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“Sherlock, you came,” Lestrade says.

It’s not just the unexpectedness of Sherlock’s presence but also the unexpectedness of Sherlock’s appearance that’s leaving Lestrade slack-faced with surprise. Sherlock’s hair is as artfully arranged as ever, and he’s perfectly shaved and polished to a high sheen, but he’s dressed in a slightly loose-fitting black and gray striped shirt with the sleeves rolled above his elbows, and a pair of dark denims that would be dangerously tight if he weren’t so lethally thin.

“You invited me,” he says, surveying Lestrade with a smirk - the rental camouflage gear is practical but fits like a contamination-suit at best, and like a toddler’s footie pajamas at worst.

“Yeah, but only because I wanted to invite John and you were standing right there,” Lestrade says. “You’re welcome to come, too didn’t actually mean I thought you’d show up.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Sherlock purrs.

“Right,” John says as he slips through the door sideways since Sherlock’s still lounging with one shoulder against the doorway. “This’ll be a bit of fun.”

He’s wearing an oversize plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled onto his forearms, and some rather down-at-the-mouth looking blue jeans.

“Yeah,” Lestrade says. “Honestly, we get bashed something shocking every year - Beeley and his five guys are all Firearms Officers; they’re actually trained for this kind of thing.”

John laughs.

“Well, as long as everyone’s having fun,” he says.

“I’d have thought,” Sherlock says, his gaze boring deeply into Lestrade’s eyes, “that winning would be fun.”

Lestrade darts a glance at the others -- Donovan, Anderson, and Dimmock -- before looking back at Sherlock.

“Yeah, of course that would be fun,” Lestrade says, “but we’re detectives … we’re not good with guns.”

“It has little to do with being good with guns,” Sherlock says with a show of elaborate patience, “and everything to do with leadership.”

“I’m leading the team,” Lestrade says firmly. “I’m the senior-most ranking officer here.”

“And Beeley’s lot have beaten you every year for four years,” Sherlock says.

“I’m not putting you in charge,” Lestrade says, eyebrows lofted.

“I’m not suggesting you put me in charge,” Sherlock says. “I’m suggesting you put John in charge.”

Everyone looks at John, who grins affably.

“Me? Seriously? What am I going to do? Come on Sherlock, it’s just for fun. It doesn’t matter who wins.”

“Of course it bloody matters,” Lestrade says sharply. “You think I enjoy Beeley crowing over us? He’s got us hostage with this thing every year - we can’t quit or we’ll look like bad losers, but we’ve got no bloody chance against his team.”

“Put John in charge,” Sherlock says.

Lestrade looks at John, whose smile has melted into a sort of watchful neutrality.

“Could you really get us a win?” Lestrade asks.

John looks at the others, at their suddenly sharpened expressions.

“If you agree to do what I tell you, when I tell you to do it,” he says, and there’s the slightest shift of surprise among the others at the unfamiliar edge to his voice. “And I’ll tell you right now, for two of you, the first instruction I’ll give will be do what Sherlock tells you, when he tells you.”

Everyone looks at Sherlock, who bizarrely isn’t looking smug but earnest and almost trustworthy.

“Which two of us?” Donovan asks boldly.

“Not you or Anderson,” John says instantly. “Neither of you will accept Sherlock’s leadership without a tussle and we don’t have time for that - besides, you’re the lightest of all of us so I’m going to want you in the Alpha fire-team with me, and Anderson’s got the height I need so he’s our third.”

“How come you’re not making Freak your third?” Donovan says suspiciously. “He’s taller.”

“By an inch or two,” John says, “but he’s light-years more educated about leading a secondary fire-team.”

Everyone looks at Sherlock again. Sherlock looks back with steady, unassuming calm.

“So it’s me and Dimmock with Sherlock?” Lestrade says, wrinkling his nose dubiously.

John tips his head and shrugs slightly.

“I’m happy to go out there and run around whooping and hollering like a fool,” he says, “But if you want me to get you a win, I can, provided you let me do what I know how to do.”

Lestrade looks at the others. Dimmock looks eager, while Anderson looks displeased but not outright mutinous. Donovan presses her lips together and nods firmly.

“We’re in,” Lestrade says.

Something thin and dark seems to shift behind John’s eyes.

“Okay. Gear up,” he says. “Let’s hand these tossers their own arses in a gift bag.”

 

“First zone is a simple capture the flag,” John says as the six of them stand in the doorway of the game space. “We attack, they defend.”

“They always bloody cream us on this bit,” Lestrade complains. “They just hunker down and wait for us to come at them, and then hammer us while we can’t get a decent shot at them.”

“They’re identifying the choke-points on the route to the flag - places you’re forced to pass through,” John says.

“So what do we do?” Lestrade says discontentedly. “If that’s the only possible route - ”

“ - we take an impossible route,” Sherlock says with obvious relish.

Lestrade glares at him, but Sherlock’s too busy enjoying John’s look of approval.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lestrade says. “An impossible route?”

“When John suspected the road between two compounds was mined, he’d have his men rpg a hole in the compound wall and go through it instead of around,” Sherlock says with a small smile.

There’s another moment of everyone looking at John while they try to adjust their ideas about a doctor’s responsibilities to include strategic use of rocket-propelled grenades.

“Yeah, well, sadly we’re without rpg’s here,” Lestrade says irritably.

“If you can’t go through, and you won’t go around, that only leaves over,” John says.

The others look out with fresh eyes at the labyrinth of obstacles and outcroppings that clutters the game space.

“Alpha fire-team forces a path to the flag, Bravo fire-team keeps Beeley’s attention focused on the road - the regular route, I mean,” John says.

“See you there,” Sherlock says, swinging his paint-gun up into his arms.

He starts to lead Dimmock and Lestrade aside, but then he stops and says, “don’t die,” to John.

For a second John’s expression breaks into the softest, warmest smile imaginable.

“Never,” he says.

Sherlock turns again and leads his two subordinates into the game-space.

“What do we do?” Donovan asks.

“Sit tight, wait for Sherlock to draw some fire,” John says.

“Why?” she scowls.

“Because when we know where Beeley’s guys are, we know roughly where the flag is.”

“Okay,” Donovan says, with a distinct reduction in the hostility of her expression.

Sherlock, head down and moving quietly, leads Dimmock and Lestrade to the first point where the game-terrain begins to shape a distinct pathway. He crouches down; Lestrade and Dimmock attentively do the same.

“Only one of us moves at a time,” Sherlock says. “We go no more than fifteen feet past the last man to move, and we go less if we feel like there’s a protected position that’s nearer. We move low. The two who aren’t moving provide covering fire – don’t just blast away, an erratic uneven firing pattern will make it harder for them to predict a break, and they won’t know when we’re reloading.”

Lestrade looks at Sherlock in disbelief.

“How the hell do you - ”

“We’ve never really talked about how I met John, have we?” Sherlock says with a slight smile.

“He was injured in Afghanistan,” Lestrade says. “Got sent home.”

“No, that’s how we ended up living together,” Sherlock says.

Lestrade’s digesting that, but Sherlock’s out of patience.

“Dimmock, you’re point,” he says, “you move first. Remember, fifteen feet and no more. Lestrade, see that tire thing on the middle level? That’s the first decent cover they could be behind – covering fire in that direction on three. One, two, three.”

“They’re firing,” Donovan says urgently. “They’re over there.”

“That’s not Beeley, that’s Sherlock,” John says without looking up.

“How do you know?” Anderson says.

John glances at him, eyes vivid with pleasure.

“Firearms officers are trained to be conservative - shoot when you can hit the target, think seriously about every round you fire. Sherlock's using suppressive fire - just throwing enough stuff at them that they can't get the clear shot they're conditioned for.”

“Okay,” Donovan says. “I can sort of imagine how you might know this stuff, Doctor, but the Freak? You sit at home telling him how to fight a war of an evening, or what?”

There’s a sudden volley of firing from off to the left of the game space, overlaid by the uneven snaps from Bravo fire-team.

“Let’s roll,” John says. “Keep your heads down and keep quiet.”

He leads them around the perimeter of the game-space, until they’re hemmed in between the wall and a twelve-foot tall fiberglass outcropping.

“Donovan, you’re up,” John says, passing his paint-gun to Anderson and linking his hands into a stirrup. “I’m going to boost you, and you’re going to grab hold up there and pull yourself up quietly. Stay on your belly – the slope at the top will hide you pretty well provided you stay down.”

Donovan nods, her chin set stubbornly. John bends and she puts her foot into his cupped hands, her hand on his shoulder, and he straightens. Donovan reaches and grabs the edge of the fiberglass mass and slides up onto her stomach with a helpful push from John on the underside of her sneaker. She twists round, and John tosses her paint-gun up to her.

“Okay, me next,” John says to Anderson. “You boost me.”

“Why you? Why not me?” Anderson says.

John hesitates, clearly contemplating telling Anderson to remember the deal, but no one’s actually shooting at them so he’s willing to stretch the point.

“Because I’m strong enough to pull you up, but I’m not tall enough to make the jump to reach your hands if you go first.”

“You’re going to - ”

“ – pull you up, by the hands, yes,” John says firmly.

“Come on,” Donovan whispers fiercely. “Move it.”

John throws his paint-gun up to her, and Anderson boosts him up. John wriggles onto his stomach, turns to hang his head and half his chest off the edge.

“Lie on me,” he says to Donovan.

“Say what now?” Donovan says.

John grins at her.

“He weighs more than I do,” he says. “I can lift him, but I can’t stop his weight yanking me over the side when I grab him. I need you to lie across my back and pin me.”

Donovan rolls her eyes but crawls across John and lies down with her stomach pressed to his behind.

“Okay, Anderson, come on,” John says softly.

Anderson throws his paint-gun up to John, and then scowls, crouches slightly and jumps up, hands extended above his head. John grabs at him, but Anderson fails to connect by a foot or more.

“Give it some bloody boot,” John says.

Anderson presses his lips into an unhappy line, but he gathers himself and jumps again with more conviction. John grabs him by both wrists, Anderson’s bigger hands wrapping around John’s wrists in turn. John digs the toes of his boots in and starts lifting Anderson by sheer force of will and muscle.

“Get a foot on the side,” John says, his voice low and rough with exertion.

Anderson gets the toe of his shoe braced on the side of the structure and then John’s hauling him with a hand on his collar and then on his belt. Donovan rolls aside to make space for Anderson to lie down on his stomach.

“Okay, hands and knees, and quiet,” John says.

The three of them crawl along the top of the structure.

“Shit, they’re right there,” Donovan whispers, as Beeley’s team are revealed clustered in a horseshoe shaped cove.

“We can shoot them from here,” Anderson says urgently.

“Anderson, you touch your gun and God help me, I will paint-ball you in the bloody eye,” John says.

“We supposed to shoot them,” Anderson says.

“No, we’re supposed to secure the flag,” John says.

He looks at the various alcoves and tires and boxes above and around Beeley’s ambush position.

“There it is,” he says, gesturing to where a square of bright orange cloth is tucked between two tires almost directly behind and slightly above the other team.

“Oh, great planning,” Anderson says. “There’s no way to get over to there without going right back down onto the floor again in front of them.”

“How big would you say the gap between this structure and that one is, Donovan?” John says mildly.

“Uh - ten feet? Twelve?”

“I’m going to throw you.”

“You are bloody not,” Anderson says.

“I can just jump it,” Donovan says.

“Not without a run at it,” John says, “which means standing up and they’ll see you coming. If I throw you, we can crawl all the way to the edge.”

“That’s the most insane thing I’ve - ” Anderson starts.

“I don’t think I’ll stick the landing holding a paint-gun,” Donovan says.

“You’re not taking your gun with you,” John says.

“I’m going unarmed?”

John smiles.

“In the first place, it’s just paint; you’re not actually in any danger. In the second place, your job isn’t to shoot, your job is to hit that ledge and go for the flag.”

“But if they’re all shooting at me at really close range it stings and I won’t be able to see and - ”

“They won’t be shooting at you. They’ll be busy trying not to get swarmed by Bravo fire-team.”

“You can really throw me across that gap?” Donovan says.

“I could throw Anderson across that gap if it was my only option,” John says. “But I think you’ll fly better.”

“Let’s do it,” Donovan grins.

“Okay, we’re good and bloody stuck now,” Lestrade complains, as Sherlock shoulders in next to him and considers the hint of movement behind the outcropping thirty feet farther along the twisting pathway. “They can’t hit us, but we’re not hitting them either and we can’t get any closer without getting hammered.”

“It’s not about hitting them,” Sherlock says mildly. “It’s about capturing the flag.”

“Yeah, a project we are not contributing to right now.”

Sherlock looks at Lestrade with deep pity.

“What do we do?” Dimmock asks earnestly.

“When John makes his move, we run straight for Beeley’s position and shoot the ever-living shit out of them,” Sherlock says.

“Wait, that’s the strategy I always use and we lose,” Lestrade says. “How is this an improvement?”

“Because when you do it, there isn’t someone grabbing the flag at the same time,” Sherlock says.

“How will we know when John’s making his move?” Dimmock asks. “What’s the signal?”

“An anti-tank missile coming straight through the front door,” Sherlock says fondly.

“You what?” Lestrade says.

“We’ll know,” Sherlock says. “Ready?”

“Yeah, ready,” Dimmock says, paint-gun raised.

“Sure,” Lestrade says.

In fairness, what happens next is pretty spectacular from any angle, but it’s Beeley’s team who really gets the best view. First, there’s a sudden something exploding into movement above and to the right of their well-protected position.

John, having arranged himself in a deep crouch while Donovan squats with her feet on his thighs, her back to John, and her hands braced in his - a position that causes Anderson to bubble with indignant possessiveness - suddenly explodes upwards, every particle of his not inconsiderable strength emptying itself from thighs and back and shoulders and biceps into Donovan’s smaller lighter frame while she thrusts herself up and out as hard as she can, their combined exertion launching her across the gap between the two outcroppings like a rocket. Donovan screams, an exalted appalled noise that rings around the game-space like a lightning strike, but she hits the far side of the gap in a fairly coordinated roll and comes onto her knees, scrambles for her feet instantly. John swings his paint-gun around and starts pouring fire down into Beeley’s team, with Anderson joining in after only a few seconds hesitation.

“Bravo go!” Sherlock roars, and hell that voice may have been born and bred in a small country manor, but it shows to fine advantage booming off concrete walls. Dimmock’s already running forwards, paint-gun blazing, spattering lime green into the suddenly distracted and dismayed midst of Beeley’s team. Lestrade’s struck speechless and motionless, though, so Sherlock grabs him by the coveralls and shoves him hard after Dimmock.

“The flying black woman? That was the signal,” Sherlock snaps, as Lestrade manages to get his feet moving and his gun up.

The second Lestrade starts firing, Sherlock throws himself forwards, leaping up onto the nearest bit of projecting fiber glass and starting to deal beautifully accurate head-shots to Beeley’s completely overwhelmed team. Among the noise of paint-guns snapping and Beeley’s lot cursing and yelping, there’s a pure, piercing whoop of triumph from Donovan as she pulls the flag free and waves it over her head.

“Drop your weapons,” Sherlock growls at Beeley’s increasingly colorful team.

“Jesus buggering Christ,” Lestrade gapes as Beeley himself puts his paint-gun down and puts his hands up. “We won that one. We actually fucking won that one.”

Sherlock glances up where Donovan is jumping up and down, the flag still held aloft. Then he looks across to where Anderson is looking down with slightly mystified satisfaction, and then to John, who’s hunkering down and then sliding down the sloped face of the outcropping to land on his feet not twelve feet away.

“That was unfucking believable,” Lestrade says to John. “I owe you about a million pints.”

John grins at him, and then his expression blurs into something infinitely deeper and warmer as he looks at Sherlock.

“Good work,” John says gravely, the slow drop and lift of his eyelids conveying a nod without anything so undignified as an actual head movement, “though you got hit.”

He touches Sherlock’s sleeve, where a splodge of apricot-colored paint is soaking in.

“Flesh wound,” Sherlock says, wrinkling his nose in elaborate unconcern.

John’s smile glints in his eyes for a moment, and then he turns his attention to Beeley.

“So, the next zone,” John says, dipping his chin so that he’s looking darkly up at Beeley from under his brows. “It’s a house search with booby traps. You want to try us, or shall we just zip-tie and start processing you right now?”