John's got the shopping done and he's walking home when a black car with dark-tinted windows slows down, crawling next to him on the street. John stops and so does the car. The passenger door swings open.
"Do get in, John,” the occupant says, and John doesn't have to see his face to recognise him.
He gets in the car, nearly dropping the cumbersome bags. Mycroft Holmes smiles and nods a greeting. The door is shut behind John and the car pulls away from the curb.
"I thought it was about time for our little chat." Mycroft glances at John and his eyes narrow slightly. “I see you're not wearing that collar I had sent over. Is it a poor fit? It can be so hard to judge these things.”
John has never tried it on. “No. I just, um, forgot today.”
“Ah,” Mycroft says.
John traces a seam in the seat leather and then forces himself to fold his hands and sit still.
“About my brother,” Mycroft says.
"What do you want to know?" At Mycroft's irritated look, John adds a quick sir. He's got out of practise with Sherlock, become dangerously complacent – a complacency that would cost him if he crossed the wrong vampire.
"Let's start generally: how is he, in your opinion?"
"Well, I think. He was depressed three days last week when Lestrade – Detective Inspector Lestrade, I mean -- wouldn't let him borrow a firearm. But otherwise he seems all right. Sir." John isn't quite sure what Mycroft wants to hear.
"Yes, he can be so immature. We're only four decades apart, but sometimes it feels like centuries. His appetite?"
"Depends, at least four pints a week, if he's not on a case. Sometimes he'll eat solids."
"Really?" Mycroft asks, an eyebrow arched. "I confess I've indulged in the occasional pudding, but he's never had much use for human food."
"It may have just been to spite me," John allows.
"Ah." Mycroft smiles, his eyes half-lidded. "And fresh blood?"
John holds absolutely still. "Two or three times a month, yes." It's a perfectly innocuous question; it would be strange if Sherlock didn't occasionally feed from his slave, but John still feels embarrassed, as if Mycroft had asked him some deeply personal question about his sexual proclivities.
"Interesting," Mycroft says and John can't begin to guess what he means by it. "And his little projects? How are his cases?"
"He keeps busy, usually. He found out that the overseer at Barclay's had been embezzling funds. They'd gone through three tellers before he figured it out."
"Ah yes, Overseer Daniels. He's been dealt with."
John swallows against the dryness in his throat. Mycroft looks out of the window. It's begun to rain, little rivulets winding their way down the glass. His gaze is still on the street when he says, "And how do you like your new master, John?"
"Like him, sir?"
"Surely you've formed some opinion of his character. Something my brother has in spades. Of course, it doesn't really matter how you feel, but I am curious. Very few people have spent as much time with him as you have, now, and you've known him for three months."
"I respect, honour, and fear him as my master," John says, which is straight from the oath taught to all humans as soon as they can talk. Mycroft doesn't dignify that with a response, so John tries to come up with an answer a little closer to the truth. "I ... like him. He's temperamental and odd, even by vampire standards, but he talks to me like I'm a person and he gives me a great deal of freedom and, well, I just like him."
“Good,” Mycroft say and he rubs his chin thoughtfully. “That's good. Loyalty is always admirable in a slave, but love is so much stronger. A slave ought to love his master. The reverse, however, doesn't hold. Goodness, just the other day I heard a story. Well, read it in The Daily Mail, so of course it's the most scurrilous gossip, but educational nonetheless. Lord Grayson had a slave, sweet little blonde. What was her name? G-something. Or possibly a J. Jessica? Gemma?” He waved a hand to dismiss the girl's name.
“No matter. It's irrelevant to the story. Lord Grayson had a slave and Lady Atherton quite liked her. A little too well, in fact. At Lord Grayson's last party, Lady Atherton over-fed on the girl. Didn't kill her, but it was a very near thing. Grayson demanded redress, which Atherton paid. Over ten thousand pounds, can you believe it? Atherton is an over-entitled cow, but still. ” Mycroft shakes his head in wonder. “Grayson wasn't satisfied and challenged Atherton to combat. Which makes him an idiot as well as a fool; Atherton must have at least two centuries on him and she, of course, won.”
Mycroft gives John a sidelong glance and John nods to show he's following. “The queen wasn't best pleased with her courtiers fighting like spoiled children with a bit of blood-toffee. She's ordered Grayson to send the girl to the rendering plant as a lesson and taken the ten thousand pounds as a forfeit. Nasty business from start to finish.”
John feels ill.
Mycroft sniffs and takes a moment to examine his nails. “Joanna! That was her name.” He taps his temple. “It's all in here somewhere, though it can be a bit of a jumble. No matter, I trust you take my point.”
John nods. “I think so, sir.”
“Excellent. They did say you were clever. Ah, here we are.” The car pulls up outside of Sherlock's house. “I can't stop in, but do tell my brother hello for me. And don't forget your bags.”
John collects them, fishing under the seat for a tin of wayward biscuits and then steps out onto the street. The car pulls away from the curb almost before he gets the door shut.
Sherlock appears in the kitchen doorway as John's putting things away. Most of the items are for John: milk, bread, cans of tomato soup or peas. They're a luxury; most humans subsist on the foul nutrition loaves, which contain a dozen vitamins and minerals and absolutely no flavour. Humans with allowances might buy real food and more indulgent vampires – like Sherlock – might supply their slaves.
“You spoke with Mycroft,” he says. It's not a question. “What did you say to him?”
John rummages through a bag, buying time. “He asked how you were doing.”
“I don't care what he asked. I care what you said. Which is why I asked 'what did you say to him'?” Sherlock says, his hands on his hips.
“I didn't get a chance to say much,” John says.
Sherlock snorts. “I don't doubt it. But you must have said something about me.”
“I said you're a bloody great git and a bother to look after. Not in so many words. But my tone – I implied.”
“And my work?”
“He already knew most of it.”
Sherlock considers this. “To be expected. Anything else of note?”
“Um,” John says, brow furrowing. “Not that I can think of.”
"Is it just me or is he acting a bit … odd?" Lestrade asks, leaning against the wall of the dormitory. Sherlock's locked himself in the room to commune with the crime scene, and he's kicked them both out, accusing them of thinking too loudly.
“You'll have to be more specific,” John says.
There's an incoherent shout from inside the room.
“You know. Odd,” Lestrade says unhelpfully.
"He's been fighting with his brother," John offers after a moment.
"Mycroft Holmes?" Lestrade says and snorts. "No wonder. I met him once. He gave me the screaming heebie-jeebies. And this at a crime scene we had to sort out organ by bloody organ."
The door swings open and Sherlock stands there silhouetted, looking rather dramatic. John wonders if the effect is intentional.
"So?" Lestrade says. "What about my theory that it's one of the handlers covering his tracks when he goes too far with one of the girls?"
"It's admirable -- as a piece of creative fiction. Perhaps you should write novels." Sherlock pauses to let the jibe sink in. "The killer wasn't a vampire -- the killer didn't even work in the factory."
"Okay," Lestrade says and crooks his middle and ring fingers in a let's-have-it-then gesture.
"The victim was beheaded. The blade was sharp, but the seams on the wound are jagged. The victim fought and the murderer had to use a sawing motion to cut through the tissue, tendon and bone. A vampire would have had the strength necessary to manage it in one motion." Sherlock holds up a bloodstained shirt; it's a teal factory uniform, the logo on the breast pocket.
"The killer wore this and changed into an extra of the victim's when traipsing about in a bloodied one would have attracted too much attention. It's an authentic uniform, but a newer one. This is an eighty/twenty percent cotton-polyester blend, the rest of the uniforms are seventy/thirty; slightly different dye lot as well. So a new shipment that hasn't yet been distributed to the workers. Probably stolen right from the shipping docks. The killer was accustomed to moving through the factory, a former textile worker, possibly at this very factory.”
Sherlock peels off the rubber gloves he'd worn to examine the scene and tosses them aside, mindless of where they fall.
“Getting in would be easy, they scan the workers coming in from leave, but they're not thorough – no one's worried about someone slipping in. Then it was a matter of waiting until dinner when the other workers would be in the cafeteria and catching the victim alone."
"What? She wasn't hungry?"
"She stayed behind to meet the killer." Lestrade looks dubious and Sherlock snaps, "She didn't know he was going to murder her, obviously."
"So why did he kill her?" John asks, mostly to keep them on task.
"They were both members of the HLF and she was working as a double-agent."
"Why didn't I see it?" Lestrade says, clapping his hand to his forehead. "A sixteen-year-old factory worker, of course she's a spy who's infiltrated a dangerous terrorist organisation."
"You didn't see it because you're an idiot," Sherlock says. "It's really a miracle you've made it to three hundred. Do you think someone broke in here to murder a random worker? Why not strangle her, or stab her or shoot her in the head – beheading really takes an extra effort. Beheading is also one of the few ways to kill a vampire. That's not coincidence, it's a threat!"
"Where's the killer now?"
Sherlock grimaces. "Out of London, probably for at least six hours."
"Do you know who she was working for? MI-5, the Home Office?"
"I don't know, but I can make a rather good guess."
Mycroft is nonplussed to find them on his doorstep.
"Always a delight to see you, darling boy, but you really should ring ahead. I'm right in the middle of something at the moment...."
Sherlock ignores this and pushes past his brother. John follows before the door can be shut in his face.
Mycroft sighs. "All right, if you insist, I suppose I might make some time." Sherlock is already throwing open the tall double-doors to Mycroft's study. In it are three black-clad vampires in rappelling harnesses.
"I'm sorry, gentlemen," Mycroft says to them. "I'll have to postpone our ... debriefing." The three file out wordlessly and Sherlock throws himself into one of the huge leather chairs across from Mycroft's desk. "Yes, Sherlock? I do hope I can help you."
"A girl at the Greig-Bancore plant has been killed," Sherlock says.
"The beheading?" Mycroft says in mild interest. "I'd heard something about it. Nasty business that. You see, this is why I'm in favour of stronger regulations on humans. It's for their own good."
"She was your informant," Sherlock says.
"Whatever do you mean?" Mycroft asks, an eyebrow arching. "Really, are you so desperate that you'll just throw things against the wall and hope something sticks? Disappointing."
"You can drop the pretence," Sherlock says. "The body had a fresh scar on the left arm. Her old chip had been recently replaced. Chips can be rewritten without removing them, but the serial number can't be changed. She needed an entirely new identity. Judging from the pinkness of the scar, this was no more than six months ago. Which, incidentally, is when she started working at the factory. Before six months ago, she didn't exist. Curious, wouldn't you say? It's difficult for a human to drop off the grid, but to pop back on? Must be nearly impossible.” There is a rather pregnant pause. "Did she have the information you wanted?"
Mycroft scowls deeply. “She thought she could get it, but went and got her head cut off instead."
"Not very considerate of her," Sherlock says.
"And now it may take months – months! – before I can infiltrate the HLF's network again. You can't imagine my frustration; I spend so many careful hours selecting the perfect agents, training them, grooming them, finding the perfect in, and waiting for them to gain the HLF's trust before I can finally enjoy the fruits of my labour. The HLF is a hard nut to crack."
"I'm sure," Sherlock says. "I will, of course, require access to all your files, surveillance, video footage – anything that might be remotely useful and quite a few things that aren't."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your HLF files, I need them."
"Of course you don't. My dear boy, you seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that I want or require your help in these matters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stay away from the HLF, Sherlock." Mycroft's tone takes on a cold brittle air that makes the hair on the back of John's neck stand up.
"You're an idiot if you think you don't need me–"
"You have many virtues, well. You have a few virtues – wit, tenacity, an admirable sense of style – but subtlety is not among them."
"I can be subtle!" Sherlock says, aggrieved.
"You count an audience among life's absolute necessities. And while I'll grant that you're passable enough at playacting when it suits you, your favourite part is the grand reveal.” Mycroft crosses one leg over the other, picking at a bit of lint on his knee. “I'm under enough pressure as it is, what with my newest rival in the Council. And everyone's looking for a scapegoat to blame for this whole Incursion fiasco. Seems HLF is becoming a real threat.”
John had read about the mutiny on the HMS Incursion in the papers that very evening. The ship had disappeared just off the coast of the new Carolina colony en route to Liverpool.
“The Incursion is a freighter with a drunk captain and an ageing engine. John could probably take the vessel with a butter knife and a little determination.”
“It was carrying nearly twenty thousand long tonnes of grain. A factory runs on wheat as much as it runs on oil and electricity, Sherlock.” Mycroft rubs his temple. “No, you're much too great a risk. This requires a ... lighter touch."
Sherlock's trembling ever so slightly when he says, through gritted teeth, "Fine. That is just fine. I'll return when your 'light touch' yields nothing and you finally come to your senses. Come along, John." Sherlock's up and across the room and out the door.
John starts to follow but then Mycroft's got his wrist in a brutal grip. John jumps as much from surprise as pain; he hadn't even seen Mycroft move.
“There are some vampires who find a spirited human amusing.” Mycroft brushes his knuckles down the side of John's neck. “I assure you I am not one of them. Don't let my brother get into trouble.” He lets go. John stumbles backward, and then turns and runs after Sherlock.
John pulls the blue box from the bottom of his dresser and opens it. He strokes the leather with one finger. The clasp is fine enough that it won't catch the hair on his neck or dig into him. It's no worse than a belt, really.
He tells himself to think of it as an accessory.
Sherlock's in the kitchen, comparing slides under a microscope. John sets the box on the table and slides it across. Sherlock's gaze flickers to the box and then he continues his examination of the slides.
“I want you to put this on me,” John says.
Sherlock adjusts a dial on the microscope. “No.”
“Why not? You said you didn't care whether or not I wore it.”
“I didn't. Now I do.”
John takes a seat across from Sherlock and sets his elbows on the table, hard enough to make the slides jump.
Sherlock sits up, annoyed. “You've never wanted to wear it before. I assume your sudden change of heart had something to do with Mycroft. And if Mycroft wants you to wear it, I don't want you to wear it.”
“What does it matter?”
“It matters because if you wear it because of him then it's as though he owns you.”
“He's the one that bought me, Sherlock. It's his name on the deed. And he's the one who'll be selling me if he thinks I'm trouble.”
Sherlock's mouth is set in a sullen line, but he says nothing.
“I can do it or you can do it,” John says.
Sherlock still doesn't answer but when John gets up and rounds the table, he stands as well and plucks the collar and key out of the box. John turns; the clasp is meant to be at the back. When the cool leather settles against his neck, John has to remind himself that it's not too tight, that he's imagining it choking him.
There's a little metallic snick as Sherlock turns the lock. He slips two fingers between the leather and skin, testing the tightness or feel or something John can't begin to guess.
After a moment, he releases John and sits back down to the microscope, selecting another slide.
"Are you finding everything you need, sir?" The foreman is human, sallow-skinned and grey-haired. The only colour he has is the red tip of his nose. He has been stooped in a perennial half-bow since Sherlock waltzed in and demanded to inspect the premises.
Most humans have very little contact with vampires, spending their days working in the factories. They start giving blood at age twelve, but may go their whole lives without being fed on directly. A glimpse of the factory owner at yearly inspection is the closest most ever come.
"I need the security footage from the cameras over the docks."
The foreman wrings his hands. "I'll have to ask Lady Bryan, sir. I'm sorry, but I can't be giving out security materials without her permission. You understand, sir."
"Of course. But perhaps you could answer a question for me."
"Yes, sir. Anything, sir."
"How long have you been marking goods as damaged and selling them on the black market?" Sherlock asks. He's got his magnifying glass out and is studying a scuffmark on one of the crates.
"What?" the foreman's voice is a squeak and the man looks ready to drop dead. John is more than a little afraid he will have a heart attack.
"I'm sure it wasn't noticeable at first. Goods you were told to destroy, but why waste them? And that worked so well, you thought you'd expand. You've got too greedy, though I'm afraid. It would be obvious if anyone were paying attention. If anybody were to point it out, however, it would be painfully obvious."
They get the security tapes.
"How did you know he was skimming?" John asks when they're back on the street.
"Because they're always skimming," Sherlock says. "If you make a threat sufficiently vague people will always fill in the gaps. He was just an especially easy mark."
They're in the warehouse district, several checkpoints outside of Sherlock's neighbourhood. This is a mostly human area and there are more Civic Guard patrols out here than there are in the vampire neighbourhoods. The Civvies ignore Sherlock, except to nod in deference when he passes.
"The uniforms the foreman sold eventually wound up in the hands of the HLF. All we have to do is follow the trail."
"Shouldn't we maybe save that for tomorrow?" John says. They have less than an hour before sunrise, and they'll never be able to catch a black cab in this part of town.
But Sherlock isn't listening; he's thinking, his head cocked to the side and his eyes narrowed.
"Oh, you idiot," he says and then he takes off, sprinting down the street. John starts after him, but he's already clearing the corner.
"Sherlock!" John calls, but then he has to save his breath for running. He catches sight of Sherlock again when he reaches the corner, but the vampire has long legs and doesn't have that pesky need for oxygen that has John's own lungs burning, and it's only minutes before Sherlock takes another turn and this time John loses him. He stands at the crossroads for several long minutes, glancing one way and then the other.
"Bugger," he says. He guesses a direction and starts jogging, but he knows it's an incredibly long shot. Still, moving helps fend off the growing panic.
He gives it up though, a half hour later when there's still no sign of Sherlock and the eastern sky is fading from black to navy blue. All he's accomplished is getting himself badly lost. He asks directions from a frightened woman, a shawl drawn down over her face. She just points, without even looking at him and hurries on.
He makes it through the first checkpoint easily enough. The guards wave him through the turnstile, not taking their eyes off their cards as they gamble. His luck bolsters him and he feels just the tiniest bit optimistic, even though the sky's gone pink and orange. He's tired, but lengthens his stride.
He keeps to alleys and side streets as much as he can. He's a little more certain that he's going the right direction.
"Oi, you!" John seriously considers making a run for it, but he's exhausted and one of the Civvies has his gun aimed right at John. There's a joke that the Civic Guards can hit anything but their target, but John doesn't want to test the theory. "What are you about? S'past curfew."
"I'm just headed home," John says. "Lost track of the time. I'm sorry. Won't happen again."
"And who do you belong to?"
"Lord Holmes." John straightens his shoulders, just a bit.
"Lord Holmes?" The Civvies exchange a look and burst into laughter. “You belong to the great Lord Holmes?
The second Civvy elbows the first. "And I'm the personal attendant to the queen herself. Service her three times a night."
"What would a vampire want with a grubby little bleeder like yourself?" asks the second guard.
"Scan my chip if you don't believe me," John says, not quite keeping the edge from his voice.
"Right, right, why don't you come with us and we'll get you sorted." Then they're twisting John's arms behind his back and securing his wrists with a zip tie.
There's a guard van two streets over and they chuck John in the back.
The detention centre is a squat cement building, but that's all John can see before they're driving into an underground carpark.
They hustle him out and into a cell that could easily hold twenty people but which is currently empty. They issue him with a blanket, a bottle of water and a nutrition bar.
He tries to eat the bar, but the taste is foul. It reminds him vaguely of fruitcake, if fruitcake had the same consistency and colour as liquorice.
"Hello?" a voice says. He looks up to find a woman with clipboard watching him through the bars of the cell. She's wearing the charcoal grey uniform of a detention centre orderly. "Mind if I swipe your chip?"
"Yes!" John says, almost tripping over the blanket in his haste. “I mean, no. I don't mind. Look – I'm not from the factories; I'm a personal slave. I belong to Sherlock Holmes, brother to Mycroft Holmes. I wasn't running away. We just got separated and I got lost and – please just look at my file. It's all there."
But the scanner she has isn't meant to read files, merely detect chips and give the slave's ID number. She's noting it down on her clipboard now, mouthing each letter and number as she writes it.
"Y, D, Thirty-four, ninety-nine, fifty-seven, C. There we are." She looks up from her notes. "I'll put it on the wire that we've found you and then your proper owner – whoever they may be – can come round and collect you."
"What happens if they don't?"
"We'll hold you here for three nights, and then–"
"And then I'm to be sent for rendering, aren't I?" John says.
"Oh, nothing so grim. There are a couple of factories what have a requisition for workers out. Do you have any technical training?"
"I, uh, used to be a doctor."
"Well there you are then," she says, pleased. "You're sure to get a plum spot."
"Look, if I could just make a phone call. One phone call."
"What'll you be wanting next? The moon? Even I can't make phone calls. I've only got me radio and I don't think that would do you any good. So why don't you get some rest, you look completely knackered. You've had a rough run, I'll wager, but you're in good hands now. So don't fret. I'll be along later with lunch and even some orange juice if I can steal some from the guard's supply." She taps the side of her nose with a finger. "It'll be our secret."
She leaves and John says to the empty room, "Well. Any more of that and I'll be volunteering to go to the plant."
There isn't anyway to tell the time in the cell, the lights a relentless florescent yellow. The orderly returns with the promised orange juice and a stale cheese sandwich, which he does manage to eat. Next to the nutrition bar, it's gourmet. Shortly after that three quarters of the lights go out. It's still far too bright for John to sleep, but he lies down and with nothing else to do, worries.
What he guesses must be eight hours later, the lights come back on. He counts the time in his head. It must be just full dark now. Sherlock could use Mycroft's driver or call a cab, either way, call it an hour, just in case, and perhaps an hour – two? – to get across the city. John isn't entirely sure where the centre is.
What feels like three hours later, he recalculates. It would have taken time for his number to come up on the wire, for Sherlock to find the right detention centre. Or hunt him down if the damned orderly had never put John's number on the wire. Yes, that's what has probably happened, the girl is clearly an idiot. Sherlock's on the street now, every minute bringing him closer to retrieving John from this hellhole.
There's another cycle of light and dark. John starts worrying in earnest about whether Sherlock will actually remember that he has a slave and that said slave is missing.
In the end it's not Sherlock who retrieves John at all. It's Mycroft.
John has passed out, well and truly asleep for the first time since he's come to the centre. He wakes to find Mycroft nudging him with an umbrella.
"Having a bit of lie-in, are we?" Mycroft asks. John looks up at him in surprise and Mycroft sighs. “Unfortunately it's my name on your deed, so I'm the one who was informed that you'd wound up in a detention centre in Sutton.”
John gets to his feet, his back twinging from sleeping on the floor and his neck stiff. He follows Mycroft, keeping his gaze fixed on his back, ignoring the orderly as she waves an animated good-bye.
Sherlock is lying on the sofa with his knees hooked over the arm, mobile in his hand, when Mycroft escorts John in.
“I thought I told you not to touch my things,” Sherlock says and cranes his neck to glare at Mycroft.
“You really ought to take better care of them,” Mycroft says, unperturbed. “And technically, this one is my thing.”
“But you do so love to interfere,” Sherlock snaps. “I'd hate to take away your purpose in life.”
“As my purpose in life seems to be cleaning up after you, I'll never be without one.” And, having had the last word, Mycroft leaves before Sherlock can reply.
“Do you have a pen? Blue or black ink is fine,” Sherlock asks John, his eyes still on the mobile screen as he texts.
"How long did it take you to remember?" John asks.
"Remember what?" Sherlock says, his attention still on the phone.
"Me," John bites out.
Sherlock looks up and blinks once, twice. "Don't be ridiculous. How could I forget you? I had to heat the blood myself."
"The blood?" John repeats.
"It coagulated.” Sherlock wrinkles his nose. “I despise lumpy blood."
“You noticed I'd gone missing because your blood was lumpy.”
“I already told you that I didn't forget you,” Sherlock says, taking an irritated breath. “I have no idea why you're labouring under the misapprehension that I did, or have, or even could.”
“Maybe it's because you left me to rot in a detention centre for two nights,” John suggests with an elaborate shrug.
“You were well cared for,” Sherlock says. “They have very strict guidelines about that sort of thing.”
“What if the rules weren't followed?” John demands. “Or they got the sodding paperwork mixed up? What if the guards were sadists ready to torture me for their own sick pleasure?”
“These are all rather tiresome hypothesis, John.” Sherlock puts his phone away. “It's quite clear that none of those things did happen to you. The accommodations may not have been quite up to your usual standards, but it's not as though you didn't know I would be coming for you – oh.” Sherlock cuts himself off suddenly and he blinks. “You didn't know I would be coming for you; it's written all over your face.”
John crosses his arms over his chest and sinks down into the seat.
“I was coming,” Sherlock says. “Of course I was coming. I just had a few things I needed to do first.”
“That were more important than me.”
“They weren't more important, they just had a more pressing deadline. I knew you weren't going anywhere.”
“Hard to argue with that,” John says.
“But I'm sure you'll try,” Sherlock sighs. “John. I'll always come for you; I don't know why you're so upset.”
“It's not enough for you to come,” John says. “You've got to come in time.”
Sherlock opens his mouth to say one thing but his expression goes queer and inward and he doesn't say whatever he had meant to. Instead he looks at John for a very long time and then finally says, “Yes, I always forget how important time is to humans.”
There's a garment bag draped over the back of the sofa and a couple of boxes of various shapes as well.
"What's this?" John asks.
"Oh," Sherlock says. "Mycroft's throwing a party to celebrate his latest political victory. He's sent over what he thinks is appropriate apparel. As if my wardrobe weren't better than his."
"Mycroft's throwing a party? And you're going?" John says in surprise.
"Yes," Sherlock says. "He made a number of threats, one or two of which he might actually carry out if I fail to attend."
John tries not to think about the kind of threats it would take to impel Sherlock into attending one of Mycroft's soirees.
"It will be unimaginably tedious."
"Why's he even care if you're there or not?"
"Apparently there have been some … distasteful rumours about my mental fitness. A feeble brother would reflect poorly on the bloodline. He's going to parade me about to prove he hasn't locked me in the attic."
John bites his lip to keep from laughing. "I'm sure it won't be that bad. You'll get to make snide remarks to all his friends and I'm sure the food will be excellent. I'm disappointed I didn't get an invitation."
"Oh, but you did," Sherlock says, the corners of his mouth quirking upward. "Mycroft suggested I bring you along. He seems to think you have a moderating effect on my behaviour."
"I'm not sure that's true," John says. "And I'm really not sure that's a good idea."
"It's really not, but he's already had the tux altered." Sherlock goes back to his computer. "Be ready to leave at eleven tomorrow evening."
John follows Sherlock up the steps of Mycroft's sprawling manor house. It's been opened for the party, to take advantage of the first warm evening of the summer. Paper lanterns are strung along the walkway and the entire house has been decorated in white and scarlet. John can't admire too much though. He's got to keep his eyes on his own feet to keep from tripping in his new shoes, the soles slick against the marble of the courtyard.
They're late, as is everyone else apparently; there is a line of cars waiting to pull up to the curb and let guests out. John's never seen so many vampires in one place before and many are accompanied by humans – breathtakingly beautiful humans, with bright eyes and flawless skin. John realises he is the oldest human here by at least fifteen years.
"Ah, Sherlock!" It takes John a moment to locate Mycroft in the crowded room. "There you are. Come along, we must make the rounds." Mycroft's wearing a half-cape and an elaborate cravat; a silver-handled cane is tucked under his arm.
For a moment, John's sure that Sherlock is going to refuse, but then something in his expression gives and he allows Mycroft to take his elbow and steer him. John trails after the pair of them, feeling like a well-trained terrier.
"Be charming," Mycroft says out of the corner of his mouth. "Or else."
And to John's utter shock, Sherlock is charming, albeit in a rather Sherlockian way. He smiles brightly and kisses the hand of a Lady Kish when she's presented to him.
"Why haven't you ever introduced me to your darling brother before, Mycroft?" she says. Her eyes are large and bulbous and look as though a solid swat on the back of the head would make them pop out. She's flanked by two slaves, twins, or at least siblings; they wear matching platinum collars.
"My brother is of a scientific bent, I'm afraid," Mycroft says. "It's all I can do to pry him away from his work."
"If I'd known you had such delightful friends, I would have come much sooner," Sherlock replies, in a perfect mimicry of Mycroft's jocular tone. Mycroft's eyes narrow, but Lady Kish fails to notice anything's amiss.
"You must be very proud of all your brother's accomplished, Sherlock," Lady Kish says.
"On the contrary, I'm terribly irate."
"Yes, he sets the bar so very high for me, and I'm a committed underachiever." Sherlock is still wearing a smile wide enough that it makes John's jaw hurt just to look at him. Lady Kish laughs and clasps Sherlock's forearm with a gloved hand.
"I can see how that would be very hard," Lady Kish says. "But the rest of us are very pleased we've got him in our corner – his newest proposals are really brilliant. The Council has really missed the boat, there. The time to act is now, before things get any worse. But look at me, telling you, when it should be quite the other way 'round."
"No, no, Neftalia," Mycroft says with an indulgent smile. "We should all be shouting it from the rooftops. We've become complacent. We've given humans too much freedom. And look what birds have come home to roost: the HLF."
"Too right," Sherlock says, nodding his enthusiastic support.
"It's shocking. Absolutely shocking," Lady Kish agrees.
"I know some of my proposals may seem extreme–"
"No, Mycroft, they are nothing but the most common of sense," Kish interjects.
"–But I will do whatever I have to in order to ensure the security of this country."
"And we most heartily applaud you," Sherlock says, with a bit of frenzied clapping. "Bravo." He rolls the R.
The night is mild, but John shivers and he feels very cold. Lady Kish's slaves show no sign of being bothered by the conversation, or even of having understood it. They stand placidly by, expressions serene. When Lady Kish holds out a hand, one presses a fluted glass into it.
"And the thing is, it's for their own good, poor lambs."
John doesn't realise he's about to speak until Sherlock's elbow is making sharp contact with his ribs and Sherlock's saying, "Go and find us something to drink, will you, John?" He doesn't even take his gaze from Lady Kish.
John grits his teeth, biting back everything he wants to say, and goes to find Sherlock a bloody drink.
A bloody drink is right, as it turns out. John flags down a waiter bearing a tray full of drinks and selects one. The drink is a dark red at the bottom of the glass, fading to a pink froth at the rim. The whole thing smells strongly of blood and vodka. John wrinkles his nose.
He helps himself to another glass, this one clear and bloodless, though it also has a generous measure of vodka.
“Hello there.” John turns to find a handsome vampire at his elbow. “Exciting party isn't it? Have you tried the puff pastry things? They have olives. I can't stand olives.”
John checks over his shoulder reflexively to double-check that the vampire is really speaking to him. “Um. Yes, sir,” he says because it's the safest thing he can think of to say.
“Don't you hate that? When you think you're getting one thing and then you sink your teeth into it and it turns out to be something else entirely. I always feel so cheated.” The vampire doesn't seem particularly concerned whether John joins this conversation or not.
“I suppose much of life is like that, when you think about it.” The vampire takes the glass of blood from John's hand and tips it back. “Ta, darling!”
John eyes his escape route. He can see the back of Sherlock's head, nodding in response to something Lady Kish is going on about.
“What do you think of the reforms the party has proposed? I'm in favour myself. Well, of course I am, I thought of them. Oh,” the vampire looks at John and covers his mouth in chagrin, as though he's just committed a faux pas. “I do hope you're not offended. I don't have anything against humans. I just adore them really; they make such delicious companions. But it's very hard to get vampires worked up about anything. Things have a way of getting rather samey after a few centuries. Fear, however, is an excellent motivator. Stir up people's fear and then present yourself as the solution and you'll have them begging you to take power.” The vampire gives a little delighted shiver. “And I love power. Even more than I hate olives.”
“Ah,” John says.
“Go on, you want to say something and I so desperately want to hear it.”
John shrugs. “I was merely wondering why you're telling me all this.”
The vampire gives a delighted laugh, as if John's just told the most marvellous joke. “I have to tell someone, don't I? There's no point in being clever if no one knows you're being clever. It's like art – it's meant to be admired.”
“Sorry, I don't know anything about art.”
“But you know a great deal about cleverness,” the vampire says with a conspiratorial smile.
“And if I was to tell anyone about all your clever plans?” John suggests mildly. “What would happen?”
“You tell me,” the vampire says and takes a long swallow from his glass.
John thinks for a moment. “Nothing happens. No one important would listen to me, except Sherlock, and he doesn't care. And you wouldn't have told me if you thought I could possibly be a threat.”
“See?” the vampire says. “You know cleverness when you see it.”
“Among other things,” John says.
The vampire's face clouds over, going from amused to dangerous from one breath to the next. “Don't be coy, John. It doesn't suit.” He reaches out and pats John's cheek, not quite a slap, but hard enough to sting. “My name is Moriarty,” he say and then leans in to kiss the reddening skin so quickly that John doesn't have time to realise what he's about, let alone pull away. “Don't forget it, darling.”
He turns and waltzes away before John can gather his scattered wits.
“What took you so long?” Sherlock asks when John finally returns, a new frothy drink in hand. Lady Kish is no longer in evidence; Sherlock has retreated to an unobtrusive spot behind one of the great columns lining the courtyard. Some might have even called it hiding.
John just shakes his head. “Enjoying the party?”
“That depends on how broad your interpretation of 'enjoying' is,” Sherlock says. “You seem to be making new friends.”
“Depends on how broad your–” John cuts himself off as his brain finally identifies that sour note in Sherlock's tone. “What, are you jealous?”
“Why would I be jealous? Really, you are the most illogical creature. It's a wonder you function at all.”
“I manage somehow,” John says, just a little bit pleased to have got under Sherlock's skin.
“I'm going home,” Sherlock says.
John changes out of his tux and carefully returns it to the garment bag. Sherlock is still wearing his, making it seem perfectly natural to lounge about one's study in a designer suit worth more than the GNP of smallish countries. He has his violin out, but he isn't playing -- just tuning it, only to loosen the pegs and start the process again. It grates on John's already raw nerves.
“Could you possibly not do that?” he says.
“Still in a strop are we?” Sherlock says with a shrill little flourish on the instrument.
“Me?” John says, affronted. “I'm not the one being stroppy.”
Sherlock snorts. “You've been sulking since the party. Believe me, I'm aware of your opinions, but you really need to get past your little pet cause.”
“By pet cause may I assume you refer the topic of rights for humans?”
“Yes, you may.” Sherlock lays the violin on the floor next to his chair so he can shift, sinking low in the seat, head on the back of the chair. “Your obsession is beginning to wear on me.”
“What do you expect? Of course I'm going to care about rights for humans,” John says. “Don't you?”
"No. What difference should it make to me if humans have rights or not?"
"Sherlock. I'm human."
"I had noticed, thanks." Sherlock continues before John can protest, "Fine, fine. If it was rights-for-John, I'd be all for it. Taking to the bloody streets. As long as there weren't too many; I like being about to keep an eye on you. But all those other boring humans? I really can't be bothered to care."
"Brilliant," John says and collapses into the chair opposite Sherlock, his elbows on his knees.
"And I don't see why you care; you don't have much to gain. Do you have any needs that aren't being met?"
"The need for personal freedom?"
"Oh, please." Sherlock rolls his eyes. "I always let you do what you want when I don't need you."
"What about going where I please? Being about to catch a cab across town without going through a bloody checkpoint?"
"Fair point," Sherlock says, which was more than John is expecting. "And I'm sure it would be all right for you, but imagine having all those other humans running about wherever they liked. It would be an appalling mess." He pulls a disgusted face.
“You agree with your brother, do you? A reduction in the human force is just the thing? How about stricter permitting? Or even more travel restrictions?”
“Of course not,” Sherlock says with a sigh. This conversation is clearly boring him.
“Then why would you go to that bloody party?”
“Because I had to,” Sherlock says. “Mycroft insisted.”
“And since when do you play along with your brother's whims?” John asks. “Mincing about with those self-involved bigots. You never do what Mycroft tells you to so why was it so bloody important that you do this time? ”
“Because, John, it was the only way he'd sign the deed over to me.”
“Your deed of ownership. You were, of course, always mine, but now I've got the bloody paperwork.” Sherlock fishes something out of his pocket and tosses it to John, whose fingers close around it reflexively.
It's the key.
John stops, his mouth open. It takes him a moment to get it working again. “That was the deal? You behave and he gives you my deed?”
“Yes, and more the fool him; I would have done considerably more for it. But now he's played his highest card and all I had to do was spend the evening enduring insipid company and poorly considered political opinions.”
John pinches the bridge of his nose; he's getting a headache. "I'm going to bed."
"Don't go to mine," Sherlock says.
"I wasn't going to," John says, though he's slept in Sherlock's bed more often than not in the past month – especially as Sherlock tended to sleep wherever was convenient at the moment exhaustion overtook him, leaving John the great canopy bed and its Egyptian cotton sheets.
His own bed is a great deal harder, smaller and the sheets feel like sandpaper. It takes him a long time to get to sleep, and every time he rolls over the box springs creak.
John wakes in the late afternoon; there's the slightest glow around the edges of the blackout curtain. He rolls over to check the time on the bedside table and starts badly.
Sherlock is lying on the floor next to John's bed, fully dressed, his hands folded over his stomach and his ankles crossed.
"What are you doing?" John demands, his heart rate slowly returning to normal.
"Couldn't sleep, couldn't think," Sherlock says, gaze fixed on the ceiling. "The silence was too ... loud."
"Okay," John says and scrubs his face. "No, wait–"
"I've got so used to the sound of your petty humanish thoughts – did I leave the kettle plugged in? What shall I have for supper? How many pairs of clean socks do I have left? – buzzing away at the back of my mind. They're all so insipid. Really, how do you stand it?” Sherlock asks, grabbing his head with both hands. “But now I've got used to them. And to the sound of your breathing. And the beat of your heart. Without them, everything is too distracting.”
Sherlock shivers and takes a steadying sigh, while John desperately tries to catch up with this conversation. Sherlock continues before he has.
“You're white noise and I need it if I'm to do any proper thinking, so. If you could just keep breathing and not too fast. That would be lovely."
“Does this thinking need to be done on the floor?” John asks.“Location doesn't matter so much. I think it's mostly a question of proximity,” Sherlock says, after giving the question serious consideration.
“Then get in the ruddy bed,” John says. “If I need to visit the loo, I don't want to trip over your freakishly long legs.”
Sherlock executes a boneless manoeuvre that John really can't explain, but he winds up under the covers somehow. The bed bucks a little and John worries that they might capsize, but then it settles. John rolls onto his side, facing the wall, punching the pillow a couple of times. He's tired enough to start drifting off immediately, and he's only half-aware of Sherlock sidling up behind him. An arm slips under John's to wrap around his chest, fingers splayed along the ribs.
John sighs a little and relaxes.
“Yes, that's very good,” Sherlock's voice comes in his ear. “Just keep on like that.”
A week after the party, John receives a letter in the post.
I hope you're paying attention. It's going to be so good.