He was still on some serious painkillers when they offered him his commission back. "A promotion, actually," the brigadier explained, while John was distracted trying to work out if he could come to attention while laying in bed. "As you are clearly no longer disabled, there should be no difficulty returning you to active duty."
"Back to Afghanistan?" John asked.
The brigadier smiled. "No, no, I think you've got more pressing matters to attend to, don't you?"
"Moriarity," the colonel behind the brigadier said, when John clearly wasn't processing. "He's been categorized as an international terrorist and a threat to national security."
"We are doing what we can by conventional methods," the brigadier continued. "But as you've probably guessed by now, taking down Moriarty will require unconventional methods as well."
"Why me?" John thought to ask.
The brigadier tilted his head to one side, oddly dog-like. "Because you have had three months of training in the methods of Sherlock Holmes, but none of his flaws," he said. "Because you have an uncomplicated love of country and a strong moral code, which allow you act independently and reliably. Because you have a personal investment in making Moriarty pay for what he's done."
"How long do I have to decide?" John asked, because he was alert enough to know he really wasn't competent to be making these decisions on this much medication.
"Forty-eight hours," said the colonel.
Forty-seven hours after that, John convinced a nurse to help him into a wheelchair and take him down the corridor to see Sherlock. He was still unconscious, but according to his chart his intracranial pressure was dropping and there would be no permanent brain damage. If he was very lucky, he wouldn't even scar.
John watched Sherlock's face in sleep and thought about the last three mad, glorious, infuriating months. And he covered one of Sherlock's hands with his own. "If he wants to hurt you, he's going to have to come through me," John told him quietly.
He didn't see Sherlock again for three years.
He was transferred to a military hospital--not Selly Oak, something small and secret, near the sea. Had to get back into fighting shape, not just physical therapy but full-on conditioning: he'd let himself go, a bit, eating like a soldier without exercising like one, and he wasn't twenty-five anymore.
When he was fully healed he was transferred to Sennybridge and dumped directly into SAS selection. He wore an officer's uniform without rank insignia and a name badge that said Lewis; he was five years older than the next oldest man in the group and the trainers all seemed a little wary of him. When he wasn't running and shooting and learning about bombs, he was pulled aside for private lessons—in languages, computers, defensive driving on either side of the road. He didn't talk much, except to ask relevant questions, and when they were given a bit of computer time he checked Sherlock's website (no recent updates) and his own blog (deleted).
At some point between carrying his own body weight up a mountain and heading off to run around a jungle in Borneo, he sent an email to try to explain: I'm no good to you in London. I don't have your mind or your skills. But with the Army backing me up, I can take the fight to Moriarty. I won't pretend I can get to him before he gets to you, but I can make him regret he ever put a finger on me, which is close enough.
He didn't get a reply until selection was almost finished; only a handful of men were left, and not many of them made it out of SERE training. John personally thought Mycroft Holmes was the best practical lesson in R2I he'd ever gotten, and filed the thought away along with a thousand other unsent texts and untold jokes. When he stumbled blearily to a computer a few days later, he found a message from an unfamiliar address in his inbox:
Had to abandon the old email; no longer secure. Naturally I had already deduced your motives, and while I find your reasoning flawed I recognize that you will not be subject to persuasion...
There was something off about it, something John couldn't put his finger; nothing he could express logically, but something in his gut. He sometimes thought his guts had better deductive abilities than Sherlock's brain and just couldn't articulate them properly. He made a note of the new email address and replies with a simple, thank you. I'll keep in touch if I can.
The day before he met with his handler, he got a reply: Had to change mobile numbers as well. Better if you don't text anyway, unless absolutely necessary.
They met at St. Mawgan's, John wearing the new-familiar major's uniform and the colonel in barrack dress. He received an envelope containing three different passports and a pistol with a supressor. "Moriarity's last know base of operations was Prague," the colonel told him. "Go fish him out."
"Are those my exact orders, sir?" John asked.
The colonel rolled his eyes. "We didn't train you this long to follow orders, Watson. Your plane leaves Manchester in the morning."
He was in Aktau when he realized that he hadn't seen Sherlock in a year--hadn't heard his voice, hadn't communicated except in fleeting e-mails. If he hadn't been hiding out in the gutted remains of an Soviet-era block of flats, he might've called, or at least e-mailed. As it was, he didn't remember until he was safely across the border in Azerbaijan two weeks later, and Sherlock didn't respond to him anyway.
Moriarty had a network, one that went deep and wide, and John spent the first year clawing his way up one monster at a time. He didn't think of them as murders, because this was war; besides, they weren't very nice people. He shared this thought with the colonel while they were debriefing in Istanbul, something that had become almost routine, and the colonel stared at him for a long time.
Bit not good, John realized a moment too late. "I suppose I'll be sectioned for that," he said, looking into his coffee cup.
The colonel shook his head and stubbed out his cigarette. "You wouldn't be a particularly good assassin if you gave a shit, Watson."
Is that what he was? John didn't remember when that happened. In six months since he'd been deployed, he'd killed five people. Also performed an appendectomy in the back of a moving truck and broke up a human-trafficking ring. He suspected he may have accidentally married an Uzbek woman as well. He'd gone into this thinking like a detective, trying to think like Sherlock, but of course Sherlock usually just handed the culprit over to the police. John was the police, and the judge, and sometimes the executioner.
That probably ought to have upset him more. Maybe there was a reason he and Sherlock got on so well.
"Anyway," the colonel said, pushing a thumb drive in John's direction, "We've got new intelligence for you. Moriarty's been sighted in Venezuela."
"Venezuela?" John echoed incredulously.
"Different arm of the octopus," the colonel said. "There are other agents to take over here. Use the Irish passport."
John used the Spanish one, just to be contrary, and in the airport he bounced an email off a secure server. On the move again. Himself is apparently on holiday. Don't expect me to bring you back a coca plant or anything.
(John had not been back to London since the bombings, not even during the months of convalescence and training; but at that time he didn't doubt that someday he would be.)
The only reply he got was: That's very interesting.
He spent four months crawling the length of Latin America before he was sure he was chasing shadows; Moriarty was busy, sure, but not that busy, and some of the names on the thumb drive turned out to be less minions than rivals. From somewhere in Argentina he placed a secure phone call. "This is bullshit, sir. I was getting warm in Asia."
"You're saying you let him get by you?"
"I'm saying he was never here!"
Six weeks later and half a world away, he accidentally crossed the Rio Grande in the back of a refrigerated truck, and from a sheriff's office in Texas he got an email from Sherlock. I think I may have heard from Himself again. Will explain deductions later; for now, investigating fraud case. What can one buy for nine and one-tenth pence?
The answer, on the date of the email, was one South African rand; John escaped from ICE, booked the flight from Miami and reported to the colonel afterward.
Sherlock had been updating his website again, slowly; he even wrote up a case, the way John used to, with pedantic grammar and truly bizarre spelling mistakes and a mention of John in the preamble: I often had occasion to point out to him how superficial his own accounts were and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste. Having put my hands on the keyboard, I do begin to realize that the matter must be presented in such a way as may interest the reader.... It might've been the closest to humble Sherlock would ever sound, and while John wondered a bit about the past tense he didn't dare bring it up when he left a teasing comment (anonymous, bounced off so many proxies it probably circumnavigated the globe).
Sherlock didn't mention Moriarty anywhere on the site, or contact John with any gory details, so he didn't know quite what had happened--just that he monster himself wasn't back in England, couldn't have been. South Africa lead him up the coast, to weapons dealers and failed states and genocide, and he felt like he was closing in again when the colonel sent a message summoning him to Mombasa.
"Thailand," he said. "Human trafficking. We have video confirmation this time."
"I've got six people who say that's impossible," John said.
The colonel looked annoyed. "And how many of them are still alive?"
It stung, but this was war, and John had been willing to kill for Sherlock the day after he met him. He pushed the guilt down. "Give me more time," he asked. "Two weeks."
"We've already booked your tickets," the colonel said peevishly. "Don't make me give you an order, Watson."
"I thought you didn't train me to follow orders?"
It ended in a stare-down, but the colonel just raised his chin, and John knew that he'd already lost the momentum back in Somalia, might lose the equipment and funds that keep him going. So he flew to the UAE and changed planes for Thailand, leaving another trail to grow cold behind him.
Any idea what the LD50 is on green curry paste? he asked Sherlock in an email.
The answer was confident: You won't find anything, you know.
John knew. His gut was always a better deducer than his brain. He stayed to clean up the trafficking ring anyway, and followed a chance rumor back into Russia, and didn't report to the colonel this time at all.
The closest he got to Moriarty in the whole three years was in Russia: he insinuated himself in a private little war on the gas fields, and he wasn't sure if one side was Mafiya or FSB (or if there was even a difference this far from Moscow) but the other side had Moriarty's fingerprints all over it. John had a feeling that if he waited around long enough, he'd find the man himself.
Unfortunately, Moriarty found him first.
John wasn't even given a chance to fight back; he fell asleep in his rented room with a bit of a headache and woke up naked on a concrete floor. He spluttered in the icy water that had just been dumped over his head, and the first thing his eyes found was the bucket, swinging languidly from one hand; and the hand was coming from a sleek grey suit, and the suit belonged to Moriarty, smiling beatifically at him.
John pushed himself up to his knees, but no higher; there were no red laser spots dancing around him, but then again there was no one else to watch. If this was still a game, the rules had changed, because this time there was no need for a show. "Evening."
"I have to admit you surprised me," Jim carried on. "Not many people do. Oh, speaking of which..." He pulled out a phone and snapped a picture with it, of John drenched and shivering and white. "Should I send this one to Sherlock, do you think? Might be a bit of a shocker...though I suppose just sending him your head in a box would be worse." He sighed, and then looked speculatively at the bucket. "The postage will be outrageous, of course..."
"Is this supposed to frighten me?" John broke in.
Moriarty blinked at him. "Why, are you frightened?"
John wiped the wet fringe out of his eyes--he'd let his hair get too long, let his beard grow too thick. Sherlock might not even recognize him now. Well, not his face. "I don't have much time left, I reckon, so I'd rather you don't waste it," John said. "Get on with the torture, would you?"
He chuckled, smiling darkly. "What makes you think I haven't?"
He snaps a few more pictures, walking in a circle around John while John tried not to care. SERE was focused on interrogations, on pain with a purpose: there was something clean about torture when it wasn't really personal. Moriarty was entirely personal, and John knew that there was nothing he could give up that would make this stop, nothing outside this room that he wanted. The only thing he could do was make it worse, and that was a head game that could not be beaten.
"How many snipers?" he asked, to keep focused.
"What makes you think I have any?" Moriarty drawled.
"My hands are free," John said. "After I tried to choke you back in London you wouldn't run the risk I'd do something daft and suicidal again, and Sherlock's not here to threaten this time. So. At least one sniper, probably more, to make certain I can't use you as a human shield from any angle. Hollow-point bullets for minimum penetration, minimum risk to you."
Moriarty giggled. "Very nice, Johnny. Very wrong, but very nice."
"Oh," John said, and realized he wasn't naked just for the embarrassment. It was November and they were on permafrost; there was no sound but one creaking generator, meaning the drilling site was very far away. "You do know what they say about backing your enemy into a corner, right?"
Moriarty just smiled. "I could say the same thing to you, Johnny. You've been very naughty lately. A fellow could get a persecution complex."
"Am I that much of a threat, then?" John asked, genuinely curious.
"Well, not to me, obviously," Moriarty said with a flicking wave of his hand. "But you're bad for business. Makes the clients skittish if they have to start looking over their shoulder for the Littlest Assassin."
There was that word again. John didn't feel like an assassin right now, though; he felt like murder, cold-blooded and pre-meditated and entirely without guilt. "Maybe you should look into retirement," he suggested. "I've heard Guantanamo Bay is nice this time year."
Moriaty scoffed. "Been there, done that," he said casually. "Besides, you just got interesting. Why would I want the game to end?"
For some reason that made John angrier than being naked and trapped. "This isn't a game to me," he said quietly.
"Oh, right, this is about lives," Moriarty said dramatically. "How many people have you killed, Johnny? Indulge me."
"Sixteen," John told him quietly. He'd been counting.
"Oh, well." Another flick of one limp wrist. "You've got some catching up to do."
John wasn't getting a not-so-different-are-we speech, not from Jim fucking Moriarty. He'd much rather skip to the knives and hot pokers, thanks. "Not much time left for that," he said tightly.
"No," Moriarty said, and sighed. "Not much at all, I'm afraid." He drew a gun from inside his tailored jacket, a Sig Saur, as if for old times' sake. "Now, stand up, Johnny, and show me what Sherlock still sees in you."
John climbed to his feet slowly; his legs were numb from kneeling so long. He started to put his hands up, but before he got a chance Moriarty tossed him the gun. John almost dropped it. "What is this?" he asked.
"It's a game, my dear," Moriarty said wearily. "A deduction. No pills this time, though--I do hate to repeat myself. Let's see if you can figure out the rules."
John's first move was to check the gun; he couldn't break it down completely, of course, but it didn't seem to be tampered with and it was fully loaded with normal-looking bullets. Moriarty had just handed him a gun. Moriarty was smiling. John was naked. There could be a car outside, or there might not be; even in a car it was a long way to anything like civilization, and even with the heat on John might not be able to make the drive without warm clothes. Moriarty might have arranged a pick-up at a fixed time, in which case John could kill him and wait to see what came next, if he'd freeze here before the car came; or Moriarty's people might be waiting for his call, and one bullet would strand John here to die. Moriarty, after all, didn't care about the risks to his own life; Moriarty just wanted to prove he was clever. Also the building could be wired to explode at any moment. But John wouldn't have gotten into this if he wasn't willing to die.
"Figured it out yet?" Moriarty asked sensuously, rocking on his heels
John was very, very far from home.
He raised the gun.
Moriarty grinned, practically bouncing on his heels.
John shot out the room's single lightbulb.
He had once caught Sherlock wandering around the flat blindfolded, something to do with visual memory and learning to navigate in the dark. He didn't have much time to take stock of this place--some kind of garage, he thought--but for a split second he'd got the element of surprise. He charged at Moriarty, a full-on rugby tackle, but Moriarty had enough time to half-dodge and John only caught his sleeve. They grappled by feel for a moment, and Moriarty stomped on John's bare toes with his expensive shoes and John sank his teeth into Moriarty's hand hard enough to draw blood; then Moriaty shrugged off his jacket and twisted out of John's reach, and it was just the two of them in the dark, breathing.
"You do keep surprising me, Johnny," Moriarty said gleefully. "I was so sure you'd go for the simple headshot."
"When has anything with you ever been simple?" John asked, limping to one side on broken toes.
Moriarty laughed. "True." His clothes rustled--had he got his own gun? "But you only get half-credit for catching onto the joke. For full credit you need to supply the punchline."
You hate to repeat yourself, John thought, but didn't voice it, didn't give Moriarty a target. There were windows in the garage, small and high and greasy, and John needed to find one. He tried to move quietly, shuffling over the wet patch of concrete to the dry.
"The silent type?" Moriarty said. "I like that in a man. The windows are nailed shut, by the way."
He had no reason to trust anything Moriarty told him. Also no reason not to.
"I could've just murdered you, you know," Moriarty said petulantly. "I could've just mailed you home to Sherlock in bits. I brought you out here for a reason. The least you could do is play along."
John almost laughed--who'd have known that Moriarty had a tell? But he held in it while he shuffled as silently as he could, trying to make a straight line for the nearest window--
And tripped on the bucket.
He snagged it on one foot and it made a horrible clatter of steel on cement; he tried to shake it free and put too much weight on his broken toes. And then Moriarty was on him, almost faster than he could dodge, and there was no gunshot: just the wet heat of a knife digging into his hip.
"That's better," Moriarty sighed, and wrenched the blade out with a vicious twist.
John hadn't lost the gun, but that was pure reflex; his brain whited out and he couldn't have shot even if he'd dared to. It was reflex to curl into a fetal position and let the next wild slash take him across the back, deep into the latissimus dorsi. That hurt like hell when he rolled away, but he did roll away, and it gave him a moment to get his bearings while Moriarty groped after him--probably tracking the blood trail by feel.
Flesh wounds, he told himself. Stand the fuck up.
"I could've used a gun, you know," Moriarty panted. "I could've just shot you. But since you decided to take a level in badass, I thought this would be more fun. More personal."
John's legs were trembling, and his right leg didn't want to take his weight. He could've laughed until he cried over that. He staggered away from the sound of Moriarty's voice, staggered until he found a wall. Now to find a window. Any one would do.
"Sentimental Johnny," Moriarity crooned, "always ready to lay down your life for a friend. Do you really think he's back home pining for you?" There was a scuffle; he was getting to his feet. "Come face me!"
John used the wall to support his weight, and there it was, the high, small window, so cold on his fingers that it hurt to touch. It was almost too high for him to get to, until he found a box under it, wobbly but silent. John used his left leg to raise himself up until his head was level with the glass. "You first," he blurted.
In the pure darkness he could easily see the muzzle flash of Moriarty's gun. He could feel the bullet groove the side of his face, below his ear, peeling back a flap of skin from his jaw as he jerked away from its path. It burst through the window, but there were no alarms triggered, no lights, just a breathy gasp from whoever had been hiding on the other side of the glass.
The other three windows--two in the walls and one in the door--burst inward with the chatter of rifle fire, and Moriarty screamed.
John didn't bother trying to open the window behind him; he used the butt of the pistol to smash the glass in, and then hauled himself through the jagged opening, though it felt like he left half his skin behind.
He fell into the snow, and something--shock, perhaps--kept him from feeling the flaying cold. He hauled himself up with the scaffold that the dead sniper had been standing on; the burst of gunfire had stopped, and someone was shouting to Moriarty in Russian, which he answered in kind. John just started running, as best as he could, out into the snow and darkness; started running and kept running until he stopped.
He woke on a hard, narrow bed, dizzy and disoriented. He was still trying to reconcile the rich reds of the quilt with the rich reds of the blood in the IV bag when the colonel stepped into the room, puffing on a cigarette. He put it out when he saw John's eyes were open. "With us, Watson?"
"Moriarty's alive," he said, because it was the first thing that came into his head.
The colonel snorted. "So are you, no thanks that disappearing act. I'd have had a devil of a time explaining to my superiors that you went off the grid and turned up hanging from a bridge somewhere hot and dry."
His hands were swathed in bandages--frostbite, certainly. One side of his face was numb and stiff from the graze that was stitched up. He could hardly feel his lower body at all. "You tracked me down in Russia," he slurred. "Think I'm in love."
"That's just the opiates talking," the colonel said, and sat down next to John. "In a couple of days we're moving you to a more secure medical facility. You'll be out of the game for a while with this one."
John could already feel those opiates pulling him down to sleep again, but he'd been debriefed by this man too many times and the words came like reflex. "Coat," he said. "It was the coat."
"What was the what?"
"Moriarty wasn't wearing a coat." His eyelids closed in spite of himself. "There had to be snipers because he didn't have a coat. No radiators in the garage. Didn't drive out there--helicopter. Don't think Moriarty can fly."
There was something affectionate in the way the colonel says, "Go to fucking sleep, Watson. I'm not your blogger."
John fought a giggle. "Don't even know your name."
The last thing he remembered was the colonel lighting another cigarette. "It's Moran."
It took three months for John to be re-deployed; they put him up in a tiny little flat in Birmingham, and in return he tried not to terrify the neighbors. The knowledge that he was so close to London, so close to Sherlock, started out as a distraction, but before he was even unpacked he found an email waiting for him.
I know about Siberia. You are really a tremendous fool. Stay where you're put; Himself is watching.
John read it three times and then lay down on the unmade bed. Of course, if Moriarty knew that John survived he'd expect him to return to England, and if John was in England he would visit Sherlock--it would be walking into a trap. He waited three days to reply Doesn't mean I don't miss the skull and Sherlock didn't even dignify that with an answer.
(John didn't know what kind of security Sherlock had, if the only thing that kept Moriarty from putting a single bullet in that beautiful mind was the love of the fucking game. Sherlock certainly didn't offer details and John didn't want to ask; it would only make him worry, and he didn't have room in his head for that and the mission at the same time.)
Convalescence this time was worse than ever; John suspected that his wounds went deeper. He slept badly and at odd hours, got flustered in the shops just trying to buy tea; he scanned everyone he met for concealed weapons and planned terrorist attacks in his head, followed by counter-insurgency strategies. Men in stylish suits made his heart beat too fast, and he sometimes wished Moran hadn't taken his weapons away. Other times he was all too glad. The gash on his face got people's attention at first, but it healed about as cleanly as could be expected and soon he was completely anonymous, under cover in his own country.
I could murder anyone in this room and probably get away with it, John thought in a waiting room at Selly Oak, waiting to get his stitches checked. I wouldn't even need a gun.
He worried that this was what Sherlock felt all the time.
Sherlock only wrote up the two cases properly and deleted one of them later; he updated his site on an eccentric schedule and John hated that he checked it daily anyway, sometimes more than once a day. He understood that he needed action, as addicted as if it were heroin--his hand shook in Birmingham sometimes, and sometimes his leg went numb for no reason at all. But Sherlock's work was something John had enjoyed, too, something that filled up other empty spots inside him. The war on Moriarty was just psychological methadone, and he would go back to it until the mission was done, but he'd never blog about it or try to remember it later.
So he pushed himself through therapy, as hard as he dared, going off what he knew his body was capable of rather than how he felt. Moran shows up on the day of a stress test, and watched John run on a treadmill, run harder and faster until his lungs burned, run until his right leg gave out in a mass of very-not-psychosomatic cramps. Afterward, Moran took him out to eat.
"If it were up to me, you'd have another month or two of rehab," he groused, but he passed John an envelope containing two passports and a gun. "But I'm being overruled. This just came in from MI-6 and they think you're the best man for the job."
John found the plane tickets to Havana and his leg stopped even feeling stiff.
"If it were up to me, you'd be invalided, actually," Moran said, smoking trailing from his cigarette. "You're a risk to your own safety."
"If that were true, I'd have shot at Moriarty in Siberia," John said absently, perusing the passports.
Moran shook his head. "Just don't go off the grid again, you hear me? It's going to get harder from here on out and it's not worth my commission to lose you."
"You always say the nicest things to me, sir," John said.
"I've got your back if you'll let me, Watson," Moran said. "How's that?"
John pushed his plate aside and stood. "I need to pack for Havana," he said.
He slept soundly for the first time since Siberia.
Moran was right--it did get harder. Moriarty had apparently decided John was a proper threat, or maybe he'd just been indiscreet, building a reputation; either way, people knew his name now, and they were gunning for him from the moment he walked in the door.
Havana was a near miss, but he killed two more people and threatened the structural integrity of the government. Venezuela was closer, except he nearly got shot again and had to camp in the rain forest for a week and a half until the mercenaries backed off. He skipped Brazil and went straight to Japan, where he played the bumbling tourist by day and at night made deals with the yakuza.
For the first time he killed someone that wasn't connected to Moriarty--a Russian gangster, or maybe FSB. It was a favor to a yakuza boss, a way to get information, but it kept John up at night--the foul-smelling cigarette and the blood on the expensive leather jacket and the look of surprise behind the knock-off shades when the bullet pierced the heart. He wasn't a very nice man, he told himself, sitting in the window of his borrowed apartment while Tokyo pulsed by him.
Of course, neither are you.
He was still dancing to Moran's tune, or whoever commanded Moran; he had to abandon the trail in Japan and go to India instead. But India lead him back east, over the Chinese border, and he found himself setting up a secure internet connection for Uighur nationalists in exchange for ten minutes of internet time.
He emailed Moran, to let him know he wasn't dead. Sherlock had written to him. You are getting close again. He will not underestimate you a second time.
How do you know that? John wrote back, but his ten minutes were up and two days later he was sneaking back over the border in a truck loaded with cheap polyester nightgowns.
Moran met him again in Almaty, in a coffee shop owned by an American expat near the shopping district. "You really need to tell me that you're going off-mission before you go off-mission," he grumbled around his cigarette. "It at least allows me to pretend I've tried to stop you."
"Plausible deniability," John said, watching the shoppers on the main boulevard. A pack of student-age kids with enormous backpacks rambled up to the shop--Americans, Peace Corps volunteers, just arrived in the country and still learning the languages. He watched them spread out all over one corner of the shop and set up a forest of laptops, talking too loudly and laughing too much.
"I don't care about plausible fucking deniability, I care about your life," Moran said, in that way that made the words sound completely unfriendly. "We're not having another thing like Siberia."
John shook his head. "Do you have anything new for me or not?"
Moran shoved an envelope at him. "Nigeria. Oil again. Try not to get killed."
John thought carefully about what he'd learned in China. He thought, for some reason, about Sherlock's message. "Is this from Int Corps or MI-6?" he asked.
Moran's eyes narrowed. "MI-6. Why?"
He wasn't sure why, just that it mattered. His gut was deducing without him again. "Nothing special. Is there even a plane that goes direct from here to Abuja?"
There wasn't; it took him three days to get there, and three more to get from the capital to the oilfield hovels where the action was. Then he had three days to zero in on the details; after that was when the Golem came for him.
Moriarty was rumored to be making a deal with someone in the government and John had obtained both a powerful sniper rifle and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher; he'd prefer to do it cleanly and precisely but was willing to make a mess. He just needed the place and time, and that meant going back and forth between government offices and the poorest slums, waiting for the right person to give the right fact away.
He was posing as an aid worker, which was almost as good a cover as tourist: he was probably doing irreparable damage to Medecins Sans Frontieres in the process, but it gave him access nearly anywhere he wanted to go. (And actually helping people from time to time helped him sleep at night.) John was happy to spend an afternoon listening to asthmatic lungs and handing out antibiotics or vitamins, just to cement his cover story or for no reason at all. At one point a young man in his twenties herded a preteen boy in to have a sore checked out--just an infected bug bite, and John washed it out and prescribed erythromycin.
"Thank you, Doctor," the man said in that gorgeous lilting language that everybody insisted was English. He flashed a wide smile and herded the boy right back out, and John wouldn't have marked him at all except for a glimpse of the mobile phone in his pocket--a late-model smartphone, glossy and new. John wouldn't have even marked it in London, maybe not in Abuja, or even here in the oilfields on some consultant come from overseas. But in a clinic that catered to the poorest of the poor, on a man wearing worn Nike sneakers and slightly threadbare cargo shorts, who had to bring his son or brother to a free clinic for a minor infection--
John was made, clearly. It was just a matter of when.
He was staying in a hostel, the sort where the walls of the room didn't even go all the way up to the ceiling, and he could hear people calling back and forth through the gap, the sound of the street outside through windows that had screens but no glass. That night he went through his bedtime routine, and switched off the light as usual. He lay down on the bed, fully dressed, with a gun in his hand.
He didn't expect another abduction, because Sherlock had warned him and because it wasn't like Moriarty to repeat himself. He supposed that if Moriarty were being particularly efficient, he'd just blow up the entire hostel--perhaps the city block. But then again, he did seem to like that personal touch.
So when the door of his "room" was softly jimmied open, John remained still, tracking each heavy footfall. He needed to wait for the right angle to fire; the jacketed bullet would go straight through the assassin's skull, and he didn't want it to continue through doors and walls and window screens, though people that he couldn't see. He kept his breathing slow and even while the murderer approached, a strangely halting gait that stopped short of the bed.
Then a hand the size of a dinner plate clenched over John's face.
He had only ever seen the Golem in shifting half-light, distorted and indirect; the dim incandescent bulbs in the nearby rooms gave just enough light to limn a terribly familiar profile. John had enough sense to roll into the Golem's grip instead of away from it--he wasn't contributing an ounce of the leverage necessary to snap his own neck. He tried to press the pistol into the big man's ribs, but the Golem shifted aside and wrenched John off the bed, slamming him into the floor hard enough to smash his nose.
The world danced away from him long enough for the Golem to get his hands round John's head, in the perfect position to twist it off entirely. Long, skeletal fingers expertly found his Adam's apple and pressed in above it; he fancied he felt the moment his hyoid bone cracked. Black spots exploded in his eyes, but he still had the gun in his hand--the Golem either hadn't noticed or didn't think John would be able to get a shot off in this position, pinned to the floor by a man a foot taller and struggling to draw a breath.
When he'd landed, the pistol had been pinned partway under his body. He thrashed against the Golem's grip, enough to get his arm all the way under, to position the gun under his opposite armpit.
He honestly had no idea where it was pointing when he pulled the trigger, but it was his only chance to stay alive.
The sound of the shut was muffled by his clothes; he felt the bullet groove along his ribs, but the rush of hot blood that followed wasn't entirely his own. The Golem groaned and swore in Czech, and his grip shifted, enough for John to twist around and make another ridiculous across-the-body shot. This one hit home, too, and the Golem's cry was just vowel sounds now, less human than animal.
He didn't let up the pressure, though; maybe adrenaline was helping him overcome blood loss and pain, but for a moment John's vision went black and he found the thought in his head was not: God, let me live.
It was: Sherlock, I'm sorry.
The hostel room flickered around him, like badly-spliced film, and suddenly the Golem's weight shifted and his grip slipped. Just enough for John to suck in a thin ribbon of precious oxygen.
Just enough for John to whip his gun around the other side and smash it into the Golem's temple.
The big hands went slack and John scrambled away, muscles spasming, gasping for air and gagging on blood from his broken nose. The first thing he saw when his vision cleared was the Golem crawling towards him like some kind of malevolent spider, dragging one leg limply.
John didn't dare shoot at this angle, so he flipped his grip on his gun and slammed it down on the Golem's hand as soon as it was within reach. The bones splintered, and the Golem howled, and reached for John with the other hand. John dodged it, and while the big man is still off-balance he lunged forward and slammed the gun down again, on his head.
His arm was in perpetual motion, not even conscious or planned. He split the Golem's skull like a piece of fruit, shattered the mandible and crushed the cervical vertebrae. There were people pounding on the door of his cubicle, but it was only when they got it open and the light flooded in that he stopped, really stopped, and looked at what he'd done.
The police hadn't arrived yet--might not arrive at all in this neighborhood--and when John raised the gun the hostel residents backed away from him. They let him walk out of the room, out of the building, out of town--John thought he might be in shock, but he didn't stop walking, not until he found himself on a muddy river bank, somewhere between the Niger and the sea.
It was weirdly symbolic, diving into the river to wash away the blood and powder. It was symbolic and unhygienic. It also didn't work.
John sat down in the mud and checked his own injuries--broken nose, moderate airway trauma, a shallow laceration where the bullet grazed him. Swallowing hurt, but he could breathe normally enough. The gun was a lost cause, though--too many delicate parts damaged, the frame itself bent. On the horizon, plumes of fire belch out of the oilfields, excess methane burning like an offering.
That was how Moran found him at daybreak. He didn't say anything at first, just crouched down in the mud next to him and let out a slow, deep breath. His face looked oddly white under its tan. "Jesus, John," he said, eventually.
"Are you going to section me?" John asked. It didn't sound like his voice. He was vaguely aware it might never sound like his voice again.
"I should do," Moran said. He fumbled for one of his cigarettes. "I should haul you in and lock you up somewhere. Your own safety. Everyone else's."
"But you won't," John said. If Moran was going to stop him, he wouldn't have come alone.
Moran got the cigarette lit and sucked in the smoke, let it out a gray plume that matched the firey ones far away. "No," he said. "I won't."
John looked at the ruined gun in his hands. It was still splattered with blood and hair and brains; he hadn't seen the point in cleaning it. "I could kill you," he said, surprised by how calm it came out.
Moran stared at him for a minute, then said, "But you won't."
John nodded. "No, I won't."
Moran finished his cigarette while the sun rose, and when he tugged on John's arm, John climbed unsteadily to his feet, and let himself be lead to the car waiting further down the banks.
They stowed him away on Gibraltar for nearly a month: it was partly the international incident--a dead Czech, a fake passport and a rocket launcher are not things one wants to leave in one's hotel room overseas--and partly it was the injuries, the infection that set in from the dirty river water. They kept testing him for everything from HIV to cryptosporidium, just in case, and debated whether it was worth the effort of plastic surgery for his nose.
John went mad in Gibraltar; later he ascribed it to a combination of fever and antimalarials and over two years of service that hadn't been about Queen or country for a long, long time. John had hallucinations of Moriarty and of Sherlock, he screamed at nurses and he tried to take out his IVs and palm his pills. Toward the end he got hold of a laptop and hid in an empty room, composing an epic, agrammatical email he had a feeling Sherlock might not even read, confessing every murder, all he'd done and failed to do. I did this for you, I did it because I needed to be out here, you don't need me in London and I needed to keep you safe but now I think I need you and I don't know if you'd want me anymore like this, I've killed twenty-nine people and I'm not the man I was, please tell me I can come back home.
When he didn't get a response for a few days, he checked the website--nothing particularly interesting, not even Sherlock snarking at people in the forums. He posted a carefully anonymized comment. Please answer.
He came out of the episode feeling empty and off-balance, cold inside despite the Mediterranean sun. His doctors gave him a clean bill of health--no surgery for the nose, just a new bump in the middle--and Moran stared at him for a long time before he delievered new orders. "Are you going to be able to do this?" he asked.
"I haven't got a choice," John said. He'd decided that, in the dark of night, when he was no longer seeing movement in every corner. He would see this thing through to the end, because it was his duty. Whether he ate his sidearm afterward would be a problem to address at the appropriate time.
Moran finally handed over the file. "Fine. Happy birthday. You're going back to Camp Bastion."
John looked at the date and realized, oh, right, he'd turned forty. Then he looked at the file, at glossy photographs of men in turbans with Kalashnikov rifles and a familiar arid landscape. "What do the Taliban want with him?"
"From the sound of things? To burn down most of Kabul."
Before John left for Afghanistan--again--he checked his email. Sherlock had actually responded to one of his forum posts: Who are you?
But in the email, there was a single line. You are and remain one of the finest men I have ever known.
John boarded his flight telling himself that this was enough.
Afghanistan this time round was sort of like therapy; he wasn't alone there. They issued him tags and uniforms that said STANLEY and he commanded a proper SAS team--three handsome young things who looked at him with awe when he performed an emergency tracheotomy and teased him about being short. He was still chasing Moriarty--they were chasing him, one lead at a time--but something about the uniforms, the field rations, the rules of engagement, all reminded John of what he was supposed to be doing here, who he was meant to be.
(It was like moving into Baker Street, a little: he'd stopped stewing over himself when he had Sherlock to mind. His three lads together were less work that Sherlock on a good day, and no fit replacement, but they teased him about being short and invited him to play football and saluted him like he deserved it, which made him wish he did.)
Of course, it pretty quickly became obvious that while the Taliban were determined to blow up quite a bit of government real estate, they didn't need Moriarty's help to do it--and anyway, it wasn't his style, the ideology without the payout. It wasn't fun enough for him. John and his lads stopped the plot anyway in a thirty-six hour operation that involved twenty local police, half a million in counterfeit euros, the complicity of a local television station and two donkeys, and at one point in the middle of the madness one them (his men, not the donkeys) looked at John with wide eyes and said,
"Okay, admit it. You're the fuckin' Doctor, aren't you? Matt Smith dies this Christmas and turns into you."
He didn't ever want to be a legend. "In arduis fidelis," he muttered, and shot a man who was sneaking up behind him.
He slept for fourteen hours after that mess, then found his way to a computer and started writing up a message to Moran asking for new orders. Before he clicked SEND, though, a message popped up saying he had a new email. Not from Sherlock, though. Unknown address.
John clicked on it, leaving his message to Moran in the drafts.
Moriarty is in Switzerland. An American C-130 cargo plane is prepared to take off from Camp Leatherneck in three hours. The crew have been advised to expect you and transport you to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, from where you will be free to go. The passphrase is Reichenbach. Do not inform anyone of the contents of this message.
John looked at the message until his eyes burned, going over the word choice, the originating IP address, the font. It could all be an elaborate ruse, a trick, a trap. There could be an assassin waiting for him as soon as he stepped onto the airstrip.
He checked Sherlock's blog, he scoured the news, he did everything he could think of from the internet to find one scrap of evidence--there was some kind of conference going on in Geneva, the sort of thing where Bill Gates and Bono lecture politicians about things and then everyone goes out for drinks after. Some entrepeneur John had never heard of was supposed to be showing off new water purification technology. Security was supposed to be phenomenally high.
That sounded like loads more fun that Kabul, really.
He left his tags and his beret on his bunk, but he took his pistol and the mobile phone he'd been hiding under his mattress for six weeks. Nobody saw him stroll onto the airfield, but he forwarded an article about the summit to Sherlock, just in case.
Geneva was cold and the venue was beautiful: outside the city, on the shore of the lake, full of mountain vistas and half-timber chalets and men in dark suits with wires trailing down their collars. John posed as a janitor, and used a Polish passport to excuse his abominable French. It gave him plenty of excuses to slip into secure rooms, to peep at neglected laptops and handle forgotten mobiles, to eavesdrop.
It gave him absolutely nothing on Moriarty, of course, but he reckoned later he could've toppled a few governments and possibly the World Bank if he'd had the time.
The demonstration thing--he didn't understand all the physics behind the machine, but it was supposed to extract potable water from the most polluted sludge, and from the size of the cables that connected to the machinery it drew an awful lot of power. John wouldn't have put it past Moriarty to rig the thing with pressuredized chlorine so it would kill everyone in the room when it went off, or maybe just blow it up.
Actually, that would be the perfect assassination, wouldn't it--a tragic accident that hid your target in a sea of collateral damage? John thought of the rocket launcher in Nigeria and felt a little queasy, but his hand didn't shake. He could almost compose the message in his head--Jim, will you fix it for me to get rid of this man, he's on the wrong side and he's ruining things, but he can't be a martyr so it can't look like murder...
Except there was no sign of Moriarty coming in person, and no sign of the anonymous informant who'd said he would be. John knew that his own whereabouts were a closely-guarded secret, that only Moran and perhaps the brigadier he reported to knew them with any specifics (if at all). The reputation he'd built in the underground had more to do with what he did than what he called himself, and none of them--not even Moriarty--could've arranged for John to go AWOL like that.
Speaking of which: Moran sent him seventeen e-mails, starting from What the fuck have you done? and eventually devolving to Just let me know you're alive by way of You'd better not have got yourself killed because I mean to do the honors in person. John didn't reply, because if he could find Moriarty here he could finish his mission, and if he didn't--well, he might finally be sectioned. Or possibly court-martialed.
He kept the phone switched off and his Polish passport close and searched every hotel in Geneva, every pension and hostel and room for rent, in case Moriarty really had come to observe his own handiwork. One little boarding house--the quaint, half-timber, overpriced kind--still had a paper register, and while John was waiting for the chance to get at the computer he flipped idly through the pages, thick creamy paper unworthy of the ballpoint pens that had been used on it.
A familiar squiggle caught his eye on the last page, the sort of untidy scrawl native to people who spend too much time typing their thoughts. John's heart seemed to skip a few beats as he made out the loops and spikes after the florid capitals. S---- H----
There was absolutely no reason for him to break into that room, because Moriarty would never use such an obvious pseudonym even for a game and because John could just--there was no reason, but there was every reason, to pop the lock and step inside. To look at the familiar carry-all, the slim black suits unwrinkling on their hangers, the travel-size bottle of expensive, girly shampoo "specially formulated for curly hair."
If Moriarty was in Geneva, John was taking an outrageous risk just standing here, breathing this air. But he couldn't just walk away.
He settled for leaving a note--careful capitals that wouldn't give too much away, printed laboriously with his right hand. GOT YOUR BACK, he decided, was simple enough, especially on a scrap of stationary from the conference venue. It ought to be enough. It had to be enough.
He wiped away his fingerprints before he slipped out.
It seemed like a given, then--Moriarty had to be in Geneva, would want to be there in person to show off for Sherlock. Video feeds and satellite communications wouldn't be enough. He had to be somewhere close.
Of course, the internet was fine by John; he forwarded Sherlcok seating plans for the demonstration, photographs of the venue, articles about potential targets. John's mop and broken French could only get him so close to the intended scene of the crime, but he did what he could.
Sherlock didn't respond to any of John's messages. John didn't see him anywhere near the venue. He told himself it was probably safer that way. Besides, if this worked--
Well. It had to work, first.
The conference was seven days long, with the demonstration-slash-murder plot scheduled as a sort of grand finale; by day five, John had no idea where Moriarty was and not nearly enough details on what he was planning. The targets were obvious, really--three heads of state and a banker, all arranged in the front ranks of the audience. Four birds with one stone, except he still couldn't work out how Moriarty meant to guarantee their deaths, even allowing for a lot of collateral damage.
He briefly considered going to the authorities--but lives were at stake, there wasn't time for proper procedure and explanations, and an anonymous tip wouldn't be credible. He wasn't sure that a proper one would be credible, either, by the time he got to the bit about being an AWOL intelligence officer with two years' worth of experience trying and failing to kill this particular supervillain. All he needed was the tuxedo and he'd be James bloody Bond.
Plan B, he informed Sherlock in another email. Even if we can't catch him, we can still stop him.
He spent the next six hours building a bomb in an old, hard-sided suitcase. He picked up most of the supplies in the shops, a bit here and a bit there; he had to cook some things in the kitchenette of his hostel, using instructions off the internet, and realized he was never going to have the moral authority to complain about Sherlock's experiments ever again. (Not that he would complain--or maybe he would--but just having the opportunity to complain about acid and poisons in a shared kitchen--)
He packed the bomb with two pounds of nails just to be scary, and deliberately miswired the detonator. It was just a prop, in the end, something to trick the proper authorities into doing their jobs. Criminal masterminds might be too James Bond, but an IED was the sort of thing these people trained for. Might as well let them practice.
His plan was to show up for the early maintanence shift and plant the bomb in the demonstration venue. The event would be canceled, would have to be, in order to properly sweep for evidence, and Moriarty would have to do these particular murders the boring way, one at a time. John went to bed smelling of ammonia and wishing, just a little bit, that he didn't have to do the practical thing, that he could come up some other way to draw Moriarty out.
He woke up when the police kicked down his door.
The jail was half-full of protesters and anarchists, but John got special treatment, which included being interrogated for seventy-two hours without interruption. SERE had never seemed so long ago. He told the truth, over and over, and added that if they didn't believe him it was their problem, not his; he connived a few glasses of water out of them, but no food, and only got toilet privileges by bringing up the city's eponymous Conventions. He warned them about the assassinations, and for the first twelve hours they were derisive; after that they didn't say anything at all.
When they finally lead him into a cell, John wanted nothing but sleep. But there was a note folded into a triangle on the pillow of the bunk; the gendarmes who shut the door behind him didn't seem to have noticed it. He recognized the stationary of the conference venue before he even unfolded it, and the pen, expensive ink bold and black.
Nice try, sweets, but if you're going to box with God you're going to need significantly longer arms. I really don't know why he even still cares.
John slipped it into his pocket, and when he slept he dreamed of swimming pools and Siberia.
Moran came to collect him in person, and to say that he was unhappy would've been an understatement. He treated John with an icy disdain, hardly even looking at him while he dealt with the police; a pair of tall, silent soldiers lurked behind him, blandly menacing. They didn't physically drag John to the car, but then again, they didn't have to.
"Who stopped it?" he asked, when they were safely ensconced in a small plane.
Moran glared at him. "Holmes," he spat. "I didn't realize you two were still working together."
John managed not to smile, because Moran was bound to take that badly; but Sherlock had listened to him. "We've been keeping in touch," John said dryly, just to see what Moran would do.
Which was apparently to sigh and glare at him. "I suppose that means this was his idea? You crashing your career on a wild goose chase?"
"Moriarty was in Geneva," John said, showing him the note. "And I wasn't aware that I had a career anymore."
Moran rolled his eyes as he looked at the note. "You could have done, John," he said, and that was the first time Moran had ever used his given name. "If you're fantastically lucky and very, very sorry, you might still have a chance. I've been talking to the brigadier about getting you transferred into a regular unit--SAS, or maybe something back in the RAMC if you'd prefer that."
The car went over a pot hole, rattling John's teeth. He blinked at Moran. "What about Moriarty?"
"What about Moriarty?" Moran growled. "He hasn't pulled off a major operation in the UK in over two years. You've apparently had him in your hands twice now and couldn't take him out. Do you have any idea how much money we've spent on you, John? Any idea how many diplomatic incidents and legal problems you've cause the Foreign Office? The brigadier is ready to declare your mission a failure, and the army's not in the business of bankrolling superheros at large."
John watched bits of Switzerland roll by for a few minutes, digesting this. "I only re-enlisted for Moriarty," he said quietly.
"You'd keep your rank," Moran said. "You'd have your pick of postings, too--no more long tours abroad."
"He's still out there."
"And you're obviously not going to be the one to catch him."
John looked down at his hands, which were still scratched and bruised from when the Swiss police had dragged him out of bed; he'd got one wild punch in and split a knuckle. There was grit under his fingernails, possibly all the way from Afghanistan. He couldn't think of a time zone in which he hadn't killed someone.
And Moriarty hadn't tried anything in England for two and a half years. Not directly, anyway. Nothing worse than any of the other crimes that happened every day in the real world. It wasn't John's job to stop them all.
"I could just retire," he said, testing the words in his mouth. "Go home to London."
Moran laughed softly. "Back to domestic bliss with Holmes? You two got it all worked out, then?"
No, of course not; it had been two and a half years. Thiry-one months in which a piece of John's heart had been at 221B, but Sherlock--Christ, he didn't even know if he still lived there. If he'd got another flatmate, or found some other way to pay the rent. If he'd turned John's room into a lab or left his things in dusty boxes.
Nine hundred seventy-fours days in which John had been on a madman's mission, while Sherlock carried on with what served him as a normal life. He didn't even have time for John's emails, more often than not.
Moran and the soldiers escorted him to Britain--St. Mawgan's again--where he had to do a lot of talking to a lot of men with swords on their shoulders; he told them about the anonymous tip but not the travel arrangements, defended his logic, pretended he and Sherlock had been collaborating even though their communication had been almost entirely one-sided. Even though Sherlock listened to homeless people and restaurant owners and Mycroft and even, on occasion, Scotland Yard, and for all he knew John was just another contact in his network now, just another amusing story to scare the mundanes with. Oh yes, I used to share a flat with a military assassin...no, the skull's not from him...have you seen my riding crop?
Moran kicked him in the ankle, rather hard. John wasn't paying very good attention, considering his so-called career was on the line.
John couldn't bring himself to scrape and simper the way Moran wanted him to--he'd been right, after all, Moriarty had been right there--but he must've pulled something off, because the nameless brigadier didn't start filling out the papers for a dishonorable discharge in the middle of the hearing. Instead he said, "You've been at this mission a long time, Major. I should think some leave was in order?"
"With respect, sir, I can take leave when my mission is done," John answered.
The brigadier raised one eyebrow. "You're quite determined to see this through to the end, are you?"
"I like to finish what I start," John said, not I don't know if I can do anything else or I'm not going to let him keep haunting me. "And with respect, sir, he was in Geneva last week. The trail is getting cold."
"We've got people working on it," the brigadier said with a hand-wave. "Believe it or not, Major, you're not the only person hunting for the man."
One of the other general officers leaned forward over the desk and asked in a raspy voice--the kind of rasp you get from decades of smoking, the kind that stays with you no matter when you quit--"You are, however, the one who's had the best results." He cleared his throat. (John diagnosed chronic bronchitis.) "Frankly, Major Watson, everyone's patience is running a bit thin with this project. But if you think you can bring this Moriarty fellow in..."
"Give me three more months," John said, picking a nice round number out of the air. "If I get back on his trail I can get to him inside three months."
"And if you can't?" someone else asked.
John could only shrug. "Then it's over."
They deliberated for days, while the trail went cold, and John found himself with high-speed internet and nothing constructive to do for the first time in...well, too long. They hadn't even let him have a personal computer in Gibraltar. He looked up all the people he'd hardly thought of since this madness started--Harry (reconciled with Clara) and Sarah (moved to Leeds) and Mike (promoted) and Lestrade (still sticking his foot in his mouth at press conferences, but the DSs at his elbow were different).
Then he looked up news of the foiled bombing, found grainy clips on YouTube of Sherlock barging into the demonstration and scolding everyone in rapid-fire, gorgeous French, saving the day. And because he was a sentimental idiot, that lead him back to the website, over and over, like a compulsion. No new cases, but there was a forum post from the day John had been arrested, the day Sherlock had stopped four assassinations in one go.
It said. I know something you don't know. 8D 8D 8D xoxo
The response was, Ironically, I could say the same to you. SH.
In the end, they gave him a location and a deadline: Dubai, first March. If he hadn't found Moriarty somewhere by then he was to return to England for reassignment or retirement. John decided he could live with that. He packed up his bags and read his briefing and checked Sherlock's web site again; the comment thread from Moriarty had been deleted.
"Last shot," Moran said just before he boarded the plane. "Don't fuck up."
"I love you, too, sir," John deadpanned.
"I mean it," he said, sucking on the end of his cigarette. "One way or another, this is the end for you. You're not my responsibility after the first of March, whether you've made it home or not. Understand?"
It was a warning more than a threat, and John nodded. "I'll keep you posted."
Moran dropped his cigarette to the tarmac and ground it underfoot. "That's what you always say, Watson."
This time he meant it, though; he tried to keep Moran informed, as one lead followed on to the next, in case it came down to pleading for an extra day or two somewhere down the line. The same Dubai account had paid for several hotel rooms in Geneva and made payments into the personal accounts of hotel staffers and the man behind the water-machine demonstration; there were very clever people in MI6 following the money trails, but John was supposed to follow the human one, the people who actually dealt with Moriarty or his intermediaries, wherever it lead him.
Which was Dubai, then Qatar, then Yemen; then Saudi Arabia, then a terrifying fortnight in Iran. He drove across Iraq in a stolen truck and ended up in Turkey, where he laid low for a few days to catch up on his sleep and let his sunburn start to fade. On the third day he crept out of the hostel and into an internet cafe, because he'd checked in with Moran via text message but needed slightly higher character limits to explain what he'd found and where it would lead him and how a few days in March might make the difference in catching Moriarty.
He found another anonymous email waiting for him.
Sao Paolo 17/2 Daniel Castilho
Your tickets are booked out of Istabul under the name James Bruce.
Tell no one.
It was another anonymous IP, another wild goose chase halfway around the world, and John looked for corroboration--for anyone in the Internet named Daniel Castilho, for anything happening in Brazil on the seventeenth of February. There was some kind of meeting of South American heads of state...one of the intended targets from Geneva would be there. Surely Moriarty didn't repeat himself that much?
He could spend the next three weeks frantically chasing names and climbing the ladder, clawing his way closer to Moriarty, or he could follow his anonymous tipster and catch him in the act.
John checked Sherlock's web site, as if that would help him decide, but there was a large banner graphic on the main page saying "Not Currently Accepting New Cases" and a smaller one underneath that said "Go Away, Lestrade." No help there, and no clarifications. John wrote to him, asking, Any idea what Rio is like this time of year? but didn't get a prompt response.
So he grit his teeth and bought a bus ticket to Istanbul. He flew from Istanbul to Sao Paulo with a layover in Madrid, thinking of ways to find Daniel Castilho and where that could possibly lead him. As he stood in line to get his passport stamped, young man in a uniform tapped on his shoulder and asked in musical English, "Please, sir, could you come with me?"
John was using a British passport that matched the name on his ticket. "Is there problem?"
"It will only take a moment," the young man assured him, so John went quietly.
That young man turned out to be wrong.
The hell of it was, they were so damn polite about the whole thing--they were sorry. Sorry when they couldn't come up with a translator for him; sorry when his legal counsel changed from day to day. Sorry when they couldn't get anyone from the British embassy to meet with him, or even take his calls. Sorry when they couldn't reveal the evidence against him.
John wasn't even sure what he was charged with, except that the word for terrorism was pretty much the same in every language.
He tried to get in touch with Moran, but his calls went unanswered and his emails bounced. He tried to get in touch with the brigadier, with the ambassador to Brazil, with his anonymous tipster. He tried to get in touch with Sherlock, but the "no new cases" sign was still on the website, though there was now a third all-cap message under the two graphics: SOD OFF MYCROFT. No other sign that the site had been touched since December.
John tried telling the truth and he tried telling lies, and the only thing he knew for certain was that the day he went to prison was the first day of March, and he wasn't a soldier anymore.
In theory, it could've been worse.
It was hideously hot, even with this half of the world spinning down to autumn, but his cell was on the east side of the building, so in the evening he could sometimes catch a cool breeze from the tiny grated window. It was crowded, and someone (or a couple someones) tried to beat him every few days, but he usually managed to fight them off, and if he ended up pissing blood in solitary confinement later on, well, at least he was alive. He learned to speak a sort of half-assed Portuguese, broken sentences that sprouted random bits of English and French and medical Latin, and the guards let him figure out what they were shouting about before they started hitting him.
It could've been worse. He could've been in Siberia. Or dead.
He lay awake some nights, or loitered in the corner of the exercise yard, trying to figure out what had gone wrong--who could've set this trap. The tip must've been compromised--unless it was a set-up? But someone had to have known about the first tip to guess he'd jump for a second...he didn't think Moriarty usually played such long games. His informant could've been double-crossed, of course. John could've given himself away...
The name on the tickets had matched one of his aliases, though. One he'd already had a passport for. It was the name he'd been convicted under, and it meant that someone had been watching him a hell of a lot longer that he'd realized...
The days ran together. The food was always scarce and bad, the water supply was contaminated with giardia, and John was attacked at least once a week by suspiciously well-prepared prisoners or particularly cocky guards. He spoke his mutant Portuguese and ate his terrible rations and spent one night in five in the sweatbox of solitary without even the tiny window of his cell. He had three or four ideas of how he could escape, but no real plan for what to do with his freedom, no idea how to find the people who'd put him away.
Well, person, probably. One person in particular.
And from this side of a prison wall, he'd never seemed further away.
After a few weeks they put him in solitary confinement and left him there; he had an infected cut on his hand and a raging case of giardia and they forgot to give him food or water for twenty-four hours. Possibly, he thought, they were trying to kill him; between the heat and the diarrhea it wouldn't take much.
He estimated he'd been there three days when the cell opened, and he struggled to sit upright, to play the brave English soldier even if two out of the three no longer applied; but it wasn't another guard on the other side of the door. Or rather, it wasn't only a guard.
There was a woman, too, sleek and cool in a pale linen suit, thumbs tapping away at a smartphone of a model he'd never seen before. She didn't look up, but she smiled and he got the feeling it was directed at him. "Hello, John," she said. "Time to go home."
She called herself Calypso this time, and she had antibiotics and water and food; she took him to a hotel, where he could shower and shave and change into real clothing, clean and well-fitted. He held in his questions until they were on the tiny private plane. "Still working for Mycroft Holmes, are you?"
"Yeah," she said vaguely. He had no idea how she was getting reception on that phone and suspected she wasn't even supposed to be using it.
"So I suppose I can thank him for my freedom?"
She tapped a few minutes. "Of course."
John forced his voice to be level. "I don't suppose you know why it took him two months to find me?"
Calypso barely glanced up at him. "Not really."
John took his antibiotics and went to sleep.
They landed in London, which was spring-damp and puddle-wonderful, and John fought the urge to press his face to the glass and take it all in--London in full swing, London as he'd dreamed of it, London that he hadn't seen in three years. He drank in every street corner and familiar landmark, and tried to ignore all the unfamiliar ones--new shops and restaurants, new statues, signs left over from the Olympics that were already faded and worn.
Home, sang something deep in his heart, home home home home, but it wasn't, not yet. Something still had him edgy, and wishing for his gun.
The car stopped at a posh-looking restaurant, probably opened in the three years of his absence, and Calypso directed him out. The entire opulent dining room was empty but for Mycroft, who looked thinner than ever--almost unhealthy, actually, though in his current state John had little room to judge. "Doctor Watson," he said with oily cheer as he looked up from his menu. "Welcome home."
"Mycroft." John dropped into the chair opposite him. "I suppose I owe you a thank-you for getting me out of there."
Mycroft's smile slipped slightly. "Of course. I was, in a sense, the one who got you in there, after all. Not that I arranged your arrest," he added quickly, with a glance at how John's hand had gravitated towards the butter knife. "I'm speaking of your former mission in general."
"Moriarty," John said.
Mycroft nodded, and looked at the wine list. "He's dead, by the way. Killed himself rather than surrender to arrest. I rather suspect it was meant as a final insult to Sherlock, though he's taken it rather well."
So that was the case that had precluded all others; John had been afraid to hope. "How long ago was this?" he asked.
Mycroft set all the menus down and steepled his fingers in a maddeningly familiar gesture. "I began working to secure your release the moment Moriarty's death was confirmed."
John carefully considered the wording of that, and then looked at the butter knife again. "But you knew where I was before that."
"I've known your whereabouts with a fair degree of accuracy for the past three years," Mycroft said. Amazingly, he looked a bit sad. "And I suggest we order now, as by the time we're finished talking I dare say neither of us will have much of an appetite."
A waiter appeared with naught but a significant glance; Mycroft ordered a salad, and John ordered beef. "You were the one behind those MI-6 reports," John hazarded. "The good leads."
"It goes deeper than that, John," Mycroft said. "I was the one who suggested to the brigadier that an independent agent might be an effective way to pursue Moriarty. I even gave him your name as a likely candidate."
John forced himself to take a long swallow of water before answering back to that. "Why would you do that?" he asked.
"At the time? Because you were a liability to Sherlock." Mycroft unfolded his napkin with a flourish. "I mean that only in the most complimentary way, of course. My brother is...less that adept at managing his emotions, and as long as you were in his life you represented a potential threat to his mental well-being."
John felt an irrational blush creep up his ears. "You sound like a bad romance novel."
Mycroft raised one eyebrow. "Tell me I'm wrong, then."
John found his napkin absorbed much of his attention instead.
"I must say, though, I was pleasantly surprised that you turned out to be so adept at the mission assigned to you," Mycroft continued. "But it quickly became evident that there was more than one game afoot in the matter of Moriarty. I began to suspect that he had a mole within the British government."
"I thought you were the British government," John blurted, blood running cold.
Mycroft smiled wanely. "Sherlock has believed me omnipotent since I miraculously 'healed' his first teddy bear. It's only his attitude that has altered. I may have a certain degree of influence, but I am only one man, and there are matters even I cannot approach directly."
Their meal was served, and when Mycroft dug in with apparent gusto John had no choice but to take a few small, tasteless bites. Eventually, Mycroft continued. "I typically have little use for the military, and they for me, which rather hampered my attempts to identify the mole. Whoever he or she may be, it was through them that Moriarty received regular intelligence on your whereabouts and future plans. I suspect you came closer to catching him than you ever knew, in fact, and this business would've been over years ago if not for his regular advanced warning."
John thought of Siberia, of the Golem, of Brazil. Of all the cold trails and missed chances. "And you let me go on like that?"
"I did not dare overplay my hand," Mycroft said. "Your safety and my position were both on the line, and believe me, one is intimately connected to the other. As long as you remained an active operative, I could continue tracing the activities of the mole; had you died or retired again, I would have lost the lead."
"But with Moriarty dead, there's nothing left to investigate," John said, pushing his plate out of the way.
"Queen and country, Dr. Watson," Mycroft said. "Or if you prefer, Sherlock and state. There is at least one domain where our interests intersect."
John looked across the dining room at the rain-streaked windows. "Yeah, speaking of whom--how much did he know about this?" Maybe that was why Sherlock had been so strange to him, because he thought John had been Mycroft's willing puppet. Or maybe he'd been the grudging collaborator, helping Mycrfot ferret out the mole.
Mycroft frowned at his salad, and with a sigh, pushed the bowl to one side as well. "John," he said awkwardly. "You surely understand that men in our positions do necessary things. Unpleasant things, but very necessary."
The hairs on the back of John's neck stood up rigidly. "What are you talking about?"
Mycroft looked him straight in the eye. "As far as Sherlock is aware, you died on third April, 2010."
There was a moment when the whole world stopped, and John stopped with it; there was no thought in his head, no sound but roaring silence, nothing but the sluggish, syncopated beating his heart. Memories quietly rearranged themselves in the corners of his brain. His universe fought this cruel new fact and lost.
"You utter bastard," he said, terrified by his own lack of feeling. He felt himself falling to that quiet place where he murdered people and made terrible compromises.
"The ruse extends to your sister, of course," Mycroft said, still grimacing as if this were no more than an awkward social faux pas. "Co-workers, friends, et cetera. The illusion had to be perfect to withstand Sherlock's scrutiny, because if he'd had an inkling that you were still alive he would've pursued you without any concern for his own safety or yours. I permitted a few of your comments on his website to stand, provided they contained no clue that could lead him back to you, and a few of your emails, when they contained useful information."
"Who answered back for him?" John asked. "Your PA out there? An intern?"
"I handled that correspondence personally," Mycroft, quiet and grave.
"Fuck," John said, as a stand-in for all the other words piling up behind his teeth: all the by what rights and how dare yous and What could possibly stop me killing you right now. He felt like he was going to be ill.
"Your retirement could be extraordinarily comfortable," Mycroft said earnestly. "A new persona has already been established for you in New Zealand. A comfortable house in one of the most beautiful places on earth, a share in a private practice, all the material comforts you could desire in exchange for your discretion and silence." He paused. "I am, of course, aware that you are extraordinarily unlikely to accept it, but I do feel obligated to make the offer."
John snorted, and took another deep swallow of water, mostly because he knew his body needed the fluids. The facts in his head were shifting, shifting, and he knew he ought to be thinking about Harry and Mike and Sarah, about a new life in Wellington and his old life in the Army, but all that kept filling his mind's eye was Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock...
And something else, something that fell into place with a click that broke his heart.
"I've got a better idea," he said quietly, setting the empty glass aside.
Mycroft raised one eyebrow. "I'm listening."
"It goes like this." John leaned over the table. "I give you your mole, and you give me my life back."
Mycroft's mouth thinned. "That will be extraordinarily difficult."
"You like a challenge."
"And it presumes that you have succeeded in less than ten minutes where I have struggled for three years," he added.
John made his mouth smile because he knew it would be irritating. "Maybe you just didn't have all the relevant data."
Mycroft studied him in silence for a long time, and John waited for his answer. Not that it would matter much in the short term, but in the long term it meant everything.
With another glance, Mycroft called over a man in a dark suit, with sunglasses and wire that disappeared down his collar. He gave John another manila envelope, and then the man's sidearm, a stubby little revolver that hid easily under his jacket. "We have a deal," he said. "I believe you know how to contact me if you succeed."
John ripped open the envelope at the table, ignoring the fake passport in favor of the cash and the mobile phone. He tucked the revolver into his belt, under his jumper. "Didn't actually think you'd go for it," he admitted.
For some reason, Mycroft smiled. "You know, just now, you looked extraordinarily like Sherlock."
John didn't know what to say to that. He stood up from the table. "I'll be in touch."
John found a spot in a multistory car park, part of an empty office complex, no danger of being overheard or found out. Also, it was out of the rain. He sent a text message using coordinates from the phone's GPS, and then set about disabling the nearest CCTV cameras. His phone rang twice; he didn't answer it.
When Moran finally arrived, it was on foot. He was in civilian dress, but from the way he moved John guessed he was armed with a pistol and possibly a back-up weapon, either a smaller gun or a knife. He stopped short a few feet away from John and stared. "Jesus Christ, Watson," he said blankly.
"Afternoon," John said, waiting.
After a moment Moran started approaching him again, but it was slow and wary, angled to the side like John was a spooked horse or a dangerous predator. "How the fuck did you get here?" he asked sharply. "You went AWOL in Iran."
"Is that right?" John said, and when Moran was at just the right angle, he shot twice from the hip.
Moran pulled his own gun, but John's first bullet went into his forearm just above the wrist, shattering bone. The second bullet hit in the belly, not quite penetrating the kidney but leaving enough bleeding to be going on with. It would be fatal on its own without treatment. John kicked Moran's gun away and stood over him, calm and controlled, watching the red stain spread under him.
Moran knew well enough to simply ask, "What gave it away?"
"Not much, really," John said. "Moriarty made a good choice with you. I'd have never suspected. I'd never want to suspect. Might've had a bit of Stockholm Syndrome towards the end, even."
"You are a bit fucked in the head," Moran agreed with a small, pained smile.
John knelt down, keeping the pistol in a position to fire. "I had plenty of time to think in Brazil about who'd set me up. But too many people knew about the first tip--too many suspects. Then I remembered Siberia."
Moran raised an eyebrow. "I thought Siberia was pretty clever, actually."
"It almost was," John allowed. "But then I thought about it like a doctor. I was wet, bleeding and naked. I had minutes to live, probably in the single digits, and somehow I survived with only moderate frostbite. Moriarty brought me there by helicopter, with maybe one or two hours' warning, so you couldn't have found me and driven out there in time. If you'd taken a helicopter you would've met Moriarty in the air, and I shouldn't have been your priority anymore. It doesn't add up. If I'd been thinking clearly at the time I'd have made you two years ago."
"Too bad you didn't," Moran said. "You've been bloody annoying."
John shot him in the thigh, then, well clear of the femoral artery. He gave him a few minutes to recover from the pain. "Obviously you know Moriarty's dead now."
"Obviously," Moran said, teeth gritted.
"Can I ask--was Brazil his order? Or was that all you?" The answer to that mattered, if only to him, and Moran would lose consciousness in the next few seconds.
Moran shook his head, which wasn't actually an answer. "You were too close," he said. "You and Holmes both. If you'd just stayed in Afghanistan and taken permanent transfer..."
John stood up. "Geneva. Who gave me away?"
"No idea," he rasped. "I didn't even know you were there until you were arrested."
"I see. Thank you." John's last shot punctured a lung, and Moran's eyes rolled shut. Between the pneumothorax and the blood loss, he'd be dead in a matter of minutes. He wasn't wearing tags or carrying a wallet, but John doubted that Mycroft's people would need anything so overt.
Mycroft's number, incidentally, was stored in the phone's address book already; he texted the coordinates to him, then wiped the fingerprints from the revolver and left it with the body. It took half an hour of walking to get to a bus stop, where he watched police and ambulances whizz by; he took the first bus to pass and rode it without destination, transferring whenever he felt like it. He stopped to get himself a coffee, to look at newspapers and see who was gossiping about whom anymore; he remembered to take his antibiotics.
Three hours after he killed Moran, he got a text back from Mycroft. All it said was, I'm certain you remember the address.
Oh, did he ever.
John had just enough cash left to hail a cab.
He had the taxi drop him at the Marylebone end of Baker Street; the rain had stopped, but behind the clouds the sun was fading, plunging everything into a gloaming murk. John walked up the street slowly, noting three years' worth of changes: different shops, different signs, doors painted in different colors and adverts for things he'd never heard of. Speedy's had been replaced by a cozy-looking coffee bar, the kind that sold eight ounces of foamed milk and hazelnut syrup for six pounds fifty, but the door to 221 was exactly as John remembered it, save for a deep and unfortunate-looking gouge near the lock. He studied it, thinking of machetes and ka-bars and the logistics of a knife fight, before he realized he was stalling.
He realized that his left hand was trembling as he knocked on the door.
There was no answer, not even when he knocked again, louder; if Mrs. Hudson was out, of course, Sherlock would and did ignore the front door for hours. John considered the possibility that his epic return would have to be delayed until someone came home to let him, and nearly laughed. But it was miserably damp out here, and getting colder, and if he had to wait for Sherlock to come wandering back from a crime scene he'd be doing it somewhere warm.
He was all set to pick the lock when he discovered the door was open already; not even deadbolted. A happy accident? Mycroft's arrangement? Or something else? John forced himself not to speculate as he slipped inside, shutting the door quietly behind him. He told himself that at the end of everything, the universe was not sufficiently cruel to throw some other tragedy in his face. Moriarty was dead; John was free; Sherlock had probably just forgotten to lock up when he came home. He would find no disaster on the other side of this open door.
The third step still squealed when he trod on it, but the carpet on the fifteenth had been fixed, so there was no longer the threat of an agonizing death by falling if you caught the edge of your shoe wrong. John hesitated on the landing and listened, but the whole house was quiet, no sounds but the city-whispers of traffic and business from outside. Maybe Sherlock wasn't home, which might be easier, or harder. Maybe something was horribly wrong.
The sitting room was...nearly unchanged, actually. There was a horrific stuffed owl hanging from the ceiling, wings forever stretched in a lopsided parody of flight, but it was really no worse than the skull still on the mantle. Even more bookshelves had been installed on either side of the couch, overflowing with even more books; John's old television was still wedged into its awkward shelf. There was a petri dish full of cigarette butts on the window sill. He could pick out places where the wallpaper had changed or shifted, and imagined Sherlock or Mrs. Hudson or both carefully covering over bullet holes and smoke stains, and for a minute his heart clenched around everything he'd missed, all the days and nights and weekends and cases and fights and conversations that had passed without him, that he could only ever reach in the retelling.
There was no sign of Sherlock's immediate presence in the room, but no sign of foul play. There was, however, a brown paper folder on the desk, standing out against the detritus of crime-scene photos and crumpled post and half-empty mugs of stone-cold tea. It was stamped on the front in thick red letters: DO NOT COPY - DO NOT DIGITIZE - DO NOT REMOVE – AUTHORIZED USE ONLY. John strongly suspected that he wasn't authorized, and Sherlock certainly wasn't. He opened it anyway.
Most of the documents inside were memos and emails from within Int Corps, so heavily redacted that it took John a minute to realize they were talking about him: ------ reported from ------------- that -------- has not been sighted... Some of them were his own reports, but those were the most heavily edited of all, whole paragraphs or pages swallowed in black. Photographs he'd taken of evidence. Newspaper clippings from all over the world, reporting on his crimes and achievements without ever mentioning his name.
There were also photographs of his injuries--from Siberia, from the Golem, a few odd moments in between. Careful, tightly-focused images of stab wounds and frostbite that revealed the extent of the damage without any identifying context. There were highly classified memos between Army psychologists arguing about whether he should be sectioned; emails between general officers about whether he ought to be promoted for what he'd done, or court-martialed.
Under that folder he found another one, a plain one with no stamps on the front; it lay open, and some of the pages had already been turned aside. John swallowed when he realized that these were the emails he'd thought he'd been sending Sherlock--anonymous and unsigned, because he'd assumed Sherlock would know. None of Mycroft's replies were included, just John's own words flung into a void: I'm no good to you in London...it's been a year...the LD50 is on green curry paste...I think I need you...Plan B...
The last email he'd sent, pleading for help just before he'd been convicted, had been face-up when he uncovered the folder. Under it was a grainy photograph, a security camera feed. It showed John sitting at Sherlock's bedside in the hospital, after the pool bombing all those years ago; the date in the corner was third April, 2010. But obviously Sherlock hadn't looked at it, had stopped with the last email...
Over his shoulder came the sound of a thump and a scrape.
John spun around, reaching for a weapon he wasn't carrying, heart in his throat. And there was Sherlock, in the kitchen, sitting in one of the chairs with his legs in an awkward sprawl, one hand pressed to his chest. He looked the same, fundamentally the same--slightly different haircut; thinner, if that was possible; a faint scar on his neck from the pool. But he still wore one of his various identical black suits with a charcoal-colored shirt. He still looked at John with a laserlike gaze that saw far more that ought to be possible, even when his eyes also seemed wide enough to fall entirely out of his face.
It occurred to John, after the first blinding rush of alarm, that Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and bane of Jim Moriarty, had been sneaking up behind him. That he had--tripped, or something--and was sitting in the kitchen now, alive and whole, pale and perilously close to hyperventillating.
The laugh that bubbled out of him took him entirely by surprise.
"Stop that," Sherlock said hoarsely, after John had been giggling uncontrollably for ninety seconds. "You--come over here."
John crossed into the kitchen and Sherlock stood up shakily, still looking at him with something like awe. Surely that massive hard drive was still computing, but it was all in the background, all secondary to watching John's every move as if he was likely to evaporate. John couldn't quite stop laughing yet--didn't want to, really, because he couldn't remember the last time he'd laughed like this, the last time it had felt so good. Possibly he was a little hysterical himself.
He stopped about a foot away from Sherlock, who closed the gap until they were standing nearly toe-to-toe. Sherlock raised his hands and held them a moment, suspended, as uncertain as John had ever seen him; then brought them down on John's arms, his shoulders, up his neck. He dragged his thumbs up John's face, lingering for a moment on the scar along his jaw, on the crests of his cheeks. As if he needed to confirm by touch what his eyes could see, even in the dimness of the room. John held his breath and let him.
"Extraordinary," Sherlock said in a sigh, and John found himself pinned in a long-limbed hug.
For a moment he squirmed awkwardly, because it had been too damned long since anyone had held him this close without the intent to murder him and he wasn't sure what to do with his hands; but then he found a comfortable hold on Sherlock's hips and let his head rest on the lapel of his jacket, and it was...nice. It was good. Not like nothing had ever happened, because three years had happened, and in the face of those three years, three months should've meant nothing; because this would never have happened before Moriarty and Mycroft and death and resurrection.
John stopped trying to make any sense of it, and listened to Sherlock's breathing.
"You've got a mild fever," Sherlock declared. "And you're dehydrated."
"I was in a Brazilian prison," John mumbled.
"Oh." One of Sherlock's hands moved up and down between his shoulder blades, firm and steady through his jacket and jumper. "I don't believe I've got anything in."
That threatened to set him laughing all over again, and he didn't bother fighting it. "It's fine," he assured Sherlock, and meant it. "It's all fine."