Thanks for the continued interest and support you guys. Especially zoraarian, sorry it's a couple of days later than I promised x

Chapter Twenty-Three

Sherlock had forgotten just how silent the world could be when he was alone.

The flat was so quiet. The rooms in 221b were barren, joyless. No slow tapping on a keyboard, no disgruntled sighs as the fridge was roughly shut, no clink of dishes in the sink, no hearty laugh or long-suffering smile. No gun in the bottom draw of John's bedside table. The morgue was just the same. Though it had always been quiet, without Molly's sunny presence it was deathly. Suddenly Sherlock was uneasy about being down there by himself, away from the bustle of the hospital above. The bodies which he had once taken solace in now frightened him. He couldn't shake himself of the irrational thought that within a matter of days he might open the metal chiller and pull out a murder victim, only to find his blogger or his lover lying on the slab, cold and lifeless and so very, very silent. As soon as such unsettling thoughts had begun circling in his brain he had told Lestrade he could take no more cases.

He was on a hiatus, cut off from the rational world.

It had been weeks since John and Molly had exited his life, and he hadn't heard a word from either of them. Mycroft kept him up to date in regards to Molly, where and when she was being moved, whether anything suspicious had happened in the hotels she was visiting. Only the barest, most necessary details and always spoken in hushed tones, in codes so that no one else - hopefully - would understand. It seemed to be working so far, or at least it appeared to be. Sherlock had the uneasy feeling that Moriarty knew exactly where she was and had decided to draw out the suspense, keep them all running about like headless chickens until the time was right to act. Perhaps the criminal thought the delay would fray their nerves to the point of stupidity. The idea made Sherlock laugh. Everyone else, maybe, but not him.

There had been no clue from John yet, but Sherlock wasn't so worried about that. John could take care of himself, had proven so time and again. No, his doctor was safe somewhere underground. If Moriarty had found him then Sherlock would know, either through his homeless network or through Moriarty himself, ringing up to gloat and to threaten. Still, not hearing anything for so long did not guarantee that John wasn't hurt or hungry or scared, only that he hadn't been taken. The doctor could be enduring all sorts of other hardships, but Sherlock couldn't contemplate that.

Instead of working he spent most of his time sitting in the empty living room, nursing pots of badly made tea and pondering, fingers steepled beneath his chin. He was waiting. He couldn't act, not yet. However much he wanted to do something, he knew that to leave, to try and find Moriarty would be folly at this point. Too dangerous, too unpredictable. If he had interpreted the man's plan correctly then waiting was his greatest ally, as it gave Moriarty no hint as to how the endgame would play out. As for the endgame, well...

"How can I do it and save them both?" he would say, muttering it into his cupped palms so that only he could hear the words. Of course he and Mycroft had scoured the whole house for bugs, cameras and the like, but one couldn't be too careful. "What can I say, what can I do to stop it?"

He ran through endless scenarios back to back, tried to compensate for every variable. Yet still, infuriatingly, he came up with only three possible outcomes.

He kept wondering, what if he had totally misinterpreted the criminal's intentions? But then, how often was he ever wrong? Truly wrong? No. Moriarty would find Molly and John, Sherlock would be summoned to a location he would never have been able to find himself without Morairty's direction. This, he was sure, would be the board on which the pieces would be set - Jim would want Sherlock in a place out of his element. But what about the motive for such cryptic behaviour? Moriarty's only possible reason for doing something so hideously theatrical would be as a torment for Sherlock, a way of exploiting his greatest weaknesses in the most physical of ways, by harming or threatening to harm the people he considered his closest friends. How he would harm them...

Sherlock squeezed his eyes shut at this point, every time he let himself think about it, pooling all the resolve in his gut to keep theorizing. When ordinary folk are confronted with things of such impossible horror, they find a way of pushing the sensation to the backs of their minds, trapping it there before it becomes debilitating. Either they do this successfully and are able to function or the terror consumes them. It is this which allows hostages to obey commands, even when a gun is being pointed at their heads. It is this which keeps widowers standing at their partner's funeral, preventing their knees from buckling as they watch the coffin descend or the curtain close. It is this which lets a mother give birth, even as the pain rips her whole body apart. It is a desensitization that pushes people into a state of normality, even as everything they know or feel falls apart around them. This skill, this fundamental tool in dealing with emotion, was something Sherlock had never effectively mastered. Schooling one's visage into passivity is different, inflecting one's voice to sound deadpan is nothing, feigning confidence is little. To possess the talent to suppress inner turmoil, is a whole other field entirely out of Sherlock's grasp. Never had Sherlock wanted so much to be like the other people, to not care even as reality crumbled.

Just three possible outcomes.

Molly Hooper closed the door to the hotel room and dropped her bag on the bed. She had done this what felt like countless times over the past few weeks. Always moving, every single day a new place and a fresh pillow. It was as if a decade had gone by since she'd left St Barts and walked nervous but headstrong into a crowd of people on the London pavement, searching for the black car that would whisk her away faster than blinking with a muttered Vatican cameos. It felt longer still since she'd been with Sherlock in that cleaning cupboard, his body pressed to hers in the dim light, fear leaking from every pore of him. More than anything, she didn't want that to be the last image she had of him. It was this thought that kept her awake most nights, reliving the smell of his terror in the close air, the fret of his fingers against her jaw, the way his eyes had searched her face as though trying to memorize it.

Being on the run was not at all how she had pictured it. She had thought it would be over quicker, that she would have been found within a matter of days, maybe hours. Instead there was just this constant waiting on tenterhooks, stuck inside hotel suite after hotel suite, staring at the wall, afraid even to turn on the television in case it made a noise, attracted attention. She wasn't even entirely sure which county she was in day by passing day, everything just a blur of fields and motorway flicking past the car window. Always moving. Always waiting. Something just didn't seem right about that. After all, Jim Moriarty was surely just as capable of tracking her down as Mycroft Holmes had been capable of hiding her. They were two of the same breed. So why was he leaving her be, keeping her in a limbo of non-existence?

The possibility that Sherlock might have been wrong kept creeping into the back of her mind, that little doubt niggling at her over and over in the twilight hours, when she felt so very alone.

It was in these moments that she contemplated her life since that night, and she often asked herself whether given the chance she would have done things differently. What if she had left London and never come back, just started a new chapter somewhere else, waiting patiently for the pain to heal? What if she had never lived at all afterwards, just given up? What if Sherlock had looked at her the same way he always had before, never letting it enter his mind that he might feel anything for her? Could she have stood that?

Thoughts like these were unsettling at first, but as the days turned into weeks and her anxiety grew she came to realise a startling truth about her situation. Sherlock had told her to remember that he cared, no matter what should happen to her. Had he foreseen this turn of events, that the chase would go on immeasurably and the effect such a thing might have upon her? It seemed remarkable considering his shallow understanding of human feeling, and yet...

The longer I am forced to wait, she thought, the more I will lose faith in Sherlock's ability, and my trust in his regard for me. The longer Moriarty draws out the chase, the weaker he expects me to become. He thinks Sherlock's strength will crumble the further apart he is from the influence of John and myself, leaving him vulnerable.

A part of her didn't want to believe her hypothesis, and yet it seemed only fitting when she thought on Moriarty's tactics. The elaborate string of clues which had led Sherlock to the pool that night had been orchestrated with inhuman patience, playing on the flaws Sherlock would never admit to having. Even Jim's attack on her had been done with remarkable timing, meant to leave a lasting mark, a bone of contention that would slowly fester between Sherlock and everyone else. Was this just another phase in an already prolonged psychological attack, designed by a mad man to wear them all down inch by inch until they could no longer resist the strength of it? Was it working already...

"Sherlock, hurry..." Molly whispered each time she sank into a new bed, pressing her face to the pillow and wishing, praying for this to be over.

Every time she made for sleep she tried to tell herself that the next day would be different, that Mycroft's men wouldn't hustle her from her room to the car in a wordless shove, their hands on their guns, her heart in her mouth, wondering if it would be the last time she would feel the sun on her face or smell the air. As she sank into increasingly uneasy dreams she clung to the notion that she would be saved, sooner or later. She squashed down the fear that always rose to plague her in these barren evenings, the fear that she had been uprooted and forgotten and that Sherlock would never come back for her.

I believe in Sherlock Holmes.

I believe in Sherlock Holmes.

It was dark in the bus station by the time the last driver pulled up and clicked off his engine. He sat for a moment in the quiet cabin of the red double-decker, listening to the hiss of the tires as they settled against the concrete. It hadn't been a bad shift, not really, if you didn't count the mouthy drunks or the broken Oyster card reader. The coffee in his thermos was stone cold, and his stomach rumbled as he downed the dregs of it. Gathering his things, he glanced over the steering wheel at the shadowy, deserted depot, his breath fogging the glass of the windscreen. He paused in the act of shouldering on his jacket, squinting hard. He had thought, just for a second, that something had darted into the staff toilets, but then it was almost four in the morning. He'd probably imagined it. He was the only one here after all, the sucker stuck on the graveyard shift to the outer zones of London. The depot was all locked up tight, the security guard was on duty round the front. If someone had gotten in it wasn't his lookout and anyway, he was just tired. His eyes, which weren't as sharp as they used to be, were probably just playing tricks on him. Probably just a stray cat or dog, or a lonely rat, wanting a little shelter from the pouring rain outside. He couldn't blame it. It wasn't his lookout, he thought again, as he stepped away from the bus and headed over to the gate to clock-off. He was getting far too old to be working this late, far too old indeed.

The driver didn't see the door of the staff toilet open again a tiny sliver, the glint of a watchful eye appraising him as he passed. He just kept on walking, disappearing home to a quick supper and a warm, comfortable bed - completely oblivious.

John Watson stared after the bus driver until he was out of sight, until he'd heard the distant sound of metal gates scraping, of padlocks being clicked through industrial chains. A few words were exchanged, a tired echoing laugh as the security guard and driver called goodnight to one another. Then there was silence again, disturbed only by the dull, constant drum of the rain on the tin roof of the depot. Feeling safe in the quiet, John shut the door of the toilet, removed his scarf and placed it over the crack between door and floor. Straightening up, he began feeling for a light switch along the damp, grimy wall.

He was glad the bulb was old, casting only a dim glow around the small cubicle. With any luck it wouldn't show in the depot outside, not through the dark fabric of the scarf at the bottom or around the edges. He wouldn't be there long at any rate, just enough time to clean himself up, maybe catch a little kip before the depot reopened in a few hours. It was a risk to sneak into the depot at all, John knew that and he knew Sherlock would agree, but he was sick of sleeping in doorways, of getting soaked in downpours and having to wrap himself in old newspapers to keep warm. He wanted to wash and to shave, to feel clean, but then maybe it was better to remain dirty. The muck was part of his camouflage, along with the light, sandy stubble on his jaw. The clothes too felt horrible after so many days wear, especially when he considered where they'd come from. It always made him shudder to think about it. Despite what he'd thought going under cover would mean, Sherlock's homeless network had taken everything that belonged to him in exchange for a new(ish) outfit. Though it made sense to trade it all, to adopt a disguise, it still rankled him to think his favourite cable-knit jumper was lost to the city streets.

He gazed into the mirror above the sink and couldn't marry the sight of himself with Dr John Watson, not at all. These ripped cargo pants, these old trainers, these layers of unwashed, holy shirts, the fingerless gloves and beanie, this ridiculous life preserver - they weren't him. He felt like he'd lost himself, lost a grip on his moorings. Just his eyes looked the same, staring out at him from a face that was haggard, streaked with dirt and so tired he was constantly on the verge of tears. He felt like he hadn't slept a wink throughout the entirety of the three weeks he'd been hiding from Moriarty. His hand felt instinctively for the shape of the gun, tucked beneath the shirts and into the waistline of his trousers. The anxiety eased, just a fraction.

Sherlock had told him it would be best for them both if he didn't know exactly where John had gone.

"Just keep moving," he'd warned him on that last afternoon in Baker Street, his blue eyes serious and searching as he took in John's schooled expression, his packed bag. They both knew that the doctor was scared, but to Sherlock's credit he didn't point it out, for once. "I've alerted one of my boys in the network to be on the watch for you, to tip you off about whatever he can, whenever it's safe for him to do so. He'll meet you here in half an hour. Don't say it, or I'll have to rearrange the whole thing," he handed John a slip of paper with a tube station written on it. He read it twice before it was grabbed and ripped smartly beneath his nose. Sherlock gave John a meaningful, loaded glare. "He'll say something special, something only we know about. Follow him when you hear it, even if he doesn't stop walking, just follow. Give him a fifty and he'll set you up. But aside from that, you're on your own."

"How will I know when it's safe to come back?" John had asked as they'd walked together to the bottom of the stairwell. In the dim hall he'd seen Sherlock's face flinch minutely.

"Either I'll find you when I've straightened things out or more likely-"

The sentence had hung half-spoken between them for what felt like days, years even, but Sherlock had never finished it. John had walked out into the busy street with the question still unanswered and now he felt as though he would never see his friend, his flat, his life, ever again.

How could this disheveled, wasted husk of a man in the mirror return and simply forget what the last few weeks had done to him? Could he simply shave and shower and slip back into normality? John had watched homeless men fight, starve, freeze, cry. He had held some of them and watched them die from exposure, their eyes unseeing and their hearts slowing beneath the press of his palm. He had been too afraid to get help less he be discovered, and had felt a deep, gnawing shame in his gut that constantly reminded him that he wanted to save his own skin more than theirs. Would he even be able to look at Sherlock again without blaming him for that? The consulting detective had said that Moriarty would find John, that this exile into the underworld would buy them all time and that such time was necessary. He kept telling himself this, over and over, every single night he squatted down and tried for sleep, trying to ignore how he smelt, how hungry he was, how lonely. In truth, it was getting to the point where all he wanted to do was give himself up and get whatever was to happen over and done with, just so he wouldn't have to do this anymore.

John Watson slept fitfully in the toilet cubicle until the rain stopped, then he slipped outside to hide in the shadow of the gate. He waited with bated breath for the first driver of the day to unlock the chain and enter the unlit depot, hoping he would be able to slip past unnoticed as the gate swung to. Then back he would go, out onto the unfriendly streets for which he felt a rising, daily resentment, back to the tension and the wondering and the feeling of not-quite-belonging-anywhere.

Sherlock had been expecting the phone call for some time, so when it finally came he was able to keep his voice and countenance in check. He didn't know whether anyone was watching him, or if others were listening into the call. Either way he was not going to give them an inch. He hadn't banished the only people he cared about from his life for weeks only to ruin it all now.

"Hi," Moriarty trilled, the pitch of the word hurting Sherlock's inner ear just like it had done that night at the pool, when all this had started.

"Jim," Sherlock replied, keeping his expression stoic and his speech carefully disinterested. "A pleasure to hear from you, as always."

"Are you missing them yet?" Moriarty asked slyly, and Sherlock narrowed his eyes. He didn't reply. "Well, I suppose even if you were you wouldn't tell me would you?" Moriarty chuckled. "And besides, I don't want to hear you say it. I'm already disappointed in you as it is, let's not add the actual words."

"And what would those words be, dear Jim?" Sherlock asked, even though he knew well and good and it irked him something dreadful, more than the empty, silent flat, more than the knowledge that the morgue was for once devoid of living people.

"Oh you know," Jim's response, for all its breeziness was full of repressed aggression. Sherlock could hear how angry the consulting criminal was, sulking beneath the low buzz of the mobile speaker. "Just that you really do have a heart after all, even though you swore to me that you didn't. What a little liar you are, Sherlock Holmes. But wait..."

Sherlock's hand had reached out to grip the wood of the mantlepiece, and he was staring into the mirror before him, glaring daggers at his reflection. He no longer cared if he was being observed, suddenly. The realisation was cold. Keeping the mask up wouldn't make any difference. Had it been for nothing? Jim Moriarty had already seen into his soul, and now he was throwing it back in his face with gleeful aplomb, just like before, just like John and the semtex...

"Maybe you really didn't know," Jim was hissing. "Maybe you had no idea until I hurt them?"

"Don't-" Sherlock said the word low, biting it out. He knew where this was going, and he couldn't let himself sink that far. He had to remain above it, even as his stomach began to tie itself in knots.

"When did you realise?" Jim asked harshly, ignoring Sherlock's interruption. "Was it when I beat her? When I made her bleed? Was it when you realised I had heard her scream in a way you never would? Did you hate that? Were you simply furious with yourself?"

"Jim, this isn't about her-" Sherlock said, an edge of fierceness creeping in.

"Was it him then, your little lapdog?" Jim's laugh was piercing. "People do get so sentimental about their pets, remember? How ordinary of you. Was it when he killed for you, or when I almost killed him? Was it when you looked at him and realised he didn't find your need to impress him pathetic?"

Sherlock couldn't, no, wouldn't reply to that. He had lowered his head and was staring at his shoes, afraid to look up into his own reflection lest he find the truth of Moriarty's words gazing back. This is what he wants. Don't let him-

"You really don't know do you?" Jim sneered. Sherlock could imagine the man's lip drawing up into a smirk of satisfaction. He squeezed his eyes shut and groaned inwardly, gnawing at his lower lip to contain the sound. Was this how people felt when he deduced them? Was this how Molly had felt, all those times he'd let rip? No wonder people couldn't stand him. No wonder it had taken Molly so long to trust him. John must have been mad to find such a hurtful trait impressive. Jim was speaking again, and he had to force himself to listen, not to hang up. "You're thinking about them right now. You're trying to figure out who opened you up, who cracked your code. It's driving you mad. I like that. I like hearing you fail at something. It makes going to the trouble of finding them so worth while."

Sherlock sucked in a breath, and for a split second he felt as though his feet weren't touching the floor. So he hadn't found them. This wasn't the call, it was just the calm before the storm, the warning of things to come, a curtesy detail. Did that mean they were still safe, both of them?

"I hope you've figured out what I plan to do to them at the very least?" Jim said, and this time the tone was unmistakable. He was bored. Sherlock bristled.

"Of course," he replied, and he had to mutter to keep his voice from noticeably shaking. "Child's play."

"Do you like my solution to your problem?" Jim murmured. "Isn't it neat? So tidy this way, and so much easier for you."

"It's not as elegant as the Vermeer..."

"Yes well," Jim said, and Sherlock could detect the frustration. Jim was annoyed that he hadn't taken the bait, hadn't risen to it. "That was different. That was when I was trying to impress you. This is just distraction."

"And what if I don't want distracting?"


Silence settled between them, to the point where Sherlock grew slightly paranoid, like he'd missed something vital. Jim was still there, he could hear the man breathing for God's sake. He shifted the grip of his hand on the mantlepiece, moving it to stroke the cool, smooth surface of the old skull to give himself some kind of focal point. He needed to ground himself, to regroup. The texture of the bone, so slippery and oddly hollow beneath his fingertips, made Sherlock shiver. He remembered when John had first picked it up and studied it, finding and correctly diagnosing the fracture line which had killed his 'friend'. It had been a golden moment in their relationship, when Sherlock had realised the true potential of his flatmate's intellect.

"They can't stay underground forever," Jim said at last, startling Sherlock out of this fond memory like a kick in the guts. "Especially not her."

"She isn't-" Sherlock hadn't known how that sentence was going to end, only that a mad heat was creeping up the back of his neck and that his mouth felt too dry.

"She is a part of this," Jim cut in nastily, "She's a part of this because somehow she's become a part of you, and that's something I just can't get over. It's not like you couldn't have found someone else to shag, anyone else. Did your boyfriend throw a fit when he found out?" A laugh again, only bitter. "Was she worth lowering yourself for? I've had her, Sherlock. She wasn't that good."

Sherlock had ended the call faster than blinking. His tongue was near bleeding from the press of his teeth against it, forcing every last, acidic word back down his throat before they had the chance to tumble out and give him away. If he'd learned anything from that night at the pool, it was not to show his hand.

Some miles away, Moriarty clicked off his phone and grinned. So the consulting detective had hung up? Jim liked that. He liked it because it was such a stupid thing to do. It was something the old Sherlock would never have contemplated, no matter how much he didn't want to hear the words. He would have listened, and kept on listening until Jim had finished. That was how you got clues. That was how you solved cases. To hang up? Pathetic, dull, ordinary.

"Time's up..." he murmured, settling back in his leather chair and chuckling, dark and quiet. He gazed down at the reports spread out on the desk in front of him, the lists of hotels, the picture of the woman surrounded by suited men. He touched his fingertip to the surface of the photograph, digging his nail into the curve of her cheek and dragging until it ripped.

What a wait! I apologise for the lack of updates. Taking time away fro mthis to do uni work meant that when I was finished with my uni work I had to ease myself back into this. So many drafts of this were pure rubbish - still not convinced this was good enough to post at all. I suppose we'll find out with Ch24. T/s x