The first idea that occurred to Sherlock, when he woke in his hospital bed, was satisfaction that he'd hidden the pink phone safely in 221C.
Perhaps that was not truly the first thought – there were too many parallel courses forged by the multitudes of ideas swarming in his brain to be able to order their output sequentially – but it was the earliest to swim up from the depths of his mind and present itself cleanly, from beginning to end. Sherlock had prepared by putting the gun and the memory stick in his pocket and the mobile and his coat in 221C; Moriarty had shown up for the confrontation at the pool; and when Sherlock had shot at the detonator on the parka, the explosion had tossed him and Moriarty back in opposite directions but with the same force, making them twins if only for a moment, matched acrobats soaring through the air. The pink mobile, intact by virtue of its absence, was still a viable link between them.
But there was that other track to his mind, the one John Watson had come to own completely, that remembered events quite differently. John, dubious but willing, from the slight smile turning up one corner of his mouth, to believe that Sherlock really would eat leftover risotto, speak pleasantly to Mycroft, and do the shopping for milk and beans and other staples. John, heading out into the night in that appallingly inadequate jacket, his hair gone appealingly shaggy and his step lighter than it had been for days. John, emerging from the changing rooms at the pool blinking like he'd been shut in the dark and Sherlock was the sun, the lines on his face that usually flickered like ripples in living water suddenly looking deeply and painfully carved. John, staggering once the dangerous burden was lifted from his body, trembling like a current was buzzing against his skin. John, brave as his history promised, nodding that he trusted Sherlock, then being thrown back by the force of the blast.
Sherlock turned his head to let his eyes confirm what he'd already deduced from the soft sounds catalogued by his ears and the relaxed state of his own body. John Watson was in the next hospital bed, the only other one in this large private room, and he was asleep.
Technology could always be hacked. Playing cat versus mouse, snake versus mongoose, some vague notion of justice versus some vague notion of anarchy in a public forum like Sherlock's website or even a supposedly private one like the pink mobile meant that, elliptical as the references were, people other than the intended recipient could access the messages and interfere.
Which was no doubt why Moriarty had decided to move their tête-à-tête forward by means of handwritten notes delivered by post. Not even Mycroft could have traced all of them, delivered as they were by a number of carriers, their times of receipt varying by as much as six hours and hindered by shift changes, unpredictable weather, and holiday schedules. And not even Mycroft's bloody assistant, so very up to the minute with all her gadgetry, could reverse the flow of her abilities in order to get an advance look at any of the notes; her BlackBerry gave her access to all of MI6's most secret surveillance files, but the simplicity of pen and paper defeated her.
Sherlock loved it, seeing the top-shelf, cloth-like stationery overlaid with the rather decorative script of Jim's hand rendered in a particularly opaque black ink. There was a definite satisfaction in holding something that the man he would destroy had held only hours before. Each of them started the same way – My Dear – and there the satisfaction ceased; Sherlock could not help remembering Moriarty's grating voice uttering those syllables, smiling as he contemplated the destruction of John Watson, the first domino to knock flat if he wanted to defeat Sherlock Holmes.
It might have worked, had John not nodded, giving the permission to destroy him to Sherlock, who, as the only one who would be destroyed in return by the loss, was the only one with the right of life and death over his friend. John had understood all of it from the beginning – this caring lark was a double-edged weapon, but one Moriarty couldn't even dream of wielding. At times, John very much resembled a genius.
A pet requires constant supervision, cat always wanting you to see what it could drag in, blood everywhere. Rather messy, don't you think? Lucky clean-up doesn't cost much.
More florid than the previous notes, but certainly in keeping with the man's verbal tics. And the symmetry Moriarty had insisted on in person – the notion that he and Sherlock were two sides of the same coin – was evident again in the possessiveness of both the salutation and the closing.
As usual, Moriarty had worn gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints and tucked the flap into the envelope rather than sealing it with saliva. Moriarty was cautious enough for that, but he evidently trusted that his messages were sufficiently elliptical not to make sense to anyone but Sherlock, heedless of who else might open and read them.
"What's that, then?" John asked as he nudged the door open with his foot, hands weighted down by Tesco carrier bags. He started to organise the groceries in the cupboards that Sherlock had promised to keep free from experiments, looking curiously over his shoulder when Sherlock was slow to respond. "Well?" John turned fully, crumpling the plastic bags and stuffing them in the same cupboard that housed the fire extinguisher he'd bought their first week in the flat.
Sherlock knew there had to be other meanings he was missing, but the reference to "a pet" brought Moriarty's dismissive evaluation of John back to mind, drowning out the other connotations of the phrase.
"Can I?" John asked, coming closer and reaching out for the note.
Sherlock nearly snapped, It's 'May I,' but then he caught sight of John's scrupulously innocent expression and realised John had made the mistake deliberately, to jog Sherlock's mind out of its shallow rut. "You may," he said, a grudging smile tugging at his lips, and held the note out.
John's face darkened as he read Moriarty's words. Sherlock watched him school himself into wearing his "doctor face" – unflappable and absolutely competent. "Chinese alright with you?" John asked, putting the note down on the table and taking no more notice of it.
"But you've just done the shopping," Sherlock said, half artfully evading John's misplaced concern for him and half conscious of their always precarious financial state.
"Tell me what you'd want that I could make with carrots, tin foil, minced beef, and paracetamol and I'll – no, actually I won't. I'm in the mood for Chinese."
"Again?" Sherlock groaned, though he quite liked the seaweed soup at the place John favoured.
"The walk will do you good," John decreed, picking his keys back up from the table. "You've been staring at the same four walls for far too long."
Keeping John ignorant was never the best plan anymore, so Sherlock deliberately tucked Moriarty's latest note into his coat pocket, the better to puzzle over it while awaiting their order. He watched John swallow a sigh at that, no doubt wishing food were a better distraction from Moriarty's poison.
Ten minutes in the brisk, darkening air and they were at Dragon Inn. Sherlock noted that the neon of on in the name had burnt out, that there was a heap of five different brands of cigarette butts littering the pavement, and that the red paint of the doorway had faded unevenly. John opened the door and headed for the side wall papered with garishly-coloured menus. Ignoring the chime of his mobile that meant a call from Mycroft, Sherlock followed more slowly, searching for a new angle from which to rethink Moriarty's latest note.
A man cut between them, quite young, black hair gathered into a low ponytail at the nape of his neck, cigarette already between his lips and one hand fumbling in the breast pocket of his plain white shirt for his lighter. Sherlock could make out the shape of it, straining the material, and categorised the man as a lowly dish-washer eager for a cigarette break to soothe his jangled nerves; there was a thick stack of stubs from a racing track peeking out of that same pocket but no sign of cash to indicate he'd enjoyed even a single win.
Sherlock turned to John to inquire about his selection, but John was looking after the man, puzzlement making him chew at the corner of his mouth. "What is it?" Sherlock asked.
"I recognise him," John answered, clearly still trying to place him.
"Not a patient of yours," Sherlock said, knowing that in that case the recognition would have been mutual.
John didn't bother responding to that, too used to Sherlock thinking aloud. His eyes widened almost immediately. "That's – that's the lad I saw at the end of the bank case, after you'd cracked the code. I saw him the next morning, spray-painting a new symbol across the street from our flat. We were talking about General Shan's organisation and that hairpin and how Van Coon should have got her one of those bloody lucky cats instead –"
Sherlock heard the phrase lucky cat click in his head and took off, barrelling out of the door with John at his heels. The man wasn't on the pavement in front of the restaurant, but the smell of smoke lingered in the air. Sherlock looked up and there, sprawled on the fire escape, was the man's body, cigarette still glowing between his limp fingers. Unmistakeably dead, and while John choked on a curse, Sherlock let go of anticipation and welcomed the excitement of work.
"It's just as he said in his letter, don't you see?" Sherlock asked, waiting for comprehension to dawn on John's face, but all he could see by the amber light of the closest street lamp was worry and regret. It was entirely typical of John that even after the murder, he couldn't piece together the clues laid out before him, but he still berated himself for his failure to read them ahead of time and prevent a death. Even the death of someone he knew to be working for the Black Lotus.
John had no discipline over his own thought processes.
"Look," Sherlock said, ticking off the clues on his fingers, note held tightly in his other hand. "Moriarty used the words 'lucky' and 'cat' in the note, so we should have known there would be a connection to the Black Lotus case. He spoke of a 'pet' and 'easy clean-up,' indicating that this man ultimately worked for him, but in a sufficiently junior role that eliminating him would not require Jim to get his hands dirty."
John shivered, but that had to be as much from the nip in the air as from what was lying above them, as yet undiscovered by anyone else. "I thought the 'pet' was me," John admitted, twisting his mouth unpleasantly and plucking the note from Sherlock's grasp.
Sherlock refused to acknowledge his own similar misconception; Jim's taunt would not find a home in his brain, and he would not reduce everything John was to that one derogatory appellation.
"Ah! And this 'drag in' was for 'Dragon Inn'?" John asked, blanching when he looked up and saw the darkness where the on was supposed to be lit up.
Sherlock reached out and took the note back, scanning it once more. He hadn't considered that possibility, but John liked to play with language in a way that he, accustomed to thinking of it only as an imprecise tool that often hampered him, could never manage. John was far more than a mindless pet or an attack dog on a leash. Sherlock was going to rip Moriarty's smug, outsized head from his slight little body.
He savoured the brief, vindictive high that the resolution's reaffirmation brought him, then checked their surroundings. The street was still mostly empty, other pedestrians too far away to see the body. His observations were interrupted by John. "How did he know we'd be here?"
"He couldn't have," Sherlock responded immediately before considering the implications of that. "Not even he can get all his pieces lined up with so little notice. He knows we favour this establishment, and that this man worked here. Let's go," he said, answering the surprise on John's face before he could give it voice. "This death is not significant in and of itself, don't you see?"
"We should have known," John said, muttering frustratedly, still harping on the same point. "He bloody told us what he was going to do!"
"John," Sherlock said, and that was enough to silence him. "He was not expecting us to be here at the time it was carried out, which means that the evidence left will be so obvious even Anderson could hardly mistake it. Moriarty was counting on a delay of at least a few hours before word of this death reached us, so we now have those hours to work through what his next move will be. We need to go."
John still looked dissatisfied, his fists clenched tightly, but there was no other course of action to take. Besides, the victim had been a criminal, and was hardly worth John tearing his own heart out. Sherlock put his hands in his coat pockets to hide their trembling; he would conquer this new infirmity, triggered by contemplation of all the actions of which Moriarty was capable, sooner rather than later. He only hoped John had not noticed.
John didn't respond except to start walking away. He insisted on calling the Met from a pay phone and leaving an anonymous tip about the dead man.
It was the first death Moriarty had claimed since they'd all crawled away from the pool, battered and lost, three indomitable wills without the bodies to sustain them.
John spent the night pacing, then trying to sleep, then poring over the note with eyes haunted by his own failure. Sherlock supposed that was the doctor in him, that he couldn't stand to see a healthy young person killed. It hardly helped matters that John had a bit of a god complex – the note hadn't even been addressed to him, after all.
He pulled the note apart in his head, trying to make further sense of it, but John's frustration pushed his own eagerness into useless channels. He had better luck doing research on John's laptop. The body had not gone to Barts, and it was well past dawn by the time Sherlock tracked down an electronic copy of the police report. His phone rang – Mycroft again, the interfering sod – just as he succeeded.
The lotus tattoo was on the man's left pectoral – he was a true believer, then, not just a disaffected youth looking for easy thrills – and just starting to fade. Cause of death was a small, feathered dart tipped with poison, shot right into the man's neck. The photographs of the dart showed it to be a miniature reproduction of the spear that had featured prominently in the Yellow Dragon troupe's escapology act.
That tied the bundle up neatly, all the relevant clues from the note and the murder and the victim pointing back toward the Chinese smuggling case; there were extraneous facts, of course, like the disparity in the muscular development of the man's arms indicating a fondness for bowling and the staining of his teeth that allowed Sherlock to deduce the brand of tobacco that he'd smoked. But they led nowhere. Sherlock hated to repeat himself, and he knew Moriarty must too, so the ostentatious doubling back to a closed case had to mean something more. But the bundle was too neat, with no loose threads to pull anywhere; there was something he was missing here, some bigger picture still too inchoate to make out.
Sherlock got out his violin when John checked his watch and ran off to the surgery. He was standing by the window an hour later, still diligently practising his fingering exercises and allowing his brain a brief respite, when he saw a taxi pull up in front of the building. The rear door opened just a crack and then flew open as if it had been kicked rather than pushed; John stepped out, not quite easy, both his arms held awkwardly at his sides, elbows bent so that his fingertips could easily have brushed his clavicles. The whiteness of his lips indicated that he was in considerable pain or a towering rage, and either way, Sherlock wanted to be there.
He raced down the steps to open the front door for John, then recoiled when the smell of vomit wafted toward him. John smiled, his expression halfway between wry and grim, though his tone was light – putting on a show for the cabbie, Sherlock presumed, since the man had tried to do the decent thing and had got out to help John along. "Had a bit of a dust-up at the surgery. I'm not to go back in till tomorrow."
"Fine," Sherlock said flatly, as if the prospect of having John home for the day wasn't settling something inside him; it still surprised him how much better everything was when John was around. "What happened?"
"Pay the man, would you, please?" John asked, trudging up the front steps, and Sherlock fumbled in the pocket of his dressing gown, turning up tiny oddities until he located some cash. "I'm not going to start telling it only for you to swoop in and say you know all that. So why don't you just deduce and tell me, and if you go wrong, I'll let you know." Sherlock marvelled at the way John was clearly struggling to keep a leash on his temper, even though there was no need for it; it was hardly as if Sherlock needed to be coddled from the wrath of the mighty John Watson.
"You were called in to subdue a patient," Sherlock said, following John up the steps to the flat, then leaning in to sniff analytically at John's hair once they'd entered their living room. "He was high, or possibly coming down from something, and he'd threatened another doctor – most likely a woman, most likely Sarah – and so she asked for you, trusting to your military training to incapacitate him without doing him serious injury."
"Bloody great nutter he was, too. Nearly a foot taller than me and twice as wide; I felt like David. From the Bible," John added, unnecessarily; too many criminals sought justification for their actions in holy texts for Sherlock to be ignorant of them. "Strained my coracobrachialis and teres major, struggling to get free of my hold."
"On both sides?" Sherlock asked sharply, unwilling to let John downplay the incident.
"Well, he was doing a fair bit of thrashing from side to side as well. Should be fine after some painkillers and rest." John did that when he was anxious to wrap up a conversation quickly with minimal fuss, dropping his first-person pronouns as if that might make his experiences more universal and less about the reality of him, John Watson, doctor, soldier, flatmate, partner. Sherlock wondered if John was aware of the quirk.
"And a shower, hopefully," Sherlock said, allowing John to get away with it just this once; it sounded too clumsy to have Moriarty's hand in it, and in any case Moriarty seemed to prefer sending cryptic notes and then watching him scramble to try to crack them. "You've only been standing here for three minutes and already the stink has permeated to the point where we'll have to open the windows to be rid of it."
"Ah, I can't," John said, an embarrassed flush staining his ears, throat, and cheeks. "Yes, he threw up on me, got it all in my hair like he was fucking well aiming for it, but I can't lift my arms past my pectorals. And if there's anything worse than the smell of dried sick, it's the smell of wet sick."
"John, really," Sherlock interrupted. "Of course you can't do this on your own. I will wash your hair for you."
"No, you won't," John said, baring his teeth in a parody of his usual pleasant grin.
"I've said I would," Sherlock answered, confused. He wasn't quite sure what expression to adopt while John was eyeing him up and down, so he simply stood still and didn't flinch.
"Fine," John said abruptly. "Help me off with my jumper, will you?"
Sherlock eased it off him as best he could given John's limited range of movement, fumbling when one sleeve got caught on John's wristwatch, the back plate of which needed to be snapped firmly shut. He left John to unbutton his own shirt and had the shower running by the time John came in, seeking assistance to remove his undershirt.
John opened his mouth, no doubt to protest that he'd intended for Sherlock to wash his hair in the sink, so Sherlock simply spoke first. Dragging his hand through the spray to ascertain the temperature, he said, "Really, the smell emanating from you is positively eye-watering. How on earth did you persuade that cabbie to let you in the taxi?"
John bit his lip, evidently weighing his need to be completely clean against his ridiculous fit of modesty, then sighed, clearly understanding the logic of Sherlock's offer. He even smiled a bit as he answered. "He must have realised that even a superman like me" – Sherlock pulled the undershirt off him, and John suddenly looked all of five years old, all disordered hair and wide eyes – "couldn't manage to throw up on the top of his own head, and when he heard I was a doctor –"
"Yes, yes, he owes his son's life to a particularly dogged doctor," Sherlock finished, undoing the fastenings on John's trousers.
"This part I can manage," John said, leaning over to remove the rest of his clothing. He braced one careful hand on Sherlock's forearm to get into the shower, found his footing, and lifted his face to the spray. Sherlock watched his shoulders relax, then catalogued the varying degrees of colour John's skin wore: his hands were still browner than the rest of him, and his torso and arms were darker than his buttocks and thighs, so pale as to look like they belonged to a different person. Water sluiced cleanly off the knife wound that wrapped around his thigh but caught and pebbled on the scar that marred his shoulder.
Sherlock removed his dressing gown and t-shirt and reached into the stall to pick up the bottle of cheap shampoo. He poured some into his hand, then set the bottle back down and considered the best angle from which to proceed. John, his eyes still closed, spoke up. "Sherlock, really, thanks."
John had the most peculiar notions. He wouldn't let Sherlock thank him for trying to save his life at the pool – Sherlock cringed to think how inadequate his fumbling words had been, some dull repetition of "you" and "good" – but acted like assisting with a common everyday function was more than could reasonably be expected.
He looked at his own arms with their pale green underlay of veins and saw that even at his palest, John had a pinker glow about him, like a seashell. "It's nothing," he said abruptly, but that wasn't right, didn't acknowledge his continuing debt to John. "You offer me meals whenever you think I need one; I will offer you a shower whenever you require one. Deal?" He worked the shampoo into John's wet hair, drawing it up from the scalp and then scrubbing that too.
John squinted one eye open and grinned at him. "This is not going to become a routine, I can promise you that."
"Maybe just for special occasions then. Although it might actually be efficient to share –"
"No," John said.
"I suppose it is rather too small a space for that," Sherlock agreed, arms already aching from leaning over to scrub at an awkward angle.
"Yes, exactly," John said, looking amused, as though Sherlock had been joking about the shower's dimensions.
"Tip your head back," Sherlock said, and John obliged. "Is the water easing the strain in your muscles?" he asked, running the bar of soap over the wet skin of John's chest and back.
"It feels good," John said, "but hydrotherapy isn't necessary. Here, I can manage this a bit better." He took the soap and started washing himself; Sherlock added a note to his mental file that John really was unexpectedly limber before realising that his work here was done. "No, don't go anywhere," John said. "Can you shut off the water?"
John stood on the sopping wet mat and dried as much of himself as he could reach, though it didn't look like he was having a particularly easy time of it. He tied the towel around his waist. "You know, you left out one thing," he said, "in your recitation of today's events."
Sherlock leant back, the better to evaluate John. The mat squelched as John stepped off it; John directed him to follow with a look and a tilt of his head. They both left wet footprints on the steps up to John's room, the marks of Sherlock's longer, flatter feet completely obliterating the rounded curve and high arch of each impression of John's feet.
John headed for his open wardrobe, pulled out a fresh towel, and threw it awkwardly at Sherlock before seating himself on the edge of the bed, spine at a forty-degree angle to the floor. Sherlock caught it and saw John's entire thought process unfurl neatly in front of his eyes, which had been employed in watching the way John's body hair lightened from chestnut back to blond as it dried. The sequence of John's thoughts was so neat as to be restful, and Sherlock wished for more moments of such utter clarity around his flatmate: John couldn't dry his own hair, John didn't wish to walk around the chilly flat with hair still dripping wet, and John was not averse to asking Sherlock for help.
"What was it?" Sherlock asked, sated with crisp certainty. "The thing that I missed?" He patted his own forearms dry before he stepped forward and ran the towel briskly over John's chest and back, just once to erase any lingering drops, then started towelling John's hair. John braced himself, hands curling around the edge of the bed frame, so Sherlock could be thorough rather than gentle.
"Mycroft called the surgery first thing this morning," John said, words rumbling out with vibrations that passed into Sherlock's hands. Sherlock frowned, and John continued with his explanation as if he had seen the expression, or perhaps felt it in the rougher swipes of the towel over his hair. "Just to chat with me, make sure we're both doing fine after . . . well, after the hospital."
Sherlock knew he had to stop before he hurt John; he left the towel draped over John's head as if the doctor were a prizefighter, and waited to hear the rest, that Mycroft had complained about Sherlock, wondering if John had commiserated. John burrowed forward until his head hit Sherlock's belly, then peeked up at him with a new smile on his face that was wiped clean away when his gaze landed on Sherlock's bare arms.
John reached out a hand to catch Sherlock's left forearm, turning it slightly to let the light strike it and then running a rough thumb near the cluster of tiny black pinpricks that decorated the inside of the elbow. "You astonish me," John said quietly, voice gone raspy, and Sherlock peered down at him, trying to fit what he could see – wide eyes of dark blue, thin lips pressed together firmly but without causing either dimples of mirth or the whiteness of tension, chest rising and falling steadily – into one of the patterns he'd committed to memory: John angry, John hurt, John disappointed. He failed, and John was a mystery all over again. Sherlock would give anything to know how he did that.
Moriarty hadn't sent any new messages and Lestrade was on holiday, so the doors of Scotland Yard were closed to him; time hung heavy on Sherlock's hands. The cases in his inbox were so dull he could hardly bring himself to finish reading the emails.
He closed John's laptop when he heard John coming downstairs. John's leisure-day routine, starting with tea and the morning newspaper, was peculiarly soothing to watch, particularly since John almost always made him a cup as well. "I'm off out," John said, bright-faced and smiling, not even bothering with a slice of toast. "Sarah just rang and we're off to the cinema and then for lunch. Want me to bring something home for you?"
Sherlock shook his head mutely, reminded sharply that monogamy was not something most people considered desirable or normal when applied to a friendship instead of an amorous relationship. But John and Sarah had ended their romance by mutual decision, and John had even made a comment about "sliding sideways" from lover to friend, so it wasn't as though John believed that there was any implicit hierarchy to be respected; what, then, was John still doing with Sarah, if he had Sherlock there, ready to be his friend?
Questions like that, questions without answers that could be arrived at by patient application of logic, were what made Sherlock want to sink into the sofa for days at a time like it was a cocoon, from which he might emerge days later to find a newly rational, shiningly beautiful world. He stopped himself before he could succumb to the lure of that silent repose, or worse, the glittering promise found in a battered leather sleeve he'd tucked behind the bovine head mounted on the wall; what a soldier would do, what John would do, was use this time between battles to prepare for the next.
He took a deep breath, preparing himself for an unpleasant task. He texted a familiar number and then dressed and went to fetch the pink mobile from 221C; it wouldn't do to allow her access to any more of his secrets than she already had.
"Aurelia," she introduced herself when she buzzed for entrance, as if she couldn't have got in without his express permission.
"Because?" he asked, knowing he'd never get the truth but wanting to know what the lie she offered might tell him.
"Oh, craving Mediterranean for lunch," she said lightly as she brushed by him and mounted the seventeen steps up to the flat. Her hair had been cut, lightened, and swept up into a prim ponytail, and her manicure was as fresh as if she didn't spend hours of each day tapping at the keys of a BlackBerry. "What is it you need, Sherlock?" She sat on the sofa, effortlessly chic, ankles crossed demurely, and adjusted her pale grey wrap over her shoulders. He could have stayed in his dressing gown or even been stark naked for all the interest she was showing in him.
"Does Mycroft know you're here?" he asked, hoping the abruptness of the question might startle an honest reaction out of her, but she smiled gently, telling him without words that she was too accustomed to his rudeness to be handled so amateurishly.
"I haven't had a chance to speak to him," she replied, but that was no answer at all. Mycroft was probably watching the whole encounter; Sherlock wouldn't put it past him to have had the flat under video surveillance from the moment Sherlock moved in.
He hated to concede but knew that further struggle would get him nowhere. "This phone," he said, pushing it along the coffee table.
"Mr. Moriarty's?" she asked, not a trace of inquisitiveness in her voice. She opened her handbag, withdrew a small bundle, and unrolled the bundle across her lap to reveal a set of jeweller's tools, fit for the most delicate of work. "You've already removed the bug embedded in the casing," she noted dispassionately, making no mention of the visible scratches, unmistakable signs that his hands had shaken as he did so. It had been a T9, American-made, readily available, and cheap; Moriarty must have counted on him finding that one and destroying it.
She worked without pause or hesitation, apparently unbothered by his scrutiny. She didn't waste time with explanations; he had no doubt she knew it would be easier for him to learn this way, but he was also keenly aware that she had no intention of being kind. He watched her strip away one fragile wire – secondary audio recorder and transponder, he recognised once the piece was free – and then circumvent a shining circuit – video recorder, activated by the receipt of a text; if he just kept his eyes on her hands, he could ignore all the things that troubled him about her, things he couldn't even name.
Her impassivity, coupled with her self-confidence, unsettled him, made her appearance into a mirror rather than a window; all he could see when he looked at her was his own doubt – was she a true believer in Mycroft's cause? Or was the cause her own? Was Mycroft himself the cause for which she held up the banner?
Mycroft evidently trusted her with his own life and with Sherlock's, no doubt in large part due to that perfectly blank face, but Sherlock was repelled by her demeanour. Her deft hands flew over the phone – GPS tracking now disabled – and he realised he was following his brother's lead, trusting her in turn, with his life and with John's. Every instinct cried out against trusting her, particularly since she could easily be substituting Mycroft's surveillance devices for the ones Moriarty had planted, but nothing was as important as shutting Moriarty down.
She left after a solid hour of work, and Sherlock sank down on the sofa and hid his face in his hands, wondering if he'd made a mistake.
An hour after that, with John still not home, Sherlock heard the pink mobile chime its new-text notification. His hand shook as he reached for it. Oh, dearest, what have you done?
"Does hope spring eternal, Lestrade, that you expect me to trouble myself with a case of mere butchery?" Sherlock snapped impatiently at the detective inspector, whose eyebrows were rising to meet his hairline. "Victor Hatherley now has one thumb. Boring. Unless you are asking, in an insufferably circuitous manner, for John's help in reattaching it. John, does that sound like something you would be interested in doing?"
John shot him a variation of his usual disappointed look, the one that meant I'm disappointed in your lack of humanity and I know you've got nothing else going on; even Lestrade was able to read that, and he smirked, anticipating triumph. Sherlock was not going to let him enjoy it. "John, laptop," he said, holding out his hand.
John rolled his eyes and found his laptop underneath his Edward Gorey anthology and Sherlock's notes on the sources of homemade inks used in prison tattoos. "Where's yours?" John grumbled, handing it over. "Buried in your bedroom somewhere or lying in sad little pieces in the kitchen where all potentially toxic experiments clearly belong?"
Sherlock let John rant and didn't bother to answer; the laptop was in 221C, next to the pink phone and the tiny bugs and cameras that had been stripped from it, where Mycroft's surveillance was at best non-existent and at worst, and most realistically, simply relaxed. "John," was all he said, but that was enough to get John to steer Lestrade away from the sofa, bribing him with a hot cup of tea.
John really was invaluable as an ally, as a friend, but sometimes Lestrade actually applied his doggedness in a manner befitting a detective inspector, and all too soon, he was back and watching Sherlock pull up the official report on the Hatherley case. "Oi!" Lestrade said, sounding affronted even though John had been diligent enough to put Lestrade's favourite dark chocolate McVitie's on the tray with the tea. "You can't just –"
"Gather the information to solve your case for you?" Sherlock interrupted, ignoring both the cup of tea John set in front of him and the chastising glare he got for being so forthright. "It's all here, if you'd just process the information Hatherley himself gave you. He was blindfolded and driven to an undisclosed location, but he was alert enough to note the presence of a road crew twice on his journey: the same road crew, in fact, blasting the same wretched music, thus we know he was driven in a half-loop and back, meaning the end point of his journey was close to the starting point. Running a sweep with a half-mile radius from Paddington should lead you right to the headquarters of your counterfeiter." He held up a hand to forestall Lestrade's inevitable question. "There's nothing else it could be, with Hatherley's makeshift prison filled with boxes of paper and the so-called 'printing press' that he was hired, under false pretences, to repair." Sherlock shut the laptop with a decisive snap and set it on the coffee table. "Really, Lestrade, come back when you've got a proper puzzle to offer," he said and picked up a biscuit, scraping the chocolate off in long careful strips with his teeth.
He tucked his feet up under his thighs and closed his eyes, trying to work out if he'd seen any bills that could have been produced by the counterfeiters. The high chirp of his mobile rang out – Mycroft again, unable to get it through his fat head that calling would do him no good; Sherlock was not going to let any other case come between himself and Moriarty.
His tea was cool by the time John came back upstairs after walking Lestrade out. "Don't," he said, precluding John's speech about how he should be nicer to Lestrade. "He shouldn't need me to do his job for him every time."
"He doesn't, in fact," John said mildly, like the sweetest poison. "Ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, Lestrade and his team manage on their own. But that odd case out, that one that they might solve, given unlimited time and resources, which of course they don't have, they bring to you. Because they could use your help, yeah, but also to keep that fantastic brain of yours whirring along, give it what it was made for." John smiled then, steady and bright. "And you really are fantastic."
Sherlock swallowed, trying to work out if he'd been told off or praised. John brought him a fresh cup of tea, and Sherlock smiled before he could think about it.
The body that washed up on the banks of the Thames was gruesome enough that descriptions of it made the headlines of every paper in London. An unnamed Caucasian male, twenty-four to twenty-nine, his head carefully shaved and the clippings stuffed in his fisted hands and closed mouth, all sealed shut with duct tape. Aquatic predators and the ravages of the river had left him without eyeballs, the fleshy parts of his nose and ears, and large patches of skin.
Sherlock read the papers with interest. The next morning, John wore a grim look on his face as he separated a new note from Moriarty from the bills. The cream-coloured envelope was pristine but the note inside bore the inky imprints of those spectacular headlines.
High or low? Certain things can cut both ways, have you noticed? Be a love and remember that.
"What does that mean, 'high or low'?" John asked, leaning over the arm of the sofa so that he could read the note at the same time. "Tides, maybe? Do you know the tide tables for the Thames?"
Sherlock shook his head automatically to answer John, but the note's content was a secondary concern. The question of what it meant that the note had been sent after the fact – so that preventing the crime was no longer a possibility – was troubling him. Still, he wouldn't know the answer to one without the other, so he located John's laptop and Googled for the Thames tides.
John watched silently for a moment, biting his lip, then closed one hand firmly around Sherlock's arm and half-dragged and half-lifted him to a seated position. "Your hands are shaking," John said baldly; "you need to eat." He took a deep breath, clearly weighing whether he should continue, but John had never lacked courage. "He's already dead. There's time for you to refuel."
So John had seen enough to link the note and the newsworthy body, but had misinterpreted the tremors. Sherlock didn't protest, just slumped into John when he returned with tea and toast and eggs for them both. "Sleep or eat?" John asked, dragging Sherlock's plate closer when he received no answer. "Eat, then, and we'll see if Lestrade can get us to the scene."
It took one look at the scene, or rather one taste of the air, tinged with Thames salt, for Sherlock to push past that first incorrect guess at the note's meaning. "'High or low' doesn't refer to the tides, John. There's no value in Moriarty telling us at what time the man was killed and his body dumped in the river; that's something we can work out for ourselves, based on the body's mass and buoyancy and the time of its discovery and the river's currents and the percentage of seawater to freshwater. It's tricky, but it can be done, and that determination should be verified by a forensics tech's estimate of time of death." He caught sight of Lestrade just ahead and glowered at the thought of Anderson. "Well, a competent forensics tech's estimate, anyway."
Lestrade and John exchanged friendly nods but not words, John looking like he was concentrating on not telling the DI anything about Moriarty's bloody note. "What's been left out?" Sherlock asked, drawing Lestrade's attention away. "What have you kept out of the papers?"
Lestrade gave him a hard look but answered promptly. "The dead man washed up here. He had his head shaved and the clippings – a light ginger colour – stuffed in his fists and mouth. There was nothing but hair in the fists. But in the mouth, the hair formed a kind of base or nest for this." He handed over a photograph of a flower four inches in diameter with wilted petals, its pistil removed and a small compass nestled in its place. A ruler was also in the frame to give a sense of scale. "The flower and the hair were roughly the same colour once they dried, and we had a hell of a time separating them without damaging either or scratching the face of the compass."
Sherlock held out his hand, his phone resting on his palm, and John, without a word, took Sherlock's phone and put his own in Sherlock's waiting hand. Sherlock spoke as he took a picture of the evidence photograph with John's phone. "The compass indicates that the body was meant to be found at a specific location, meaning that the person who dumped it did all of those calculations in reverse in order to ensure that it washed up precisely here." He kept Lestrade from interrupting by finishing the thought. "North of here – where the compass is pointing us – is the Royal Hospital in Chelsea," he announced.
"Site of the Chelsea Flower Show," John said, Lestrade echoing him half a second later.
"Indeed. We'll need to see the grounds."
Lestrade stopped him with a hand on his chest. "No, wait, you're going to answer a few questions first."
"Really, do you suppose that we have time for this? I've already been delayed by the so-called 'necessity' of 'a healthy breakfast.'" He saw John's eyes dim at that, but Lestrade apparently needed a sharp reminder of the imperative nature of the work.
"I'm making the time," Lestrade said mulishly. "Why are you interested in this case? What makes it not just 'butchery' like the Hatherley case? Is this another serial killer starting up? Are we going to be pulling bodies from the Thames all through the spring?"
"It's not a serial killer," Sherlock said; when Moriarty devoted this much time to a corpse, it didn't have to share the spotlight. He skirted around Lestrade, John stepping into place at his side, and left the DI to follow.
He held the phone out so that John could see the photograph, knowing John would allow the gesture to pass as an apology. "What do you think?"
John kept his voice low as he answered. "The flower's something out of the daisy family. Out of season, so maybe Moriarty had to place a special order for it with a florist, or force it in a greenhouse somewhere?"
Sherlock arched one eyebrow, and John smiled. "My mum liked to garden. 'Green thumb' doesn't begin to describe it."
"Botany can be quite interesting," Sherlock allowed. Natural toxins and stimulants alone made the field a rewarding one.
John laughed, evidently guessing at his train of thought. "My favourites were the peonies. You could get drunk just off the fragrance of them, it was such heady stuff."
Abruptly, Sherlock was thrown back into a memory he hadn't known he'd saved, of being small and wearing his most hated outfit, a white shirt and grey romper that managed to leave him both hot – due to the thick corduroy of the romper – and cold – because it left several inches of his legs bare. He had been let loose to wander in a large garden, and he'd been stunned by the greenness of the world and the new and exciting scents in the air. He'd buried his face in the white ruffled cup of a peony blossom and emerged with a bee on his nose; his eyes had crossed in an effort to keep watching that furry little body and translucent wings, trying to figure out how it made that lovely buzzing sound that made him want to take a nap. Mycroft had swatted the bee away and grabbed his hand and brought him back to Mummy.
He came to himself when he felt John's hand around his, steadying the mobile that was slipping from his grasp. "I suppose if I suggest food or rest again, you'll go on playing the hunger artist just to prove you can," John said wryly, as if his eyes weren't broadcasting worry.
Sherlock left his hand where it was for one reassuring moment, then slipped free and slid the phone into his coat pocket. He turned on his heel to face John and Lestrade, two sets of eyes in two open faces focusing instantly on him. "Go," he said, "and try to track down purchases of daisies, or arrangements including daisies, shipped to any address in London."
"I can't just let you go by yourself –" Lestrade protested.
"The site of the Flower Show is hardly part of your crime scene," Sherlock pointed out acerbically while John stepped forward to pluck his phone out of Sherlock's coat pocket; Sherlock nodded and John dropped Sherlock's mobile into the pocket. "It's a public space, and there are not likely to be any footprints or trace evidence left, but there's no point in having you tromp all over it. I'll be back at Baker Street soon enough." He pivoted again and headed for the hospital grounds.
Without anyone around to hold him back and demand explanations, Sherlock made quick work of it, collecting and filtering all of the information written in the air until at last he was standing in front of a plaque with those same orange daisies worked as painted reliefs around the words Sponsored by the Frelinghuysen Arboretum, a partner of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. That was curiously specific.
His phone was not nearly as handy as John's for running searches or for taking pictures with acceptable resolution, but it was more than adequate for texting purposes. He sent a quick one off to Molly and took a photo of the plaque before he left the grounds, more circuitously this time, taking note of the differences in the compositions of various soils as he went.
Molly was far easier to deal with electronically than in person; she was concise, professional, and responsive, if still rather given to littering her messages with unnecessary affectations. The first time Sherlock had seen :) at the end of one of her messages, he'd Googled it, then lost ten minutes in contemplation of how ridiculous a notion it was that he would want to tilt his head, his phone, or his computer sideways in order to make a colon and a parenthesis appear more like a smiling person.
S – Sending the photos you requested to your email address. – M :)
The use of initials rather than full names signalled an attempt at intimacy, though the emoticon betrayed her desperation, and indicated that she knew that had yet to be earned. Still, she had responded in a timely fashion; perhaps the next time he needed to visit the morgue, he would sit with her in the canteen while they drank the rather terrible Barts coffee and ignore all of her nervous twitching.
He opened the email attachments, looking at close-ups of hair of a peculiarly golden ginger colour, then the victim's face. Even after it had been cleaned and the expression smoothed out, the face was still marked by great violence: the thick eyelids sank over gaping holes, the features were eaten away, and the outline of the skull was starkly realised by the shaved head. Sherlock selected the most ordinary-looking of the photographs, silently commending Molly for taking a few that cropped out the shorn head, and set out to find some of the more stalwart members of his homeless network.
Clive and Beth shook their heads at the image on his mobile screen, but Jeannie nodded as soon as Sherlock said that the dead man had had light ginger hair. "Yeah, I seen him," she said, and his hand went to his pocket to find money that could be spared from his cab fare. "Usually over at the grammar school, selling drugs to all the kiddies."
Sherlock made a face – how ordinary – and handed over a tenner. Jeannie looked like a "kiddie" herself, pale youthful face made younger still by the Alice band holding back fine blonde hair. "Had a jacket he used to wear all o' the time," she continued, adjusting her seat on the cold concrete, briefly swaying toward him, and he could smell her, unwashed skin sweating under all the layers of wool she was wearing. "Red and black, very striking." She sketched a lightning-shaped diagonal with one gloved hand, and he made a note to remember that she had a better than average visual memory. "Clashed something awful with that hair of his." She shivered once, then tapped a cigarette against its crumpled packet. "Have you got a light?"
"No, I haven't," he said, eyeing her neighbours. None were close enough to have been eavesdropping, but all were paying attention, as if to warn him of harm should he hurt Jeannie. "But that man, the one in the blue woolly hat, has."
The Frelinghuysen Arboretum was in Morristown, New Jersey. New Jersey apparently had quite a history with the prolific Frelinghuysen family, several of whose members had gone into politics at the state level. Sherlock closed John's laptop and swung his legs over the sofa arm, trying to make a connection between a minor American political dynasty, a drugs dealer in London, and Moriarty.
"Sherlock!" John called as he sped up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Excitement lit up his face and when he saw Sherlock lying on the sofa he grinned and said, "Got it."
"Lestrade's running down the credit card and the address; he'll text with all the information," John started.
Sherlock sat up and reconsidered; that wasn't just excitement on John's face – it was triumph. "Your insight about the daisy being out of season was important, wasn't it?" he asked.
"I traced the delivery of an 'Autumn Splendour' arrangement from Holland & Co., an upscale florist in Sydney that delivers worldwide. The arrangement includes dark red amaranthus, red kangaroo paw, light and dark orange Gerbera daisies, yellow roses, flame lilies, tiger lilies, marigolds, Panama roses, and black-eyed susans." Sherlock pulled an inquisitive face and John huffed a laugh. "Yes, it costs an arm and a leg and it's probably the size of the telly."
Sherlock made a mental note for his Index that John had apparently shared his mother's passion for gardening; all of those names had tripped off his tongue without any hesitation or consultation of notes. "And the delivery?" he prompted.
"Anonymous sender, recipient listed only as 'Ashton' without any indication whether that's a first name or a surname, and the address for delivery was in South Kensington. Executive flats on Gloucester Road. The sender specified that a plain black card in a plain red envelope should be sent, both entirely blank."
There it was – the colours connecting the drugs dealer and the recipient of the extravagant and outsized floral arrangement. John yawned and headed into the kitchen. "Don't bother," Sherlock called, knowing precisely how long it had been since John last ate. "We'll go out for dinner."
John peeked around the doorway, a surprised look firmly fixed on his face. "Really?"
"What do you want to eat?"
He knew John's hesitation had less to do with choosing a cuisine and more about guilt over staying silent. John clearly did not want to mention the possibility that Lestrade would get them the missing information in the next hour or two, still less his observation that Sherlock never ate when actively engaged with a case, or his own desire to arrange a stable schedule for eating and sleeping to which both tenants of 221B would have to adhere. "Indian. Paneer and peas pulao and buttered garlic naan, to start with."
"Brick Lane it is," Sherlock said, standing up and straightening his suit.
"What, you've solved cases for every family with a restaurant there?" John asked, smile clearly indicating both his incredulity and his willingness to believe it, if Sherlock said yes.
Sherlock inclined his head at the angle he knew puzzled John the most. "Something like that," he murmured, and let John make of that what he would.
The dark-eyed daughter of the family served them herself, demure under her parents' watchful eyes in a way she hadn't been when she'd demanded that he clear her name and let her sit her Greek examination for the Fortescue Scholarship. Anjali seemed to remember that he'd never bestirred himself to make small talk, and she stayed silent until John's repeated and sincere thanks for all her attentions charmed her.
Her hand was steady as she poured water from a beaten copper pitcher, but her eyes never strayed from John's face, studying it as though she meant to deduce something from it. Sherlock stayed alert, curious what she would make of the familiar worn lines and gentle features. She'd been a scholar of languages, of literature, all the messy fields that John seemed so attached to, the ones without the rigorous bite of the hard sciences. John's gaze went soft and his cheeks went pink when at last he realised he was subject of her evaluation; he hadn't blushed like that with Sherlock's clinical gaze on him, and Sherlock tapped his fingers irritably on the tablecloth, recognising that sexual attraction was once again interfering with and complicating immeasurably what should have been a simple and straightforward process.
"Anjali, John. John, Anjali," he said, effecting a basic introduction to speed things along. He could have said more: I investigated, and she wasn't guilty. I never investigated, and he was. He saved my life.
The two of them were still staring dumbly at each other when John's mobile beeped. "Sorry, sorry," John said, smiling up at her, clearly not wanting her to leave, but she did, taking their empty plates with her. "It's Lestrade," John said, retraining his focus on the mobile before she'd got more than three steps away; Sherlock nodded approvingly. "Here."
John put the mobile in the centre of the table so that they could both read the screen as the text message appeared. Credit card number and address both belong to victim, Ashton Frelinghuysen.
So the connection to the Flower Show had nothing to do with the arboretum in New Jersey; it had simply been a way of supplying him with the victim's name. Odd that Moriarty would be so direct. Sherlock instantly deleted all the research he had done on New Jersey politics and glanced up at John, whose lips and knuckles had gone white, all the softness that Anjali had coaxed into his eyes gone without a trace.
"No," John said, but without the slightest conviction in his voice. "No, it can't be."
"John?" he asked, closing his hand around John's forearm, the red corduroy of John's shirt satisfyingly textured under his fingertips.
"That's Anna's little brother," John said. "Anna Frelinghuysen. The best doctor I served with in Afghanistan. She's the one who performed the first proper surgery on my shoulder." The stress John put on proper was enough for Sherlock to picture him, grim-faced, sweating, and tiger-streaked with dirt and blood, trying desperately to cut the bullet out of his shattered shoulder, bits of bone white in the midst of spewing red. "She had a picture of her and her brother Ace, both of them with the brightest hair you could imagine. She used to keep hers plaited up, but it was still like a rope of fire when the sun hit it."
"Ace," Sherlock said, belatedly feeling the pieces click into place once more. "'High or low' referred to Ashton Frelinghuysen's nickname, aces counting as high or low cards, whether red or black. And he drew attention to the shorn hair by placing it in the mouth and hands; the colour itself was a clue."
John's eyes were blazing, and he evidently wasn't listening because he kept ranting. "She said he was always getting into one scrape or another, but now he's dead and it's because of me."
"What?" Sherlock asked, startled out of his train of thought.
"Look, Sherlock. Really look at the notes Moriarty's been leaving you, at the bodies he's stacking up. That Chinese boy – a gambler, like me. Did you know that? Did you deduce that and never bother to mention it? That not even active combat could beat the taste for gambling out of me? And he was the same age I was when I realised I was addicted. And now Ace – that 'high or low' business would have meant nothing if I hadn't known what Anna called her brother. He's targeting people with some connection to me – God, it could be Harry or Clara or even Mrs. Hudson next." John stood, agitated, hands shaking worse than Sherlock had ever seen them do, too much for John to be able to pull cash from the pocket of his jeans; John had evidently forgotten that they didn't have to pay. "We have to go."
"John," he said, standing and pulling his coat down from the nearby peg. "You have this backwards."
John didn't bother to answer, just brushed by him without worrying overmuch where his elbow and shoulder were landing. Sherlock caught up with him outside, where he was trying in vain to flag down a cab. "Listen," Sherlock insisted. "Dennis Lee was a pawn of Moriarty's by way of Black Lotus, and as such was due to be eliminated within months of the dismantling of that organisation; that he shared an addiction with you is merely a coincidence." He caught John's arm and forced him to meet his gaze. "Ashton Frelinghuysen was almost certainly working for Moriarty as well, whether as a local drugs dealer or as a lieutenant in his network I don't yet know. That you served with his sister must be a blind, John, a way to distract you and therefore me, and we cannot let that happen."
John's gaze was blank, uncomprehending; Sherlock shook him. "Just think! Had Moriarty wanted to strike out at you, he would have targeted Anna, whom you knew and liked, and not her brother, known to you only from a single photograph." He had to think as well, work out what it meant that Moriarty was willing to sacrifice his own people for the sake of this new game.
John's throat was working, clicking as he tried to swallow and then give voice to the thoughts slowly unfurling in his mind. "Then – Harry's safe?"
"As safe as anyone in London can be while Moriarty is still loose," Sherlock promised without a qualm. He was starting to like Harry, but John and Moriarty had to come first.
A wan smile flickered on John's face. "Cold comfort, but I know I can trust you," John said finally.
"Always," Sherlock said, throwing up his hand for a cab and hustling John into it once one arrived. He gave the driver Ace's address. He kept silent during the drive, trying to find a deeper meaning for cuts both ways and remember other than the obvious, which was that he and John were both right – Moriarty chose his victims from the pool of people who worked for him, however indirectly, and also shared a past of some sort with John.
John didn't have his eidetic memory, but once he saw Moriarty's last note again, saw remember in Moriarty's ornate script, there was no way his formidable intelligence would fail to draw the conclusions Sherlock had just come to, and he'd be back to worrying about his sister and her wife or Mrs. Hudson. That didn't give them much time, and Sherlock found himself wishing for a way to slow the universe down and let him and John just be, partners and friends without end, without limits. Without Moriarty, who changed all the definitions just by existing and breathing the same air.
Ashton Frelinghuysen's flat was empty, save for a framed photograph of a ginger-headed man and woman that John clearly recognised, the still-exquisite floral arrangement in a vase of coloured glass, and a message painted rather sloppily on one wall, low enough that Sherlock knew Moriarty had written it himself, working at his own eye-level.
Tear up your list.
There were lists everywhere, his whole world was made of lists; that was the problem.
He had a list of the emotions John's face ran through as he went about his day (aesthetic appreciation, aggravation, amazement, all the way down to weariness and wonder). He had lists – all much shorter – of the emotions he was allowed to sham when interrogating a client, a witness, or a suspect.
His phone rang, and he pulled it out of his pocket to peer at the screen. Mycroft, of course, but as he thumbed Ignore he considered that there was a list in his mobile, a list of contacts; was Moriarty warning him that every one of those people, whatever their varying degrees of usefulness, would be destroyed?
If that was the case, then Moriarty was uncharacteristically moving backwards; he'd had it correct before – only John's destruction was significant, really, so widening the threat's range changed nothing. And it was a threat, a hint of what was to come. That note hadn't been scrawled over another corpse or any similar trophy; he still had time to stop whatever Moriarty was planning.
Sherlock sank back into the seat of the taxi and let London paint streaks of neon light across his eyes as John sat, warm and tense, beside him.
"We're just making lists of lists," John grumbled, keeping the ridiculous object tucked against his back. A red rubber hot-water bottle was a useful invention, but it did not need a "cosy" that looked like one of John's own jumpers; Clara and Harry had obviously thought themselves very clever for presenting it to John when he and John had gone to their flat for tea last week. "One for the hostages Moriarty used last time. One for the sites where he planted the bombs. One for all of the crimes we know he's organised. We could keep going forever." John rose and stood deliberately in front of him, breaking the rhythm of Sherlock's fevered pacing. "But what good would tearing up any of these lists do? These things have already happened. It's not like tearing up a list of them would change that."
Sherlock stared, wondering if John's simple words had unlocked the puzzle. Were they supposed to look to the future, rather than the past? Or was that what Moriarty was counting on, a way to throw them off the scent? "What if he's steering us away from his past crimes because there's evidence we never bothered to look for since we already knew Moriarty was responsible? Something that would let us track him down?" The message's very bluntness rendered it opaque, opened it to a thousand plausible readings.
"It could mean just 'starting fresh,'" John ventured, eyes drifting over Sherlock's shoulder as he thought his words through. John's eyelashes were absurdly long and curled at the tips, and he smelled like the spiced chai he'd been drinking, the note of cardamom especially strong. "You know, 'tear up your list' because that chapter's done."
"That leaves an unacceptably wide field for us to cover," Sherlock objected, curling his hands into fists to hid their shaking.
"Yeah, but it's Moriarty; he's not interested in a fair fight with you." John shook his head and headed for the sofa and his surely tepid hot-water bottle. "Look, tell you what. We're only going in circles right now, so we either need to call it a night or settle in and try to shake up our thinking."
"So what would you suggest?" Sherlock asked, asperity and the return of his tremor making his tone harsher than he'd meant. "Setting up a pillow fort here so that we can swap theories in our sleep?"
John kept a grip on his temper, and his hands were perfectly steady. "We come at this a different way." John was practical and competent, Sherlock noted dispassionately; he was exactly the ally required by the situation. "I haven't looked at Moriarty's file since we got out of hospital, so I will go through all of your notes, which are probably on my laptop anyway." Sherlock nodded, a very small thrill working its way up his spine at John's calm assumption of command. "And you will give your brain some breathing room. Don't get sucked into Moriarty's puzzles. Just play your violin. You said it helps you think."
Bach had never been so troublesome before. The partita neither taxed nor eased his traitorous hands, and the sounds his warmly glowing violin produced were as clear and rounded as ever; the problem was John. John, who sat and listened with a faraway look like the music had stopped all his thoughts, who made Sherlock want to shut off his own thought processes – the progression from tonic to dominant, the execution of each fingering sequence, the feeling that he was safe at home, the knowledge that he was all that stood between a madman and chaos – and just sink into the silence underneath the music.
But that was impossible. Music wasn't an escape; it was an alternate route, a different path for his brain, one he valued as much for its utility as its beauty. He turned to Bach in particular for that balanced melding of mathematical precision and wild inspiration. John, overlapping and overwriting all of these functions, would simply have to be incorporated, or else he would derail everything. Sherlock looked John in the eyes as he played, waiting until John dropped his dreamy gaze back to the laptop in front of him, and the air was cleared, and his thoughts knew where to go.
"This note is different," John said, as if the music had trained his brain into the proper channels as well; "look at the greeting and the signature. It's always been 'my dear' before, not 'dear Holmes.' Why's he being so formal now, why 'Moriarty' and not just 'Jim'?"
"Don't know," Sherlock said, absently and truthfully. The disparity had bothered him too, but the body of the note – Tear up your list – was surely where the clues really lay. The list – of his own past cases, perhaps? A warning that the game was about to escalate and Moriarty wanted to be the sole focus of his attention?
"Was it definitely him, then? Couldn't have been another of his gang – one he hasn't murdered yet – who painted the note and messed it up?"
Intriguing, to see the ways John's mind worked when it tried to cope with the deviousness of Moriarty's. "No. There were characteristics that stayed consistent in the handwriting, even taking into account the changes in medium and presentation. It was Moriarty." He ran it through his mind again. "He's added something," he realised, and John sat up a little straighter, though his eyes were weary and the light glinting off his wristwatch was the only brightness left about him. "The expectation of a wider audience. That's why this message was on the wall in letters a foot high, with a proper salutation and signature."
John looked unconvinced and shook his head just once. "If I had to guess, I'd say he was subtracting, not adding, but I couldn't tell you what the buggering blue hell he's playing at."
Sherlock cracked his eyes open when he felt something being dropped on his stomach. John, freshly showered and shaved, was standing over him. "If you won't sleep, at least change into something comfortable," John said, unable to keep the note of disapproval out of his tone. There, on Sherlock's stomach, were his pyjamas and dressing gown. Sherlock started unbuttoning his shirt and John picked up his wallet and fetched his jacket. "I'm off, back at one. Do try to eat something before I get home, won't you?"
Sherlock watched him, the way his fingers curled around the squarish shape in his trouser pocket as if he needed more reassurance that his mobile was handy than simply the weight of it. "Whose call are you expecting?" he asked, and John rocked back a step before smiling wryly.
"You'd have been burnt at the stake not that long ago, you know," John said without any real rancour. "I called Anna to tell her I'm sorry about her brother, but I had to leave a voicemail."
"Do you think the last message was meant for her as well?" Sherlock asked, sitting up to strip out of his shirt and pull the t-shirt John had selected over his head, inside out, as he couldn't bear the sensation of the tag against the nape of his neck when he had work to do. He'd got the fastenings for his trousers open when John finally answered.
"No," John said simply, and walked out of the door.
Mrs. Hudson – coached by John, no doubt – appeared around nine with half a shepherd's pie and a story about not having room in her fridge for the leftovers. Sherlock accepted it with bad grace, shooing her out, and returned to the sofa to spoon it into his mouth, one unnecessary bite at a time.
"Up," John said when he walked through the door, though the peremptory command was softened by the pleased expression on his face as he took in the empty dish on the coffee table. "You're going to shower and we're going to try the proper meal thing again."
"Boring," Sherlock grumbled, but John merely smacked the soles of his bare feet with a careless hand.
"I mean it. Go."
The problem with eating once already was that it made him hungry for more, reminded his stomach that food was readily available. He'd trained his body out of weakness like this, and here John was blithely ruining it with his petty, self-righteous insistence on what he termed "medical necessities." Sherlock stood under the spray of the shower and resolved to eat as little as possible, just to score off John. He pushed his fingers viciously into his abdomen, as if physically shoving the hunger down, and smiled when it worked.
"Angelo's?" John asked when he sat on the sofa to tie his shoelaces.
Angelo led them to the table he always held for them, just next to the picture window, and told them they were having the aubergine parmigiana. Hope evidently sprang eternal in Angelo's dense breast, as he returned only moments later with a candle, bread and oil, and a promise that he'd play something "more romantic" on the stereo.
John dashed salt and pepper into the small bowl of olive oil with chopped garlic and reached for a warm roll, stirring the mixture before sampling it. He smiled, evidently savouring the taste, then cocked his head, the better to hear the painfully stupid song being sung by a mediocre musician. "That's Dean Martin," John said; "my Auntie Ruth loved him."
"You don't have an aunt called Ruth," Sherlock countered.
"She was my mum's best friend and she lived next door; I called her Auntie Ruth," John said placidly, taking another bite of bread.
"However much of an aphrodisiac the man's voice was for her, it doesn't appear to be working on you. Though perhaps that's the company," Sherlock said waspishly, the better to forestall John's inevitable plea for him to just eat something, Sherlock.
"Wait," John said. "'Tear up your list,' that's him!"
Sherlock didn't have the slightest idea what John was on about but John would never fabricate evidence or insist on a weak connection. "What?" he prompted.
"He's got a song," John said before starting to hum, filling in words as he remembered them, his gaze fixed on the ceiling as if that would aid his memory. His voice, though soft, was a strong and true tenor. "'Once you're kissed by Amy, tear up your list, it's Amy,'" he sang, just as Angelo returned with two large plates of aubergine covered with a chunky tomato sauce and melted cheese.
Sherlock looked up to wave off the offer of even more cheese and caught Angelo's conspiratorial wink, clearly brought on by the sight of John evidently serenading him. He rolled his eyes and reached for John's phone to Google the lyrics, searching for a clue.
John didn't wait before digging in, recognising that he was destined to lose any and all arguments and he might as well eat his own food while it was still hot. "These lyrics are tragically insipid," Sherlock announced, unable to find any phrasing that echoed any of Moriarty's other coded proclamations.
"The song's just about a girl named Amy," John said, a quarter of his plate already clean. He pointed a fork at Sherlock. "Eat. I can't think of anyone we know named Amy, can you?"
Sherlock swapped phones, picking up his own and texting Lestrade. "What you said earlier, about the hostages Moriarty used as pips. Two of them were women. Maybe one was named Amy."
He could see John deciding not to mention that one of those women was dead. "Poor lady, she's been through more than enough. Send the text, and then you're going to eat at least half of what's on your plate while you wait for the response."
He typed out Names & information on Moriarty's hostages required. SH "Am I?"
"I'm quite certain," John said with a smile sharp enough to cut, and Sherlock choked down his first bite.
He'd got through nearly half his meal – surprisingly enjoyable – when a familiar black car pulled up just in front of the picture window. He felt his face tighten with anger and stabbed at the fleshy lump of roasted aubergine still sitting on his plate.
"What is it?" John asked, turning to look for himself. It had surprised Sherlock, that very first time they'd sat in Angelo's, that John made no move to keep his back to a wall as all soldiers were surely trained to do. That the lack of such an instinct meant that John hadn't found many places of safety since leaving his days as a soldier behind made something sharp catch in Sherlock's viscera; he wanted John to be able equate having a wall at his back with a sense of security and a quiet mind. Mycroft and Moriarty between them had done their best to level all the walls John had found and leave John exposed, Sherlock thought, holding his knife and fork like weapons to wield against his brother.
"There is a reason I don't take his calls or respond to his texts," Sherlock snapped, glad to be brought down from the precipice of his own illogical emotion to the level of merely annoyed, but before John could dig any deeper, Angelo had guided them out of his restaurant, one hand on John's elbow and the other hovering over Sherlock's shoulder. The driver – six feet tall, blond, twice-divorced, pious – wordlessly held the car door open, and John shrugged and stepped in.
They were alone in the backseat, and the soundproof glass partition between them and the driver was raised to its full height. "Huh," John said, looking out of the windows on both sides, apparently needing to orient himself as the car began to move, "I didn't think it'd be just us back here."
Sherlock sighed, unwilling to admit he felt the same surprise. "Yes, whomever will you flirt ineptly with now?"
"What are you – how did –? You deduced that I tried to pull . . . Anthea, or whatever her name is?" John sputtered.
"It's like clockwork. I could point you at a pretty woman and as long as she wasn't actively threatening you – or me or your sister – you'd pursue her."
"God, you make me sound so pathetic. And desperate."
"Mmm," Sherlock said noncommittally. "She looks better with short hair than she did when you met her."
John drummed his fingers along his leg, still trying to plot their route despite the fact that his mental map of London paled in comparison to Sherlock's. "So you're saying she's even further out of my league now. Cheers."
"I never said that," Sherlock protested, stung into honesty. There were plenty of valid reasons to keep the two of them apart, but John's worthiness was never in question.
"Why would your brother want us to come to Barts?" John asked, peering out of the window again, then belatedly smiling at the implied compliment.
"Why has Lestrade not answered my text?" Sherlock responded.
"Give him some time," John scolded as the car pulled up to the kerb. "He might be trying to eat lunch and not think about death and destruction for an hour or two."
"We might not have an hour or two –"
"He doesn't know that, does he, because you've not been telling anyone about Moriarty's new notes," John pointed out. He blinked against the light as the driver held his door open and turned to go.
Before John could go anywhere, someone else had sat down next to him. Mycroft.
Sherlock crossed his arms, waiting to hear how Mycroft would try to get under his skin; silence was the best way to draw an opponent out, but John, of course, had to ruin it. "Hello, Mycroft," John said, sounding faintly surprised. There was a pause, and then John actually reached out to touch Mycroft's arm. "Can I –?"
"Doctor Watson," Mycroft interrupted, somehow sounding as if he were doing a bad impression of himself, "I require your help."
Help, thought Sherlock. Not assistance. It was unlike Mycroft to use monosyllables.
"Anything," John said, apparently believing that he owed Mycroft something.
"Oh, what is it?" Sherlock said. "Another memory stick for John to fetch?" He could have gone on, but John's hand was applying rather firm pressure to his thigh.
"Don't. You. D-dare," Mycroft said, unbridled venom suddenly flooding his tone. "Th-this is all your f-f-fault." Mycroft hadn't stuttered since Sherlock was quite small; he'd made the effort to overcome it when he'd realised that Sherlock was learning to speak by mimicking him, and the sound of his own impediment echoed back to him had been too much to bear. Or so Mummy had once confided in Sherlock, another small act of aggression in a family built on them. "You th-think you're the cleverest man to walk the earth, that it's within your rights to play games with other people's lives as pieces!"
John's hand tightened warningly, but Sherlock had had enough of being lectured. No doubt Mycroft had worked himself into a jingoistic rage over a case he'd wanted Sherlock to take for the good of queen and country, but Mycroft's cases were nowhere near as interesting as Moriarty. "Moriarty set the rules, but it has not been a game for some time," he said crisply. As soon as he spoke, he wished he hadn't bothered, as it seemed that neither John nor Mycroft was paying him any attention.
"No," John said softly, sounding shocked, still looking only at Mycroft.
"No," Mycroft echoed. "Nor have you been my brother, since you have turned your back on what is right and chosen to engage with a madman bent only on his own pleasure."
"What?" Sherlock asked, unable for the first time in years to pierce even the topmost layer of Mycroft's meanings. His mobile chimed its notification for a new text message, but he had to work out Mycroft first; that was suddenly a more daunting prospect than it had been since his cocaine days.
Mycroft met his gaze for the first time since he'd got in the car. He looked like he wanted to delete Sherlock – no, more than that, obliterate him. He could do it, too; he'd been the one to teach Sherlock how simple deleting the unnecessary, the chaff, could be. "I cannot strip you of the name Holmes," Mycroft said, tone perfectly level, as if he were ordering his luncheon. "But I can promise never to call you my brother again. Get out."
In a rush, it all came into Sherlock's mind with the inevitability of crashing water, the pool slapping him down and closing over his head as he struggled for air. His brother's shadow was gone; Moriarty had killed her.
So Mycroft had loved her. How pedestrian. Smooth face, smooth voice, smooth nails, smooth legs – apparently they were worth quite a lot to Mycroft, whether he'd enjoyed them or not. Ugh, vulgar. No, but she'd had a mind, too, quite a good one, that she hid behind well-practised dimness, though he'd never understood the point of such illogical disguise. Surely for her to have stayed by Mycroft's side for all those years argued that she –
"Get. Out," Mycroft repeated.
Sherlock adjusted his gloves. "John," he said, opening his door.
"Doctor Watson," Mycroft said insistently. "I do require your skills," and that was enough for John, who didn't even turn to Sherlock before murmuring his agreement.
Sherlock stepped out and slammed the door behind him. He would see John back at the flat, and then he could ask how on earth John had come to the realisation before he had.
The text was from Lestrade. Stephanie Quinn, junior executive at Lloyd's. Geoffrey Krajewski, second year at Hull. Louisa Hutchinson, seamstress, deceased. Peter Forrester, prep school in Westminster. What is going on? Is he back? No Amy in the list, and surely no one named Stephanie or Louisa would have been called Amy.
He'd walked while reading, and had ended up in front of Barts. He could circle back to Dominion House and have Molly fetch him a coffee, but he'd have to listen to her inane chatter then. Better to let his brain and his legs work at the same speed, he thought, and he took off, not caring where he ended up.
Halfway to Spitalfields, he had abandoned the search for Amy and found a new angle to pursue from Lestrade's text. That child, the hostage in the puzzle with the forged Vermeer, had been a late addition to the stage. Only after the Golem had failed to kill him and John had Moriarty needed his thumb on the scale, and he'd used the boy – Peter Forrester – as the tipping weight. That boy was the key. Had he simply been near to hand? Or had Moriarty snatched the first child he'd seen on the street?
No self-respecting Westminster parents would fail to send their child immediately to therapy, as if that would erase his memory of what had been done to him. It would be an elementary matter to locate the child's doctor, and from there it was even simpler: get hold of the child's file and test the threads until he found the one that led back to Moriarty.
It was unsettling, riding alone in a taxi; he knew better, and yet he kept turning as if he could conjure John into being there next to him if only he found the right moment to stop time and perform his magic.
He frowned at the recollection that Mycroft had high-handedly taken John off with him, as if he needed an immediate replacement for Anthea, someone who would always stand one step behind. But John belonged with him, trying to figure out what link there could have been between Anthea and Moriarty.
He had to know what was going on. He texted John. Report immediately. SH The cabbie was still grumbling to himself about the traffic, and Sherlock waited, drumming his fingers on his leg the way John had – had he picked that up from John, or was it the other way around? – until a response came in.
Was asked to do autopsy. Her name was Amy Wilmot. John
Mycroft had wanted John to do the autopsy? John was a field surgeon, not a histopathologist, and had probably not performed an autopsy since medical school; certainly the rigours of the battlefield would have left him little doubt as to how most of his patients had been injured or killed. He thought of Anthea – Amy – under John's capable hands, and understood that Mycroft needed John's steadfastness, his honesty, his thoroughness. But damn Mycroft for not considering that the last thing John needed was to have one more person he'd known lying dead and beyond help in front of him.
Because John would follow through and not think of the cost to himself. He would get home tonight, worn to the bone and still sit with the newspaper propped up in front of his unseeing eyes or with the flickering light of the telly dancing across his lined face, and think that he was a failure because nothing he did could undo the death he'd seen.
Damn Mycroft. Tracking Moriarty. See you at home. SH
Dr. Sylvia Lasher's office was located in a small private hospital that had office numbers helpfully listed on a notice pinned up in the lobby. He took the lift up to the second floor and smiled at the receptionist filling out paperwork. "Dr. Susan Diller?" he asked, using the time while she frowned and consulted a typed list to scan the office; Dr. Lasher kept her files in locked cabinets behind the front desk, so all he'd need was a diversion and two minutes with his lock picks.
The suspicious curl to her mouth stayed present even as she grudgingly spoke. "Three floors up."
"Sorry, must have got turned around," he said, playing apologetic. "Stairs back that way?" He pointed to the dimly lit doorway behind her. She nodded, already uninterested in the conversation. It would be child's play to exit through that door, watch for her to take a tea break, and slip in for the files. He headed for the door, hearing the lift behind him stop and open, and footsteps trail into the office. The receptionist tapped at her keyboard and said, "Hello, Mrs. Forrester. Did you reschedule Peter's appointment? I don't seem to have you in today's calendar."
He crouched behind the door so no stray glance would see him through the small glass panel. Peter Forrester was in the office at this moment, unexpected; something was not right with the situation. As he pulled on his leather gloves, he could hear Peter's mother sounding flustered as she said that her secretary had passed along a message from the doctor, asking for an emergency session.
"Come with me, then," the receptionist said, sturdy court shoes clicking against the linoleum floor. Sherlock seized the opportunity, counting on the voices coming from down the hall to alert him when their return was imminent. Peter's file was thick for being so new, and he tucked it into the back of his waistband before easing the drawer of the filing cabinet shut with a click that could barely be heard over the sound of the lift grinding to a halt. He made swiftly for the door again, ducking down once more; he could just barely see a large man in a long leather coat entirely inappropriate to the season step into the office. The man had the gait of someone balancing an unwieldy weight on his person, and Sherlock frowned, mind running through the possibilities.
The man must have heard the voices of the doctor, the receptionist, and Mrs. Forrester, because he headed down that hallway sporting a determined grin. One hand reached under his coat to pull free a large double-action semi-automatic pistol.
Three defenceless women and a child were the only ones waiting for him, and yet he emptied the magazine and the chambered bullet into them; the man clearly enjoyed his work. Sherlock unbent enough to look through the glass panel in the door. The man whistled as he walked back from his executions, flicking a brass-plated lighter, empty pistol stuffed carelessly down the front of his trousers so that the butt rested against his navel. Sherlock couldn't see him once he walked behind the receptionist's desk, but could deduce from the scrabbling sounds that the man was pawing through the desk drawers for the keys to the filing cabinet. Surely that was what the lighter was for; the man was missing all outward signs of a smoker.
The light he could see through the glass grew suddenly yellower, and he knew the files had been set on fire. The man must have been looking for something else, because it took a few more minutes for him to emerge back into Sherlock's line of sight. Once he was there, Sherlock could see that the man rather resembled Moriarty, only a Moriarty a head taller who'd been addicted to steroids for some time; they had the same close-cropped dark hair and fishbelly-pale skin.
Still whistling, the man stepped onto the lift and disappeared behind its closing doors.
Sherlock wrenched open the door and ran down the hallway toward the small heap of bodies. He pulled them clear, then couldn't remember if he should have kept them immobile in case one of them was still, improbably, alive. Peter was small for his age, but looked especially so when surrounded by the outflung limbs of three full-grown women, and Sherlock squatted down again, automatically pocketing the three closest spent shell-casings, wondering what secrets he'd held in his infantile brain.
"I was hoping you'd be here," he heard from behind him, and he spun too quickly to keep his balance; that only made it easier for the leather-coated man to introduce the butt of his pistol to Sherlock's temple.
He drifted back to consciousness as he was being dragged across the linoleum floor toward the receptionist's desk; he didn't dare open his eyes, but he could feel the heat of the fire, still burning in the filing cabinet.
The man evidently couldn't read the six small signs Sherlock couldn't help making, and had no idea that his victim was now conscious. "I'd have liked to be able to hear your last words, you cunt," the man said as he arranged Sherlock to his satisfaction, fingers warm whenever they touched Sherlock's skin. "I know what that would've been worth to the boss. Not to mention that the lads had a pool going, a challenge to see who could knock you off."
A soft, unsteady stream of cool liquid hit Sherlock's face – was the man spitting on him? Crying? "Fuck all," the man cursed, fumbling in his pocket for his mobile; "better get this done quick."
Quickly, Sherlock corrected in his mind, then listened with disbelief as the man stood and walked toward the lift. He dared to open his eyes to slits and saw the sprinkler above him sending out a weak spray in response to the blaze. He closed them again when the man placed a call. "Moran. Yeah, he showed up at the brat's shrink's office. He won't be getting up soon," the man reported, and Sherlock could tell from his voice that he'd swung around to take one last look. "Just give me five minutes to get clear."
The lift doors opened and the man – Moran – stepped inside. Moran disappeared and Sherlock scrambled up, grimacing at the trail of blood he'd left when he'd been dragged along the floor, and found the explosives lined neatly up behind the receptionist's desk. He mopped at his seeping temple with his scarf and then dropped the whole soaking mess as he ran for the stairs. He'd made it down nearly three flights of concrete steps by the time the blast shook him off his feet; he saved himself from another head injury only by clutching at the metal railing with desperate hands.
He could hear the stampede above him as people tried to flee the building. Huddled securely in the basement, he let himself think. Moriarty had manoeuvred Peter into being at the office for his pet assassin, who had clearly also been told to expect Sherlock. How could Moriarty have known that he was revisiting the idea of the pips? Had there been an armed man sent to dispatch each of the surviving hostages, with orders to kill Sherlock if he showed up as well? Was it possible that Lestrade –? No, surely not; Sherlock could not believe that Lestrade would betray him. And yet, if there was an informant, he had to know.
Mycroft would be able to find out, quickly and effectively. Sherlock grimaced as he called his brother, anticipating several minutes of unpleasant, vaguely threatening conversation; he got a shock when it was her voice instead: "The number you are trying to reach cannot be accessed from your number. Goodbye." There was the faintest undercurrent of amusement in Amy's tone, as if she'd recorded the message while thinking of all the callers, from royalty on down, that it would frustrate.
He shook his head – mistake, every movement was painful – and tried again. He tried a text but it wouldn't go through, and the email he sent bounced back immediately with an error message claiming that no such address existed. So Mycroft had meant it when he'd sworn to cut Sherlock out of his life. Sherlock snarled his fury that it was happening now, on these terms. He had a madman to catch and a flatmate to protect, and Mycroft wouldn't lift a finger. Fine, he raged, I can do this without you. He walked out of the building on wobbly legs, blending easily into the crowd of people who'd been evacuated from it, knowing Moran would have stayed just long enough to witness the explosion ripping apart the quiet hum of an afternoon.
"Faster!" he snarled at the cabbie, who shot another nervous glance at him via the rear-view mirror. For Moriarty to know about his plan to track the pips, he had to have surveillance on John or the flat; Sherlock had already checked his own mobile and person for bugs. He had to get back to 221B and go through it with a fine-toothed comb, then subject John to the same.
Sherlock approached the building from two streets away and took the most circuitous route he could muster to get inside. He crept past Mrs. Hudson's door, the sound of her blaring telly coming through clearly, and got as far as the front hall when a scraping sound startled him. It was only the post being pushed through the slot in the door, and when he looked down, one cream-coloured envelope with John inked across the front was all that lay on the floor. He pulled it open and read:
Dear heart –
You didn't want him alive, did you?
Moriarty must have written it once Moran had alerted him that Sherlock had been eliminated – the ink was slightly smeared and smelt fresh – and it was likely Moran had been allowed to deliver it himself, as a reward. Such haste on Moriarty's part meant that the tone was less carefully considered, that the twisted affection evident in every word was most likely sincere. And it was all aimed at John, "dear heart" all on his own and also the "heart" made dear by being Sherlock's.
Sherlock tucked the flap back into the envelope and tossed the letter back down to the floor. If Moriarty believed him to be dead, he had an unprecedented advantage; there would be no hindrances to his work, no more of Moriarty's goons sent to dog his steps. He had to act quickly to capitalise on the situation. There was no time to scour the flat for bugs, and no way he could stay at 221B without attracting Moriarty's notice. Moriarty was expending his energy in gloating, not covering his tracks, and he hadn't let Moran stick around to kill John. If Sherlock was going to make his move, it had to be now.
He let himself into 221C, grabbed his laptop and the locker key he had taped to the back of the stained mirror perched on the mantel, and took off. He had work to do.
The wad of bank notes had been significantly fatter in his memory, but Sherlock resolutely divided it up and stuffed a bit into each front pocket of his jeans and thick hooded sweatshirt. The tattered duffel bag, bulging with his trousers, shirt, coat, and brogues, went back into the bus station locker and his lock picks and the locker key into a small zippered compartment of his laptop bag. He kept the hood of his sweatshirt up as he hunched to make himself smaller and went in search of Jeannie.
He didn't know if Mycroft still had active surveillance on him – he had no trouble imagining that Mycroft might make himself impregnable while still keeping tabs on Sherlock – but surely Mycroft would have felt the presence of another spider in his intricate web had Moriarty attempted to monitor London on the same scale. Sherlock knew how to transform himself simply by projecting emotion, allowing the fabricated history of a different persona to be made legible on his skin, his clothes, his attitude. But such subtle shifts were of no use now. Mycroft and Moriarty were both too wrapped up in schemes to be watching the cameras at all times; it was their minions, instructed only to look for a head of dark curls, a straight spine, or a long wool coat, whom he had to fool, and he would fail unless he altered those apparent fundamentals.
He filched a pair of scissors and a pack of gum from a dingy chemist's shop close to where Jeannie had last kipped. Finding her without making enquiries was simple enough; all he had to do was walk past the nearby primary schools, knowing Jeannie would be looking in all the children's faces for her younger sister, who had to be long dead if Jeannie's disjointed ramblings were put into any semblance of logical order.
Even with his hood up and his unfamiliar attire, she recognised him instantly. That was all the confirmation he needed that a more drastic alteration to his appearance was a necessity, and he stripped off the sweatshirt and handed her the scissors. Clipped curls fell around him as he crouched in an alley, shivering slightly in his T-shirt. "No one can know I'm still here," he said peremptorily. "As far as everyone knows, I'm dead."
"Yessir," she said automatically, still shearing away. "Then this won't do."
"You just look like yourself, 'cept you've got a haircut. You wanna look different, you gotta change the colour. I was a redhead the summer I turned sixteen, made my skin look like fresh cream, and the boys came from miles around to see me. They said they were dreaming of Jeannie with the bright red hair."
"Yes, fine," he said, deleting the personal anecdote; Jeannie was useful, but she was far from important. He dug a banknote out from his pocket. "Get whatever we can use to dye my hair, a set of earbuds, and a new SIM card for my mobile. Whatever change is left over you can keep."
Her eyes got wide at the sight of the bill. That would ensure her swift return. She scurried off and he popped a piece of gum in his mouth, chewing like a cow working at her cud, imitating the manner of the brainless youth he now appeared to be.
If he had to wait, he would at least make good use of the time. He pulled Peter Forrester's file from his laptop bag and sat on a pile of flattened cardboard boxes to read.
Sherlock cherished no delusions about how long the mess at the hospital would take to sort out; all sorts of experts would have to be called in before the Met zeroed in on Sylvia Lasher's office as the primary site of the explosion. There was no telling if the bodies had stayed intact enough for identification, and since Peter – a newly chronic bedwetter since his ordeal – had not been expected at the office, no police would yet be at his home, searching for clues.
Sherlock smiled to himself, popped a fresh piece of gum in his mouth, and set off for Westminster, to the address in Peter's file. The street was short, made entirely of two rows of what would no doubt be called charming flats, with nowhere to loiter inconspicuously. He turned back to a larger street to find a tobacconist and buy himself a packet of twenty convincing reasons for sitting on the scrupulously clean steps of the building next to Number Eleven. He allowed wreaths of satisfying smoke to disguise his unfortunately memorable features.
The earbuds, plugged uselessly into his mobile, were enough to fool the people who walked by him into believing he couldn't hear every word of their inane conversations. But it was the wardrobe and the new hue of his hair that Sherlock credited for the lack of recognition on Moran's soused face as he staggered by Sherlock to get into Number Eleven, key already out. The stark near-black and near-white that Sherlock was accustomed to seeing in the mirror had been replaced by reddish hair and skin that looked pinker and warmer without dark curls juxtaposed against it. Moran, even filled to the brim with whisky, should have felt at least a tug of familiarity, but it was so hard to find a mind capable of performing at an optimal level these days.
Sherlock grinned, pleased that his chain of logical deductions had proved sound to the last link. Moran's importance within Moriarty's organisation was borne out by the choice of Peter Forrester as one of the hostages. Moran had used his own neighbour's child in Moriarty's escalating challenge to Sherlock, and had later killed the "brat" and his mother with evident glee. Moriarty had called on him at the last minute to supply him with a hostage and Moran had provided, cementing his status as Moriarty's most trusted lieutenant.
But Moriarty's linchpin should have killed Sherlock with a bullet instead of trusting to unconsciousness and a blast to finish him off, because Sherlock was now in a position to strike the first blow against Moriarty almost without lifting a finger. Those few shell-casings he'd retrieved from the doctor's office had Moran's fingerprints on them, after all, and it would be beyond easy to plant them, along with Peter's file, somewhere in the drunken lout's flat; there they would be found by the Met, acting on an anonymous tip from someone who would be dismissed as an underling in Moriarty's organisation, spurred on by envy for Moran's position. He'd heard from Moran's own mouth that "the lads" would be envious that he'd been the one to finish Sherlock off and impress Moriarty; no state more conducive for betrayal and jockeying for position could be imagined.
Sherlock's fingers were steady as he swapped the SIM card in his mobile for the one Jeannie had bought. He gave Moran an hour to fall into a heavy, drunken slumber before breaking in and planting the evidence. Moran's stertorous respiration was loud enough to cover nearly any noise, but Sherlock prided himself on being swift and silent. The door to the flat above – the Forrester flat – opened and closed quietly just before Sherlock finished his task, presumably Mr. Forrester returning home from work. Sherlock took one last look at Moran's flat and made his anonymous call to the Met.
Full dark found Sherlock in a flat two streets away that was supposedly being renovated, but insufficient funding meant that workers hadn't been by in over a week. He slept sitting up, his back against the one complete wall, and in the morning, he was pleasantly surprised to see Donovan leading a bleary-eyed Moran off in handcuffs as Lestrade restrained Mr. Forrester. The Met team all looked dishevelled and worn and not really grasping the significance of the prize Sherlock had handed them, but it would have been too much, really, to expect comprehension as well as efficiency.
There was nothing like impersonating a disgruntled layabout to get all London to walk by without a glance, Sherlock noted with deep satisfaction, radiating perfectly feigned resentment of all the pleasure-seekers swarming through the public gardens. Even when he settled himself in what was clearly someone else's "patch," a prime location for him because it was a Wi-Fi hotspot covered by none of bloody Mycroft's cameras, he was left alone.
As he couldn't venture anywhere near Baker Street for the present because of those same bloody cameras, he'd just piggyback on Mycroft's surveillance of the flat and determine when John was likely to leave to go to work or the shops or to run some other errand; he should be able to find a dead spot in which he could speak to John.
Looking around the bright gardens, he wondered if John would recognise all the flowers blooming in front of him before shaking himself out of useless speculation. Sherlock thought back to Amy's avid eyes on her Blackberry, her sure hands exposing and disabling means of surveillance; considered everything he'd learnt on the Milverton case, the Rucastle case, and others; and set to work.
The audio came through half a second before the video did, and the sound of Mycroft's voice worming its way into him nearly made him rip out the earbuds plugged into the laptop. "What might I do for you, John?" Mycroft was saying, making himself at home in Sherlock's chair in the flat. If he expected John to recognise that the umbrella whose point he was driving into Mrs. Hudson's carpet was not his usual, he was going to be sorely disappointed; John clearly had no eyes for any of Mycroft's grandstanding. No doubt Mycroft had selected the black-on-black pattern as a token of mourning, though Sherlock noted disgustedly that Mycroft was dry-eyed and calm-voiced, his accessory the only outward sign indicating that anything was different. His mourning might be genuine, but it seemed it was also shallow.
Though Mycroft's poses and state of mind hardly mattered. Not when John looked so dreadful, hair disordered like he'd run his hands through it repeatedly, and somehow hollow-looking too, as if the sunlight pouring through the windows could cut right through him. "I –"
Mycroft, the great interfering pillock, interrupted. "Dr. Watson, pardon my curiosity, but should you not be at the surgery now?"
John got only halfway through the gesture that he liked to think shut Sherlock up, in which the side of his hand sliced the air. "I . . . I told them not to expect me." His voice cracked uncertainly and he stood next to his chair like he couldn't remember its purpose.
"You've quit Dr. Sawyer's surgery?" Mycroft asked, looking up at John, eyebrows raised just enough to indicate curiosity, not enough to cause a single wrinkle in his brow.
"Tell me it isn't true," John said, not bothering to answer; "tell me the shreds of fabric Lestrade found at the scene of the explosion in Westminster weren't from Sherlock's scarf, that they weren't stained with Sherlock's blood. Tell me you've got cameras on Sherlock right now, and he faked his death and is tracking Moriarty and either charming the pants off the hostages or bullying their friends and neighbours like the git he is . . ." His voice trailed off leadingly, waiting to be interrupted.
"I've no surveillance on Sherlock; I do not find it worth my time to try to protect –"
Mycroft cut himself off when John buckled, landing half in the seat. "Doctor?"
John pulled Moriarty's last note from under his seat cushion and thrust it at Mycroft, who took it as if humouring a child in need of gentle correction. Sherlock felt his nails cutting into his palms as he watched John watching Mycroft, but Mycroft was too seasoned an actor to let anything slip; Sherlock couldn't tell if his apparent death affected Mycroft less than Amy's had, or if his brother simply did not believe the supposed proof that John was offering. "What is this, John?"
"It's the latest letter from Moriarty. Only this one was addressed to me." John was sweating now, earnestness and desperation pouring off him. He got up and limped to the mantelpiece, where the other notes were gathering dust. He swept them up and held them out to Mycroft. "All the rest were to your brother. And they were all true."
As he read the letters swiftly, Mycroft's face finally betrayed him; Sherlock could interpret the lines it settled into as fury, even if John could not. "Sherlock has known for months, apparently –" Mycroft made a production of rubbing his fingertips together to evaluate the dust "– that Moriarty was back, wreaking havoc on the citizens of our city, and he chose to treat the matter as a game, a means to alleviate his boredom. I tried reaching him time and again to offer my help and to warn him of the possible consequences to himself and to you, but he refused to listen. If Moriarty proved to be too much for him, then I am sorry for your loss."
John could not have looked more dazed if Mycroft had simply abandoned his genteel pose and clocked him on the head with a brick. "But it can't be –"
"And yet you say that all of these letters, crowing about the death of one person or another, were 'true,'" Mycroft said gently, remorselessly; Sherlock had no idea how it was possible to look at John Watson with such pitiless eyes. "Where, may I ask, is the one detailing the murder of Amy Wilmot?"
"We found it," John said, defiant and hopelessly transparent, reminding Mycroft that he'd been Sherlock's ally in all of it, "painted on the wall of a flat."
There was sharpness, a blatant desire to know, in Mycroft's tone. Sherlock recognised the ignorance behind that hunger and knew for certain then that Mycroft had no idea that Sherlock had attempted texts, emails, and voicemails; Mycroft would never have demanded answers from John if he knew he could get them more accurately from Sherlock. "Saying?"
"'Dear Holmes, Tear up your list. Moriarty,'" John recited.
"'Holmes' instead of 'My Dear.' Then I was its intended audience, just as this 'Dear heart' missive was meant for you." Mycroft stood, fussing with his trouser creases. "Sherlock knew that –"
"No!" John protested. "It took us a few days to piece it together, and once we did, we still didn't know her – her name was Amy." John held out a beseeching hand. "Please. Check all the surveillance footage you're stockpiling – we didn't know."
Mycroft declined to answer that. "I am sorry, John; it seems we are brothers in bereavement." That was needlessly cruel, Sherlock thought, watching John blanch and fall silent at the misuse of the word brothers. Then he wondered if Mycroft was at last speaking the truth, that his love for Amy had been something akin to what steadfast, whole-hearted John evidently felt for Sherlock.
The revelations were too much, and Sherlock felt sick, knowing that he couldn't let John know he was alive, not if one day of belief had already brought him so low; any change for the better would be interpreted – correctly – by Moriarty that Sherlock was still out there. John would have left him voicemails, voice worn and weary and clinging to hope, pleading for Sherlock to call back, not knowing that Sherlock had destroyed his SIM card because it could be traced. John would have argued with Lestrade that the evidence was inconclusive while the words of Moriarty's taunting note hammered at his brain. John was being hurt by every moment of his absence, but he was no longer a target.
"Amy liked you, you know," Mycroft said more gently, interrupting Sherlock's thoughts, as he watched John struggling to speak. "I'll have a word with the surgery –"
"No!" John burst out.
"He won't be back," Mycroft returned softly. "Either he is dead or he has decided that you too are just a piece in his great game, ripe for the sacrifice. There are no other options that I can see. And you are far too good a doctor to let your talents go to waste." He ignored John shaking his head. "You would be invaluable at a trauma centre, John." Sherlock hated how possessively Mycroft's voice caressed that single syllable. "The battlefield still has a place for you."
Sherlock tensed and waited, registering the tightness of Mycroft's fingers around the handle of his umbrella, until John bowed his head in acceptance. Mycroft merely inclined his and walked out of the flat. Sherlock could not have blinked if his life had depended upon it; he watched John shake, silently, shoulders vibrating with grief and tension.
John walked woodenly, unevenly, to the kitchen and got himself a glass of water. Sherlock watched his throat work as he swallowed it down. The earbuds were not good enough for him to tell if the glass had merely cracked or shattered outright when John's nerveless fingers dropped it in the sink, but Sherlock could hear every hitching breath of John's agonisingly voiceless sobs.
John looked so small, far from the camera – it had to be on one of the bookshelves, he'd worked it out from the angle – and all alone in the flat. He came back to the living room and gathered Moriarty's letters, painstakingly matching each note to the proper envelope as if it mattered, then set them in a neat stack back on the mantelpiece. Sherlock's breath caught in his throat as John's steady hand picked up the skull to reveal the pink mobile he must have hidden underneath it. "No," Sherlock said, as if John could hear him, as if John would listen to anything he had to say ever again. "Don't – John –"
Head bent, John considered the mobile – a link to Moriarty, a route to the vengeance John was clearly burning to exact.
Sherlock tore the earbuds away, ready to run back to Baker Street to stop John from a suicide mission, but John abruptly straightened and frowned; setting the mobile down on top of the mantel, he disappeared from view. Sherlock fumbled at the earbuds, trying desperately to cram them back in. He caught a low murmur of voices, John's tone indicating surprise at the very least, more likely shock. Two sets of footsteps sounded on the stairs, and when John came back into view, there was someone beside him: a woman with a long bright plait like a rope of fire. Anna Frelinghuysen, Sherlock thought automatically, and watched her fold John in her arms like she had every right, watched John cling helplessly to her, and watched her tears darken John's shirt until his good shoulder looked more grievously injured than the one she had operated on.
Molly had a sense of self-preservation roughly equivalent to that of a fruit fly, and Lestrade was overworked and red-eyed with exhaustion, but somehow, they had managed to coordinate their efforts to keep Molly safe from Moriarty while she was at work. Sherlock himself, unrecognisable with layers of thick, cheap clothing suggesting a more average body-fat percentage and wearing a ruddier tint to his hair and skin, had doors shut in his face as he attempted to trail after her as she slipped into Bart's.
At least Moriarty had overplayed his hand, Sherlock thought with a vicious curl of satisfaction in his belly. That dim-Jim-from-IT pose meant that his face was on file, so he couldn't threaten Molly in person. And it meant too that he was barred from visiting Moran in jail. It wasn't quite burn the heart out of you good, but there was a definite thrill to knowing one of the Hydra's heads had been severed and the stump burnt dead.
Moran had apparently been the main prop of that branch of Moriarty's organisation and the only link most of them had to Moriarty; when Moriarty had said he didn't like to get his hands dirty, that had evidently not been just an idle boast. The minions were like especially idiotic children, unable to proceed without direction. Sherlock watched their flailing with frank contempt and then with an almost amused wonderment as some of the more energetic underlings tried, ineptly, to stalk Molly or worm some information out of Moran.
Molly nearly bit the head off the one who'd had enough imagination – it was still a laughable effort – to figure out where she lived and become a flower-seller working a patch just near the shops where she bought food and cat litter and, with rather alarming regularity, "treats" for the utterly spoilt cat that could barely stir himself to move. Sherlock, handing out copies of Metro Express just three yards further down, smiled smugly to himself about the idiocy of the man's pose as Molly's pitch rose with fury; people would snatch a paper automatically, barely recognising that it was being offered by another human being, but they looked at flower-sellers, wanting someone who would sympathise with their reasons for buying dead blossoms already halfway to rotting.
Molly in a rage was actually quite pretty, but Nigel Collins – who just last year had made off with substantial sums from a string of three elderly widows – was hardly in a position to notice. Evidently he hadn't learnt well enough how to seduce younger women into obeying his every whim, and through the vitriol, Sherlock heard enough to deduce that all the time Moriarty had spent with Molly had been only as Jim: cat-fancier, avowed fan of ridiculous American action films, and eager but fumbling and rather sweetly shy boyfriend. Certainly Moriarty had never let slip any of his plans or frustrations in the two weeks he'd spent curled up on Molly's pink sofa before orchestrating that meeting in the laboratory.
Sally Donovan walked into the scene, enough urgency in her stride that Sherlock realised some shop owner must have called the police after having got wind that Molly was shouting about criminal masterminds and madmen into Collins's stunned face.
Ah, now that was interesting. Having clapped the cuffs on Collins and delivered him to the constable in tow, Donovan returned to run a hand up and down Molly's back. Both women's faces were balanced on the same improbable point of softness and rawness, and through the sounds of people rushing by and fumbling with his proffered papers, Sherlock could just make out Donovan saying, "Sorry. I'm so sorry he ever got you involved in all of this."
Molly dropped her carrier bag full of chocolate and let Donovan tighten her arm around her. "He's gone, Sally," Molly said, and Donovan gave her a squeeze.
It was getting harder to fall asleep. Not that he ever slept much, but that was by choice. Now, when he needed the rest, he found sleep eluding him, brain caught on what it had seen and heard like a needle that couldn't hop out of the too-deep groove of a particular record. "He's gone," Molly had said, and Sherlock wondered how often John had repeated that to himself.
He walked the streets, hardly noticing the dawn, the way London got ready for a new day, the noises and lights of the night shifting. Roaming the city didn't relax him as it usually did; keeping his natural gait disguised demanded a small percentage of his attention, and the thought that he could not simply curl up on the sofa in 221B at the end of his rambles kept intruding on his thought processes as well. He turned a corner and saw a tall man in his late twenties with his hand raised to summon a taxi. Banker boy, a Seb type, given his three-piece suit, meaning the suitcase by his side would hold enough for four days and three nights plus a spare shirt and some extra pants.
A taxi pulled up, and just before the suitcase disappeared inside it, Sherlock saw the monogram DMQ on it. The man himself, Sherlock analysed as he brushed by, smelt of nothing strong enough to survive his liberal application of cologne, but there was a smudge of newsprint on his right thumb and a few crumbs of his breakfast muffin lingered on his waistcoat only to be dislodged as he bent to get into the cab.
His flat could not be the one on the ground floor with scarlet geraniums in the window boxes, nor the second-floor flat with the windows still open, given the dark clouds overhead. That left the first floor, and Sherlock waited until the cab had turned before ascending the front steps and verifying that the first-floor buzzer was labelled Quincy.
A few nights in a proper bed would do him some good, he thought, jogging back down the steps and crossing the street. He made a production of pretending to make a call on his mobile to give him an excuse for loitering. Within three minutes, the lights went out in the ground-floor flat and a woman in her sixties exited the building. Three minutes after that, he was inside.
Quincy had clearly furnished his flat according to his idea of the lifestyle of a senior banker. In one corner next to a potted palm tree was a gateleg table holding a marble chess set. Sherlock had deleted Mycroft's tutelage and hundreds of exemplary matches nearly thirty years ago, and while John had spoken of teaching him to play, they'd never found the time. He fingered the pieces idly, fingertips pleasingly caught by their sharp spikes, and dragged himself through the flat toward the self-indulgent bed piled high with pillows and luxurious bedclothes.
Several hours in Quincy's soft bed dragged by without the boon of sleep and finally he pushed the duvet and linens aside and booted up his laptop, taking the opportunity to charge it while he worked. But even that was slow going, his exhaustion making him fight to work through his own code as he typed up notes on what he'd observed and absorbed about Moriarty's organisation.
Sherlock hesitated, watching his hand shake on the touchpad and the cursor zip around the screen, trying to identify the sensation tugging at his gut. A moment later, he had it; it was guilt, of all the illogical things, guilt that he wanted to skive off work in order to hear John's voice again, see his worn and somehow shining face.
If that was what it would take to get his focus back, then it should be done. He was hurting nothing by checking in on John. He entered the codes that would show him what Mycroft's surveillance was picking up. Nothing. His throat was scratchy; he fetched the bottle he'd bought earlier and filled it at Quincy's porcelain tap and drank half of it in a single gulp. Slightly refreshed, he tried again, but still got only silence and a black screen.
There was a buzzing in his head, agitation over not being able to verify John's continued existence. Impossible to think that Mycroft's equipment was faulty. Just as improbable was the notion that Mycroft really had done it, had removed surveillance from the Baker Street flat, just as his words had promised. But it had to be so.
Did Mycroft have no idea, then? That Sherlock was alive, or that Moriarty had, by the end of the showdown at the pool, been nearly as fascinated with John as he'd earlier been with Sherlock? Sherlock bit at his own forearm to muffle his savage scream of frustrated rage and set out to find the frequency of Moriarty's surveillance.
He very nearly didn't recognise it once he'd found it; he'd never heard those sounds issuing from John's throat before. John's voice had gone deep and slurred and there was an undercurrent of confusion – no, not uncertainty or bewilderment, it was that John sounded dazed, disbelieving – as he panted out half-finished words and incoherent, choppy grunts. There was another voice mingling with his, a woman, moaning and whispering, and Sherlock froze, understanding what he'd stumbled across.
But he knew the acoustics of that room perfectly, and those sounds from the audio-only bug were enough to paint all sorts of unwanted pictures on the insides of his eyelids. Anna Frelinghuysen had to be rocking on top of John, rearing up to throw her head back and let loose an ecstatic moan, eyes closed against the picture John made as he lay in sunshine, golden and scarred and shining with a sheen of sweat. No, it was full dusk now, John would be half in shadow, one stray beam of cerise light through the window his only external illumination, and Anna had that hair like fire that would be tumbling down over both of them. John's mouth would be soft, his fine eyebrows involuntarily raised as they were whenever he listened to Sherlock play his violin. John's eyes – Sherlock could not picture his eyes; would they be dreamy, looking inward, overwhelmed with pleasure, or would they be focused, sharp, watching Anna for the cues to bring her to hers? John's hands were curiously clear in Sherlock's mind, strong and competent and perfectly steady, splayed across her hips. John's thighs, mismatched by scars, would be braced firmly to take her weight.
No. He had to stop thinking – it was too much –
The wet sounds of flesh meeting and parting sped up like a tarantella and they cried out as if pushed past endurance, hoarse shouts mingling together. Sherlock opened his eyes, but the unfamiliar walls of Quincy's ghastly flat offered no respite, nothing clean and simple for his gaze to rest on. The voices – better, yes, better to think of them as just voices, not considering the bodies they belonged to, not as John and that woman – began again, quiet and close, and Sherlock squeezed his eyes shut again as he registered the intimacy of their tones, the way John spoke to her the way he once had to him, as if there were no one else on earth whom he wanted next to him at that moment. How many women had heard that tone in John's voice? How many of them had known what they were hearing?
"Sex on the sofa," Anna said, and Sherlock could hear a kiss, wet and lingering. "You're far too old for this to be remotely plausible." He knew her hands would be stroking John's chest, eager to prolong the moment and undercut her words.
John laughed at that; she would be feeling the rumble of it, lying next to him. "You're far too exactly what I need for any of this to be remotely plausible," John said, and then there was a sound of shifting weight and a slight squeal of surprise, so John had sat up and pulled Anna close, "but you're here."
Anna had to be half in John's lap, stretching greedily to get her mouth behind his ear, one hand coming up to brush across his throat and cup his jaw, while John got his hands on her and gasped, eyes fluttering shut, like her tongue was drawing fire across his skin; Sherlock could hear it all while he cursed himself for being able to deduce that much without effort and yet still be completely ignorant of Anna's true motives. What was she playing at? Was she, like her brother, in Moriarty's employ? No, Moriarty had killed her brother, so was she looking to John to be her white knight and wreak her revenge? Not that either, he thought, frustrated with his inability to think, clenching his hands into fists; she was a soldier and doctor just like John and she had no reason to think that John had ties to her brother's killer. She was there with John because she wanted to be, and it was just her luck that Sherlock wasn't there to keep John happy.
Selling drugs to the kiddies was how Jeannie had described Ashton Frelinghuysen's activities, Sherlock remembered as he stood in line for a coffee and scrubbed wearily at his face in a workman's gesture he'd learnt from John. Frelinghuysen's death would have created a vacuum, one Moriarty surely would not have allowed to continue; all Sherlock had to do to pick up the thread was see who had stepped into the dead man's shoes.
He staked out the yard of the largest secondary school in Jeannie's patch and settled into making himself inconspicuous by acting like the directionless idiots he'd been surrounded by throughout his own schooldays and time at university. He tugged at the drawstrings of his sweatshirt's hood and tapped his foot as if listening to some popular drivel on his earbuds while his mind kept precise time, counting down the minutes until the final bell would ring and the predators would come out to seek prey.
A shadow passed over him briefly three minutes later and he squinted up to see a familiar figure in front of him, facing the same direction he was. What the bloody hell was Moriarty doing with Victor Trevor?
Victor hadn't aged appreciably, was still as boyishly handsome and slim as he'd been back in their Cambridge days, and his presence here meant that he hadn't grown out of his profession of supplying the young and stupid – Sherlock classed his first-year self among their number, having realised only after that year that synthesising his own was the far better course of action – with drugs for any and all occasions. Sherlock looked up at Victor for any clues that he'd expanded his business, but it was clear that he was still operating as a solo entity. Victor was strictly small potatoes, which begged the question of why Moriarty was even bothering. Could Moran's incarceration have done that much damage to Moriarty's organisation that he had to stoop to these tuppenny contractors? Where was the vaunted strength of numbers promised by Moriarty's dazzling arrogance?
Sherlock lingered just long enough to confirm that Victor hadn't rewritten his entire nature and fathered one of the children pouring out of the school in a steady, enthusiastic stream. With the buzz of so many voices surrounding him, he slipped away in case Victor should prove more observant than Moran, getting on the Tube and sprawling across two seats, hood pulled forward to throw his face into menacing shadow. When he emerged at St. Pancras, he headed straight for the library and some peace and quiet, determined to find all he could about the scope of Moriarty's sinister organisation.
His tired eyes were burning, dry and itchy from too long in front of a monitor, and he sighed into his paper cup of coffee. What he needed now was someone with in-depth knowledge of how money could be manipulated, all the channels both legal and shadowed that it could flow through; he needed Harry, who'd been working since her drinking days for the largest private fund in Europe. Of course, contacting her was out of the question, given that she and John were now part of each other's lives again, to the extent that Sherlock had sat on her sofa half a dozen times for tea and dinner and other gatherings without names but still plenty of food. She would have heard about his "death."
The barista who'd taken over as the blond man's shift ended had a pronounced Italian accent, and Sherlock felt inspiration ripple through him, exhausted as he was. Doug Maberley would know how to read the information Sherlock had uncovered, if his brain hadn't rotted from years of lolling indolently on Mediterranean beaches. He smiled triumphantly at the idea; it must have been one of his more unpleasant smiles, because the barista took an involuntary step back as she saw it. Having a plan in mind always made him feel better, even when he did have to pay for his own coffee and cake.
He missed John's coffee, the aroma of it wafting through the flat on late mornings when neither of them had anything pressing calling them out of the building or out of their pyjamas. He contented himself with another cup of the substandard brew the café offered and set up a disposable hotmail account with the username threegables, knowing the name of the ridiculously posh Maberley home would at the very least catch Doug's eye and convince him that the email was not simply a scam.
As he typed the message with his findings, he tried to concentrate on the dry financial facts, but other observations kept pushing their way to the forefront of his brain. He had heard for himself the different voices Moriarty could put on: the soft stutter of dim Jim, good with computers but not so confident when it came to pulling, and the strident triumph of Moriarty as he gleefully shed each layer of disguise to stand before his archenemy, burning to be told how clever he was for all that he'd done. Sherlock had heard Irish in the mad wanderings of Moriarty's accent, shining through his words even as the notes of each sentence slid like they were being played on a cheap carnival pennywhistle. Not Dublin or Galway, surely; it was too musical a lilt for the bustle of urban life. There might be some remote little village, green as anything and dotted with fluffy white sheep, where Jim had taken his first steps.
But Moriarty had derived too much evident pleasure from his acts of ventriloquy, his dummies rigged up in explosives; he would not drop his last mask and reveal his true voice until he was completely assured that Sherlock would never be able to count that voice as a clue. The melodic cadence of his proclamations at the pool, therefore, was another false trail. There was no village drenched in blood from Moriarty's formative years, no trail back to a hamlet that Sherlock could lose months trying to follow. False clues and whispers were Moriarty's stock in trade, but his actions were shouts: he had been so young when he killed Carl Powers, and that had been in the city.
Moriarty was a child of London, then, and all the evidence Sherlock had found for Maberley to corroborate seemed to indicate that Moriarty had never expanded past its borders to become the international terror he claimed to be. But London was Sherlock's to safeguard and to keep, and he was more than capable of dismantling the organisation of one menace, however intelligent and full of potential it might be.
He would exterminate Moriarty, and then he would be able to go home.
The man had been garrotted with a length of wire enfolded in a crimson silk scarf, the scarf tied in a jaunty bow around his neck as he'd bled out. His pockets had been very thoroughly rummaged through by his killer, who had torn a hole in the lining of one in his impatience. Sherlock had seen the flash of red out of the corner of his eye as he'd paced the streets toward the neon lights of a Chinese restaurant, and put all thoughts of seaweed soup out of his mind once he registered the sight of the body.
The man was fit and bulky with muscles trapped underneath his skin-tight shirt and trousers; his murderer had had excellent balance and superior coordination and stood six feet two in his shoes.
Red silk did not ring any bells in Sherlock's brain. The red, of course, was to disguise the blood, but garrotting had fallen from favour long since, so what was its significance here? He squatted by the body's feet, ignoring a brief flash of dizziness, and peered up its length. There. A tiny swirl of darkness that was neither a shadow nor a crust of dried blood. His forceps were in the pocket of his coat, stashed away and inaccessible, so he dug into his laptop bag and pulled out his locker key. Gently, feeling the slight pops as the fabric peeled free of tacky skin covered in drying blood, he used the key to pull the scarf away from the skin.
The man had a tattoo on his neck and Sherlock smirked as he let the fabric fall back into place, recognising the symbol instantly. So the dead man had been part of Donnelly's gang, the one granted its own wall in Gregson's office; in their heyday, they'd ruled the south side of London with an iron fist, but that had been before Moriarty had made a move to establish himself as the kingpin of all London crime. And at that he'd been bloody successful, even if his grander ambitions had failed to pan out.
Sherlock stood back up, stumbling and falling from exhaustion, landing heavily on the pavement. Thick denim protected his knees but the heels of his hands were badly scraped. He had to think. The dead man was part of a gang, which meant that his flat was not suitable for squatting. Sleeping rough would not allow him to rest, not when he had to safeguard his laptop; what he really needed was a safe space and a pill that would grant him six hours of dreamless sleep. Failing that, a hot meal and a quick shower might do.
He trudged down the road until he found a cheap-looking café. He couldn't catch a flavour or aroma from the steaming cup set down in front of him, so he abandoned his plan of eating and simply swallowed cup after cup of the stuff to keep himself warm and awake. By his third cup, the waitress had decided not to bother to keep an eye out in case he beckoned for fancy cakes or a sarnie, and he remembered to check the threegables account.
Sitting in the inbox was a reply from Doug Maberley.
Mycroft, you sod, get off your arse every now and again to do your own bloody research. Though why should you, when chumps like me will do it for you? You're dead right about these accounts – shell companies and private money and all that, but none of it touching any of Britain's borders. All domestic, all London-based even, I should say. But the numbers are big enough that setting up any flows outside the metropolis would be the work of a minute. Any idea what this chap's source is? Must be rock solid if he can pump all his profits right back in, as he's doing, though of course he won't be able to keep it up much longer, not at this rate.
If you're ever tired of London rain, come and stay here for a month or two – you must have years of leave accrued by now, and Isadora would be charmed to play hostess.
It should not have surprised him that Maberley believed his correspondent to be Mycroft; they had been in the same Oxford class, though Mycroft had been the younger. Maberley might have a gift for financial matters, but he could hardly be expected to examine the finer details of style and organisation of thought as represented by a single email after years of silence and distinguish Mycroft's handiwork from Sherlock's.
It should not have surprised him, but it did, most unpleasantly. The reminder that in all things – in the supreme matter, the workings of his mind – he was Mycroft's follower, that Mycroft had trained him to see patterns, to organise his own thoughts according to certain principles, to assimilate knowledge rapidly and expertly, even to keep or delete information, made him choke for a moment on grief and anger. He could not start afresh now, and anyway, there was a nasty satisfaction in knowing that Mycroft might never call him "brother" again but he could also never erase the mark he had made on Sherlock, or his ultimate responsibility for the ways Sherlock chose to influence the world. Mycroft could wash his hands all he liked, but he'd still have to answer for what he'd done sooner or later.
Maberley's response confirmed that London itself set the boundaries of Moriarty's business, so Sherlock set out for Barts, determined to shadow Molly and track down those minions of Moriarty's who still clung to her. He'd go round the front in case the Dominion House entrance was still heavily guarded by Lestrade's people and then make his way back; with his laptop, he could pass as a colleague of Jim's, another flunky in IT. He turned the corner and stood stock-still.
If Moriarty had stood in front of him at that moment, waving mockingly at him, he would not have been more shocked. There, through the plate-glass window, he could see John and Mycroft sitting together at a restaurant far outside John's pocket. Though perhaps not anymore, not if he really had taken the job Mycroft had arranged for him, something to do with a trauma centre, possibly even the justly famous one that bore the Barts name. That would explain their location, though not why they were meeting at all. The menu in John's hand shook, possibly because of the waitress's fumbling for it; John clamped his hand around his thigh too quickly for Sherlock to observe whether it trembled, though the grip he had on his leg was likely enough of a giveaway.
John's face was terribly drawn, more than could be accounted for by coming off a long shift at the centre, enough for even the happiness of his time with Anna not to have made a dent. Sherlock could hardly blame him for being less than pleased with Mycroft's company. Not for the first time, he marvelled at how generous John had always been – his time, his attention, everything was present wherever he chose to be; Mycroft had the weight of all of that history and focus on him, and it was clear from John's steady gaze that he'd not forgotten their last conversation in the living room of 221B.
Sherlock felt a bump from behind and recollected that he was standing like a statue in the middle of the pavement. Sooner or later John's eye would be drawn to the pocket of stillness in the midst of all the bustle, and Mycroft might even bestir himself to turn and see what was going on. He put one foot in front of the other, looking for a place where he could be out of the way and yet still keep John in view. The high stone steps of a church three doors down were ideal, and hearing the sounds of the cleaners inside, amplified by the soaring space, reminded him that there was a possibility he could hear John's voice again.
Setting his laptop on his knees, he tuned in to the frequency of Moriarty's bug and heard Mycroft ordering for himself, apparently still keeping up that pointless diet. Sherlock had his answer, then; Moriarty had bugged John and not the flat – had he done both, he would have had to contend with interference too frequent to be acceptable. Where could the bug be? Not in John's shoes, as he had too many pairs of trainers and boots and worn brogues. Not in John's belt, as he didn't always wear one even when he left the flat. John lifted a hand to run it through his hair and Sherlock saw it then: John's wristwatch, shining square face outlined in gold and kept in place with a leather strap. Somewhere in that watch Moriarty had concealed a bug. He cursed himself for not realising sooner what the loose plate at the back of the watch meant; he had noticed it weeks ago.
"How have you been, John?" Mycroft asked, wielding his knife and fork with precision.
"Same as you, I imagine," John said after a pause.
"I see you've been writing," Mycroft tried again, and Sherlock strained his eyes to see what Mycroft might have observed – a writing callus, inky fingertips, a papercut. "But not on your blog. Case notes for your patients?"
John looked up with that unwavering gaze under level brows that had always made Sherlock feel justly chastened, and Mycroft fidgeted, just for a moment. "I've been making lists. Ways to avenge him. Things he said he wanted to do. Reasons to keep going." John didn't seem to want or expect an answer to that, digging into his salad like he hadn't just admitted to contemplating murder and suicide; that reasonable voice, Sherlock realised, let him get away with so much. "What about you, then? I haven't seen the cameras swivel to follow me in days; I think I'm starting to miss the attention."
"John, I –" Mycroft hesitated. John met his gaze and nodded, and Mycroft's posture relaxed infinitesimally. "I've turned my attention outward; there's nothing for me to keep an eye on in London these days."
"Sherlock needed all the minders he could get –" John started, before Mycroft drew a ragged breath. "Sorry, I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have said his name –"
Sherlock could feel the scrape of air in the back of his own throat, echoing Mycroft's choked gasp, and he wanted more than anything to see his brother's face, to deduce for himself what John was reluctant to voice. It didn't seem possible that Mycroft could be so hurt by his death, not when he had hissed his fury out at him the last time they'd spoken. "You don't look well," John continued quietly. "Would you allow me to –"
The waitress cut him off, stepping between them with a pitcher to refill their water glasses.
"I am fine, thank you," Mycroft said before John could pick up the thread of the conversation. "I've simply moved from domestic work to international."
"So it's a promotion, then?" John asked, and Sherlock wondered how he managed to convey both disbelief and a desire to trust with his tone.
"Of a sort," Mycroft said, and turned his attention to his plate once more.
Following John was an even better plan that shadowing Molly, Sherlock told himself, watching light and shadow chase each other across John's lined face; if Mycroft's cameras were no longer watching out for him, then John was acutely vulnerable when not barricaded inside 221B. Just as John was putting his key in the lock, he clapped a hand to his pocket and pulled out a buzzing mobile.
"Hello?" he said. The bug in his watch caused static to fill the air, and John grimaced. "Clara, sorry, give me two seconds to call you back from the landline. I forgot this bloody thing won't let me speak these days, just text." Sherlock paced outside, earbud still plugged into the laptop zipped inside its case, while John raced up the stairs and entered their flat.
John dialled the phone just as he typed, with two fingers and his tongue poking out of his mouth, Sherlock remembered, warmth spreading through him from the memory. He could hear the moment the call connected. "John?" Clara's pleasing alto voice came through clearly.
"Yeah, it's me," John said. "What's up? How are you and Harry?"
"We're fine. Had a busy day, just thought it would be nice to hear your voice at the end of it."
Sherlock could hear John's smile through his next words. "You're a right charmer," he said. "Dangerous, very dangerous. What're you buttering me up for? You want to meet Anna that badly?"
Sherlock had not known that Clara was even aware of Anna's existence except as the surgeon who had once worked on John; John was moving far more quickly with Anna than he had with Sarah.
"Is it that serious?" Clara asked. "Meet-the-family serious?"
"Are you and Harry plotting?" John asked, sounding relaxed and amused.
"Yes," Clara admitted. "We were busy today cleaning out the spare bedroom."
"Oh, Clara, not this again," John said, frustration bleeding through his voice, and he got up and started pacing as well.
"Please, we're worried about you, and we want you here," Clara said at the same time. She took a deep breath and continued. "You said no funeral for him, and we went along with that. But we liked him too, and as difficult as he was, he would never have wanted you to give up on everything like this."
"I'm not giving up, I just can't – leaving here would be giving up, can't you see that?" John's voice grew firmer. "Darling, I can't. This is where I live."
Sherlock could hear the sounds too quiet for Clara to pick up on – John walking through the flat in his socks, John pausing once, John laying his palm against the strings of Sherlock's violin, the muted vibration of them like the buzz of a bee against his skin.
Sherlock missed that violin, the ache in him growing as he remembered looking at John down the violin's length, lazy dust motes floating into f-holes between their matched gazes. He thought of the basic form of each, instrument and man, and their infinite varieties, how easily the body of either could be shattered, fractured, damaged beyond repair. John should go and leave 221B behind, but he would dig in his heels instead and mourn for the man who was deceiving him.
Sherlock tore the earbuds out and walked until he was ready to drop. He looked around, registering his location for the first time in hours, and found himself in front of the site where the pool had been.
Irregular hours were no excuse, Sherlock thought grimly, and neither was overwork; Gregson should definitely have known that the cramped flat next to his had never found a buyer because it was not much more than a shell for which dozens of people paid the building's owner, simply so they could claim to have an address in the proper postal code. He picked the lock and surveyed the tiny, dim space: no pests, but no amenities either above running water and electricity. But he would have access to Gregson's flat and files and computer, and he had certainly kipped in worse places for far longer stretches of time; there was a sense of momentum building inside him, and he let himself believe that this would all be over soon.
He slept, finally, exhaustion precluding the need for any chemical aid, and woke to find his eyes less gritty than before. He washed quickly and waited for the sounds of Gregson leaving for work before he let himself into the DI's flat. Another time, it might have amused him to note the hairbrush in front of the large bedroom mirror, holding more hair than Gregson had on his head, or the dreary organisation of Gregson's collection of self-important leather-bound classics. This time, he smiled in simple satisfaction at the proof that Gregson was as unimaginative as ever, a clear sign that his password would be simple to crack. When he sat down in front of his computer, working out the password took fewer than thirty seconds.
A library's worth of case files, classified by status, date, type, crime, and investigating officer appeared before him. Even skimming through to determine which files were relevant would be the work of several days.
He turned to the murder files first; Moriarty had shown no compunction in killing off people either individually or in groups, and there was no reason to believe the stakes were ever any lower where he was concerned. The first three open cases he pulled up all clearly had the same perpetrator – why had no one at the Met made the connection? It was obvious from the physical evidence that the killer had been trained as a sniper; even though his kill shots were made from a variety of distances from point-blank to a hundred yards away, he consistently aimed for and hit the spot where the brain stem met the spine. John had told him once that the snipers he'd known called that spot "the apricot," presumably seeing a likeness between traumatised brain matter and fruit ripe enough to burst. This sniper shot left-handed and had suffered from scoliosis as a child.
The fourth open murder case, however, quashed Sherlock's budding enthusiasm; the victim was the sniper who had been in Moriarty's employ.
Photographs of several more murder victims offered incontrovertible proof that they had perpetrated other crimes that bulked up the Met's files. So Moran's mutterings had been informed, not just ignorant complaints, and in-fighting was a constant threat within Moriarty's network. As a way to assure that Moriarty only had the best working for him, it was effective. But there was a price for that efficacy; the organisation was, it was becoming clear, more emaciated than aggressively lean. Once again, armed with mounting evidence, Sherlock considered the idea that Moran had been Moriarty's most valued lieutenant and best link to the underlings he'd been reading about.
He pulled up Moran's file next, open still because the trial was weeks away, and noted that Moran had refused all visitors. Doubtless the man thought he was keeping Moriarty from being implicated and had no idea that he was actually killing the organisation by removing its one reliable point of two-way contact.
All of which meant that Moriarty was now more dangerous than ever. Instead of sitting atop a network buzzing with industry, turning profits at a staggering rate, and contemplating a bright future, he was crashing down from dizzying heights, losing manpower, and thinking only of Sherlock, destroyed too soon and indirectly – and John, still under his surveillance and unarmed.
After all the internecine warfare, there were only two free men whom Sherlock deemed able to think and plan on a level that Moriarty appreciated. If Moriarty were to make a move, he would surely turn to one of these two members of his organisation to carry out his orders.
Fred Underhill was meticulous and painstaking in keeping a low profile. Had Sherlock not read his name in several seemingly unconnected case files – always mentioned only as a witness properly willing to speak to the officer in charge – he would have had no reason to suspect him of anything. Underhill appeared to earn his living as a night watchman at a bank, but there was a car he kept in a private garage that a guard's salary could never have covered. Sherlock followed him for one complete day, noting that the man had excellent hand-eye coordination and balanced his six-two frame with a predator's instincts.
That profile, fitting the murderer of the gang member, made him wary, and watching from a distance was insufficient. He let himself into Underhill's scrupulously clean flat and searched for links back to Moriarty. A second red silk scarf gleamed in a drawer, but no clues about the next victim were anywhere Sherlock could see. There was no computer in the flat, just minimal electronics, so all contact with Moriarty must be coded or on a private phone – chargers for two different brands of mobile were plugged into the outlet next to the bed. Sherlock backtracked to pick up the digital camera he had noticed in a lockbox on the top shelf of the wardrobe and scrolled through the images. There, on the bright, tiny screen, he saw John: walking to work, kissing Anna on the front steps, waiting for the bus that would take him to Harry and Clara's flat.
He opened the drawer again and considered the red silk scarf once more. This time, he recognised it as the instrument Underhill had prepared for John's death. No shining metal garrotte was yet embedded in its folds, but as soon as Moriarty gave the word, John's life would be counted in minutes instead of years. The efficiency of the Donnelly thug's murder confirmed Underhill's skill; there was only one thing Sherlock could do.
He pulled the silk out of its drawer and wrapped the edges around his hands, flexing and tautening the shining length between his fists to get a feel for its give. He inserted the bright strip of metal and tested the weapon again. Then he settled down to wait.
After eight hours on his feet at his shift, Underhill still moved with enviable grace, but his reflexes were just a touch slower than he needed. Sherlock took full advantage, striking with speed he hadn't known he could still command, wrapping the fabric round Underhill's throat before the man could get a hand up. Sherlock pulled, his hands fighting to increase the space between them, as Underhill thrashed and clawed at his neck. Blood poured and still they struggled, until Underhill abruptly ceased, dead at last.
Sherlock shuddered and let go. The scarf was embedded deep in Underhill's neck, but the ends he'd held fluttered free. He cut them off and burnt them in the sink, the smell of the smoke soothing enough to keep his gorge from rising. Breathing deeply, he shut his eyes and tried not to think of himself as being one death closer to going home.
He retreated back to the flat in Gregson's building, intending only to wash and sleep, but found he couldn't close his eyes without wanting to scream aloud. How had John borne this metamorphosis, this knowledge that he was a killer, that his own hands had taken such a momentous, irreversible action?
John. That was all he needed to comfort him in this hellish early morning. John.
Why had he never allowed himself to drop his guard entirely for John? John wouldn't have presumed to abuse his power, even if he had understood that he was laying siege to Sherlock's defences just by existing, by being so vibrant and responsive and alive. But Sherlock had cravenly acted like John was a treat to be rationed, so he'd kept his eyes closed while prostrate on the sofa, only feeling the slight breeze John stirred up as he walked by, and he'd only allowed himself the briefest of glances at John's reflection, shining back from a beaker or Mrs. Hudson's silver coffeepot, watching as a tiny, ghostly John scratched idly at his belly or rubbed at his sleepy eyes. Why had he not let himself bask in John, extending all of his senses out to see what merry havoc John could, all unthinkingly, wreak? An experiment in friendship, one without any damaging consequences, had been his for the making.
He cursed himself extravagantly as he put the earbuds in and settled down to listen to John going about his morning routine, slower than he'd been when Sherlock had been there, but steady, familiar, as good as a lullaby.
Cole Mathews was more slippery than Underhill, as befit a man who lived off his girlfriend and had no set job. He had been a "person of interest" in a number of crimes ranging from larceny and assault to rape and murder, and had been hauled in by the police on several occasions, always managing to conjure up airtight alibis. Sherlock, following him, could not make out what Mathews was doing as he wandered round the city, dressed impeccably, sharp eyes tracking everything. After an appallingly long time, Sherlock realised that Mathews was looking for him, that Moriarty must have deduced his involvement in Underhill's death.
Mathews' relentless gaze probed every shadow near Underhill's flat and garage, catching on any fair-skinned man, lingering longer on any who was alone. Satisfied that no one Moriarty wanted was hanging around there, Mathews widened his search area, and Sherlock decided it would be better to dictate the time and place of their meeting rather than be caught unawares. He could hear a clock chiming midnight, the bells sounding like a spur to action, and made his presence known before Mathews could return to the heart of the city proper.
When he stepped from the shadows of the tiny train station and faced his opponent, Sherlock saw that Mathews had sharp pale eyes, so striking that he would never have been able to do what Underhill had done and blend into the background of so many crime scenes. But then, Sherlock doubted whether Underhill would have been able to do what Mathews did and turn up new clients for Moriarty's "consulting criminal" business, charming them into believing that all of their problems would be solved with an email to Dear Jim.
"Is there a bonus in it for you if you bring me to him?" Sherlock asked, watching that handsome face sag with surprise. "Did you think the boss was going mad, always listening to the bug he'd planted and suddenly insisting that I'd survived that pesky blast?"
Mathews had started to laugh. "I'm going to rip you limb from limb. All I need to bring back to him is your head."
"You didn't answer my question," Sherlock tutted, unable to resist the glee rising up inside him, the knowledge that if he could just get rid of Mathews, Moriarty would be his to take in single combat.
"Your roots are showing," Mathews said, still laughing, and lunged for him.
The reflection in a puddle of beer ringed with broken glass had betrayed the shine of Mathews' knife in time for Sherlock to twist against the blow, seize Mathews' arm, and force the knife to fall to the ground. Mathews snarled and delivered a vicious elbow to Sherlock's face, and there was a tooth on the ground, next to the knife, and a most interesting pattern of blood on the grimy pavement.
Sherlock felt no pain, just straightened his spine inexorably and moved to engage Mathews again, striking at kneecaps, groin, and nose in quick succession. Mathews went down under the blows, striking wildly, one lucky shot catching Sherlock in the celiac plexus. He recovered in time to keep Mathews on the ground with a foot on his neck, recalling the last time he'd had one of Moriarty's tools under his heel, when the name was new to him and he'd had clean hands and John, decisive and upright, who declared allegiance to him with a single shot.
"That little doctor of yours," Mathews choked out. "Moriarty has special plans for him."
Blood was still filling Sherlock's mouth, and he swallowed it and ground his foot harder against the fragile neck underneath it. "When?" was all he got out before he was hauled off Mathews by insistent hands, the constable letting go of him to clap hands on Mathews. Their struggle must have been caught by the cameras outside the station.
Even bound in handcuffs, Mathews was smiling at him, smiling because he knew what Moriarty was planning now that Underhill was gone, and Sherlock had to get away. "He had a knife," he whispered, pitching forward, squeezing Mathews between his body and the constable's.
"We saw it, sir," the constable assured him, shifting to balance their combined weight more easily. "We'll have to take you both in." Sherlock let the blood pooling in his mouth escape between his lips. "Don't faint, sir," and Sherlock took the suggestion, sliding to the ground in an effective approximation of a dead faint.
Mathews took the opportunity to kick at his prone form, but Sherlock had braced for that, and it merely hastened the desired result, the constable pulling Mathews away even as he called for backup on his radio. The instant they were out of sight and out of earshot, Sherlock was up, running away from the station, cameras be damned.
He ran until he hit a spot not covered by cameras and powered up the laptop with shaking hands. The earbuds only gave him the familiar sounds of John drinking tea, but the background noise didn't sound like their flat. A female voice called out a hello to John, and Sherlock realised that John was covering a late shift at work, gulping down a hasty cup of tea. Sherlock sagged against the wall, the brick biting into his back and catching at strands of his hair; John was safe at work for a few hours more, and Sherlock could walk there and follow him home, guarding him while working out how best to draw Moriarty out.
"Good . . . morning, Dr. Watson," another voice said, precise and sibilant.
"Ah, good morning, Dr. Reichen," John answered, enough of a pause that Sherlock knew he'd checked his watch to see that it was in fact after midnight. "Just finishing your shift?"
"I was looking for you. I'm hoping you could favour me with a consultation," Reichen said; "Dr. Krishnan has agreed to cover the last hour of your shift."
"She's overworked already," John said, sounding concerned and even a little wary. Sherlock pushed himself away from the wall, spine taut with tension as he tried to work out what was wrong with Reichen's request. "I don't want to leave her scrambling."
"Please, John," Reichen tried. "I can't lose this patient." John must have nodded his assent, as Reichen continued, "He's in a bed in the other building, just this way."
John's fatigue manifested itself in his limp, but Reichen took no notice, unwilling to slow down to accommodate him. Sherlock could hear the whoosh and hiss of sets of automated doors opening and closing, and pictured John in the narrow courtyard between the centre's main and auxiliary buildings. "Damn, I've left my keys on the break-room table," Reichen said, an obvious lie, for there had been no sound of keys jangling, but before John could point that out, Reichen had gone back inside the main building, the doors whirring shut behind him.
"O . . . kay," John muttered to himself, and Sherlock could hear his soft whistle, knowing John would give Reichen five minutes – the length of time it took him to get through that Queen song he particularly enjoyed – to rejoin him before he went back inside to finish his shift, conscientious doctor that he was.
John paced as he whistled, stepping from the pavement to grass to gravel, the crunch of the gravel underfoot providing percussion. The melody was approaching its crescendo when sardonic applause interrupted its flow. "Really, dear heart," that hateful voice drawled, "I had no idea pets could boast so many skills."
"Moriarty," John breathed, like the meeting was a dream come true, and Sherlock, paralysed by the knowledge that he couldn't get across London in time to pull them apart, could only hold his breath and listen.
"You're very good, you know," Moriarty said casually, and Sherlock strained to hear John. But John had gone silent, as he always did while deciding on a course of action. "Honestly, you had me riveted with your whirlwind of activity: crying into your pillow over Sherlock, your adventures in cookery, the hours on the phone with your sister and her delectable wife." The sneer in Moriarty's tone was reason enough for wanting to smash his head into a wall, and Sherlock snarled as his hands curled into fists. "But when the fuck were you going to GET TO THE BLOODY POINT?"
"That point being?" John asked, calmly, from which Sherlock could deduce nothing; John got perversely calm when his life was on the line, but it could equally mean that there were no snipers' lights dancing on his chest and it really was down to him and Moriarty, just as John had hoped.
"That point being here, Johnny," Moriarty said, recovering his poise. "When were you planning to tell the world – those dim DIs, that lovely little doctor who's been ministering to your pain – that your part in all of this was just to lie while Sherlock did the dirty work?"
"Sherlock's dead," John said steadily, though his eyes must have gone rounder and dimmer, having never learnt the control Sherlock had schooled himself in.
"Oh really, pet, just let the pretence go. You've distracted me – bravo."
"If he's alive, why isn't he here now?" John asked, still so unwavering. "You were all he cared about; surely if he had escaped the explosion you'd set, he would be following you, tracking you, trying to finish you off."
"Can I help it if I'm always several steps ahead?" Moriarty asked, and Sherlock heard the click of a gun being cocked.
"Are you now, though?" John asked quietly, and then exploded into a frenzy of movement, the gravel beneath his feet sending out a series of sharp reports. Something heavy crashed to the ground – Moriarty's gun, an unaccustomed weight in a clumsy hand. A scream burst out of Moriarty's throat, then ceased with sickening abruptness. There was an overwhelming noise that threatened to burst Sherlock's eardrums – the sound, he realised, of Moriarty's lifeless body slapping the gravel.
Finally, he could hear John again, breathing quickly and shallowly, then swallowing heavily. John must have bent to retrieve the gun, his tread making the gravel crunch. The computerised beeps of John's mobile filled the next few seconds as John stepped onto the grass, and then John said through the static, "Mycroft? I need your help, please."
A wave of white was coming up before Sherlock's eyes, and he could hear no more.
Sherlock walked numbly through the streets of London, feet finding their own way back to Baker Street. That John, the unassuming, the friendly, the overlooked, had been the one to snuff out Moriarty's misbegotten life with his bare hands didn't fit with the narrative Sherlock had carefully crafted, and now he was floundering. He couldn't claim to have stayed away, to have deceived John, in order to keep John safe – Moriarty had been lurking in the shadows all the while, listening for each drop of John's lifeblood as it spilled heedlessly to the ground. He couldn't declare that he had been protecting John – John was the soldier, the shield transformed at the decisive moment into the sword.
Sherlock had no idea what to say to John. And he was already on the steps of 221.
He fumbled briefly for his key before managing to unlock the door. He climbed the seventeen steps, expecting at each one a sudden revelation or a speech neatly laid out in his brain, but he reached the top no wiser than he'd been at the bottom.
The shower was running when he entered the flat, unfamiliarly clean and bright and airy, and he relaxed at the sound, thinking that he might have a few more minutes to piece something together. That faint hope died when John walked out of the kitchen.
John took one look at him and dropped the mug he was holding, ceramic shards and hot tea reproducing a sunburst pattern on the floor. "God!" John burst out.
John was wearing a red long-sleeved shirt Sherlock had never seen before, something soft and clingy against which the white bandages on his knuckles stood out starkly. His face had sharpened, hollows beneath his cheekbones and jaw where there had been none before. Sherlock couldn't get his voice to work. "I –" It didn't help that he still didn't know what to say. "I – I'm so sorry."
The shower turned off, the sudden silence amplifying John's voice unbearably. "Not something I would have expected Sherlock to say," John said as if musing on the ways Sherlock failed to measure up, entirely too calm. "Unless the hair-dye's gone to your head."
Could it really be that easy, that John would allow a feeble joke to cover the multitude of Sherlock's sins? No; there was still mistrust in John's eyes. Sherlock was going to have to work to regain John's squandered fidelity. "'The two met at a Self-Help Institute lecture on the Evils of the Decimal System, and immediately recognized their affinity,'" he quoted from John's beloved Edward Gorey book.
John's eyes had not lost the trick of crinkling in a delightful fashion when he was truly amused. "Also unexpected, but rather good," John said dryly.
"Mycroft's bug was in the spine of your Gorey anthology," Sherlock said, too abruptly, and the moment was lost.
"You owe him a hell of an apology," John said, fury flaring in his eyes. That the fury was on Mycroft's behalf and not his own gave Sherlock a sudden, dizzying hope – that he was secure in John's affection, that the choice John had made to love him was fundamentally unshaken despite what he'd done. Hope had not figured largely in his life before, and he felt his throat closing up with fear that it was false; he had never before wanted anything other than the truth.
It was a further unpleasant shock to realise that it mattered, as much as it mattered with John, if Mycroft forgave him.
"John –" he said, then stopped. When he tried again, there was another voice on top of his, shaping the same syllable. He tore his gaze away from John's familiar, alien face and saw Anna descending the stairs that led up to John's bedroom. She had used John's soap but had not washed her hair, bundled away in a hasty-looking low knot.
"Running late – oh!" she said, catching sight of him. "Sorry, got to run. John, see you tonight at mine." She brushed a kiss across John's mouth on her way out of the door, neatly sidestepping the cooling mess on the floor but turning back to shoot John a quizzical look once it registered. John merely nodded reassuringly and kissed her again. Sherlock could see her adjusting her handbag's strap as she jogged down the stairs, and then John closed the door behind her.
John rested his forehead against the door, allowing Sherlock to see no more than his back, the vulnerable nape of his neck. Sherlock looked dumbly at John, willing him to have understood everything he couldn't say by the time he turned around.
"Right," John said, squaring his shoulders and retreating to the kitchen before reappearing briefly to toss the house phone at him. When he emerged again, he had a sponge and a dustpan-and-brush set in his hands. "Call your brother," John instructed, nodding at the phone in Sherlock's hands. "I'll still be here when you're done."
That was more of a promise than Sherlock deserved, but he pushed his luck anyway, unable to help himself, reaching out almost blindly. John dropped what he was carrying to hold him close, and Sherlock nestled in closer, tucking his face against John's warm throat, John's pulse steady against his cold cheek. John spoke then, his voice a lovely rumble Sherlock felt all throughout his body. "Welcome home," John said.