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Necessary Faith
Fandoms: BBC's Sherlock/Supernatural
Status: Complete
Rating: R/Mature
Pairing(s): John Watson/Mary Morstan, John Watson/Sherlock Holmes
Warning(s): No overall warnings, specific warnings for applicable chapters
Word Count: 34,949

Summary: Mary Morstan is a hunter of the supernatural sort and John isn't quite sure what to make of that. Nothing about life without Sherlock Holmes makes much sense to John anyway. At least hunting the things that go bump in the night gives him a sense of purpose again. -Part 1 of the Too narrow a space to live series-

Also available at AO3 and FF.net


"Hullo, John. I'm Mary."

Whereas other people—normal, sensible people—run away at the sound of a terrified scream or a splash of blood, John Watson goes straight towards the source. It is this predilection toward "danger" and "helping" that drove him into the Army and later into Sherlock Holmes' orbit for 18 incredible months.

But Sherlock isn't here anymore. All that remained is John and his recklessness.

After all, what good is a soldier without his war?

While staring down the impossible, a jolt of color finally bleeds through the edge of his grey world.

-x-x-x-

The first few months post-Sherlock drags on and John soldiers through the fog that descended over his life. He goes back to his therapist (incompetent), works part-time at the surgery (dull), and runs through all the other motions of ordinary civilian life (utterly hateful). He can't help with cases even if he wanted to. The Met is still dealing with the fallout, and Lestrade is quickly transferred out of the public eye and away from his regular duties.

Not a week after the funeral, Anthea and some movers sweep the flat clean of Sherlock's belongings, boxed them, and takes them to God knows where. John just stands by the window and watches as the last remains of his flatmate's life is scrubbed away—the violin, chemistry equipment, books, ludicrously expensive and well-tailored suits... He's already taken his own mementos, the skull and the jack knife that used to affix correspondences to the mantelpiece. When Anthea finally leaves without so much as a glance away from her Blackberry, John breaks down but doesn't cry.

He's out of tears at that point. And he hates the way every little noise echos through the sitting room without Sherlock's junk to muffle sound.

He moves out of 221B not long after that. He can't afford it on his own; he doesn't want another flatmate and refuses to touch any of the money Sherlock left to him. John tries stalwartly to ignore the paperwork that would finalize the inheritance (and really, what kind of man leaves that much money to his flatmate after just over a year of living together?), but he's not at all surprised when the money turned up in his account three weeks later.

He moves the money into a separate account and doesn't touch any of it.

When media scrutiny finally dies down around September, John trades his part-time locum for shifts at Royal London's A&E (not Bart's, he can't go back there, maybe never again). Sometimes it feels like he does nothing but spend days elbow-deep in blood. It's exhausting work that cuts bone deep, but he'd take anything to be able to drop off into sleep without dreams of Afghanistan or falling—without the urge to contemplate and prod the gaping Sherlock-shaped wound in his life.

But it isn't quite enough. John isn't sure if anything short of Sherlock himself would do anymore.

-x-x-x-

John isn't sure what to make of the scene before him. There's a body slew on the ground, lying in an ever expanding pool of blood. Already dead, his mind helpfully provides with a sharp medical detachment, already bled out too much. He can't tell much else in the dark of the alley. His eyes darts quickly to the strange figure with its stranglehold on a gasping woman, thrashing and flailing.

He wishes he had his Browning with him.

"Let her go!" he orders and charges forward.

The assailant drops the woman like a stone and lunges to meet him halfway. All he can see through the stripes of light coming from a window overhead was a row of insanely sharp fangs and slanted eyes. He realizes belatedly that the assailant is also a woman. Her tackle sends them both flying into a wall, and John can even feel the brick give way against his screaming back when he collides. He tries to throw her off, but she presses in harder and closes her hand around his neck in a vice grip.

This is all wrong: the inhuman strength, those monstrous teeth... Not human, can't possibly be human.

"Shouldn't have turned your back to me," someone piques.

The assailant goes stiff and looks down at herself. John followed the path of the gaze and sees the silver tip of a blade now protruding out of her chest, where the heart would be. The body jerks back and shudders when the knife tip twisted counter-clockwise. John's mind is still frantically spinning on its wheels when the body crumbles like dust. He looks up into the blue eyes of the woman he had been trying to rescue, his gaze then flickering to the bloodied dagger held in her trembling right hand. His and her chest heave simultaneously while the only sounds is their heavy breathing.

She wipes the blood on a handkerchief she draws from her pocket. Her eyes are still locked in her examination of his face.

"What was that?" he asks, his tone is steady rather than numb.

"Vetala, we should go. They usually hunt in pairs. The other one will be here soon." Her voice has a melodious lilt to it, pleasant and calming. She speaks like she is soothing a flustered school child.

"She wasn't human. Human beings don't just crumble into ash."

"No." Good humor bleeds in her words.

She grabs a knapsack off the ground and slings it onto her back. "Come on, we have to go." She extends one hand forward, clad in supple leather and wet with specks of blood.

All John can think about is the last time his palm had been cradled by another leather gloved hand, racing through the back streets of London. There is the image of Sherlock's handcuffed wrist superimposed over her hand.

Take my hand.

His body moves without thinking, prompted by adrenaline and habit. She threads her gloved fingers through his and pulls him further down the alley into an adjoining one. They run; she leads and he follows as they weaved through the darkness.

"What's your name?" she shouts as they flee.

"John Watson!"

"Hullo, John," she turns her head and tosses him a wide smile full of pearly white teeth. "I'm Mary."

Her eyes are so blue—like aquamarines sparkling in the dark. He can feel his own heart hammering away for the first time in what feels like an eternity. Within another two hours, they manage to draw the other Vetala to a remote location and dispose of her with the flick of a silver knife.


"Who did you lose?"

"Who did you lose?"

John would later learn that most hunters, those that hadn't been born into it, came into the game after the loss of a loved one to malevolent forces.

He stares down into the amber depths of his pint. "My flatmate. My best friend."

An impossible man that he loves with all his soul.

"It wasn't..." John trails off. No, he had lost Sherlock to evil, just not supernatural evil. He lost Sherlock to human evil, to mistakes, to ignorance, to pride, to one man's unrelenting madness... "He killed himself."

Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees her toying with the ring threaded through the gold chain around her neck—an engagement ring with a small diamond (sentiment).

She catches his eye and smiles warily. "Me too. I lost my best friend too, he was the love of my life."

John thinks that if they had met under different circumstances—if they hadn't met on the road to absolution and revenge, before he knew Sherlock and she her deceased fiance—he could have maybe fallen for Mary Morstan.

-x-x-x-

Mary and he exchange numbers before parting outside the pub (because that's what's done after having drinks with a pretty woman). John doesn't actually expect to hear from her ever again. He shoves the paper with the digits into the back pocket of his jeans and forgets about it until he realizes it was still there when he pulled the wet denim from the washing machine. He sighs at the wadded mess before binning it; the numbers are more Rorschach ink blots than anything else.

She doesn't contact him either.

For John, the world becomes strange and exciting again. And he goes hurtling toward the unknown and the adrenaline rush he hasn't tasted since Sherlock left. When he can't sleep, he prowls through London's darkened streets in search of his nightmares to face head-on—not like the intangible inner demons he can't reach inside his psyche. He doesn't find other creatures of the night though, just the occasional muggers and thugs that he fights with all the same relish.

John's nighttime patrols often take him past the cemetery where Sherlock is buried. The gates are locked for the night, and John would stand at the entrance and stare in the direction of a gravesite he can't see from that vantage point. Almost two weeks after meeting Mary, he notices that the gates were left slightly ajar. He slips through the opening, causing the iron to creak and groan. His feet move automatically in the direction of his best friend—dead and buried underneath six feet of cold earth.

John never makes it to his intended destination, sidetracked by light and grunts of exertion just a few dozen yards in. "Graverobbers" is his first guess. But as he stands at the edge of the three feet trench and looks down into the opened earth, he only finds one—Mary.

"Ah, John. This is a bit of a surprise." She cranes her head up, blinding him for a bit with the torch affixed to her helmet. "Want to lend me a hand with this ghost? You were so helpful when dealing with the Vetalas last time."

Five months and a week after losing Sherlock Holmes, John Watson desecrates his first grave to salt and burn a corpse. He just hopes with all his body, soul, and heart that he never has to do the same at the edge of Sherlock's.

-x-x-x-

Like her hunter legacy, Mary's house in South Harrow is left to her by her late father. She explained that her immediate family had been hunters for several generations now, starting with her great-grandfather. Day broke and they are both tired from exhaustion. John sits in the armchair in her cozy living room and just listens as she speaks of impossible things: spirits and monsters and demons.

"This is what you do for a living? Track and kill monsters?" he asks.

It's mad. But is it really all that madder than chasing after serial killers?

She had changed out of her street attire—well-worn jeans and leather jacket caked with earth after their digging expedition. The long-sleeved blouse and ankle-length skirt skillfully conceals all the fit muscles he had previously seen at work. "Dad didn't want me to, but he taught me anyway. He wanted me to be able to protect myself. And what about you, John Watson? Why haven't you run away screaming in fright or accusing me of lunacy?" She smiles tightly.

His next breath is his only hesitation before his own story rushes out like a cascading waterfall. He tells her about getting shot in Afghanistan, about meeting Sherlock Holmes, about the magnificence of the cases, and about losing that brilliance. Mary never interrupts him—she just listens attentively and patiently like a saint. She gives no indication that she previously knew anything about his situation, even with all the media coverage that had gone on. After what seems like hours, John has nothing left to share except for the grief choking his lungs.

In return, she tells him of her deceased and disgraced fiance, a former Crown Prosecutor. Almost a year ago, his career had been dragged down in scandal amidst accusations of evidence tampering, witness intimidation, and colluding with organized crime. She knows he was innocent; but before any real investigation into the allegations could take place, he had turned up dead and was written off as a suicide. But Mary recognizes the sign and can see the crime for what it really is: murder by black magic.

She is on the trail of her fiance's murderer.

James Moriarty—still somewhat widely regarded as Richard Brook—is already dead. John had seen the body with its shattered skull and rumpled suit. There is no one left for John to take revenge for Sherlock on.

-x-x-x-

The next job that John accompanies Mary on doesn't go as well.

It was so easy to fall into step with Mary after what happened at the graveyard. The only surprising thing about the whole affair is how Mary just let him tag along. She never tries to convince him of how dangerous it is. She never tries to talk him out of being her friend. John soon recognizes that she needs the company as much as he does—that they had unintentionally become the whole of a support system to one another. Mary starts picking him up after his extended hospital shifts, always ignoring the curious glance being cast her way by John's supervisor and coworkers.

They go to pubs two or three nights a week. Sometimes they just sit and talk, enjoying each other's company and trading stories about some of the stranger ordeals they've both faced. Sometimes she is there to gather intel from her contacts and other hunter-types (whom all seemed to loiter exclusively in pubs when not on the job).

Then in the middle of October, he insists on helping to investigate a lead. Maybe he should have asked a few more questions than he actually did.

Either way, he is on his knees on the dusty floors of a dilapidated house in Brixton with fire burning through his veins. The shotgun with rock salt rounds is lying just outside of his reach. He can't believe he had been caught by surprise, but then again, he isn't used to opponents that defy the very laws of human physics. The last of his tortured scream tears out of his throat, and leaves his shaking body feeling completely raw and exposed. The cold clamp around his heart tightens in response.

Please God, let me live. Sherlock, is this what dying felt like to you?

"Get away from him!" Mary screeches as she flies into the room with an iron crowbar in hand.

The spirit dissipates with a few swings of the rod. John falls forward until his elbows slam down to catch himself before collapsing completely. Mary crouches down by his side with her back facing him. She grapples with the shotgun and discharges a round into the incoming spirit.

"Are you alright, John?"

He gasps for air.

"John? Talk to me!"

"I'm fine," he finally grounds out the words.

She scoots closer, trying to shield him with her own body. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have left you alone. I didn't know this one was going to be so strong."

"I did offer to be bait," he reminds her. The pain is thankfully starting to subside, but the cold sweat still gives way to a few tremors. "Any luck with finding the body?"

"You were right, it's inside the drywall installation in the basement. I've broken through it enough to catch a glimpse of the body, but then you screamed."

John licks his dried and chapped lips. "We better go finish this then." He holds out a shaky hand toward her and she rests the crowbar in his upturned palm.

By the time they're finished, John's shirt is soaked through with sweat and a trickle of blood trails down his face from open wound on his temple cut by a rock salt round flying too close by. Mary is limping after her right ankle caught on a loose nail while tearing down the stairs to the basement. They are covered in 60-year-old plaster and probably more than a few layers of asbestos.

John tightens his arm around her waist and lowers them to the ground outside the house. He considers bandaging her wound with a strip of their clothing, but it will just heighten the possibility of infection. She's probably going to need a tetanus shot too.

Suddenly, he can't stop thinking about Connie Prince, or Moriarty, or the vest of Semtex weighing him down by the edge of a pool. There is the phantom scent of chlorine, and there is bile rising in his throat. All he can feel is the ice racing through his blood, because sometimes there will never be closure—not even a wailing ghost trapped on earth in its own personal cage of hell.

Sometimes there's just nothing.

Her next words shake him out of his reverie. "I can train you, if you like. Teach you everything I know about hunting."

Mary's blue eyes bore into his soul. She knows he is starting to retreat somewhere she will not be able to ultimately reach, so she throws him a lifeline and drags him back forcibly.


Lessons in Coping

With Mary's help, John finally begins coping. He hadn't realized how delicately he had stood on a razor-thin edge before she takes him under her tutelage. His newfound hobby (profession?) forces him to eat and sleep regularly, because Mary refuses to take him on jobs if he's dead on his feet. He takes fewer shifts at the A&E, and he knows his colleagues are secretly glad he's no longer trying to work himself to death. Only God knows how long he's been unknowingly emulating Sherlock's eating and sleeping habits.

He also drops Ella like a ton of bricks for the second time.

It's like waking up and remembering that there exist other people and a whole world outside his bubble of grief.

After two weeks of forcing himself to eat three meals a day, John gains back most of the weight lost since April. Instead of roaming the streets of London all night long, John flips through one of the many reference books that Mary piled on him until it's time for sleep. He begins jogging in the morning after waking at dawn and doing push-ups in the evening. Saturdays are lessons in Latin with Mary, which she is vehement that he learn well for both of their sake. On Sundays, they drive out to the countryside where they shoot at makeshift targets so that she can improve her aim and they trade lessons on various hand-to-hand combat tricks they each picked up over the years.

The structure is comforting; it reminds him of the army.

He was merely functioning before, not particularly well or happily (can he learn to be happy without his insane flatmate? An answer either way hurt all the same). But Mary brings back a touch of whimsy into his life—giggles and inappropriate jokes in inappropriate places at inappropriate times...

Time marches on, and John learns how to cope in a world without Sherlock Holmes.

-x-x-x-

The nightmares never really left John even when he was with Sherlock. But they happened less frequently, and immediately muted and faded into the background with a dull roar once he awoke from them. When they were bad, he'd slip down to the living room. If Sherlock was still awake or out to God knows where in the middle of the night, he'd pop in a DVD. Sherlock, when he was there, sat with John and kept a running commentary of every atrocious plothole, convoluted character motivation, or John's generally deplorable taste in cinema. Sherlock must have known it was because John couldn't get back to sleep, and John was just glad when his flatmate didn't make a fuss of it.

On the one occasion where Sherlock had been asleep in his own bed, John sat at the table in the kitchen with a lukewarm mug of tea with the sliding door closed. He sat and listened to the sounds of the flat and the whispers of early morning traffic. When he strained his hearing hard enough, he could hear the sound of his flatmate's breathing and murmured sleeptalk.

On that night, John almost felt that, yes, he was becoming less haunted.

The nightmares return with a particular vengeance after Sherlock's death. John's fear of failure (now just plain failure) simply find new avenues and mediums to express themselves through.

John couldn't save Sherlock. He couldn't protect him.

Friends protect people.

John couldn't stop or kill Moriarty either.

You've rather shown your hand there, Doctor Watson. Gotcha.

Without Sherlock, there is little solace to be found.

Goodbye, John.

"Sherlock!" John surfaces from his dreams with a shriek, clawing and panting. He twists and becomes caught in the folds of the duvet, sharpening his panic. Books scatter off the bed, rending pages out from leather binding.

"John? John, calm down!"

They struggle for a few moments, until Mary rolls on top of him and pins him down. She's deceptively stronger than she looks, and he is weakened by the daze caught between sleep and consciousness. John's eyes burn with unshed tears as he stares past her to the shadows on the ceiling above. Mary releases his hands and runs her fingers through his hair, much like a mother would.

He squeezes his eyes shut to keep out the painful compassion that painted her face.

The quiet of the night is only broken by the rare car driving by and their breathing and heartbeat falling into sync as if they are one. When she pulls off of him, he curls onto his side and draws into a fetal position. His breath quickens as he tries to retreat from Mary and her touch. Too close, too soon. If Sherlock were here... If he was here...

God, he can't take being alone anymore.

Weight on the mattress shifts as Mary lays herself down beside him. They don't touch, but something crackles in the small space between their bodies.

She starts speaking again, barely audible over the sound of John's harsh respiration, "Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio, contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium."

It takes John more than a few words to realize she is chanting in Latin. The bits and pieces he can understand after a few days of poring over references in elementary Church Latin are far and in-between: God, the devil, and wickedness. Her prayer, though soft-spoken, is strong and unwavering. He lets the steel in the conviction of her words wash over him and sinks further into the mattress.

"Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur: tuque, Princeps militiae coelestis, Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos, qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo, divina virtute, in infernum detrude (1)."

Her fingers grazes lightly against his spine. Her voice rises to a swift crescendo as she comes to what must be the end of the prayer.

"Amen," they mutter softly in unison and John retreats back into sleep.

-x-x-x-

Things come to head just over two weeks before Christmas. Lestrade calls and requests a meeting at their "old usual place." John goes reluctantly after sending Mary a text on his unavailability that evening. John arrives at the pub an hour early and settles in a booth in the back with a lager. He had spent the better half of his day off wearing a hole into his carpet after Lestrade's text. By the time the policeman arrives at seven, John is already on his third pint on a mostly empty stomach.

The last time he saw Lestrade was in passing down at New Scotland Yard. About a month after Sherlock's funeral, John had been interviewed at the beginning of the Met's review of Sherlock's old cases. Lestrade had already been confined to desk duty by that point.

"Greg," John greets after several moments of awkward silence.

"You're looking better, John," Lestrade says in return.

John supposes his appearance has improved of late, especially compared to what he must have looked like in those early months. Lestrade, on the other hand, looks much older—like five years had passed instead months.

They spend the first half an hour just playing catch-up. It seems neither of them are eager to dive straight into whatever matter Lestrade invited him out over. Lestrade begrudgingly discloses the final death thralls of his long-dying marriage, though spirits lighten briefly over discussion of his children in school. John tells a few stories about his new position at the A&E. Both of them pointedly ignore the elephant in the room—what had brought them together in the first place.

When Lestrade returns from the bar with two orders of whiskey, one of which he hands wordlessly to John, John steels himself. He clamps his hands around the cool tumbler and dives head first.

"What is that you wanted to talk about, Greg? We haven't talked since..."

The funeral.

Lestrade considers his drink for a moment and takes a large swig before speaking, "I wanted to give you a heads up, John. Internal Investigations is officially concluding its inquiry and they're going to release their report after the New Year."

John counts backwards. Then it's only taken seven months to review the last six years of Sherlock's collaboration with the police? They must have really wanted to clear up the matter and salvage what is left of their reputation. Maybe Mycroft had a hand in expediting the process?

The thought of Mycroft Holmes sours his mood further.

John's grip tightens. "What did they find?"

He had tried to help in the beginning—tried to make himself available as a resource. But no one would listen. Everyone said he wasn't objective enough to be trusted. The papers had been too busy trying to paint John as either a willing accomplice or a brainless dupe too blind to see his former flatmate as what he really was. Lestrade, who had more or less been Sherlock's handler in the police, was similarly removed from the process as early as possible. It had hurt; it went and still goes against every fiber of his being to be forced to stand back and watch as the world took pot shots at his best friend.

Lestrade shakes his head. "I can't tell you, John."

"Greg... Please..."

"No, I shouldn't be telling you any of this, at all. But you deserve to know it's coming so you're prepared when they release the report. I have a feeling you may get more than a few calls from reporters after the holidays."

"I bet they didn't find anything suspect. Of course, they didn't!" John, now caught between his desire to inflict harm and his despair, downs the rest of his whiskey instead. The alcohol courses through his veins and his rage drowns in a whimper. His head is swimming, so he buries his face in his hand.

John barely hears Lestrade's reply over the rest of the pub.

"No, I reckon they didn't."

Because Lestrade still believes in Sherlock when it counts.

Through the space between his fingers, John studies the pattern in the table underneath. His eyes trace the whorls in the wood and the thousands of tiny scratches. "Why the hell did he do it, Greg? Why did he jump? I've never understood that. He's not a fraud, I know it, you know it. I don't think I ever will."

"You knew him better than I did. If you don't know, what makes you think I have any clue?" There's a cloud of darkness swimming in Lestrade's eyes, and John thinks he might be looking into a mirror.

"He couldn't wait a few bloody months for us—for someone, anyone—to clear his name. Was his damn ego that important?" John slams his empty tumbler on the table for emphasis.

A hush falls over their section of the pub in the aftermath of John's outburst. A handful of curious patrons turn to stare, and John glares defiantly at them in return.

"Sorry, gents, he's just a bit drunk," Lestrade makes the excuse on John's behalf, and the previous bustle resumes.

The detective stands and comes around to John's side of the booth. He offers a hand that John just stares at. "Come on, I'll get you home. You don't live on Baker Street anymore, right?"

John scrubs his face with his hands. "No, a flat in Camden. I'm fine, Greg. I don't want to go home yet. I need another drink."

"John, we have to move on."

"What the bloody hell do you think I've been trying to do since May? It's just so damn hard! I miss him so damn much and all anyone else bothers to do is drag a dead man's name through the mud. He made me watch, Greg. He made me watch him kill himself. I'm never going to get that image out of my head."

It's going to haunt John for the rest of his days, and there's nothing to salt and burn for even the smallest respite.

"The utter bastard..."

For a few moments, the policeman looks both enraged and heartbroken. Lestrade shakes his head and plucks the glass out of John's hand before he can throw it. "Fine, I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere."

The older man returns with more whiskey for them both. Now that the floodgates had opened, John finds he can't shut them. He babbles continuously about Sherlock and the mad things they did for the next two hours, and Lestrade—God bless the man—just listens.

"You know, I was the one who shot that cabbie, the Study in Pink one," John confesses and looks straight into the other man's eyes. "I killed a man to save Sherlock, after having known him for less than 24 hours. I'd do it again."

Lestrade, to his credit, just shifts uncomfortably in his seat and says, "I suspected."

John can't help but smile a little. "Sherlock always did underestimate you. He was stupid like that sometimes."

"Cheers to that."

They clink their glasses together in memory of their dead friend.


Come play, Bloody Mary

December 15th is the death anniversary of Mary's fiancé. Mary is carrying a bouquet in one arm, and her other arm is linked with John's. The headstone they approach is made of white granite. Much like Sherlock's, there is no epitaph; just a name, William Lamont, and the years 1978-2011 inscribed below.

She squeezes the crook of his elbow before speaking, "Hullo, Will. This is my good friend, John."

He wonders if he should offer some sort of greeting as well.

But she continues, "John's been keeping me safe and watching my back. I know you appreciate that."

After that, he steps away to allow her a few moments of privacy with her Will. He buries his hands deeper in his pockets as an effort to ward against the cold. It's an especially chilly winter this year, and there is a thin layer of snow on the ground. John thinks there might be a chance of a white Christmas.

Thoughts of white Christmas inevitably leads to thinking about last year's Christmas party. Last year, there was Sherlock, Christmas carols and decorations, Mrs. Hudson and her smiles, drinks with Lestrade... But there had also been yet another break-up in a long string of failed relationships (some of whom resurfaced in the wake of Sherlock's death to sell their little stories about John) and Irene Adler's "death."

What would he have for Christmas this year? Maybe Mary's company? He resolves to visit Mrs. Hudson (but he won't go upstairs to 221B). But he knows what's coming after Christmas—after the New Year. Internal Investigations' report on Sherlock's cases, which probably meant some more harassment coming John's way in the immediate future.

He bristles at the idea.

Mary is laying her flowers at the foot of the headstone and wiping off the layer of snow with a handkerchief. Her back suddenly stiffens after bending down and picking something up. John can't see what it is from where he's standing, but Mary flips the object in her hand several times as her eyes grow wider.

"John!" she shouts in alarm.

He runs back to her side. "What is it?"

She holds up the envelope for him to study. Her name, Mary Morstan, is written in long flowing script on the front. There is a small bulge sitting at the bottom of the envelope—like a bead. She breaks the wax seal on the back (really, who still uses wax seals in this day and age? Oh god, don't think about Moriarty. Don't think about Moriarty...). Her gloved fingers fumble a bit before drawing out the card inside. John stares at the watercolor drawing of a white lily and the words "With Deepest Sympathy" on the cover as Mary reads the inner face becomes impossibly white.

"Mary, what is it?" She flips the card around and shoves it in his chest. The inside contains no preprinted message, just someone's handwriting again.
Come play, Bloody Mary.

South Stoneham Cemetery
Southampton, UK


John looks up to watch her turn over the envelope. A single iridescent pearl falls into Mary's open palm. She clenches her fist close around the gem and a desperate whimper escapes her throat.

-x-x-x-

John clasps his hands against his chin and stares at the incomplete string of pearls sitting on the table. He wonders if he looks a bit like Sherlock in this position, but quickly shakes off the idea. Mary's hands are no longer shaking. She focuses on nursing her cup of tea and folding into the couch next to him.

As it turns out, Mary's father—a former Royal Navy Lieutenant-Commander—hadn't died so much as had gone missing. He'd gone to visit a friend in Cambridge some nine years ago, but he never arrived at his destination and never came home. Sure, he has been declared dead in absentia since then. The first pearl and a broken string still attached to a jewelry clasp came to her on the first anniversary of her father's disappearance. Every year since, she'd been sent another pearl in the mail.

According to Mary, the bracelet had belonged to her mother, meant to be paired with a pearl necklace that Mary now keeps in her jewelry box.

"Do you think my father's disappearance is related to Will's death?" she finally asks.

John furrows his brow. "This can hardly be a coincidence."

She caresses the greeting card (completely generic, probably bought from Tesco or Sainsbury's), tracing the bumps and ridges of the message penned inside. Not for the first time, he wishes that Sherlock were here. Sherlock would know what to do when faced with a puzzle like this; he might even be gleeful. But John's no Sherlock Holmes, and he cannot deduce motive or culprit from the slant of someone's handwriting or the envelope's initial placement against the headstone.

"I'm going to Southampton," she declares suddenly.

The fire burning in her eyes is undeniable. Mary is going to pursue this to the ends of the earth. John's stomach churns and something itches at the back of his neck. It's his well-honed instincts that got him through Afghanistan and months of living with Sherlock.

He can't help but feel that she's rushing headfirst into a trap.

After all, hunters can have enemies—powerful ones.


I BELIEVE IN SHERLOCK HOLMES

John should have known something was off for Lestrade to request a second meeting on Christmas Eve. They meet at the same pub three blocks away from Baker Street. Lestrade had already started without him, judging by the number of empty glasses littering the surface of the table.

"I hope you've been pacing yourself, Greg," John says as he settles down on a stool.

Without preamble, Lestrade slides a memory stick across the surface of the table.

"What's this?" He picks up the small object.

"It's the full report prepared by Internal Investigations."

John nearly drops the stick into his beer. "What? You're not supposed to have this, are you?"

"No, and don't go telling anyone you have this. I'll definitely lose my job then."

He wipes his sweaty palm against his jeans before finally asking Lestrade, "Then why give it to me at all?"

A pained expression flashes across the detective's face, pinching the space between his brows. "Because it's the least I can do, John. I'm as much at fault as Anderson and Donovan. I stood by and let that happen to Sherlock."

The mention of John's least favorite Yarders feels like a punch to the solar plexus. He tries not to think of the smugness and the pity on Donovan's face when she showed up at St. Bart's after Sherlock jumped.


I told you so.


Never before had he wanted to hit a woman so badly. Never before had he wanted to wind his hands around another human being's throat and squeeze, to throttle the life out of them. He did neither. Just gave his statement with eyes fixed in a glare at the ground and in short, brusque sentences.


"What did he say?"


"He said that he was fake, that he had researched me, that it was all a magic trick. He said goodbye."


"I told you so. I warned you."


"If you really believe that, then you're an even bigger idiot than Sherlock says—said..."


John chugs his drink instead to drown the sparks of an emerging sob. "It wasn't your fault," he offers eventually.

Which is true—it's not really Lestrade's fault. John knows what Lestrade's actually trying to apologize for. It's for that brief moment of doubt he must have had months ago when Lestrade stood in the sitting room of 221B Baker Street and politely requested Sherlock come down to the station. And John can forgive that moment of weakness (it's easier now after all these months). Because Lestrade didn't know Sherlock as well as John did. Because almost no one knew Sherlock Holmes as well as John Watson.

"I didn't say anything last time, but I've been officially demoted back to Sergeant. They say I'm lucky that's all they're doing."

John wants to laugh; he wants to scream. Both would make him look insane. So he does neither and orders another pint instead.

It's over, John realizes with a sinking heart. That chapter of his life—with Sherlock and chasing criminals—is officially closed and gone. Even if his best friend had somehow managed to escape death or miraculously return to life in some stupid fantasy, things can never go back to the way they were.

Hours later, he stumbles out of the pub with one arm around Lestrade. They're both well and truly pissed at this point. Lestrade's career, while not completely over, is dead in the water. He's never going to get promoted again.

And John...he feels as if his life in London is finally over.

He shivers alone at the street corner after depositing Lestrade in a cab and giving the detective's address to the driver. He pulls out his mobile, fingers trembling from both the cold and liquor, and speed dials one (the honor used to belong to Sherlock's number, but no more...).

"Mary," he slurs the last syllable of her name. "I'm coming with you."

-x-x-x-

They set out for Southampton on Boxing Day, after they each spent Christmas Day packing. John arranged to take all his vacation days for the year at once. Mary, who has been working as a private tutor, had already dropped all her students before the holidays started.

She's waiting by the open boot of her Peugeot 206 (a silver-colored 2003 model) on the morning of December 26th. John places his old Army canvas bag between her rolling suitcase and two other duffel bags stashing things from the weapon cabinet in her cellar. Through the rear window, he could also see a pile of essential references sitting in the back seat.

After shutting the boot with a thunk, Mary leans in against his side. He takes a moment to revel in the shared warmth of their bodies against the December winds.

"You don't have to come with me," each word expels little puffs of air. "I'd be fine on my own."

The thought of her running off alone—of abandoning her to whatever fate awaited—makes his chest constrict painfully.

"Tough luck, you'd have to beat me off with a stick."

They both slide into the front of the car. Mary is driving. John presses his forehead against the cool window and pushes away the memory of Sherlock's back walking away after breaking into Kitty Reilly's residence. He should have chased after his flatmate that night. He should have never let Sherlock out of his sight. He should have never allowed Sherlock to push him away with cruel words in the lab at Bart's.

John feels there were many things that he should have done in the last 24 hours of Sherlock Holmes' life. Things that are so blindly clear and obvious now with hindsight.

But he didn't. He hadn't.

-x-x-x-

Releasing the press statement on January 6th, Sherlock's birthday, is another slap in the face from the Met. It also predictably kicks up another round of media frenzy over the late Sherlock Holmes. It's a good thing he's run off to Southampton with Mary by then.

John has already read the full report front to back—all 365 pages of it—no less than three times since Lestrade first handed it to him. John had no idea how many cases the Greater London Metropolitan Police had previously consulted with Sherlock for. It added up a lot over the last six years.

The way that the writing style and the number of obvious spelling and grammar errors changes every few set of cases reviewed makes it apparent that a number of different people had prepared the report. It's also plain to see that no one fully appreciated Sherlock's true genius.

The five-page conclusion at the end is what pains John the most. The Met can admit that the majority of the physical evidence and motives procured via Sherlock's consultation were sound, that the people arrested and convicted did commit the crime they were accused of. There were some liberties taken that the Met has now secured against through new and soon-to-be-published guidelines for police consultants. Though John doubts they'll allow anyone to consult again soon—not with all the egg on their faces after this one.

The Met wants to—no, needs to—save face on this. It's probably one of the reasons they pushed the report out so relatively quickly.

But on the rumors of Sherlock Holmes being a fraud—that he had somehow helped all these criminals engineer their crimes so that he would ultimately swoop in and solve them? They would not take a stance. The possibility is instead entertained through double-speak and carefully worded speculations. That while it was theoretically possible for Sherlock to be either some great actor with a penchant for manipulation or a true criminal mastermind, it was not likely. But the idea that Sherlock had been one or the other wasn't impossible either.

It makes John want to hurl his laptop against a wall. It makes him want to scream until his throat is raw.

Unexpectedly, the report—once leaked online within a week of the press conference—also galvanizes Sherlock's supporters. He and Mary are still looking for leads in Southampton when Lestrade sends the first photo attached to a text message.

FROM: Greg Lestrade
3:05PM, January 8

On the corner of Baker Street and Melcombe.


The words, "I BELIEVE IN SHERLOCK HOLMES," is boldly scrawled in bright, yellow spray paint on an nondescript wall.

John's vision wavers for a moment.

The next day, John's inbox and old blog is flooded with comments and emails. He's only able to read about a dozen of them before he turns off commenting and sets up a generic auto-reply message for his email. He doesn't reply to any of the messages himself.

It is Mary who alerts him to the true scope of the campaign.

"The internet has taken up the cause," she says with a small smile on her face.

The denizens of the internet hasn't just take up a cause. It's a crusade. Fueled by just social media, the war cries (I BELIEVE IN SHERLOCK HOLMES; MORIARTY WAS REAL; RICHARD BROOK IS A FRAUD) grew and swelled by the hour. It's difficult to pinpoint the origin of Sherlock's new virtual army. Part of it was due to the original graffiti that Lestrade had sent him, which had been reblogged on tumblr some 12,000 times according to Mary. There are hashtags and Google bombs and other terms that John doesn't fully understand.

He and Mary don't get out to investigate much that weekend. Instead, they stay in their hotel room and remain glued to the internet.

"Why?" he asks over the audio of a Youtube video of teenagers filming their graffiti spree around Central London.

Mary shrugs a bit. "Because there's an injustice being done? They see something wrong with the world, wrong with what the adults are doing..."

"But they don't know him."

"I don't think it matters."

Mentions of John himself are absent on the most part. There are a few questions about where he's gone and why his blog is inactive, but little else. Everyone is far too focused on the martyr, Sherlock. John is actually comforted by this.

"Do you want to go back to London?" Mary asks over dinner on Sunday night.

John pauses for only the briefest of seconds, "No."

Because the war for Sherlock's reputation is out of his hands. It hurts, but he must accept that this faceless throng on the internet will probably be able to do more to clear Sherlock's name than he alone can. There is power in the sheer volume of their combined voices.

In Arduis Fidelis.

He reaches across the table and grasps her hand. "I'm with you, Mary. I'll stay with you until this is done."

He resents that he's making the choice between a dead man and a living woman. But Sherlock has an army now, and Mary only has John.


Breadcrumbs

There are people—things—out to get Mary Morstan the hunter.

It takes them almost three weeks to unravel the mystery around the pearl and the invitation initially left at William Lamont's headstone. John's sure it would have taken Sherlock less than three days, once given the right tool set.

The contents of the envelope they retrieved from inside the coffin of a sixty-year-old burial are sitting on the hotel table. The grave had been disturbed before by another hunter, judging by the burnt state of the skeleton found within. Both this new pearl and the one from London are resting on top of the paper with a coded message.

Any sense of satisfaction or triumph had swiftly faded once they returned to their room.

The hex bags planted under each of their pillows doesn't kill them. But after three hours of retching over a toilet, John is beginning to wonder if death would be kinder. Mary's face still has a tinge of green when she returns from burning the bags.

"I think someone is toying with us," he finally says when he manages to stay out of the bathroom for more than five minutes at a time.

Mary is packing for John as they need to return to London as soon as possible. His vacation ends in two days and he's expected back on shift if he doesn't want his colleagues filing a missing person report on his behalf. They're also out of leads until they manage to crack the code.

"John, I have a really bad feeling about this." She turns and looks him in the eye.

A small snort of laughter escapes despite himself. "Really? Was it the hex bags?"

Her face tightens. "John, I'm being serious."

The small smile drops from his face. "So am I. And if you think I'm going to let you do this alone after what's happened so far—"

"We're dealing with witches," she clenches her fist. "Do you know what usually goes hand in hand with witches, the bad ones? Demons! Do you know how often hunters deal with either of those things and live to tell the tale afterwards?"

"I gather not many."

The silence stretches out between them like a vast plain.

John straightens his shoulders and moves until he's standing in front of her. When he grasps her shoulders lightly, she winces at the touch. "Mary, we still have plenty of time to figure this out. Let's go back to London and take it from there. Just remember that you're not alone, and that I chose this. I have purpose again because of you."

Her arms wind around his waist and pulls him into a hug. He plants one hand against her shoulder blade and runs the other gently through her hair. She smells like lavender.

Her words are muffled against his chest. "Your Sherlock would probably never forgive me if anything happened to you."

For the first time, John's heart doesn't constrict painfully at the mention of his friend. "Your Will would be just as cross with me for the same."

She shudders and sighs, almost in relief. "Now go rinse your mouth. You smell like vomit." She pushes him away and turns up her nose.

He drops a chaste kiss against her forehead, while she punches him lightly in retaliation.

-x-x-x-

They find the key to decoding the message in an old naval cipher. What is revealed are the words, Noli me tangere, and then a web url to a page with an map applet of England with a marker over Newbury in Berkshire. They stare at each other over the top of the laptop, trading glances and muted expressions as blows in their nonverbal arguments.

It's strange. He used to do the same with Sherlock, over crime scenes and across their living room.

"You couldn't stop me even if you wanted to," he finally says.

Her shoulders slump, whether in resignation or fatigue John wasn't sure. "I know. I'd be a shit friend if I didn't at least try to convince you otherwise. For your own good and all that."

John folds his hands over hers. "Going with you is the best thing for me. I need this. You know that."

"Yeah..."

What had John done to deserve people like Sherlock Holmes and Mary Morstan in his life?

As soon as he goes home that night, John puts in his two-week notice with the hospital. His supervisor is less than ecstatic at first, which only means it's going to be all the harder to find a job again when—if he stops hunting. But by the end of John's first week back, the administration offers to let him go early (with extra severance pay) just to not deal with the paparazzi camping at the hospital entrance.

John should have known it was a fruitless fantasy to hope the media had forgotten about him.

He's grateful for the small mercy that is the short-term lease on his current flat. The landlord doesn't blink when John says he's not renewing. Other than making preparations with Mary, John ties up loose ends at the hospital and packs his remaining belongings into a storage locker.

The "I believe in Sherlock Holmes" campaign is still going strong. The initial wave of vandalism is giving way to more property-friendly acts of chalking messages on sidewalks and walls, and posting fliers and posters. An impressive art rendition of Sherlock's likeness is taped to the front door of 221 Baker Street when he goes to visit Mrs. Hudson. She has no idea who put it there in the first place, but she doesn't plan on taking it down either.

"How are you, dear?" Armed with a familiar maternal expression, she passes him a cup of tea.

"I'm fine."

Each time he says it, the more it begins to feel true.

John continues, "I'm actually going to be out of London for a while. You know, travel for a bit and get away from the press."

He has to let some people know he's going to be away for a while. The last thing he needs is a hysterical Harry or anyone else pleading on the telly for the public to come forth with information.

Mrs. Hudson makes her own displeasure known. "Oh, the bloody press. Someone's always trying to get in here and look at the flat upstairs. I'm never going to find any tenants if they keep snooping around."

John hides his smile behind his teacup. They later part with a firm hug and Mrs. Hudson manages to extract from him a promise to email her during his travels. He stops in at the Tesco Express around the corner to pick up (his flat was once again empty of food and he isn't going to load up when he's planning on leaving soon). Occupied with his choice between a frozen pizza and some other frozen meal, he steps back and collides with another body.

"Oh, so sorry!" he exclaims and bends over to help the woman up. "Molly?"

"John?"

He hasn't seen Molly Hooper since Sherlock's funeral, but he can still remember how shell-shocked she was standing over the closed casket being lowered into the dirt. Her eyes were dark with bags underneath, telltale signs of many sleepless nights. She kept looking around with a sort of trapped and frantic look on her face—like someone trying to wake up from a nightmare. Molly looks much healthier now, her skin soft and radiant. The small toothy smile, which had always been shy in the presence of Sherlock, was fuller and more confident. It was a good look for her.

It becomes clear that she's studying him with the same intensity. He wonders briefly what she sees in him now. She lowers her gaze and bites her lower lip, before looking back up with a hesitant grin.

"What are you doing in this part of London?" he asks curiously. He doesn't mean to be rude but she's not wearing her scrubs, and St. Bart's is almost fifteen minutes away by car.

She holds up a box of mini cannolis. "I'd just thought I'd pick up a little something before visiting Mrs. Hudson."

His former landlady's pretty popular today.

"I'm sure she'd and Mrs. Turner would love those. I just had tea with Mrs. Hudson myself."

"That's nice. How have you been, John?" Her brows furrow in obvious concern.

Since Sherlock?

"Better," he admits. "I'm doing better. I'm going to travel for a bit."

"Travel?" That can't be a flare of panic in her eyes, can it? "Where to?"

John shrugs. "Just around Britain. Never realized how little I've seen of my own country."

"That's good. You're not going alone, are you?" There is definitely an edge of suspicion to her question, laced with even more concern lying beneath.

"With Mary."

Her eyes widen like saucers. "Who's Mary?"

"Just a friend."

The line of questions has suddenly become too personal and uncomfortable to John's liking. It's time to make a tactical retreat. "It was good seeing you again, Molly. Maybe we can chat the next time I'm back in London."

Molly nods vigorously. "Yeah, that sounds great. Have a good time and stay safe, John."

"I will."

He places the box back into the freezer and leaves the shop empty-handed. For some reason, he doesn't feel much like eating anymore.

-x-x-x-

John hasn't gone to Sherlock's grave since late November. He supposes he should feel guilty about that, and for the fact he isn't going to visit again for some time. As he stares blankly at the dark headstone, he wonders if he should have brought Mary along too. No, he balks at the thought, that would just feel wrong.

There are half of a dozen bouquets lying at the foot of the gravestone. They must be from some of Sherlock's internet supporters, still intent on holding him as an example of modern-day martyrdom.

Mawkish, is what his best friend would say about the whole affair.

"I wonder how you would rate Mary's scavenger hunt. A seven or an eight maybe?" He stuffs his hands into his jacket pockets and allows his shoulders to slump out of parade rest. "Personally, I think it's got all the makings of a nine or ten. An almost decade-old disappearance, a murdered Crown Prosecutor, antique jewelry that belonged the mother that passed away almost 30 years ago. Sounds like a personal vendetta to me, but Mary can't really think of anyone or anything specific."

"I'm going to be away for a bit, Sherlock. I don't know for how long, but I thought I ought to let you know."

The words, "SHERLOCK HOLMES," stare back imperiously. They are unmoved by his announcement.

"Don't be like that, Sherlock. You know I can't hang around London if Mary needs help like this. You know I hate sitting on the sidelines. It's not like I can help much with this campaign to clear your name. It's not official, though anything is better than nothing in the court of public opinion."

John's attention moves to the tree behind the grave, where handwritten message and fliers are taped to the trunk. It's like a memorial wall full of notes from former clients and acquaintances professing their belief in Sherlock Holmes—a shrine and testament to Sherlock's work.

"God, you'd hate all this attention. You're like a bloody folk hero now. I wish there was more I could do to prove that, but I'm not bloody impartial enough," he gives a small huff of laughter. "But I'm not going to stop them either. The world deserves to know you weren't a fraud. I know you're not a liar. Nothing sort of mind control or brainwashing would make me believe that. You were a lot of things, Sherlock, but never a liar."

A flashback to the pool and to the lab back at Bart's.

"At least not when it came to the important things," John corrects himself.

A burst of noise draws his attention away. There's a small group of gawking teenagers standing a few yards away. They stare at him with a bit of awe. John glances at the patterned blue scarves hanging around their necks and the floral wreath clutched in one of their hands, and he knows they're here to see Sherlock. They duck their heads and back away a bit, presumably to give John a few more moments of privacy.

John is once again more or less alone at the grave of his best friend. But it's difficult to completely ignore the eyes on his back and the hushed conversation taking place.

Now people will definitely talk.

People do little else.


"I'll see you around, Sherlock, whenever I get back to London." He wants to turn and walk away, but his feet stay firmly rooted in the dirt. His next words are delivered at a barely audible volume. "I would come back in a heartbeat if you asked me to. I came from the other side of London because you asked. I'd cross the world if you sent me a bloody text to come meet you again. But you won't do that ever again, and that's why I have to go with Mary. She's important to me. Maybe not as important as you were, but you don't get any say in that now. Because you went and died. You had to swan off to somewhere I can't follow you to."

Not yet, at least.

"But if you did—somehow—send me a message telling me to come, I'd still do it. I'd probably leave Mary without a second thought." He hates that he's so self-aware. Maybe he hates Sherlock just a bit. Because Sherlock always made it such an easy and obvious choice to make.

When he passes the teenagers on his way out, one of them steps forward and says, "Dr. Watson, I'm sorry for your loss."

John sinks his teeth into his bottom lip and walks away without acknowledging any of them.

-x-x-x-

"You sure you don't want to change your mind?" She peeks at him out of the corner of her eyes.

The car's boot (they're taking her father's old vehicle this time, a forest green Vauxhall Corsa with a hidden compartment for weapons) is noticeably fuller this time. Things like salt they can easily get on the road, but they want to avoid having to come back to London too often for essentials if they can help it.

"Well, you could just ignore this," he counters.

It's true, they can both easily ignore the trail of breadcrumbs left for them to follow. They can just ignore it and go back to their lives—go back to hunting the usual suspects. Would Sherlock still be here if the detective never played Moriarty's game? Are they about to make the same mistake as Sherlock by participating? John doubts it. Sherlock would never turn down an interesting puzzle, and Moriarty was obsessed. The same can probably be said of Mary's nemesis, by flaunting ties to both her father's disappearance and her fiance's murder and by drawing her attention with little reminders of her long-dead mother.

But she wasn't doing this out of boredom or looking for a distraction. She wants—needs answers.

John can only hope that will be enough to uphold her sense of self-preservation, so she doesn't go flinging herself into the jaws of madness. Like Sherlock did. But the sense of dread in the pit of his stomach refuses to be quelled. John's instincts are working into overdrive, screaming for his attention and better judgment.

Mary isn't going to back down. He can see that from the way she purses her lips in determination and digs her heels into the ground. She is stubborn, can be just as stubborn as himself or Sherlock. "No, I need to do this."

Then John needs to go with her—to protect her from everything. Including from herself, if necessary.


Ante bellum

Days quickly become weeks, and weeks transform into months as they follow the trail of clues in a circuitous route across the British Isle. Almost the entirety of February and March are spent in and around Manchester, where their initial investigation is sidetracked by a long string of Changeling abductions. They investigate, they hunt, and they help anyone in need that stumbles into their path. The work is fulfilling, and he and Mary continue to grow closer.

Mary used to be a teacher. It doesn't really bring much to their new shared life on the road. But she is much more tech savvy than John. He would be lost without her to take the lead in all things technological.

John used to be a soldier and, perhaps more importantly, the live-in assistant of the world's only consulting detective. His experience ends up saving them from tight situations on more than a few jobs.

But the greatest weapon that they both wield is a cloak of unassuming normality—she in her sweet but muscled petite form and he in his deceitful jumpers. They wield it so well that they warrant barely a memory in the many towns and villages they passed through. They play the married couple sometimes, each of their ring fingers donning rings they picked up at an estate sale. Sometimes, they are the ecstatic and newly engaged couple. Mary wears the ring she'd otherwise have around her neck, and the fondness and longing with which she gazes at the small inset stone is real. John knows she isn't thinking of him when she does that, and he prefers it that way. Other times they were simply partners in business and work, lying their way rather adeptly around police barriers and past crime scene tape.

They always book a single room between the two of them, as they need to carefully budget their expenses. But when they can't get two beds, they share the one while sleeping head to toe. He expected to have nightmares more often—he still does once in a blue moon. But it turns out that having another warm body next to him and working himself to physical exhaustion are enough on most nights.

He cares for Mary, worries about her when they split up. He even comes to the conclusion that he does, in fact, love her.

He's just not in love with her.

She threads her fingers through his and squeezes his hand. They're sitting side-by-side on top of the comforter in a bed and breakfast in Oxford. His thumb absently rubs circles around the small scar on the back of her hand.

"I know," she breathes, knowing shining in her bright blue eyes. "I love you too, John."

Her other hand grasps at her necklace.

But that's all they needed or wanted from each other: comforting affection and a steady partnership. Together, they tear—shooting, salting and burning, and exorcising—across Britain and make a name (names actually, as they make extensive use of aliases) for themselves.

-x-x-x-

The first time that John learns about crossroad demons is at another hunter's house in Kent, where a group of them are preparing to take on vampire nest in the next town over. He is reading through a book entitled The Classification of Demons, that he borrowed from Keith, their host. His mind immediately becomes blank as he takes in the words on the page.

A deal.

A contract.

A kiss.

Mary sweeps into the guest bedroom they are sharing, her hair still wet from her shower. "John?"

He doesn't answer her, still unable to tear his eyes away from the page and from memorizing the list of ingredients needed in the summoning ritual.

She moves closer and freezes. The stillness of her body finally forces him to look up at her. Her face is ashen white, and her eyes are glued to the book. When she meets his gaze again, he knows that she knows what he's thinking. It's the next part that catches him by surprise.

Mary rips the book from his lap as her open palm strikes his cheek. The flying volume hits a wall somewhere behind her. The force of her slap snaps John's head to the side as stars momentarily explode in his vision. He remains dazed as he tries to process the stinging pain on his face and the rage he can feel rolling off her in waves. He doesn't move his head, and keeps his face turned. So she plants a hand on each of his cheeks and forces him to look into her eyes.

Mary shakes, full of fear and grief, as she speaks, "You listen to me, John Watson. I know what you're thinking, but your immortal soul isn't worth that. He wouldn't want you to do that for him. It's not worth it. Please let him rest in peace."

John wants to protest. He wants to rage. To him, the rest of eternity is well worth the trade for ten more years with Sherlock Holmes. Hell, he's even be willing to forgo the standard ten-year contract and give his soul for Sherlock now. Sacrifice (self-sacrifice; Queen and country; brothers-in-arms; SherlockSherlockSherlock) isn't new in John's book. How can his measly soul be worth more than Sherlock's?

It's not. It can't be.

Because Sherlock is so much of a greater man.


And I think one day, if we're very, very lucky, he might even be a good one.


"You don't understand—"

"But I do!" She cuts in fiercely and presses her forehead against his, so close that they can almost kiss. "I know the temptation, but we can't."

"It hurts..."

To be without him; to laugh without him; to run without him; to live without him...

The pain inside wretches and bubbles to the surface. After a long moment, he finally realizes the wetness coursing down his cheeks is his own tears. He hasn't cried in almost a year.

She throws her arms around his neck and they sink back into the bed. Between their embrace, he can feel the sharp edges of her ring digging into his sternum.

"Please don't leave me, John. I can't lose anyone else."

Through the night, they cling to each other, drowning in the inescapable sorrow of both of their losses.

-x-x-x-

John's right leg has been throbbing all day with a familiar sort of pain. It started with a slight twinge in the morning, but he can barely walk without leaning on a wall for support by end of the evening. It put a bit of a damper on that night's hunt. But John is stubborn, Mary is determined, and their window of opportunity is closing fast.

It feels like a bit like a cruel joke that the organizers of their little scavenger hunt would nudge them in this direction.

Hauntings aren't always daunting experiences with empowered and angry spirits. Sometimes they're death omens, sometimes they're not even aware that they've passed on. And there isn't always a corpse or haunted object to salt and burn. Cremation tends to throw a wrench in the works more often than hunters like to admit.

Most hunters wouldn't bother with this type—they'd wait for the years to turn the ghost bitter and menacing first before making a move.

But he and Mary aren't like most hunters. Even if this wasn't set as their next task by that sodding website, neither of them are ones to walk away from people or even ghosts in need of saving.

Mary approaches the child first. She's better suited to make first contact, being both as a woman and one used to dealing with children. John leans back against the wall and attempts to take the weight off his bad leg.

"Hello, I'm Mary. What's your name?"

The ghost of an eight-year-old boy fixes his wide-eyed stare on her, his eyes a misty gray and his short hair shining like a raven's wing. His gaze flickers over to John for a moment before resettling on Mary's face. "Benjamin, Ben."

She smiles, giving off waves of warmth and comfort. "Nice to meet you, Ben. That's my friend, John. We're here to help you."

The boy perks slightly at her words with hope shining on his face. "You'll help me find my mummy? I keep calling for her, but she won't answer." His expression falls into acute despair.

"It's a big house."

"Will you help me look for her?"

He and Mary exchange significant looks across the room. They have no reason to believe Ben might be malicious. Any injuries resulting from meeting Ben were usually because of running around an abandoned manor house that's been falling apart for the last forty years.

"Alright, sweetheart. But you have to promise to hold my hand and not run off, alright?" She extends a hand slowly to the child.

Ben nods hesitantly and folds his smaller hand into Mary's. They pick their way around a broken bed to reach John standing on the other side of the room. He holds the door open and they slip out into the dark hallway with torches in hand. The only sounds are their footfall and the noise from an old house settling. Ben presses his body close against Mary's side, his gaze darting around nervously. John limps and trails behind them.

"What's wrong with John's leg?" the boy asks after looking over his shoulder at John.

John takes the opportunity to speak for himself. "I came back from the war with it."

Ben's eyes widen at the word "war." The boy stares at John for a few moments, and John tries not to squirm at the child's curiosity. "But you didn't hurt your leg. It's your shoulders."

For once, John isn't caught off-guard by such an accurate observation. Maybe he's inundated after Sherlock, but he also knows ghosts just have preternatural knowledge sometimes.

"Nope, I didn't actually injure my leg, but it still hurts all the same. It's a psychosomatic limp." Prompted then by Ben's confused expression, John taps a finger against his temple and adds, "It's in my head."

"Oh, like the voices," the ghost boy whispers to no one in particular with a glazed expression.

Neither he nor Mary was sure if Ben had been mentally ill or possibly psychic in life. The records they searched are spotty at best and any attempts at diagnostics back then would be ten times worse.

When Ben doesn't draw away, Mary places an arm around his thin shoulders. "It's okay, we're not going to hurt you, Ben. It wasn't right, the way your father treated you."

The boy tightly fists Mary's blouse. "He said he had to beat the devil out of me. There was something wrong with me."

John approaches where the other two had stopped in the middle of the hall. "No, Ben. What you needed was help. Mary and I would like to help you."

"I know," Ben forces his attention to the rotting floorboard after examining each of them for several moments. "You're nice people. Not like the other people that usually come here."

That's as good an opening as any other.

"Have other people been here recently, Ben? Other not so nice people?" John needs to word his questions very carefully.

The boy nods. Suddenly he looks so much smaller than before, like he's trying to shrink in on himself. "A woman was here last month. She wasn't very nice. She wouldn't help me find my mummy. She just yelled at me and told me to go away, said I would regret it if I didn't leave her alone."

"Did you notice anything strange about her? Like if she had really black eyes or something like that?"

Ben shakes his head and then wrinkles his nose. "She smelled funny though, like oils and incenses."

"What was she doing?"

"She was hiding something, a small wooden box."

"Can you show us?"

Without needing any other encouragement, the boy nods and grabs Mary hand again. He leads them down the hallway to what used to be the main foyer and up the spiral staircases to the second floor. Ben stops short in front of a heavy mahogany door.

"She was in Father's study for a long time. But I'm not supposed to go in there." A shudder racks the boy's small frame.

John reaches out and palms one of Ben's shoulders gently. "Don't worry. You don't have to go in, we'll keep the door open so you can still see us from the hallway. Ready, Mary?"

She's already drawn her revolver and pressed against one side of the door frame. "Ready?"

The door falls open with a twist of the knob, creaking and moaning as it swings back on rusty hinges. Limp temporarily forgotten, John scans the room with his Browning still trained in front of him. He doesn't see any obvious signs of ritual or spellcasting, but so much of the interior is still covered in debris. He signals for Mary to wait for a moment longer and enters the room at first. After almost a minute of standing just across the threshold, John allows himself to relax slightly.

Mary tromps into room behind him after sparing Ben a few words of encouragement. She heads straight for the collapsed desk sitting in the middle of the room and starts going through the drawers. Then John spots it, the corner of a ratty rug where there's too little dust compared to everything else. He allows himself to bask in the warm glow of satisfaction; even if it was the kind of thing Sherlock would have noticed in almost an instant.

They pry back the loose floorboard underneath and find a small wooden box sitting in the crawlspace. Mary rips off the lid and lets out a loud whoop when they see the envelope within. She pockets the letter and races over to hug Ben.

"Thank you! You did very well, Ben."

The boy is wearing an expression of slight shock as he meets John's eyes over Mary's shoulder. He silently mouths the question, "Good?"

John smiles softly and nods.

Mary pulls away and cradles the boy's cheeks in her palms. "We do want to help you, Ben. You're a good boy no matter what anyone says. But you need to understand that your mum's not around anymore. She left a long time ago."

Ben turns his eyes downcast. "I know. I'm different now, different from before. I've been stuck here for a very long time."

"You won't find your mum here, but if you let go, you may see her again."

"I'm scared. What if I go someplace bad?" The child's face is frozen in terror.

Mary presses her lips against his forehead. "Never, you could never. You're too good and smart for that. I know you've been lonely for a long time, it must have hurt. You don't need to hurt anymore. You'll go somewhere better than this."

"You really think so?"

"Yes, because you deserve to, sweetheart. You don't need to stay here or be alone anymore."

Ben throws his arms around her and buries his face in her blouse. "Thank you, Mary, John. Thank you for coming to get me." Despite the underlying tremor, his voice is much stronger and surer now.

John and Mary blink in unison, and Ben is gone. They wait for several moments; there is nothing except silence. John's limp flares up again, sending him falling against a crumbling bookshelf. Mary lends him a shoulder to lean against as they make the long and painful journey to the front door. When he's settled back in the car parked outside, he gropes around for his phone in the dark.

The time is 1:42 AM on May 5th.

John had forgotten about the one year anniversary of Sherlock's jump, and he's miles and miles away from London.

When John wakes up in the next morning in his bed at the Travelodge, the limp is gone as suddenly as it had reappeared.

-x-x-x-

His first run-in with a demon, an honest-to-God demon, occurs just two weeks later. The encounter catches them both completely by surprise and leaves him with a fractured wrist (non-dominant hand) and two cracked ribs (vertebrosternal ribs III and IV). Mary manages to walk away with just a minor concussion. They're lucky that the demon was only interested in thrashing them against the wall for a bit, rather than disemboweling them. It gets away, but he and Mary also get to leave in one piece—mostly.

Mary insists they both go to the hospital.

John is drugged and kept overnight for observations. She almost never leaves his bedside in the entire time. Neither of them is thrilled with the experience.

As Mary works on both their discharge forms at the nurse's station outside, John's phone announces the receipt of a new text. It's from Lestrade.

I heard from a mutual friend that you're in a hospital in Selby. Is everything alright?

A shiver runs down his spine. A "mutual friend?" Mycroft? Is Mycroft still watching him? Why the hell would Mycroft still be watching him?

In that moment, he resolves to keep himself out of hospitals and NHS paperwork whenever possible.

John taps out a short message in reply and hopes it will put the matter to rest.


I'm fine.

Thankfully, Mary doesn't ask any questions when he asks if they can leave town a day earlier than planned.

-x-x-x-

According to everyone-in-the-know's best estimate, there are currently 23 families with an active hunter legacy going back at least three generations in Great Britain (excluding Ireland, where they proudly boast to have 28). Not everyone in these families tend to become hunters themselves, but most of them do know the basics. Older members retire if they survive the lifestyle long enough, but even then they never fully pull out of the game. Mary is a prime example of someone coming from a hunter family. There are also the people like John, the new blood, numbering at about two dozens or more. Then, there are the people who have heard stories and those people or their loved ones that have been saved by hunters. It's hard to go back to living normal lives once you've seen the other side of the coin.

What that means is there is a relatively small but close-knit network of hunters, their families, associates, occasional baddies that are not actually bad (like the rumors of several vampire nests that actually sustain themselves on animal blood alone), and the people who remember owing their lives to a hunter's work spread across Britain. Even though that last category of people do not or will not hunt themselves, they are just as important as the former. Because they are the ones with full-time employment and the normal lives that can provide alibis for hunters—the ones, when in a position of authority, who are willing to turn a blind eye so that hunters can properly do their work.

That's not to say they're all one big happy family either. They're all still human beings (mostly) with flaws and whims, and not everyone is as noble as Mary. John can already name a few known rivalries between specific hunters or different schools of thought regarding hunting. Information is made all the more valuable through scarcity, and all but the most bullheaded of hunters eventually share what they know in the face of uncertain doom (though usually at a steep price).

They are the country's shadow army against the forces of darkness. Having served himself, John can safely say they are not the most well-equipped army either.

And something has changed in the past year, making the whole network high-strung and wary with vigilance. John can only dredge up a sense of anticipation, like the calm before a storm. But to Mary, for whom this has been a way of life for so long? She had past experiences to compare with, and could probably pinpoint actual shifts in trends and patterns.

There are whispers that the entire world is on the brink of something big. Stories from contacts across the Atlantic and in continental Europe only serve to further fuel speculation.

Demon possessions are on the rapid rise. More and more hunters are now trading stories about demonic encounters and their efforts to exorcise them. Every hunter on the road starts carrying a flask of holy water—he and Mary are no exception. They all learn to draw a devil's trap and post fliers with the symbol on billboards at the pubs in towns where they encounter demons. As time passes, the number of signs they encounter increases exponentially.

By early July, nine hunters have been killed on the job. Everyone in the know is on edge. They are either carrying anti-possession charms, or the more dedicated are getting the symbol tattooed onto their own bodies.

It feels a bit like getting ready for war.

Mary still wears her charm pendant, but has the symbol tattooed on the center of her back. It'll be visible whenever she wears a tank top.

John gets his done under his right collarbone. The dark ink stands out in stark contrast against the white of his skin, a somewhat twisted and stylized mirror image of the starburst scar on his left shoulder.


Ships that pass in the night

"Mary! Where are you?"

There is only the sound of rushing water and crickets.

"Mary!"

He cast the light from his torch over the river's surface and curses loudly. They should have never split up. When was splitting up ever a good idea in horror movies? He then catches a glimpse of a crumpled body face-down in the water. The light catches on the muddy blond of the hair.

John's heart stutters and his breath hitches.

"Oh my god, Mary!"

He wades through three feet of water to reach her. Since it's early June, the river is still chilled. Mary's body remains limp and unresponsive as he drags her to shore. How long had she been in the water?

Was he too late?

"No!" John snarls and checks her pulse, but finds none. "Come on, Mary."

He lays her out on the ground, pushing back the folds of her jacket and beginning chest compression. The two minutes in which he performs CPR feels more like an unforgiving eternity. Her lips are cold and wet, and all he can do is fear the worst. Suddenly, she jerks her head to the side and dispels almost half a liter of water from her lungs. John resists the urge to immediately sweep her body into his arms, allowing her a few needed moments to reorient herself and breathe.

Her eyes are bright, but the feverish quality in them is starting to fade.

John licks his lower lip before breaking the quiet, "You're not playing bait next time."

"Ugh, I'd be a terrible CO if I send my medic as bait." Her small attempt at humor does help to calm John's heartbeat. "Who's going to patch me up then?"

"The two of us hardly constitutes an army. Besides, I taught you first aid."

"Still not a doctor. Teacher, remember?"

He corrects her gently. She's so much more than that. "A hunter."

"Yeah..."

John finally reaches out to touch her, brushing wet strands out of her face. Her skin is warm underneath his fingertips, the woman herself so absolutely alive. He sighs a breath of relief and cradles her clammy hands, willing them to warm up quickly.

-x-x-x-

The first and only time they fall into bed together is on Mary's birthday in late August. They are both giddy after finding another pearl and drunk from the two bottles of wine they had celebrating over dinner. When they stumble into their darkened hotel room, neither goes for the lights. The curtains are drawn open, letting the moon's rays bath the room with ringlets of silvery light.

John presses a hand against her flushed cheek and she leans into the touch.

"John..."

He answers with a crushing kiss against her plump lips. Sliding his tongue across hers, he can taste the wine and cream sauce from dinner. She moans, digging her fingernails into his hips.

A small part of mind is still trying to reason with the rest. But the voice is quickly drowned out by the rush of blood in his ears when she draws one of his hands under her skirt, pushing aside her panties and thrusting one of his fingers between the wet folds.

The world dissolves into flashes of sensation, shedding articles of clothing until skin is sliding against skin. His mouth never leaves hers, both of them drawing out and drinking in each other's groans. He brings her to orgasm with his fingers brushing against her inner walls as she works her own clit. She shudders, moans, and clenches around him; drawing him tighter against her.

He pulls away long enough to retrieve the condom from his wallet, sheaths himself, and sinks back between her spread legs. He moves without thinking about it.

It's not lovemaking, just a coupling borne of desperation.

He empties himself with a shout and feels nothing but numbness. She makes no protest when he immediately rolls off her onto his back. Both of them are waiting for their hearts to slow and their breaths to steady.

Mary is the one to voice what they're both thinking, "We shouldn't have done that."

John presses the heel of his hands into his eyes, savoring the brief flare of pain and self-loathing. Anything's better than the utter emptiness tearing his soul apart.

"No, we shouldn't have."

Because it's not fair for either of them to make the other compete with the memory of some dead man.

John redresses and leaves the room without another word or glance. She doesn't try to stop him. His mind remains pleasantly blank while wandering the streets of Darlington for hours.

She's awake when he finally returns to the room at dawn. But he can deduce from her rumpled state and the bags under her eyes that she hasn't slept either. They say nothing to each other and go through their usual morning rituals. After an equally silent and terse breakfast at a corner cafe, they pack themselves into the car and head for Scotland.

John spends the rest of the day trying to wash the taste of regret out of his mouth.

-x-x-x-

Things go unexpectedly pear-shaped in Edinburgh. Everything has been looking up as it appears they are close to the end of their journey (and answers, Mary is starting to become so desperate for them) with only about two or three more pearls to find before they reconstruct the bracelet.

Mary and he are there for less than three days (an unusually high turn-over rate for them) before they narrow down where the next pearl is located. Unfortunately for them, it's in the hands of some rather vicious mobsters. More specifically, it's in the hands of a lycanthrope embedded into the organization as a courier.

They spend another three days watching the warehouse that's a known drop-off point for illegal goods. When he and Mary make their move, they're not the only ones. John quickly picks up on the fact that someone loud and conspicuous has broken in just minutes before them. It turns out to be a handy distraction, because all the mobsters are too busy pursuing the other to notice the two hunters.

They're making their way toward their target when an explosion outside rocks the entire warehouse. But John can tell it's a controlled explosion that's not actually meant to take down a building.

Shouting coming from the other end of the building sends them both diving behind the nearest cover.

"Find him now! Don't let him get away!" someone orders.

John rearranges his grip on his Browning and Mary mirrors his action with her revolver. Both of their guns are both loaded with silver-cast hollow point bullets, nasty enough for any human and instantly fatal to skinwalkers and werewolves alike.

Skinwalkers generally aren't nice creatures, probably even less so if they liked smuggling for the mafia.

A second detonation takes place in the southwest direction. The mobsters previously occupied with sweeping the warehouse for their intruder storm off like a stampede of elephants. John listens as several men panic loudly about a weapon cache being hit. Then there is blissful silence when they're gone.

He and Mary exchange relieved grins.

More footsteps cutting across the floor drains both of their expressions. John stills his body and listens. It's just one man moving swiftly and with purpose around the stacked boxes. It could be one of the mobsters, but not likely. More likely it was the intruder setting off the bombs. He and Mary should really take this chance to track down the pearl.

He peers around the shelf, catching a glimpse of a flying coat tail. His heart skips a beat.

It's not so much his appearance (not that John could see the details from that distance and lightning), but the way the dark stranger moves with an all-too-familiar gait. John can't help but stare at the way the figure presses his lanky frame against each row of boxes . He knows in what way the man's arms will swing and how his head will peer around corners to catch a glimpse of possible threats. John has seen it a million times before against the backdrop of London. He rises to his feet and calls urgently, "Sherlock."

Mary's hand clamps around him like a vice grip. "John, what are you doing?"

His mind is racing when he turns and looks down at her. "It's Sherlock, I think I see Sherlock."

"That's mad!"

"Is it? We both hunt things, unbelievable things."

Before he can protest further, the tremors from a third explosion rocks them. Mary tightens her grip.

"We have to move now. The police will be here soon. If the pearl and our clue get taken in as evidence, we'll have missed our chance." She's begging now.

Or worse, they could be arrested.

When John looks back, the dark stranger is nowhere in sight. He shakes his head to clear it and follows Mary out of the storeroom.

They easily find the skinwalker still in human form, who is busy shoveling trinkets and stolen merchandise into a rolling suitcase.

"Leaving already?"

John catches the skinwalker unaware, who barely manages to snarl before the butt of John's gun robs him of consciousness. He binds the man's arms and legs, while Mary pats him down. She crowed triumphantly when she digs a rumpled envelope addressed to her. John tosses the prone body into a nearby utility closet. They won't have time to do more.

Sirens are closing in when they exit the building. They turn and run the other way, racing past burnt wreckage from the explosions. When they slip through the gap in the chain-link fence and dash toward Mary's car, his mind wanders back to the other intruder he saw. He pauses with one foot inside the car as Mary scrambles to start up the engine. His body is tense like a drawn bowstring, thrumming with nervous energy and the magnetism pulling him back in the direction that they came.

He wants to go see. He needs to double back and make sure he isn't losing his mind!

"John!" Mary's strong grip closes around his limp wrist and tugs. "Get in the car now!"

As they drive away, John's heart continues to hammer against his ribcage with a steady beat: Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock...

-x-x-x-

The arrests are splashed over the front page of every major Scottish newspaper the next day. His and Mary's break-in into the compound had apparently coincided with the largest raid and take-down of an organized crime ring in Scotland. Not only had all the illegal goods and weapons been confiscated by the police, but several major crime bosses were arrested at an Edinburgh pub that was long thought to be a front for the criminal organization. The list of charges is even more impressive: conspiracy to assassinate government officials, several degrees of murder and manslaughter, arms dealing, trafficking Class A drugs, money laundering, and so much more...

John mentally gives the Scottish police force a hearty pat on their collective back. He can't even begin to imagine the months and years they took to plan and gather evidence of this magnitude. Especially since not every police force is so lucky to have a brilliant consulting detective like Sherlock Holmes.

He frowns, almost mad at himself for thinking of Sherlock at this moment. He has managed to brush off yesterday's encounter, even before Mary tried to sit him down and convince him otherwise. He knows who he saw wasn't Sherlock. Though not a hallucination per say, Sherlock Holmes had not been in that warehouse with them. It was some other man, some law enforcement official working the raid or maybe someone working undercover. It was all in John's mind—giddy and high on adrenaline (being the junkie that he is), tricks of light, visceral reactions to the explosions (Afghanistan, IEDs, Moriarty's mad bombs, a vest of Semtex), and still (stupidly and unrepentant about) wishing that Sherlock still lives (rise from the ashes like a phoenix, still waiting for a miracle befitting of a Christ figure).

But it couldn't have been Sherlock—because Sherlock is dead and if his best friend isn't actually dead...

John shakes his head, unwilling to fully consider the ramification of what that would mean. Mary projects a worried glance over the top of her newspaper. In hopes of easing her concern, he forces a smile. Forcing himself to not contemplate the front-page news of the day, he quickly turns over to the next page of the newspaper in search of strange deaths and unexplained disappearances instead.

Ordinary crimes, after all, are not really his area anymore.


Worship at my altar

The string of pearls is almost complete after a year of traveling and hunting. By either of their best estimates, they are on the last one. With the most recent clue inviting them to the Isle of Skye, they have no choice but to follow. They're so close to the end of the chase.

The Skye BridgeIt's approaching October again, and the Scottish countryside is cool but not frigid. They're driving along the A87, crossing the Skye Bridge, with the windows rolled down and their jackets pulled tight around their bodies. The air they're breathing in is clean and crisp, with just a hint of salt from the sea inlet. Neither he nor Mary has ever traveled this far north or this far into Scotland before. Mary teased him about it at one point, John being a Watson and possessing Scottish heritage.

Their destination is Portree, where the organizers of the scavenger hunt would finally bring the game to a close.

-x-x-x-

They check into their B&B in Portree as Mr. & Mrs. James Reynolds and spend almost a week idle before anything happens. With a population of less than 2000 people, there just wasn't much in the way of supernatural for Mary and John to occupy their time with. So they end up doing the usual tourist bit in Skye: exploring local landmarks, keeping fit with regular hikes on local trails, and even visiting a whiskey distillery on a Tuesday afternoon. It almost feels like a real holiday.

The final pearl is handed to them on a silver platter—more specifically, an envelope addressed to Mary waiting on the pillow of their shared bed when they return from lunch on Friday. There are no cryptic clues this time, just a set of latitude and longitude coordinates.

Their eyes meet and their gazes hold. They're going to go and put an end to this game of cat and mouse.

About an hour outside of the town, the sky opens and rain pours down in wet sheets—washing the asphalt road along with the gray afternoon light of an overcast day on the Scottish moors. By the time they're making their way up the A855 on the eastern shores of Trotternish, the storm has subsided until it's the faintest of drizzles. John fiddles with the GPS app on Mary's iPhone; reception is starting to get a little spotty. The interior of the car has been quiet for the last 28 minutes, and neither of them is pleased with the idea that it's probably going to be sunset by the time they reach their final destination.

"So Eaglais Bhreugach?" John stumbles over the unfamiliar Gaelic syllables.

Mary rearranges her grip on the steering wheel before speaking, "Otherwise known as the False Church, a site long rumored to be connected with Satanic rituals or other pagan rites."

"It's as we suspected all along then, we're going up against a witch," he corrects himself after a moment. "Or witches plural with our luck."

They park at the lay-by specified online and waste little time gathering their hiking packs from the boot. Once they checked that their torches are flush with brand new batteries and their guns fully loaded, he and Mary head straight for the shore. John glances at his phone; it's almost three in the afternoon.

The route must already be moderately difficult at the best of times, and the recent rainstorm has not helped the matter. They make slow progress across the slippery shore, much of it comprised of large boulders with worrisome holes between. John holds Mary's elbow when he can to keep them both stable. He can't help but wonder what's more likely to get them first: the incoming tide or approaching sunset.

Before too long, he can spot the towering rock formation against the horizon in the distance. Neither of them says much until they finally stand at the foot of the massive boulder—utterly alone except for each other. While taking a few moments to catch his breath again, John studies the 40 feet structure carved by nature. It is looming and oppressive against the backdrop of the rolling sea and buffeted by the cliffs behind them. It's not hard to see why or how the "False Church" gained its reputation.



The False Church


John squeezes her hand reassuringly and the noise of comfort she makes in return is almost entirely lost in the sound of a crashing wave. They pull away from one another and start picking around the site for clues. Mary makes a beeline for the cavernous interior with her torch held aloft. John rounds the exterior of the structure to get a look from the other side. There's little disturbance in the bedrock around the False Church, meaning relatively little foot traffic in the recent past.

Mary meets him at the opening on the other side, switching off her torch. "Find anything?"

"Nothing, which is strange in and of itself."

"Yeah, whoever they are, they always leave us something to find. Why break pattern now?" Mary freezes and doubles back into the boulder. "Inside, it's an altar. I think—" Her words are suddenly cut off.

"Mary?" John calls and no one answers. "Mary?"

He drops his hiking pack, checks his gun, flicks off the safety, and plunges forward into the shadowy interior of the False Church. Mary lies in a crumpled heap on the wet ground. His blood is pounding in his ears as he kneels to take her pulse with one hand and the Browning still gripped in the other. A sudden blow to the back of his neck knocks the wind out of him, and he is unconscious by the time his face plants itself into the back folds of Mary's jacket.

-x-x-x-

When John later comes to, his mouth is dry (slight dehydration) and his head is throbbing while attempting to split itself into a million little pieces (a blow from behind). He almost wishes he's still capable of be surprised at waking to find himself tied to a chair. Adventuring with Mary has been lacking this scenario until now.

He's also alone.

That is both worrying and a relief. He makes a quick assessment of his surroundings while he strains against the knots tying his arms to the back of the chair. Each of his feet is bound to a single chair leg on each side. Judging by the wooden walls and the chill seeping into his bones, he's in not-so-well insulated hut or shack of some sort. Both his and Mary's hiking packs are lying against a far wall (definitely out of reach). The curtains are drawn across the one window in the entire room, but he can tell that hours have passed and night has fallen. He can still hear the sea and the wind howling down the coast.

The most important concerns of the moment are one, escaping from his bonds, and two, finding Mary.

John curls the fingers of his left hand tightly around the cuff of his jacket, then giving a victorious bark when he traces a familiar shape. His captors had not yet found the blade sewn into his jacket sleeve. It takes more time than he likes to find enough leverage to tear through the fabric (he hates fumbling through his gloves). Shame, he really does like this coat. He nicks his finger while repositioning the sharp edge against the thick rope binding his wrists.

The effort to free himself is slow and painstaking. After several long minutes, his hands are slick with sweat and blood from where he'd accidentally cut himself. Finally, a last burst of strength rips apart the fraying fibers around his wrist. Then he freezes, catching the sounding of approaching footsteps at the door, and poses as if he is still tied up. John grasps the knife tightly; it and the element of surprise are his best weapons now.

A man near John's age and height, with plain brown hair and eyes, stomps into the room. He is holding John's Browning and aims it at John as soon as he enters the room. But it is obvious that his captor isn't actually familiar with guns by the way he grips and handles it. John doesn't know if that's to his advantage or not in this case, because the safety is already off.

"You're going to come with me. If you try to escape, I will shoot you," the man says with the hint of an Irish lilt.

You can talk now, Johnny boy.

John shudders.

His captor crosses the room, presumably to untie him. Before the man can bend over or go around and see that John has already cut the ropes, John strikes hard and wrenches the wrist holding the Browning until the gun is dropped and a sickening crack is heard. His captor howls in pain, but John cages him into a headlock with the blade pressed against the carotid.

"Now tell me where the woman who was with me is." John growls after applying just enough pressure with the knife to barely pierce skin.

"You should worry about yourself first, mate," says the man who is looking up at the ceiling.

John follows the path of his gaze and starts, though never loosening his grip on the warlock. There is a ritual circle drawn in chalk on the ceiling above, right over where he currently is. The man underneath him reaches into his shirt and draws out a hex bag hanging on a cord. Before John could say or do anything else, the warlock barks several foreign words. Pain suddenly lances down John's spine and he bites back a curdling scream.

The warlock starts to shake him off, but he's severely underestimated John's ability to withstand pain. Because he's Captain John Hamish Watson, late of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, who had worked furiously through the first three minutes of the initial shock of a bullet wound before he had even realized he'd been shot. John tightens his grip and slashes the blade against the exposed artery before stumbling back to sit in the chair still tied to his ankles. The spelled pain immediately recedes and he is able to gather himself in time to watch the warlock gurgle his last dying breaths while face down in an ever growing pool of blood.

John's hands and sleeves are soaked from the initial spray of arterial blood. He stares at his red painted fingers and contemplates himself. No, there's no remorse—just like when he killed that cabbie or any other of the criminals he hurt in Sherlock's name or any of the creatures he hunted at Mary's side. Good, he doesn't have time to be dragged down by guilt for not-so-nice men or creatures. It's better stockpiled in bulk for those he can't save and those who deserve it (SherlockSherlockSherlock—oh God, MaryMary, please be okay).

In two swift movements, he cuts through the rope binding his legs to the chair. He retrieves his Browning from the ground, checks it over and stows it tucked against the small of his back with the safety on again. He hovers over the body for several moments and bends down to check for a pulse. He will not have this coming back to bite him unexpectedly in the arse.

John rummages through their packs, hiding a silver knife (always useful with so many things vulnerable to silver) in his left boot. There's nothing else of use; someone has even taken the meager rations they prepared for the hike.

He straightens with a torch in hand, steels himself, and slips through the door into the night. The building he emerged from was more of a shack, probably part of the property with the larger house standing some meters away. Light is shining through some of the house's windows; someone(s) inside.

John catches sight of a conscious Mary through a gap in the blinds; she looks relatively unharmed so he breathes a sigh of relief. There are two other women (witches and one of them is holding Mary's revolver) also in what appears to be the living room. A second furtive glance through the opening confirms an altar set up and another magic circle drawn around where Mary is standing.

He draws his pistol and goes around the back of the house, hoping to get in without being noticed. When the knob under his hand twists, he jumps out of the doorway. One of the witches steps out and John knocks her out with the butt of his gun. She thankfully crumbles without a sound. There is a length of rope lying nearby so he ties her arms and feet together like a trussed pig. He rips off the hex bag hanging around her neck, disassembling it and dumping the contents. Another obstacle out of their way.

Once inside, John strains his hearing to catch the hints of a conversation in the other room. With any luck, the last witch will keep busy by monologuing like an old-school Bond villain. He steps around a fallen saucepan on the kitchen floor before pressing close to the door leading back into the living room.

"You somehow thought this whole little game," Mary spits the word out with the same venom John feels for it nowadays. "Was going to endear me to your cause and that I would help you bring about the Apocalypse."

"You don't need to willingly help my cause, Mary Morstan," the witch chuckles. "As long as I have you and your friend, I will be able to break yet another seal on Lucifer's cage in my Mistress' name."

"Here's what I don't understand. Trying to hurry the end of the world sounds both suicidal and nutters. You don't really expect me to believe that there are angels out there?"

There are footsteps now; the witch is circling Mary like a vulture. "Well, you've met demons before. Why not angels? Things do not require your faith to exist, Mary. But they don't care about your sorry mortal arse. Why not join the winning side? Your mother was a powerful witch, a disgusting white witch, and even though you did not inherit her gifts, you are of viable stock. Lilith would be pleased to take you under her wing."

"Never, you can kill me right here instead," Mary growls and John can see the baleful glare that she is probably wearing on her otherwise delicate features. His muscles strain to leap into action, but neither of them is in immediate danger and the information being revealed sounds crucial.

"The once barren daughter of the path will turn and offer a loved one. You will kill your friend for us. If we must torture him first, so be it. You'll be doing him a mercy by the time we're done."

John has heard enough. The witch is going to realize that her accomplices have been gone too long. He pushes the door open and steps into the room with his pistol aimed forward, fixed on where the witch suddenly stopped mid-pace.

"Don't be so sure," he can't help but offer a small smirk.

The witch must be taking in the state of his blood-soaked attire, because her alarmed eyes flicker up to meet his gaze. "The others—"

John's lips twitch and he feels them spread into what must be an utterly ruthless smile. "Are out of the way. I suggest you put down the gun before I'm forced to shoot you. Fair warning, yeah? Cuz I'm a damn good shot."

She turns and aims her nicked gun at Mary. John fires and hits her right shoulder without further hesitation. The witch screams and drops to the ground, crimson slowly seeping across her arm and torso. John closes the distance and kicks the discarded revolver out of reach.

"Are you okay, Mary?" he asks while breaking lines of the magic circle under his heel.

Mary shudders with relief and steps out of the broken circle. As she moves though, she drags her feet, smudging more of the chalk lines with the heavy tread of her hiking boots. Her stride is completely confident when she approaches the altar and throws everything to the floor with one fierce sweep of her arm. She turns back on the witch writhing in pain. "Let's see how you call your precious demon mistress now," Mary sneers.

The witch surges suddenly to her feet with a ceremonial dagger glinting dangerously between her fingers. She lunges at Mary and sprinkles drops of blood onto the carpet as she moves. John jumps between her and Mary. The dagger slashes through his jacket and slices across his raised forearm.

"John!" Mary pushes him out of the way and aims.

The shot rings out through the house with all the force of a sonic boom. A bullet wound blossoms between the witch's dead eyes. It's a perfect kill shot and John feels ridiculously (and so very, very inappropriately) proud of Mary.

"That's for Will," she issues a dry sob and drops to her knee before burying her face in her palms.


Fight and flight

They don't get anything out of the witch John knocked out. By the time they go to check on her, she's already dead. Judging by the dried vomit gathered at the corner of her mouth, she had committed suicide most likely through self-administered poison. The addition of another dead body both adds and solves problems at the same time. On one hand, it means no one's going to be coming after Mary again anytime soon or a living witness to identify him and Mary to the police.

On the other though, that also means they now have three bodies to deal with...

Once again thankful that he always carries a first aid kit, he has managed to clean and bandage the cut on his arm without difficulty (don't need to leave even more DNA evidence lying around). His checkup of Mary reveals her to be uninjured (great news as the last thing he wants to do at this moment is to monitor concussions).

John is pacing back and forth in the kitchen, cursing himself for not having paid more attention to some of Sherlock's ranting. He really had hoped he'd never need to call upon Sherlockian methods (well, theories really; they're only theory without practical application first) for body disposal.

At least he and Mary are still wearing gloves—a necessary precaution practiced by most hunters. They're not going to be leaving fingerprints behind. The house is clearly abandoned by its previous owner, fallen into complete disrepair before the coven moved in and started doing their rituals here. And John had not seen any other residence in sight when he was outside—just the cliff, the sea, and the moors. So it can be days or even months before the bodies are discovered.

He glances over to Mary, who hasn't moved or spoken since she planted herself in a seat at the dingy kitchen table. He does a double take. Her hands are trembling.

John kneels down by her chair and rests a hand softly on her knee. "Mary, are you okay?"

Her entire body jumps at his touch. A thin sheen of sweat has broken over her pale white face and he can see the fluttering of her rapid pulse in her throat. When he realizes she's staring vacantly at the spots of blood dotting his glove and sleeve, he quickly withdraws his hand from her knee.

"Mary, I think you're in shock."

She nods stiffly. "Probably. That's what usually happens after you shoot a person, shock, right? Oh God, John, I actually killed someone, a human being—not something, but a sodding human being! I know they wanted to hurt us, kill you, but... I shouldn't feel bad, I don't really, I think I may even feel good for avenging Will. But my hands won't stop shaking and my head hurts. All I can think about is how I just killed another person! I'm a murderer now!"

And that's the crux of their problem. The witches, though not-good in any definition and on the side of demons, had been utterly human. Unlike everything else he and Mary had hunted before—unlike the multitude of spirits and creatures that dissolve into nothing at the end—these humans leave behind utterly human lives from which they may be missed and tangible corpses that can be studied, scrutinized, and combed over for evidence.

John isn't going to let Mary take the fall for doing what had been necessary—for saving their lives.

He grips her gloved hands and steadies them. "You're in shock, you'll be okay. I'm sorry, Mary. I should have killed her right when I first came in. You shouldn't be the one with blood on the hands. I won't say that you did the right thing, because I don't know if it was. But you do need to know that you did what was necessary and that's just as important."

Her blue eyes are bright and teary. "How do you do this, John?"

How do you live with this?

"Save the guilt and remorse for better men and women, save it for those that actually deserve it, yeah?"

She squeezes her eyes shut and chokes back a sob.

He helps her onto her feet. "Come on, Mary. I know you're strong, be strong. We still have work to do. Then we can go home."

She swallows and stills for several breaths. When her eyes snaps open again, some of the old fire has returned, even if just a bit subdued. She nods and says in a tight voice, "I'm ready to go home."

It takes them several hours to drag all three bodies out into the moors and to bury them about 10 meters away from the house (John turns his back while Mary takes several moments to mutter a prayer over their shallow graves). It takes the two of them just as long to find their way back to the car. The sun starts peeking over the horizon while they pack their hiking packs into the back.

In the light of dawn, he finally gets a good look at the two of them and grimaces at the sight. Mary is drenched in sweat, covered in dirt and grass stains, and generally the picture of death warmed over. John imagines he doesn't look any better, especially with the addition of dried blood that has starched the fabric stiff. He plucks the keys out of her trembling hands and commands her to get some rest in the passenger's seat. She doesn't argue with him.

Inside the car, he discards his stained jacket and gloves, throwing them at the foot of the back seat. Mary curls up against the window with her face turned away, looking twice as small as before. John chews on his lower lips and struggles to find something to say. His heart plummets when he realizes there's nothing for him to say or fix.

-x-x-x-

Except for the quick stop for petrol, coffee, and a lukewarm and pre-packaged breakfast that they each end up picking at, they drive for hours without stopping and in complete silence. Mary is still pale and distracted, her eyes often glazed and distant. But she sleeps most of the way, and John is relieved for small miracles.

Four and a half hours later, he's forced to stop when they reach Glasgow. He needs sleep and doesn't fancy dying in a reckless automobile accident after escaping a coven of murderous witches. Mary will feel better after resting in a real bed too.

He manages to procure a room with two beds, as he's not keen on letting her out of his sight any time soon and she doesn't appear to appreciate physical intimacy at the moment. He tucks her into one of the beds with a heave and a sigh. She continues not to speak, but the lingering touch on his elbow when he tries to pull away says enough.

Thank you.

The curtains are drawn over the window and the lights are switched off. After a moment's consideration, he sheds every article of clothing except for his pants before climbing into the other bed. Despite his exhaustion, John doesn't fall to sleep right away. It's almost 1 in the afternoon and the sound of daytime traffic is difficult to block out. He stares up at ceiling and waits for his mind to quiet. Turning his head, he is greeted by the sight of Mary's back and her blond hair spread over the pillow like waves of gold.

He hopes she'll be okay. Taking another person's life is never easy—shouldn't be easy.

There are so many things he wants to ask her too. He knows he'd only overheard parts of a much larger conversation between Mary and the witch.

No, those are all things he can worry about tomorrow. In the morning, they can shower, eat a full meal, and discuss where to go from here. London, probably. It's just another six hour drive from Glasgow. Yeah, they can be back in London by tomorrow evening. John has to admit the thought is more tempting than he expected. Even after a year away from the city, John cannot seem to escape its gravity completely.

He once told Mike Stamford that he couldn't imagine being anywhere else. But the shadow of Sherlock's demise had cast a dark shadow over London.

Yeah, he can go back to London for a while. He should go see Sherlock again.

-x-x-x-

They don't talk about what happened in Skye until they're safely back within the walls of Mary's home. Not until they are miles and miles away from the small house on the moors and its horrors. What Mary does recount for him makes little sense: Lucifer's cage, breaking seals, and ushering in the end of days.

It certainly doesn't sound good.

But they don't find anything concrete in their initial research frenzy after arriving back in London. After throwing out a few line of inquiries with other hunters and the rest of the network, they are still at a loss as to what happened. But someone has been predicting the end of the world since its beginning, so he and Mary try to live their lives in the meanwhile—with one ear constantly against the ground.

What Mary does resist talking about is her experience shooting the witch in Skye and the witches' involvement in her fiancé's death. She also refuses to leave the house until absolutely necessary. Any further attempt on John's part to broach the subject in conversation is quickly shut down by Mary. On one spectacular occasion in which they had their first proper row, she smashed a mug on the kitchen floor and walked out of the house for several hours. So John stops trying to bring that up, just like how he doesn't mention how she's been losing nights to insomnia and pacing in her room.

In contrast, John can't help but feel like a caged animal. He's unused to sleeping in the same bed for more than a week at a time. He finds himself disconcerted to wake and see a familiar ceiling overhead. The routine they shared on the road becomes grating, and there are days when he cannot stand to be in Mary's home without the mad frenzy of adrenaline to feed him. He wonders if this is what it felt like for Sherlock when the lull between cases grew too long.

He's stuck in some hellish limbo in Harrow.

They quickly grow distant from one another in that first month back in London. They stop hunting after the second week back. Mary spends her time locked in her bedroom or study, and John takes day-long excursions to central London with no real destination or goal in mind. There are days when they don't see each other at all and John wonders if he should be making the decision to move out.

Then one day, Mary announces that she's looking for work as a substitute teacher. For a moment, John feels the insane urge to argue with her decision (God, it's her life, what is he thinking?). Then any word he might have said dies in his throat when he catches sight of the bracelet around her right wrist—the string of pearls that they bled for over the course of the last year.

"John, I want to thank you for everything that you've done. You have no idea what your support has meant to me." She fiddles openly with her bracelet now that she has his attention. "I know these last weeks haven't been easy for either of us."

Slumping back into his seat, John scrubs the back of his neck as the last of his irritation recently building dissipates. "We've had this conversation before Mary. You've done just as much for me. I—" he licks his lips. "I was barely living before you came along."

"I can't keep doing this."

John has suspected so over the last few weeks.

They're finally ready to address the crux of their problem.

Mary doesn't want to live this life, at least not full-time. At least not right now. The last year has taken a toll on her mentally and emotionally, even if she (brilliant and resilient Mary) tries to hide it. She wants to go back to teaching and finding her life's joy in children. He knows she will never abandon him if he just asks, but John doesn't dare begrudge her that. She wants him to stay in London—in South Harrow; he can tell.

That's where they come to an impasse.

But John isn't ready to leave this life behind either. Not while he can still run and chase and hunt. Because if he stops for too long, he might remember being left behind.

They will remain friends and allies, brother-and-sister-in-arms (because once a hunter, always a hunter). But she deserves to be happy. She deserves to know if she will ever find love again like that with her Will.

For John, there was only one consulting detective in all the world—and he was no longer.

She sees that (patient, wonderful, loving Mary always knows). Instead of asking him to stay, she gifts him with her father's car, the vast majority of her weapons arsenal, and the guest bedroom that he will always be welcomed to use between jobs.

They will go their separate ways for now. But John knows it will only be a matter of time between he once again finds his way back to London, his mentor, and Sherlock's grave. He cannot forever escape the city's gravity anymore than he could Sherlock's.


Go back to the start

Life on the road—alone and without Mary's company—is blanketed with long stretches of silence. Sometimes it is contemplative, peaceful even, but other times completely maddening. When he can't take it any longer, he pulls the skull (which he had never been able to stow away in storage with the rest of his belongings) out of the glove compartment and engages in rather involved but one-sided conversations with it.

Then there are the days when he fills the car interior with nothing but the music of violin concertos. Mary helped burn the CDs for him before he left; he suspects she knows exactly why and thanks her for not commenting. John's still rubbish at identifying the actual songs, and he doesn't know Paganini from Vivaldi.

Sometimes he wants to give himself odd glances.

After almost four weeks of wandering aimlessly and three false positives, Mary rings him with a potential job in Newcastle. He would have kissed her had they not been so far apart. Her lead is solid. In just two days, John manages to track the redcap that had the police department scrambling to solve a series of bloody murders taking place over the last month.

He jokingly refers to her as "dispatch" in the wake of the case. It sticks and their working relationship changes accordingly.

Mary uses her extensive network of contacts to help find leads. And sometimes she'll get calls from old family acquaintances or friends with jobs of their own. John keeps hunting and Mary goes back to her life, all while still lending him support and mentoring him in her spare time. It works for them, because it gives them what they each need without cutting out the other from their life.

Unlike Sherlock, she always gave him the full story and always made the risks clear ahead of time. She may even fuss too much for John's taste. She prioritizes the workload based on urgency and prior first-hand experience. He is content, on the most part, to get his "marching orders" from Mary with absolute faith that she will not put him at unnecessary risk.

But John is (still) an idiot sometimes (don't look like that, almost everyone is) and he longs to fling himself recklessly into the embrace of the unknown.

-x-x-x-

Three weeks after leaving Mary in London, he acquires a second mobile. It's nothing too fancy. All he really needs is a burner phone capable of taking a few low-quality photos and sending the occasional text. It becomes his de facto number—the one that he gives to other hunters and those that he's helped along the way. He fills the address book with new contacts and acquaintances.

Unless he is in the middle of a job, this is the number that he answers without fail.

He sometimes thinks about retiring his old mobile number. Harry calls him about once a month at the old number. John doesn't always pick up. She used to call once a week after Sherlock's death. But in the months of traveling with Mary, the phone calls had tapered off due to John's unwillingness to speak to her. Lestrade still texts him from time to time with small updates from London and asking how John's faring. John tries to take a few moments when he can to compose a response, usually accompanied by a photo from wherever he's passing through at the moment.

John still likes Lestrade after all. It doesn't seem fair to worry the detective any further.

But tenacious reporters and overzealous Sherlock Holmes fans do manage to ring him occasionally. These are aggravating at best and inevitably send any good mood into a ditch for the rest of the day.

One would think that after one and a half years, they'd very well learn to leave John alone.

He really shouldn't bother with the expense of two mobiles... And there are a lot of excuses that he makes to himself every time he decides against dropping the old one: that he needs the data plan for emergency internet access; that he doesn't want to saddle some poor sod with the harassment when the number gets put back into rotation; or that he needs this divide between his personal life and hunting (and who is he kidding with that? Hunting is all his life is anymore).

Yes, there are lots of reasons to hold onto his London number. John would just keep telling himself that none of them have anything to do with Sherlock himself.

-x-x-x-

Molly sent him an invitation—an invitation to a Christmas party she's throwing at her flat.

Upon initially receiving the email, John ends up staring at the screen for almost fifteen minutes straight. He goes back to the email again and again over the course of the next few days. After a promising lead in Canterbury turns out to be a dead end (no actual supernatural menace, just a group of very imaginative and cruel teenagers), he fires a text off to Mary before heading toward London.

TO: Mary Morstan
10:52 AM, December 20
Do you have any plans for Friday?

Before he knocks on Molly's door that Friday night, Mary grabs his hand and gives it a little squeeze. Lestrade is the one to answer the door and let them in with a drink on one hand.

"John!" The detective exclaims; his face flushed with the warm glow of alcohol. "Come in!"

The flat is warm and decked in holiday decorations. The Christmas tree standing in the corner of the room is strung up with lines of fairy lights and ornaments. About a dozen other people are milling about, laughing and chatting as they moved between the kitchen and the living room for food and beverage. He helps Mary out of her coat and Lestrade directs him to deposit their belonging in Molly bedroom acting as the night's impromptu coat room.

"Greg, this is Mary Morstan. Mary, this is Detective In—Sergeant Lestrade."

"Call me Greg." Lestrade extends a hand to her, which she takes gingerly but shakes firmly.

"You came, John!" Molly cries as she makes a beeline toward them. She stops short after catching sight of Mary, and her smile falters for a second. "You brought a friend."

Lestrade takes the opportunity to swan off somewhere, probably to refill his drink. It leaves John feeling a bit resentful as he becomes aware of the sudden tension between Molly and Mary.

John shakes his head instead. "Yeah, I hope you don't mind."

"Of course not, welcome, um—" Molly's obviously struggling as she realizes she doesn't know Mary's name.

"Molly Hooper, Mary Morstan," he gestured between the two women as a brief introduction.

Molly's attention flits sharply between John and the other woman. "Mary? The same Mary you've been traveling with?"

Right, he might have mentioned Mary when he ran into Molly at Tesco all those months ago. He is surprised that Molly still remembers though. He nods.

But before he can figure out why Molly's acting so strange in regards to Mary, John is pulled away by Mike Stamford to converse with a few other doctors from Bart's. Mary simply pats him softly on the cheek and tells him to go play with the boys as she can take care of herself. The first few times he glances across the room to check on Mary (he still hasn't broken the need to be constantly aware of where she is; useful on the job but a bit too much otherwise), she and Molly are attempting to have what seems like very silted conversation.

John enjoys seeing Mike again (after all this time, there are finally moments when he can look at the other man and not think about how he introduced John and Sherlock to one another), but he quickly bores of conversing with the other doctors at the party. He hasn't practiced medicine in almost a year, other than the necessary first aid needed to patch up himself and Mary.

When he finally gets away from the pow-wow of medical persons, Mary is sitting with Lestrade on the couch and they're sharing a laugh.

"Sorry for abandoning you like that," John apologizes as he sidles up against her on the arm of the couch.

She rolls her eyes. "I'm a big girl, John. No need to fret."

"Your date's a keeper." Lestrade gives a toothy grin over the rim of his glass.

John snaps automatically and without thinking. "I'm not his date."

They both stare at him for almost a minute before John realizes exactly what he said. He almost wants to run and lock himself in a room somewhere until the urge to vomit passes. But that feels both childish and stupid. Instead, John rubs the back of his neck nervously and offers them a weak smile, "Sorry, force of habit."

They take pity on him and let the slip slide without further comment.

The next hour passes amiably, which comes as a complete surprise to John. Before coming, he was half convinced that the entire affair would be daunting. It's...nice to know he hasn't forgotten how to connect with ordinary people, that he hasn't totally lost touch with the rest of the world. He thinks Mary understands too as she smiles softly and meets his gaze.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he can spot Molly...just hovering constantly in the background. She spends most of her time glued to her mobile phone while making distracted conversations with her party guests. She must be distracted, because John can continuously feel the weight of her gaze and she levers turns away fast enough to avoid meeting his eyes when he does look at her. She alternates between texting, waiting for her phone to buzz, and jumping when it finally does so.

After a few drinks, John gathers the courage to talk to Molly again. He maneuvers around a couple coming out of the kitchen to approach the pathologist standing by the Christmas tree. Her back is turned to the rest of the room and she's hunched over her phone again, while her fingers fly over the touchscreen.

John reaches out to touch her elbow, and she jumps and shoves her phone behind her back—but not before he catches what appears to be a photo of him and Mary at the party.

"Oh! John!"

"Molly, is everything alright? You've been kind of distracted all night?"

She fidgets and lowers her gaze to her shoes.

"Molly?"

Suddenly, her head shoots back up to look him straight in the eye. "Are you happy?" She blurts out as her eyes dart back and forth while studying his face.

John blinks, not sure of what to say at first. Happy? It had been a long while since he thought of himself as being happy—months, though it felt like years at times. What is happy? Happy was running across rooftops, flying tackles onto the backs of fleeing suspects, inappropriate giggling at inappropriate times in inappropriate places, Chinese at 2AM, late-night conversations about James Bond and Star Wars, and everything else... What is happiness now? Is his happiness now joking about mediocre food from petrol stations, stargazing on the car bonnet, dodging around police presence, or celebrating small victories with wine? But he doesn't have that either. Not while Mary remains in London and he keeps running.

He blinks again before answering honestly, "I don't know."

"Does she make you happy?" Her eyes are narrowing and probing with all the mental strength she can seem to muster.

He straightens as a chill settles in the base of his spine, "That's really none of your business, Molly. Thank you for the invitation, but Mary and I have to get going. We have plans in the morning."

It's a blatant lie.

At the door, Lestrade claps him across the back and orders him to stay in touch. John shouldn't promise to, but he does so anyway. He doesn't realize that he's been crowded under the mistletoe with Mary until too late. He rolls his eyes at the sight of Lestrade's wolfish grin and can't bring himself to be annoyed with the detective. Before John can ask Mary, she's grabbed onto the back of his neck and is dragging him forward to her lips. The kiss lasts just as bit longer than it really needed to be, but John doesn't protest and revels in the warmth of the body pressed against his.

As he pulls away, John spots Molly still hanging in the background and clutching her phone until her knuckles are startlingly white. Then her phone rings out loud, and Molly nearly drops the device. One look at the caller on the screen sends her fleeing into her bedroom.

-x-x-x-

By March, John has been consistently on the road for almost three months. Winter has melted and thawed, paving the way for spring to bloom forth. With the vernal equinox, hunting patterns in Britain also change. Demons and possession are still as much of a problem as any other time of the year, but the fae kind decided long ago that this was "the season" to pop over from the dimension or realm next door to abduct unsuspecting humans for their games and whims.

Other than the changeling abductions last year, Mary had steered them clear of encounters with the fair folk last year. But John's on his own now and he needs to learn. During his last case looking into the disappearance of a bus full of schoolchildren, she put him in contact with an old family friend. It had never occurred to John before than that there could be specialists; all the other hunters he had meet up to that point had been jacks-of-all-trades.

Boy is he grateful to have Tim O'Mallery's help and guidance.

Fairies call for an entirely different skill set that most hunters don't bother cultivating: a quicksilver mind and the gift of Gab (Tim has also privately admitted to having leprechaun blood in his family, which probably also helps a great deal). It's hard enough to kill fairies and stupidly dangerous to try trapping them. The best methods are also the most difficult: tricking them or negotiating with them.

Watching Tim work, John couldn't help but think of Sherlock. His former flatmate could probably run mental circles around almost any fae. He could have made an excellent fairy negotiator. John had to smother the laughter then, but did so barely in time and still managed to offend the sidhe they're talking to.

Thankfully, John managed to more than make up for his faux pas when his quick instincts saves them both from being ensnared in the vengeful sidhe's binding circle. Tim is exceedingly grateful ("Don't fancy being bound in servitude to a sidhe Court for the rest of eternity") and invites John to consult with him on a few more jobs. And John, never one to turn down an opportunity to learn more, readily agrees.

So John, on his way to meet up with Tim to talk to some elves (though Tim assured him they were more Keebler than Tolkein), is just 15 kilometers outside of Cambridge when the car starts issuing all sorts of noise from under the bonnet. Ten kilometers later, he is forced to pull over into the emergency lane before the engine gives out. His attempts to rev the engine produces a few sputters and then finally nothing. He pops the bonnet and is immediately assaulted by a cloud of hot steam and smoke.

With a heavy sigh, he pulls his mobile and rings for a tow truck.

"I'm afraid your transmission's shot, mate." The mechanic offered a small sympathetic shrug.

John only groans when he's told how much repairs will cost. John is already painfully close to broke having used up much of his pension for that month. He momentarily contemplates asking Mary for a loan, but quickly discards the idea. He knows for a fact that she doesn't have that much money to throw around either. Their previous travels depleted each of their personal funds.

Hunting doesn't pay the bills—he didn't get paid at all for his work. It's no wonder most hunters worked at least part-time jobs. The rest gambled, cheated, hustled, and conned away their money problems. John prefers not to have to join the ranks of the latter type.

It doesn't feel right not to get the car repaired either. The Corsa doesn't belong to him.

He flicks open his wallet to stare petulantly at his bank card. Maybe he should apply for a credit card, no matter how much he dislikes the notion being in debt. It's only when he plucks the bank card out of the holder that he's reminded of his second bank card tucked behind the first. The one he had been issued after opening a second account where he promptly transferred the sum of Sherlock's inheritance to him and forgot about it.

In reality, John does technically have more than enough to pay for repairs. In fact, he has more than enough to continue hunting and living comfortably for another few years without working. He hesitates though...

Then he remembers that Tim is waiting for him. And there's a woman waiting for John to bring back her girlfriend—the love of her life. There are people relying on him to get the job done, and John has never let anyone down if he had anything to say about it.

John tries to still his hand tremors as he passes the debit card over to be charged.


Now I must live without you

London is unseasonably cool on the second anniversary of Sherlock's fall, and a sudden realization leaves John staggering and gasping for air.

Sherlock has been dead for two years; Sherlock has been dead for longer than John had actually known him in life. The gut-wrenching epiphany sends him flying out of Mary's house (she watches him go silently with expressions of pity and longing, he hates it and needs to get away from her) and into a pub in Central London (always London because that's where Sherlock thrived).

The grief that he thought he'd shuttered away in the back corner of his mind breaks through and washes the rest of the evening away in a rush of pain and liquor. The world presses in on him, insistent on trapping and reminding him. Dear God, he's not done mourning Sherlock yet. Dear God, he may never stop.

He hasn't been healing, not if that renewed and gaping hole burning in his soul is any indication. He hasn't moved on. He isn't letting go.

In his time traveling with Mary, he had simply been putting his mourning off—delaying the reality again and again. He had taken every hunt, every job as an opportunity to distract himself and postpone what he should have done to shed his grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, where had he stopped? He might have done them out of order. Does he need to start from the beginning again? Let's go back to the start:...).

How long had he been using Mary as a substitute? Why the hell did she let him do that?

The rage, now adrift with no real target, clenches his heart, his lungs, every cell in his body in a vice grip. As throwing a fit is likely to get him sectioned or arrested, he vacates the bar as the bartender and every patron around him threw him increasingly worried glances. Which is why he's now climbing over the cemetery's iron-wrought gates in an attempt to visit Sherlock's grave well after midnight. He stumbles, he trips, and he stubs his toes on unseen obstacles in the dark. But he keeps moving.

"You bastard," John snarls at the headstone lit only by the light of the moon. He doesn't bother to try and control the volume of his voice. He needs Sherlock to hear him through six feet of earth. "You fucking broke me. You put me together after Afghanistan just to break me again!"

Silence.

"All I do now is just run. I'm kidding myself if I say I'm not still chasing after you. Maybe I've always just been deluding myself, thinking I would catch up to you someday. You and that brilliant mind of yours."

He allows himself to slump against the headstone. It's hard and cool against his forehead when he leans against the engraved name. It's mad, throwing himself at Sherlock's grave like some besotted and doomed heroine in a Shakespearean tragedy. But he's too drunk to care. Too angry to give a damn about what others think.

"Why'd you leave me behind?"

The next morning, the groundskeeper finds him passed out by the grave. He lectures John on the inappropriateness of it all and how dangerous it is to fall asleep outside like he did. Mary isn't home when he returns to her house; it's a school day so she's at work. But John's skin feels two sizes too small and London is once again collapsing in around him.

He leaves her a brief note on the fridge before packing everything back into the Corsa and flees the city as if hellhounds are nipping at his heels.

-x-x-x-

Demons lie; this is doubly true when they're caught in a devil's trap.

John repeatedly firms the notion in his mind. It doesn't happen often—just often enough.

"I can give him back to you if you let me out." The eyes are always inky black (completely dark as the blackness eclipses the white of their eyes) when they try to entice him like that. Sometimes, they pucker their lips in offer of a contract.

John's no fool.

Worse yet are the ones that try to kindle the spark of hope he can't possibly afford: "He's not dead. He faked it. Sherlock Holmes is still alive. I can tell you where he is."

John hates the latter type more. His hands shake as he douses them in more holy water than necessary, voice booming when he chants.

-x-x-x-

John's birthday in July passes again with little fanfare. At this time last year, he and Mary had been too engrossed in a job involving a trickster and continually emptied blood banks to notice. They celebrated afterwards by treating themselves to a holiday weekend in Bath (cut short by the re-emergence of said trickster, but that's a story for another time).

This year, he is passing through Chelmsford (his hometown) on route to Norwich. A sudden nostalgia and the day drive him to seek out his childhood home. Some other family is living here now (the exterior has been painted white when it had been a soft blue in his youth), though no one is currently home.

He's trespassing, but it's hard to give a damn after hunting for almost two years (breaking and entering is a necessary part of every hunter's repertoire). He jumps the fence and makes a beeline for the backyard. He smiles. The giant oak tree and the tree house still stand as the yard's centerpiece.

Before he and Harry were constantly at each other's throat, they spent hours hiding in their tree house. Then Harry hit puberty and it became John's refuge from her. He is grateful for the childhood he had; it was neither traumatic nor blissful. Just utterly normal. He runs a hand down the tree trunk and smiles to himself. Now his life is utter madness and he knows he wouldn't have it any other way.

Because having met and lost Sherlock is still infinitely better than the idea of never knowing him at all.

-x-x-x-

Come August, John makes the effort to return to London for Mary's birthday. They go out to dinner at a quaint French bistro in Soho. She's doing well, looking far less haunted than months ago. John wonders if this was what she was like before Will's death. Through appetizers and waiting for their entrees, conversation stays light and comfortable. John talks about Ireland (where he was for the last month) and Mary tells him about the preparations for her new full-time position at an independent school to start in September (teaching Latin of all subjects!). In public and away from the pub, they've always tried not to bring up hunting or either of their emotional traumas.

Which is why John is caught extremely off-guard when she brings the topic out of nowhere.

"Do you love him? Are you in love with him?" she asks abruptly while swirling the Chardonnay in her wine glass. Her brow is pinched together in concentration.

They both know exactly who she's referring to.

"Sorry, it's just that I'd never asked before. I had always assumed," she drops her gaze to the table before continuing. "And you never gave any indication otherwise."

John remains frozen with his fork poised at his lips. She's looking straight at him now, studying him and trying to deduce the answer out of him. For some reason, a familiar sort of irritation rises to the surface. It's the sort of feeling he hasn't really had in a very long time. He sets the silverware back down with a clatter and disturbs the rest of the dinner setup.

"Christ, Mary, it wasn't like that. Sherlock and I never—"

She rolls her eyes before cutting in. "I know that. I know you two weren't officially together. Why are you being so defensive now? You never reacted like this before."
We're not a couple.
Yes, you are.

She's right, of course. It has been a long time since he had such an immediate and visceral reaction to assumptions about himself and Sherlock. Doubly so in regards to Mary's assumptions He's never talked to her about his feelings regarding Sherlock (irritation, purpose, joy, contentment, moremoremore until his veins are too clogged with emotions) beyond the man being his best friend and one of the most important people in John's life in recent years. It's not hard to imagine how she's filled in the blanks, not when he spent the last two years acting like a bleeding widower.

He's also never corrected her before—until now.

He finds that he's looking over his shoulders at all the other diners, but no one is paying any special attention to him. And why would they? After two years and three months, Sherlock Holmes is finally old news. He is merely an oddity preserved mainly in the annals of Internet history, and Dr. John Watson is just a footnote in Sherlock's sparse entry.

They weren't a couple, not even close.

I consider myself married to my work.


"John?" She leans in across the table to capture his attention again.

"I don't know, Mary. Does it really matter? The man's dead."

John is resigned to reality now. Sherlock is dead. Sherlock will stay dead, because John is no longer sure he's willing to pay the same prices to bring the man back as he was a year ago.

A wealth of emotion flutters across her face (pity, worry, astonishment, too many and too quick to catalog) as she tightens her grip around the stem of the wine glass. "Of course it matters! It matters a lot!"

Her impassioned outburst startles him, but all he can do is stare at her. In return, she continues to hold his gaze and searches his face for something. He doesn't know if she's found what she's looking for, but she sits back in her seat several minutes later.

They pass the rest of the meal in complete silence. But her question plagues and mocks him all night—and for the days to follow.

Do you love him? Did you love him?

Can you love him?

In the end, John has no answer. Just the sick and twisting feeling that the world—even as it continues turning—has tilted too much on its axis without the weight of Sherlock Holmes to stabilize it.


Exorcise the demons from your past

At one point, John wondered when he went from trading in life (to heal, prevent, and cure; do no harm) to trading in death (maybe he's just deluding himself; he has always bargained against death for more time and more chances). Hunting is all about death. All too often, he gets somewhere far too late for his taste or conscience. There isn't always someone to help at the end the strings of violent deaths that he traces and chases. The least he can do is prevent more from happening (for prevention is preferable to cure).

On second thought, it isn't all that much different from what he did with Sherlock.

As they say, taxes and death are the only certainties in life.

-x-x-x-

The start of autumn is heralded by a string of crop failures up and down the English countryside. Coupled with outbreaks of foot-and-mouth diseases among cattle, this year's harvest is completely wasted. Prices for certain food items skyrocket in anticipation of the produce that now needs to be imported from abroad. No one has been able to pinpoint the cause (with symptoms so disparate that scientists can't even decide if it's bacterial or viral) or origin of the failing wheat crops and the bovine disease.

Mary informs him that a number of hunters she's been in contact with are betting on something supernatural. Someone noticed that some of the farming communities exhibited demonic omens before fields died over night.

By coincidence, John was already in Kent when several acres of farm and grazing land withered like a scene from the Bible. After interviewing several affected farmers while posing as an investigator for DEFRA (2), he and Mary manage to narrow down the point of origin to an abandoned farmstead nearby.

He should have waited until the next day to make his move, given himself enough time to do recon and set additional traps. But demon activity doesn't actually distinguish between day and night, and waiting can mean it will have the chance to leave the area. John is chalking a devil's trap overhead in a promising choke point when he hears a sudden noise. He hastily completes the symbol and goes for his container of holy water.

"Are you sure this is the place, Cas? Cuz we ain't seen diddly-squat so far," someone (male, American judging by his accent) bites out in annoyance.

There are two other sets of footsteps, so three of them in total. John's pulse quickens in anticipation. He might be able to take them with good tactics—if they are human. But if they're demons... He flattens his back against a wall, mind racing as he considers the possibility of drawing all three of them under the trap he just completed. Even if he can't exorcise all of them at once, it would buy him enough time to get away and regroup. He's not stupid enough to take on three possible demons by himself without backup.

"Somebody's here," a second deep and commanding voice (also male and American) declares.

John swears he hears the rush of a million wings before a man in a beige trenchcoat suddenly appeared before him. John's training and instincts kick in immediately as he splashes the trenchcoat man with holy water. He pushes himself off the wall and past the other man (who is decidedly not screaming and clawing at the holy water drenched parts of his body). He never makes it across the room to the devil's trap as two other men step out and block his path.

The shorter of the two men aims a pistol at John's chest and barks, "Hold it right there."

John and the taller man then strike at the exact moment with the containers in each of their hand, leaving all three of them wet and drenched in the aftermath. Stunned silence fills the air between them like molasses. After another few seconds, John dares to lift one hand to wipe the water dripping from his face.

"Holy water?" asks the shorter man.

"Holy water," the taller confirms with a swift nod.

John furrows his brow together as he examines the two men, their attire, their posture, and their weapons. "You're hunters."

The shorter man lowers his gun, though his eyes are still bright with suspicion. "And you're also one."

John nods and stows away his holy water. He widens his stance and falls into parade rest before offering one hand in greeting. "John Watson, a pleasure to meet you."

The taller man steps forward (and he is fucking tall, even taller than Sherlock by a bit; John's neck is already developing a crick looking up) and shakes John's hand. "I'm Sam, and that's my brother, Dean."

Dean, the shorter brother, just nods in greeting. The trenchcoat man joins them, hovering protectively at Dean's side.

"And that's Cas," Sam points to the man with the trenchcoat.

"Good evening, John," Cas says stoically and angles his head to a side.

For some indiscernible reason, John shivers at the sound. He pushes the feeling away. "So you're also here to investigate crop failures? Aren't you a bit far from home?"

"Look, pal, we don't have time for chit-chat," Dean says brusquely. "If Famine is anything like War, things are about to get real bad—and soon."

John blinks in confusion. "Excuse me, Famine?"

There are a brief exchange of words about horsemen and demonic hierarchy, but no one offers John any in-depth explanations. There are suspicions voiced about John, which are subsequently assuaged by Cas before John can even protest. His head spins as he is swept up into the frenzy of their hunt, and John is not so prideful as to be unwilling to defer to more experienced and knowledgeable hunters. So before he can fully process the new turn of events, he finds himself alone with Sam while Dean and Cas split off to search more of the grounds.

"Shall we?" Sam inquires politely and then they set out as well.

Their sweep of the nearby perimeters unearths nothing, so they return to the easily defensive point that John had pointed out earlier. John pulled his coat tighter around his body, bracing against the early autumn chill. Sam towers over him—the American is a massive giant of man standing guard with his single-barreled shotgun. John shakes his head and chuckles to himself. Americans and their shotguns.

"Something up?" Sam asks.

"Nothing, just thinking about what a strange turn my life has taken," John replies with a wry smile.

John offers the other man the seat next to him on the bench. After several moments of internal consideration, Sam sits down and rests the butt of his gun against the dirt ground. John does another assessment of their surroundings, looking for any signs of movement or noise. So far, still nothing. The waiting is always the worst part of working a case, whether it had been with Sherlock or in his current occupation.

"How long have you and your brother been doing this? And Cas?"

"Dean and I have known about this our whole lives, our dad raised us in it. You can say it's the family business," there are traces of old bitterness in Sam's voice as he speaks. "Cas is kinda a recent addition to the team. I'm guessing you haven't been hunting for long then."

"Almost two years now."

It's difficult to imagine where he would be now if he hadn't met Mary.

"Do you mind if I ask why you started?"

In response, John simply supplies, "My best friend died." He had always found it best not to elaborate too much (and it's not really a lie because if Sherlock had lived, John is almost sure he would not be here). Because it offends some hunters when they find out John has not lost someone like they had—like losing a loved one to the supernatural is a necessary rite of passage.

Sam is staring at him. His hazel eyes are flickering back and forth over the lines of John's face. Recognition suddenly dawns on Sam's youthful face (God, how old is this kid to be running around doing this?). "Wait, you're Doctor John Watson, the blogger."

John suppresses the urge to groan. It's not often that he's recognized while on the job, but it's always awkward when it happens. As time passed in the years since Sherlock's death, it happened less. "That's me." John finally sighs in defeat. "I reckon you've read the blog then."

Sam nods enthusiastically. "Can't think about hunting all the time," he gains a distant look in his eyes before shaking it off. "So this is what you've been doing since Sherlock—"

People—well, the ones trying to be considerate anyway—tend to cut themselves off just when they're about to talk about Sherlock's suicide. They gave him that frantic look, as if John was going to shatter apart at the mere abortive thought not yet given word. (In those early months after Sherlock, John had felt like he would at any mention of his best friend. But now? He feels only annoyance and some sadness, because John Watson is no wilting flower, is becoming a seasoned hunter).

John is saved from having to ward off an awkward conversation about Sherlock when Dean's roar of "SAM!" carries across the field.

The next fifteen minutes is a death-defying exercise with a dozen human cultists and an old Irish harvest god in flesh incarnate. Regrettably, John ends up shooting two of the cultists to prevent Dean from getting his head sliced off. He's not the only one to discharge his firearm though. The adrenaline rush runs John higher than ever before. He's never faced down a proper god of any sort before. Cas had been dispatched to release some prisoners locked away in a nearby cellar. Sam and Dean move together with practiced ease, trading blows and quips with one another. In the moments between felling one cultist after another, John is insanely envious of their partnership.

John wrestles another cultist to the ground, wondering how many more they will have to take on. Somewhere behind him, Dean is complaining loudly about "everyone's fruity accent." Sam lunges at the god, Crom Cruach, with a wooden stake, but is thrown back by an unseen force. The stake skitters across the water-damaged floorboard. When Dean dives forward to grab it, another wave of the god's hand sends it spinning into the darkness unseen. So John, Dean, and Sam are pressed hard into the ground by Crom Cruach's invisible hand. John fires a shot into the god's chest, knowing full well it will do little, before his Browning is wrenched away.

"Don't you three look delicious?" Crom Cruach traces a finger across his lower lip before settling his sight on Dean. "Have to fatten myself up for the long winter ahead. I think I'll start with the first-born. They're my favorite."

"Think again." Cas materializes out of thin air behind the god and thrusts a thin gladius into Crom Cruach's throat. Another twist of the blade sends a visible arc of lightning flashing through the night air, and the god burns up in ashes.

The pressure on John's back lifts and he can breathe again. The remaining conscious cultists take one look at their defeated god and flee. Cas and the others make no move to pursue them, so John assumes they're finished.

"Well, that sucked, fucking pagan gods always gotta be such dicks." Dean grouses as he dusts off his leather jacket.

John can't help the wide grin cracking across his face. "Still grateful for all your help. Not sure I would have been able to handle that one by myself." He turns his attention to Cas. "What did you use anyway? And where can I get one?"

Cas opens his mouth to speak, but is immediately interrupted by Dean. "Trust me, man, it is not worth dealing with the shipping costs."

There are bodies to be burned and buried. Even with the four of them, it takes them two hours. They work with few patches of silences during the lull in conversation. Occasionally, Dean wistful longs for a beer or makes some jab at the British. Sam frequently apologizes for his brother (God, John used to have to do that all the time for Sherlock too), and Cas would profess to not understanding some reference (the obtuseness makes John's chest ache because the scenario feels so unbearably familiar). But John doesn't take offense, replies with good humor, and basks in their company (he's been on the road completely by himself for a month now).

Now standing by the Corsa, John asks the three Americans as he gestures at the long stretch of dirt road, "Are you sure you don't need a lift?"

"Thanks, but we got a few things to take care of first." Dean's smile is guarded, so John decides not to push the subject.

Cas steps up until he is almost nose to nose with John. John starts (you would think after having lived with Sherlock and his complete disregard of personal space, he'd be used to this sort of thing by now), but something in the other man's blue eyes stop him from drawing back. He belatedly realizes that Cas is trying to study him—read him.

"Have faith, John."

John blinks and Cas has already pulled away, back turned and walking off in the other direction.

"It was nice meeting you, Doctor Watson," Sam clasps John's hand (the grip is warm and well-callused). "I hope you don't mind me saying, but I don't think Sherlock was a fraud."

Despite the prolonged campaign online on Sherlock's behalf, John rarely hears anyone say it in real life. John feels inexplicably grateful. "Thank you."

"Yeah, thanks for the backup. It got a little sticky there for a while. Good to know the Brits got some hunters taking care of business over here." Dean takes John's hand this time, so John hopes he's made a good impression.

He looks at the three of them. Sam and Dean seem so young, but their battle hardened demeanor is like that of many career soldiers John has known and fought aside. By comparison, Cas is stoic. But they all have the same tinge of burgeoning desperation lurking just beneath the surface. John wonders what they've seen and done to get to this point.

He wishes there's something more he can do to help them.

"Take care of yourselves." After a moment, John adds, "Please."

He'd hate to see more good men (they're just boys, some part of John screams) die for nothing.

John waves to them when the two brothers back away from the car to join Cas. He turns the key in the ignition and wonders if he should be making the long trip back to London. When he glances in the reflection of the rear-view mirror he's adjusting, all three American have already vanished from sight.

-x-x-x-

On the Thursday of the first week of October, his London phone starts ringing nonstop. The calls are coming from unfamiliar numbers and John is hot on the heel of a shifter. After the fourth call in an hour, he switches the device off and resumes his chase. By the end of the night, he and the shapeshifter (who hasn't actually hurt or killed anyone, well, there's a first time for everything) reach an understanding, allowing them to part ways unscathed. John drops into his bed back at the hotel and falls asleep as soon as he hits the mattress.

It's the copy of the newspaper left at his door that finally breaks the news.

Moriarty revealed as greatest criminal mastermind in generations! screams the front-page headline. John almost drops the paper when he first saw it. He closes his eyes and counts backwards from ten. Nope, the headline remains unchanged. He pinches himself hard as an added measure.

He's not dreaming.

He greedily absorbs the three-page article on James Moriarty's criminal history and activities. The information is apparently coming out of a joint Interpol and MI5 investigation finally concluding after five years. The sheer amount of evidence uncovered is mind-boggling. Most of the article focuses on Moriarty and then his fabrication of the Richard Brook persona, finally leading into a two paragraph summary of Sherlock's suicide. It was short, almost a footnote or afterthought, but Sherlock Holmes is posthumously absolved of all suspicions.

He fumbles for his London phone and turns it back on. Twenty-four new voice messages and half a dozen texts are waiting for him.

FROM: Gregory Lestrade
9:16 PM, October 5
Took them long enough! Sherlock still deserves better. Stay in touch, John.
-Greg

FROM: Harry Watson
9:22 PM, October 5
Answer your damn phone, Johnny!

FROM: Molly Hooper
9:24 PM, October 5
Have you heard the news about Sherlock yet? Where are you?
<3 Molly

FROM: Harry Watson
9:27 PM, October 5
I hope you're happy. This is what you wanted, right?

FROM: Mike Stamford
10:01 PM, October 5
Go online and look at the front page of BBC news. Now!

FROM: Bill Murray
8:48 AM, October 6
Always believed in you and your detective, mate. I imagine someone's going to fry over this. Stay strong.


The voice messages are less encouraging. Three are from Harry, twenty are from reporters wanting him to comment on the news or trying to get an exclusive with him (all of which he deletes without a second thought), and the last is an amusing threat from a stalwart Rich Brook defender for being a part of a mass government conspiracy (this he saves to share with Mary).

He throws his phone down just as it starts ringing (another unfamiliar number) and reaches for his laptop. Sure enough, the expose on Moriarty's criminal empire is the top news of the day. The articles (Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, etc.) all follow a similar to the one John just read in the newspaper—with heavy focus on the investigation and little mention of Sherlock. But thanks to Mary (who had emailed him compilation of links to reactions on blogs and other social networks), he finds that people outside of the mainstream media are far more interested in tragic drama that tied Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty together.

His other phone buzzes.

FROM: Mary Morstan
8:09 AM, October 6
Check your blog.

The hit counter is still broken, stuck at 1895. But the number of comments on his last ever blog entry has soared into the hundreds. Scrolling down the page, he sees that the comment count on his older entries (namely A Study in Pink and The Great Game) has similarly ballooned. John is far too overwhelmed to start reading through the new comments. After reading through some of the links Mary sent, it quickly becomes obvious where the traffic to his blog is coming from. Because everyone is linking to it as a testimony to Sherlock Holmes' genius.

How could anyone think he was a fake? The Internet collectively bemoans.

Righteous fury simmers in the pit of his stomach. Because everyone is blind. Because, as Sherlock would say, the world is full of idiots.

His laptop joins his London phone at the foot of the bed and he reaches for his other mobile. It's a Saturday, so he can call Mary without worrying about her day job. She answers on the second ring.

"John, how are you?" is the first thing she says.

"Fine," he mutters. "Just fine."

"Do you want to—"

"No, Mary, I don't want to talk about that. Thank you for the links though. I just wanted to let you know that I closed the case with the shifter, but we should keep an eye on the area in case the same MO pops up later."

She sighs and doesn't push him. They spend the next half an hour reviewing other potential leads instead. John spends the rest of the day alone and working through fits of mania. He'd read dozens of online articles and commentaries in a row before forcing himself to walk away from the computer; lest he be tempted to destroy it.

At ten that night, his London phone rings. It's from a number that he doesn't recognize. He lets it go to voicemail. But whoever it is doesn't bother to leave a message.

Then the same number rings him the next night. John ignores it again. No voicemail this time either.

Twice might be a coincidence. But when it happens for the third time in a row the night after that (always precisely at 10PM), something fishy is going on.

John answers on the fourth night. "Hello?"

Complete silence except for the sound of his own breathing feeding back.

"Who is this?"

No answer still. John's ire grows.

"Whoever this is, stop harassing me. I don't have any comment to give about Sherlock Holmes, so leave me the bloody hell alone."

He viciously jabs the end call button. No one calls the next night after his outburst. Or the night after that.

Come Friday morning, John is packing his belongings for the next possible case in St. Ives. He zips up his bag and settles on the bed to clean his Browning. The routine of field stripping his favorite weapon soothes John's nerve. He had fallen into a familiar flow state that he almost misses what is being said by the news playing on the telly in the background.

"...Sebastian Moran was arrested last night on charges of attempted murder. Police sources have revealed Sebastian Moran's connection with the late James Moriarty; going so far as to identity him as Moriarty's once right-hand man. The arrest was once again headed by the same joint task-force that released the results of its five-year long investigation last week. Moran's arrest is being hailed as the end of Moriarty's criminal legacy..."

John snaps his gaze to the telly in time to see the recorded footage of a muscular blond man being shoved into the back of a police car. Sebastian Moran's face was a collage of reddening bruises, as if he had just gone several rounds with a meat tenderizer. His lip is split and one eye almost swollen shut. Besides police officers crowding the scene, there are also scores of men in black suits which John can only assume are MI5 agents. As the camera pans over to focus on Moran in the car, the shot pans over a stretch of street and buildings that John instantly recognizes.

Moran had been arrested on Baker Street.

Checking the internet quickly confirms John's suspicion. Sources are citing shots having been fired in the direction of 221B Baker Street. Curiously enough though, there is no mention of who is Moran's would-be murder victim.

He slams the lid of his laptop and packs it away. He doesn't like the direction his thoughts are gravitating toward. But John simply cannot shake the feeling gnawing at him as he turns the key in the ignition.

He settles into his room in St. Ives by dusk. His early evening jog helps work off some of the nervous energy accumulated in the drive over (not to mention, a chance to study the layout of the local neighborhood; always useful knowledge on the run). The press are still calling him and trying to contact him for a statement. Moran's arrest only seems to feed into the furor for more of the story. After returning to his room and showering, he finds another two missed calls and voice mails asking for an interview.

Never has he been so grateful to be out of London. Reporters would be physically stalking him at this point.

After almost a week since the truth about Moriarty came out, John thinks he may be ready to say something finally.

It takes him a few minutes to log into his blog—having been literally years since the last time he posted an entry. The rest of the evening is spent drafting, editing, and polishing what will probably be his final entry.

His mysterious caller does not attempt to contact him that night, but John doesn't realize that until after he publishes his post at 11:23PM.

-x-x-x-

For the first time that he can recall, John dreams about Sherlock that night—but not Sherlock's death. He dreams of just Sherlock. John is standing in the doorway of their old flat while Sherlock is reclined on the settee in his dressing gown and a thoughtful pose. He crosses the living room to hover over the other man.

The afternoon light coming through the window goes out, plunging the room into twilight dark. Sherlock pops open one clear glasz eye, "John."

John feels tired suddenly and his leg flares up with pain. "Budge up." He doesn't know why he doesn't just go over to his armchair.

Sherlock sweeps his legs off the cushion in a wave of blue silk and sits up (something John's waking mind would recognize as something Sherlock would never ever do). John sinks down onto the sofa in relief.

"Bad day at work?" Sherlock's deep voice rumbles, passing shudders through the patches of connected skin where their shoulders brushed.

They're sitting close, so close. But that's never happened before. Nothing of this sort has actually happened before.

John nods, "A vampire attacked surgery today. Had to behead it myself. Sarah was not happy with all the blood in the waiting room."

"Anyone get infected?"

John rolls his eyes at the spark of glee audible in Sherlock's words. He pokes at a patch of dried blood on his shirt. He should really go burn today's outfit.

"No."

"Boring!" Sherlock declares. Instead of flinging himself at the other end of the sofa in a fit, he sags onto John's shoulder. John allows himself to bask in the warmth of another body against his. Sherlock squirms and shifts until John's nostrils are assaulted by a mass of wild curls and the scent of Sherlock's shampoo. They sit in silence and breathe. John remembers reaching out to take his flatmate's hand to lace his fingers through Sherlock's spindly ones.

But then, John blinks and 221B is gone. He stares into the off-white expanse and the spider web cracks crawling across the ceiling over his bed. He squeezes his eyes shut and takes several quaking breaths. Wetness prickles at the corner of his eyes, so he hastily scrubs a hand across his face. On the nightstand, one of his mobiles vibrates loudly against the plywood.

He'll take any distraction right now.

FROM: Molly Hooper
5:39 AM, October 12
Come home.

Something inside him twists and writhes in pain. The mobile hits the wall with a satisfying clunk. When he finally drags himself out of bed hours later, he is so unbearably relieved that the device is still intact (still preserving the hundreds of saved text messages from Sherlock).

-x-x-x-

From the Personal Blog of Dr. John H. Watson:


11th October
The Reichenbach Fall

Some of you may still remember the case that first made Sherlock's name almost three years ago: the recovery of the painting called Falls of Reichenbach. Some of the papers even proclaimed him as the "hero of Reichenbach." In retrospect, even long before Moriarty made a play at the crown jewels, I can now see that had been the beginning of the end. Read More

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Crisis of faith

St. Ives is notably less picturesque and chillier in mid-October—John and his family once vacationed there during the summer when he was thirteen. During this time of the year, the surfers came in droves to replace the summer tourists that just vacated. During the day, the miles of beaches are dotted with surfers clad in wet suits and carrying colorful boards. Nighttime is an entirely different story. Since September, six people have vanished along these shores, whose acquaintances all noted a similar pattern of erratic and obsessive behavior in the days leading up to their disappearances.

John isn't the only hunter to come to the coastal resort in search of something wicked. He's gotten better at recognizing other hunters on sight. This time it's a mother-son pair from Falmouth; a fact that he will come to be eternally grateful for later. Because on the third night of their patrol, John spots the unmistakable form of Sherlock Holmes standing at the edge of a sea cliff and framed by the impossibly full moon.

He slips away from the other two hunters without a word.

John keeps his pistol leveled in front of him and the muzzle aimed at Sherlock's chest. His pulse hammers away in his ears as he greedily drinks in every detail: the same Belstaff greatcoat and blue scarf swaying in the Cornish wind, dark curls, and eyes as silver as the moonlight being reflected. It's as if he hasn't aged a damn bit—as if he just stepped through a time portal from the past.

If this is an illusion of some sort, it's a bloody perfect one.

The ends of Sherlock's lips twitch upward, "John."

A shiver races down John's spine. It's the voice—the voice that he hasn't heard in two years, five months, and nine days. It's the voice he thought he would never, ever hear again.

Sherlock takes a step forward and the world snaps back into focus. John steadies his Browning and snaps, "No, stay where you are. Don't come any closer."

Sherlock rolls his eyes and casts a familiar don't-be-an-idiot look his way. John's knees suddenly feel weak as nothing makes sense anymore.

"You have questions," the man who should be dead declares.

John swallows, "Yeah, a number."

Sherlock waves an impatient hand as he moves closer, urging John to continue. He doesn't even seem fazed by the weapon still aimed at him. It's...just so damn Sherlock.


"What are you really?"

The question earns John another sharp and irritated look.

"I should think that's fairly obvious. Sherlock Holmes, risen from the dead. Well, I was never really dead, had to fake it though. A bit inconvenient that."

"And why should I believe you?" Because John wants to believe; he wants to believe with all his damn heart.

Sherlock crowds into his space, an action so familiar that John doesn't back up in response. The barrel is pressed against the taller man's chest and John's hands start to shake. Sherlock is holding his gaze in that unflinching and completely focused way he always did.

"I told you, John," Sherlock's breath caresses the curve of John's cheek as he speaks. "I gave you all the clues that day at Bart's. It's a trick, just a magic trick."

The sharp and familiar uptick at the end of the word "trick" causes John to gasp.

Sherlock continues, his disapproval still apparent in the dip between his brows, "Surely, you've had enough time to work it out by now. Even the most moronic member of New Scotland Yard would have figured it out by now. Why on earth would I do something as stupid as throwing myself off a building without planning a contingency first? Don't tell me you actually bought into that 'disgraced and suicidal' act, John."

"I don't know!" John tightens his grip around his gun, letting the feeling of it digging into his palm ground him in reality. "You tell me! We buried you, Sherlock! I took your pulse and you were dead!"

"Moriarty was a spider at the center of a very large web. Just because the spider drops dead doesn't mean that the web will automatically disintegrate."

John can no longer distinguish between the sound of the crashing waves and his runaway heart. "The recent news about Moriarty and then the arrest of Sebastian Moran. That was all you, it was all you."

"Of course." So smug and so damn familiar.

"Then why are you here? How did you find me?"

Sherlock rolls his eyes, "It wasn't as if you were trying very hard to hide, John."

"The phone calls I've been getting that was also you, wasn't it? Why? Why didn't you say anything then?"

"Because I wanted to wait until I saw you in person."

"Why?" The desperate question is torn from John's throat.

A small, rueful and utterly genuine smile breaks over Sherlock's perfect lips. "I told you before. I'd be lost without my blogger."

Sherlock bows his head forward and presses his mouth against John's. John is shocked still as his arms and gun fall uselessly to his side. Of all the scenarios where he had imagined where Sherlock came back, this was not one outcome he had anticipated. He's torn between leaning in and pushing Sherlock away. Pain, then pleasure, laces through his bottom lip when Sherlock nips at it. John gasps and Sherlock takes the opportunity to push his tongue in. In that instant, all the noise and chaos tossing about fades to white. Relief uncoils and floods his body (because for the first time in over two years/in an eternity, the world makes sense again). His world narrows to just the centimeters where their skin shares contact, where John's free hand fist in Sherlock's coat, and where Sherlock's hands grip his hips and pulls John forward.

And John is falling into bliss—and he never wants to stop.

"John!"

He pulls back at the sudden sound of his name. But he's too struck by the sight of Sherlock's angular face half hidden in shadows to turn toward the speaker.

"John, get away from there!" A woman demands this time.

It's Joy and David, the two hunters he's working with. They are standing less than a meter away and their chests are heaving in exertion (why were they running? did something important happen?). Both also have their weapons drawn and aimed.

"What's going on?" John asks as he automatically slips his hand into one of Sherlock's. Sherlock isn't wearing his gloves, so John marvels at the texture of the skin sliding against his fingers and palm.

The other hunters' expressions darken. John belatedly realizes they're still aiming their weapons at Sherlock. No, that won't do. He reluctantly drops Sherlock's hand to steps firmly in front of the other man and flicks the safety off his Browning.

A Mexican stand-off, he's never done that before.

"You need to step away," Joy pleads. "Whatever you think you're seeing, it's not real. Put your gun down and come with us."

"No," John has never been so sure of anything in his life. He will protect Sherlock. He won't lose Sherlock a second time. "I won't let you hurt him."

"Bloody hell, John," David interrupts himself by cocking his shotgun. "It's a siren. It's what's been disappearing all those people."

John scoffs. "Siren? Bollocks, what would a siren be doing in sodding Cornwall? Sherlock has nothing to do with any of these disappearances. In fact, he can help us find out what happened to those people."

A warm hand lands on his shoulder and squeezes. "Indeed."

Joy shakes her head vigorously. "It's the venom, it's messing with your head and your emotions."

John pauses to think. There is nothing new about the way he feels. He has always been willing to die for Sherlock's sake (Run, Sherlock!). He has always been loyal—to a fault, some would even say—from the very start.

"No," John bares his teeth. "Lower your weapons right now, or I will shoot you."

David makes a show of lowering his shotgun. He then approaches with both hands spread in the air. The gesture is meant to placate John, but John refuses to lower his guard. Not while Joy refuses to lower her weapon.

"Come on, John. We can talk this over."

The hand on John's left shoulder tightens and a jolt of pain racks through his old bullet wound. "Shoot them, John. They're working for Moran."

"What?"

John shouldn't have turned to look at Sherlock. David, though lacking formal combat training, is still the size of an ox and built like a brick wall. The blow to his stomach rips the air from John's lungs and before he has a chance to recover, John is being pulled back and his gun thrown back into the dark somewhere. David grapples him to the ground and pins John to the rocky ground with the full force of his weight. John bucks and tries to toss the other hunter off, but David has done an infuriatingly good job of holding him down.

Joy appears at the edge of his vision; her expression is contrite and full of regret. "I'm sorry. It'll be over soon."
Her nails pry into his wrist and wrench his fist open. Something sharp drags and slices across John's palm. He's bleeding, he realizes after a long second.

David tosses him another apologetic look. "Sorry, mate. We're doing this for your own good."

The other hunter's fist hits like a two ton boulder, knocking John's head against the hard ground. John's vision goes abruptly dark, taking with it the landscape of moon and stars above.

"John! John!" Sherlock is calling him.

He pushes himself up on his elbow; head still swimming and breath still short. The pounding in his ears returns with renewed vigor and the moon tints his sight with white against black spots.

"John, don't let them kill me!"

The world snaps back into focus, tunneling in on the scene of Sherlock struggling against David's grip and Joy thrusting forward a bronze-colored knife that looks almost gold. John's gun is nowhere to be found, and the other hunters' weapons are out of immediate reach.

"No!" He screams as the blade strikes true and is buried in Sherlock's chest.

John can't lose Sherlock a second time—he just can't. He'll shatter and break into even smaller pieces than before, never to be whole again. Until there's nothing left of John Watson to salvage anymore, not by Mary or anyone else on this wretched earth.

The new rush of adrenaline pushes him to his feet and he races toward the body that David drops to the ground. Even before extracting vengeance, John is only intent on saving Sherlock (because John is a doctor, John will always be a doctor). He sheds his jacket and presses it against around the stab wound, trying desperately to stem the red spreading like wildfire across Sherlock's white shirt.

"Come on, Sherlock, you can't die. You can't leave me again."

But the body beneath John's hand gives a small shudder and stills with glazed eyes staring unseeing but accusingly upwards.

"You killed him! You murderers! I'm going to rip you both to pieces."

John stands and launches himself at David, throwing his shoulders in a rugby tackle. The momentum sends them both crashing down. John straddles the body and starts punching and keeps punching. All the nerve endings in his knuckles are raw and exposed, screaming in pain. All he can hear is the rush of his rekindled grief and rage. David starts to fight back, delivering a mean right hook to John's jaw. Then Joy swoops in and violently thrusts the butt of David's shotgun into John's bad shoulder. The blinding pain has him seeing stars bursting into supernovas again.

David's bruised face comes into view as John is forcibly dragged back to where Sherlock's body laid. Two meaty hands cradle John's aching jaw and turn his head toward the body.

"Look at it, John. It wasn't real. Nothing you saw was real."

It's not Sherlock. It's not even human. The gaunt white body, though vaguely humanoid, is hairless and its facial features are completely sunken in.

He scrambles away and retches.

-x-x-x-

John's room in St. Ives is paid up till the end of the week, but he doesn't bother to stay. He shares a terse and awkward goodbye with David and Joy before leaving town. Despite the horrible events of the previous night, John is grateful that they were there to handle the siren when he fell under its spell.

In the morning light, David's face is a mess of black and blue with one eye is swollen shut. John emerges from the encounter relatively unscathed with a tender bruise now forming on his jaw and a pained shoulder. That's to say nothing of his wounded pride (how stupid of him to fall for a trap like that!), or every shade of shame and embarrassment he'd stewed in for the rest of the sleepless night.

His insides feel hollowed out, as if someone had opened him up and scooped out everything with an ice cream scooper. The only place he can go now is back to London. He needs to ground himself in reality again. Reality being that Sherlock is dead. He despises this chink in his armor. Everyone—everything—seems intent on rubbing salt on those old wounds. John refuses to let anyone/anything to continue to use Sherlock against him.

Because it's going to be his undoing at this rate.

John is in Grimpen Village when he receives the call. He doesn't spend the night at the Cross Keys (too many memories), opting for the stars and his backseat instead.

He shouldn't have stopped. He should have driven right past the town.

Instead, he is trapped in memories while lying on the bonnet and palming his mobile for hunter business. The skull is pillowed on his chest and turned skyward as if stargazing. A shrieking ring pierces suddenly through the night. He jostles the skull and catches it before it hit the ground. He glances at the phone in his other hand. The LED screen is lit with the words: "Private Number."

He sighs and brings the device to his ear. "Watson."

There is a pause on the other end of the line, like someone shifting. "Good evening, John."

John's body seizes with emotions. "Mycroft."

It has been almost three years since he last spoke to Sherlock's older brother (not since that confrontation before Sherlock jumped—that bastard, that traitor!), but he isn't surprised by the torrent of rage that still manages to surface at the sound of Mycroft's voice. "What do you want?" he hisses through gritted teeth.

Mycroft sighs, still all patronizing and weary-borne. "It's time that you returned to London. Haven't you spent enough time shirking responsibilities and gallivanting across the British Isles?"

John is tempted to hang up on him right there. But he knows Mycroft is persistent and if he's calling John now, there's probably a reason. It doesn't mean it's a good reason though.

"Piss off."

The older man tuts through the phone. "I know you're near Baskerville, John. Don't make me send someone to get you."

Don't make me order you.

"I don't take orders from you."

I'd like to see you try.

"As I am well aware of," comes another resigned sigh from the other end. John can already envision wiping that thin fake smile off Mycroft's face with a mean right hook. "I'll see you in four days, John, 221B Baker Street like old times."

John sputters in outrage at the dial tone that ensued afterwards.

-x-x-x-

John makes it back to London with three days to spare. Over the course of his stay with Mary, he considers forgoing his appointment with Mycroft all together. It isn't an option though. He's in London now, back in Mycroft's territory and subject to the infuriating man's rules. Every time he steps outside of Mary's house, he can feel every CCTV camera train on him as he passes. He hasn't been so carefully stalked since Sherlock's death.

I know where you are, is probably what Mycroft's trying to tell him.

But in the end, John goes. As long as the other man watches him, John won't be able to hunt effectively.

He takes the Tube once he reaches central London. He contemplates his fellow passengers for long moment. As the train pulls closer to his destination, he tries to distract from the homesickness with several attempts at deductions before finally moving through his list of supernatural warning signs instead.

The last leg of his journey from the station to Baker Street is nerve-wracking. What the hell did Mycroft want after all these years? When several cameras swivel to follow his movement, John is sure to direct several rude gestures at the lenses.

The door to 221 Baker Street is unlocked and he lets himself in. "Mrs. Hudson?"

There's no reply from the older woman.

Overhead, the ceiling creaked as someone moves across the second floor. John takes a deep breath and climbs the 17 steps to his old flat, where the front door has been left slightly ajar.

John is prepared for emptiness—bareness, the way it had been when he finally moved out of 221B so long ago. Maybe even new wallpaper to cover up the bullet holes and smiley face graffiti. But the sitting room has never seemed fuller before. There are boxes littered everywhere, including a stack by the sofa labeled with his name. He peers into the open one on top of his pile and finds the boxes are the ones he'd put away in storage.

He runs a hand across the leather of the sofa's arm. It looks exactly like the one Sherlock owned. Two familiar armchairs are arranged in front of the fireplace—as if they had never been moved or taken after Sherlock's death.

John doesn't understand what is going on. He feels insulted, sick, and unbalanced instead.

"Mycroft!" he roars.

He waits for the deceptively pleasant "Good afternoon, John" or the telltale tap of an umbrella against the floor. But there's only silence and the dust mote that settle in its wake. His knees give out under him and he slides to the ground.

He doesn't understand what any of this means: Why his old flat is suddenly filled with Sherlock's belongings and his belongings again; Why the flat seems completely oblivious to everything that's happened over the past three years...

The mobile phone in his right jacket pocket—his London number—gives a short buzz. A tremor shakes his hand when he fishes it out.

It's a text message from the same unknown number, followed this time by an unforgettable signature.

FROM: +07743756251
1:45 PM, October 18
Behind you, John.
SH

He finally registers the faint footfall (probably barefoot) stopping behind him. There is the presence of another being and the weight of a gaze stabbing into John's back. He knows the feeling of that stare, like a scalpel peeling and dissecting him apart. He remains frozen, unwilling to put himself through the same hell twice.

He must be losing his mind. That's the only explanation. It's the best possible explanation given what just happened in St. Ives.

"John."

John can hear a multitude of things conveyed through the sound of his name: the impatience, the arrogance insisting the world immediately yields to his whims (turn around already), and what seems like a deep undertone of fatigue.

He doesn't stand, just twists his torso far enough to look back. Towering over him is the impossible man himself, his best friend in a bespoke two-piece suit accented by the blue button-down underneath. John's eyes rake over the body, desperate to deduce and catalog something—everything. Sherlock's hair is shorter, just slightly curled on its end (growing it back out?); his eyes still as sharp and as penetrating as before. John's breath catches in his throat, right next to where his heart has become lodged.

Then John remembers: the form tittering on the edge of a rooftop, goodbye John, a body falling into gravity's embrace, crunch like the sound of the worlds shattering, no pulse, so much blood, so much noise, so much silence...

But here he is, Sherlock Holmes, looking like he had just popped back from a trip to Bart's. As if he didn't vanish for three long years and leave John to suffer, suffer, suffer.

"Say something." The words are quiet but no less commanding.

But John also now knows there are worse fates than death in this world. He had suspected so before (in Afghanistan, after meeting Sherlock), but he knows for sure now.

"Christo," John nearly chokes on the word—the benediction, but a curse to the infernal—the prayer.

Sherlock doesn't flinch (thank God, he doesn't!), but he does raise one questioning eyebrow.

"You're not really here. You're dead," John continues. His eyes dart between the light streaming in through the open windows—yes, still daytime, spirits don't haunt during the day, usually—and the vision of Sherlock Holmes. "You're a hallucination. A test."

He has only eliminated demon possession (barely, he needs holy water) and ghost so far. His mind is racing through a list of other possible causes: shapeshifters, a witch's spell, sirens, changelings... Each just as difficult to verify without first stabbing Sherlock with the silver dagger tucked away in his left boot or taking an iron rod to the man's(?) head.

"John," Sherlock drawls in his deep baritone with just a hint of his usual haughtiness. "Honestly, you're being ridiculous."

His thoughts are quickly being driven off the tracks. "No, okay, a clone then, like from Baskerville."

The beginnings of a hysterical laugh bubble deep within John's throat.

Sherlock sits down, folding himself in one long and graceful movement that makes it hard for John to breathe. When the taller man tilts his head much like a dog, the short curls in his hair bounce. John stares, but his mind refuses to process the details. Sherlock always did accuse him of seeing but never observing. Sherlock reaches out with both hands and brushes against each of John's shoulders, before the fingers knead firmly against his back. John turns his gaze down to watch the thumb massaging tiny circles against the lapel of his shirt. Was Sherlock even aware of what he's doing?

For a moment, John fears Sherlock may kiss him—kiss him like that fake Sherlock had. Sherlock doesn't and John is grateful (because the real Sherlock would never kiss him).

But Mycroft himself had arranged for this meeting. Surely that must mean that this man is the real Sherlock Holmes.

"John, I'm here. I didn't die. I had to finish what Moriarty started. But I've come back now." The terseness of Sherlock's explanation betrays the anxiety he's trying to hide.

And John finally looks—really looks—into the other man's face. His gaze traces the bangs of Sherlock's hair against his temple, down the cheekbones to the tip of his chin. There are subtle signs of aging and a faded scar from a knife barely hidden by behind the fold of his right ear and curls. He's thinner, almost gaunt, with his high cheekbones jutting out like the cliffs John remembers from Skye. But Sherlock's eyes are still as brilliant and intense in all their focus.

"Do you believe me?" Sherlock has leaned in closer until their breaths mingle. There is a feverish quality to his eyes, insistent and all-consuming.

John nods ever so slightly, half afraid of being woken up by the alarm on the nightstand of Mary's guestroom. But Sherlock remains.

The realization hits John like a bolt of lightning.

John has his miracle now—two years and five months late—but his wish has been granted. His mind whirls with all the implications and consequences (second chances, lies, and all that heart-wrenching and soul-shattering agony over an empty casket). But one thing becomes startlingly clear in the eye of the emotional storm.

Grief can have a surprisingly clarifying effect, Mary once said to him. Sometimes we don't know what we have until we've lost it. We always think there'll be time until there isn't.

John is so utterly in love with this madman—this madman who faked his own death, who lied and hurt him in a way he never thought possible before. And Sherlock's come back.

He closes the gap between them and winds his arms around Sherlock's waist, letting his head fall against the other man's stiff shoulders. Sherlock's body tenses, muscles coiling in such a way that suggested he wants to break away. John tightens his grip. After several long and agonizing moments, Sherlock reaches around and splays both hands over John's back. Sherlock is hugging him back.

Please don't be dead. Just stop it.

"John?"

The sound of his name courses through John's body in delicious tremors. He feels impossibly giddy, and his body feels lighter than in months and years.

There would be time for explanations later. There would be time for John to fully wrap his mind around this and to carefully consider all the tests he can put this Sherlock through to ensure he is real. He will probably cry later, may even threaten Sherlock life and limb. He will probably storm out of the flat before Sherlock can tell the full story and drag Mary out to drink or shoot things. But those are all events in his future (because he has the time now), and this is what John needs right now.

"Shut it, Sherlock, just shut up for a few minutes," he pleads.

Amazingly enough, the other man quiets after making a small affirmative noise.

They stay wrapped up in each other's arms for what seems like hours. John has become hyper-aware of all the points where their bodies come into contact. This is nothing like what happened with the siren last week. Everything is too bright and too quiet, and John is so terrified and so angry (he wants to hit Sherlock so bad, he probably still will). Yet completely relieved and ecstatic and scared. It's raw and it's real.

Please, God, let this be real.

(John doesn't know it, but God has other things to think and not think about other than the reunion of one hunter and consulting detective. Sherlock's return is not a God-given miracle, just one entirely of Sherlock's own devising. So John has no one else to hate and praise for this other than Sherlock himself, and he will probably remind Sherlock of that every day for many years to come.)

"Please God, let me have this," John mutters fervently. He will give anything for this to be real—soul, body, heart, life, servitude, blood, anything.

Sherlock's muscles twitch and his hands press harder into John's spine. "I missed you too, John."

Thankfully, God doesn't need to ask for more than what was already given.

-FIN-
Continued in Part 2 of the Too narrow a space to live series
Burden of Proof, now a work in progress on AO3 or FF.net

Notes:
(1) Prayer to Saint Michael, translates as
Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray:
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Amen.
(back to previous spot)

(2) Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is the government department responsible for environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture, fisheries and rural communities in the United Kingdom. (back to previous spot)

That's it for Necessary Faith, which is John's journey in this post-Reichenbach universe! But this is just one part of the story, what happens after their reunion will continue in a separate fic (I am so over writing in present tense!). I know some people are eager to see Sherlock's reaction to what John has been doing (and I'm eager to write it too). Lots of plans for the boys still ahead, so stay tuned!
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