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The Blind Leading The Blind...

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Empathy, Part Three
john death
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

Part Three

break (verb)

1. separate into pieces as a result of a blow, shock or strain.
2. interrupt (a continuity, sequence or course).

--

John felt numb.  Sherlock was alive, but had pretended to commit suicide.  In front of John.

But why?

John knew Sherlock wasn’t exactly normal, and was capable of a lot of cruelty through sheer indifference, but he wasn’t cruel enough to do something like this without a purpose.  The only mystery was what that purpose could be.

John told himself to keep calm and carry on – he’d understand soon enough.  Sherlock would contact him, tell him what the plan was, and then they’d figure everything out.  Together.

Though Sherlock better have a bloody good excuse for traumatising him like that.  John knew he was alive – the bond told him that much – but that didn’t mean the memory of watching him fall and then apparently lying dead on the pavement wasn’t giving John nightmares.

The funeral had been an exercise in agony.  Misery and grief permeated everything like smoke, oily and acidic like burning paint or plastics.  John had a headache all through the service, and he couldn’t even look at Mrs Hudson and Lestrade – their emotions were bad enough.

He wanted to go up to them and tell them it was okay, that Sherlock was alive, but he didn’t dare.  There had to be a reason Sherlock had done…what he’d done.  There had to be a purpose to it, and John wasn’t going to risk ruining it.

John was waiting.  Sherlock would contact him, and tell him the plan.  He wouldn’t leave John to suffer this alone.

--

By the third day, when John felt Sherlock’s signature getting more remote – showing that he was moving away – he started to admit to himself that maybe Sherlock was leaving him.  That he’d pretended to kill himself in front of John and now he was leaving.

John didn’t understand.  He didn’t understand why Sherlock had pretended to kill himself.  He didn’t understand why Sherlock had made him watch.  He didn’t understand why Sherlock wasn’t communicating with him.  He didn’t understand why Sherlock was leaving.

He didn’t understand anything.

John made himself sit down and think it through.  He was no Sherlock, but he wasn’t an idiot, either.

Sherlock had pretended to commit suicide, and was now leaving London at the very least, judging by what John was feeling, if not the UK itself.  Given that Sherlock wasn’t dead, John felt he could ignore Sherlock’s ‘note’ as a lie.  The whole ‘research’ thing had been bollocks anyway – what kind of research would have told him Harry was an alcoholic but left him with the impression she was a man?

Moriarty hadn’t been heard from since they’d found him in that reporter’s flat.  Not even to threaten or gloat that he’d won.  It was almost as if he’d gone away…

Like Sherlock had.

Alone protects me.

And just like that, John understood.  Sherlock was leaving, and his fake death had been his way of ensuring no one would come after him.

Not even John.

--

Everyone thought he was in mourning, and in a way, John guessed he was.  He was in mourning for the friend he’d thought he had.

Because Sherlock could be an arse, and cruel and dismissive, yes, but John had thought that Sherlock cared for him.  That Sherlock thought he was useful, if only as back-up muscle.  That Sherlock had trusted him.

Apparently, he’d been wrong.

It was a heavy blow, and John was enough of an adult to admit that he didn’t take it well.  It felt like the night Mary told him she was in love, and it wasn’t with him – a sudden tilt in his worldview that threw everything into a whole new light.  Sherlock had been worried at the pool, but maybe he’d been worried because he thought he’d been wrong.  There was that thing about John being a ‘conductor of light’, but maybe he’d only said that because he’d needed to make up with John so he could have a test subject for the supposedly-poisoned sugar.

This was worse than Mary.  Because Sherlock had been the centre of his life.

And that had been his mistake.

Maybe if Sherlock had actually died, John could have stayed in Baker Street and grieved quietly, supported by Mrs Hudson and Lestrade and everyone who’d known Sherlock.  But knowing that Sherlock had tricked him, that he had never really trusted him or considered him a friend, John just couldn’t do it.  He couldn’t see any of his friends mourn (though they’d been Sherlock’s friends first, and that was part of John’s problem) without wanting to tell them that it was a lie, that Sherlock was just using them all.

Well, except Molly.  John didn’t feel any urge to tell her because she already knew.

John wasn’t a genius – he knew that about himself.  He had difficulty knowing why people were lying to him, assuming he even knew they were lying in the first place.  But this was one of the exceptions.

He knew Molly was lying to him almost from the first moment he saw her after…just after.  Guilt and fear were practically steaming off her, though to most people it probably would have looked like grief combined with some social awkwardness.

John had known better.  He had known Sherlock was alive, and going by what he was getting from Molly, he was fairly certain she had a role in the staged suicide.

He’d had to walk away from her before he yelled at her.  Before he asked her if Sherlock had told her why he didn’t trust John, why John hadn’t merited being let in on the plan.

He might have hated Molly under different circumstances, but she looked and felt so wretched with guilt that all he felt for her was compassion.

Not so Mycroft.

Mycroft was putting on a good show of a man tightly controlled but cracking at the edges with grief, and John was pretty sure it was fooling everyone.  Anyone who got close to him at the funeral started getting sympathy sprinkled through their emotions like drops of warm rain, but John could feel that there was no trace of grief in Mycroft.  There was something there – a flickering shadow of loss, like the intermittent pull of a malfunctioning vacuum – but it wasn’t grief, not really.

Of course Mycroft had been involved.  The geniuses had hatched a plan on their own – god forbid they ever consider the mere mortals.

But John didn’t say anything.  Because if Sherlock and Mycroft were really bringing down Moriarty, that was more important than screaming at them about being cold, crazy bastards who thought everything was about one-upping everyone else.  No matter how much he wanted to.

So John moved out.  Because he needed to move on.

--

Except he couldn’t.  Move on, that was, because he’d gone and bonded himself to Sherlock like the idiot he so clearly was.  Even when he determinedly ignored the bond, refused to probe for insight into Sherlock’s emotional state, it was still there, pulsing quietly in the background.  Like white noise, except your brain got used to white noise and could ignore it, but John had never managed to just ignore a bond.  It was part of him, and it was like trying to ignore his hands – you might not consciously think about them, but you were never unaware of them.

Clearly, he needed to break the bond before he was going to get anywhere.

Except he couldn’t.  Not couldn’t as in ‘couldn’t manage it’, but couldn’t as in ‘had no idea how to’.

John supposed he should have expected this.  He had no real idea how he’d created the bond in the first place, and he’d never tried to break his bond with Harry.  He’d formed the bond when he just kind of…pushed emotion at Sherlock, and something had snagged.  He’d been trying to push all his emotions – all of himself – so maybe the opposite would work?  Pulling himself away from Sherlock, the same way he tried to pull pain away from people he was healing?

He tried to pull himself away from the bond.  Like leaning away, except in his brain.

It didn’t work.  John didn’t even get a headache or a twinge from the bond, which would have told him it was at least doing something.  There was no change at all.

The worst part was that John wasn’t even sure if that was because he was doing it the wrong way or because he needed another tactic entirely.  It wasn’t as though there were instructions he could consult.

So John embarked on some experimentation.

--

He tried visualising the bond as some kind of rope or chain, and then he visualised cutting it.

That didn’t work.

He tried to smother it, to bury it, to shove it into the back of his head and starve it.

That didn’t work, either.

He tried alcohol, but that only blotted his empathy out when he got to the stage where he couldn’t walk straight.  He didn’t feel the bond, true, but John had no desire to pick up Harry’s bad habits, so he chalked that one up to a failure as well.

He tried marijuana, but he still felt the bond.  The drug just made him not care that he felt it.

He bought self-help books that talked about meditation and ‘opening the mind to the energies of the universe’ and such.  They didn’t help either.

John even made a neat little list, complete with checkboxes:

Visualisation [x]
‘Pulling’ [x]
Alcohol [x]
Marijuana [x]
Meditation [x]
Calming the mind [x]
Haloperidol [x]
Clozapine [x]
Brain surgery [ ]

Morphine was no help – John remembered that from when he’d been shot – so he’d considered cocaine.  But cocaine tended to increase sociability and only began to induce numbness and blunting emotions after you’d been using it for a while, so he didn’t think that was a good idea.

The antipsychotics were a bit of a stretch and a definite abuse of his hospital contacts, but John had been hopeful.  After all, if they helped schizophrenics cope with delusions then maybe they could help him cope with the bond.  But they only made him feel tired and listless.

John could create the bond, but he couldn’t destroy it.

There was a final option he hadn’t explored: brain surgery, or more specifically, neural destruction.  He’d have to get one of those fancy imaging scans that showed which parts of the brain were active at what point in time, use those to narrow down which part of his brain dealt with the bond, then just burn that little cluster of neurons and hopefully kill the bond.  Of course, it would take years, cost a fortune and John had a better than average chance of ending up brain-damaged in a way he wasn’t expecting, so he didn’t really consider that a feasible option.  He wrote it down anyway.

He put the list up on his fridge with a souvenir magnet they’d brought home from Dartmoor.  The pub had a collection of silly things like that – stuffed toys and bottle openers and the like – and John had never been sure if Sherlock had actually bought the magnet or if he’d nicked it like he had the ashtray from Buckingham Palace.  Sherlock had just given it to him when they were driving back to London and at the time, John had taken it as another half-arsed apology.  But now he was wondering if Sherlock had just lifted it when he was anxious (probably as some bizarre way to calm himself down) and needed someone to pawn it off to.

John was settling into bed and wondering if he’d have any luck with combining his strategies (maybe if he took Clozapine and then tried the visualisation trick?) when the bond suddenly twitched.  John had been doing his best to ignore it, but he was starting to feel…was that pain?

Paying attention to the bond was his big mistake.  Pain flared along his left arm, concentrated in the wrist, and John – unthinkingly – reached for the pain and drew it into himself.  It hurt, but of course it hurt; Sherlock had probably gone and broken his wrist like the idiotic git he was.  The fine bones ached and throbbed, the way they would if they were healing, until it faded into discomfort then went away entirely.

“Shit,” John muttered.  There wasn’t much point in swearing aloud when you were alone, but it made him feel better.

Well, the hope that Sherlock would never notice anything just went sailing out the window.  John had never been entirely certain whether Sherlock was aware of the bond or not, and he’d often wondered if Sherlock would notice if it was broken – would he be aware something had changed, or did the bond operate on a level that Sherlock’s brain just wasn’t built to register?  John had been afraid to test it when he still thought they were friends, because even if poking and prodding the bond didn’t set something off, just the change in his behaviour might have made Sherlock suspicious.

But now John had healed him, and there was no way Sherlock could have missed that.  For all that he’d talked about Sherlock’s ‘spectacular ignorance’, John was pretty sure Sherlock would know it wasn’t normal for a broken wrist to fix itself within a few minutes.

All he could do was hope that Sherlock was too preoccupied with…whatever he was doing…to experiment.

--

John gripped the arm of the chair and resisted both the urge to scream and to grip the part of his body that hurt.  He knew it wouldn’t help.

He hated broken fingers.

He especially hated when he was suffering them because Sherlock seemed to be systematically injuring himself.  Probably to test out his newfound healing ability, just like John had been hoping he wouldn’t.

John had been watching some crap telly to bore himself enough to go to sleep when the bond started twinging, broadcasting a strange cocktail of feelings, the most prominent being lemon-scented pain and a bubbling, glimmering curiosity.  It told him that whatever was happening was mild (it was when John could taste the pain that he had to start worrying), and the curiosity had made John suspect that Sherlock was doing it to himself, so he’d done his best to ignore it.

He couldn’t fix every little thing, and maybe Sherlock would lose interest if nothing happened.

But then there was something that felt like Sherlock had cut open his own arm from wrist to elbow, and…well, John had to fix that.  Except Sherlock, the bloody idiot, had just done it again.  And now he was apparently breaking fingers.

John was half-tempted to leave him like that so he wouldn’t do it again, but no sooner had the thought occurred to him that he felt guilty.  For a moment, he was nothing but furious – how could Sherlock make him feel guilty?  Sherlock was the one who’d faked his death and gone off to do something dangerous without him and was now breaking his fingers out of twisted curiosity – John had nothing to feel guilty about!

He felt guilty anyway.  Because he was the one who’d healed Sherlock and piqued his curiosity in the first place, and because whatever Sherlock was doing was dangerous.  Sherlock needed to be as close to full strength as possible, or he could end up severely injured or worse.

At least after John healed the broken finger, Sherlock seemed content to let it be.  Well, he was probably taking samples of his skin and blood and analysing them or something, but he wasn’t mutilating himself anymore.  John had learned to take the victories he could.

He told himself he wouldn’t be healing Sherlock again.  It was a lie, but it was a comforting one.

--

It was strange how the drudgery of routine could make time blur.  Little ‘incidents’ with Sherlock broke the monotony somewhat, but for the most part John’s life consisted of work, attempting to socialise, eating and sleeping.  Two years had passed almost before he knew it.

He tried dating, but his heart wasn’t really in it and John soon stopped.  It might have been different if he’d thought Sherlock was dead, but this strange limbo where he knew Sherlock had lied to him (had left him), but still felt what he was feeling…there was no closure, no chance to move on. He was still healing Sherlock, for Christ’s sake!

The fact that he could heal Sherlock said a lot about how well he was moving on – in that, he wasn’t moving on at all.  John could only heal people he loved, after all.

Most of the time, John wanted to track Sherlock down just to scream at him (or maybe punch him, that’d get him some closure, right?), but he had no idea where to find him.  The bond wasn’t GPS – it didn’t come with a homing signal, only a vague sense of Sherlock’s general direction.  And John knew he couldn’t find Sherlock if Sherlock didn’t want to be found.

So he went through his routine as a now-established GP, wondering if this was what the rest of his life would be like.  Hopefully he’d find a way to break the bond, and then maybe he could start to recover.  (And maybe he was thinking about ‘recovering’ from Sherlock like he was recovering from a disease, but John though the simile fit.)

In short, being kidnapped was almost a relief.

--

John would have stood a chance against an actual person.  He couldn’t read people’s minds to know when he was going to be attacked, but he could influence them as soon as they started in on him.  Fear was always a good one, useful for making them falter or even run away.

But you couldn’t push emotions on a poisoned tea bag, and John could admit he never suspected a thing.  He’d felt a little drowsy after the tea, but he hadn’t thought anything of it – it had been a long, dull day of routine, and he’d felt he deserved a nap.

It was only when he woke up and realised he wasn’t in his flat that John knew something was wrong.

John kept his eyes closed, just in case he was being watched.  He was lying on his side on a surface that was hard and even but slightly rough – concrete, most likely – and he was feeling cold but not damp.  Basement?  Someplace industrial with little insulation?  There was metal around his left ankle, thicker and heavier than a handcuff and lumpy.  Maybe a chain?

John cautiously reached out with his empathy, and to his surprise the bond with Sherlock responded.  It was sharp and bright in a way it hadn’t been in years, with worry and fear and pain glowing like warm coals and singing out that Sherlock was close.  Very close.

“John?”

John opened his eyes.

It was a chain on his leg – big and thick, wrapped around his ankle and locked with a plain padlock.  John was barefoot and without his jacket, just as he’d been when he’d laid down for his ‘nap’, and he wasn’t missing any other clothes.

He’d been right about the concrete floor, and one of the walls was brick.  The other three were corrugated iron, and while that would usually make John hopeful about his chances of breaking down the door, he knew there wasn’t enough slack in the chain for him to reach it.  The chain was anchored to a large metal ring embedded in the floor, wrapped and locked with a padlock like his ankle.

He could see all this by the light of a single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling – there weren’t any windows.

“John?”

With a deep breath to try to calm himself, John looked over at Sherlock.

His appearance was a bit of a shock.  He was wearing a ratty T-shirt with the radioactive symbol on it, khaki-coloured trousers and his hair looked greasy and unwashed.  For a man who usually looked so elegant, it was certainly a step down.  He was secured more thoroughly than John was – he was handcuffed in addition to the ankle chain.  He also had a split lip and a black eye.

“Hello, Sherlock,” John said evenly, clamping down on his emotions so he wouldn’t risk accidentally sending something through the bond.

Sherlock was looking shaken.  “You’re not surprised?”

John felt an impulse to burst into hysterical laughter.  “I knew you were alive.”

“Since when?” Sherlock sounded almost offended.

“Since about…a minute or two after you did it.”

“That’s impossible.  I had everything planned-”

“You really shouldn’t be reminding me of this right now,” John interrupted, pushing himself into a sitting position and feeling a surge of fury at the reminder that Sherlock had planned that charade, had planned to betray John and leave him alone.

“But you…you seemed…”

“I’m a very good actor,” John snapped.

Sherlock shifted, like he wanted to move closer, but John realised Sherlock was at the limits of his ankle chain – he couldn’t move any closer to John unless he laid himself flat on the floor.  But there was only about two feet between them, and they could touch if John pulled his own chain taut.  Which meant this was a deliberate move; their captor wanted them to be able to touch.

John didn’t pretend to be an expert on interrogation, but he knew you only indulged a bond between captives when you were planning on manipulating that bond.

Sherlock opened his mouth, but John cut him off.  “Any ideas?”

Sherlock immediately looked shifty.  “John, you have to understand-”

Any ideas?” John repeated, carefully keeping his voice flat and even and throttling the scream that was trying to burst from his throat.

“Sebastian Moran,” Sherlock said, sounding like he was trying to match John’s tone.  “Former sniper in the army, dishonourable discharge.  He was Moriarty’s second in command.”

Was his second in command?  He’s gone rogue?”

Sherlock hesitated.  “Moriarty’s dead.”

That was news to John.  “Since when?”

“Two years.”  Sherlock’s voice was almost strained.  “Moran wants information about his death.  Or to be more precise, he wants lies about his death, since he refuses to believe the truth.”

John would like to ask what that truth was, but that wasn’t relevant at the moment and wouldn’t aid in their escape.  He was trying to be distantly professional about the whole thing, treat Sherlock like one of those colleagues he didn’t like but had to work with.

John wasn’t optimistic about his chances of success, but he could at least try.

“So when can we expect a visit?” John asked.

Sherlock shrugged.  “Impossible to say.”

“Has he visited before now?”

“No.”

Getting information out of Sherlock that he didn’t want to give had always been like pulling teeth, and John didn’t have the patience to deal with it right now.  “Sherlock, I’ve been drugged and kidnapped and I don’t really know what’s coming next but it probably won’t be nice, so how about you tell me what you know so I can at least brace myself.”

Sherlock didn’t flinch, but the bond did.  Pinched-lemon fear and burnt-plastic guilt and frayed-red worry all burst into his brain like bullets from a machine gun.

“Moriarty killed himself-”

“You’re sure of that, are you?”  John grimaced, angry at himself – he’d been trying to get past this resentment, and interrupting Sherlock for petty digs wasn’t going to help them.

“Fairly certain, yes.”  Sherlock’s voice was acerbic, but his feelings were…complicated.  The guilt throbbed sharply, like a freshly-opened wound, but it was thick with something that felt like oily righteousness.  “But the body was…removed.  Moran held Moriarty in some level of affection, and refuses to believe that he committed suicide.  He also wants to know the location of the body, and I assume he’s planning to torture us for it.”

That made sense.  Or at least, made sense to the type of psychotic murderer that Moran probably was (being Moriarty’s second and all that), except for one bit.  “Why does he think I know anything?”

“I don’t think the purpose of your presence is to extract information from you,” Sherlock said quietly, looking at the ceiling.

Okay, so Moran thought torturing John would get Sherlock to talk.  At least that explained why he’d been kidnapped and why the chains were long enough to let them touch – John had been right, Moran was planning to exploit the affection he thought Sherlock held for John.

Maybe that was harsh; John knew Sherlock did hold some affection for him.  Just not very much, it would seem.

“Do you know where we are?”

“Not the actual location,” Sherlock admitted, sounding furious at himself.  “The style and degradation of the brickwork is consistent with an industrial building, most likely chemical-based.  But the smell indicates it hasn’t been in use in at least three years, possibly four.  I was unconscious until approximately half an hour ago, but judging by the footsteps I’ve heard, this place is quite expansive and Moran is employing at least five thugs.”

John nodded, already planning their escape.  Not that it took much planning – he’d wait until someone came in and got within range, hit them with enough fear to terrify them into paralysis, then disarm them and knock them out.  Even if this hypothetical person didn’t have the keys on them, they’d probably have something Sherlock could use to pick the locks.  Once they were out of the chains, they could go from there.

So maybe his plans had room for improvement, but John wasn’t going to hang about getting tortured while he came up with a new one.

And escape plans always went better when everyone was healthy.  Sherlock’s injuries looked (and felt) superficial, but pain still slowed your reflexes and made you vulnerable.

John both wanted to heal Sherlock and hated the very idea.  Hated it because Sherlock would know, and Baskerville and the fake suicide had proven exactly how much John should trust Sherlock with his well-being.  And he wanted it because at least then it would be done, John’s biggest secret would be revealed, and the worry and waiting would be over.

Still, he had to check; “Any surveillance in here?”

“No – this is a very sloppy operation.”

Good enough to catch you, John thought but didn’t say.

“Are you hurt anywhere else?” John asked, focusing his gaze on Sherlock’s split lip.

“I’m fine,” Sherlock huffed, leaning back from him.  “And don’t worry – there’s been a new development, which I’m sure will seem very unusual but which has proven reliable, so don’t-”

“Stop moving,” John muttered, shuffling close enough to grab Sherlock’s hand.  “This is easier with physical contact.”

John closed his eyes and reached for the pain.  It hurt more than he was expecting – there were some bruised ribs along with the mangled face – but he set his teeth and breathed slow and even until the pain began to fade.

“It was you,” Sherlock breathed.

John opened his eyes, unable to stop himself from giving a short, satisfied nod as he took in Sherlock’s healed face.  “Yes, it was me.”

Under other circumstances, Sherlock’s lost expression might have been funny.  “So every time-”

“Yes.”

“And when I-”

“Yes.”

“Have you always been able to do this?”  And now Sherlock was irritated, but it was creaking and sparky – irritation at himself for failing to deduce this, rather than at John for not telling him.

“If you mean the healing, then I’ve been doing that since I was a kid,” John admitted.  And then, because he might as well go all the way, “But this is really just an offshoot of my empathy.”

“Your what?”

“My empathy.  That’s what I call it.  I can feel other people’s emotions.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, but John couldn’t feel even a flicker of disbelief.  “How?”

“I don’t know how.  I only know that I’ve been doing it all my life.”  John laughed, short and harsh.  “Don’t you remember?  You asked me once how I knew – how I always knew, with everyone.  This is how.”

“But how does that work?  Can you recognise them as distinct from your own feelings?”

“They don’t come as only feelings,” John admitted.  “It’s a bit like synaesthesia.  I feel other people’s emotions, but I also see them, hear them, taste them, smell them…it’s hard to describe.”

“And the ability to heal people is somehow related to this?”

“I can feel people’s pain.  And I just try to…pull it into myself.  It doesn’t work for everyone.”  Which was definitely an understatement, but all John felt comfortable saying.

“You were…” Sherlock swallowed, the bond prickling with rose-tinted worry.  “It looked like it hurt.”

John shrugged.  “The pain has to go somewhere.  It goes to me.”

Sherlock shifted, his emotions turning muddy and clotted and John didn’t have the energy to pick them apart.  Instead he leaned back against the wall, closed his eyes, and tried to use his empathy to feel out how many people were holding them.

He could feel a man quite close to the brick wall, exuding a kind of calm boredom that said he was either used to kidnapping and interrogation or had no idea what he was guarding.  There was a woman near the door, splashed with soft ripples of excitement, like she was enjoying what she was doing or looking forward to something.  Her signature was moving – patrolling, or did she have somewhere to go?  John kept himself focused on her, noting that she moved further away, remained there for a few minutes, and then returned to her original position.

Now, was that a trip to the bathroom, or had she gone outside the building for a quick smoke or something similar?

“What are you doing?”

John was used to ignoring distractions while he did this, but Sherlock was hard to ignore.  John opened his eyes and pinned Sherlock with what he hoped was a glare that expressed his full level of frustration.

“I’m trying to determine how many people we have to worry about,” he said flatly.  “Do you think you can let me do that?”

Sherlock frowned.  “And that’s something your…empathy…can tell you?”

“Yeah, everyone’s emotional signature is different.”

“Emotional signature?”

“I feel emotions, but different people make me think of different things.  I know it sounds strange, but that’s really the best way I can describe it.”

“And you’ve always been able to do this?  With everyone?”

John snorted to himself.  “I must admit, I always wondered about the look on Donovan’s face if she ever found that I was the freak, not you.”

Sherlock was silent for a moment, and John was just about to shut his eyes and get back to work when he spoke again.  “So you feel their emotions, and you understand them-”

“Not always,” John interrupted.  He felt he should be clear on this point.  “Emotions are complex and confusing, and they’re much more so when you don’t know the thoughts and experiences attached to them.  I can feel them, sure, but I have no idea about the reasons behind them.”

Sherlock made the low, humming noise that indicated he was thinking, and John wondered at the prickle of watery fear and rough green relief that flowed down the bond.  But he only wondered for a moment – he had things to do, and John shut his eyes again to concentrate on his empathy.

There was another man to the right of the cell, further away than the woman outside the door.  There were two men and a second woman to the left, even further away than the third man.  Not for the first time, John wished he had some reliable way of measuring distance with his empathy apart from ‘close’ and ‘further away’.

The congregation suggested some kind of entrance.  Or a meeting.  Or maybe just a lunch room – kidnappers had to eat too, right?

John tried to push his senses further, but he couldn’t pick up any more individual signatures before they started getting blurry and indistinct.  So unless they were in a complex the size of a shopping centre (unlikely), he’d assume there were six people holding them – four men and two women.

John opened his eyes.  “Okay, there are six people we have to deal with.  A woman near the door, a man behind the wall there, another man somewhere in that direction, and two men and a woman over there,” he said, pointing in the appropriate directions.

“Excellent work, John,” Sherlock said, sounding like he used to when he had a plan.  More specifically, when he had a plan that involved John in some way.

John tried not to make comparisons to pawns and cogs, but it was hard.

“All we need to do is-”

“No,” John said firmly.

“But-”

“No.”

“Come on, John-”

“Be quiet,” John hissed.  “I’m trying to concentrate.”

He’d never managed to use his empathy to call someone over to him, but he figured he could give it a shot.  He just needed to figure out what kind of emotion would make someone walk into a dungeon to torment captives…

“On what?” Sherlock frowned, suddenly scornful.  “I have a plan-”

“Shut up!” John snapped.  “Christ, you didn’t speak to me for two years easily enough, can’t you go a few more minutes?”

Sherlock fell silent, the bond going icy with guilt and irritation, but John was more focused on the new emotional signature he could feel approaching.  Was it Moran?

John thought it was.  The man was pulsing with wine-dark satisfaction and fluttering excitement.  It wasn’t like the woman’s – that was vague and weak, but this was like black cocoa, thick and rich and liable to give you a headache if you ate too much.  With anger and resentment undercutting it all, like points of barbed wire gleaming with blood.  John never knew these things for certain, but it felt a lot like a man who had worked towards revenge and was finally getting it.

He knew it was Moran when the new emotional signature encountered the three congregated at…wherever that was.  All three picked up a slightly purple tinge of fear, like the slight sourness of an apple – light but there.  Like the boss had just come to look over their shoulder, and the boss was a crazy assassin.

One of the men detached himself from the group and approached their cell.  The woman in front of the door flared with renewed excitement, and together they moved closer.

“Moran’s here,” John whispered, lying down on the ground and closing his eyes – if he could trick them into thinking he was still unconscious, they were likely to come closer.  “Someone’s coming in.”

The door screeched open just as he finished talking – the hinges were in very bad shape – and the man and woman entered.  John could feel Sherlock’s irritation and worry, but he concentrated on the two people who had entered.

There was a metallic click and a rustle, like someone drawing a weapon from a holster.  Gun or knife?  John supposed it didn’t matter.

“You don’t want to try anything,” the woman says, and John was aware of the man approaching him.

The kick was a surprise, though – right in the small of his back, too.  John groaned and curled into himself, trying to act as though he was just rousing from a drugged stupor.

“Leave him alone,” Sherlock snapped.

“Shut up,” the woman barked.

The man yanked on the chain attached to John’s ankle, twisting the padlock up and opening it.  Just what John had been hoping for.

It had been a while since he’d done this so deliberately, and with such intent to harm.  Moriarty had been his latest attempt, and John did what he’d done then – shoving fear and despair and just about every negative emotion he could dredge up straight at them.

He opened his eyes to the sight of a blond man and brunette woman gasping and clutching at their chests like they’d just been stabbed.  The woman lunged toward him – she had a knife, not a gun, more’s the pity – but John just rolled out of the way and she collapsed without him touching her.

They didn’t move.  John got to his feet and checked them, pressing his fingers to their neck and feeling no answering pulse.  He tried not to think about pressing his fingers to Sherlock’s wrist and feeling the same.

“They’re dead,” Sherlock said, staring at the bodies.  “Heart attack, yes?”

John nodded.  “My push was maybe a bit stronger than I meant it to be.”

He’d pushed so much at Moriarty without any kind of impact, he’d forgotten to adjust for other people.  Not that John would be shedding any tears for these two, but it was slightly sickening to realise how easy it was to miscalculate that sort of thing.

John felt the beginnings of a headache knotting his temples.  A side-effect of whatever drugs he’d been fed, or of pushing his emotions so hard?

He took the woman’s knife and the man’s keys from their hands, and began searching the bodies.

“We need to move quickly,” Sherlock was saying, already reaching out like he expected John to just hand him the keys.

I need to move quickly,” John corrected.  “You’re staying here.”

He could feel Sherlock’s surprise, like the sudden taste of detergent – bitter and nasty.

“I can deal with them easily,” John continued, gesturing to the two dead bodies laid out on the concrete.  “And my old CO used to say that the only thing worse than no one at your back was someone at your back that you didn’t trust.  You’ll just distract me.”

“You don’t trust me.”  It would have been a flat statement of fact, if John couldn’t feel the sudden hurt spilling through the bond, sharp as aged cheese.

“I don’t trust you,” John affirmed.  Then, because he felt he should explain himself, “I don’t trust that any instructions you give me will be genuine instead of attempts to manipulate me.  If you say ‘duck’, I won’t duck – I’ll look to see if you’re telling the truth about the threat.  We’re less likely to get killed this way.”

John took a solid grip on the knife and made his way towards the door.

“John, you can’t do this,” Sherlock cried.  “You don’t know what he’s like, the things he’s done...John! John you can’t-

John shut the door on Sherlock’s devastated face, and did his best to shut down the bond.

--

John always tried to avoid opening up his empathy too far.  It was like squinting your eyes when you were checking the position of the sun – if you opened them, the light dazzled you and you didn’t see anything, so you had to control the amount of input.  Except if you looked directly at the sun you could get eye damage and his empathy didn’t so much as dazzle him as stop him being aware of what was happening to his body, and here was where the metaphor broke down.

He’d slipped up a few times as a kid, just by accident.  He’d been focusing on one person because they had an interesting emotion, then someone else’s emotions would grab his attention, and he’d inadvertently open himself up to more and more stimuli until he was just a mind drifting on a sea of emotion, mostly unaware of his body or anything that happened to it.  While John didn’t walk into walls when he was like that, he’d once nearly walked into traffic and he often ‘woke up’ with bruises and scrapes where he’d collided or tripped and just went onwards without ever realising it.

It was like being so far in your head you didn’t notice what other people were doing, except John got so far into other people’s heads he didn’t know what he was doing.

He knew it was dangerous, to open himself up to everyone in the warehouse, but it was also the most effective way of making sure they were all dealt with, quickly and (relatively) cleanly.  John needed to take out five people who were likely armed and definitely dangerous, and the only physical weapon he had was a knife.  His empathy was the only thing that was going to get him and Sherlock out of this in one piece, so John was going to use it.  He was going to make sure he knew where those people were and what they were feeling because he couldn’t feel anything but them.

John couldn’t really explain how it felt to drown in his empathy like that.  It wasn’t like the Baskerville drug – they didn’t overwhelm him to the point of being absolutely lost, but his attention was definitely…absent.  He was aware of people approaching him and trying to push fear on them.  He was aware of them falling, of stabbing them to ensure they stayed down, and he was aware of them dying.  He wasn’t aware of much else.

Of course, John could only drift like that when there were a lot of empathic signatures around him.  The less people there were, the easier it was for his brain to parse the emotions, to remain focused.

When John came back to himself, he, Moran and Sherlock were the only people still alive in the building.

He’d also managed to acquire a gun (John had a vague image of a woman drawing it and shooting at him as he charged her), but there were only three bullets left.  John would have done a more comprehensive check of himself, but he could feel Moran approaching the cell Sherlock was still locked up in and he didn’t have the time to waste.

He was a little disappointed in how out of shape he was, though.  He was tired and it was taking real effort to breathe – the result of the painful stitch in his side, most likely.  Or the way he kept coughing.  Sherlock had said this place was old, and John hoped he hadn’t inhaled any asbestos.  And he must have stepped in a puddle because his right foot was moist with lukewarm fluid and was making nasty squishing noises as he ran.  With any luck, it wasn’t some awful chemical left over from when this place was still in use.

He turned a corner just as Sherlock rocketed out of the cell.  John was surprised for as long as it took him to remember that the bodies had been left within Sherlock’s range – he probably swiped something to pick the lock.  Sherlock took one glance around, saw John, and suddenly paled.

John would have turned around to check if someone was behind him, if his empathy wasn’t telling him that the only threat in the place was about to come down the corridor.

Moran turned the corner and raised his eyebrows at the sight of them.  “If you want to threaten me with a gun, you should make sure you’re not bleeding to death first.”

And even though Moran was pointing his own gun at him, John was too tired to stifle the reflex to glance down.

That was the problem with empathy.  Living in other people’s feelings and other people’s pain often made it difficult to recognise your own.

If John hadn’t been using his empathy, he would have realised he’d been shot in the chest.  And a graze – or perhaps a knife wound – had opened up his right thigh.  The bullet had probably got him in the bottom of a lung, judging by the way blood was foaming around the wound, and he’d obviously been bleeding for a while –his jumper and jeans were soaked.  John would bet he’d been leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind him.

He was distantly surprised that he’d been able to walk.  Or perhaps it wasn’t so surprising – he was feeling very tired (a side-effect of blood loss) and he’d been having trouble breathing.  Injuries could hinder, but it was pain that incapacitated and John hadn’t really been in a position to feel much of anything.

Until now.  He was feeling a lot of pain now.

“John…” Sherlock’s voice wobbled, and the high whine of fear coming through the bond sounded like the screech of static.

“It’s alright, Sherlock,” John muttered, coughing a little and finally noticing that the back of his mouth tasted like blood.  “It doesn’t hurt as much as the first time I got shot.”

Of course, John knew that was a bad sign.  If it didn’t hurt as much as it should have, it was because most of the blood and oxygen going to that area was then pouring out of him rather than giving energy to the various nerves that could send pain signals.  He leaned to the side, letting the wall take most of his weight, and he let the gun drop.  Not just drop from a firing position but actually drop to the ground.  It wasn’t going to do him much good, anyway – in this state he was more likely to hit Sherlock than Moran.

“You’re dying,” Moran sneered.  Because apparently he was the type that always had to gloat.  “How much time do you think you have?  Two minutes?  Three?”

Actually John knew it was more like ten.  Maybe he only had a few minutes until he lost consciousness, but it would take him longer than that to actually die.  People were always making mistakes like that.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, trying to keep his voice from wavering.

Moran was looking amused.  “It doesn’t matter, huh?  Why not?”

“Because you’re going to die.”  Usually it was a bad idea to warn people about your tactics, but his empathy wasn’t something that could be defended against.  And he needed to buy time to gather his strength for another empathic hit.

“He can fix it!” Sherlock hissed, grabbing John shoulders in an effort to keep him upright.  “John, do you what you did to me – hurry!”

“It doesn’t work like that, Sherlock.  I take the pain, I don’t give it away.”

John could taste blood on the back of his tongue, rising with each exhale.  Which could mean a lot of things, really, but it was never a promising sign.  A burst of hysteria hit and he giggled, feeling little bubbles of blood form at the corner of his mouth.

Moran’s eyes narrowed.  “I got a look at Wallace’s body, you know?”

John had no idea who that was.  Sherlock was trying to slowly pick up the gun without telegraphing his movements, so John kept his eyes fixed on Moran so he wouldn’t inadvertently draw attention to him.

“His throat was slit, but that wasn’t what killed him,” Moran continued.  “Not enough blood for that.  But there wasn’t any other mark on him, like he’d just had a heart attack on the spot.  Now I know you didn’t manage to smuggle in poison…so what are you?”

He clearly meant it in the form of what John’s rank and training had been in the army, but John answered honestly.

“A monster.”

Then he funnelled all his fear straight into the stormy hurricane that was Moran’s emotional signature, hoping he could bring the other man down before he passed out just as Sherlock snatched up the gun, brought it to bear and pulled the trigger.

John wasn’t sure if it was his empathy or the bullet in his head that got Moran first, but his money was on the bullet.  John didn’t think he‘d pushed enough fear to startle a baby.

His knees were buckling, and Sherlock abandoned the gun to try to ease him to the floor.  He didn’t do a good job of it – John’s elbows knocked the concrete painfully – but John appreciated the effort.

“John, what you did, does it work the other way?” Sherlock was saying, his voice low and frantic, his emotions practically bludgeoning they were so loud.

“Dunno…” John slurred.

Everything was getting dim and distant, probably because of the blood loss.  The wounds didn’t even twinge anymore, and John knew he was going to die.  Even assuming Sherlock could somehow acquire a phone, no ambulance could ever arrive in time.

He had the vague thought that he should be angry, or sad, or frightened, or something.  But he just felt strangely resigned, as though there was some twisted peace in acknowledging that you were done for.

There was no ‘please, god, let me live’ this time.

Though he was very annoyed at the way Sherlock was shaking him, at the fear and guilt and crushing despair spurting across the bond like…well, like blood from a severed artery.

If he wanted to die in peace, John thought he’d earned the right.

“John, look at me!  Tell me how it works – I can help you if you’ll just tell me how it works!

“It’s fine,” John managed, before he coughed hard enough to feel drops of blood hit the back of his teeth.

Because you had to love someone to take on their pain.  More than just love, in fact – you also had to admit it yourself, which was much more difficult.  Sherlock scorned love because he feared it, and feared what it could drive people to.  Sherlock might love John on some level, but he was unlikely to admit it, even to himself.

“It’s not fine!” Sherlock snarled.  “This is the very opposite of fine.  This wasn’t…it isn’t supposed to end like this!  You’re not allowed to die!”

Honestly, John thought his death was the only thing that made sense out of all this.  That was how these stories went, after all.

“I told you,” he gurgled – it really was getting difficult to breathe now.  “I’m not the hero, I’m the monster.  And monsters don’t get a happy ending.”

They died.  That was how all the fairy-tales ended, and god knew John’s life with Sherlock had been crazy enough to sound like a fairy-tale.

Sherlock was talking again, but John couldn’t make sense of the words.  He heard them, but they were lost in the haze that seemed to be rolling across his vision.  He closed his eyes, and opening them again seemed like too much work, so he didn’t try.

He could still feel someone shaking him, and then someone kissing him.  John wondered who thought it was a good idea to kiss a dying man – his lips were coated with his own blood, after all, and even leaving aside the unpleasant taste, what if he had some kind of blood-borne disease?  They were risking infection.

There was a vague sensation of hands tightening over his shoulders and breath breaking over his face in a gasp or sob.

Then there was nothing.

--

Part Four

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