3. the wrestle
He hadn't looked down.
This is the thing that he cannot comprehend.
Sherlock had pulled him towards the window frame and said go with urgency and John had not even stopped to look down. Basic escape procedure. Know your environment. Know your landing.
The drop is roughly thirteen feet, he knows, and he bends his knees just in time to land without injury, pain shooting up his shins as he rolls forward to absorb the shock.
Insane, he thinks to himself as Sherlock lands beside him. Sherlock said jump, and he hadn't hesitated.
"Come on," Sherlock barks and they run flat out down Melcombe Street, a shot ringing out behind them just as they veer right and dive for the waiting car. John flinches reflexively at a second gunshot, hand tight on his own gun and he turns, back against the car, scanning the street behind them.
"Get in," he tells Sherlock, gun now aimed defensively towards the deserted corner, and only once he hears the door open does he follow.
Mycroft is waiting for them, his unruffled demeanour at odds with the sudden revving of the engine as the car surges forward, the driver plainly releasing a long-held trigger finger of his own.
"All right?" Sherlock murmurs.
John nods, forcing his fingers to uncurl from his gun.
They're whipping down residential streets at a speed that seems impossible, heading in the direction of St John's Wood. He hears Sherlock take a breath beside him and he closes his eyes for a moment, head pounding and muscles close to spasm.
When he opens his eyes, Mycroft is surveying them both with eyebrows raised, taking in Sherlock's bloodied nose and lip.
"Am I to intuit, then, that the reunion didn't go entirely as smoothly as you had predicted?" he asks mildly, now eyeing John. He can only imagine what his own face looks like.
Sherlock only glares in response.
"Wait," John starts, turning. "You predicted it would go smoothly? Really?"
With no response from Sherlock, he turns back to Mycroft who shrugs.
"He seemed confident that you would understand the–"
"Shut up, Mycroft," Sherlock bites out.
"Really, so you thought… What, you thought you could just walk back in there after three fucking months and I'd be fine with it. I'd just fall in line."
He needs to be furious, needs to find rage again but he is too exhausted even to summon it, bone-tired and wrung out beyond his own understanding. He can't bring himself to look at Sherlock any more, and rests his head in his hands for the rest of the journey.
After roughly half an hour, he looks up as the car grinds through gravel and comes to a halt.
"Where are we?" he asks as they get out, not much caring what the answer is.
"Barnet Gate," Mycroft replies, shutting the car door sharply behind him. "Just outside Borehamwood. A safe house, you understand."
John looks up at the house – a vaguely imposing Victorian pile, exactly the kind of house he'd expect Mycroft to own for weekends.
"Not yours, I take it?"
"Credit me with more caution than that, John," Mycroft says pleasantly. "This location has no association with either my family or yours. It's a government-designated safe house, which means you must keep its location absolutely confidential. You must not inform anyone of your whereabouts. Not family, not friends, not colleagues."
"And I'll need your phone. There's signal-blocking technology employed to make this location close to impossible to trace, but we can't take the risk."
John hands over his phone without comment. He should ask how long they're going to be here, who exactly is on their trail, what precautions has Mycroft taken besides the location, but it's beyond him at this point.
Inside, the house is less daunting, furnished with a weird hodgepodge of mismatched antiques and IKEA space-fillers. It feels like an impression of a family home put together by someone who has never set foot in one, designed to look normal rather than to feel it.
"I don't have any stuff with me," he realises out loud. All he has on him are his wallet and his gun.
"That's all taken care of," Anthea says brightly, appearing beside him with a tight smile. "In your room you'll find clothes in your size, toiletries, a new phone that's safe to use and a few other essentials. If there's anything else you need, just text. My number's programmed in."
"And which is my room?"
"Upstairs, second on the right."
"Okay. If nobody objects, I'm going to go there."
He looks to Mycroft, who nods.
"You look as though an early night would do you a world of good. There'll be plenty of time tomorrow morning to debrief you."
"Right, great. Thanks."
He forces his eyes to slide impassively past Sherlock as he heads towards the stairs, feeling his gaze with every step.
Upstairs, he finds an immaculately made double bed with more pillows than he knows what to do with, and it's all he can do not to pass straight out fully clothed. But he forces himself to change into the crisp pyjamas laid out on his pillow (weird) and use the overzealous electric toothbrush provided in the en suite bathroom before finally crawling under the covers.
And he drifts off, purple bruises dancing behind his eyelids.
He can't catch his breath.
There are people crowded around him, moving in from all sides and there is blood and shattered bone under his hands. He can't see clear forms, the world around him blurred, but he knows that when he looks down he will see perfectly.
Sherlock rattles out a breath, caved-in ribcage spasming and this cannot happen, this does not happen, god he's still alive. His skull half-vanished against the pavement.
John tries to speak but nothing comes out, and Sherlock is staring up at him with eyes wide in agony and he's suffocating, slowly, his lungs filling up with blood and his crushed body refusing to spare him these final moments of torture.
And John puts a hand over his mouth and smothers the life from him, willing the pain to be over god please let him rest, and Sherlock will not still under his hand but thrashes and shudders like a dying animal in a trap.
"Oh Jesus, no," he's on the ground, no, on the floor, and the daylight is gone. His face pressed against light carpet, not dark curls.
His stomach rolls dangerously and he swallows, hard, feeling beads of sweat roll down his spine. Focusing on the carpet under his hands and the silence in the room.
"Okay," he whispers to himself, a desperate attempt at steadying. "Okay."
Before he can fully catch his breath he's upright and stumbling half-blind towards the door, but this is not Baker Street, this is carpet and not wood beneath his feet.
He pauses in the corridor, foreign doors looming in the darkness, and his eyes sting with something like fear.
And the world comes back to him. Safe house. Mycroft. Somewhere near Borehamwood.
His own room is the second on the right.
He turns to the left and pushes open the door, feeling weightless and surreal as though he's gliding, and finds what he needs almost immediately.
Sherlock is asleep with his back turned to the door, curled half-foetal, and this is not enough. He moves gingerly around the bed, more conscious now of his footfalls, and drops to his knees when he can finally see Sherlock's face, placid, the bruises around his nose and jaw purpling.
He has seen Sherlock sleep before, but always in feverish snatches or under the influence of something. This is different. This is rest.
He sits on his heels and watches the barely perceptible rise and fall of Sherlock's chest, letting the tension drain from his muscles like liquid. The dream falling away like old skin as his heartbeat gradually slows and quietens.
For several minutes, maybe more, he can't conceive of ever moving from this place. The stray thought occurs that this might be the closest he has ever come to meditating, his thoughts easing out from knots into free-flowing curves as he watches Sherlock sleep, mirrors his breathing.
The digital clock on the bedside table is spelling out 4:07. He must have gone to bed not long after 8pm, he reasons, which makes this as good a time as any to get up.
After another long, still beat, he tears himself away.
Back in his own room, he showers and shaves and surveys the array of clothing that's been laid out for him. Jeans, shirts, jumpers, shoes all identical to ones he owns but with the tags still on. There are even tracksuit bottoms and running shoes (Anthea has really thought of everything) and it's these that he puts on, remembering the sight of trees and woodland as they arrived last night. Fresh air and forward motion feel essential.
Downstairs, he finds a light already on and follows the source to a sprawling open-plan kitchen. Mycroft is sitting at the head of an oak dining table, the day's papers laid out in an unopened mosaic before him.
"Morning, John," he says, without looking up. "Coffee?"
"Er, yeah, okay."
He sits as Mycroft stands.
"How do you take it?
"Black's fine. Thanks. So… early riser, or late night?"
"Six of one…" Mycroft smiles, returning and handing John a steaming mug. "I seldom sleep more than four hours a night. It began as a choice, and became habit."
"If you must. I prefer Thomas Edison as a point of comparison."
"I'll keep that in mind."
He sips his coffee (impeccable, of course) in silence, watching the first faint hue of dawn on the horizon.
"Can I ask how you're faring after yesterday's revelations?"
"I've been better," John says tightly. "Then again I've been worse. I've been worse for three months, so. I don't know."
"I apologise for the surveillance measures. After Sherlock made me aware of his survival, he requested that I keep periodic watch over you. Worried, I think, that Moriarty's men would follow through regardless."
"Or that I'd eat my own gun," John says, as pleasantly as he can manage. "So… at what stage did you know?"
"Three weeks after his death. Sherlock contacted me because he was no longer able to stay in London, though he wouldn't say why. At the time, I was rather too blind-sided to ask. And ashamed, of course."
"So he knew, then? That you sold him out to Moriarty?"
"Of course he knew," Mycroft murmurs.
"So. Moriarty was going to have me, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade killed unless Sherlock committed suicide. Because that was the only way to completely destroy Sherlock's reputation, right?"
"Mrs Hudson and Lestrade have been moved to their own safe house, miles from here. Sherlock has spent the last two months systematically shutting down Moriarty's network, a task that was already underway once the news of his death became public. It's infinitely more difficult to command undying loyalty from beyond the grave."
John swallows a mouthful of coffee too hard, and as he chokes Mycroft looks over pointedly.
"Present company being the exception that proves the rule."
He was my best friend and I'll always believe in him.
"Yeah, yeah," John says savagely. "Lot of good it did me, too. He knew he could come waltzing back in whenever and I'd still be waiting there, like the fucking sap I apparently am."
"The opposite is true, John. He expected you to move on. When I told him how poorly you were coping, that I felt you were a danger to yourself, he was… nonplussed. I don't believe he ever imagined that his death would affect you so profoundly."
"Come on. It's Sherlock. You're not telling me he hadn't already plotted out the whole bloody trajectory of my reaction in his head before he jumped."
"My brother isn't accustomed to devotion. Sherlock had very few friends at school, fewer still at university. Those that he had regarded him as an oddity, a sort of conversation piece, intriguing to have around but very much object, rather than subject. Easy to disregard."
"I do know all this."
"But I'm not sure that you understand the implications. He has no frame of reference for your kind of… loyalty."
Mycroft pauses for a long beat before this last word, selecting it with ostentatious care.
John has no comeback. Instead he lets the silence settle around them, sipping his coffee as the echo of Sherlock's words comes back to him. I didn't know that you'd be so affected.
"If I go outside to run, am I going to get snipered?" he asks, finally.
"Not if you stay within a one-mile radius. Don't go beyond the forest limits, don't cross any roads. If you see livestock, you've gone too far."
He leaves Mycroft with his collage of front pages, and stepping out into the crisp dawn air he feels driven for the first time in months.