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The Blind Leading The Blind...

I don't know where the muses take me, I only know that I like it!


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Empathy, Part Two
colourful, hills
blind_author
Title: Empathy
Rating: Maybe M/15?
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters, and am making no profit from their use.
Warnings: Disturbing concepts, including suicidal ideation, lobotomy, gory experimentation and emotional manipulation.
Spoilers: For all of seasons 1 and 2.  Disregards Season 3.
Pairing: Sherlock/John
Summary: John is an empath.  Which isn't nearly as much fun as it sounds.  Most of the time, it’s not even useful.

Part One

Part Two

bond (noun)
1.      something that binds, fastens or holds together

--

Harry often bemoaned that John didn’t call or write or email, and John would make conciliatory noises and then still forget to do it because he could never explain to her why he forgot.

When he was a kid, John had spent a lot of time with his sister.  He’d healed her scrapes and bruises a few times, and it was a rare day indeed that passed without Harry’s familiar emotional signature surging and ebbing at the back of his mind.

It was only when she left home that John realised Harry’s emotional signature was more than just ‘familiar’ to him – it was a constant.  Whether they were separated by four feet of hallway or almost six thousand kilometres of land and sea, John always knew how Harry was feeling.  Which meant he forgot to actually talk to her about it.

John had often wondered exactly what it was he’d done to form the bond, but he could never pin down the exact reason.  Because he spent a lot of time with her?  Because they’d sometimes fallen asleep together, so exhausted that the line between their separate emotions blurred and ran in John’s head until he couldn’t tell what feelings were his own and what were Harry’s?  Because he’d taken on her pain to heal her so many times during their lives?

John didn’t know how he did it, but it wasn’t going to stop him trying to do the same with Sherlock.

His bond with his sister meant he always knew where she was – not precisely, not like a map, but more like a game of hot-cold.  It meant he could heal her from a distance, like that time she’d contracted liver cancer while he was in basic training (and John was in no hurry to live through a year of chemo in the space of five minutes ever again – officially, the cancer had been listed as a misdiagnosis).

Of course, there were downsides to it as well – Harry’s emotions came through much clearer, and affected John much more than anyone else’s.  It was one of the reasons he tried to avoid her when she was drinking – he needed to be in a good place himself, emotionally speaking, to resist her or they just dragged each other into a tailspin of misery.

Which was probably why he felt so apprehensive about the bond.  He was going to give himself a direct window into Sherlock’s emotions, which were volatile enough at the best of times – what would happen if John could compound his black moods, could drag him down even further without even meaning to?

But on the other hand, John had no intention of letting Sherlock wander into danger without him.  He wasn’t going to watch Sherlock walk into a trap again, not without knowing there was something he could do to help him.

If he really was going to try putting his empathy to use again, he might as well go the whole way.

At least Sherlock was nearby, since he’d fallen asleep on the sofa.  He often did that after big cases – he wouldn’t sleep a wink all through it, but would crash as soon as it was over and sleep like the dead.  And by this point, the adrenaline from the pool would be wearing off as well; Sherlock might like to play it cool, but John had felt the raw, electrified fear that had filled him as soon as he realised that John was strapped to several kilos of Semtex.

So John waited fifteen minutes to make sure Sherlock was genuinely asleep, then knelt down beside him – fighting the ridiculous urge to brush Sherlock’s hair off his forehead – and carefully entwined their fingers.

He’d never had any idea what he’d done with Harry to form the link between them.  But he could feel it, like a weak glow in the back of his mind, so he did the best he could to mimic it.  He took a deep breath, and tried to push his emotions at Sherlock, the way he did when he was trying to influence someone.  Except he wasn’t pushing just one emotion but every emotion, all of himself, hoping that something would latch on, would catch and stick…

Something jolted in his chest, like his heart had been lightly squeezed and released.  It wasn’t exactly pleasant, but there was definitely something there.  Not quite the weak warmth that Harry was, but brighter and sharper and hotter.  Maybe because he’d linked himself to Sherlock deliberately this time, rather than it happening by accident.

He probed the link, testing it, and yes, that was definitely Sherlock.  The same impression of depth and vastness and secrets John would never discover even if he explored for the rest of his life.

And now it would be with him forever, tucked up inside his chest and head next to the soft, throbbing glow that was his link to Harry.

He released Sherlock’s hand.

He’d never deliberately formed a bond with anyone else before, not even Mary.  He tried not to think about what that meant.  Instead, John simply went upstairs and crawled into bed, only bothering to remove his shoes.

--

John awoke the next morning to the deafening crash that was his bedroom door bouncing off its hinges, and a flood of fear from Sherlock.  He jerked upright, automatically reaching for some sort of weapon – his gun was too far away, but his alarm clock was heavy enough to do a decent bit of damage – until he realised Sherlock had stopped in the doorway, and the tremors of fear and panic were abating.

“What’s wrong?” John asked blearily.

His reflexes were still hair-trigger, but his brain needed about fifteen minutes of run time before he was properly woken up.

“Nothing,” Sherlock said hastily.

“No one charges up the stairs like an escaped rhinoceros because of ‘nothing’,” John pointed out.

Sherlock looked affronted.  “I did not charge-”

“Yes you did,” John interrupted, smothering a yawn.  “So what’s wrong?”

Sherlock was shifting his weight on the balls of feet, as if he were considering simply running away from the conversation.  But he probably felt that was beneath his dignity.

John was starting to get rather worried.  “Sherlock?”

“…you weren’t there.”

It was mumbled, and seemingly directed at the curtains, but John knew what he’d heard.

Didn’t mean it made any sense though.  “Um…what?”

“I woke up, and you weren’t there,” Sherlock repeated, looking as though every syllable physically pained him.

And John understood.

“Stupid, really, idiotic,” Sherlock muttered, in the rapid-fire speech he usually used for his deduction.  “There was no sign of a break-in or a struggle, I hadn’t even checked your room, and yet…how do people function like this?  It’s absolutely hideous-”

He broke off, and John revelled in the cool flicker of surprise that lashed across the bond – it seemed he could still surprise Sherlock now and then, good to know.  Of course, his attempts to surprise Sherlock didn’t usually involve walking up to him and hugging him, but John was willing to take his victories where he could.

At that thought, he settled his arms more comfortably around Sherlock’s waist.  He wasn’t squeezing, just holding and standing close enough that his face was pressed against the side of Sherlock’s neck.

“What are you doing?” Sherlock asked, holding himself rigid.

“Trust me, this helps.”  John deliberately sent feathery comfort and stone-hard love along the bond, trying to soothe away the last remnants of Sherlock’s panic.

Slowly, as though he thought if he did it gradually enough John wouldn’t notice, Sherlock put his arms around John’s shoulders.  At first they were just resting there, but Sherlock’s grip got incrementally tighter and tighter, until it bordered on uncomfortable.

John just waited.  He knew Sherlock cared about him – even if he wasn’t an empath, Moriarty’s promise to burn Sherlock’s heart out while John was wrapped in explosives was a particularly unsubtle anvil.  As was Sherlock’s expression when he first stepped out and opened the coat.

So yes, Sherlock cared about him, John had never doubted that.  Though he didn’t care in the way Moriarty had implied – John suspected Sherlock didn’t do romantic entanglements, and that was fine.  First and foremost, he was John’s friend, which meant John wasn’t going to burden him with…this.

It was just a silly little infatuation anyway, sprinkled with a bit of hero worship.  It would go away, he was sure.  Or more precisely, he hoped.

Because being Sherlock’s friend was one thing.  Being in love with Sherlock…well, John suspected that was very fast road to a whole lot of heartbreak.

“You’re not allowed to get yourself strapped to a bomb ever again,” Sherlock said abruptly, yanking John out of his contemplation.

John snorted.  “I promise I’ll try to avoid it in the future.”

“I mean it,” Sherlock snapped, suddenly tense.  “You need to be careful, he…”

Sherlock’s voice trailed off like an engine winding down, and the bond quivered with sick confusion and elastic-tight worry and a strangely lost, almost helpless kind of feeling.

John would have liked to tell him everything would be fine, but that would only be a lie.  So he settled for, “I’ll be careful, I promise.”

Sherlock nodded vaguely, but it was still a long time before his emotions quieted.  And an even longer time before he made any move to let John go.

--

John was twenty-two when he fell in love.  Her name was Mary, and she was a pre-med with an interest in punk rock and the kind of unashamed laugh that could fill a room.  They were in the same group for practicals, and a friendly conversation had led to drinks, which led to dinner, which led to them tumbling into Mary’s bed and not leaving until morning.

It had started out casual – they were friends who occasionally had sex, and while John had heard of that ending messily it had seemed to work for them.

Until the night Mary had come to dinner from the hospital, and John had finally identified the soft, glowy feeling that had been permeating her for weeks.

It was love.  Mary was in love.

John had spent the next day in a haze, wondering what to do about it, if he should do anything about it.  What could he say anyway?  Nothing that referenced his empathy, not if he wanted to get his degree without a detour to a psychiatric facility.

Mary was in love, and John knew about it – that much couldn’t be changed.  So John took a long, hard look at himself and asked if he loved Mary, if he could love Mary?

And the answer was yes.

So they still went to dinner and drinks but now John considered them dates, and thought that they were ‘going steady’.  He was on the verge of asking her to move in with him when she told him their arrangement had to come to an end; she’d fallen in love with a nurse at the hospital.

John knew that it was only his empathy that got his hopes up with Mary; if he hadn’t been aware of the love she was feeling and mistakenly attributed it to him, he would never have thought it was anything more than friends with benefits.

Still, he couldn’t help feeling a little bitter.

He and Mary remained friends, but they fell out of touch when he went into the army.  John fell out of touch with a lot of people then.

--

John could tell he and Sarah weren’t going to last – he’d got much better at this stuff since Mary.  But he thought they were coming from the same place, at least.  Neither of them were looking for marriage and babies, but they both wanted some company and some uncomplicated affection.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t upset when she ended it.  Not depressed, not torn up inside and feeling his own sorrow and loss like razors under his tongue, but certainly upset.

So he decided to have a lie-in to sleep off the emotional exhaustion, and was drifting in that wonderful place where you weren’t quite asleep but weren’t quite awake and knew you had absolutely no commitments for the rest of the day.  His bonds were throbbing contentedly – Harry was asleep in her own bed, and Sherlock had been checking up on his homeless network for the past two days but was now approaching the flat.  John spared a sleepy brain cell to hope that he wasn’t going to do any experiments involving loud noises or fire.

The bond shivered briefly with curiosity, then suddenly sent waves of irritation and confusion, and John tried to rouse himself to respond, bidding farewell to his luxurious lie-in.

John!

 John dragged himself out of bed just in time for Sherlock to fling open the door to his room, stride over the threshold in a way that said he’d worked himself up into a proper snit, before stopping dead in his tracks as though a wall had materialised in front of him.

“We really have to have a talk about you battering down my door,” John muttered.

“You’re naked,” Sherlock said, in what John had come to think of as his ‘I’m surprised but trying not to show it’ tone.

“Well done,” John yawned.

He was still drowsy, but he woke up very quickly when he felt a hot, shaky flash of lust from Sherlock.

It disappeared as quickly as it had come – likely deliberately smothered beneath gruesome mental images – but John knew what he had felt.  He felt it again – stronger and hotter – when he crossed the room and bent over to pull some underwear out of his bottom drawer.

But then this was nothing new.  John was aware Sherlock was attracted to him, and he was equally aware Sherlock didn’t want to do anything about it.

“Is there a particular reason you were yelling my name on a Saturday morning?” John asked.

Sherlock blinked, and John saw him consciously move his eyes up to John’s face.  “You didn’t text me.”

John tried to drag some kind of sense out of that statement, and failed.  “Which means…?”

“Lestrade texted me half a dozen times asking for my whereabouts, and they only cease with the message ‘just texted John, he says you’re safe, talk to me when you can’.”

“And?  Did you actually want him to keep texting you?”

“How did you know I was safe?” Sherlock demanded, looking almost affronted.  “I even got a text from Mycroft, which meant I managed to shake his spies for at least a day, so how did you know I was safe?”

It was times like this that made John think it would be much, much easier if he just told Sherlock about his empathy.  But then he remembered how eager Sherlock was to examine and dissect anything unusual, and a lifetime of caution reared its head.  He knew Sherlock cared about him, but did he care about him enough not to experiment on him?

John didn’t know and, childishly, didn’t want to find out – he’d thought Kemp was a good bloke, after all, so what did that say about his judgement?  It was far safer to let things continue as they were than to risk rocking the boat.

“You were checking up on your homeless network,” John said eventually.  “I didn’t think I should be worried until a few days had passed.”

Sherlock looked and felt baffled and mildly affronted.  “How do you know that?”

Because he had a psychic link that allowed him to know where Sherlock was and what he was feeling.  But John couldn’t say that, so he settled for listing the other, more tangible signs.

“Because there’s been a bit of a cold snap, you’ve been collecting old newspapers, and you didn’t need all those scarves and gloves for yourself.”

Sherlock was silent, and the expression on his face would have confused John if he hadn’t been able to feel the tremulous wonder that whispered through the bond.

Then Sherlock blinked, and seemed to come back to himself, the wonder suddenly crushed beneath irritation and a touch of resentment.

“We’re out of milk,” he snapped, turning around and hurrying down the stairs.

“I bought two litres only yesterday!” John cried.  “What the hell did you manage to do with it in the ten minutes you’ve been home?”

--

“Do you just carry on talking when I’m away?”

“I don’t know – how often are you away?”

John’s first reaction was worry.  Could Sherlock feel the bond somehow?  Certainly Harry had never shown any sign of being aware of their connection, but the link with Harry wasn’t nearly as strong as the one he had with Sherlock.

The bonds certainly gave John a feeling of companionship, a reassurance that he was never alone, not really, but he’d been the one to create them.

He told himself it meant nothing – that this was just one of Sherlock’s many idiosyncrasies.  He didn’t know, he couldn’t know.

And even if he did, he wouldn’t bundle John off to a laboratory…would he?

John liked to think not.  But sometimes there were too many similarities between Sherlock and Kemp for John’s comfort.

--

Lloyd Kemp was John’s favourite dissection partner in his labs.  Most people didn’t seem to like him – he had a knack for saying disturbingly insightful things at the exact wrong moment – but he had steady hands and a weird sense of humour that was strangely compatible with John’s.  Even if he did tend to treasure some beliefs about crystal healings and the like.

So when they were wandering back to the college drunk off their arses and Kemp was hit by a car that crushed his torso and collapsed his lung and just kept on going, John didn’t even hesitate to bend down and heal him.  A collapsed lung was a new experience, and it took him several long moments to get his breath back.

When he was able to see past the pain, Kemp was staring up at him like a knight of the Round Table that had just found the Holy Grail.

John told himself Kemp was too drunk to remember anything – and if he did, he would chalk it up to the alcohol and move on.

His mistake.

Three days later, they went on another trip to the pub, and John had been out after his first drink – Kemp had slipped him something.

When he woke, he awoke to bright lights and bondage.  Which might have been nice, under other circumstances, but rising out of a groggy haze to find himself strapped to something a lot harder than a hospital bed was rather unnerving.  His head felt like it was full of concrete, and he couldn’t feel anything below his waist.

He’d glimpsed Kemp in the corner of his eye, wearing a surgical mask and bloodstained gloves, and still John hadn’t panicked.  He didn’t quite know why – perhaps because he thought it was some kind of prank?  Because all he was picking up from Kemp was blue, pulsing curiosity with no taint of malice and so he didn’t think he had anything to worry about?

“Wha…what’s going on?” John slurred, his lips and tongue feeling thick and uncooperative.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Kemp said, with the high-pitched laugh he always used when he was worried about something.  “I’ve given you an epidural, so it shouldn’t hurt-”

John heard nothing past ‘epidural’.

“What?” he mouthed weakly, feeling as though he was slowly sinking into some deep, dark pit.

He couldn’t feel his legs.  There was a tiny, horrified part of John’s mind that just didn’t want to look, but he looked.

He could see his own femur.  His left thigh had been cut into, skin and blood vessels and stringy bits of fat peeled back like a curtain, revealing the underlying muscles and tendons and knotty nerves and the dull yellow of bone.

John thought he might have been trying to scream.  His mouth was open, and his chest was constricted and tight, but there was no sound coming from his throat.

“I always believed in it, you know,” Kemp was saying conversationally, somewhat muffled behind the surgical mask.  “Knew there had to be more than just pills and surgery – I mean, look at the placebo effect!  Our brains influence our healing so much, I just knew that there had to be someone who could influence other people’s healing as well.  And then when you saved me after the car…”

This is just a nightmare, John told himself.  This is just a nightmare.  It has to be, it has to be – there is no way this is actually happening…

“Don’t worry,” Kemp said again, turning back to John with a scalpel in one hand and a small jar of liquid in the other.  “I just want a sample, just a bit of the lateral cutaneous nerve to see how your neurons are different.”

And with those words, it was easy (far too easy) for John to take all the fear he was feeling, every scrap of his terror at his worst nightmare being realised (imprisoned and experimented on), gather it up like a fireball and shove it onto Kemp.  Every single, sodding bit of it.

It screamed out of John’s head like a tornado, and he could feel the instant it hit Kemp and latched on hard, the force of the emotions practically pummelling him.  Kemp’s face contorted, looking as though he were about to scream but couldn’t find the breath, and then he fell.  John heard the sharp sound of glass breaking, and then Kemp’s fear and pain just…went out.  Like a blazing lamp suddenly turned off.

John passed out again, but he was never sure if that was whatever drugs Kemp had given him or the shock of feeling all that emotion – of feeling Kemp himself – just die.

--

It had all been sorted out by the time John woke up, of course (Kemp had been using an empty practical lab and someone had found them).  Kemp’s family had a history of psychiatric issues, and the stress and pressure had caused him to have an episode.  And at some point, the strain had simply gotten too much for his apparently weak cardiovascular system, and he’d had a heart attack.

If John had actually wanted to truth to come out, he would have been able to poke a lot of holes in that story.  What kind of delusion came on so abruptly and suddenly no one had noticed anything out of the ordinary until Kemp was cutting him up?  How did a man in his mid-twenties with no history of cardiovascular disease suddenly die from a massive heart attack?

But the last thing John wanted was for people to start getting curious about what had happened.  If the university wanted to sweep Kemp’s little ‘episode’ under the rug, then that was fine with him – they could sweep away.

He was more concerned with what it said about him.  He knew his little empathic nudges physically affected people – fear would make their palms sweaty, a little burst of happiness would help them relax – but he’d never suspected it could be done to that kind of degree.  He’d given Kemp a heart attack by pushing his own fear onto the man; what other kind of damage could he do?

For a little while, John didn’t think it made sense – how could emotions overload someone’s system like that?  He hadn’t been having a heart attack, so how had he given Kemp one?

Then they took him off the good drugs on the second day, and his more logical thoughts began to come back.  And John realised that in a way, he probably should have expected it.  He’d been dealing with other people’s emotions all his life, and his body had adapted to be able to cope with that kind of mental upheaval.  But Kemp hadn’t.  John has shoved his fear onto him and when his fear had become Kemp’s fear John had still been afraid, so he’d just kept pushing and pushing, until he’d pushed Kemp far past what the human body could cope with.  Far past the level of fear anyone would experience naturally.

Really, John was amazed it took Thomas to make him realise how awful his empathy could be.

--

John felt uncomfortable from the moment they entered Irene Adler’s house.  It wasn’t the deception (god knew he’d had enough practice with that, working with Sherlock for so long) but the way his empathy was tugging at him, the way pain and sorrow were prodding him for acknowledgement like barbed wire stung between his bones.

It only got worse when he actually walked into the room.  He knew Sherlock thought it was Irene’s nakedness that meant he was having difficulty looking at her, but he couldn’t have been further from the mark.  It wasn’t Irene’s body that was disturbing John, it was her mind.

Or more specially, her emotions; they reminded him far too much of Moriarty.  The feeling of emptiness was the same, but where Moriarty’s hollowness was blunt, worn smooth with time – whatever happened to make him that way, it happened a very long time ago, long enough that it didn’t hurt anymore – Irene’s hole was jagged, open and bleeding the soft echoes of where there used to be…something.  Something more than grief and loss and a need for something to do, for anything that would take her mind off it for even a moment.  Moriarty was like a black hole, consuming everything so that not even light escaped.  Irene was like someone screaming from the bottom of a deep, dark well.

He could feel other emotions from her, of course.  Happiness, triumph, smugness, curiosity…but they felt thin.  A paper mask daubed with bright colours to cover the hole beneath.

“Could you put something on?” he asked, mainly because he couldn’t see any clothes lying about so she’d have to leave the room to put something on, which would give him some time to collect himself.

She didn’t leave, of course, just borrowed Sherlock’s coat (and John wasn’t jealous of the way they didn’t even seem to be aware of his presence except when they were using him to snipe at each other, he wasn’t).  He sat beside her on the sofa, and tried to push some happiness, safety and peace on her, a big ball of emotions like a purring, contented cat – he just wanted to be able to think past the grief pouring from her like a burst pipe – but it just skated off her like watercolour on oily glass.

He tried again, with the same result.  It wasn’t like Moriarty – she didn’t suck it into nothingness, it just…didn’t stick.

John had always known his little nudges were palliatives, not cures, but he was still a little shaken by a grief so deep he couldn’t even make the faintest impression on it.

What could have happened to hurt someone that much?

He was actually quite glad for Sherlock’s order to ‘man the door’ – it meant he could get out of the room and get some distance between him and Irene’s suffocating emotions.  Sometimes (well, most of the time, really) his empathy was more trouble than it was worth.

After all, he was so busy keeping himself from getting sucked into Irene’s sorrow that he completely missed the men sneaking up on him.

--

Jeanette calling Sherlock his boyfriend had hit a bit too close to home.  John was painfully aware that people had good reason to think he and Sherlock were a couple; they had a plethora of inside jokes, he nagged Sherlock into eating and knew what a ‘danger night’ was – he’d even created an empathic bond so he could know if Sherlock was in trouble.  John could see why people would think that, but he still resented it.

Not so much for the implication that he and Sherlock as a couple, but the assumption that he’d be dating these women if they were.  Okay, yeah, he’d got around a bit in his younger days, but he did not cheat on people, thank you very much!

And John was being absolutely sincere when he said he wasn’t gay.  His empathy meant that his relationship with sex and sexuality was…complicated.  He only felt sexual attraction if the person was…well, empathically appealing was a good way to put it.  If their empathic signature felt nice, then he felt attracted to them.  If not, then sex with them – any kind of contact with them – was just unthinkable.

That was why he was attracted to Sherlock, but wasn’t really comfortable calling himself gay.  It was why he was attracted to Sarah and Jeanette and all the others, but couldn’t call himself straight (even bisexual didn’t cover it).  It was also why he hadn’t felt attracted to Irene in the slightest.

Oh, he could certainly see that she was physically beautiful, but it was like admiring a well-crafted doll – a cold, almost hollow sort of admiration.

Sherlock, on the other hand…what he felt for Irene was a complex tangle of tangy admiration and flickering curiosity and strawberry fascination, with a sprinkling or two of lust.  If John was perfectly honest with himself, he was more than a little jealous.

Because while Sherlock did care for him, John didn’t arouse (arouse, ha!) his interest the way Irene had.

‘Maybe I should have wandered naked around the flat now and again,’ he thought, then shook his head.

He’d been having a lot of these thoughts recently, wondering what it was about Irene that had managed to capture Sherlock’s attention and interest so effectively.  It was pointless, he knew, but he couldn’t seem to help himself, like tonguing at a sore tooth.

He and Sherlock a couple?

John would never be that lucky.

--

John knew he was staying out of sight for anything to do with Irene Adler, and he knew it was confusing Sherlock.  John usually jumped into a case right alongside Sherlock, and even when he couldn’t – like when he had to work or take care of Harry – he was at least curious about them.

But frankly, John just did not want to go anywhere near Irene.

The fact that she was clearly manipulating Sherlock like some kind of toy was only part of it.  The fact that Sherlock was falling for it was…alright, it was more significant than he’d like to admit, but again, it was only part of it.

It was the pain.  The never-ceasing pain that beat at him whenever she was nearby.  After Sherlock had deciphered the code for her, John had retreated to his room for what he felt was a well-deserved lie-down (it was a pity painkillers wouldn’t make any impression on this headache), until thirst drove him back to the kitchen.

“I think you’re avoiding me,” Irene declared as he stepped past her and Sherlock, intent on the kitchen and kettle there.

He doubted tea would help, but it was a psychosomatic thing – tea helped him calm down and relax, after all.

He felt Sherlock’s curiosity spike, and John turned to give both of the geniuses a glance.  After his experiences with Sherlock, he knew this was just Irene trying to put him off balance.

“Kind of,” he admitted, because he knew admittance was the best way to derail this kind of plan.

Irene smirked, just a little, a brief feeling of triumph and smugness flashing over that paper mask like a sprinkling of ink and cloudy paint.  “Is it because you’re jealous?”

Sherlock wasn’t saying a word, which would have told John how interested in the conversation he was even without feeling Sherlock’s quicksilver fascination flow down the bond.

“No,” John said honestly.

He was jealous – one part of being an empath meant you were very good at recognising your own feelings, having seen them in others so often – but that wasn’t why he was avoiding her.

Irene laughed, low and throaty.  “Oh come on, darling, you can be honest.  It’s just the three of us, after all.”

She sent a flirtatious smile Sherlock’s way, and John couldn’t help marvelling at the tangled skein of her feelings for Sherlock.  There was a sort of idle curiosity and a sense of prideful rivalry, but more than that, there was…wistfulness.  As though she wasn’t truly interested in Sherlock, but wanted to be.  Wanted something to fill that dark hole inside her, even if it was brief and based on deception and manipulation.

John sighed, and gave Irene one of his gentlest smiles.  “Well, if we’re being honest, I thought it would be easier on you.”

“Excuse me?”

He didn’t have to be an empath to know he’d confused her.  Confused Sherlock too, come to that, and John allowed himself a moment to revel in it.

“I thought it would be easier,” he clarified.  “If you didn’t have to see us together.”

At first, he’d been puzzled, wondering exactly what kind of loss could have left that deep stain of grief on her for so long.  And he probably would have remained puzzled if Irene hadn’t come to their flat.  But she’d seen them talking and griping, had heard Sherlock’s comment about John calling him amazing, and the each time John had been struck by flashes of jealousy and longing, like the slow drip of spilled wine.  But it wasn’t the kind of longing people felt when looking at something they couldn’t have – it wasn’t wistful and yearning but dark and bitter, the kind of longing people experienced when they had something and lost it.

And then John had understood.  Irene once had something like that – something like what he and Sherlock had.  She’d had someone who’d laughed with her instead of at her, who’d thought she was exceptional when everyone else thought she was a freak, who’d known exactly who and what she was and loved her anyway…and then she’d lost them.

No wonder she didn’t seem to give a damn about anyone or anything, including herself.

“I don’t often admit to this, but you’ve honestly stumped me, Dr. Watson,” Irene said, still smiling.  “What exactly do you mean by that?”

She clearly thought he was going to make some envy-ridden comment about her and Sherlock hooking up.  Just because John knew why she was doing this – seemingly trying to push them together even as she made Sherlock dance to her tune – didn’t mean he didn’t resent it, just a little.

But she was a human being in pain, and John was a doctor first and foremost, so it wasn’t malice that made him say, “It won’t bring them back.”

Irene blinked, suddenly going perfectly still.  “What?”

“Whoever you lost,” John said quietly, staring directly into her eyes.  “This won’t make it stop hurting.  Trust me, I know.”

He crossed the kitchen in three strides and pressed a hand to her shoulder in commiseration.  Irene stared at him, and John knew that he’d honestly caught her off-guard, that she was half-panicking as she wondered if she was really that transparent.  He wanted to say something, to reassure her that he only figured it out because his brain didn’t seem to work the way other people’s did, but knew whatever he said would come out sounding like he was some kind of lunatic.

So he just kept his hand on her shoulder and looked straight in her eyes, trying to somehow communicate that he understood.  Understood in a way he didn’t really think Sherlock could.

It was just a hunch – it was empathy, not telepathy – but John suspected Sherlock had never lost anyone he really cared about.  His parents were still alive, and John thought he didn’t have enough contact with his extended family to really care if they were still alive or not.

But John had lost his parents, had come very close to losing Harry…and he’d lost Thomas.  Correction, he’d killed Thomas, so yes, John could understand.

This time, Irene’s laugh was just a little too high, a little too quick to sound entirely natural.  There was a measure of desperation in the way she shrugged his hand from her shoulder, as though she couldn’t even contemplate accepting comfort.

“I don’t know what you’ve thought up, but I assure you, you’re wrong,” she stated, making a deliberate show of looking John in the eye.

“Of course I am,” John said quietly, feeling his lips curl into a sad smile.  “Just ignore me.”

“John…” Sherlock began, looking and feeling startled.

But the kettle had boiled, and John turned back to the kitchen without acknowledging Sherlock.  He went through the motions of making tea, feeling Sherlock’s confusion and concern and something tinged with soft purple admiration.  For Irene?  John thought it was the most likely explanation.

“I’m going back upstairs,” he said, not looking at either of them as he walked past.

He didn’t think it was a coincidence that Irene left shortly after.

--

“How did you know?” Sherlock demanded.

John blinked, glancing up from his laptop.  He was used to random outbursts while Sherlock was curled on the sofa and thinking, but this one was clearly directed at him rather than some phantom murderer or victim.

“How did I know what?” he frowned, unable to stop himself feeling a prickle of anxiety.

Sometimes he was convinced Sherlock was only inches away from discovering his empathy…had he messed up somehow?

“How did you know she’d lost someone?” Sherlock asked, staring at John with the kind of intensity he usually turned on corpses with no clear cause of death.

Oh, it was about Irene – John should have suspected.  He could often guess when Sherlock’s thoughts turned to her, because his emotions became strangely wistful and yearning, bright dew drops of admiration and affection and even a light trickle of fear, as though he were afraid of how strongly he’d connected with her.

It was difficult to lie to Sherlock, so John settled for a half-truth.  “I knew because I’ve lost people too – I can recognise the signs.”

“What signs?”  Sherlock didn’t sound scornful, but honestly curious, apparently eager to resolve this gap in his knowledge.

John tried to come up with a way to express the inexpressible.  “Well, she was a thrill-seeker for one, but not the usual kind, and you come to know the types when you work in an emergency room.  There are those who do dangerous or illegal things because it gives them a rush, there are those who do it just because they’re idiots who’ve seen it on the telly or something, and then there are those who do it because they need the thrill to stop them thinking, to make their mind concentrate on something other than what they’ve lost.  And while she wasn’t suicidal, she wasn’t terribly invested in her own survival – I expect if someone came to kill her, she wouldn’t try to get out of it as hard as she could.  She’d try, yes, but it’d probably be a half-hearted effort, just enough to justify it to herself.”

John expected Sherlock to have some kind of response to that – more about how caring wasn’t an advantage or something – but Sherlock was silent.  Silent and staring at John.

“Interesting,” he said at last.

Then he folded himself up on the sofa and didn’t speak for the next six hours.

--

Part Two, continued
Part Three
Part Four

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