This is no Spectre. This is him.

John draws a sharp breath. The syllable of his pulse shatters. Time scatters. Motionless, John feels his consciousness slip away, and all that's left in his body is the moment at which he sees Sherlock.

As his eyes begin to fail him and the world slides out of view like magma, there are arms around his shoulders, which John leans into, this is all he thinks of, beatification.

"John. You're alright, you're alright."

Sherlock bears him to the carpet, arms still around him like a sling, and they sit, and rock together, around each others necks in one anguished knot.

There will be time, there will be time.

52

They settle into an approximation of their old dynamic remarkably quickly, once John has managed to stop sobbing for more than five minutes at a time, and Sherlock has glugged two pints of electrolyte replacing drinks.

John begins to ask questions. Such as:

"Was it absolutely necessary, Sherlock? To pretend to die?"

And Sherlock nods, guileless, looking John straight in the eye, "You'd be dead, if I hadn't."

John accepts this. He must.

"Did you worry about me?"

To which Sherlock answers, "Yes, constantly. But once I had surveillance running, less so."

John grits his teeth. He goes into the bedroom and retrieves the little Singaporean statue, brandishes it at Sherlock, "It is watching me, isn't it?

Sherlock has the decency to look faintly admonished.

"How many people did you have to kill?"

Sherlock is silent, focusing on whatever is on his laptop screen.

"Sherlock?"

"You are worth the lives of infinite men, John."

"I-"

Sherlock snaps the laptop shut, "This conversation is over," and he removes himself from the room.

A moment later, John's phone buzzes. He looks. Sherlock.

"87. Approximately. I believe this makes me a serial killer."

John texts back,

"You're still Sherlock. Odd, lovely, Sherlock."

Ping, a response.

"I am making what is called a 'smiley face'."

On the anniversary of Sherlock's death, John celebrates by making two cups of tea.

Sherlock celebrates by taking a sip, and spitting it out.

"The milk is off."

And John celebrates by donning his parka and going to Tesco. For the first time, Shanelle behind the till sees the smile of the man she'd thought couldn't smile. It's almost eerie.

Sherlock, left at home, celebrates by Googling methods of embalmment. Then he celebrates by thinking about John. Rather a lot. Then he celebrates further by Googling, "How do be an extremely good kisser."

Later that evening, both celebrate by watching Blue Planet together on John's laptop. They sit unreasonably close given the size of the sofa.

They don't quite hold hands, but a good deal of brushing of fingers goes on, and John's stomach feels like it's doing an Irish jig. It's wonderful. Sherlock is clearly panicking, quietly, internally. But he does extremely well, fidgeting only minimally. And he doesn't pull away, crucially, he allows it.

No rush, John thinks, there will be time.

John is unsure where to sleep, the first night. He dithers at the sitting room door.

Sherlock doesn't look up from his note-taking.

"Go to my room, John."

John bites his lip, nervous, "Um-"

A sharp glance, "I can deduce you, if it will help, but neither of us can really be bothered, can we? You want to go to my room, you will end up going to my room. Let us just ... take the short route to that inevitability."

Sherlock's gaze softens a little as he takes in John in his faded blue t-shirt and boxers, barefoot, hair still damp from the shower and sticking up in a riot of fluff and wet.

"I'll be there shortly, John."

And he is, within ten minutes.

The second night, they move on from lying rigidly next to each other like cardboard figures.

John sits up, rests his elbows on his knees.

"What's the dog-lion-dragon thing?" he asks, gesturing to the Singaporean figurine on the windowsill.

Sherlock glances over. Sighs. Sits up too, cross-legged in the almost-dark.

"It's a Merlion, or Singa-Laut. It's the mascot of Singapore."

Sensing John is not going to sleep in the imminent future, Sherlock continues, "It's not a dog-lion-dragon, it has the head of a lion and the body of a fish. Actually."

John grins, "Ah, yes, that well-known combination. Silly of me not to realise that-"

A hand cuts him off, warm, touchable, pressed against his lips. Sherlock's voice is a combination of irritated and amused,

"If you let me finish. The body represents the origins of Singapore as a small fishing village. The head represents it's original name - Singapura - which means 'lion city'."

He keeps his hand over John's mouth, effectively preventing any interruption to his monologue.

"There are many heraldic animals combined of two species," Sherlock's other hand slides over John's shoulders, and begins to slowly press him down onto the bed. John's eyes widen, but he doesn't resist.

"For example," Sherlock continues, bringing John to rest, supine, against the pillows, "the Calopus has the body of a wolf, the head of a cat and goat's horns. I imagine it has trouble getting around."

John snorts a laugh into Sherlock's hand, earning a look of mild disgust. Nevertheless, Sherlock continues,

"Or the Cerastes, which is a serpent with no spine, and ram's horns on it's head. Again, not a sprinter."

John is listening, interested, but is acutely aware of Sherlock's arm underneath and around him, and the fact that he has somehow been pulled tight against Sherlock's chest.

The hand slips from his mouth, ghosting over his neck and down to his chest, where it rests, stroking softly, as if John were a skittish cat.

"My personal favourite is the Gansas. Primarily because when I first knew you, I read about them, and decided you had been one in a previous life."

John can feel his eyes crinkling up into a smile, as Sherlock's hand strokes with more purpose, and is brave enough to reach his own hand up, wind it into Sherlock's hair, and stroke his scalp with his thumb. They are so very close, breathing each other's air, all he can see is that face.

"A Gansas is a swan-like ... thing. It only has one leg, and one webbed foot, on which it has one sharp talon."

"Oh," John can't help but be disappointed. "And they remind you of me?"

Sherlock hums an affirmative, "Ah, but they're special. Yearly, they migrate to the moon."

And then Sherlock is laughing, softly, snuffling against John's hair. And John melts into a slow tide of love.

Sherlock continues to list and describe mythical animals, and John continues to listen, and they continue to hold each other, and fall asleep gently like that, in each others eyes, in each others skin.

53

It's their first case since Sherlock's return. They're planning on going for supper at a Thai restaurant John has found in Shoreditch, once it's over. John thinks this might be the night that they kiss. Judging by Sherlock's almost obsessive dedication to tic tacs over the course of the day, he might think so too. John watches him pop another four into his mouth, with what he can only describe as adoration.

The case is a simple jewel heist, the pursuit of which leads the abandoned warehouse near Limehouse. It's sparse, concrete, and filled with the rubbish of life: crisp wrappers, cigarette butts, old rusted trollies.

Sherlock has the case wrapped up within seconds, and allows John to call Lestrade in to clean up.

Two minutes later, the growl of gravel under thick tyres, outside.

John looks up from his phone, "That was quick..." he looks to the door, then to Sherlock.

Sherlock stands from where he is crouching, still examining the hole in the floor where the jewels were stashed. His eyes meet John's, and there is something of a red flag in his glance.

Far too simple.

John hears the release of a manual safety catch. Things, he senses, are about to go very badly, very quickly.

Sherlock speaks, his voice bleak and cracking very slightly, a worn out record.

"I am so sorry, John. S-so sorry," he stutters, " I've failed you."

John turns to look and see what Sherlock sees. A man with a gun - isn't it always. A man with the blazing look of a trapped animal in his eyes, a week's worth of stubble, and a slow ooze of blood blooming through his once-white shirt. Despite the obvious injury, he's a large man with big, well-used muscles. John doesn't think he can take him down and save them both.

"He should have been dead." Sherlock shakes his head, "I checked his pulse, I don't know how -"

And John understands. This is Moriarty's last, loyal assassin. A man who should be dead. Who Sherlock got wrong. Of all the bloody things to get wrong.

The man says nothing, his expression doesn't change. Not here to gloat, just to finish the job. A mercenary. He moves towards them, slow as an adder in the sun, and the two men find themselves being backed slowly together, towards the wall.

John holds out his hand in plea, "Don't, please. Your captain's gone, what would be the use?" But he's a soldier, he knows, the overriding compulsion to complete the mission, even when the battle's lost.

The assassin herds them against a cold, concrete wall. John's breath hitches as his shoulder touches Sherlock's arm. John has never faced a firing squad, but he's seen pictures, mostly Soviet, he's even seen videos. It's technical, quick, almost humane. A soldier's death, he thought at the time.

But this is one man, not six, and his hands are shaking. Who will he kill first, John things, will he have to watch Sherlock choke on his own blood?

John tries again, "Please, just talk to me. We can help you … whatever you need, money, a passport, anything."

The assassin shakes his head. He has the look of shell shock about him, and John can see that reason isn't going to get him anywhere at all, the man is numb. John glances at Sherlock, who has retreated to his Mind Palace and is clearly trying to think of a way to get them out of this.

John smiles softly, "One last miracle, Sherlock?"

Their eyes meet. John sees panic in Sherlock's.

"You already asked for one last miracle." Sherlock plucks weakly at John's sleeve, his eyes shining and honest, brilliant with the purity of pure despair, "Abracadabra."

The assassin is taking his time, checking his gun over while keeping a wary eye on them.

Sherlock's hand draws down John's arm, and he hooks their index fingers together. Beautiful. John completes: taking his hand. So close they breathe together.

A dull click. John leans in to Sherlock, close, close, so he can see nothing else. Sherlock breathes in, very deeply, meeting John's eyes. John can almost hear Sherlock thinking, At least we die together. John nods in affirmation.

Somewhere in his subconscious John's brain remembers a feel of a place in mind – a field of barley and a little group of horses in a rocky corner, a white railway signal, sunshine, the smell of heated grass and John is ten or so, running, pausing in a field of light, happy – his brain makes a circle from that happy place to this moment.

Hard to remember, now that it's all begun and now that it's all over, hard to recall.

When the bullets come, in quick succession, blazing with unnatural light, he's looking at Sherlock. John's pain is nothing but an empty net, transported away. He doesn't feel the metal tearing into his chest and neck, nor the blood begin to trickle slowly and then spurt as arteries shred under the onslaught. He does not differentiate between his blood and Sherlock's, or hear Sherlock's grunt of pain. He does not feel his body jerking, or his heart stutter spasmodically.

He only feels the warmth of Sherlock's breath and chest as they come together, real and warm, the life and death of it, and he falls quietly into the circle of Sherlock's arms and the home of Sherlock's mouth clumsily claiming his own.

Their first, last, dying kiss.