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Illustrious

The unforgiving dull metal barbs grip his flesh cruelly, piercing the skin in places and loosing ruby droplets that run down his wrists and fall to the concrete floor. In the dim lighting of the room, they appear black.

There is more damage than is accounted for by his weight and the tension of the wire binding him to the wall, though none of the wounds are of any real medical concern. His immobilization has been well planned, and special care has been taken to keep him hale and relatively undamaged. The additional injury to his skin (as minor as it is) is the result of his own struggles. This too was planned.

John’s rasping breaths echo in the small, empty chamber. His face, from what Sherlock can see of it, is swollen and bloody. John’s eyes are closed: still unconscious from the last session that had been inflicted upon him. Upon them, really, though the damage to Sherlock is not so visible.

The door to the chamber opens slowly in a sickening demonstration of action seemingly triggered by thought (think of the Devil, and the Devil shall appear). Sherlock refuses to look up and keeps his eyes on his flatmate (breath steady and even; pale, though not to a degree that indicates incipient shock), but their captor steps casually into his field of vision. He follows Sherlock’s line of sight to its conclusion and smiles.

“Well then,” Baron Gruner says with false bonhomie. “Are we all ready to play nicely together?”

**

Earlier:

“Sherlock, what have I told you about leaving caustic chemicals mixed in with your clothes?” John asks in exasperation as he returns to the flat.

“That you don’t care what becomes of my shirts when they’re separate from yours, but that you want any corrosive substances removed before laundry day, since on that occasion, our respective wardrobes intermingle,” Sherlock replies absently, peering at his laptop. He doesn’t bother to look up. The tread of John’s feet on the stairs (some pounds heavier due to the weight of the laundry) had made it obvious who was approaching.

His flatmate’s steps move up behind him as Sherlock continues, injecting a small note of peevishness into his voice while he clicks the mouse with focused intent. “I can’t believe you expect me to actually remember such an arbitrary rule.”

John’s voice is warm and wry. “I expect it as much as I expect you to remember any rule,” he says, standing over Sherlock’s shoulder.

A pause. Then, “Is that a porn site?”

“No. It’s a high-end escort company,” Sherlock corrects. “Not illegal in and of itself, but very probably a front for other, less legal activities.” John’s voice had been neither shocked nor particularly disapproving, which is a pleasant surprise. Sherlock lifts his knees into his chest and spins on the low wooden bench he’d pulled up to the table to face his flatmate.

Despite the fact that the mutual unspoken attraction between them is no longer unspoken (and has not been for three weeks, four days, and thirteen hours), Sherlock’s breath still attempts to catch very slightly in his throat at the sight of John. He suppresses it of course. The gross sentimentalism of it all isn’t to be borne. And John is holding a box of Persil under one arm and a basket of freshly laundered shirts and trousers under the other. To descend into rank romanticism at such a scene is ludicrous.

“And why are you looking at an escort company?” John asks patiently. His eyes are on the laptop rather than on Sherlock, so he thankfully doesn’t see the expression the moment brings to Sherlock’s face.

“We have a case,” Sherlock answers with affected gravitas, flexing his fingers energetically as he refocuses his attention on the interesting puzzle that has been brought to his attention.

“A case involving escorts?”

Obviously. “Obviously.”

John doesn’t take offense. “Well, are you going to tell me what it’s about?” he asks, setting his burdens down on the couch to be later sorted and returned to their respective wardrobes. John had settled upon the system a couple of weeks previously in the hope that Sherlock would feel compelled to put the clothing away properly before lying down to think. Sherlock doesn’t know why his flatmate continues to bother, given that the detective is perfectly content to rest on top of the garments rather than move them. And has, for the same two week period.

“We’ve been hired by a Mr James Damery, who has retained us with a substantial fee on behalf of a client who wishes to remain anonymous. Though judging from the man’s bearing and dress, I would venture that our ‘client’ is the Royal Navy.”

“What, all of it?” John teases. “How substantial a fee? Mrs Hudson is insisting we pay for the windows’ replacement this month.”

“Very substantial,” Sherlock assures him. “It goes without being said that the payment will be buying our silence as well. It’s clear that Mr Damery doesn’t want this getting out.”

“And what is this exactly?”

“Espionage,” Sherlock says, his relish for the challenge obvious in his tone.

John’s brow furrows. “Isn’t that something you should bring to your brother’s attention?”

Given the relatively recent transformation of their relationship, Sherlock knows he shouldn’t be surprised that John is not yet well-versed in the Holmes brothers’ interactions. To drive the salient rules of their exchanges home—minimal contact, restricted as often as possible to those instances where Mycroft has been forced to seek him out and a handful of holidays—he makes his look to John particularly eloquent.

John holds his hands up in surrender and smiles ruefully. “Alright then. No Mycroft.”

Sherlock stares him down a moment longer to be sure his position on the matter is absolutely clear before gesturing to his laptop screen.

“Mr Damery wanted us to look into a young woman named Violet De Merville. She is one of the women listed on this site. A newly promoted Commander hired her services on multiple occasions during the last month, and he is now reporting that certain sensitive files in his keeping may have been disturbed.”

“Disturbed?”

“Examined and perhaps copied.”

“And he believes she’s the one responsible? During one of their...engagements?”

“That does appear to be the case.”

John’s face wrinkles slightly in sympathy. “Poor fellow. What an embarrassing thing to admit to.”

Sherlock is less benevolent. “Given the nature of his position in the Navy, he should have never been in such a situation at all. Or at the very least, he should have ensured his computer security protocols were sufficient.”

“Have you found out anything about her?” John asks, gesturing again to the laptop and the array of elegantly (if scantily) clad women visible on the screen.

“Age twenty-two. Born in Bristol to a single mother. Moved to London at the age of fourteen to finish secondary school before disappearing into France where I’ve been unable to find a record for her. She returned to London two years ago as an employee on this site, ‘Specialist Connections,’” Sherlock recites immediately.

“And she’s not the only woman on the site with a similar gap in records during a visit to the Continent,” he continues. “Twelve of the seventeen escorts listed also have time unaccounted for.”

“You think it’s a ring of, what, escorts turned to spying?”

“I’m sure of it,” Sherlock replies with conviction. “It’s too great a coincidence otherwise.”

John isn’t entirely convinced. “But how exactly would that even work? I mean, how would they guarantee the right type of client? Did they put a disclaimer on their website stating that only those with important state secrets need call?”

“It wouldn’t be so difficult for the mastermind behind the scheme to advertise the service in those select venues and agencies that would be most likely to have sensitive materials: the armed forces, clearly, government, Fortune 500 companies and the like.” Sherlock had worked through the idea hours ago, and he’s confident that he’s correct.

“’Mastermind’? You think there’s a single person behind it all then? A man behind the curtain?”

“I do,” Sherlock confirms. “Specialist Connections is owned by a shell corporation, which in turn is financed by a division in a separate corporation, which is financed by a privatized company, which is operated by a board—“

“You realize I lost you halfway through that sentence,” John interjects.

“—whose chair is a man named Adelbert Gruner,” Sherlock finishes.

Adelbert?”

“He’s known in criminal circles as ‘The Baron.’”

“It sounds like a bad Mafia film, but I can see why he’d take a nickname. What’s his story?”

“That’s something I’m hoping our guest can tell us.”

“Guest?”

“Shinwell Johnson. He’s an informant in my employ, and others’ as well, though so far he’s refused to work with the police in any capacity.”

John’s eyes dart around the flat as though he expects Sherlock to have secreted the informant in one of the kitchen cabinets. “Is he here already?”

Sherlock hears the tread on the steps leading up to the flat (two sets) and rises to his feet a moment before there’s a knock on their door. “No. He’s here now.”

Shinwell is a tall man—though not as tall as Sherlock—with colourless hair and an open and somewhat dim expression. Sherlock imagines it must help him immensely in his work as a professional informant.

Behind Shinwell is a petite feminine figure in a smart, well-tailored coat. She has a bulky knit scarf wrapped several times about her face so that a pair of grey eyes is all that is visible. Given that it’s a balmy spring afternoon, the look is unusual.

“Hello, Holmes,” Shinwell says in his characteristic soothing monotone. “I didn’t realize you had company.” Shinwell nods to John, still standing somewhat awkwardly by the table in that stance that Sherlock knows means he’s fighting his military-ingrained impulse to stand ramrod straight. Sherlock had told John (truthfully) that he makes the clients uneasy when he looks as though he’s about to leap to attention, and he’s been working on it ever since. But relaxing his stance to something more casual without looking like he’s at war with his own body is proving a bit of a challenge.

“This is my colleague, Dr John Watson,” Sherlock makes the introduction before looking pointedly to the woman still hovering in their open doorway.

“This is Kitty,” Shinwell says at his obvious hint, encouraging the woman into the flat with a wave of his hand before shutting the door. “Kitty Winter. She has some information you’ll be wanting.” John moves to take her coat, but she shies away from him and perches herself on the sofa next to the clean laundry.

“She gets a separate fee,” Shinwell continues after a pause.

“Of course,” Sherlock says blandly. “Though the amount will depend upon the value of the information.” John, who is watching Ms Winter in some concern, gives Sherlock a rather scandalized glance.

“It’s standard practice,” Sherlock assures him. His flatmate just narrows his eyes at him, and Sherlock turns back to Shinwell.

“What have you found for me?” he asks the informant.

“I found her,” Shinwell says, pointing toward Ms Winter. “Kitty Winter. Previously an employee on Specialist Connections and a former acquaintance of Baron Gruner.”

Sherlock is surprised, though he doesn’t show it. This is far better than he’d hoped.

“I see,” he says, turning to the woman seated on his sofa. “And does your former acquaintance with Mr Gruner have anything to do with that scarf you’ve wound about your face?”

Rather than respond verbally, the woman reaches for the end of the scarf. Her hand moves slowly as she begins to unwind it from her neck and face, but she picks up speed as she goes: a train gathering momentum. When she reaches the end, she flings the knitwear to the side with a gesture that is almost defiant.

Her face is scarred, as Sherlock had expected. What he had not expected is the degree to which her visage—clearly one of great beauty once upon a time—has been savaged. Where he had predicted a single scar or perhaps two (women are vain creatures after all, and for many, it would take no more to prompt them to conceal themselves), the lower half of her face has instead been seemingly burned away.

“Fire, was it?” Sherlock asks as his eyes trace the damage. Sherlock sees John stiffen out of the corner of his eye at the question, but Ms Winter doesn’t appear to take offense. Her lips twist sardonically, and she raises her eyes to meet his gaze.

“Blowtorch,” she explains simply.

“Was it Gruner?”

She nods slowly, as though pondering her answer while giving it, but when she speaks, it is with a great deal of conviction and no small amount of bitterness.

“I was one of his girls,” she says. Her accent morphs between working class London and something more instructed. “And his lover for a time, not that it’s unusual to be both. He prefers to pick one of the girls in the company to share his bed. He feels like he owns us. And there’s some degree of protection for whoever’s in favour. Or at least, I thought so at the time.”

She falls silent, teeth clenched, and Sherlock can see where the plastic surgeon had rebuilt some of the structure of her jaw. The damage must have been extensive. In the silence, John—better acquainted to playing the host than Sherlock and clearly trying to put her at ease—offers tea, but she declines.

“What did you do in your role with Specialist Connections?” Sherlock asks.

“It depended on the client. For some, we did just what it says on the site and provided company. But for others, the important ones, our job was to make copies of any documents or files we could gain access to and bring them to Gruner. He’d figure out who might want the information, and then he’d sell it.”

“The escort service is a front for an espionage ring,” Sherlock confirms aloud for John’s edification. It’s not phrased as a question, but Ms Winter nods anyway.

“What happened?”

“I got greedy. I kept one of the files that I’d copied during a job. Thanks to my...position with Gruner, I knew the contacts to sell the information to, but when I went to the meet, Gruner was there waiting for me.”

“Why didn’t he kill you?” Sherlock asks bluntly, and she flinches very slightly.

“As a message to the other girls,” she responds, voice tired. “A very effective message. I can guarantee you won’t get any of the others to talk to you.”

Sherlock is fairly certain he could, given enough time and resources, but this is hardly the place to argue about it. “What can you tell us about Gruner? Do you know where he keeps his collection of copied files?” he asks instead.

“In his office on his computer,” she replies immediately. “Everything that comes in on paper is scanned and then destroyed. His records are all digital.”

“Very forward thinking of him,” John mutters. He’s been frowning thunderously since Ms Winter began her story.

“He’s very arrogant,” Ms Winter continues. “He thinks that no one in power knows about his business, and anyone who does know is too afraid to come after him directly. There’s security at the office of course. And passwords to get to the files themselves, but nothing more than that. At least, not when I was part of the operation.”

Sherlock files this away. “What hours does he frequent his office?”

“Typical business hours, mostly, though he’ll occasionally go in on weekends.”

“Does he have any hobbies that you’re aware of?”

Ms Winter blinks at the seeming non sequitur, but she answers readily enough. “He collects art. Paintings mainly, and some pottery. He was just beginning a collection of Ming vases when I…left.”

“Excellent,” Sherlock says as he whirls and begins to pace, mind already crafting a plan for infiltration. “Is there anything else you can tell me?” Well used to his habits, Shinwell steps casually out of the way of his strides.

Ms Winter hesitates in responding long enough that Sherlock stops and turns to face her again.

“He’s a bad man, Mr Holmes,” she says, worrying at her lower lip slightly and wrapping her arms about her torso in an unconscious gesture of self-comfort. “He’s crazy, I think. He likes to hurt people, and he’ll hurt you the worst way he can if you give him reason to. And then he’ll take a photo of it and add it to his album.”

“Album?” The question is from John, and it echoes the one in Sherlock’s mind.

“Of the people he’s hurt,” Ms Winter elaborates.

“Do you mean to say that Mr Gruner keeps an album with photographs of his victims?” Sherlock asks. The conceit of maintaining such evidence is astounding.

“He does,” she confirms, fixing him with eyes that have turned deadly serious. “And you don’t ever want to end up in it.”

**

After Shinwell and Ms Winter have departed, John again broaches the subject of calling Mycroft.

“I don’t see why you can’t just tell him about this. At the very least, he’d know where to send the police if something goes wrong.”

“Nothing is going to go wrong,” Sherlock insists. “And involving Mycroft will only complicate matters.”

“Are you afraid he’ll take the case from you? Steal the credit for solving it?”

“Not at all,” Sherlock lies. “If anything, Mycroft already knows about Gruner. It’s possible he’s even one of Gruner’s clients.”

John looks aghast, and Sherlock hurries to clarify. “To buy secrets, John. Mycroft lives on secrets. He prefers them to food, water, and air. He told me so himself.”

His flatmate’s face is uncertain. “I still don’t like this. It’s risky, and Baron Gruner doesn’t sound like a man you want to go interfering with.”

“We’ll be visiting his office in broad daylight on a weekday,” Sherlock says a touch impatiently. He’s trying to be reassuring, but John is being particularly silly about something that’s really very minor. “We’ll make certain CCTV catches us going in. He’d have to be a fool to try anything.”

John gives him a resolute look. “I want your word that if we get there and something seems off, we’ll retreat to come up with another plan.”

“Yes, yes, you have my word,” Sherlock says, waving his hand to illustrate how frivolous his friend’s concern is. “But John, nothing is going to go wrong.”

**

Nothing goes wrong.

They make entry to the office as they had discussed: playing the role of a preeminent Chinese pottery expert (“Dr. Hill Barton, at your service”) and his assistant.

Gruner is welcoming and polite, and when Sherlock slips from the vault where the more precious pieces are stored to return to the office, John plays his role perfectly and keeps the Baron engrossed in conversation long enough for Sherlock to hack his way into the files and download a copy of his own. He erases the file of interest to Mr Damery before once again locking the system.

They leave soon after, an external hard drive with copies of Gruner’s files secure and secreted away on Sherlock’s person. No one attempts to stop them.

It is almost a let-down.

**

Back at the flat, John appears equally stymied by the lack of resistance.

“Well that was-, that was easy,” he says, rubbing the back of his head.

“I did say nothing was going to go wrong,” Sherlock points out. John rolls his eyes in response, but he smiles as he does so.

“Dinner?” his flatmate asks. “There’s still that new place down the road we haven’t tried yet.”

Over the last three weeks, he and John have fallen into the habit of going out whenever they finish a case. Sherlock still has the horrifying urge to blush when he even thinks the word ‘date’ (and he is certain it’s the same for John), so instead their outings are always, always ‘dinner.’

“It’s your turn to pay,” Sherlock reminds his flatmate as he grabs his coat.

“If I took your word for it, it would always be my turn to pay,” John returns good-naturedly as he follows Sherlock out the door onto the pavement. “I’ve started keeping track. As it happens, it is my turn to pay, but don’t think you’ll be able to scam me in the future.”

“Keeping track?” Sherlock parrots as they walk. “Are you honestly writing down who pays for our meals? Do you have a journal somewhere that you devote to tracking our meal transactions?”

“I keep track on my phone,” John says, smiling slightly before pausing significantly. “Philistine.”

John’s smile is something he has yet to tire of, and Sherlock is distracted by analysing exactly how much lighter he feels when he sees it.

He thinks it’s because of his distraction that he doesn’t notice the big black car until it’s too late. Suddenly there’s a bag over his head and John’s gasp some few feet to his left. Then a needle in his shoulder, and legs that will no longer support him. He falls into darkness.

**

Sherlock is woken by a flash of light.

Awareness returns slowly—his analysis of his situation muddled as the drug slowly leaves his system—and it takes him some moments to open his eyes. His body aches, with pain particularly focused in his wrists.

Gruner stands before him, gently shaking a Polaroid photo in the air as he watches Sherlock with an entirely blank expression.

He’s a man of average height and build with atypically wide shoulders that he emphasizes with pounds of muscle indicative of long hours of physical training. His hair is auburn and well cut, and his pockmarked cheeks are clean shaven. He’s still wearing the suit he had been clad in that afternoon: expensive, sleek lines rendered in a deep charcoal.

As Sherlock watches through bleary eyes, Gruner slides the Polaroid into a sturdy, leather-bound album held in the crook of his elbow.

“As a boy, I never thought much of collectors,” Gruner says conversationally. “Obsessed with stamps or figurines or whatnot. I certainly never imagined I’d become one. Though I’ll bet you never imagined you’d be where you are either. And yet,” he gestures around him expansively, “here we are.”

‘Here’ is a rectangular room with walls of cinder block and floors of concrete. There’s an industrial drain in the centre of the floor, and the air feels dank and still.

In the course of shifting to better take in his surroundings, Sherlock realizes—with a degree of horror that he attempts to swallow—that he is trussed up with barbed wire and bound spread-eagle to a mesh fence bolted to the back wall of the chamber. He ruthlessly suppresses the automatic urge to pull against his restraints.

“Where is my friend?” Sherlock asks through cracked lips. His mouth is dry, and he swallows in an attempt to prompt the flow of saliva.

Gruner cocks his head. “That’s your first thought? Not ‘where am I’ or ‘what do you want with me’? Not ‘oh God, please don’t hurt me.’ How interesting.”

The Baron turns to the door and raps on it sharply. It opens immediately, and two men—large, well-muscled, obviously paid protection—step inside. They’re carrying John’s limp form between them.

Something of Sherlock’s reaction must have shown on his face, because Gruner assures him of John’s status. “He’s alive,” the Baron says, voice devoid of inflection to make it evident that it makes no difference to him. “Just unconscious for the moment. We expected you to be out for a while longer as well, but it seems as though you have a higher tolerance for narcotics than your friend.”

The guards drop John to the ground in the middle of the chamber. They don’t do it as harshly as they could have, but nor are they gentle. Sherlock tries to keep himself from reacting, but the drugs make him sluggish, and he feels himself wince very slightly as John’s head impacts with the concrete floor. Gruner notices.

“You’re rather famous, Mr Holmes. The world’s only consulting detective, yes? I’m flattered that I came to your attention. Though I believe you’ll find it wasn’t the best of career moves to accept the investigation.”

Walking slowly and precisely, Gruner steps over to John and snaps a Polaroid of his face. He slides it into the album next to Sherlock’s photo.

“From everything I’ve learned about you, I know that you’re an intelligent man,” Gruner continues. “I don’t think I need to explain exactly what’s going to happen to you and your friend here if you don’t return my property to me immediately.” He taps the photo album significantly.

“I don’t have it with me,” Sherlock answers evenly, knowing better than to dissemble.

“Oh, I’m aware of that,” Gruner replies, just as calmly. “We searched you quite thoroughly. The question is, where did you put it? My men were unable to track your movements after you left my office this evening, and I’d rather not cause a commotion by searching the wrong location. They picked you back up when you left your flat, but you could have gone to any number of destinations in the meantime.”

They had in fact taken a small detour to pop over to John’s surgery to pick up a folder he had forgotten. It is blind luck they had lost a tail that they didn’t know they had, but Sherlock grabs hold of the idea fiercely.

“We could have,” Sherlock agrees. “You’ll never find it without my explicit directions. Let my friend go, and I’ll consider telling you where I hid it.”

Gruner raises an eyebrow. “Tell me where it is, and I’ll let you both go.”

Sherlock scoffs in disbelief. “The moment you have your files, you’ll order our execution.”

“I could promise you that that won’t happen.”

“You’ll excuse me for not accepting the word of a man with a predilection for bondage by barbed wire.”

Gruner smiles. It is not a nice expression.

“I was hoping you’d say that,” the Baron says casually. He walks back toward the door with his men flanking him, but pauses meaningfully near John’s prone form.

Sherlock tenses, but Gruner continues past John without incident.

“I’ll give you a short time to think it over,” Gruner says before shutting the door.

Sherlock waits and counts out three minutes in his head, listening all the while. There’s no sound on the other side of the door, but he cannot tell if this is because the men have truly left, or because the door is extremely well designed.

John is crinkling his nose and frowning deeply, as he always does when he’s about to wake. It’s an expression Sherlock has come to recognize (and treasure) over the last few weeks.

“John?” Sherlock calls. John twitches, and his eyelashes flutter. Sherlock’s mind kicks into high gear, and by the time John is stirring, the odds of their survival are as well calculated as Sherlock can make them.

“Keep your eyes closed, John,” Sherlock orders harshly, attempting to appeal to John’s military history. “Nod your head if you’re awake, but keep your eyes closed.”

A steady litany of words, and John comes awake, as slowly and sluggishly as Sherlock had.

John pushes up onto his knees (eyes still closed, Sherlock is relieved to note), and Sherlock suppresses the sheer relief that wants to slip into his tone. Given what he’s trying to accomplish here, it will serve no purpose.

“Trust me, and keep your eyes closed. I’ve had more experience with narcotics than you, so I think our captors miscalculated the speed with which I’d recover. Which means I’ve had time to assess our situation, and John, this is very important: you must do exactly as I say if we’re to have any chance of escape. Can you stand up? Keeping your eyes closed at all times.”

Sherlock pitches his voice into a monotone in an attempt to keep John focused and moving, but the underlying purpose of his unending stream of words is to keep his friend somewhat off balance as well.

He needs to get John out of this room.

“I’ve had time to evaluate the situation—time which you won’t have—and you’ll only slow us down if you try to make your own assessment, so you need to do precisely as I tell you. Turn to your left, about a quarter turn, and then move forward.”

John, infuriating creature that he is, stands and turns to the right to face Sherlock before opening his eyes.

When he sees Sherlock’s circumstances, he blanches.

“I told you, the only possible way we can escape is if you trust my judgment,” Sherlock insists, knowing at the sight of John’s expression that this is already a lost battle. “You can’t conceivably free me, so you must escape! Before they come back.”

Rather than running, John moves slowly toward Sherlock, his limp more pronounced than it has been in weeks.

“John,” Sherlock says, low and desperate, “you can’t save me. Please! Save yourself. You can come back for me. Please.”

The ‘please’ is a signal of how very much he means what he’s saying, but John disregards him. Not that Sherlock is surprised: John has never valued his own safety and well-being as much as he should. It’s a component of his personality that appeals to Sherlock, when it’s not driving him completely mad.

Sherlock’s mind is buzzing: the tension his body is unable to physically express translating into an internal hum that by all rights should be audible. It fills his ears, rising to an almost unbearable crescendo as the seconds tick by far too quickly.

John is still working on the first of his wrists when Gruner and his men return, and then there is only violence and blows and screams (not all from John) and at last blessed silence.

**

Now:

“I don’t want to hurt him anymore, you know,” Gruner says to Sherlock in a gentle tone. Like a mother soothing an infant. The effect is chilling. “I don’t want to hurt either of you. But you took something that belongs to me. Something very important. And I want it back.”

“Take my friend to a hospital and I’ll tell you where the files are,” Sherlock says. His throat is raw, and his voice comes out in a hoarse whisper. Despite that, he injects as much firm defiance as he is able to muster into his words.

Gruner smiles indulgently, already shaking his head before he begins to answer. “I’m afraid that’s out of the question.” To Sherlock’s revulsion, Gruner reaches out a hand—pale and soft if not particularly aesthetic—and tucks a lock of Sherlock’s hair behind his ear. He resists the impulse to flinch.

“He’s here to ensure your good behaviour,” the Baron continues sedately. “I really couldn’t release him and expect you to be truthful. I’ve been a business man far too long to expect honesty without some type of insurance.” The same hand drifts to Sherlock’s collar—dirty with sweat and blood—and absently straightens it.

“Human beings are animals, Mr Holmes,” Gruner says in a low voice, as though imparting some great confidence.

“Some of them are,” Sherlock replies, using direct eye contact to make the allusion obvious.

Sherlock is not surprised when Gruner backhands him in one quick, ruthless movement. It sets his ears to ringing, but he’s grateful for the evidence that the man is not as calm and collected as he presents himself.

“I can see we’re going to need to step up the negotiations,” the Baron sighs. He motions to his guards—those same two who have been at his side since this began—and one steps out of the room.

He returns a moment later with a blowtorch.

Sherlock steels himself (the threat of severe burns is not unexpected, after all), but Gruner steps away from him and moves instead toward John where he lies curled up on the floor.

Sherlock’s blood freezes.

“You don’t need to do that,” he tells Gruner, his voice a murmur to keep himself from screaming. The guard lights the blowtorch and sets the flame to run low and hot: a small blue point of incredible heat.

“Oh, but I believe I do,” Gruner replies. The Baron’s eyes are fixed on John, and his face...His face is gleeful.

Something inside of Sherlock snaps.

“I’ll tell you where the files are,” he says.

Gruner ignores him, instead motioning to the second guard to lift John’s body into a sitting position.

“I said I’ll tell you,” Sherlock says again. Louder. Without realizing it, he’s begun to pull against his restraints, and the blood runs down his arms once again.

Rather than acknowledge him, Gruner takes the blowtorch and stoops, taking care to keep the trousers of his suit from dragging the ground.

“I’ll tell you! I’ll tell you! Just stop!”

The flame moves closer to John’s face, and his friend flinches, instinctively trying to move away from the heat even while unconscious. Sherlock realizes what Gruner is waiting for.

“Please, stop! Don’t hurt him. Please! I’ll tell you what you want to know.” It isn’t difficult to channel desperation and fear into his tone. At the moment, it’s the only thing he is feeling.

At these words, Gruner sits back on his heels and casually extinguishes the flame. “There now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Courtesy is such a virtue.”

Sherlock’s pulse is hammering in his throat, and his breaths are coming too quickly, but he ferociously orders himself to calm down. Panicking won’t get him and John to safety.

“Well?” the Baron asks him expectantly. “Where shall I tell my driver to take me?”

“First, untie me,” Sherlock says. His voice breaks, the abuse on his throat making itself known. He clears his throat before continuing. “Untie me so that I can check on him.”

Gruner just looks at him. “I can see no possible motivation for me to do so.”

“Your men spent the last hour beating my friend,” Sherlock says frigidly. There’s been a cold ball of rage in his stomach since the moment they first laid a finger on John, and he focuses on it now to keep his mind clear. “He may even now be dying of internal injuries. The only way you are getting your files back is if he survives. Let me down so that I can check his condition. Now.”

The Baron does not like having his authority usurped, but after a moment of consideration he nods to his men. A pair of wire cutters make quick work of the barbed wire, and in another instant Sherlock is kneeling by John, hand reaching automatically to his friend’s face to sooth the distress visible there. Aware of the audience, he alters the movement at the last moment to make it appear he is checking John’s brow for fever (present if moderate). Not that the ruse truly matters: Gruner may not be aware of exactly what John is to Sherlock, but he is astute enough to have deduced that the the most effective way to harm Sherlock is to injure John instead.

John is stirring very slightly, and Sherlock makes a show of checking his ribs (broken), using the motion to tap a Morse code message to him to lie still. It is unlikely John is aware enough to interpret it, but the repetitive motion helps calm Sherlock as well. He takes a deep breath and looks up at their captor.

“Where are my files?” Gruner asks again, his voice now impatient. It is clear he is already tiring of this game he has created, and Sherlock knows he needs to play his part carefully.

“They’re in a flat,” Sherlock says slowly, then gives the address. “In the study there’s a safe behind a singularly hideous Karoly Ferenczy. The keypad on the safe is a dummy. The real one is in the top left hand drawer of the desk. The code is ‘Karoly’ on an alpha numeric keypad translated into numbers: 527659.”

Gruner is watching him with an unreadable look. “I’m telling you the truth,” Sherlock adds quietly.

“We shall see,” the Baron says. “I will go open this safe you have described to me. If my files are not there, I will be very put out. Then I will return to you. And your friend will die.” Taking no more notice of Sherlock or John, he and his men walk purposefully out the door, and the lock clicks loudly into place as they close it behind them.

This time, Sherlock doesn’t wait before trying to wake John.

“John,” he says softly, gently shaking his shoulder. He had forced himself to watch the entire ‘session,’ not looking away even when he thought he couldn’t possibly bear a single moment more, and he knows that John’s shoulder is relatively free from injury.

“John,” he says again. John stirs slightly and groans, but his eyes stay closed.

Resigning himself to the wait, Sherlock sits down next to his friend and pulls John back to his chest, propping him up with his knees and wrapping his arms around the injured man. He can do nothing for John’s injuries at the moment, but the closeness should at least provide warmth and reassurance. For the both of them.

Sherlock drops his forehead gently onto the back of John’s neck and closes his eyes, breathing deeply. It is a comfort to know they won’t have to wait here long. He expects Gruner will proceed to the address he’d given him with all possible haste. He won’t find the hard drive in the safe, of course, seeing as it’s still resting on the bookshelf of the Baker Street flat alongside Sherlock’s skull and one of John’s framed family photographs.

Gruner will no doubt be enraged at being misled, but by then it won’t matter.

After all, Sherlock expects Mycroft will be extremely irritated at finding a crime lord attempting to break into his personal safe.

**

Gruner apparently holds out against Mycroft’s questioning longer than most. Almost two hours pass before armed agents dressed in tasteful, nondescript suits push through the door. Sherlock and John are bundled into an ambulance and taken to the nearest hospital.

John is admitted. Sherlock has the minor cuts on his limbs cleaned and a tetanus shot and is then released. When he arrives at John’s room, Mycroft is there waiting for him.

“He has broken ribs, a sprained wrist, and any number of contusions,” his brother says, nodding toward John who is lying with closed eyes and even breaths on the sole bed in the room. “But he’ll be fine.”

Sherlock has already helped himself to John’s medical chart, but he nods anyway.

“Gruner?” he asks his brother. Mycroft doesn’t take the most obvious interpretation of the question.

“Some of his information and contacts were profitable for the government, and it was decided that it would be best to leave him in place while intermittently feeding him false information to pass along to some select enemies. Obviously, in light of current circumstances, that policy has changed.” Mycroft pauses for a moment, eyes lingering on the bandages on Sherlock’s wrists. “Mr Gruner will be dealt with.”

“There’s a woman named Kitty Winter who will be interested in reparations,” Sherlock says. The serious, almost solemn look Mycroft is giving him is making him nervous. “I’ll pass along her contact information to you.”

“Do,” Mycroft replies as he moves to leave. The order implicit in his words would ordinarily make Sherlock bristle, but at the moment, he’s too drained to cultivate any ire.

Mycroft pauses one last time as he passes Sherlock. “Do try to be more careful in the future. Stigmata doesn’t suit you.” Then he’s gone.

Sherlock settles himself in the chair at John’s bedside.

“You can stop pretending to be sleeping now,” Sherlock tells his friend and is rewarded with a slightly rueful blue eye cracking open to look at him.

“I thought you’d want a moment alone. Or at least somewhat alone,” John explains.

“He knew you were awake,” Sherlock tells him.

“He did not.”

“He probably thinks you’re afraid of him.”

“I’ve already made it quite clear to him that I’m not.”

Sherlock waits a moment. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” John assures him. “Two broken ribs and a sprained wrist. I won’t be down for long. Hopefully I’ll be back on my feet before you get yourself into too much trouble.”

Sherlock stares back at him solemnly, and John sobers.

“This wasn’t your fault,” John tells him gently.

“Yes it was,” Sherlock says. His throat is still raw—the scratchiness obscuring the sentiment that should be present in his tone—and he finds himself resenting it. He wants John to know exactly how much he regrets the part he’s played in this. “If I’d listened to you from the beginning and called Mycroft, you wouldn’t be lying there now.”

“But if you had called Mycroft, we would have been warned off, and Gruner would still be free.”

“It wasn’t worth it.”

“Yes it was,” John insists. “You saw what he did to that poor girl and who knows how many others. She deserves justice, and thanks to you, she’ll have a chance to get it.”

“Justice for Gruner’s victims wasn’t my motivation for not calling Mycroft,” Sherlock says, his bitterness entirely self-directed. “I wanted to solve the case myself. To have the glory. It was based entirely on egotistical reasons.”

John scoffs. “You’re hardly what I would call a glory hound. If I didn’t record your cases, you’d barely get any recognition at all. Or pay, since you seem happy to be entirely compensated with complex puzzles.”

“I wanted to one-up my brother.”

“And you did, in a way, since you took down Gruner. Though since he ended up rescuing us, I think we’ll have to call it a draw.”

“I put you us danger.”

“I knew you’d get us out of it,” John says simply, complete and utter confidence in Sherlock clear on his face. Sherlock has to look away.

“But what if I didn’t?”

John is silent for a minute as he takes a sip of ice water the nurse had provided. Then he looks Sherlock directly in the eye. “We were together, at least. I can think of worse things than ending up, or ending rather, in a situation like that. With a friend.”

Sherlock doesn’t move, but something inside of him relaxes at John’s words, leading to that warm, muddled state that John seems to fashion inside of him so easily. Not that he’d ever tell John that. “Get some sleep,” he says instead. “The pain medication is making you more idiotic than normal.”

John grins at him. “You too. The hospital seems to make you even more tetchy than usual.”

“I doubt this chair is comfortable enough for such a thing,” Sherlock grouses, shifting his lanky frame pointedly in the small plastic contraption.

John raises an eyebrow and pats the space beside him invitingly.

Sherlock feels himself warm very slightly and fiercely tells his cheeks to stop flushing in such an embarrassing way. “What if someone comes in?”

“They’ll think you’re taking advantage of a beleaguered, medicated trauma patient. We’ll probably never be able to come to this hospital again.” John shifts to one side of the bed.

“When you put it that way, how can I possibly refuse?” Sherlock replies. He climbs gingerly onto the bed, careful to keep his elbows and knees from colliding with his friend.

When they’re settled together, they fit in the space perfectly. And if neither of them sleeps particularly well, it’s in no way due to their proximity to each other.

Fin