The salute was a real one and Mycroft had never seen anything other than a sarcastic one from John before now. This one was a little stranger than any salute John had to have given before though. The few people passing by were too engrossed in their mobiles or their iPods or their own busy little lives to notice a man stop in front of a brick wall, give a practiced military salute to it, and then walk on. Mycroft gathers it is just as well and knows John had counted on no one noticing him when he'd done it. John hadn't been comfortable calling at the Diogenes Club and had had no idea where Mycroft lived so he knew this was the quickest way to say his farewell to him.

John Watson had learned many things since his acquaintance with the (supposed) late Sherlock Holmes and one of those many things was that Mycroft kept a close watch on them both. CCTV cameras were one easy way of accomplishing that and John knew where even the most hidden ones were. This particular one was secret so of course John had known about it.

He also had known that Mycroft would keep an eye on him. Not because he had believed Mycroft wanted to but because Sherlock would have told him to in the event of the worst. Mycroft had never confirmed or denied this request when John had asked him about it, not out of wanting to keep his efforts secret but because the question had just been a formality like so many other aspects of their relationship.

John had usually done his best to function as if he wasn't being watched so the salute to the camera had had had Mycroft on high alert. Sherlock had been dead to the world for nearly three months at this point and John had still been grieving. Being thrust back into the life he'd had after between being Afghanistan and meeting Sherlock had not been good for him. DI Lestrade had done his best to continue to involve John in cases but, really, it was Sherlock Holmes they wanted more than his friend. John had done some things on some cases, usually medical work and some finer detail work, but John had been forced to get a real job as a doctor in A&E to make any sort of income. High stress work certainly but not chasing criminals and not the kind of thrill and environment he thrived in.

He had hated every single moment of it. Mycroft had not needed to speak to him or even watch him to know that. He could feel John's regret and anger vibrating the air every time he passed John's hospital or the dingy flat that John had moved into when he couldn't stand to live in Baker Street anymore. John was a solider though and he pressed on. Every man had a limit though and that salute had told Mycroft that his had been reached.

One phone call had had all the major hospitals alerted for a man of John's description being admitted. He had had the flat watched. For the first few days nothing had happened. Then the bank account that John kept his earnings from his and Sherlock's cases had been emptied. Then his cards had been put on indefinite hold – the reasons were for travel abroad.

For a moment Mycroft had thought John had figured it out and was going out after Sherlock. Then John had paid a visit to an old army friend of his – Colonel Nigel Belleview. Colonel Belleview had been the man who had originally recruited him. Mycroft had suspected full well what was going to happen next but, for the first time in a very long time, found himself hesitant to step in and stop it from happening.

Three days later Captain John Watson had been on a plane back to Afghanistan. Mycroft had then put his best people on a following plane to track him down and keep an eye on him. They succeeded in that task until now, six months later. John has joined a covert operation and there is nothing they can do to be told where he is or if he is still alive.

John had had enough so it was back to the state of affairs before he'd met Sherlock. Had John not been shot Mycroft knew he would have gone career rather than go back and open a practice or work in a hospital. John had lost two lives now – one was out of his reach so it was time to claim his old one back if he could. That or die in the attempt and Mycroft hoped that wasn't what this was about.

Mycroft almost sends a message to Sherlock. Sherlock had given him one way to get in contact with him, and he with Mycroft, in case of emergency and had asked that he not tell him about anything going on in London. He had said that he could not afford the distraction.

As with much of his decisions involving his little brother Mycroft has to choose between the good of the many and the good of his brother. If he tells Sherlock he'll be over in Afghanistan so fast and he might lose the trail of Moran and his men. If he doesn't Sherlock will be enraged with him for keeping this secret and then go off to find John anyway. Hopefully John will survive and be willing to return to London.

Mycroft chooses the good of the many. He watches the recording of John saluting the camera again and raises his brandy to it. "Keep safe, John," he orders the six month old file. He expects John to obey him regardless of that fact. He then orders that his people in Afghanistan keep an extra eye out for Moran or his known cronies. The last thing he needs is for John to be assassinated while on duty.

This is why Sherlock had faked his own death in the first place after all. John's protection and survival were priority one behind capturing and killing Moran and Mycroft knows that Sherlock will blame the death of John abroad, in the line of duty or otherwise, on himself at the end. He may scream and blame Mycroft and John all together but in the end it will be his fault in his eyes.

Mycroft would also have to agree with him in that case; he'd been against this from hour one but Sherlock never listened to him when he knew that Mycroft was right.

One year, eight months, and an odd number of days after the alleged fatal fall Mycroft gets a message from Sherlock saying that he's back. That the nets have closed and Moran has made his final mistake. The Adair case, Mycroft knows. Moran was cocky to take a strike in London. He must have been assured that Sherlock was out of the way. Moran had been out of London for over a year now. There had been hints of his handiwork before in the papers and they had always been foiled by Sherlock (or someone in Sherlock's employ, Mycroft assumed) but they had been mostly quiet. Sherlock was doing a fantastic job of keeping this city safe. Mycroft would thank him properly but he knew that this hadn't been about the city or the people. Not people plural anyway.

John. No word of John since he'd vanished into covert ops. Mycroft makes a habit of irregularly/regularly pestering the woman who has direct access to the location of the good doctor but she has yet to budge. She has been warned naturally and has informed him that if he wants to speak to Captain Watson he can try and find him himself. There were no family (Harry Watson had died of alcohol poisoning shortly after Sherlock had) and no friends back here that he cared enough to come back for. The woman also had dared him to make up something that would call John back. Mycroft, surprisingly, found he didn't have the heart to do that.

John Watson was not coming back to London and that was that. Only Sherlock Holmes could convince him and Mycroft was fairly convinced that his brother would get a bullet in the knee cap for his trouble.

Mrs. Hudson is required in this latest scheme apparently. So in the guise of paying the rent for the flat that Sherlock had insisted be kept for two people who did not live there Mycroft visits Mrs. Hudson and, very carefully, explains what she is to do. When he is finished a young woman wearing a faded, decades old, trench coat is waiting for him. "Spare any change?" she asks.

Mycroft pulls out a ten pound note, wraps his response inside, and deposits it into the girl's cup. She nods her thanks and walks off down Baker Street. When she gets to the corner of Church Street she kicks a scruffy looking man in a torn winter jacket and passes him the note within the note. He wanders off. While driving back in his car Mycroft and Mycroft alone sees the scruffy man pass the note to a young boy as he buys a paper. He scurries off.

The homleless network that his brother had created has always served him well but these are perhaps the most dangerous words they have ever transported to his brother. They are the words that secure their meeting time and the words that assure Mrs. Hudson's cooperation. They are also the words that tell him that John Watson should not be approached and that Mycroft will not tell Sherlock where he lives. This is all in code of course, ten layers of it, but by the time they meet he suspects that Sherlock will know almost everything.

The next night he meets Sherlock in Spot Six. Sherlock has many hiding places throughout London that are a secret to all but him – and that is saying something since Mycroft has done his best to find out where all these places are. He has been to Spots One and Three and Spot One should not count because it is the cupboard under the stairs of Mummy's London house. Spot Three he has only seen because they very nearly lost John on a case one night and that had been the nearest point of safety for him. John he thinks may have seen more of them but Mycroft cannot be sure. John has never recognized Sherlock in full disguise however so that would eliminate him having gone to many – he would have seen Sherlock get ready otherwise.

When he arrives at the back stair case the young woman from the day before is waiting below. She spies him and bangs on the wall. Someone on the other side of the wall bangs back and she nods him up. "Let yourself in," she says.

Mycroft does and catches the first sight of his brother he's had in nearly two years. He looks identical to when he left. A bit paler and a bit thinner, if that's possible, but the same and he's currently waving a piece of paper in front of the scruffy man from the other day. The man smells of alcohol and rubbish and Mycroft tries his best not to let on to his discomfort. The scruffy man appears to not be particularly affected by his incensed employer but, then again, Mycroft doubts the man can see or hear anything past all the hair on his face. His fringe, and the baseball cap, near completely mask the tinted glasses – Mycroft gathers he either plays at being blind to get more money or else he is photosensitive or hung over – and beard and moustache cover the rest.

"This goes to John Watson," Sherlock is both ordering and explaining to him. The tone of voice is almost feral. "I've given you the usual places, along with a few unusual ones, but you do not come back here until you've found him."

"Not in London," the man grumbles. The odds of being hung over as the reasons for the sunglasses at this late hour go up substantially. "Reckon he's dead."

Sherlock barely resists the urge to strike him. "GO!" he orders and the man runs for it. Sherlock's addition of "I do not want to see you again without him" goes unheard. He slams the door violently and stares at it for a moment. The first word Sherlock utters after six minutes of complete silence is Mycroft's name and Mycroft does not appreciate the tone.

"I don't know where he is, Sherlock." He does not say he's glad to see him alive and does not extend a hand. This is not how they operate.

"Of course you know where he is," Sherlock snarls, still facing the door. "You always know where he is."

"Not always." He does not speak of his failure at the pool and the handful of other times he has been unable to track them due to Sherlock's interferences or Sherlock's enemies'. "It is always difficult tracking someone who does not want to be found."

"John does not have a deceptive bone in his body – "

"Now you know that's a lie."

"He is an AWFUL liar, Mycroft, and we both know it. That's why this whole...this whole...thing had to be done, remember?"

Mycroft drops his briefcase on the ground and grabs Sherlock by the arm, whirling him to face him. He hasn't touched Sherlock in this manner since the darkest of the drug days but this occasion is certainly of equal importance. "Do not try to convince me, or yourself, that the reason you did this was because John cannot lie. He would have had a great teacher in you." Sherlock falters slightly and Mycroft takes advantage of this by gripping his arm tighter and forcing him into one of the two chairs in the room. "This was to protect him," he reminds him, needlessly, as he returns to pick his briefcase up off the floor. He settles into the other chair and rests the briefcase on the table between them.

"Brother," he continues heavily, "this is simultaneously the cruellest and most loving you have ever done for anyone and part of me does commend you for that. That being said you have miscalculated. You have forgotten the most important thing about John. What were you hoping he would do in this time, Sherlock?"

Sherlock obviously struggles with just yelling until he is told what he wants but then falls back into the chair, resigned. "I was hoping I would find him well. Doctoring, dating some doubtlessly boring woman, and being what he would be had he never met me."

"And now here you are to swoop back into his life and rescue him from the commonplaceness of his existence, am I right?"

Sherlock doesn't reply to that. Affirmative then. Mycroft decides to not address the punch to the face, the several punches to the face, he would doubtlessly have received in that instance to this conversation. Sherlock certainly fears that reaction in this one – it is written in every line of his body and in every glance he throws between them and the door.

"Had he never met you," Mycroft tells him. "I do not think he would be here. Why else would he keep an army issued hand gun? That is not a good souvenir for a man with post traumatic stress disorder and they certainly would not have let him keep it had they known he had it."

Sherlock does not dignify that with a response. He does know all this after all but Mycroft feels like stalling and it seems Sherlock is fine with letting him. "Did you honestly expect him to just do what everybody else does? He's never done that before. He's never had a proper job with regular hours and weekends off, no girlfriends serious enough to consider moving in with or marrying...he has never been interested in that sort of a life. You know that; it's why he joined the army instead of working at a hospital. It's why he didn't run screaming from you when he met you. It's why Mike Stamford introduced him to you in the first place."

He pulls out his phone, calls up the CCTV footage of John saluting the camera, and passes it to Sherlock. Mycroft has the pleasure of watching Sherlock's expression fall even further than it already has. His eyes shut and he hangs his head. "He accepted full time hours, moved out of Baker Street and tried. He tried for three months and then decided it was enough," Mycroft tells him.

He opens the briefcase and leaves Sherlock to finger through the contents. He tells Sherlock about John's visit to Colonel Belleview and his departure. He watches Sherlock cradle a photograph that Mycroft had discovered at the Guardian. It was an unused photograph for a story on the new deployment of soldiers and Mycroft had made very sure that no other trace of it existed. The last thing way Sherlock had needed to find out was to find out via a newspaper.

It is a photo of John – it's from the side and the sunlight is all over the place but it is certainly John – in full uniform looking out into a crowd of people with one foot on the plane. Mycroft is not sure what John is looking for or whether he's just looking at London one final time but that doesn't matter. Sherlock stares at the photo for several moments and Mycroft wonders if Sherlock thinks that John was looking for him.

He goes through the rest of the briefcase. The documents of John's reenlistment, the slightly doctored medical exams, and lastly the paperwork transferring him from sniper work to something far more dangerous. Sherlock is now so white that Mycroft is considering taking him to a hospital before doing anything further.

"Your slightly inebriated friend won't find him, Sherlock," he tells him as slowly and as carefully as he can. "And I can't find him because I value his life almost as much as you do."

This is what he tells Sherlock out loud. The unspoken, underlying, meaning is just as valuable though and Mycroft knows Sherlock hears it. That message is "did you really expect him to just stop? Did you really expect him to just be safe for you?"

Sherlock is up and out of the chair, pacing wildly. "I can find him," he asserts, frantic. "I can find him anywhere. Just tell me where he landed, you must know that. You need to tell me where he was last stationed before they swept him up. Mycroft, please, you have to tell me!"

Mycroft almost does. "You need to get Moran first," he reminds him instead.

"Sod Moran!" Sherlock snarls again. "I need John. Right now."

"And what makes you think that you won't get shot for your trouble?"

"That would be his decision. A decision I would like him to be alive to make, Mycroft. Now if you plea-!"

"It's only now that you respect his choices, is it?" He holds up his hand when Sherlock starts to protest. "I will give you that information after Moran is behind bars and not one moment before then, Sherlock. You need to finish this or else I will be telling him to come back for your actual funeral and I really don't want to see what that will do to him."

Sherlock stops again. He just stands there and stares at some spot on the floor and does not speak. Mycroft takes back his phone and gets some work done for about an hour before Sherlock moves again. Mycroft follows. "Mind if I come along?"

Sherlock doesn't say anything against it or for it so Mycroft does. The plan obviously had called for a right hand man and Mycroft might as well fill in where John would not.

Sebastian Moran meets his end with a well placed bullet to the brain from the window of 221b Baker Street. Mycroft is quite pleased for that considering Moran was about to shoot his brother before this had occurred. The original plan had gone to hell; the original plans frequently went to hell but there was no John Watson here to deal with that. Sherlock had set up the double in Baker Street, had instructed Mrs. Hudson to move the thing every so often and had waited in the dark in the condemned set of flats across the street for Moran to assassinate him. Then Sherlock would subdue him, contact the police, remand Moran into custody, and get back on a plane to find John.

Moran, however, knew a fake when he saw one and John would have both recognized that and been able to deal with that problem. Instead Moran had lunged in the shadows for them both. Sherlock had held his own well enough, bleeding face and hands notwithstanding, but Mycroft will be the first to admit that he is not a fighter. Moran was standing on his neck, suffocating and pinning Mycroft to the ground, while at the same ready to pull the trigger on Sherlock. Sherlock was more than a little disoriented and was trying to gather his wits and balance about him enough to locate his gun but it wasn't happening fast enough.

Then the shot had been fired from what had to have been the flat's window and Moran had fallen on top of him like the corpse that he was. Then Lestrade and his men had swarmed in along with the paramedics. Lestrade did not look surprised to see Sherlock and he was taking great pride in having disarmed the detective. "I've known for awhile now," Lestrade later admits as Mycroft and his brother are getting bandaged and the scene is being cleaned up.

Mycroft shakes his head when Sherlock glares at him. "I told no one, Sherlock," he grumbles as he accepts the water from the paramedic. He has gotten off rather well. Sherlock's hands are wrapped up tight, and will remain so for a few days yet, and his face is not as bad as it had seemed after all. Sherlock is both glad and embittered about the help but he is clearly antsy. Mycroft also refuses to tell Sherlock where John is posted until they've both had a good night's sleep. Also Moran is not behind bars so technically Mycroft's promise is null and void.

When Sherlock asks Lestrade if he knows Mycroft doesn't have time to process Lestrade's expression before Mrs. Hudson appears. She fawns over Sherlock for a moment, gives Mycroft a reassuring pat on the shoulder, and then looks over at Lestrade. "Where is he?" she asks.

"Cleaning up, I assume," Lestrade answers. "I always give him twenty four hours to get rid of any evidence before I start an investigation."

"Is that really necessary this go around?"

"Probably not but we can't be too careful. He's got other things to do he said as well."

"Lestrade!" Sherlock barks. "I asked you a question."

"Don't answer him" Mycroft orders. It is very nearly a snap.

Sherlock growls so loud at Mycroft that everyone in the room stops. "I am asking again, for the last time, to ANYONE who knows the answer: Where. Is. John. Watson. Stationed?"

Utter silence for a full minute before Lestrade speaks. "John's not stationed anywhere. He never left London."

"Who did you think shot Moran, dear?" Mrs. Hudson adds with a little guilty smile.

Mycroft Holmes has very seldom been dumbfounded. It is an interesting and rather humiliating sensation. "He is in Afghanistan," he corrects them anyway. "He's been deployed there for well over a year now."

Lestrade laughs. "Unless he can be in two places at once he's not. I've seen him three times in the past month and one of those times was this morning. You've spoken to him too, haven't you? He said he spoke to you earlier, Sherlock." Lestrade holds out a piece of paper to Sherlock. Mycroft doesn't have to read it to know it's the note that Sherlock had demanded that man deliver or else never darken his door again. It seemed he had delivered it but John had not wanted to come.

Or else...

"Sherlock," Mycroft starts as it hits him. "That man..."

Sherlock physically cannot speak. He is trying but nothing is happening. Lestrade tries to make him feel better by saying he thought John had left as well until he'd popped up at his house on night but it's not working. "I yelled at him..." is what he manages to get out but that's not what Sherlock's been trying to say.

"I thought you were in on it," Lestrade apologises. "That you'd been in touch the whole time. He seems to have known you weren't dead from day one."

Or perhaps from three months after the event, Mycroft thinks as he reconsiders the meaning behind that salute. A soldier had indeed been returning to the front but not the one that Mycroft had assumed.

"Would I be correct, Detective Inspector, in assuming the reason it has been quiet here for so long is because of the efforts of the good doctor?"

"And Sherlock's homeless network, yeah," Lestrade confirms. He folds his arms and the next bit is very cross. "I always assumed John was working on your orders, Sherlock. You mean you let him think you were dead and he figured this all out himself?"

Mycroft answers Lestrade's question by requesting that he be allowed to get out of the way if Lestrade plans to punch Sherlock. Lestrade is almost ready to do just that but is holding back despite the expression of disgust and marring his face. "I do not know why he bothers with you, I really do not. If I was him I'd beat you into a fine pulp as soon as I got a haircut."

"Haircut?" Mycroft asks.

"You saw him too didn't you? That's a year and a half worth of growth there! He's probably hacking at it with garden sheers right now – I've seen how mad he gets when his hair starts to touch his ears."

Sherlock's water bottle falls from his fingers to the ground and Mycroft somehow manages to keep hold of his. "John has been living as a homeless man for this entire time?" he asks for his shell shocked brother.

"Of course he has," Lestrade snorts. He pauses then rolls his eyes. "How did you not get that? It's not like he's been living in the open or wearing a fake beard and going about town, you know. He said you said it best, Sherlock: the best way to play a part is to be it."

Mycroft can feel his brother's distracted nod and it sounds like Sherlock may have managed to reconnect his brain to his vocal cords but Lestrade's phone beeps first. He checks it and, after contemplating it for a moment, passes it to Sherlock. "I don't know why I'm giving you this."

Mycroft reads over his brother's shoulder.

Getting out of character at the only spot we know. Mind giving us a hand reaching the back? JW

"I take it you know what that means," Lestrade sighs.

Sherlock nods.

"Go alone and be careful. I think he still has a few rounds left."

Spot Three was the only Spot that John had seen. John had almost died in Spot Three and Sherlock had experienced right and proper fear and confusion for the first time. He hadn't known what to do, he hadn't had anything in the place to help his dying friend (it had been a relic from his cocaine days). It had taken direct orders from John to get him going and Sherlock had ended up helping him to breathe before help had arrived. Never had he been so glad that he hadn't deleted the bits of first aid he had seen John perform and that John had taken upon himself to teach him. John had lived though, of course John had lived. It was so obvious now but back then John's life had been the most insubstantial thing in all creation. That feeling had been brought back tenfold the night with Moriarty at the pool. Sherlock had sworn to himself that John would not be involved the day that he and Moriarty met for the last time.

Sherlock had not expected to live through that encounter. His survival had been a surprise but no victory. Sherlock knew that while Moran and the other two gunmen lived John and the others would never be safe. If Moriarty was a twisted version of himself than Moran was a twisted version of John, and Sherlock knew that John would never rest if he knew who had killed him and that man still drew breath. So he'd disappeared. He'd allowed the world to believe him dead, allowed John to believe him dead, and had worked to keep John safe by keeping England safe and disrupting any and all of Moran's operations abroad. That had been intended to keep Moran distracted and away from John.

It turned out he hadn't been all that successful. Moran had still made moves despite his efforts but John had beaten him in the end– all while living as a homeless man on the streets of London while everyone else believed that he was serving in Afghanistan again. Lestrade had only been told John was back for the past three months and Mrs. Hudson hadn't known John was back until a bearded man walked into the flat, taken off his glasses, pulled back his fringe and said the required password.

John knows four passwords: One each to identify himself to Sherlock or Mrs. Hudson and another one each for the reverse. The same was true for Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson and none of them knew the others' passwords. There could be no mistake, Mrs. Hudson said. He'd not only given her the current one but also the three ones previous: the passwords changed each time they were used. Then she had let him walk into their old flat where he'd shot Moran and then bolted out again. She had not marked where he'd gone. She, like Lestrade, had assumed that this was all a part of some great plan of his and had been legitimately surprised to find John not across the street with everyone else.

John apparently was an excellent liar – or else had received excellent training from the homeless network that Sherlock had tasked to keep an eye on John and any mysterious goings on in London, not to adopt him as one of their own and follow his orders and interests. Mycroft's words come back to haunt him again: How had he expected John to just fall into the neat little box that Sherlock expected him to? Why had he expected that when John's utter disinterest in the box was one of the main reasons he had given John a moment of thought that day at Bart's?

This must be what being a fool feels like. It's happened before but this one hurts more than it is humiliating. He knew what he was doing was wrong from inception; he just did it anyway because he did not want to risk anyone's life, especially John's. Sentiment created tactical errors and he knew it but that had not been his priority.

He really should consider himself fortunate that John just hadn't tracked him down and joined him. Mycroft had admitted that he'd thought that's what John had been doing when he'd first seen the footage of John saluting the hidden camera and walking on. Or would that have been better perhaps?

There's only one way to find out, Sherlock allows. He throws back his shoulders, takes a deep breath and opens the door to Spot Three. Phil, the landlord, is too busy screaming at some errand boy to notice Sherlock climb the stairs to flat six. He stands outside the door for a few moments – he hears nothing inside and puts his hand on the door knob. It swings open.

That should have warned him but sentiment is always a disadvantage. Something hard smacks across Sherlock's temple and he is falling all over again.

When Sherlock comes to he's handcuffed to the radiator. He can barely open his eyes so he just listens to the conversation coming from the loo.

"Much better Greg, thanks." John's voice. It's the first time he's heard John's voice in over a year. He almost forgets the pain in the presence of the utter symphony that is the voice of his long lost friend "I feel like I've lost a stone."

"You have even without the grooming, John," Lestrade now. "Did you actually not cook for yourself for this whole time? Just went to food banks and stuff?"

"I can't confirm or deny any other sources of food. Tried my best to only resort to that if situations were quite dire but street living is hard going."

"No kidding," Greg laughs. "Good to see you looking like you again – just need to fatten you up a bit and will be like nothing happened."

There's silence for a moment and then Sherlock falls asleep again. When he wakes up again his mind is clearer and a glass of scotch is being forced into his hand. "Drink it down, mate." Lestrade. "I warned you didn't I?"

Sherlock feels the side of his forehead. The gun had left a significant bruise and a headache he was going to feel well into next week. Less than he deserves. "Where is he?"

"I honestly cannot tell you," Lestrade replies with sincere regret and ignorance. "He told me to take you home and he'll find you when he's ready to talk. Also please don't track him down, and that's from me not from him. I know you can in probably thirty seconds but please don't. I think he might actually put you in hospital next time."

Sherlock cannot find John in thirty seconds. The John he is working with right now is different from the John he left and that is his own doing. He allows Lestrade to help him up and allows Lestrade to drive him back to Baker Street. Mrs. Hudson hugs him when he enters and he allows the comfort. "He'll come around," she assures him. "I don't think he ever grieved properly or ever let himself get properly angry at you. No time for that from what I gather."

Sherlock nods distractedly and heads directly to bed. He hasn't slept in days and now he just wants to climb into bed and never get out. This is not how he had pictured his homecoming.

His phone buzzes and his heart is soaring somewhere in the upper stratosphere as he reaches for it, but it crashes down to at least equal distance underground when he sees that it's from Mycroft.

You deserve this, you know. Don't fret though – he'll be back in his own time. MH

Of course Sherlock knows this. He's known this from day one but that doesn't change what he wants.

I want him now. SH.

You lost the right to commanding his presence when you left him behind. MH

I still want him now. SH.

In good time, little brother. In his own good time. MH

Eventually Sherlock ends up calling Mycroft and begs him to find John. He doesn't expect Mycroft to say yes so is not surprised when he refuses. He's still disappointed though. They talk together despite it; they talk together for the first time as little brother wanting reassurances from big brother in years. He doesn't even feel embarrassed and Mycroft doesn't utter one derogatory word.

John is not back the following morning. Sherlock cleans the flat and arranges everything just the way John likes it. Or had liked it. The man had been living on the streets so he may prefer things even more tidy. He airs out their rooms and cleans out the dust. John's room is empty and that confuses him before he remembers that he had moved out. There is one discarded jumper lying in the back of John's closet (it's the one that Sherlock had burned with acid) and a pair of pyjama bottoms that John had banished back there after a particularly unpleasant cold. Sherlock takes to setting the clothing up in John's chair or in the kitchen and talks to the items as if John was sitting there wearing them; the skull almost looks jealous.

That is the only company he allows into the flat. Mrs. Hudson bakes him his favourites but he lets them go stale. Lestrade invites him out with the Yard for a welcome back party but he refuses to attend without John. Lestrade can't find him and Mycroft won't try. Sherlock hasn't spoken to Mycroft since last night and doesn't plan to speak to him again until he can delete the events in his bedroom from memory.

He plays the violin all day and well into the next morning. It's a medley of John's favourites – all the commercialized classical stuff that Sherlock mostly can't stand anymore mixed with his own versions some contemporary songs. He throws the windows open and plays it so loud that he is well aware that noise complaints have been made. He can almost hear Mycroft and Lestrade talking and letting it go on.

It fails to bring John home to him. He tries every night for a week to no avail.

He knows John must have a different number by now but he sends John a text anyway on the seventh night. I owe you a thousand apologies. Please allow me a chance to say them – then you can shoot me and I'll even tell you the best way to dispose of my body. SH.

One night Sherlock takes a walk and finds himself at the graveyard where Mycroft had erected a token headstone for him. The headstone is long gone, naturally, but the spot is still there. The plot is in actual fact Mycroft's and it is far behind Father's full one and Mummy's empty one. Sherlock will not buy the one that has been left for his eventual use – he has every intention of either having his body cremated or donated to science depending on how he reaches his end. Sherlock takes a seat on the grass on the plot that had stood in as his and then lays down on it, staring up that starry sky.

It's been two weeks since Moran and two weeks since he was pistol whipped by John. There has been no word and no leads. He's been inside since that point and decided that tonight was the night he needed to get out of that flat or he was going to go mad with the emptiness in there. He wonders if this was how John had felt when he'd made the decision to move out. The howling quiet following you everywhere and never allowing you rest, the vacuum of absence in every corner of the place threatening to swallow you whole...

If John's intention was to make him understand a small portion of what he'd done then he'd succeeded admirably. This was quite possibly worse – John at least had known that Sherlock was gone. Sherlock had no idea when and if John would be back...

Wait. John had suffered that as well and had suffered that for longer than he had the delusion that he was dead.

Perhaps Moriarty had burned his heart out after all. Or perhaps Sherlock had done it himself when he'd made the decision to leave it behind.

He picks himself up off the plot, he's been lying there for over an hour. He resumes his walk through London. Eventually he settles with just riding the tube to distract himself, he changes lines every once and while bust mostly just hangs about on the Hammersmith and City line until he finally gets off at Paddington Station and walks back to Baker Street.

He's just decided that he is going to go search out John tomorrow, Lestrade's suggestions be damned, when he opens the door and finds John passed out on the sofa. Sherlock shuts the door, counts to five in three different languages, and then opens the door again. John is still there.

He's curled up on the sofa and he's wearing the bottoms and jumper that Sherlock had previously left lying in John's chair. His hair is cut as short as military regulation will allow and he is clean shaven. He looks quite a bit thinner and a quite a touch paler than he had the last time Sherlock had seen him as himself. He also has all the hallmarks of a man who has been lucky to find a good place to sleep or an ability to sleep at all. He seems at rest now but it is a new development – the man hasn't had a proper night sleep in well over a year. He's never been able to let his guard down before now.

Sherlock's phone beeps. He nearly jumps a mile out of his shoes and tries his best to muffle it. John does not stir despite the shrill sound. Sherlock checks the text messages – they are all from John and at varying points over the past few hours.

I think we've put each other through enough. Besides I still need to gloat that I found you out so fast. On my way home now.

Oh and don't say anything about me taking three months to figure it all out. That's fast enough considering you were gone one year, six months, and thirty seven days.

That's right. I counted. I know you did too. I saw the tally sheet in your notebook.

Sorry for pistol whipping you. You did deserve it though.

I would like to hear those apologies. A thousand are not necessary but one will do. I owe you a personal sorry as well.

Next time we stick together, okay?

I, John Hamish Watson, promise that I will not shoot you in the face the second you darken the door. Or otherwise assault you. Or handcuff you to anything.

Wake me when you get in.

Sherlock doesn't. Instead he shakes out John's afghan and spreads it over him. Sherlock gets a blanket from his room and curls up as best as he can in John's chair. He's had more cramped places to sleep before and right now he can't bear the thought of John waking and not finding him there. Or of him waking and finding John gone again.

When Sherlock awakes with severe leg and back cramps the next morning (at precisely forty six minutes past ten) John has not moved and shows no signs of rising anytime soon. Sherlock considers prodding his friend but remembers with a nervous chuckle that separating John from a good night's rest was always a bad idea. He didn't even have a good case to lure him in with, assuming that technique would even work now.

He moves into the kitchen to ring Mrs. Hudson downstairs without disturbing his friend. She tells him that she hadn't even heard him come in – soothers and all that. Sherlock imagines if he were to check the door to their flat and the door down below he would find the subtle work of a doctor who had turned his hand to lock picking.

It was a skill that Sherlock had taught him a long, long time ago and it was something that John had truly excelled at with little tutelage. John had admitted to having some previous practice at it in his youth but other than that brief stint this was new to him. He had also been bloody insufferable as soon as he'd become faster at it than Sherlock himself.

He had been proud though. So very proud.

He hears a grumble and a grunt from the sofa. John rolls around so he's facing the back of the thing. He hears some sort of mumbling and he waits in terrified readiness from the kitchen for John to wake up. He doesn't.

"Sherlock?" That's Mrs. Hudson still on the line.

"Still here," he whispers back. "I thought he was going to wake up."

"You sound like you don't want that to happen."

Sherlock can't deny that. It was one thing to be expecting an angry John to come barging into the flat and rip him into small, unidentifiable pieces at any moment then to be living with a sleeping lion. He knows full well that the attack is going to happen in either case but it is scarier this way than the other.

At the same time though he is comforted by the text messages, which he will never delete, and the fact that John chose to come home at all.

"I want him to wake up," he whispers into the phone.

"Do you want me to come up?"

Sherlock shakes his head no before he remembers to actually say no into the phone. His long suffering landlady assures him that all will be well, that John even being here is a good thing. She also tells him that she'll ring Lestrade to let him know that John is back – he's been worried too. Sherlock doesn't bother to tell her that Lestrade likely already knows before the call ends. The four of them: John, Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and Mycroft all spoke to each other about him and all shared information between each other about him. Once he had 'died' they had continued speaking to each other – he could tell that by the easy familiarity of them all when they'd all been together after Moran had been shot. It hadn't been a reunion. He knows they all met to discuss John during the first three months where everything had gone according to Sherlock's plan but they obviously had all still kept in touch despite it all.

He supposes the next thing he should do is make breakfast. Sherlock has gotten much better at feeding himself in the past year or so he feels fairly confident that he can make something for them both. Nothing will get John up faster than the smell of freshly made food. He witnessed this first hand when Lestrade and his middle daughter, Tess, had come over to make them breakfast when they'd both been wounded on a chase and weren't able to do it themselves. John had not moved from his bedroom in days but was lured from his drug filled trance with the smell of fresh bacon.

Sherlock knows for a fact that there is bacon in the fridge. There are also some eggs, bread and enough to make a decent breakfast for two. He really doesn't understand how he had dismissed cooking as boring before - it was really mostly chemistry after all. Mostly safer but still chemistry. One night in St. Petersburg he had managed to burn himself quite severely on a stove and getting treatment for it without being caught had been quite difficult.

One of many reasons he should have brought John along, he gathers. He is going to spend his entire life regretting that decision. It is something that he had known theoretically from the get go but it is very different facing that knowledge. It is a small price to pay for what he's done until John comes around and makes Sherlock pay properly.

Sherlock may be better at cooking now but it has been some time since he's done it for two. His timing is off. He forgets completely about the toast and the smoke detector goes off with a far more piercing wail than he remembers. The thing must have been replaced for a newer one once no one had been around to raise an objection.

He mutters to himself in furious French as he drags a chair underneath the infernal thing and stabs the thing into silence with his finger. He hops down from the chair, which is a decision he instantly regrets once his leg reminds him that he not slept in a very good position the night previous. More French curses and he's tossing the burnt toast out and putting new bread in. The bacon and eggs at least seem to be okay.

"Sherlock!" comes Mrs. Hudson's bellow from down below. "What are you burning up there?"

"Toast, Mrs. Hudson, just toast!" He stomps the floor twice, the old signal for it being alright up at the Holmes/Watson residence and then remembers all the noise and how fast the Watson half of the residence would wake up at sudden noises. More often than not it was a wonderful trait but at times like now he wishes that John slept like the dead.

He turns around – John is not in the kitchen. In the old days he would have been in the kitchen with the fire extinguisher in three seconds (one if he had been located on the sofa). He is not here now. Sherlock wonders if perhaps John really does plan to sleep the day away as he cautiously edges into the eye line of the sofa.

John is sitting upright facing the door of the flat and has been for some time. He'd thrown the afghan to the floor and had managed to swing his legs to the ground but the rest of his body just hadn't followed. He hears Sherlock's cautious footsteps and his head snaps around to look at him. John's expression is some strange mix of emotions that Sherlock has never seen before but that soon settles into confusion, disbelief, and caution. John has his doubts about who is in front of him right now.

Of course he does. Sherlock has given him no reason to trust him after all.

"Crunchy Frog," Sherlock pronounces, cautiously. He's wasted passwords on stupider things. He waits, terrified, for John to acknowledge him in kind. He isn't sure about John. Not that he doesn't trust him but he actually isn't sure who John is anymore or how to react to him.

"The last time I stood at your grave believing that you were dead," John begins, "I asked you for a miracle. The next time I showed up there I knew damn well you weren't. I asked again, just in case you were around. I wasn't sure I'd be able to pull this off and I wasn't sure I would be alive when you came back. If you came back, I mean. I wasn't sure what your plan was but that's not unusual with you and me is it?"

The tone is so tired and so sad that Sherlock just wants to hug him. Sherlock does not hug – he has never hugged John. He hasn't hugged anyone since he was a very small child. John stares at him for several long moments and Sherlock is quite sure he has forgone breathing during this inspection.

"Anthrax Ripple," John finally responds. "Now get over here before I hit you again."

Sherlock does not need to be threatened twice. He's moving to the couch as John is standing and they both meet each other with fierce hug. No back slapping, no congratulations, just two friends gripping like mad to each other in mutual refusal to ever pull this sort of stunt again.

When they pull apart they remain gripping each other's elbows. "I'm sorry," Sherlock says first. "I am so sorry. It was a stupid idea, Mycroft said so from the beginning but I wouldn't listen. I should never have gone about it this way."

"Too right you shouldn't have," John grumbles. "Do you have any idea what it's like watching a friend leap off a building? Even after you're told why? Actually especially after you're told why." John takes a breath. "I'm sorry, too, for letting you think I'd gone. I just wanted you to see things from the other side for once in your life." The fact that John had needed to cool off from his rightfully felt sense of betrayal and homicidal rage does not need to be acknowledged aloud.

Sherlock nods. He understands. He more than understands. He sits down heavily on the carpet; John settles on the sofa again and then sniffs. "Since when do you cook?"

"Had to learn eventually," Sherlock mumbles. "Never have cooked for two though. Timing's all off."

"I expect you'll catch on quick." John almost chuckles. "Let's have it before you burn that next."

They don't speak while they eat. John is far too preoccupied eating real food – Sherlock gathers his diet has been quite limited the past year and a bit and bacon has been something he just hasn't been able to obtain. Sherlock eats his food as methodically as always and watches John. He watches how he moves, how eats, and how every so often he bats at hair that is no longer there. He tries to match the man in front of him with the man from before.

"What's going on up there?"

Sherlock doesn't quite know how to respond. John puts his fork down and waits patiently until Sherlock says that he's cross-referencing. John snorts knowingly and reaches for his last piece of toast. "Am I still me, then?"

Sherlock suspects he'll know for sure once John tells him how he managed the whole thing. John at first, teasingly, shakes his head and tells him that he needs to keep his secrets for the next time he needs to fool Mycroft or expedite a dead man's return from the grave. When Sherlock says he has no plans for a next time, and that if there is one he plans to combine their efforts since they worked so well separately, John lets him ask his questions. The first is how he'd sorted out Sherlock was alive after all.

"It didn't feel right," John shrugs. "It became pretty clear once all your cases were opened up again and all of your clients came forward that you were no fraud. Not sure if you read the papers or anything but no one could sort why you'd jumped then. Then I remembered how you'd sounded, how you were so adamant that I stay where I was and watch you..." he pauses. "Was there a gunman on me there? Or was someone else ready to get shot?"

"Three gunmen," Sherlock admits. "One each for you, Lestrade, and . All of you were to be killed if I didn't jump."

John looks at him funny for a good minute. His expression is soft, confused, and knowing all at once and all Sherlock can hear in his head is John telling him to run as he'd grabbed Morarity that night at the pool. His friend reaches out and clasps his wrist before he presses on with the rest of the story. How even if Sherlock had died for him that he would have done his best to not actually do it. He'd come up with nothing until he saw Charlie, the boy who had hit him with the bike that day, and recognized him. "It took weeks to get him to tell me about your plans," John grumbles, "eventually Laura told me too and brought me up to speed after I'd managed to convince everyone that I'd reenlisted."

Laura. Laura with her vintage trench coat and her ability to get even the shadiest members of the network in line, on task, and delivering results. That had been why he'd let her in on his scheme and why he'd put her and her ilk in charge of John's safety and on intelligence for while he was gone. Once John had gotten to Laura, and Laura had been as adamant as anyone else that he should have included John in the first place, the whole story would have been his and Laura would have invited him into her fold before John would have even thought to ask.

There was another great team – Trench Coat Laura and John Watson. He doesn't need to ask how John kept hidden and undiscovered for so long. Laura certainly would have helped him out but the real credit went to the world's opinions of John, himself included. It had taken time to grow his hair and beard out but he had remained alive and unobserved when his disguises had literally been hats, glasses, baggy coats, and keeping his head down because everyone took John at his word and everyone underestimated him; it was beyond impressive and Sherlock tells him so. John is in mid sip of his tea when Sherlock says this and he mumbles out a 'ta' around the mug.

The one question that Sherlock really can't find the answer to is that unpublished photograph from the Guardian.

"That really is you, isn't it?"

"Certainly is."

"What did you pose and then run off or something?"

"Something like that. Remind me to show you this bit from The Da Vinci Code. Easy enough trick and you'd have figured it out if you were actually there. So would have Mycroft if he'd shown up – thankfully knowing people goes a long way."

Sherlock thinks of Nigel Belleview and Mycroft's nemesis in charge of covert operations. John says that her name is Sheila and she's the reason that Mycroft's men kept receiving intel on him for the first six months. That and the fact that everyone wears a uniform in the military so it was easy to locate a look alike from a distance for the agents to report on. John had always told him that being on good terms with people he worked with was a good thing. Sherlock gathers he must try it sometime.

"Didn't think you'd take so bloody long even with help, though," John is grumbling now. "Figured if we kept Moran out you'd get him eventually and that would be it. Nearly two years? Bit much, that. What the hell did you get up to?"

Sherlock recites his travels with disinterest, only elaborating where John insisted. It perhaps sounded glamorous but it had been hard going; at times he was no better than a street urchin himself. John, thankfully, understands that and has the good grace to not get even angrier or be jealous or awed. Sherlock knows full well that he would not be able to handle any of those cases. He doesn't really mean to sound like he's justifying his methods but he is. At the end Sherlock is certain that he has accounted for and justified for every second of the deception and for the time.

"All done now though, yeah?" John asks.

"Of course," Sherlock replies. He doesn't mention that he wouldn't have set toe in this city if John and the others weren't as good as safe.

"Well, would you terribly mind helping me get my stuff back over here and help me wiggle out of my lease at my other flat?" John pauses, awkward for a moment. "That is, of course, if you still find yourself in need of a flatmate."

Same old John underneath it all after all. Sherlock makes of show of considering it. "Well I think I haven't required a flatmate in quite some time. That being said I would very much like one."

"Good. I think I know just the man," John grins. He picks up the dishes and puts them in the sink to soak. "Shall we then?"

"When you like and where you like."

And so they return to London – Sherlock can almost feel the city vibrating with excitement and gratitude for it. Or, really, that could just be either or both of them. Perhaps all three. It doesn't matter, really. They are back and that is all that matters.