One.

He's gotten reckless, he knows it.

Every time he looks into Lestrade's face, he knows that, with every case, he's getting closer to the time when Lestrade will do something about it. John tries to scale back, but his resolution is always forgotten as soon as he's in the field, chasing some criminal.

All the time with Sherlock had, in fact, rubbed off on him. They don't close as many cases as when Sherlock was with them, but John's really quite adept at deducing. The first time John discovered the final clue to a case, Lestrade took him out for a pint and they didn't mention Sherlock's name once. They both got pleasantly tipsy, shared a cab, and Lestrade started calling John on the regular to help at crime scenes.

That had been a year and a half ago. Now, Lestrade eyes him warily whenever there's a mention of a possible chase, a flight risk. The detective inspector is doing it now, in fact. The body had been found only half and hour after the time of death, which was a good indication that the killer was still in the city. Sensing excitement, his blood seems to rush faster through his veins and his heart beats faster. They'd all been right about him - adrenaline junkie. It isn't just that, though. Not anymore. When he races through London, Sherlock appears. They run together just like they did before - before. Through back alleys, over rooftops, under bridges, their feet pound the pavement and their breath is dragged from their lungs in tandem. With Sherlock at his side, John knows no fear.

This murder had been sloppy, and John is able to get all the information he needs from the body. He rises from his crouch, removing his gloves.

"John, take someone with you. This guy is probably still armed, still dangerous. Let us come with you." Lestrade is practically begging. He knows John's going to get too cocky and something awful is going to happen at some point. Sherlock told him to keep John safe - bang up job he's doing of that. John's shaking his head though.

"I won't go after the guy, Greg. I'll find him and call you to come get him when I do, like always." John claps Lestrade on the shoulder and strides away, looking something up on his phone. Lestrade watches him leave, a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Dimmock!" The smaller man comes running at Lestrade's shout. "Follow Watson, but don't let him know what you're doing. I have a bad feeling about this guy." Dimmock nods, then heads off in the same direction as John, divesting himself of his bright blue jacket.

Got your breath back? Sherlock asks John, smiling down at him. John nods, and they take off into the sunny afternoon.

They find themselves in a fairly posh neighborhood, lots of ivy-covered brick and well-kept lawns. John had found a business card in the victim's pocket with an address on this street, but it obviously wasn't his card - clothes weren't expensive enough, for one thing. He is certain the murderer is staying at that address, though he doesn't know why the victim had a business card. Not really his business to know. Sherlock doesn't deduce, just runs along with John.

Sauntering along the sun-splashed sidewalk, John's eyes slide along the homes until he finds the right number. He raises his eyebrows at Sherlock, who nods and gestures him along. They creep along the side of the house to the backyard. From an open window on the second floor, the sound of glass breaking shatters the still afternoon. Sherlock and John freeze, listening hard. There's a covered porch attached to the back of the house, which John climbs with surprising ease. Sherlock stays on the ground to watch his back. John crawls to the window, peeks in. Their murderer is packing quickly and toppled a vase in his haste. Pulling his mobile from his jacket pocket, John texts Lestrade the address. Fortunately, it's not to terribly far away from the crime scene, so they should arrive quite soon. John scrambles down from the roof and hides in the bushes with Sherlock. From there they have a fair view of both back and front doors in case he should try and leave.

And leave he does. The murderer, a tall blonde man with powerful shoulders, creeps out of the front door like he knows he's being watched. He looks to the left, to the right, then sprints towards his car. John surges from the bushes and tackles the man around the knees. Unfortunately, John is a good deal smaller than his adversary, who merely stumbles, rights himself, and kicks out. John is able to avoid the flailing foot, but takes too long in getting up. A car door slams, an engine rumbles to life, tires squeal and then John is jumping in front of the car -

Soft voices penetrate the darkness. Two men, one with a rougher accent than the other. John opens his eyes to a slit, and when that doesn't hurt anymore, he opens them fully. Mycroft and Lestrade are arguing about something, but Mycroft seems to sense as soon as John is awake. He lays a manicured hand on Lestrade's arm and tips his head towards the patient.

"Scared the hell out of me there, mate. Thought we'd lost you. Would have if Dimmock hadn't been there." Lestrade comments without meeting John's eyes.

"Sherlock..." John rasps, his throat incredibly dry.

Lestrade's dark eyes whip to Mycroft for the barest of moments, then back to John. "Sherlock's dead, John. Has been for a year and a half. You know that. You were at the funeral. You've been to the grave a thousand times."

John closes his eyes. He'd thought this time, this time, Sherlock would come for him. All those other dangerously stupid things he'd done, all the things that had landed him in the hospital or just the doctor's office, they'd all been to entice Sherlock back to help him, comfort him, take care of him, just make him stop being dead.

"Sherlock isn't coming back, John." Mycroft is speaking now, very close to John's ear.

"No."

Two.

Considering his sister, it's not often John reaches for liquid comfort, but with the month he's had, he doesn't see another outlet. He's tried exercising, he's gone to the gun range with Greg Lestrade, he's tried therapy... nothing has lessened the gut-wrenching pain he's felt every time he thinks of what happened at Bart's.

The alcohol doesn't burn the images away. It doesn't make them foggy or fuzzy.

It makes them sharper.

With every drink he sees Sherlock falling. Every swallow brings back the memory of Sherlock's final words. Each bottle is full of the blood that splattered Sherlock's face and the sidewalk.

Tonight is no different. As usual, he sits alone at the bar of the pub down the street from 221B - the close proximity means he can usually wobble his way home instead of paying for a cab. He considers the whiskey in his glass, wonders what fresh hell tonight will be. Deciding it can't be any worse than reality, he tosses back the entire drink and signals the bartender for another.

The bartender doesn't usually worry about his customers. They're usually jovial drinkers just looking to blow off a bit of steam. Only every now and again does he get someone drinking to forget, to drown their sorrows. The small man with the graying hair, though, that kind of drinking isn't just trying to forget - that's trying to wipe away the past.

John finishes his second whiskey, asks for a third. The bartender doesn't worry whether John will get home or not. Usually a man in a three-piece suit comes in and helps him home, or an older man in a sports coat carries John out on his shoulders. Both always make sure the tab is taken care of and leave a generous tip. The bartender likes all three of them - John never makes any trouble, just sits with his haunted eyes, and drinks.

A rough crowd comes through the door, raucous and clearly already drunk. They order a round and are most of the way through it when one notices John.

"Hey, mate, aren't you the friend of that detective fella? The fake one?" He elbows his friends, pointing at John, who pointedly ignores him. "Was he really a fake?" "Musta been since he jumped off that building." "Wouldn'ta done if he was tellin' the truth." John's lack of reaction only spurs them on until they're crowding around him, jeering at him.

Finally, John snaps. He throws an elbow back into the stomach of the man behind him. The man doubles over, shouting in pain and anger. Another drags John off his stool and whips his fist towards John's jaw. John dodges, lightning fast, kicking up into the man's crotch. A third grabs John's arms behind his back while another pummels John's face and abdomen. Finally the bartender manages to break things up, shoving bodies every which way. He grasps John by the shoulders and pulls him outside, dumps him around the corner.

"Sorry mate, I can't leave the bar to get you home. Give me your phone and I'll call someone." John pulls his mobile painfully out of his pocket and hands it over. Mycroft answers on the first ring and promises to arrive as soon as possible. The bartender puts the phone back in John's hand and scurries back to the bar.

Images swirl in front of John's eyes as he tries to stay conscious from the alcohol and the beating.

Sherlock! his brain screams. Sherlock help me please I need you...

A few minutes later, Mycroft's sleek black car pulls up to the curb and two large men pile out. Gently, they bundle John into the back of the car where Mycroft checks him over, deems the hospital unnecessary, and the car moves just down the street to stop in front of 221. Mycroft accompanies the three men - John and the two men carrying him - up the seventeen stairs to the flat where they settle him into bed.

"He won't come for you, John. He can't." Mycroft murmurs. John shudders as he falls into an uneasy sleep.

Three.

Crime scenes are never this clean, so devoid of evidence. It reminds John forcibly of a locked room containing only a pair of shoes. This, however, is not a game of wits between two geniuses - this is a game of life and death.

And so far, death is winning.

"Third one we've seen like this." John comments under his breath to Lestrade, who nods his head wearily. Both men are feeling their years, having been run ragged for the past 11 days trying to stop the killer. They've had very little in the way of evidence, leads, or luck. John is feeling the pressure in particular, since the force has started to look to him as sort of a replacement Sherlock. As much as John learned from the consulting detective, he simply is not Sherlock Holmes. He knows that better than anyone. Now, however, he's starting to feel the sideways glances, the impatient stares, hears the whispers as he attempts to recreate his friend's work.

"There's really not much here... very little to go on..." John apologizes over and over as he searches the scene for some shred of assistance. Like the others, there's nothing. Not that John Watson, ex-army doctor, can see, anyway.

Sherlock would've been able to see it. A voice in his head whispers his exact fears. Sherlock would've solved this case days ago.

John knows he's a poor substitute, but he's all they have. With that moderately bolstering thought, John sets to again, this time finding a bloodstain on the windowsill. It's approximately the size of a pinprick, but it's all they have. The look Lestrade gives him as they leave is almost encouraging.

That night, however, John finds himself at the pub, his thoughts making it impossible to go home to the empty flat. He sits alone, nursing his pint.

Sherlock could have had that case solved in a day, but you let three other people die.

They'd probably be better off without you.

Sherlock was fine before you showed up. You probably slowed him down.

These torturous thoughts swirl through his brain, chasing after one another, growing larger and more believable.

When someone sits down next to him, John starts and realizes his glass is empty. Dazed, John turns to the person who ignored the empty stools and sat beside him. Mycroft Holmes stares back, face carefully blank but judging John's choice of recreation if his slightly lifted eyebrows are any indication.

"When will he come back, Mycroft?" John whispers miserably, tears making his vision swim. "I can't do this as well as him. Lestrade needs him." I need him.

"Sherlock isn't coming back, John. He's dead."

+1

"No, Mycroft, you're wrong! He's not dead! I'd know. I'd feel it. Sherlock Holmes is not dead."

"Yes, John, he is! I saw his corpse myself! As next of kin I was the one to identify the body!" Mycroft is actually yelling now, standing behind the couch and gripping the back of it until his knuckles turn white. John stays seated in his customary chair, staring daggers at the other man. He scrubs a hand over his face, notices he needs a shave, then shakes his head.

"No. I can't believe that - "

"He. Is. Not. Coming. Back. For. You." Mycroft hisses, leaning forward until he almost topples over the chair. John's stomach clenches and a cold weight settles in his chest. The finality in Mycroft's eyes is what convinces John. This is not a man who is lying to protect anyone. As hard as he tries to pretend otherwise, Mycroft is grieving his younger brother. And if Mycroft is grieving, then Sherlock is truly, irrevocably gone. Whatever words John was going to utter die on his lips as he draws an unsteady breath. Mycroft seems to know what's going through John's head - probably down to the exact words. He straightens, pulls on his waistcoat uncomfortably, smooths his hair and gathers his umbrella. "I'm afraid I have a rather urgent meeting that can not be postponed. I will call Gregory and ask that he join you here as soon as he is able. I am sorry to be so harsh, John, but the truth can no longer be avoided. Please understand that I... well. We shall speak again soon." John manages one jerky nod of the head and Mycroft disappears.

It seems an age that John sits in his chair, staring at the couch where Sherlock used to lay, stretched out and snarky. How did Mycroft know that's what John had secretly hoped for nigh on three years? That Sherlock would come back for him. It did not matter. Sherlock is gone. He is not coming back. John turns these facts over and over in his mind, but seems unable to accept them, to let them take root in his soul. Wouldn't he know? Of all people, wouldn't John Watson know without a doubt that his best friend was truly gone from this world? Perhaps not. Perhaps he would always be haunted by the ghost of the greatest man he ever knew.

Perhaps it was time... to join him.

The thought rings like a death knell through John's body. No other decision has felt so right in the past three years. It is time to end the suffering.

His phone pings with a text message. Lestrade writes that he'll come to Baker Street within the half hour. John does not reply, but heaves himself from the chair with a slightly dreamy quality. He's kept the gun out of sight, hoping it will remain out of mind. He pulls it from the desk drawer, checking it over; it's clean and loaded, ready for action.

That's what people do, don't they? Leave a note? Sherlock's words ring in John's ears as he handles the weapon. He should do his friends and family the courtesy of an explanation, though it won't be hard for anyone to understand. Grabbing his laptop, he sits at the kitchen table as he's done a million times, then opens his blog. Once he begins to write, he finds he can't stop. The words and feelings he hasn't been able to articulate pour from his fingers until finally they run out. Tears run down his face, the face of a much older man, as he writes his final lines and schedules the post to be published an hour from now.

Errand finished, there's nothing left to do but the thing itself. John once again lowers himself into his chair, the chair he claimed the day he first entered 221B. The day his whole life changed.

No. No time to get caught up in sentimentality. Lestrade will come barging through the door at any moment and he'll try to talk John out of it.

There are his footsteps now, the 15th stair creaking. John presses the muzzle of his gun to his temple and releases the safety.

"John?"

Oh Christ he's hallucinating. Why would he hear that voice just before death? Is it welcoming him?

"John no! Please!" And now that voice is right beside him, long fingers prying the weapon from his hand. John refuses to open his eyes. Did he do it? If he did, it was completely painless. He feels bad that Lestrade will be the one to find the mess. "What on earth are you thinking?"

"Joining you."

"John look at me. Open your eyes, John, please." Large hands are cupping his face, thumbs stroking over his cheekbones, wiping away tears he didn't know were still falling. Can he still cry if he's dead? With difficulty, he forces his eyelids open and Sherlock Holmes is kneeling in front of him.

"Am I dead?" John croaks. He must be if Sherlock is here because Sherlock is dead. Mycroft told him so.

"No, John. You, thankfully, are still very much alive." Sherlock's voice is the same, if a touch rougher. John stares at him and Sherlock stares right back, drinking in the sight of him.

"You're dead. I went to your funeral. I've been to your grave a thousand times." John whispers and Sherlock flinches.

"I'm sorry, John. Everyone had to think I was dead. At Bart's when I... Moriarty had snipers on Lestrade, on Mrs Hudson, on you. They had to know I jumped or they'd kill all of you. I couldn't let that happen. I couldn't let you all die for me." Sherlock shakes John slightly. "Don't you see, John? It was to protect you. I had to keep all of you safe while I went and finished off the rest of Moriarty's network." Sherlock searches John's face for some sign of understanding, of forgiveness, of anything.

"You bloody wanker." John whispers, but he's beginning to smile. He raises an unsteady hand to Sherlock's face, hardly daring to believe what's in front of him. Sherlock takes John's hand in his, presses it to his cheek, then turns his face into John's palm and kisses it.

"Forgive me." It is a sincere plea, from the depths of Sherlock's very soul. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of him, what other people will say when they find out, but he must know that John understands and forgives.

John sighs deeply. "You'll have to explain everything so that I understand in due course, but for the moment, of course I forgive you, you git." A smile such as John has never seen breaks across Sherlock's face. With John at his side, he can rejoin the world. He can explain where he was and why he had to go. He can spend every moment earning forgiveness.

But not now.

Now he has John and nothing else matters.