Note: I honestly don't know how to describe how I feel right now. In a way, I never wanted this story to end. In another, I'm damned proud of having written a novel, and one I am very happy with. I calculated that I spent over 350 hours writing this story. It's been a complete labour of love and a personal challenge.

But most of all, I write to be able to share something with my readers. So if you've enjoyed this half as much as I have, you'll have had a good time. I especially want to thank the readers who've been here through the entirety of the story, following along and reviewing: wynnleaf, Francesca, Sky Writes, Eldar, Nessalozo. And then it's been so thrilling to pick up readers along the way who've contributed new and intersting thoughts. I am so grateful to Eyebrows2, Jane Mays, deaka, Alexis, Scarlett, TrustSnapeBelieveInSherlock, Dana42, HOS70, Howlynn, Pilikia18, charliebrown1234, Seansay, ReshMa Pra, Jacqs, chironsgirl, and anyone else I may have missed. I have loved your thoughtful reviews and the discussions we've had in response to them. I am saddened that I can't message some of you back, but thank you so much for leaving your thoughts!

To the other readers out there who haven't commented, I'm still very glad you've been enjoying the story. I know a lot of people have this on their updates and in their favourites and it's really encouraging. If you do have a minute, I'd love to hear some of your thoughts as well. But even if you never say anything, I am genuinely grateful and happy that so many people have been enjoying this.

Now I need to stop rambling and just pull the trigger. So thank you, merci mille fois, and here we go...

Chapter 26

After a long moment of comfortable silence, Sherlock turned and headed back to the living room, where he took a seat on the couch, letting out a sigh. He seemed much more relaxed, in spite of everything, than John had seen him since he'd returned. Quietly, John took a seat next to Sherlock, both of them staring ahead, enjoying the easy, companionable silence. It was something they hadn't often had in their friendship before. The silences had tended to be ordered by Sherlock so he could think, not mutually agreed upon for the purpose of simply enjoying a moment. It occurred to John that, for all the pain they'd been through in the last several days, and all the wounds that had been opened, perhaps their friendship had grown even stronger now. Perhaps that was because all those things had been brought to light, deep wounds cleansed, and demons thoroughly exorcised.

There was a long stretch of companionable silence before John spoke again. "I wanted to ask you to do something," he began, turning slightly towards his friend. "It's a bit early and absolutely nothing's settled, but still, I wanted to ask."

"Then stop stammering," Sherlock replied with a sideways glance, matter-of-factly, though not really unkindly.

John looked nervously at his friend. "Will you be my Best Man?"

Sherlock blinked, then looked away thoughtfully for a moment. He glanced back at John, seeming uncertain. "In your wedding, you mean?"

"Yes, you idiot, in my wedding," John said with a smirk. Then, more seriously he added, "I wouldn't want anyone else."

"I've never been to a wedding," Sherlock mused, his brow furrowing in contemplation. John was a little surprised at that, but realised Sherlock's family had probably been wise enough to keep him away from any family weddings, most likely to Sherlock's delight. "What would I have to do?"

"Well," John started, scratching the back of his neck, "the Best Man usually organizes the bachelor party and some pre-wedding events. But don't worry," he said, seeing the look of trepidation on Sherlock's face, "I'd get Stamford to take care of that part. That's his area." Sherlock relaxed a little. John added, "And usually the Best Man gives a speech…"

There was a pause.

"Bad idea," Sherlock said.

"Bloody awful idea," John agreed with a grimace. He sighed in exasperation and sat up on the edge of the couch, turning fully around to face Sherlock now. "Look, all I want you to do is stand up there next to me not saying anything or making a scene for 30 minutes. Does that sound like something you'd be willing to do? And think about this very carefully before you answer."

To John's surprise, Sherlock looked quite serious as he replied immediately, "Of course I'll do that for you, John. And I'm flattered you'd ask."

John gave a small smile. "Then you've got the job." He extended his hand, and after a moment of looking annoyed at the ritual, Sherlock shook it. It was all remarkably normal. John sat back again.

"I feel as though I owe you something anyway," Sherlock added by way of explanation. "I know none of this is easy. The press, rehab, all of that nasty business. And then me basically forcing you back into working with me. Really, it's quite a lot to take on. I don't know if I would do it."

"You jumped off a building and tracked down cold blooded killers for a year and a half but you don't think you could handle a flatmate in rehab?" John asked. "Not likely. Besides, you've got a psychologist and a doctor for your flatmates. I think it would literally be impossible to find two people more perfectly equipped to help you through the worst of it."

Sherlock's brow furrowed in consideration. "I hadn't thought of that," he admitted. His tone sobered a little, and he glanced over at John. "Still, there are a lot of psychologists and doctors who haven't afforded me anything nearing this sort of understanding." He hesitated momentarily. "I am aware that I'm not what would be considered normal. Which is perfectly fine by me, since 'normal' indicates the worst sort of boring, average, useless person. What I mean to say is," Sherlock continued, facing forward again. His tone was matter-of-fact, despite what he was saying. "Most people don't like me. And I genuinely don't care about most people. But I've come to hold the opinions of a select few in high regard. It's nice to be thought well of. To be liked. I've realised just how important that is in the last year and a half..." He trailed off, lost in some sort of contemplation for a while.

John nodded thoughtfully, then remembered something that brought a slow grin to his face. "Well, clearly someone you met while you were away liked you. And quite a lot," he mused suggestively.

Sherlock turned his head, eyeing John warily as he asked, "What do you mean?"

"Well," John began, raising an eyebrow. "Was it true, what you said to Donovan when we were leaving the hospital?" He could see Sherlock wasn't catching his meaning, so he added. "You know, the thing about you not being a virgin..?"

Sherlock looked both surprised and indignant. "What, that?" he asked. "You think I was boasting?"

"Oh, you were definitely boasting," John said with a laugh. "I just wanted to know if you were telling the truth."

Looking agitated, Sherlock got up from the couch and took a few steps away. "Yes, it was the truth," he said, not looking at John and sounding casual.

John got the distinct impression that his friend was embarrassed, even though he wasn't blushing or faltering. But John very much recalled how inhumanly calm Sherlock had been able to remain when Irene Adler had seemed about ready to jump him in the middle of the living room. Clearly Sherlock was good at playing these things close to the chest. So John didn't buy his off-hand attitude now one bit. And he certainly wasn't about to let this go. "But you were one before, right?" John asked, raising an eyebrow. He hadn't actually asked Sherlock directly about it, but the report on the Irene Adler case that Mycroft had given him cited this as one of the bits of information she'd gained to use in her manipulation of Sherlock. Which probably wouldn't have worked unless it were true, and really it seemed to fit to John.

Turning back towards his friend and giving him an annoyed look, Sherlock replied, "By definition everyone's a virgin before they aren't one any more. Very sound reasoning, John."

"No, I mean…" John stopped himself from getting drawn into the semantic argument, realising what Sherlock was doing. "Oh, sod it. You know what I mean, you're just trying to avoid the question."

Seeming to realise that his flatmate wasn't about to give up so easily, Sherlock sighed in annoyance and started pacing a little, shoving his hands in his pockets. "I simply don't understand why this fascinates you so much," Sherlock muttered. A smile tugged at John's lips, and he could tell he'd really got Sherlock flustered, whether the man would admit it or not. Maybe it was cruel to take advantage of the detective's frayed defences, but this was too rare an opportunity to pass up. Sherlock finally stopped to grumble, "Yes, I had sex while I was gone. Honestly, is it really that amazing?"

"Dunno," John drawled, a suggestive grin quirking his lips, "was it?" To his delight, Sherlock gave him a glare that would light ants on fire and began pacing away again. "Oh, come on," John said with a laugh. "This is kind of a big deal. And you're the one who said something about it. I think you wanted me to know. I think you were showing off," John surmised, revelling in the irritated look Sherlock gave him. "You can't simply drop information like that then not give any details."

Sherlock stopped and stared at the ceiling, running his hands over his face. "God, is this really the sort of thing people talk about?"

"Yes," John replied plainly.

"Well people are idiots," Sherlock spat, a bit petulantly in John's estimation. The doctor couldn't contain his knowing grin. Sherlock glared. "Now you're just being deliberately annoying."

"And you're deliberately avoiding a question again," John pointed out.

"What question?" Sherlock challenged, eyeing him evenly.

John smiled and sat forward on the edge of the couch. "Well… who's the lucky lady?" Sherlock gave him a wary look, and John added tentatively, "Or… fellow. That's fine as well." Sherlock rolled his eyes, and John held up his hands as if to say 'just had to check'.

Now Sherlock was actually looking at John, considering him carefully, as if weighing how much he wanted to say. Then he steepled his hands against his mouth, and turned to look out the window. He stayed that way for several long, contemplative moments. "Woman," Sherlock replied finally, with a depth of genuine appreciation and sadness that John hadn't been expecting. Something about the way he said that, and his choice of word, made John involuntarily wonder… No, she's dead. Mycroft was sure of it, John reminded himself, shaking that thought from his mind.

"Sorry, is it all right if I come in?" a voice interrupted cautiously, and both John and Sherlock turned around to see Mary standing in the front doorway. "Only I phoned Lestrade about something and he said he was going to be giving his press conference at two, and it's five past now."

"Yes, come in," Sherlock said, seemingly grateful for the interruption. He picked up the remote from the coffee table and turned the television on, all the while muttering, "Though I can't believe you put a television in here…" When he got to the news and saw Lestrade at the podium, he set the remote down, but remained standing. Mary came and sat down next to John on the couch, giving him a mysterious look before glancing back at the tele.

John was anxious to hear what Lestrade would have to say. There'd been a flurry of press releases from Mycroft's end regarding James Moriarty and Sherlock's semi-official government role in all of that. But Scotland Yard had yet to make a statement. And now as John watched, he realised that this press conference would affect not only Sherlock's future, but John's own as well. It would affect their livelihood and their work. So he was a little nervous as Lestrade called for everyone to take a seat, and looked down at what appeared to be index cards he'd brought with him.

The detective inspector looked out at the crowd of reporters and the cameras as he began. "I'd like to say that New Scotland Yard will have an official press release out to all the outlets as soon as I'm done talking. But I wanted to give a personal statement. A year and a half ago, this department and I in particular failed not only you the public but also one specific person." John glanced up at Sherlock, who remained stoic, folding his arms across his chest. Back on the tele, Lestrade continued, "As you've all heard and seen by now, Sherlock Holmes is not actually dead. He did fake his death, but as part of an officially sanctioned SIS action, which I'm sure you've read about from them. That part I wasn't even aware of. So, like a lot of you, I was left wondering why. But many of you, in particular the press, jumped to the conclusion based on lies and misinformation sown by international criminal James Moriarty that Sherlock Holmes was merely a fake. A man who'd tricked people into thinking he was some kind of genius."

Here Lestrade looked directly into the camera, and John noticed the way Sherlock stared straight back at the television. Lestrade said evenly, "Sherlock Holmes is a genius. He is a brilliant and sometimes difficult man. But he is not a villain and he's certainly not a fraud. I won't speak to any of the personal claims that have been made about him by Kitty Riley or anyone in Fleet Street." He sounded genuinely angered, even though he knew as well as John that many of her claims were based on fact. Still, it was none of the public's business. Lestrade looked now at the press assembled before him as he said tightly, "I'll only say that making sordid and unsupported claims about a man you have every reason to believe has just killed himself is the lowest kind of cowardly, muck-raking so-called journalism imaginable."

At this Sherlock straightened, looking surprised at Lestrade's firm defence. John couldn't help being proud of the inspector's candour, and exchanged pleased looks with Mary. Taking a sip of water, Lestrade continued more calmly, "Yes, I've had many cases reviewed and some even overturned because I used Mr. Holmes as a consultant. But not going through official channels was my mistake, not his. I tried to save face for myself by throwing a friend under the bus, and for that I have to apologise. So if you're watching this, Sherlock, just so you know, I'm sorry."

Sherlock blinked and his brow furrowed as he watched Lestrade hold up several stacks of letters. "I've got a sack of letters like these here from 371 separate individuals citing their support for Sherlock Holmes. They note the various ways in which he's secured the conviction of murderers who'd stolen their family members from them and would otherwise have gone free, proved people innocent of heinous crimes, and even saved people's lives. He's saved mine, and I don't mean that figuratively." Lestrade cleared his throat, and pulled out a piece of paper that looked to have the official New Scotland Yard Seal on it. Glancing at it, he said, "So, I'm here to announce that as of today, Sherlock Holmes and his colleague Dr. John Watson," John's eyebrows shot up, and he gave Mary a look. She was smiling knowingly, and he realised then what she must have been phoning Lestrade about. She knew I couldn't stay away, he realised. She'd apparently intuited before he had what Sherlock would ask and what John's answer would be. God, he loved how she understood him. John smiled back at her as Lestrade continued, "will be working with New Scotland Yard's Criminal Investigation Division on a case by case basis as needed, serving as official case consultants for the Crown."

John looked up at Sherlock, who was still giving little outward sign of his thoughts as he kept his eyes fixed on the television. Lestrade looked back into the camera as he finished, "I know Sherlock hates publicity, and the very last thing he needs having just got out of the hospital is a bunch of unwanted attention from the media. But should you have a private matter you want investigated, you can be damned sure there's no one better to look into it. Sherlock Holmes is a great man. He's also a good one. Thank you." With that, Lestrade left the podium under a flurry of flashing lights and a volley of questions, none of which he responded to as he strode out of the room.

As the television cut back to several BBC commentators remarking on the press conference, Mary quietly leaned forward and turned off the television with the remote. John saw Sherlock swallow and shift. He knew his friend didn't do the work he did out of any sense of civic duty. Sherlock quite often never thought of the human impact of a case at all. It was a problem to be solved, something to stimulate his mind and keep him going. And yet, hadn't Sherlock only just been saying how nice it felt to be liked? And here he was, liked or at the very least appreciated by many people. Perhaps, in the end, that was enough.

Finally, Sherlock cleared his throat and said, without turning around, "John, would you mind texting something to Lestrade? This not having a mobile yet is really becoming irksome. In fact someone ought to get me a new one this evening. I have messages of my own to send..."

"Sure," John said, pulling his mobile out of his pocket, and trying to steer the conversation back on topic. "What should I say?"

"Tell him 'thank you'," Sherlock said.

"That's all?" John asked, and Sherlock nodded. John typed and sent the text, making sure to sign it with Sherlock's trademark 'SH'. "Done. Anything else…?" he ventured.

His friend hesitated only momentarily before turning around. "I'll need to use your computer right away."

"It's under that chair," John said reluctantly, pointing to the wing-backed chair opposite Sherlock's. John felt a strong but not unwelcome sense of déjà vu.

"Fantastic," the consulting detective said, scooping the computer up and plopping down in his own beloved chair. Realising Sherlock wasn't going to come to him, John got up and went to stand behind his friend, looking over Sherlock's shoulder as he pulled up his website, 'The Science of Deduction'. Mary looked on the two of them with keen interest from the couch, but didn't interrupt, almost as if studying an anthropological scene. After a moment, a message appeared on Sherlock's website. Then another. Then half a dozen more in the span of the next minute. "Ah, that's the one," Sherlock said, pulling up one message in particular and rubbing his hands together as he read and re-read it.

John knew precisely where this was going, and he couldn't help feeling intensely worried. He walked around to stand in front of his friend, looking down at him seriously. "Sherlock," he said warningly, "you know you have rehab, and physical therapy. And your cardiologist to see. And they let you out of the hospital early. You need to take it easy."

"Of course I'll give my body a break. But why should that stop my mind?" Sherlock replied, still looking at the computer and beginning to type furiously as he no doubt opened about ten browser tabs at once. Beginning his research, John realised with a worried groan. Sherlock must have heard it, because he looked up and rolled his eyes a little. "I won't leave the flat for anything below a seven, remember? This is a five at best. You have my word, I won't take any cases beyond that level until I'm through with my programme and fit to go investigate personally."

"I see," John said, folding his arms across his chest. "So you're going to sit in here for about three months whilst I run around London Skyping you into crime scenes and interviews with potential criminals, is that it?" John asked.

"Well really, John, I feel rather dreadful," Sherlock said with a long-suffering sigh. "I've nearly had a heart attack and could have died. Not to mention having done my fair share of running around the entire globe whilst you were sat here getting fat on Mary's cooking." Sherlock remarked pointedly. He sat forward in his chair. "But my mind is itching for something to do. It will help my recovery. You wouldn't deny me that, would you?" Sherlock looked deliberately pathetic.

John gave his friend a pointed, knowing stare. "What do you want?" he asked, feeling he was going to regret this already, but bizarrely also feeling a grin creeping onto his face. This is how it should be, he thought.

Sherlock Holmes grinned back, a genuinely pleased expression like John had wished to see for months and never really believed he would ever see again. "There's a man you need to go see over in a pub over in Knightsbridge. Bring your phone for video chat and I'll email you his details." When John didn't move, Sherlock looked at him expectantly. "Well?" the detective prompted. He glanced at Mary. "Is he always this relaxed these days?"

Mary gave John a bemused smile. "Not for long I don't think," she said knowingly. And John couldn't help but think that that sounded wonderful.

"Get your coat, John," Sherlock ordered. And John didn't even mind the bossiness for once as his friend leaned back in his chair and said with a contented smile, "The game is on."

Final Note: As promised, I've already posted the first chapter of the prequel fic for this story. You can find it in my stories; it's titled "What He Likes". It began as a one shot to fill in some flashes of the backstory of Sherlock and Irene's encounters. It turned into a novella. Whoops. Well it's already done so I'll once again be updating frequently. Please note that unlike this story, "What He Likes" is rated M and is not intended for people under 16. It's also very different from this story, isn't a case fic, but is instead an intense, dark, and honest exploration of Sherlock's addiction, his ever-shifting relationship with Irene, and all the incredibly angsty stuff that goes with it.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you all. This has been my favourite story to write ever.