“It’s really quite beautiful,” John tells her. “I never took the time to notice.” The rocky, sandy dunes roll away toward dramatic cliffs and then morph into larger hills that almost glow in the golden light of the late afternoon.
“Sure, beautiful,” Ariadne says. “If you don’t mind all the guys with guns.”
John glances over his shoulder to see a column of soldiers walking behind them two abreast down the dusty road, scanning the horizon vigilantly.
“They’re guarding something precious,” John explains, a bit sheepishly. “I’m sorry I had to bring them.”
“It’s alright.” Ariadne shrugs. “I’m kind of used to guys with guns, anyway. Are they always around?”
“No. No, usually I’m defense enough.” John pats his jacket pocket, where the Browning is a warm, comforting weight.
“Defense against what?” Ariadne asks.
Ahead of them, shouting echoes across the open space: a distinctly agitated voice that promises danger.
The soldiers behind them tense, and the nearest ones start to move forward, double time. John holds up his hand. “No, let me.”
Beside him, Ariadne eyes the soldiers warily. John gives her what he hopes is a re-assuring smile, and takes off up the road
A brick apartment building rises up out of the desert right at the end of the path. The address reads 221 Baker Street, though the rest of Baker Street is nowhere to be seen. John notes this, as he notes that the shouting is almost certainly drifting down from the second-floor flat, and that the awning above the shuttered shop at street level reads “Speedy’s Sandwich Bar and Café,” and that the dirt under his feet is a rich, red color, mixed with dusty gravel. He wonders where this penchant for noticing insignificant details has come from.
The door is unlocked, and John charges through. He follows the shouts--louder now he’s inside--up a set of stairs and through another door into a homey-looking living room, where he’s stopped by a thick set of iron bars.
A cage occupies nearly the entire room, abutting the wall on three sides and allowing barely enough clearance to open the door John’s come through. The barred room looks well-lived in, with a comfortable couch, a few chairs, and high bookshelves. The wallpaper is ghastly. The room’s sole occupant is a tall, pale man with dark, curly hair, wearing a long coat and a blue muffler . It’s he who’s shouting.
“Wong wrong wrong. Idiots. Amateurs!” The man snatches up a teapot--made of some ancient-looking brown ceramic--from a shelf and hurls it toward the archway that leads to the kitchen. It shatters against the bars with a satisfying smash.
The man makes a sound like he’s in pain, and then collapses bonelessly to the floor next to the window. “He ran, you stopped me following.” He turns on John, shoulders slumped, eyes pleading. “Why won’t you let me go after him?”
“Sorry...” John’s eyes dart around the room, looking for some clue as to the man’s identity. His gaze settles on a violin, which is perched on the armchair like a pet. It reminds him of something lovely and horrid all at once. “I’m not meant to let you go alone.” John feels certain of that, at least, though he’s beginning to weary of being one step behind, always.
“No, that won’t do.” The man springs to his feet and stalks across the length of the room without removing his eyes from John’s. When he reaches the limit of the cage, he turns and retraces his steps precisely, pacing like a tiger.
Light footfalls pound up the stairs. John throws a look over his shoulder to see Ariadne has followed him. “You alright?” he asks.
“Yes.” She steps cautiously into the room, taking in the cage and its occupant. “What is this place?”
“This is what we’re defending.”
“I don’t need defending!” The man charges forward, and for one awful moment John thinks he’ll shatter like the teapot. Instead he catches the bars in his hands and pulls. When the bars don’t give, he backs up a few steps and charges at them again. This time he slams his shoulder into the unforgiving iron. “Let me out!”
“Gently now.” John’s a doctor and a soldier; he knows how much force it takes to break bone, and this chap hasn’t done it yet. Looks like he might do, though, given half a chance. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
The man pushes away from the bars and sighs dramatically. “I’ll be good.” He turns his back on John and dives onto the couch in a monumental sprawl.
“Wow,” Ariadne breathes. She looks... impressed. Though with John or with the caged man, he couldn’t say.
“Do you know him?” John asks.
“Do you?” Ariadne shoots back with an expectant look.
John glances around the flat, noting the stacks of books, the laboratory equipment, the old take-away containers. Something tugs at his memory but can’t catch hold. “He’s special. He needs to be protected.”
“From what?” Ariadne asks.
The man turns over on the couch, glares at John, and jumps up again. He speeds over to the bars, right in front of where they’re standing. “At least give me my phone,” he says. “I can fix all of this if I just have my phone.”
John looks down at the phone that’s now in his hand. He shakes his head. “You’ll find some way to get yourself in trouble.”
“Please, John. I can solve this.”
“Sherlock.” That’s the name that goes with solving mysteries, and suddenly John knows that’s who this man is. This impossibly valuable, entirely puzzling man who cannot, under any circumstances, be released on his own recognizance. “I know you can. But I’m not letting you go after him. He’s dangerous.”
“You like danger.”
“Dangerous to you.”
“You do know him,” Ariadne whispers.
Sherlock’s pale eyes jump, quick as darts, to Ariadne. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he says.
“Sherlock.” John reaches through the bars to put a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. “Steady on.”
“No.” Sherlock catches John’s wrist in his hand and tugs him flush against the bars. “Think for a moment. This flat has always stood in the heart of Westminster, but today you’ve come upon it in a part of Kandahar Province you haven’t seen in two years. For one thing, I seriously doubt Mrs. Hudson would have agreed to a relocation of the building to this locale, even if you and I had asked.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Furthermore, you’re wearing your gray and orange jumper, although today is Thursday, and therefore laundry day, during which you would usually be wearing the heather-colored jumper. Why you’re wearing a jumper at all in this heat is beyond me, although since I’m the one in a jacket and muffler, let’s leave that point be for now, shall we?”
“Very well then. And who is she?” Sherlock turns to scrutinize Ariadne. “College student, art, or perhaps architecture, by the residue under her fingernails. Molding clay. Hardly more than a teenager.”
“Hey--,” Ariadne says, but Sherlock doesn’t even slow down.
“American, so no relative of yours. Simple clothes, fashionable, but not revealing. Shoes are practical for an office or a walk around the shops, but not for the desert, so she’s not from around here, nor is she military personnel.”
John’s eyes stray to Ariadne. “I don’t remember meeting you,” he says slowly.
“She seemed to recognize me,” Sherlock went on. “And although I like to think of myself as a celebrity, I doubt the average American college student knows me by sight. No, she knew me before she walked in, perhaps even expected to find me here.”
John turns to her. “Is that true?”
“I knew you two were friends,” Ariadne says slowly.
“So, then. You show up at this flat, which seems quite out of place, under dubious circumstances that you can’t quite remember,” Sherlock says. He steeples his hands under his chin, purses his lips for a moment, then says, “It seems to me, John, that all this might not be quite real.”
“You think we’re dreaming?”
“I think you’re dreaming. I don’t sleep enough to dream.” Sherlock turns his attention to Ariadne again. He leans closer to the bars, and runs his hands down them like he’s stroking a cat. “So. You there. Is he dreaming?”
“I should go,” Ariadne says. She looks convinced that Sherlock might reach through the bars and strangle her. In fact, the glimmer in his eyes does promise madness.
“Sherlock,” John says warningly, and the mad glimmer dims.
Sherlock slides across the bars and slouches more than a bit to bring himself to Ariadne’s level. “Don’t leave, please. I want to talk to you. I want to know how you came to be here, and what you hope to accomplish. Now tell me, am I right about the dreaming?”
Ariadne looks between them, mouth parted slightly as if to begin an explanation as soon as she formulates one.
In the momentary silence, John notices something. “Have you got the radio on?” he asks.
Sherlock frowns. “No.”
“It’s Edith Piaf,” Ariadne says, and she looks much relieved. “Thank God.”
Ariadne opens her eyes to the drab gray of a train compartment, and Arthur’s worried face.
“Hey,” Arthur says. “Welcome back. Breathe. Your heart rate is way up.”
She glances over at John Watson, slumped in a drug-induced slumber against the window of the train compartment. Before Arthur’s even finished packing up the PASIV device, Ariadne is out of her seat and wrenching open the compartment door. She speeds down the aisle past bored London commuters until she makes it to the last car. She doesn’t bother knocking before pulling open the door of compartment 528.
Cobb’s tensed, with a hand inside his jacket, but he relaxes when he sees who it is. “Arthur?” he asks.
“He’ll be along,” she says, and throws herself down on the seat next to Cobb. “This super-genius target? Holmes? I think his whatever-it-is power of reasoning has rubbed off on his buddy.”
“Are you hurt?” Arthur asks as he slips inside with his innocuous-looking briefcase.
Arthur sits across from Cobb and shoves the briefcase under his chair. “Her vitals were way up,” he tells him.
“I said I’m fine.”
“Trained defenses?” Cobb asks her.
“I don’t think so. This was something else. The whole thing was fairly normal, actually, until he showed up.”
“Who? The target?”
“In the flesh. Or not, I guess. His projection,” Ariadne says.
Cobb and Arthur share a glance Ariadne doesn’t like.
“That’s what we wanted, right?” Ariadne asks. “To get a perspective on this guy?”
Arthur frowns. “The client said he’s dangerous. I don’t like the idea of you facing off against a self-proclaimed sociopath.”
“It’s just a projection. Besides, how do you know if someone’s a sociopath?”
Arthur taps a foot against his briefcase. “Psychiatric files, trial testimony, quotes from the guy’s own website. Should I go on?”
“No,” she grumbles “He just didn’t seem that bad, is all. And for the record, if John’s projection of this Sherlock guy is clever enough to reason his way out of a dream, I do not ever want to be inside the actual guy’s mind. No way. Count me out.”
“What do you mean reason his way out of a dream?” Cobb leans forward.
“There was no Mister Charles action going on on my part, I swear,” Ariadne says quickly. “But the projection—Sherlock—figured out it was a dream by pointing out the holes in the logic.”
“That should be impossible,” Arthur says.
“Please tell me we’re not taking this job. Whatever this Moriarty guy is paying us isn’t enough, I promise.”
“Tell me something,” Cobb says. “Did he seem dangerous? The things Moriarty says he’s capable of...” Cobb shakes his head. “If we have to take a side, I want it to be the right one.”
Ariadne thinks of the wild-eyed Sherlock Holmes throwing himself against the bars of his cage, then being instantly soothed by John’s words. “Well, even when the projections got a little riled up, none of them laid a hand on me. And most of them had guns, so that was a concern of mine for a while there.”
“That says more about Watson’s mental discipline than it does about Holmes,” Cobb says.
“No one knows him better than Watson, by all accounts,” says Arthur. “Besides, isn’t a projection more likely to become violent than its human counterpart?”
“Generally yes.” Cobb looks back to Ariadne. “Tell us the whole thing. From the beginning.”
“Okay.” Ariadne settles back in her seat. “But trust me. As long as this Sherlock guy has John in his life, he won’t be on the wrong side.”