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John grimaced as his phone chimed. Again. He lowered his newspaper and picked up the phone, fairly certain he knew what he'd see.

ANY PROGRESS? – MH

John risked a glance at Sherlock, who was seated at his desk, turning a small, wooden object over and over in his hands like a deranged squirrel, snarling.

Sighing, John texted an answer.

TOO DANGEROUS TO ASK. REQUEST ARMED ASSISTANCE. – JW

"If that is my idiot of a brother, kindly tell him that I have better things to do than waste time on a child's toy." Sherlock bent over the toy, prying it with desperate fingers and a truly frightening expression.

"Mmmmmm," John said diplomatically. Sherlock could make all the noise he liked; he did give a damn about the public interest, even if he'd rather be put to the rack than admit it. Living with him while he pretended not to give a damn was the challenge. He texted an addendum.

SITUATION DESPERATE. MAFEKING MUST BE RELIEVED. – JW

"Bloody absurd little…who transports stolen classified information in puzzle boxes? The whole point of the things is to tempt morons into opening them. They draw attention to themselves by appealing to the basest of human instincts. The thieves might just have well have put the chip in a cardboard box and painted "BRITISH STATE SECRETS DO NOT LOOK" on it in bright red lettering. DAMN! DAMN!" Sherlock pounded the little box against his desktop with no effect.

"Mmmmm," John said again. He enjoyed the challenge. Usually. It was fascinating. Everything about Sherlock was fascinating. He'd even begun to find Sherlock's habit of leaving body parts strewn about endearing, in a repulsive sort of way. His phone chimed.

DEADLINE FAST APPROACHING. PROGRESS IMPERATIVE. – MH

"Tell him to GO AWAY," Sherlock growled, casting his fiercest glare in John's direction.

That glare had never had much effect on John, apart from drawing his attention to a pair of what he'd always considered stunningly beautiful grey eyes; he gazed back at his friend mildly. "Would you like me to cut it open with my bone saw?"

"No, I would not! You could damage the chip." Sherlock returned his attention to the box.

"We could take it down to St. Bart's and x-ray it first."

"Ridiculous!"

John knew Sherlock's stone wall phase when he saw it. "Getting hungry yet?"

"No."

John rose, texting. "Keep me company, then?"

NATION DOOMED. GOING TO DINNER. – JW

Sherlock hesitated, then sighed. "All right. I need some air." He rose, snatching his coat from the back of his chair. "Did you tell Mycroft to burn in hell?"

"Absolutely." John pulled on his jacket and shoved his phone into his pocket.

Sherlock gave him a sharp look, shrugging into his coat. "Angelo's?"

"Fine." John watched Sherlock slip the puzzle box into his coat pocket with resignation. "I thought you wanted some air."

"And I'll have some on the way to Angelo's." Sherlock was already striding toward the door. "I thought you were hungry."

"Ravenous." The way the man walks. John firmly called his thoughts to heel and followed his friend down the stairs.

Sherlock yanked open the door. "Not a decent case in weeks. I'd suspect Mycroft of sabotaging every criminal enterprise in London if such a project wouldn't involve leaving his office."

"He knows how slow it's been." John locked the door behind them. "He probably thought that thing would amuse you."

Sherlock gave him a pitying look. "You consistently underestimate Mycroft's malevolence."

John grimaced and fell into step beside Sherlock. "He is your brother."

"Your point being?"

"He's concerned about you."

"What makes you say that?"

"He keeps an eye on you." John observed the CCTV camera on the corner pivoting toward them as they crossed the street. "He sends you cases to keep you occupied. And, just in case you've forgotten, he abducted me to demand my intentions."

Sherlock snorted. "He wanted you to spy on me. Undoubtedly to provide him with a prompt account of my inevitable psychotic break."

John clenched his fists inside his pockets. "He doesn't believe that."

Sherlock shot him a quick look. "You don't believe that," he corrected in a strangely gentle tone. "Thank you."

John hastily looked away. Sherlock's odd little half-smile always undermined his self-control in dangerous ways. "You shouldn't believe it either."

"I am cheerfully resigned to my eventual departure from reality."

"Was it Mycroft who convinced you of this rubbish?" For the life of him, John couldn't keep the edge out of his voice.

Sherlock gave him another sidelong glance. "Preparing to defend my honor again?"

Damn. Don't start him on that again. "Your honor doesn't need defending."

"Anderson still hides whenever you show up at a crime scene."

There was a quiet glee in Sherlock's voice that made John grin in spite of himself; he turned his head to look for imaginary traffic as they crossed the next street. "I told you that was just a misunderstanding."

"Oh, yes, you told me. I haven't heard the word "freak" out of any of that lot since you two misunderstood each other. One might be forgiven for conflating correlation and causation."

John shrugged, avoiding eye contact. "Maybe Lestrade had a word."

Sherlock surprised him with a chuckle. "Lestrade. Really, John. You can do better than that."

John kept his gaze focused on the door to Angelo's, now just a block away. "Nothing I could say would have any effect on Anderson."

"You underestimate yourself, as usual. You can be truly terrifying when required. John?"

"Yes?"

"Have you noticed that we're being followed?"

John didn't look behind him. "I'm assuming you mean by someone other than Mycroft."

"Mmmmm." Sherlock shot him a triumphant glance. "We have admirers. One behind and one across the street."

John closed the distance between them, his arm brushing Sherlock's. His hand closed around the handgun in his pocket.

"Relax," Sherlock murmured, his smile reappearing. "They're not closing in. Just observing."

"The box?"

"Only Mycroft knows we have the box."

"Unless he was careless."

"I'm shocked that you would suggest such a thing." Sherlock pulled open the door to the restaurant, his smile deepening. "After you."

John walked inside, scanning the faces of the diners. There weren't many; it was early yet and the place was half empty. Nothing seemed amiss. John's observations were cut short by Angelo, coming toward them with open arms.

"There they are! My favorite couple!"

John stifled a sigh.

Sherlock allowed himself to be hugged. "Our usual table, Angelo?"

"Yes, yes, of course, the window table! Where you had your first date. Such a romantic." Angelo led them to the table, beaming. John suppressed a smile. What a world Angelo must inhabit, if Sherlock Holmes was considered a romantic. "Another case, yes?"

Sherlock took his seat with an indulgent expression. "Tell me how you knew."

"You do not look hungry. Your boyfriend does. I notice these things. Ah, the candle!" Angelo disappeared, snapping his fingers at the waitress to alert her to the new customers.

John slid into his chair and stared out the window, looking for their admirers in the darkening street.

"The man across the street in the red scarf who's been tying his shoe for the past minute and a half," Sherlock said in a dry tone. "And the one in the hideous jumper and mismatched socks who is pacing past Angelo's door for the third time."

John nodded, managing not to tell Sherlock how bloody amazing he was. He watched the purple and green jumper pass by with considerable bemusement. "Not exactly trying to be unobtrusive, are they? I would have thought—"

"You don't correct him anymore," Sherlock said softly.

John glanced at him, startled. "Angelo?"

"Yes."

"No point."

"You don't mind?"

"I never minded. I'm just not your date, that's all."

Sherlock's eyebrows rose. "You took pains to introduce yourself to Sebastian as my colleague, as I recall."

John felt the heat rise to his face. It had been almost a year; he'd hoped Sherlock had forgotten. He should have known better. His hands twitched at the memory; even now, nothing would please him more than to wring that sorry bugger's neck. "I never said sorry for that, did I?"

"You never needed to."

"I didn't mean it the way it sounded. Something about him…unnerved me." That was true enough.

Sherlock frowned. "Sebastian? He's relatively harmless. Certainly not someone I'd have expected to unsettle you."

They were now in perilous territory. Sherlock was in an unusually communicative mood tonight. "I suppose he reminded me of someone I used to know. A small-minded sadistic bastard, to be honest, and—"

"And you wanted to avoid receiving any of his sadistic attentions?"

"I wanted to avoid you receiving any of his sadistic attentions. As it turns out, I didn't do very well."

"Oh. That's…" Sherlock seemed genuinely surprised. "You thought I'd be affected by anything Sebastian Wilkes said?"

The memory of Sherlock's expression during that conversation rose before John's mind's eye. Hell, yes, I did and I do. And I'll bloody well kick his arse if I get half a chance. "I didn't know you very well, did I?"

Angelo arrived with the candle, a bottle of wine and two glasses. "On the house, on the house." He winked at them and hurried off in the direction of the kitchen.

"Evidently not." Sherlock pulled a lighter from his pocket and lit the candle. "But I appreciate the thought."

John swallowed and looked away. Christ, Sherlock in candlelight. You wouldn't think the man could get any more damn beautiful. He scanned the street for the admirers, but he couldn't see them.

Sherlock poured the wine. "In the doorway across the street. The other one has gone round the corner; probably lurking at the kitchen door." He pulled the box from his coat pocket and examined it in the candlelight.

John leaned forward. "Sherlock, if they're interested in the box—"

"Then I've just confirmed that we have it." Sherlock murmured. "Thus guaranteeing us an introduction."

John managed not to groan aloud. The man was utterly brilliant, impossibly brave, and a bloody danger to himself when he'd been without a case for more than a few days. Add to that his compulsion to upstage his brother at every given opportunity, and John foresaw broken heads and uncomfortable questions at the Yard, both of which he could do without. John pulled his phone from his pocket.

"What are you doing?"

"Texting Mycroft."

"Absolutely not." Sherlock plucked the phone from John's hand. "We have nothing to tell him yet."

"We can tell him that we're being followed, and that his brother is taking his death wish for a walk again." John made a grab for the phone, but it disappeared into Sherlock's coat.

"Drink your wine." Sherlock lifted his glass, giving him that impossibly enigmatic smile again. "To the evening's entertainment."

John grimaced, touching his glass to Sherlock's. Well, Red Scarf and Hideous Jumper certainly didn't seem to be much of a threat. As long as they kept them in sight, he and Sherlock would probably emerge from Sherlock's latest little diversion unscathed. "Tell me you're armed."

"Of course." Sherlock took one sip of his wine and beckoned to the waitress. "You need to eat, John. Eating always improves your outlook."

***

Sherlock was occasionally surprised at the pleasure he found in watching John eat. Over the past few months, it had become something of a pastime, and conveyed an inexplicable sense of well-being. All was absurdly right with the world if John Watson was being fed properly.

"I'd prefer not to be arrested this time, Sherlock. Could we agree to that much, at least?" John lifted the last forkful of his lasagna toward his mouth. It hovered there tantalizingly as Sherlock's gaze drifted from John's lips to his throat. John had a fascinating throat.

"Hmmm?" Sherlock continued to turn the box over in his hands as he examined the jumper John was wearing. One could never be too aware of what John chose to wear on any given day. It offered valuable clues to his state of mind, and John's state of mind was a fairly reliable indicator of the quality of Sherlock's day. This was, of course, thus far a largely undocumented phenomenon and suffered from a paucity of verifiable facts regarding causation; but the correlation remained, and it demanded further study.

John assumed a pained expression. "Arrested, Sherlock. I'd prefer not to be arrested."

"Wouldn't we all? Finish your meal, John." Sherlock watched with satisfaction as the forkful of lasagna disappeared into John's mouth. "How was it?"

"Excellent, as always." John wiped his mouth with his napkin and took a quick sip of wine. "I don't suppose you'll let me text Mycroft now?"

"Absolutely not. Mycroft will have all the fun for himself. Honestly, John, look at him." Sherlock jerked his head in the direction of Red Scarf, now lounging in the doorway across the street, and staring at Sherlock and John as if determined to announce his presence to everyone in the restaurant. "It's a disgrace. A mockery of the fine art of surveillance. There's a story behind that sorry display."

"I'm sure there is," John replied in a dour tone, pulling out his wallet. "I just don't want to be strangled with that scarf or smothered by the abominable jumper."

Sherlock felt his mouth twitch. Even a mundane case was improved by John's presence. He dropped some cash on the table and rose, waving away the protest he saw in John's eyes. "You can feed me when the case is done."

"Don't think I'll forget."

Something in John's soft voice brought an unexpected heat to Sherlock's face; he turned quickly toward the kitchen. "Come on, then."

John made an exasperated sound as he followed Sherlock through the now-crowded dining room. "The alley? Must we?"

"Even these cretins won't make a move on the street." Sherlock pushed through the door into the loud chaos of the kitchen, waving to Angelo as he strode toward the back door.

"I've been meaning to speak to you about your masochistic tendencies, Sherlock."

John squeezed between a flambé and Sherlock to reach the door first, and Sherlock felt something quite unidentifiable twist in his chest. John Watson, once more into the breach. "John," he said quickly, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Slow down."

John shot him a wry look over his shoulder. "I'll have that jumper. I'll wear it at crime scenes." He opened the door.

Some instinct propelled Sherlock forward to drape his arm over John's shoulders, forcing John to stagger over the threshold. John's arm went about his waist. "You might have warned me," John muttered in Sherlock's ear as they lurched forward into the alley.

"Spontaneity adds to a performance," Sherlock whispered, sensing rather than seeing that they weren't alone.

"If you vomit on my shoes this time you're buying me a new pair." John's free hand pulled his weapon from his pocket. "Sherlock—"

They were hit low and hard, from two different directions, and Sherlock found himself on his back on the pavement with a man dressed entirely in black on top of him. Brown hair. Blue eyes. Thin lips. Nose slight out of joint. Teeth capped. Expensive cologne. Slight but athletic build. Faint scent of stagnant water and decomposition clinging to his clothes. Planting a foot on his attacker's stomach, he flipped the man over and scrambled to his feet, pulling his gun from his pocket and looking wildly about for John. He caught sight of him a few feet away, sending his opponent to the ground with a particularly impressive left hook.

He'd been an idiot. A complete moron. No red scarf. No hideous jumper. Just two men who very definitely knew their business. He'd been played for a fool. Raising his weapon, he swung back toward his attacker. He was brought to a sudden standstill by a knife at his throat. The man holding it smiled at him. "Drop the gun."

Sherlock smiled back. "Drop the knife."

His opponent grinned. "Not bad. I'm impressed, really. But—"

"Sherlock, you want I should call the police?"

Oh, good God, it was Angelo. Out of the corner of his eye, Sherlock caught sight of the man hovering uncertainly on his threshold, half of his kitchen staff behind him.

"Oh, yes, would you?" John snapped, dodging a lunge. "That would be so bloody helpful." Swinging to his left, he pistol-whipped his opponent with admirable enthusiasm, sending the man to the ground, where he lay semi-conscious and muttering.

Sherlock felt rather than saw the man before him twitch open his coat; a quick glance confirmed the profile of a Browning in the breast pocket. "Get back inside!" Sherlock shouted to Angelo. The knife at his throat gave him a shallow jab as Angelo slammed the door shut, and a hand seized his wrist, pressing with precision until his hand went numb. His gun rattled on the pavement. Impressive. Inconvenient, but impressive.

Turning toward Sherlock, John froze for a second, just a second; Sherlock could see a soldier's appraisal of the situation in his eyes and stance. John then brought his weapon to bear, drawing closer. "Stand away from him. Do it now." Sherlock noted with satisfaction that he had been proven correct; John could be thoroughly frightening when the situation demanded it.

Instead of complying, however, their friend with the knife spun Sherlock about and knocked him to his knees before he could take another breath. He then grabbed a fistful of Sherlock's hair and pulled his head back, exposing his throat. Sherlock could feel the length of the blade against his neck. Ah. Unexpected. Capped Teeth didn't frighten easily. A long history of exposure to violence, then.

"Drop the gun." The blade started to move, slow and shallow. Sherlock locked his gaze on John, trying to keep any trace of fear or pain from his face. If John thought for one moment he were really in danger, he might do something ridiculously brave. John Watson was, after all, a ridiculously brave man. Sherlock tried to shake his head minutely, but his attacker yanked his head further back.

"Stop it!" John snarled, still approaching. At this range, he would have no trouble evacuating Capped Teeth's cranium; the man might have been better off had he used Sherlock more effectively as a shield. "I will fire."

"Of course you will." Capped Teeth's voice was composed, even cool. "And you'll probably kill me; I know all about your proficiency. The question is, will you kill me before I slice his carotid open?" Interesting. The man was resting the entire success of his enterprise on his belief that John cared enough about the state of Sherlock's carotid artery to leave himself defenseless. Either he was an idiot operating under an unsupported assumption, or he had access to information not only about John's proficiency with firearms, but about his character. Again, an unexpected, and most definitely unwelcome, conclusion. The situation was far more dangerous than even a knife to the throat might indicate.

"Go," Sherlock rasped. There were worse ways to die. John, there are worse ways to die. Sherlock could see the man John had incapacitated struggling to rise, and knew that their advantage, such as it was, was almost over.

"This is the last time I'm asking," Capped Teeth said.

His mouth settling in a grim line, John lowered his weapon.

"No," Sherlock protested. The knife moved again, and Sherlock clenched his teeth.

"Toss it over here."

John tossed his weapon in their direction and raised his hands. "Fine. You can stop now."

"Knees."

"For the love of—" Sherlock choked back a cry as the knife dug a little deeper.

John dropped to his knees as if someone had knocked away his ability to stand. "Stop it. Just take what you want and go."

"Pete, stop mucking about and get the weapons."

John said nothing, his gaze locking with Sherlock's. The injured man pulled himself to his feet and staggered toward John. John set his jaw and didn't move as the man circled him, then lifted a booted foot and let fly with vicious kick to John's stomach. John doubled over onto his hands and knees, gasping.

Sherlock jerked forward involuntarily. "John—"

"Pete! The weapons."

Pete grimaced and complied, snatching up John's and Sherlock's guns as Sherlock cataloged every aspect of his appearance. Oh, yes, they'd be meeting again. Even the mud on those boots told Sherlock where to start looking. Sherlock stiffened as Pete sauntered back to John, pocketing Sherlock's gun, and placed the muzzle of John's against the back of John's head with visible satisfaction. Sherlock felt his hands twitch. He'd have this one squirming in the dock inside of twenty-four hours. Sherlock drew a shallow breath as the knife was removed from his throat. "He doesn't have what you want. Let him go."

"Why would I do that? Take off your coat."

Sherlock grimaced and complied. Mycroft would have a field day with this. Sherlock would never live it down. He'd be hearing snide allusions to this abysmal failure for decades. He would… Sherlock's gaze rested on John, still breathing hard on his hands and knees, and all thought of Mycroft faded. John had had doubts, and he hadn't listened. He should have known better. John's instincts were very, very good; Sherlock had come to depend on them more and more as time went by. He had been careless, and John had paid the price. He could hear the sound of rapidly approaching sirens, and for once found it welcome, however humiliating the aftermath of this debacle might be.

"What did you do to it?

Sherlock turned his head to see Capped Teeth toss his coat aside, turning the box over in his hands, pressing a section here, attempting to slide a section there, all with the precisely same results that Sherlock had experienced. "Nothing." Out of the corner of his eye, Sherlock saw John raise his head with a grim smile. Yes. At least your friend's stupidity won't endanger the nation, John.

"Tell me what you did to it!"

"What part of 'nothing' do you fail to understand? I couldn't open it either."

"It opened fine a week ago."

"Is that a confession?"

"It's a fake," Pete snapped.

"Not a fake," Capped Teeth muttered, running his fingers across the bottom of the box.

Sherlock suppressed any sign of satisfaction. So the gouges were identifying marks after all. He'd told Mycroft—

"Right. We're off, then." Sherlock heard the unmistakable sound of handcuffs being pulled from a pocket. "Get that one's jacket off and these on." The cuffs sailed through the air; Pete caught them neatly.

"You don't need him," Sherlock said sharply, watching as Pete stripped John of his jacket. "He doesn't know anything about—"

"Off where?" Pete demanded, as if Sherlock hadn't spoken. He yanked John's arms back and cuffed him. John set his shoulders, looking too much like a man going to his execution than Sherlock could tolerate.

"Did you hear what I said? Leave him—"

"Wherever we can get the job done." Despite his annoyance at being ignored, Sherlock felt an absurd sense of relief when Capped Teeth snapped the cuffs on his wrists and pulled him to his feet. For one surreal moment, he had thought they were taking John alone.

"Not back to that rat-hole of yours, mate. He told you not to improvise, Cullen, don't you list—"

"Shut up! Get him to the car."

Cullen.

Sherlock had heard that name recently. He'd heard that name…. His train of thought evaporated at the sight of John being dragged to his feet and further down the alley. "You don't need Dr. Watson," Sherlock repeated harshly. "In fact, you don't need either of us. Neither of us can open that box."

"You'd better hope that's not true." Cullen gave him a rough shove.

Peering ahead in the darkness, Sherlock saw Pete forcing John against the side of a parked cab. He unlocked the boot.

Oh, Lord, not another abduction in a car boot. It was beyond passé, it was dull. Or would be, if John wasn't being forced inside it none too gently by an oaf Sherlock would most definitely have in the dock in twenty-four – no, strike that – before bloody sunrise. Sherlock restrained a flinch as John's body thudded against the bottom of the boot. Oh, yes, he'd have them. Both of them. Sherlock noted the plate number. Undoubtedly stolen, but data was data.

"In you get." Cullen bent Sherlock over, then seized his legs, twisting Sherlock sideways, and shoved him into the boot. Sherlock fell face-down on top of John. So much for dignity. Fuck sunrise; he'd have them in the dock before midnight.

"Hello," John said, with a strained but undeniably impudent grin. Sherlock's throat went inexplicably tight. John Watson, once more into the breach.

The boot lid slammed shut with a slight concussion of air, leaving them in darkness. The engine started and the cab rolled slowly away from the approaching sirens. Sherlock slid off John to lie on his side.

"Tell me, John," Sherlock said unevenly. "Have you ever regretted meeting me?"

John actually chuckled. "I can't imagine why you'd ask me that."

"John—"

"No, really, and when we're having such a lovely evening, too."

"I have thoroughly bungled this business from the moment—"

"Even the gods descend from Olympus once in a while. Damn, your neck is still bleeding. Can you—"

"It's superficial. You should have fired."

"May I point out—"

"No, you may not," Sherlock said irritably, knowing full well what the idiot was about to say.

"That warning Angelo gave the artist formerly known as the Abominable Jumper the opportunity to disarm you?" John's voice was full of affection and teasing, the result, no doubt, of his persistent delusion that Sherlock Holmes was a better man than Sherlock knew himself to be.

"You had him."

"And he had you. You didn't see what I did."

"What was that?"

John was silent for a moment. "There's a look. There's a way a man holds a knife when he knows how to use it. When he likes using it."

Mycroft had offered him John's service record once. Sherlock had huffed and told him that anything he wanted to know about John he could find out himself. Perhaps he had bungled that, too.

"He'd have had your carotid open. It wasn't about the box just then. It was about—"

"Having you on your knees." Sherlock's imagination took a leap into the dark.

"Anyone. It's not personal. Intimate, but not personal."

John's voice was so low that Sherlock had trouble hearing him over the sound of the engine and the traffic; he leaned his head down until it touched John's. "You're describing an interrogator."

"That's one word for it."

"He's not ex-military."

"No."

"Nor MI-6, that lot—"

"Very likely freelance."

"Yes, that would explain—" Sherlock broke off, suddenly aware of John's uneven breathing and spiking heart rate. God. Damn. Why hadn't he read John's service record? "John. I'll get you out of this. I will—"

"Us," John cut in.

"What?"

"Us. You'll get us out of this. That's what you meant, isn't it?"

"Of course that's what I meant."

John let his head rest against Sherlock's. "He's driving in circles."

"Trying to throw us off. It doesn't matter, I know where he's going."

"Tell me."

"North bank, near Blackfriars. He's been in the tunnels there a great deal recently."

"That's not good, Sherlock," John said quietly. "We can't let him get us down there."

"We won't."

As if on cue, it started to rain.

 

***

 

John had only been trapped in a car boot once before. He had been six years old at the time, and needless to say he hadn't been beaten up and handcuffed first, so the experience didn't really help much when it came to dealing with his current situation. It was cold, dark and noisy, and every bump in the road seemed specifically designed to jar his bad shoulder. Sighing, he rolled over onto his side.

"We're almost there," Sherlock murmured.

Damn it, how did the man stay so calm? Nothing fazed him. If he had half of Sherlock's courage he wouldn't be trying to keep his dinner where it should be. "Tell me how you know." He needed to hear that voice. Badly.

Sherlock was off at once, talking about the different sounds of the traffic and the pedestrians and the rain on the pavement and the condition of the road and the occasional smell of foul water, about the elapsed time since they'd left Angelo's and the sound a sluice gate makes in the rain. It was wonderful. It was amazing. Even handcuffed and injured and going to God-knew-what, Sherlock's mind was putting the pieces together. God, he was the most brilliant, beautiful man John had ever known and all John could see was that damned knife, ending it all.

"John." Sherlock's head touched John's gently.

John released the breath he'd been holding. "Sorry. Thinking."

"About a plan, I hope."

"A plan?" John almost laughed. "Plans are your department."

"Apparently not. Are you certain you want me planning anything after this disaster?"

"Sherlock, this sudden humility is—"

"Refreshing?" Sherlock suggested, sounding amused.

"I was going to say bloody unnatural, but have it your own way. Any ideas?"

"Our options are limited."

"You might say so, yeah."

"If we run, they'll fire."

"Yes."

"If one of us runs while the other takes on—"

"Who's running, as if I didn't know?"

"This is a hypothetical discussion, John."

"Who is hypothetically running?"

"You did ask—"

"Because if it's me, you're right, your plans are all arse and no forehead."

"I'm open to suggestions." Sherlock sounded as if he were suppressing laughter. God, he could laugh right now. John could have kissed him.

"I don't have any. We'll have to improvise. Because if he gets us underground—" John broke off.

"If we go down—"

"Not an option."

"If we go down, we can play for time. He wants the box open. So I'll let him persuade me to open the box."

"And when it doesn't open?"

"Then things get interesting," Sherlock said drily. "Until Mycroft finds us."

"Mycroft. Mycroft is your plan."

"Essentially, yes. Unless another opportunity presents itself. They may make a mistake."

"You're really having an off night, aren't you?"

"Don't underestimate Mycroft. He has resources available to him that would amaze you."

John swallowed. "I think Cullen would amaze you."

"Are our chances any better if we run?"

"No. But there are a lot of different ways to die, and some of them are—" John's voice gave out. He drew breath to try again, but Sherlock's head touched his.

"John. We'll run if we can."

"All right," John whispered.

"If we can't, I promise I won't let you down again."

John struggled for comprehension. "You've never—"

"Quiet." Sherlock turned his head, listening "We're slowing down."

"You've never let me down," John breathed. "Why would you even—"

"Shh."

"This isn't your fault. Don't even think about doing something idiotic."

The cab rolled to a stop.

"Sherlock," John hissed. God only knew what the man had in mind now. "Do not—"

Sherlock turned toward him, drawing an odd little breath, and dropped a soft kiss on John's temple. Before John could react, the lid of the boot flew open and two pairs of hands grabbed Sherlock by the arms and dragged him out. John struggled into a sitting position, blinking in the pouring rain, to see Sherlock being thrown onto his stomach in the mud.

John struggled to his knees and threw one leg over the edge of the boot before Cullen dragged him out and threw him down beside Sherlock, which was fine. That's exactly where he'd wanted to be. John looked about, trying to get his bearings, but it was pitch-black and howling rain, and he couldn't see more than five feet in any direction. They seemed to be in the middle of a disused property of some sort, but John could hear muffled sounds of traffic. They were still in town.

Cullen squatted between them, smiling. He really shouldn't smile. It wasn't pretty. "Any idea where you are?"

"Warner Street, Clerkenwell," Sherlock replied promptly. "If I remember correctly there's a good pub round the corner, and another disused property down the street, which is probably where your friend Pete is about to leave your stolen cab after he has a pint." Pete froze, half-in and half-out of the driver's seat. "Good idea, too, because this one is much too close to that access hatchway to the sewers you've been using."

In spite of everything, John had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. The look on Cullen's face was priceless; it might almost be worth the consequences he knew were coming.

Cullen knelt beside John, pulling something from the breast pocket of his coat.

"Oh, damn," John said wearily, as the hypodermic punctured the skin of his neck. Sometimes he hated being right. It didn't hurt nearly as much as he'd expected; Cullen obviously had experience with the needle.

"What the hell did you give him? John?" Sherlock was straining to get closer, but Cullen turned and forced his head down into the mud again.

"The same thing I'm giving you."

John saw Cullen jab the needle none-too-gently into Sherlock's neck. Sherlock flinched, but never took his gaze from John's face.

Cullen bent down to snarl in Sherlock's ear. "Just a reminder. It takes less than a second to cut out a man's tongue."

Sherlock's gaze didn't falter. "Less than half a second, actually. Provided the man doing the cutting knows what he's doing."

Oh, Christ. John tried to say something and couldn't; his vision was starting to dim.

"John." Sherlock's quiet voice cut through the darkness. "Remember. You owe me dinner."

 

***

 

Forty-two minutes had perhaps been an overly optimistic estimate of how much persuasion he could deal with. Cullen was very good with the knife, and it was becoming apparent that forty-two minutes exceeded his physical limits. He was only twenty-six minutes in, and already he was considering the possibility that discretion was the better part of valor.

Still, it had been necessary. Cullen would have suspected something if Sherlock had simply volunteered to open the box, after denying it was possible. His logic had been sound.

But John would be awake soon. John could not see this: him, like this, barely able to control his own vocal chords and whispering the periodic table to himself like a madman. If John had for a moment suspected what he'd meant by persuade me to open the box, he would have been horrified. He wouldn't have stood for it, because that was John, decent to his core. Decency did not stand a chance against a man like Cullen. John had been mistaken about one thing; there was absolutely nothing about this monster that surprised Sherlock.

Sherlock pressed his cheek against the rusting iron support beam he'd been cuffed to, clenching his teeth as the knife dug into his back again. All right. That was enough of that. "Give me the box," he grated.

"Give me the box what?’

This wasn't new. Sherlock had learnt this sort of humiliation from a master. "Give me the box, please."

Cullen chuckled and pulled the knife away. "Good boy." He rose to his feet and pulled out his phone. "Now look at me."

Sherlock forced himself to straighten and look at Cullen's phone, trying not to blink as the flash went off. "Where are you sending these?"

"What makes you think I'm sending them anywhere? I have a private collection." Cullen pulled the puzzle box from his coat pocket and tossed it to Sherlock.

Sherlock caught it and began, methodically and mechanically, to go through the motions of attempting to solve the puzzle. "You keep moving about looking for a signal, which must be difficult to find down here. You've been sending and receiving text messages."

Cullen raised his head to regard him intently. The antique oil lamp the man had chosen to light the room cast harsh shadows on his face, highlighting features and expressions that modern lighting never fully captured. Sherlock was immune to such theatrical atmospherics, but the effort Cullen had taken to create them spoke to his state of mind rather accurately. "Has anyone ever told you that you notice too much, freak?"

"Frequently. Are you going to answer me?"

Cullen smiled. "The man who hired me. But you'd already guessed that, hadn't you?"

"I never guess. I don't imagine your employer is very pleased with you right now."

"What makes you say that?" Cullen slipped his phone into his pocket and wandered too nonchalantly toward the stack of wooden crates that served as his instrument table. There was a long story lying on those crates.

Sherlock almost shrugged, then thought better of it. "You were hired to recover the box and its contents, not indulge your personal…interests."

"My employer and I share a lot of interests." Cullen picked up the riding crop and examined it. "He's very interested in you, by the way. He's told me a lot about you."

"Has he? That was considerate of him." If Cullen was lying, he was doing it extremely well.

An incoherent mutter from John drew Sherlock's attention. John was stirring, trying to pull away from the rusting, mud-encased machinery he was cuffed to. Damn. Too soon. Sherlock slid to his left slightly, just enough so that John wouldn't be able to see his back. It was the least of his worries, but at least it was something. Cullen wasn't anywhere nearly done with him, and John…. John would see it happen. It had been absurd to think that he could protect John from that. He seemed to have been prone to absurd thoughts lately.

"Oh, look, the doctor's waking up." Sherlock stiffened as Cullen moved to John's side and shoved the riding crop under John's chin, forcing his head up. "Welcome back, John."

John's eyelids fluttered for a moment, then snapped open. He stared up at Cullen with wide and dilated eyes, obviously disorientated. He took a breath. "Cullen." It was obviously difficult for him to speak.

"You remembered. That's sweet. Now watch carefully, because I don't want to repeat myself."

Cullen pulled away from John, and Sherlock started breathing again. He had to hold Cullen's interest. Somehow he had to keep Cullen focused on him, because the thought of this maniac putting his hands on John was intolerable. Sherlock watched the man's face as he returned to his side. "I don't suppose this kindred spirit has a—"

Cullen swung about, swinging the riding crop with enthusiasm, and struck Sherlock across his bleeding back. The puzzle box dropped from Sherlock's hands as he bit back a cry, not entirely successfully, and scrambled to reassemble his defenses. Before he could recover, Cullen swung again. And again. "So much inquisitiveness. It's not polite, Sherlock. It's like shagging talk at the breakfast table. Someone never taught you manners, freak."

Sherlock heard a strangled intake of breath from John, and hastily turned his face away, clenching his teeth and pinching his eyes shut. Keep quiet, you idiot, don't let him see—

"Oh, no, don't be shy!" Cullen grabbed Sherlock by the hair and forced him to turn his face toward John again. "I'm sure John wants to see you after being asleep so long. He's missed so much of this." He resumed the beating with more energy than Sherlock would have expected, given the fact that Cullen had undoubtedly carried both himself and John down here. There had been no sign of Pete thus far and…and…what remained of coherent thought floated away. He tried to reestablish a connection, but found himself reduced to gasping out random syllables that bore no resemblance to the periodic table whatsoever.

"Stop it." John sounded like he had gravel in his throat. "Let him be! How the hell can he open that box for you if you kill him?"

"Kill him?" Cullen paused in efforts. "Of course I'm not going to kill him, John. That would be counterproductive." He pulled his phone out again. "Look at me, Sherlock."

Sherlock lifted his head and opened his eyes. He didn't look at Cullen. He looked at John. He needed to look at John. John stared back at him wordlessly, his face drawn in pain, as if he'd been beaten as well. That healer's empathy of his might get John killed down here, but seeing it was like air to a drowning man.

"I said look at me!" Cullen administered another blow, and Sherlock flinched and complied. Cullen snapped another photo.

"You. Sick. Pig."

Sherlock suppressed a groan. Well, John had regained full use of his vocal chords. Before Sherlock could even attempt to undo the damage, Cullen was squatting in front of John, that damned crop shoved up under John's chin.

"That was rude," Cullen said softly.

"It was accurate," John spat back. "Leave him alone."

"John," Sherlock cut in sharply.

Cullen's phone chimed, and Sherlock held his breath. How much control did Cullen's employer have over him? If the man was who Sherlock suspected it was, perhaps it would be enough, just enough, to keep Cullen on his leash. To keep John alive.

Cullen stared into John's face for perhaps a second, then took John's head in his hands and slammed it into the iron wreck behind him. John slumped forward, unconscious.

Sherlock lunged forward stupidly, unable to stop himself. "John—"

"Get back to work." Cullen rose and strode out into the access tunnel, pulling out his phone. "And teach your friend some manners."

***

"John."

John winced at the sound. God, decapitation would be a mercy. He searched his recent memory for an explanation of the pain, and found one. "Oh." He forced his eyes open. Sherlock was sitting no more than five feet away from him, his arms around what looked like a piece of Victorian ironwork and his wrists cuffed tightly together. His shirt was on the ground beside him. He was bruised, filthy, and thank God, alive. "Sherlock." The rest of his memory unfolded, and he leaned forward a little too quickly. "Ow. Damn. How bad are you?"

"How bad am I? Have you taken leave of your senses?" Sherlock was breathing a little too hard. "He might have killed you."

"No shouting, please. My head hasn't decided whether it's still on." John blinked, trying to clear his vision. "Shall I repeat the question?"

Sherlock gave him a look of pure exasperation. "It's superficial."

"For clarity's sake, you do understand that 'superficial' doesn't include everything that isn't lethal, don't you?"

"Do not provoke him again. Do you understand me?"

John looked away. This wasn't open for discussion. "Perfectly. Where are we?"

"One of the machine rooms for the old flood gates on the Fleet. We're not far from the Fleet main line."

"In a rainstorm."

"Oh, yes."

John grimaced. "Wonderful. Does Cullen understand what's likely to happen?"

"I don't think so. He's not a Londoner, and strangely enough I don't feel inclined to enlighten him."

"Where did he go?"

"To hear his master's voice."

John gave Sherlock a sharp look, but didn't ask. He had to know. Sherlock had to bloody well know who Cullen was talking to.

"They've been texting constantly," Sherlock continued, his eyes fixed on the door. "I think Cullen took his employer by surprise with this little adventure."

"He just wanted the box."

"I think so. Cullen has been trying to placate him."

John's stomach turned. "With the photos."

"Mmmmm. He did say they had similar interests." Sherlock broke out of his reverie and looked at John. "Now I want you to listen to me."

"Do not start," John said quietly. "Just…don't."

Sherlock leaned forward. "You need to know how to survive this."

"I know exactly how to survive this." John tried to keep his voice down and failed. "It's keeping someone else alive I wasn't able to manage. For God's sake, help me do that."

Sherlock drew an unsteady breath, then froze. In the resulting silence, John heard it, too; someone walking through shallow water. "He's back," Sherlock whispered. "John—"

"The puzzle," John whispered back.

Sherlock set his jaw and picked up the damned thing. John savagely imagined hacking it to pieces.

Cullen paused in the doorway, looking them both over. "Raised voices? Having a bit of a domestic, are we?"

John kept his gaze on Sherlock's hands as they moved gracefully over the wood. Cullen moved to stand beside Sherlock. "You don't seem to be making much progress, Sherlock."

"I'm not," Sherlock said flatly.

"You're disappointing me." Cullen glanced at John. "Is that what the shouting was about, John? Your disappointment?"

"No." John didn't look at him.

"No one could blame you. Here you are, your life hanging in the balance, and the great Sherlock Holmes can't solve a puzzle designed for moderately intelligent children. Or won't solve it, and doesn't give a damn what I'll do to you."

"I give a damn," Sherlock said quietly, not lifting his gaze from the puzzle. John hoped the statement was for Cullen's benefit, because the thought that Sherlock didn't know just how much faith John had in Sherlock's capacity to give a damn twisted his insides.

"Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? It's not as if he's capable of any real feelings. He's defective."

"Bagram? Or Abu Ghraib?" John asked, turning his head enough to look the snake in the eye.

Cullen's eyebrows rose. "Oh, very good, John. That's very good."

"Drummed out, were we? Well, there are limits. Not like the old days. Even a freelancer can't have a bit of fun without some queen-and-country type reporting his sorry arse."

Cullen's smile was chilling. "Sherlock, you have five minutes. Then I'm going to cut off one of your hands."

Sherlock set his jaw and made no reply. John pressed his lips together, trying to focus. They were uncannily alike, this tosser and his boss. The fact that one preferred sewers and the other preferred silk suits didn't obscure that bit of truth. One clear shot each, that's all John wanted.

Cullen laughed softly. "You should see yourself. Thinking about shooting me, aren't you?"

"Yes." It was a relief just to say it. Cullen must have been a major success in the enhanced interrogation trade before he started liking it too much. John saw Sherlock's hands falter for a second, then move on.

"Murder, John? Could you really do that?"

"I've shot better men than you."

Cullen chuckled and squatted down in front of John. "No doubt. But for him? You've lived with him. You know what he is."

"Yes." John gazed over Cullen's shoulder as if he weren't there as Sherlock lifted his head to stare back at him. "I know exactly what he is."

"Really, John. If you know how to open that box and you're not telling me because of some misplaced loyalty? It's time to let it go. He's not worth it. In the old days he'd have been euthanized."

Oh. John breathed. Oh, he'd just made this so much easier. John let loose a bark of laughter at the release, then lifted his foot and kicked Cullen square in the crotch as hard as he could. Cullen howled as he rolled over in a ball, cradling his affronted genitals.

"And in the old days, you'd have been neutered," John informed him matter-of-factly. "Welcome to the 21st century."

Sherlock dropped the box with a horrified expression. "John," he said hoarsely.

"I'll kill you! I'll fucking kill you!" Cullen kept trying, and failing, to regain his footing.

"I know exactly how to open the box," John said with a coolness he most certainly did not feel. "And there's no need to open it for a little wanker like you. A man has to be pretty fucking worthless if even the mercenary torture trade won't have him. Tell your boss I want to talk to him."

Cullen staggered to his feet and backward, eyes fixed on John's face. "You're dreaming, queen and country. By the time I'm done with you—"

"You do a lot of talking," John observed, with unfeigned contempt. "Not much cop, talkers."

Cullen uttered an inarticulate snarl and fairly threw himself against the stack of crates, nearly tripping over a five litre plastic drum of something in the process. He began rummaging amongst the array of objects that, until now, John hadn't been able to bring himself to look at.

"He doesn't know how to open the box," Sherlock snarled. He was straining against his cuffs so violently that his wrists had begun to bleed. "You're being played for a fool, and I'm not surprised." Sherlock kicked the box in Cullen's direction. "Come on, then. Cut off my hand for all the good it will do you."

Cullen ignored him, to John's profound relief. He picked up what John instantly recognized as a surgical titanium rod and strode back to kneel at John's side. "You've picked up a lot of bad manners from that freak." He started to work John's left boot off.

"Oh, good," John said, fixing his eyes on Sherlock, who was still in the process of abrading the skin from his wrists in an attempt to get free of his cuffs. "I've always admired Sherlock's manners."

Sherlock shot him a look that was amazing: pain and surprise and amusement and something John couldn't quite identify, rolled in one. "John, tell him the truth. Tell him!"

Cullen pulled off John's boot and sock, and held John's bare foot as if he were inspecting it. "How many bones in the human foot, doctor?"

"Do you lot take your lines from the same book?" John flinched as Cullen twisted his foot with precision enough to indicate that he understood the anatomy all too well. "Twenty-six."

Cullen smiled. "That many? This could take a while."

"I want you to understand something," Sherlock said in an eerie monotone. "Your assessment of me is completely accurate, I am defective, and I'm telling you that if you do this you will not get out of this room alive."

John closed his eyes as Cullen picked up the rod, making a mental note to remind Sherlock, if he ever got the chance, that he could be terrifying, too. He felt Cullen move as he raised the rod, and the blinding impact as it struck the bottom of his foot, snapping the first metatarsal.

John didn't scream. It was the best he could do, but he couldn't stop the breathless cry that forced itself past his vocal chords as his head snapped back. Oh, God, it hurt, but not nearly as badly as it would to see this monster beat Sherlock again. John knew his limits, and he couldn't take any more of that.

"You're dead," Sherlock said.

Cullen dropped John's foot to the floor; John gasped in surprised anguish and opened his eyes. Cullen was approaching Sherlock. No. No, no, no… "Run out of bones?" John rasped, leaning forward in his cuffs.

"I've had enough of your mouth," Cullen said to Sherlock, reaching into his coat pocket.

All John could see was that knife, that damned knife, no, no, Sherlock

"Come to take my tongue out?" Sherlock sneered.

"Later." John went limp with relief when Cullen pulled out a handkerchief instead. "Right now I want to have your full and undivided attention while I cripple your friend." He grabbed Sherlock by the hair and tried to stuff the handkerchief into his mouth, but Sherlock yanked his head away. Snarling, Cullen pushed Sherlock's upper body to the floor and pinned him there, his long coat draped over Sherlock like a vulture's wings. He stuffed the handkerchief into Sherlock's mouth, so deeply that John saw him gag.

"Stop it, that's enough! You're choking him."

"Wouldn't dream of it." Cullen got to his feet. "That comes later, too."

Sherlock struggled into a sitting position, his right hand balled into a fist as if he were ready to take Cullen on, even in his current condition.

John took one long look, memorizing the man, then closed his eyes and leaned back as Cullen knelt beside him again. He clenched his teeth as Cullen grabbed his foot, twisting it with excruciating effect.

"Right. One down, twenty-five to go." His thumb slid up the side of John's foot this time, coming to rest on the talus. John drew an uneven breath. This wouldn't be easy. Tough bone. One strike was not going to do the job. Then Cullen was moving. John felt the slight movement of air generated by the blow before he felt the impact itself. And he did scream, this time; it felt like his whole foot was being torn apart. He choked it off, wondering how long he'd be able to manage even that much control. God. Sherlock.

"Oh, very nice. My boss would love you. Look at me, John." Trying to get his breathing under control, John forced his eyes open. Cullen had his camera in his hand. "Smile," he said.

"Piss off," John rasped, blinking as the flash went off. It had done something strange to his vision; he could have sworn he saw Sherlock standing behind Cullen. It took him a full two seconds to realize he wasn't hallucinating.

Sherlock lifted the plastic drum Cullen had tripped over minutes before and up-ended it, spilling a clear, pungent-smelling liquid over Cullen's head. Lamp oil. It was lamp oil.

Sputtering, Cullen leapt to his feet and turned toward Sherlock, who swung the lit oil lamp in front of him. Cullen froze. John felt himself go limp, knowing there was a huge, stupid smile on his face and not caring. "Sherlock."

"One of the drawbacks of such atmospheric lighting is the fact that the fuel is highly volatile." Sherlock's voice was ice. "One spark is all it would take."

Cullen stared into Sherlock's expressionless face, speechless.

"Drop the phone."

Cullen dropped it.

"And your weapons."

Cullen fished frantically in his coat pockets to produce his knife and gun, which he dropped at Sherlock's feet. "Don't. Don't do it."

Something in Sherlock's eyes flashed. "You would be well advised not to speak. Now stand away from him."

Cullen backed away slowly in the direction of the door.

"Not that way," Sherlock snarled. He jerked his head in the opposite direction. "Over there."

Cullen complied, backing up until he was pressed against the beam Sherlock had been cuffed to. Sherlock followed him, then turned him around. "Hands behind your back." John could see the man's hands shaking as he obeyed; Sherlock slapped his bloodstained cuffs onto Cullen with no attempt at gentleness.

"Perhaps, if you survive this, you'll remember that it's a cardinal error to cuff someone who has any motivation to escape with their hands in front of them. All sorts of unfortunate things tend to accompany carelessness like that. Now get on your knees and stay there." Cullen sank to his knees.

Sherlock backed away, then hurried to John's side, snatching up his shirt. "Are you all right?" His voice was warm and urgent, his expression soft; it was as if he were a different man. He pulled something small and silver from his trouser pocket and reached behind John. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," John breathed, snapping out of it. He laughed a bit. "I'm fine. How on earth—"

"I pickpocketed him when he was gagging me. Idiot had the key in his coat pocket."

John felt the cuffs come away, and he brought his aching arms forward with a sigh of relief. "You are…absolutely amazing."

"You're easily impressed." Sherlock bent over John's foot. "I won't bother asking how bad this is. Is there some way we can bind it up so it doesn't get any worse?"

"If I had anything to—"

"You can use this." Sherlock started ripping up his shirt. "We need to move. Do you hear it?"

John listened. Water. Entirely too much of it. "Do we have to go through that to get out?"

"Through what?" Cullen demanded, turning his head. "What are you talking about?"

Sherlock ignored him. "I've no idea. I haven't been down here since I was twelve."

John blinked. "You played in the sewers when you were—"

"I wasn't playing. I was looking for corpses." Sherlock handed John several strips of fabric and continued ripping. "I got lost, of course. Bloody embarrassing. Will you be able to walk?"

John took a breath and started binding his foot, which was not unlike smashing it all over again. "I'll walk. I can't guarantee how quickly—" He paused, gasping, as the pain got a little intense, then continued binding with shaking hands. "Which if we're running from flood waters might be a bit of a problem. You might want to consider—"

"Flood waters?" Cullen stared out the door in growing panic.

"I won't—" Sherlock was cut off by a ring from Cullen's phone.

John felt his breath taken by the look on his friend's face. "Do you want me to answer it?"

Sherlock snatched up the phone and didn't wait to speak; it was obvious that he knew who was calling. "He hurt John," Sherlock said in a voice that would cut steel. "You just made the biggest mistake of your life. Start running." Sherlock hung up and started dialing another number.

John felt his jaw drop. "Sherlock--"

Sherlock held up an imperious hand for silence, and John closed his mouth. "We're in the sewers near the Fleet main line. Do something about it." Sherlock then tossed the phone through the doorway into the several inches of running water now flowing down the access tunnel. It bobbed and disappeared. John watched it go, speechless.

Sherlock strode to Cullen's side and yanked him to his feet. "Unless you enjoy drowning, you're going to show us the way out of here."

"Drowning? What the hell—"

Sherlock snatched up Cullen's gun. "I don't have time to explain the history and design of the London sewers to you. You're going to take us to the nearest manhole shaft. Now."

"So you can kill me when we get there?

"Would you prefer to be killed here?" Sherlock raised the weapon with the expression of a man who intends to use it.

Cullen promptly turned and bolted for the door. His long coat billowed out behind him, and before John could shout a warning, knocked over the lamp. The man went up like a torch, screaming and running blindly for the door, and bumping into everything else in the attempt.

John launched himself from the floor and tackled Cullen through the doorway to land in about six inches of icy, fast-running water. The flames died almost instantly, plunging the whole tunnel into darkness, and John flipped Cullen over, feeling for a pulse on horrifically burned skin. It fluttered for a moment against John's fingers, then faded. It was only then that John realized that Sherlock was kneeling beside him in the dark, both arms around him. "He's dead."

"Are you burned?" It was barely a whisper, but it echoed against the bricks.

"No," John said dully, raising his hands. "No, I…just a little toasted. I don't understand. He shouldn't be dead, he…" John slid his hands up to examine Cullen's head, but there was no injury that he could feel. Sliding his hands down the man's torso, he was startled to find something protruding from the left side of his chest. "Oh, good God. He had another knife."

"He made it out of the room after all," Sherlock said in a venomous tone. "I'm losing my touch." He helped John to his feet. "All right?"

"I will be." John felt the current tug at the body at his feet, and stepped away to let it go. "How bad is your back?"

"I imagine I'll be sporting a few bruises tomorrow. Can you walk?"

"If I could see where I was going."

"There was a torch on Cullen's little toy table. Hang on."

John shifted his weight to his good foot and leaned both hands on the brick wall of the tunnel as Sherlock vanished back inside the machine room. God, what a night. An unmistakably electric light lit the interior of the room, and John sighed in relief. At least they wouldn't have to blunder about flooding tunnels in the dark.

Sherlock appeared and waded to John's side. "Do me a favor and put this inside your shirt for me for safekeeping." He held up the puzzle box.

John regarded him wearily. "Have you considered the possibility that that thing is cursed?"

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. "Absolutely not. I can't imagine why you'd think such a thing."

"Oh, give it here." John snatched the damned thing from Sherlock and shoved it down his shirt. "It'll be giant rats next, or alligators."

"You spend too much time on the internet." Sherlock offered his arm, one side of his mouth quirking upward.

"I'm going to slow you down to a crawl." John grabbed Sherlock's arm and struggled for balance. "Am I imagining things, or is this water getting deeper?"

"You're not imagining it." Sherlock turned the torch up and down the access tunnel. "No signs. But I'm fairly certain the Fleet main line is this way. The flooding will be worse, but there are more routes to the surface."

"All right, let's go."

Sherlock gave him a faintly exasperated look. "I said 'fairly certain'."

"Your 'fairly certain' is better than most people's 'absolutely positive'. If the flooding starts to look too bad, we can try another way."

Sherlock blew out a breath and set his shoulders. "Right."

"Unless there are alligators, in which case you're dead wrong and I make the plans from now on."

John was rewarded with a chuckle. "Exception noted. Come along, John."

 

***

 

Cullen had died far too quickly for Sherlock's liking. Just the sight of John limping gamely along beside him, face drawn and teeth clenched, was enough to make him wish fervently that he had cuffed that animated pile of excrement to that bloody post and set fire to him. He should have screamed a long, long time. And Seb Wilkes should have heard it. Yes. That would have been an education for Mr. Wilkes, to the effect that not every man, woman or on occasion child he fancied was fair game for the gratification of his needs.

John slipped and clutched Sherlock's arm, a muffled little cry of pain breaking through his determined silence. Sherlock caught him by the arms, cursing silently. The slime that coated every surface down here made walking difficult for an able-bodied person, let alone someone with a broken foot. They'd been walking for almost an hour, and this was the first time John had uttered anything resembling a complaint.

"Sorry," John breathed, hanging on to Sherlock's arms tightly. "That one got away from me."

"For God's sake, John," Sherlock grated, "Don't apologize."

John rested his head against Sherlock's chest. "Two minutes."

Sherlock rested his hand on the back of John's head, daring to stroke his damp hair. John's soft sigh reassured him.

John desperately needed rest, and there was no fit place to do it. The water was still rising. It was hip high, and the growing stench told Sherlock that the interceptor tunnels had begun to overflow. Soon they'd be wading in diluted sewage, and to top it all off, the tide was coming in. They had to get out of here, and yet every manhole shaft they'd come across was blocked by iron bars or gates. He'd obviously chosen the wrong path. Again.

John blew out a breath and looked up at him; Sherlock hastily pulled his hand from John's hair. God, he looked beyond exhausted. He was moving on will power alone. "You look bloody awful."

"Thank you. I was about to say the same about you."

"How is your back?"

"It's super—"

"Show me." John took the torch. "Turn around."

"John—"

"And while we're on the subject, let me compliment you on the brilliant job you've done hiding it from me so far."

"We don't have time—"

"I'll applaud later. Turn. Around."

Damn him. He should have known he wouldn't get very far with this particular strategy. John was too good a doctor to let that pass. Sighing, Sherlock turned around.

Silence, then an inexpressibly gentle touch. "These…these are knife wounds."

"It's—"

"If you say superficial one more time—" John's voice broke. "How long was I unconscious? How long was he—"

"It wasn't that long."

"Very efficient use of time," John's voice went hard. "I should have let him burn."

"You would never do that," Sherlock said quietly.

"You think so?" Before Sherlock could answer, John moved on. "You need stitches, tetanus and antibiotics, to say nothing of pain killers."

"It's not that bad." Sherlock turned around and relieved John of the torch. The look on John's face nearly undid him. "We'll add those to the list of what you need, shall we?"

"You are the worst patient in recorded history."

"Thank you." Sherlock entwined his arm with John's again. "All right?"

John drew a breath and set his shoulders. "All right. Let's try that again." They moved forward again, Sherlock watching carefully for any sign of a misstep. Even without one, walking had to be hellishly painful. John kept his eyes straight ahead. "The water's coming up fast. Any sign of the main line?"

"I didn't anticipate—" Sherlock was annoyed to hear his voice crack. "I thought I'd have found it by now."

John stopped and turned to him. "You're going to get us out of here."

"The tide—"

"I know. Sherlock. I know. But even Sherlock Holmes can't control the tide." John reached up and gently stroked Sherlock's wet hair from his forehead.

It was such a little thing to stagger him, to leave him staring at the man in front of him like an idiot. But it did. It occurred to Sherlock that John staggered him on a regular basis, but he'd always put it down to intermittent anomalies. Clearly his assessment was in error. He was an imbecile. Slowly, he reached out to stroke John's hair back, too. John gave him a slow smile. "Nutter," he said affectionately. He gripped Sherlock's arm again and faced forward. "Let's go."

The moment Sherlock stepped forward he felt it: the echoes around them were deeper, the air was moving differently, the water around them was moving in more than one direction. He lifted the torch and scanned the walls and arched ceilings quickly. Without realizing it, they'd moved beyond the circular tunnels into the great arched main line. Bazalgette's brickwork actually gleamed in the torchlight twenty feet above their heads.

"Good Lord," John murmured. "That's almost beautiful."

Sherlock snorted. Only John Watson could find anything beautiful in a sewer. "London's monument to the Great Stink."

"It was a brilliant piece of engineering. Not that I'll be sorry to be a proper distance from it."

"Nothing will please me more than to have you as far from it as 221B will allow." Some trick of light made Sherlock blink and turn the torch away from the roof. The phenomenon persisted as he peered upward. "Do you see that?" He pointed to what was obviously a mirage of some sort.

John caught his breath. "It's daylight."

"A manhole." Sherlock helped John further down the tunnel to stand in the dim light diffused by twenty feet of darkness. "An open manhole."

"It's still raining." John closed his eyes and let the drops fall on his face.

Sherlock ran the torchlight upward; there were rusted grips protruding from the brick wall. The lowest was about six feet over their heads.

"The lower ones probably rusted away years ago." John snatched the torch. "There's someone up there." He flashed the torch on and off several times. Sherlock could see the silhouettes of three people, peering into the sewer. They had to see the torch, even if they couldn't see the men in the water. "Oi!" John waved the torch. One of the figures above turned and quickly disappeared.

A gentle swell of water rolled past them, soaking them to their chests, and Sherlock inhaled sharply, whirling around. The water level was rising with frightening speed. Either the tide was full on or somewhere in London a flash flood had struck. "John, tell me you can swim."

John paused in his signaling efforts. "Does sitting in my uncle's rowboat count?"

"Bloody hell." Another swell passed across Sherlock's neck; he heard John sputter. Sherlock grabbed John around the hips and hoisted him up. "Keep your chin up and your mouth closed."

John glared down at him. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Stop talking and keep signaling."

John's eyes widened as he looked over Sherlock's head. "Incoming, Sherlock, inc—"

The icy water rolled over Sherlock's head, and knocked John out of his grasp. Kicking off his shoes, Sherlock broke the surface, looking about wildly. John was struggling to reach him, all flailing arms and desperate kicking. Sherlock swam to John's side and got him about the waist. "Just kick, if you can. Get your arms round my neck."

"Christ, I thought you'd gone under," John said through chattering teeth, complying. "Are you all right?"

"Never better." Sherlock pulled them against the arch.

"Sorry," John panted. "I lost the torch."

"Bugger the torch. Breathe."

John laughed weakly. "I told you that damn box was cursed."

"It's a pretty sorry excuse for a curse that can't summon up one alligator."

John rested his head against Sherlock's. "What now?"

"We stay put. That lot on the surface must have seen the torch. At any rate, we don't want to be pulled downstream."

"What's downstream?"

"The outfall."

"And the outfall is…where things fall out?"

He was being deliberately provoking, and Sherlock shamelessly pulled him close, shielding him from the swells. "The outfall is where we and several metric tons of storm water and sewage drop into the Thames."

"You're right. We don't want to go downstream." John glanced upward. "But if we stay here, we won't be able to grab one of those rungs no matter how deep the water gets."

"We're going to have to let go of the arch at exactly the right time." Sherlock started timing the current. "And we have to be quick, no second chances. Damn. We have no way to test the strength of those grips; if they're rusted enough—"

"They could give way. Couldn't we wait for help from our friends upstairs?"

"Look." Sherlock moved aside slightly so that John could get a good look at what was happening.

John drew in a sharp breath as he watched the water level visibly rising; it was already past the half-way point. "Point taken. Then I'll say this now." Sherlock started as John took his face in shaking hands. "Sherlock. It's been an honor." John let go and shoved himself into the current.

Sherlock screamed John's name as the current swept him downstream, but John was already striking out, ungracefully but with strength, toward the wall holding the iron grips. Sherlock saw him raise his right hand and seize the bottommost rung, only to have it snap off.

Sherlock threw himself into the current, timing be damned, because if John was going under, so was he; there was no bloody point otherwise. He wasn't going home without John Watson. At the same moment, he saw John's left hand swing out of the water to grab the next rung. It held. It held. John pulled himself up far enough to seize the next rung, and it held, too. Turning, John scanned the area near the arch, clearly looking for Sherlock; the wild panic in his face for the moment he couldn't see him snapped Sherlock out of his daze, and he started to swim.

"John!" Sherlock shouted, afraid that if John didn't spot him, the idiot might actually try to swim back again.

John caught sight of him, and visibly started breathing again; he stretched out his free arm in Sherlock's direction. Sherlock strained against the current, and nearly missed the rungs entirely; he hadn't realized how far he'd been carried in the few seconds he'd decided to follow John. John grabbed him by the arm and pulled him close. Sherlock swung his right arm up and grasped the higher rung.

"You bloody imbecile!" Sherlock grabbed John's hand and guided it to the next rung. "What the hell did you think you were doing?"

John pulled himself up and set his good foot on a rung just below the water's surface. "Learning to swim."

"You could have drowned!"

"If we're going to have a row, could we do it upstairs? It's starting to get a little damp." The water was swirling about their waists, and Sherlock conceded the point, moving up a rung and guiding John's shaking arm up with him.

"I can't believe they let you wander about on your own," Sherlock growled as they climbed.

"It was very refreshing."

Sherlock glanced down as John lifted his injured foot above the water line, and his insults died in his throat. The makeshift bandage was starting to come undone, revealing a bruised, bloody and swollen mess. Sherlock hastily reached down to slip his hand under John's knee to support him. "Up you go."

"Thanks." John shot him a smile and stepped up, hopping a bit to get his good foot on the rung.

Sherlock looked up, heartened by their progress. They were almost there. Just a few more feet and this nightmare would be over. He reached up for the next rung.

It came away in his hand.

Sherlock stared at it stupidly for a moment, then looked down at John. The water was already swirling around John's knees.

"Try the next," John said steadily.

Tossing the useless grip away, Sherlock stretched up to grasp the next one. It crumbled in his hand. "Oh," Sherlock breathed in disbelief. "No." He looked down at John for a second, then swung to the side. "Get up here," he said urgently, offering his hand.

John grabbed his hand and climbed the two rungs to stand beside Sherlock. They stared into the dark water rising toward them. "Well," John said, threading his fingers through Sherlock's and squeezing his hand. "At least there were no alligators."

"John." Sherlock struggled to make his throat function. The water had reached their feet. "The honor's mine. It always has been."

John looked at him in what appeared to be genuine amazement, but before he could answer, something fell between them from above. Sherlock stared at it for a full second before he realized what it was. A rope. Someone had thrown them a lifeline. Glancing upward, Sherlock could see several people crowded about the open manhole.

"Thank God," John said weakly.

Sherlock restrained an impulse, borne of sheer perversity, to point out that John's miracle was very likely the work of Emergency Services and not any mythical deity, benevolent or otherwise. Grabbing the rope, he proceeded to tie it about John's waist.

John looked horrified. "What do you think you're doing? That's meant for both of us, Sherlock, I'm not—"

"I'm not taking any chances. Knowing you, you'll jump in again." Sherlock gave the rope a couple tugs just as John threw both arms about Sherlock's neck and held on as if his own life depended on it.

"I'm not taking any chances either. Grab the damn rope." John was actually quite intimidating when he meant business. "Do it. I'm not letting go."

Sherlock looked down at his friend, bemused, as the water reached his knees. Then he grabbed the rope just as it started to be pulled upward, into the rain.

It could have been no more than five minutes before John and Sherlock were dragged out of the manhole; it felt a lot longer. The two of them lay on their backs in the street, blinking up at the drenching rain as the paramedics buzzed about them in a swarm. A familiar figure in a suit and carrying an open umbrella appeared, and Sherlock suppressed a heartfelt groan.

Here began his decades of humiliation.

"Really, Sherlock," Mycroft said archly, bending over them. "Playing in the sewers again at your age? Mummy and I had so hoped you'd outgrown it."

***

"I really don't see what you find so amusing, John. You couldn't possibly have walked up the stairs on your own."

John collapsed to the sofa, laughing so hard it made his bruised ribs ache. "Sherlock. You carried me. You carried me over the threshold." He swung his leg, encased in a walking cast from knee to toe, onto the sofa with a sigh of relief, and lay back against the cushions.

Sherlock scowled and tossed him the bag containing their medication. "I take it there's some cultural significance to that particular architectural feature?"

"Oh, I see. This is one of those things you've deleted."

"Apparently. I hope I haven't created an international incident."

"I doubt it. Don't be surprised if Mrs. Hudson asks you some odd questions, though."

"What the devil does Mrs. Hudson have to do with it?" Sherlock shrugged off his coat. "Do you need anything? I'm off to take a proper shower; the smell of St. Bart's is worse than the Fleet."

"I'm fine. You should have let them bandage--"

"If I'd let them bandage, I couldn't take a shower." Sherlock eyed him sourly. "You can bandage them later, if you like."

John was surprised by the concession. "Thank you."

"John—"

"I won't stand near the windows. I won't open the door to anyone. I won't answer the phone," John intoned, as if he were a schoolboy reciting a lesson.

He was rewarded with a little twitch at the corner of Sherlock's mouth. "See that you don't." Sherlock disappeared into the bathroom.

John waited until he heard the shower running, then struggled to his feet and hobbled over to Sherlock's coat, cursing with every step. Fishing around in the pockets, he found the puzzle, then limped over to his desk. Sitting down, he pulled his surgical kit from the bottom drawer and unzipped it. He'd had two days in hospital to think about this damned thing, and he was going to have it open or die trying.

"Now, you little bugger," John murmured. "We'll see what's wrong with you." He turned on the desk lamp and held the puzzle up to the light, turning it slowly. There. One of the cracks between the pieces was wider than the rest. Pulling his finest scalpel from the kit, John slipped it into the crack and slid it slowly. It met resistance, something that wasn't wood. John applied a little more pressure, and a band of razor-thin flexible metal about a quarter of an inch wide sprang from the gap. John stared at it, speechless. He'd been right. Damn it to hell, he'd been—

"Oh, bravo, doctor."

John lunged to his feet, clutching his desk for support, and whirled to see Mycroft standing in the doorway. "Christ! Do you ever knock?"

Mycroft clucked his tongue and shook his head. "Did you know that Sherlock told me he'd lost that in the Fleet?"

"Yes," John said flatly. "And I was glad he did."

Mycroft lifted an eyebrow. "May I have it back, please?"

"I'm sure when Sherlock's done with it, he'll be glad to give it back to you. But if I were you, I'd be hoping he didn't. It might wind up wedged in your esophagus or up your arse."

Mycroft's eyes widened slightly. "I beg your pardon?"

John eased himself back into his chair. Taking hold of the end of the metal band, he gently eased it out of the puzzle. "You did this. You rigged it so it wouldn't open."

"Yes, of course. If the thieves had been able to open it, they'd have discovered that we had recovered the chip."

John slid the first piece of the puzzle away. "And then they'd have tossed the puzzle and gone to ground."

"Obviously."

"And they wouldn't have contacted their boss to ask for instructions." John pulled away the next piece. "It was their boss you were after, of course."

"Is there a purpose behind this little inquisition?"

"You arranged your brother's abduction." John pulled away another piece, congratulating himself on not crushing it in his hand.

"I most certainly did not." Mycroft's tone went abruptly sharp. "That was completely unforeseen."

"Sherlock would have foreseen it. Did you tell him you'd rigged the puzzle?"

"No."

"Did you tell him who your person of interest was?" John started arranging the individual pieces of the puzzle in a straight line.

"No."

"Did you consider the possibility that your person of interest might have reasons to harm your brother that had nothing to do with your damned chip?"

"If I had thought for a moment that that was the case, I wouldn't have involved Sherlock at all."

"You didn't involve him. You used him." John didn't bother to mask the venom in his tone.

"That's enough." Mycroft's voice went low and cold. "Doctor, I think it fair to remind you that this is a matter of national sec-"

"Oh, yes." John barked a bitter laugh. "National security. The last refuge of bastards the world over. Why didn't you tell Sherlock everything?"

"He didn't need to know."

It was too much. John dragged himself to his feet again, knocking over his chair. "Need to know? Your brother…your younger brother was kidnapped and tortured because you didn't tell him what he needed to know. Do you have any idea what that man went through?"

"Doctor—"

"That maniac came within a hair of chopping Sherlock's hand off."

Mycroft's grip on his umbrella tightened visibly. "He didn't tell me."

"When would he have had the chance? He was in hospital for two days. Where were you?"

"John, you know Mycroft doesn't do field work." John turned to see Sherlock in his pajamas and dressing gown, toweling his hair dry. "Oh, well done, you solved it. I knew you would." Sherlock paused by John's desk to pick up the little sliver of metal. "Very effective, Mycroft, my congratulations."

"You knew?" John asked in astonishment. "You never said."

"I didn't know until I x-rayed it at the hospital." Sherlock regarded him with a somber expression. "Excellent idea, John. If we'd gone to St. Bart's instead of Angelo's--"

"The food is terrible at St. Bart's," John deadpanned. He was rewarded by Sherlock's small smile.

Mycroft's eyebrows rose. "Interesting. How did you manage it? According to my reports you didn't leave Dr. Watson's side for two days."

John shot Sherlock a wondering look. Sherlock had been there when he was awake, certainly, but—

"I have an accomplice," Sherlock replied, evidently untroubled by Mycroft's omniscience. "I've come to appreciate the value of accomplices of late." Sherlock righted John's chair. "Sit down, John, you could frighten small children."

John sank into his chair, trying to ignore the stabbing pain in his foot. "Your brother wants his puzzle back, Sherlock."

"Oh, does he?" Sherlock's sharp eyes swept over Mycroft from head to toe. "I don't think so."

Mycroft sighed. "Be reasonable, Sherlock; it's evidence."

"You have the chip. I intend to keep this as a memento of our adventure." Sherlock swept up the pieces of the puzzle and walked over to the mantel, where he arranged each piece as artfully as possible. "There. Twenty-six pieces. Oh, now, there's a title for your blog entry, John."

John smiled faintly. "I don't think I'll be writing about this one."

"I should think not," Mycroft said sharply. "You're in a whimsical mood today, Sherlock. I trust you haven't forgotten that our espionage suspect is still at large."

John pressed his lips together tightly. Espionage suspect. To hell with abduction, assault, torture and attempted murder. Bloody Mycroft and his bloody twisted priorities.

Sherlock gave Mycroft a frosty look. "I'm less likely to forget than most. What do your sources tell you?"

Mycroft shrugged. "He hasn't left the country. In fact, there's no evidence that he's left the city. He'll more than likely be coming for his little trinket – or for you, if you get in his way."

John closed his eyes. Christ. Sherlock. He started as he was taken firmly by the arm and drawn from his chair. He opened his eyes to protest. "I'm fi—"

Sherlock steered John to the sofa, lending more than a little support. "Lie down or I'll break your other foot."

John sank onto the sofa, grimacing as he tried to lift his bad leg. Sherlock was there instantly to lift his legs up and settle John's cast on a cushion. John caught Mycroft's quizzical look and leaned back against his pillow, closing his eyes again. He found himself unable to deal with John Steed's evil twin at the moment.

"A word," Sherlock said to Mycroft, low and lethal.

John heard Sherlock and Mycroft leave the room and descend the staircase, speaking in voices barely above a whisper.

***

Sherlock resisted the urge to shove Mycroft down the stairs. "That man is in a hellish amount of pain and doesn't need to hear—"

"Really, Sherlock, you missed your calling. Nannydom awaits."

"Every injury John sustained, he sustained willingly to keep me alive, and the least you can offer him is simple consideration, if respect is too much to ask."

Mycroft regarded him with a somber expression. "Are you ever going to tell me exactly what happened?"

"I've told you what you need to know," Sherlock snapped. "And I'll tell you this. Wilkes is a teaboy. He has no experience in the field and certainly isn't familiar with the etiquette of wetwork."

Mycroft shrugged. "His handlers are, and I have no doubt they've made their displeasure known. They want the chip, and as far as Wilkes knows, it's still in his little puzzle-box. Which, by the way, your colleague—"

"Friend."

"—threatened to lodge in my rectum."

Sherlock barked a little laugh. "Did he? Oh, good for you, John."

"He seems to think my decision to withhold information from you placed you in harm's way unnecessarily."

"John has very strong opinions regarding the measures required to ensure my safety." Sherlock firmly repressed the memory of the expression on John's face as he threw himself into the Fleet.

"Quite right." Mycroft was barely audible.

"Sorry?" Sherlock stared at his brother, genuinely taken aback.

Mycroft adjusted his gloves for a moment. "Your friend may have a point. I'm not entirely satisfied with my judgment in this business."

"Mycroft, have you been drinking?"

"It seems I've been found wanting in due diligence. By, of all people, John Watson. He asked me if I had suspected my person of interest had any reason to harm you before your involvement in this case."

Sherlock glanced back up the stairs, unsettled. John could not possibly know. He had no data. Why—

"And now I see that he did."

Sherlock called his expression to order, cursing inwardly. "It's ancient history, and long settled. It has no bearing on—"

"If I had told you that Wilkes was involved, would you have proceeded as you did?"

Sherlock hesitated, considering. "Probably not."

"I apologize, Sherlock. I was careless."

Sherlock struggled to regain his balance. "You saved our lives."

"That shouldn't have been necessary. It should never have happened. And it won't happen again." Mycroft turned toward the door.

"It wasn't entirely your doing, Mycroft," Sherlock heard himself saying. "What happened in the sewers was completely out of your hands."

"Was it?"

Sherlock drew an uneven breath. "Even Mycroft Holmes can't control the tide."

Mycroft snorted and opened the door. "Get some rest, Sherlock, you're waxing poetic. You should have a few hours' peace; there's a team in place. Oh. And keep that soldier fellow of yours around. I think I'm beginning to like him."

Mycroft closed the door behind him, and Sherlock trudged up the stairs, feeling every moment of the past three days. It was the first time he could remember Mycroft's advice ever making sense. This, if nothing else, was evidence that his mental faculties were severely impaired.

Sherlock paused by the sofa, surprised to see that John had covered himself with Sherlock's coat. Throat tightening, he bent over John, brushing his hair back from his forehead.

John's eyes opened. "Is he gone?" he asked sleepily.

"Yes. He's assigned a team to the house. Go back to sleep."

John muttered something about Sherlock needing to rest, but he was already asleep. Sherlock rooted out some nicotine patches and applied them, then pulled his favorite chair next to the sofa and eased into it, leaning forward with closed eyes and steepled fingers. Sebastian Wilkes wasn't running, and that was definitely a three patch problem.

 

Because Sherlock knew Sebastian Wilkes; the man was an idiot and a coward to his core. He hadn't become involved with the theft of the chip out of devotion to any political ideology, or even for profit. It had been a lark. He was too stupid to comprehend the consequences, and the murder of a courier and the theft of British state secrets had merely fueled his elaborate fantasies. The fact that Sherlock had become involved had only enhanced that delusion.

How it must have delighted Wilkes to hear that Sherlock was unable to open his little box. That must have given him more pleasure than any of the photos Cullen had sent him. And Sherlock didn't doubt that the photos had given him pleasure. He knew only too well Wilkes' tastes in that regard.

My boss would love you. The words came unbidden to Sherlock's mind, and he struggled to reestablish order amongst the resulting cacophony of thought. Over Sherlock's dead body would Seb Wilkes be putting his hands on John Watson. He'd been an idiot. He should never have introduced them. Sherlock sneered at his own foolishness; it had been borne of some childish desire to prove that he had moved on, no doubt, that he was not universally hated, that someone valued him and chose to spend time in his company. Pathetic. The very act of seeking approval from Sebastian Wilkes proved that he had not moved on; his conditioning was intact.

However it had come to Wilkes' attention – and Sherlock had several theories about this, including that ludicrous blog John insisted on writing – Wilkes had no doubt been surprised that John was still living with Sherlock almost a year after their meeting. Sherlock had been surprised as well. He wouldn't have given it two months, himself. And yet here was John Watson, quietly establishing himself in every aspect of Sherlock's life. Had that fueled Wilkes' determination to pursue this business far beyond the recovery of that damned chip? A little punishment, perhaps, to teach Sherlock that no one who leaves Sebastian Wilkes was entitled to find comfort elsewhere, and a little terror to convince John Watson to leave Sherlock Holmes to his own devices. That last would probably have worked, with anyone but John.

Was this why Wilkes wasn't running? Could he be that determined to reestablish their connection? The smuggling case might very well have been his first attempt to call Sherlock to heel. Wilkes must have been bitterly disappointed at the outcome of that business.

Sherlock shook his head. No. No, it wouldn't do. Even an idiotic, delusional hedonist like Wilkes would not risk so much for another go at humiliating Sherlock Holmes. Not after all these years. If the chip was merely a lark, and Sherlock merely a pleasant diversion, what would drive the man to ground rather than leaving the country? Unknown. No answer.

Review the available data.

Sebastian Wilkes. Well-educated but unintelligent. Sadistic. Self-absorbed. Indiscreet. A thrill-seeker. Wealthy, but not quite so wealthy as he had been in years past. Indifferent to matters of politics. Ignorant of the world of espionage. Role in the theft of the chip unspecified. Motivation unknown.

Cullen. First name unknown. Well-educated. Sadistic. Accustomed to the finer things, but fallen on hard times. Experience as a mercenary and interrogator. Fought like a street fighter. Contempt for British military. Unusually familiar relationship with his employer. Took active part in the theft of the chip. Possessed knowledge about both his marks that was unlikely to originate solely with Wilkes. Motivation also unknown.

Pete. Last name unknown. Public school accent overlaid with atrocious attempt at a Cockney. Wore working clothes and boots which did not fit him. Fought like someone trained by the military. Manicured fingernails. Exuded an air of authority despite Cullen's treatment of him as hired muscle. Uninterested in Cullen's torture chamber high jinks. Role in the theft unknown.

Sherlock picked up his phone from the arm of the sofa and began to text.

SOURCE OF LEAK RE COURIER ROUTE? – SH

Surely Mycroft had this end of things sorted by now. There was an uncommonly long pause before Mycroft's reply, and Sherlock's muscles tightened in impatience.

HIGHLY PLACED PERSON WITHIN MINISTRY OF DEFENCE – MH

Sherlock snarled in frustration. As if he weren't able to deduce that much himself. As if Mrs. Hudson couldn't deduce that much.

AM AMAZED BY THIS. PLEASE AMAZE ME FURTHER BY SUPPLYING NAME OF HIGHLY PLACED PERSON. – SH

An interminable pause.

DISCUSSION OF HIGHLY PLACED PERSON VIA UNSECURED DEVICES HIGHLY INADVISIBLE. – MH

Sherlock growled at the phone, thumbs flying across the keyboard.

BUGGER INADVISIBILITY INFORMATION VITAL TO INVESTIGATION COUGH IT UP NOW – SH

Another pause.

HAVE A NICE CUP OF TEA AND READ THE SCANDAL SHEETS; THAT WILL IMPROVE YOUR TEMPER. -- MH

Sherlock restrained his impulse to throw the phone out the window.

JW ON HIS WAY TO WEDGE CERTAIN ITEM IN CERTAIN ORIFICE – SH

Sherlock started counting; his phone chimed five seconds in.

PARTICULARLY LURID EXTORTION CASE YOU MIGHT FIND INTERESTING. – MH

Sherlock caught his breath. Extortion. Extortion, how could he have been so stupid? Flipping through the tabloid websites, he froze, staring at a photo of a well-dressed man attempting to shield his face from the camera. The pieces came together like the memento on his mantel.

"There you are," Sherlock whispered. "I have you now."

"You've solved it."

Sherlock looked up, startled, to see John smiling at him. It was his proud smile, and one that never failed to scramble Sherlock's thought processes. "I think so. We might be in for a little more trouble, John."

John chuckled. "I'd be disappointed if we weren't." He glanced at his watch and gave Sherlock his physician's once-over. "Almost three hours. I don't suppose you've rested at all."

"I'm fine. Do you need anything?"

"I need you to rest, but I know better than to ask," John replied in a wry tone. "So I'll ask a question, if you don't mind. What are we going to do about Wilkes?"

Sherlock turned to face him full on, ignoring the pain. So he'd been right; somehow, impossibly, John had reached this conclusion. "Wilkes," Sherlock said stupidly.

"If you want to protect him, I'll support you of course," John said quietly. "But I think we'll both live to regret it."

"Protect him? Good God—" Sherlock recovered his composure. "Wilkes is completely irrelevant to—"

"Don't bother. I don't pretend to notice everything you do – who could? – but I have ears. Shagging talk at the breakfast table. Christ. Sherlock. You didn't really think I'd forget that, did you?"

Sherlock found himself unable to respond.

John's hands clenched the folds of Sherlock's coat, his pale face flushing. "He hired Cullen. And God only knows who hired Wilkes. Someone who knew his history with you, obviously. I'm not telling you anything you don't know. That wasn't his only slip."

"Your analysis—"

"Wilkes thought we were together," John said flatly.

This was impossible. John had no data. He could not know this.

"That day in his office. All that…fucking rubbish about you being a freak."

Sherlock felt his jaw drop. John was angry. John was furious about, of all things, a trivial conversation that had taken place almost a year ago.

"He thought he was humiliating you in front of your new boyfriend. And he was loving it." John's breathing became harsh and erratic. "As if anything that cockroach said could change my opinion of you. As if you aren't ten times the man he is on your worst day."

"John." The name forced itself from Sherlock's constricted throat.

"And I kept looking at you, waiting for you to cut him down to size, because God knows you're capable of defending yourself; I've seen you reduce half of Scotland Yard to quivering shreds—"

"Hyperbole makes a poor argument." Sherlock heard himself stammer.

John ploughed ahead as if he hadn't spoken. "But you just sat there. With…God, the look on your face. You said nothing. And then you lied about your conclusions. As if that amazing mind of yours was something to be ashamed of. That told me everything I needed to know. He'd fucking hurt you, and he wanted to keep on doing it. I wanted to climb over his desk and pound his head in."

Sherlock's throat closed. Loquacity aside, this was so quintessentially John. This quixotic gallantry. It was ridiculous, and oh, God, it was magnificent. In a completely unnecessary way. Like art. Or—

"God only knows why you took his case in the first place. No, I'm not asking. And now he's taken it to the next level. He was loving those photos, Sherlock."

"He doesn't—"

"Somehow I doubt he expected Cullen to take it quite as far as he did. The drawbacks of hiring a psychopath. But I also doubt he shed any tears over it."

"John," Sherlock said thickly, giving up. He had no idea how John had reached these conclusions. It didn't matter. They were undeniably accurate and led to only one salient fact, which John had been stubbornly failing to acknowledge since they'd been thrown into that car boot. "Wilkes' involvement is completely irrelevant. I'm responsible for this. My judgment… I failed to—"

"Are you on about that again?" John's anger faded to pure weariness. "You haven't failed. You've solved it. The case—"

"Bugger the case!" Sherlock struggled for control as this heresy echoed off the walls. "I failed you."

The amazement in John's face derailed his thought again. "Sherlock." That voice was gentler than Sherlock could process. "Never." And then John was moving, sitting up, swinging his legs and that damn cast to the floor. Sherlock was out of his chair before he knew he was moving; he caught John's legs and swung him around again, forcing him to lie down.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he hissed. "You're held together with sutures and plaster, just lie there and be happy you're alive."

John looked up at him with a wry smile. "I don't look happy, then?"

Sherlock stood there stupidly, blinking, still holding John's legs. He tried to regulate his breathing and failed miserably. He gave up. "How many… How many bones would you have let him break, John?"

Sherlock was fairly certain of a reasonable answer, even from John. Surely John had thought this through. John would have drawn a line, acknowledged the reality of the situation and let Cullen continue his work on his true target. If Sherlock hadn't freed himself, John would have acted. He would have saved himself. "I want an answer," he rasped. He needed an answer.

"Two hundred and six bones in the human body," John muttered.

Sherlock felt himself go hot, then cold, then numb, as he gently lowered John's legs to the sofa. "No," he said unsteadily. "That's unacceptable. That's—" He broke off at the grim look on John's face and sank to perch on the sofa, taking hold of John's shoulder. "Never. Again," he said, in a voice that sounded nothing like his own. "Do you hear me? I won't have it."

John said nothing.

"Please," Sherlock whispered, his vocal chords failing him.

John turned toward him with bright eyes, and laid a hand on Sherlock's cheek. "You nutter," John whispered. "You beautiful, impossible nut—"

Sherlock kissed him.

 

He'd always considered kissing an unpleasant and unnecessary preamble to the unpleasant and necessary business of dealing with those rare occasions when his libido made itself known. Sherlock found himself reexamining that assessment; no one had ever kissed him like John. Gentle and thorough and God as if he loved every second of it, as if he wanted this and nothing else.

Sherlock became vaguely aware that John was holding his head between shaking hands as if Sherlock might pull away; had he the breath and the use of his tongue, Sherlock would have assured him that he had no such intention. He attempted to communicate this with as much creativity as the limits of human physiology would allow, and was rewarded as John groaned softly into the kiss.

John broke away and stared up at Sherlock with wide eyes. "I'd have done anything." His voice shook. "I couldn't stand seeing you go through that. It was less painful to let him—"

Sherlock seized his mouth again. Too much data. Too much, John, too much. He felt John bury his hands in his hair, caressing him as if he were something precious. He felt John kick off Sherlock's coat and pulled back slightly, startled. "John?"

"C'mere," John murmured huskily, pulling Sherlock by the arm as he swung his good leg off the sofa. Something in that voice demanded compliance. Sherlock allowed John to pull him on top of him, careful not to jostle John's cast. He noted his own accelerated heart rate with interest as John's hand slipped down Sherlock's side to rest comfortably in the small of Sherlock's back. John's other hand stroked the hair back from Sherlock's face.

Sherlock closed his eyes and willed his muscles to stop their shaking; it was distracting him from the pure pleasure of John's touch. As if divining his thought, John moved his other leg back onto the sofa, cocooning Sherlock completely. Sherlock rested his forehead on the cushion next to John; John's lips and tongue immediately began teasing the skin behind Sherlock's right ear. "All right?" he breathed.

All right? The man was demented. "John, have I ever been shy about letting you know when something is not all right?"

John chuckled. "Shy? No, I can safely say that's something you've never been."

"Then you may assume that everything and anything you're doing or about to do is all right."

"Right." John curled his fingers around Sherlock's left hand and lifted it to his mouth. He proceeded to astound Sherlock by dropping a light kiss to his palm that sent an absurd shiver up Sherlock's spine.

Sherlock wearily resolved to abandon any further attempt to extrapolate John's behavior from established norms. It was obviously a pointless exercise. Given John's history and character, he had anticipated a direct approach; why he didn't have Sherlock on his hands and knees already he couldn't fathom. He was obviously in uncharted territory. Breathing was an issue. He was getting hard. A kiss on the hand was making him hard. It was preposterous.

John kissed Sherlock's temple, resting his head against Sherlock's. "The first moment I laid eyes on you—"

Conversation. Good Lord. John wanted to talk. "I know." Sherlock tried not to sound smug, purely for the novelty of the attempt, and failed. He wasn't overly concerned; modesty was, after all, profoundly overrated.

"I thought you were the most beautiful man in England."

"Only in England?" Sherlock noted with considerable annoyance that his voice shook. "The Commonwealth weeps."

"Those eyes—"

"I've been told they're my best feature." His eyes, for God's sake. John. Ridiculous, romantic, irresistible John.

"And then you started to talk."

"Thus shattering the illusion." Sherlock tried to bark a sardonic laugh and failed.

"I couldn't believe how brilliant you were, and that voice." John's own voice lowered to something like a purr.

The sound made Sherlock's cock go suddenly and painfully hard. He found himself unable to parry John's verbal thrust, and focused on trying to control his breathing.

"And then you stood up and started to move and it was like sex." The last two words were a raspy whisper. "I got hard."

"Did you?" Sherlock asked breathlessly. "I've…underestimated my charms, clearly."

He felt John's erection pressing against his own. Sherlock tried to remember how or where he had moved that day to produce such a reaction. How could he possibly have failed to notice the extent of John's interest? He must have been distracted. The riding crop experiment, perhaps. Sherlock hastily veered away from the memory. He doubted he'd ever see a riding crop in quite the same way again.

"Clearly. I would have lived under a bloody railway bridge with you." John slipped his hand inside the waistband of Sherlock's pajamas and caressed his skin with warm fingertips. Sherlock gave himself up for lost. "And when you told me you weren't interested—"

Sherlock drew a breath and rallied. "In all fairness, I was tracking a serial killer at the time."

"I know." John's voice was suddenly grave, but his hands still teased. "Your work comes first. It should. It's important."

Important. "You believe that."

"I know it. It's damn good work, Sherlock, and you're brilliant at it."

Good God. Sherlock felt his control begin to slip. "Thank you," he whispered. "I suppose it would be pointless to mention that my good work has nearly killed you on a number of occasions?"

John actually chuckled. "I suppose it would be pointless to mention that it's nearly killed you as well?"

"I chose my work, John."

"So did I. I wanted to be there. I want to be of use, Sherlock."

The statement took Sherlock's breath for a moment. "Of use?" He was appalled by the limited scope of the phrase. John Watson was not of use. "You're essential."

John closed his eyes and rested his forehead against Sherlock's hair. He lifted Sherlock's hand again, pulling it toward his mouth. "Say that again."

Sherlock maintained his focus with difficulty. "You're essential."

"To your work."

John had an exceptional mind; obviously recent events had disordered his thought processes. In all fairness, Sherlock conceded that his own were a little the worse for wear. "You are essential to me in every way possible." The touch of John's lips and tongue to his palm pushed him over the edge. "Damn it, John, I'm going to come if you don't stop that." Sherlock froze, scrambling to regain his self-control and rein in his once conveniently tame libido. If anyone had told him six months ago that he was idiot enough to say such a thing, he'd have recommended institutional commitment.

Clearly surprised and pleased with himself, John hummed a bit, brushing his lips against the inside of Sherlock's bandaged wrist, while his other hand slipped down and over Sherlock's arse. "Hands," he murmured, with a detectable air of mischief. "I should have known."

Damn him.

"Any other locations of interest?"

Sherlock gasped and fought to remain still as John pressed his mouth very gently to Sherlock's throat, just beneath the bandage.

"Throat, too. Oh, the things I can do with you." John's teasing tone was infuriating. Endearing. Ridiculous. John's hand slid between them and caressed Sherlock's cock through the thin fabric of his pajamas.

Sherlock pinched his eyes shut, trying to limit the stimuli. His previous sexual experiences had done nothing to prepare him for John Watson. Being bent over the nearest available piece of furniture and fucked senseless paled in comparison to this leisurely assault on his senses.

"Sherlock?" John's voice was sharp; his hands stopped moving.

"Don't stop."

"What is it? Your back?"

Sherlock raised his head to look at John; their mouths were within an inch of each other. "Do. Not. Stop."

John's head tilted slightly, and Sherlock could see the intuitive leaps in those eyes. No. Not logic. Not data as Sherlock understood the word. Something else.

John brushed his lips against Sherlock's cheek and whispered in his ear. "You can have anything you want."

Sherlock struggled with confusion.

John kissed him gently. "Anything."

Something approximating comprehension dawned. "John?"

"You don't need to ask."

Drawing a steadying breath, Sherlock pushed himself onto his knees, pulling his t-shirt over his head and tossing it aside. He yanked down his pajamas and kicked them off.

"Oh, hello,' John breathed, making no effort to conceal his delight. He pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it.

Encouraged, Sherlock hooked his fingers in the waistband of John's pajamas, breathing hard. Grinning, John obligingly lifted his hips enough for Sherlock to pull them down and off. John was hard and ready, and Sherlock no less so; he slid down to take John into his mouth, letting his eyes drift shut, and began to move.

"Bloody hell." John voice was shaking. "Yes. Sherlock." John buried his hands in Sherlock's hair, and Sherlock braced himself to be yanked forward. It didn't happen; John seemed content to allow Sherlock to proceed at his own pace. More than content, apparently. "So. Fucking. Hot. So. Fucking. Gorgeous; how do you do that? Fuck, teach me to do that, I want to suck you all night just like that oh God."

So this was sex with John Watson. Sherlock began to see what all the fuss was about, and the notion that John thought Sherlock capable of teaching him anything about it amused him no end. He hummed as he redoubled his efforts, applying lips and tongue with the skills learnt in far less pleasant encounters. They had all been worth the price paid. All of them, even the now distasteful servicing of Sebastian Wilkes; because John was panting and begging and keening Sherlock's name as if this was as new for him as it was for Sherlock, as if he couldn't get enough.

Sherlock opened his eyes and risked a glance up, only to find his gaze locked with John's. John groaned and slid his hands from Sherlock's hair to cup his face. "Oh God you beauty what the fuck are you doing to me Christ Sherlock oh damn—" John's face contorted in a way that had nothing to do with pain, and he gently tried to push Sherlock away, which Sherlock found quite annoying. "I'm there I'm there love I'm there," was evidently his explanation, which was also annoying, since being there was clearly the point of the entire exercise; he seized John's bandaged wrist and held it gently.

John's dark eyes widened. "Oh," he panted. "Oh, God, Sherlock, would you?"

It occurred to Sherlock rather belatedly that John hadn't expected something he himself had taken for granted, something astonishing in and of itself in this context, and something that made him all the more determined to give John what he obviously wanted so badly. He guided John's hand back to his hair and closed his eyes again, unable to focus while watching the naked tenderness in John's face.

"Never…another like you," John murmured with an impressive degree of incoherence. "The only—" He choked on whatever nonsense he was about to say and actually screamed Sherlock's name as he came, while Sherlock teased John's cock with relish and swallowed his come with genuine enthusiasm. That was new as well. Lovely, in fact. Unless, of course, the decibels of John's enthusiasm provoked Mrs. Hudson into lodging a complaint under the Anti-social Behavior Act, of course, but Sherlock decided this experience was well worth the hundred quid.

John fell back on his pillow, breathing hard, muttering an incomprehensible mix of profanities and Sherlock's name. He watched avidly as Sherlock's mouth slipped slowly down the length of his cock and off. "Oh, God," he said faintly. "Oh, God, you're going to kill me, aren't you?"

"Don't be melodramatic," Sherlock murmured, pulling himself to his hands and knees with difficulty. His limbs were shaking. "I would never kill you. I'll only…" Sherlock paused, observing John's expectant expression. "Spoil you for other men."

John shouted his laughter at the ceiling, but Sherlock bent down to cut him off with a kiss, feeling more than a little giddy. His first joke in bed. It hadn't been that funny, but it seemed to be a success nonetheless. Perhaps John was predisposed to appreciate his sense of humor. He finally lifted his mouth from John's with reluctance. There was something more than decadent about kissing John while he was laughing.

"Nutter," John said affectionately. This seemed to be John's endearment of choice for the evening, and given his current state, Sherlock couldn't reasonably object. John leaned forward enough to take Sherlock's face in his hands as if to kiss him again. "You already have."

Sherlock's arms promptly gave out; he gasped as John caught him and eased him onto his side with his back to the sofa, sliding over a bit to make room. Sherlock rested his head in the crook of John's arm, resigning himself to sensory overload as John pressed close again, his hand sliding down Sherlock's stomach to take Sherlock's painfully hard cock in his hand. Sherlock uttered a sound that most definitely was not a whimper.

"Come for me," John breathed in his ear, his hand moving in excruciatingly long, slow strokes. "You're so. Damn. Hot. Show me. Show me right now."

"Anything," Sherlock heard himself babble, teetering on the brink. "I'd have done anything—"

"I know," John rasped. "God, I know. Did you think I didn't?" His hand was moving faster, and Sherlock felt himself falling. "Now show me this. Show me how fucking beautiful you are, you daft bastard, show me."

Sherlock slapped his free hand against John's chest as he came, his body bucking against John's as his head snapped back. He couldn't see, but he could hear someone he devoutly hoped wasn't himself gasping out some incoherent business about John and anything and all I want. He felt come splashing his stomach and chest, heard John say "Oh, Christ, yes," and then John's mouth was on his again, in his again. Sherlock only broke away when a need for oxygen became imperative; he pressed his forehead against John's neck and breathed hard.

John's hand was still moving up and down his cock, slowly and gently, and Sherlock had to bite his lip to restrain the absurd little noises hovering just behind his vocal chords. "You're amazing," John muttered. "God, you're amazing." His hand slid down Sherlock's cock and off, and came to rest on Sherlock's hip. He kissed Sherlock's forehead and settled against him, eyes closing. He obviously hadn't any intention of moving, or asking Sherlock to move. Another surprise. Another ridiculous, romantic, and thoroughly slimy surprise; they'd like as not be adhered to each other inside an hour.

Sherlock found himself remarkably unconcerned. He watched John fall asleep, stroking the sandy hair from John's forehead and fighting the exhaustion assaulting his own muscles. No sign of pain yet, but the endorphins wouldn't last long, unfortunately, for either of them. It was worth it. God, it was worth it. John was worth anything, and damned if he'd ever forget it.

***

John woke reluctantly, trying not to groan aloud. Damn, damn, damn his foot, damn his ribs, damn his head and…oh, damn. Sherlock. He felt the cushions beside him. Sherlock was gone. The flat was dark and Sherlock was gone. John's heart sank. Well, he'd known it was a risk. Sherlock was bound to have second thoughts. Christ, he hoped he hadn't just wrecked their friendship, because that—

"I'm making some tea."

John turned toward the voice, startled. He could see Sherlock moving in the milky light from the street, and struggled to sit up, clenching his teeth. He heard Sherlock mutter an obscenity and move quickly to help him upright. He pushed a glass of water and two pills into John's hands. "You're overdue. How bad is it?" His arm went around John's shoulders.

John delayed answering by swallowing the medication and clearing his throat, not trusting his voice. Sherlock would never be done surprising him. "Burying the needle at the moment, but this will sort it. Thanks." He leaned against Sherlock as his friend took the glass from him. John ran a hand over his chest. "You cleaned us up."

"Please don't tell me you wanted to preserve us in that state for posterity."

John laughed, then, out of sheer relief that Sherlock sounded completely like himself. "No. Sorry I missed it, though; I don't think I've ever seen you clean anything."

Sherlock snorted and slid behind John, pulling him back against his chest. John let out a pleasured sigh and let his head rest on Sherlock's shoulder. Sherlock's arms went about him. "You made tea," John murmured, absurdly happy.

"You're too easy to please," Sherlock whispered.

"Not a bit of it. I have ridiculously high standards. Do you see who I waited for?"

Sherlock made a soft noise and buried his face against John's hair. "For me." His voice was rough. "Why?"

"Because you're impossible to live with. Because you insult everyone who listens to you for more than five minutes. Because you know the decomposition rate of a human scalp but not how to use the chip and pin machine. Because you'll risk your life to solve a riddle that no one else could solve in a century, or even think to try, and you'll solve it. Because you won't do the washing-up or buy the damn milk, but you'll tell some maniac to cut your hand off to save a friend. Because you play the violin like an angel when you think I'm asleep and fiddle on it when I'm awake. Because you won't talk for days and then when you do you'll tell me my blog is rubbish. Because my life would be pure misery without you. Because you're mad and brilliant and brave and beautiful and God, you suit me right down to the ground." John paused for breath, feeling the heat in his face and grateful that the lights were off.

Sherlock eased out of their embrace and disappeared into the kitchen, and the bottom dropped out of John's stomach. Oh. Christ. Too much information, John, too fast, too soon, too—

John struggled off the sofa and snatched up his pajamas, wrestling himself into them as he hobbled into the kitchen. He could hear Sherlock pouring the tea. "Look. Just…forget I said all that, all right? Just put it down to the meds or—"

John found himself up against the wall with Sherlock's mouth sealed to his, his clever tongue urgently caressing John's. Something warm and wet and salty splashed John's nose. John went limp with relief, then wrapped his arms firmly around Sherlock's neck, urging him deeper. When Sherlock finally lifted his mouth, his breathing was uneven and too fast. "I'm never going to forget," he rasped.

"All right," John whispered. "That's good. That's fine."

"You're the most extraordinary man I've ever known. You suit me, John. Right down to the ground." And then Sherlock was kissing him again, and damn, that was fine, too, and so was the fact that Sherlock's hands were everywhere John wanted them to be. All this and tea, too. He was the luckiest bastard in London.

A deafening low-pitched sound accompanied John's thought. It shook the floor under their feet and rattled everything in the flat; the concussion of the blast rang in John's ears. Years of combat experience took hold as John tackled Sherlock to the floor, shielding him, before he realized that the explosion was down the street. "Car bomb," he breathed.

Sherlock took John's face in his hands. "Do you remember that trouble I mentioned?"

"Yeah."

"We're in it."

"Diversion?"

"Oh, yes."

"So we're expecting company."

"Almost immediately, I imagine."

"Pete took our guns."

"We'll have to improvise."

John uttered a curse and shimmied back on his hands and knees to let Sherlock up. Sherlock helped him to his feet. "John, I'm going to have to insist that you don't get yourself killed." He yanked open a drawer and pulled out a fairly intimidating carving knife, offering it to John.

"Likewise. No, thanks, if it's Wilkes, I prefer to bludgeon." John limped out of the kitchen, then hesitated. "It is Wilkes, isn't it?"

"If we're lucky."

"Oh, it's always sunshine at 221B," John muttered, seizing the most menacing of the fire irons and limping as quickly as possible to press himself against one side of the doorway to the stairs. Sherlock joined him, his shoulder pressing against John's, the knife in one hand and his coat in the other. "What if Mycroft's team—"

"Mycroft's team will announce themselves. But I daresay they're occupied at the moment." The sounds of shouting, sirens, and breaking glass wafted in through the open windows; the smell of explosive, petrol and smoke hung in the air.

"Bastards," John snarled. "How many injured or worse, just to get something that's sitting in a vault at the ministry?"

"Mmmmm," Sherlock said.

John gave him a sharp look. "The chip was recovered."

"Absolutely," Sherlock murmured in his ear. "I recovered it from the mantel and put it in your surgical kit."

"You what?"

"Problem?"

"We need to work on our communication," John hissed as the lock on the front door scraped ominously. "Are you saying—"

"The chip I x-rayed was genuine. In all likelihood, Mycroft has a counterfeit chip. He'll be discovering that about now, I should think."

John bit his lip, imagining the look on Mycroft's face when he made that particular discovery. "I could bloody kiss you right now," he breathed, lifting the fire iron as the front door swung open.

"Help! Sherlock, help me!"

John turned to Sherlock in amazement. "What the hell—"

"Not exactly an attack by stealth," Sherlock observed drily.

"Sherlock!" The sounds of someone climbing, and falling, up the stairs echoed up into the flat.

John risked a glance around the corner, but saw only one figure. "He's alone, as far as I can tell."

"Let's see what he has to say, then." Sherlock slipped the knife into the pocket of his coat and put the coat on over his pajamas.

"Can I hit him first?"

"Behave, John." Sherlock turned on the lights. He had that little half-smile of his on, the one that inevitably made John's insides twist and jump, and the last three days hadn't changed that in the least. John lowered the fire iron just as Sebastian Wilkes stumbled over the threshold to land on his hands and knees on the carpet.

Wilkes looked from John to Sherlock wildly.

"Hello, Sebastian." Sherlock drew an arm about John's shoulders and steered him in the direction of the kitchen. "We were about to have tea, would you like to join us?"

*** 

Sherlock turned his back on Wilkes with difficulty, maneuvering John so that Sherlock's body blocked Wilkes' view of him. "Don't underestimate him," he murmured in John's ear. "Even the stupidest animal has teeth."

John nodded. He was still clutching the fire iron, and showed no sign of letting it go. Yes. It was once more into the breach for John. Sherlock handed him his tea mug and touched it lightly with his own; John smiled into his cup as he took his first sip.

"Tea?" Wilkes staggered up and followed them into the kitchen. "Sherlock. I didn't want any part of this, he blackmailed me into it. I'm sorry it went so far, that was never what I wanted."

Sherlock congratulated himself on not knocking Wilkes flat with the tea kettle. "Do you accept his apology, John?"

John paused, his mug raised to his lips. "Did someone apologize?"

Wilkes looked genuinely beside himself. "He's going to kill me!"

"It's perfect, Sherlock. You remembered the milk." John took another sip, his eyes full of affection and mischief, and Sherlock drank to loosen his throat.

Sherlock pulled his gaze from John with difficulty. "I'm sorry, Sebastian, can I get you some? You prefer it black, I believe."

Wilkes, for some reason, seemed to have no interest in tea. "I am telling you that I'm a victim of blackmail and my blackmailer is going to kill me!"

"Yes, Sir Edward's temper is notorious, particularly when he doesn't get his own way." Sherlock had the satisfaction of seeing Wilkes' jaw drop. "But really, what did you expect? You didn't deliver what you promised, and then you wasted his valuable time indulging in your favorite sport."

"How…how did you—"

"Just another one of my freakish little tricks. I'm sorry, but if you've come here for protection, you're out of luck. Sir Edward and your friend Cullen appropriated our weapons when they abducted us."

Wilkes' eyes widened. "Sir Edward—"

"Oh, yes, he was there. Cullen didn't have a clue who he was, obviously, although how that ghastly costume and Cockney accent could fool anyone with a functioning frontal lobe escapes me. It seems he didn't trust you. Or Cullen. I wouldn't be surprised if he'd planned to kill both of you from the start."

Wilkes licked his lips and sidled toward them; Sherlock felt John press close instantly. "We can make a deal, Sherlock. I can give you Cullen—"

John barked a laugh. "Good luck with that."

"Cullen is dead," Sherlock said flatly, his gaze pinned to Wilkes' face.

Wilkes went white, then flushed a deep red, his face twisting with anger. "You killed him?"

"Oh, yes. I set him on fire," Sherlock said coolly.

"And I stabbed him." John took another sip of tea. "He took a while to die, though."

"Bleeding bastards," Wilkes snarled.

"Favorite of yours, was he?" Sherlock kept his voice even with an effort. This was not going to be pleasant, and God only knew how John would react. "I thought I recognized your artistic touches."

"I could ruin you so easily," Wilkes rasped. "You know I could."

"You're running out of time, Seb. Sir Edward is hard on your heels, and he's not a man to be trifled with."

"He wants the chip."

"The ministry has the chip."

Wilkes smiled. "No. Sir Edward knows that's not the case."

"Does he, now?" Sherlock made a mental note to further mortify Mycroft by informing him that there was more than one security breach at the ministry. "I can't imagine where he got that impression."

"I'll make you a deal. You give me the chip. And I'll give you the video."

Finally. It was almost a relief to have it out in the open. Sherlock set his tea mug down carefully. "Let me make myself clear. Even if I had the chip, the answer would be no. Do you understand?"

"I'll post it."

Sherlock held the man's gaze. "Post and be damned."

Wilkes turned to John with a smile that told Sherlock precisely what was coming. "Do you know what he got up to at uni, your boyfriend?"

John was starting to look dangerous; he set his mug down and said nothing, looking at Wilkes as if he were something nasty he'd scraped off the bottom of his shoe. Sherlock listened to Wilkes as if in a trance. This had been so many years coming.

"God, he was a sweet young thing. Zero experience in bed and a total freak, of course, but with a face and body like that, who cares? I certainly didn't. I trained him, John, trained him to take whatever I gave him and thank me for it. Imagine it, John, just imagine him at nineteen, taking a riding crop on that skin for the first time. And the best part was? He hated it. He hated every minute of it and kept coming back for more. Now what sort of sick—"

John's fist struck Wilkes' face at such a velocity that Sherlock could hear the man's nose breaking, but it was the clatter of the falling fire iron that finally startled him back to awareness. Blood sprayed over Wilkes' suit, but John ignored it; he took Wilkes' neck in a very efficient chokehold and proceeded to drag him out of the kitchen. His limp didn't slow him down in the slightest.

Sherlock found his voice. "John! What are you doing?"

"Nothing to worry about, Sherlock, just putting the rubbish out," John said in a matter-of-fact tone that told Sherlock that there was very definitely something to worry about.

Sherlock followed him across the sitting room, some part of him enjoying the sight of Sebastian Wilkes, international financier and professional waste of space, waving his arms and sputtering as John dragged him toward the open window.

The window. Oh, Christ. "John, no."

John bent Wilkes over the sill. "Does that look like a long way down to you? It bloody well does to me." John grabbed Wilkes' legs and shoved him further over the edge, prompting a scream from Wilkes. "Let's you and I have an understanding. You? Don't deserve to breathe Sherlock's air, and you never did. Because you're a fucking parasite. Now, this is what's going to happen. First, you're going to destroy whatever nasty little video or photographs you made. And then you're going to contact the Home Office, and tell them exactly when and how and who about that damned chip." Wilkes uttered something like a squawk as John gave him another shove. "Because if you don't, I'm going to find you and cut your balls off. Now, what are you?"

Wilkes uttered something incomprehensible.

"I can't hear you!"

"I'm a fucking parasite!" Wilkes shrieked over the sound of the sirens.

"Right, then." John pulled Wilkes back inside and dumped him in a panting, glaring heap on the floor. Wilkes made a feeble lunge for something in the breast pocket of his jacket, but John had it from him before he could even hold it properly. John racked the slide and shot Sherlock a disgusted look. "Unloaded."

Wilkes scrambled to his feet and bolted for the door, but froze at the sound of a soft, cultured voice.

"My goodness, Mr. Wilkes. You are a disappointment."

Sherlock whirled, pulling the knife from his pocket, but it was pointless. The man at the door fired once, and Sebastian Wilkes dropped to the floor with the back of his head blown away.

***

John watched the gore seep across their rug, shocked into inaction for all of two seconds – until he saw the look on Sherlock's face. Trying not to think too much, he tossed the useless gun at the feet of the man at the door and, snatching up his jacket, he covered Wilkes' head. Then he moved to stand in front of Sherlock. "Don't," he said softly. "Sherlock. Look at me."

Sherlock pulled his gaze from the floor and met John's eyes, nodding silently. The knife slipped from his fingers and fell to the rug.

"I do apologize, Mr. Holmes. I understand he was an old friend, but needs must."

"Look, you're too late," John said sharply. All he wanted to do was get Sherlock away from this thing bleeding into the carpet, and he couldn't. "The ministry recovered what you're after days ago, and—"

"Yes, yes." The man moved inside and seated himself in the chair closest to the door. It was amazing how harmless he looked, like someone's granddad – if your granddad could shoot you between the eyes on the first try. "I've heard this story. I don't need to hear it again." He waved a hand toward the sofa. "Please. Sit down. I'm sure we can be civilized about this."

"Civilized? There's a dead man on our rug and God knows how many out in the street—"

"No one is dead in the street, doctor. I was very careful. Please sit down." The tone was polite, but held an edge.

John and Sherlock exchanged glances. Sherlock moved to the sofa and sat down; John sat beside him.

"Now. I can see from the display on your mantel that you have solved the puzzle. I can deduce from the fact that there are twenty-five pieces there that you know that the chip is concealed within the twenty-sixth. The twenty-sixth piece has not been delivered to the ministry. It must be here."

"Sound reasoning," Sherlock said quietly. "We're not giving you the chip."

"Queen and country, Mr. Holmes?"

"Professional ethics, if you like. Or perhaps I just don't feel inclined to cooperate with people who point guns at me."

The man chuckled. "I can respect that. Mr. Holmes, I'm a lifelong public servant being forced into premature retirement."

"That tends to happen when you operate an extortion ring on the side, even when your name is Sir Edward Burke."

"Some might think that forcing the wicked to pay for their hidden high crimes and misdemeanors is the act of a righteous man."

"Some might think that profiting at the expense of others' misdemeanors is a high crime."

Burke actually grinned. "We'll agree to differ. This business with the chip was intended to fund a comfortable retirement. A simple theft, a simple sale, and no one hurt."

"People have been hurt," John said, unable to keep quiet any longer. "And I don't remember you being so peace-loving outside Angelo's."

"Oh, come now. A little sparring between retired soldiers? You're very good, by the way. When I heard you were a surgeon, I didn't think you would present much of a challenge."

"If you'd like, we can step outside and have another go."

"John," Sherlock murmured.

"At any rate, I chose my operatives unwisely, to say the least. Mr. Wilkes assured me quite convincingly that he was an experienced liaison in such matters. Instead I found myself dealing with a rank amateur who fancied this a game of James Bond in Mummy's garden. He used his personal mobile to arrange the sale. I ask you! A man already under the eye of the Home Office, contacting a buyer on his personal mobile. I should have been disappointed beyond all reason if Mycroft Holmes had not apprehended my buyer and recovered the box."

"May I ask whose idea it was to use a puzzle box?" Sherlock's voice was very quiet.

Burke actually rolled his eyes. "That was Mr. Wilkes. Such a clever man, our Mr. Wilkes." Burke cast a contemptuous look at the corpse on the rug. "He put the chip in the box when Mr. Cullen brought it to him. Nothing this man did was well done. His choice of Mr. Cullen, for example, was incomprehensible; Cullen was both unprincipled and unstable, and placed the entire operation in jeopardy. Imagine murdering a ministry courier. It is the height of stupidity and unprofessional conduct. Quite disgusting. And I can assure you that your abduction was never part of the plan. I did try to remind Mr. Cullen of that, as you recall. In any case, I sincerely regret any inconvenience."

Inconvenience. John's hand curled into a fist at the memory of Sherlock's face while he was being beaten. He tried to answer and couldn't.

"And these particulars and regrets are supposed to persuade me to give you the chip?" Sherlock sounded amused.

"No. These particulars and regrets are supposed to make you understand why I will shoot your friend if you don't give me the chip."

What little color remained in Sherlock's face faded.

Burke shrugged. "Nothing personal, doctor."

"It's never personal," John heard himself saying.

"I could shoot Mr. Holmes, of course—"

"Then do it," Sherlock said. John's breath caught in his throat.

"But I happen to have a great deal of personal and professional respect for his brother, and I would not wish to grieve him if I can in any way avoid it." John started breathing again. "You see, I have my own sort of professional ethics."

John heard the front door open and turned toward the sound, startled. Who--?

"Mr. Holmes? Is everything all right up there?"

John concealed his relief with an effort. Mycroft's team. And about damn time, too.

"Everything's fine," Sherlock called back. His voice barely shook. "Go have some coffee."

John cast him an amazed look. Coffee. He'd told them to have coffee.

"Sir?"

"I said go have some coffee." Sherlock's gaze never left Burke's face.

"Yes, sir." The door closed, and the room was silent for all of two seconds.

"I sincerely hope that was not what I think it was," Burke said softly.

"My ability to reassure you depends entirely on what you think it was," Sherlock replied in a wry tone.

"I think you just gave the coded response for an intruder."

"Then I'm afraid your hope has been dashed. My condolences."

John lowered his head and grinned at nothing in particular.

Burke rose from his chair. "The chip, please. Immediately."

"There's no point," Sherlock said quietly. "The word's been given; they'll be up those stairs in two minutes."

Burke strode across the room and shoved the muzzle of his pistol under John's chin. "Please do not make me do this."

John closed his eyes, wondering if he could possibly grab the weapon before it went off. It seemed unlikely, but he was tempted to try, just to deny this tosser the satisfaction. He felt Sherlock rise from the sofa.

"Wise choice," Burke said.

John opened his eyes and watched Sherlock open the bottom drawer of John's desk and pull out his surgical kit. He unzipped it and removed a small, irregularly shaped piece of carved wood. "Here you go." Sherlock tossed it in a high, long arc; it sailed over Burke's head toward the door.

"Thank you, Sherlock."

John jerked his head toward the voice in time to see Mycroft slip the little piece of wood into the breast pocket of his coat. If anyone had told John that he'd be glad to see Mycroft Holmes today he'd have told them to bugger off in no uncertain terms. How the hell he'd climbed that flight of stairs without making a sound John couldn't imagine, and right now he couldn't care less. Mycroft didn't appear to be armed, but after everything John had seen in the past few days he wouldn't be fazed if the man kept a missile launcher in his umbrella.

Mycroft regarded Burke with a disapproving expression. "Well, we've had a busy night, haven't we, Edward?"

"Mycroft." Burke acknowledged him with a grim smile.

"Terrorism, murder, and—" Mycroft waved his hand dismissively at John. "—this bad melodrama."

"Oh, fine. Thanks." Out of the corner of his eye, John could see Sherlock moving toward him and cursed Mycroft soundly for not getting his brother out of the room immediately.

"It's persuasion," Burke returned mildly. "And it's very effective."

"Yes, so I see. Scene not secured, objective not acquired, and escape not possible. You're doing splendidly. All that's missing is the cyanide capsule."

Burke's lips twitched. "I have your brother."

"You have my brother's flatmate."

"It's all one, Mycroft, in case you hadn't noticed. Just look at him, trying to creep up on me like a three-legged tiger."

Sherlock froze where he was, an arm's length from John.

"Mycroft, get your brother out of here," John said, knowing his desperation was showing and not giving a damn. "What the hell are you playing at?"

Mycroft ignored him. "This is painful to watch. This is amateurish, Edward. You don't have my brother or anything else worth having. It's time to call it a night."

"If you think I'm standing in the dock after thirty-five years of service, you can think again."

"The thought never crossed my mind."

"Call off your team and get me a car. The doctor and I are going for a drive."

"He can barely walk," Sherlock said, his gaze locked on John's face. "I'll go."

"I'm fine," John said to Burke, not able to look Sherlock in the eyes. "I'll walk."

Burke chuckled. "You see, Mycroft?"

Mycroft regarded them with upraised eyebrows for a moment. "Yes. Yes, I see." He sighed. "Oh, very well, then, Edward. It seems bad melodrama is the uniform of the day. Let's go."

John shot Sherlock a quick glance, but Sherlock was watching his brother.

Burke gave Mycroft a startled glance. "Sorry?"

"I'll be your hostage. You weren't expecting me to ask on bended knee, I hope."

Burke smiled faintly and pulled his weapon away from John's throat, then backed away from John and Sherlock slowly.

"Mycroft?" Sherlock's voice was tense.

"Oh, don't fret, Sherlock." Mycroft gave him an odd smile. "Everything will be fine."

"Of course it will," Burke said in an annoyed tone, turning to aim his weapon at Mycroft. "We're not savages here."

"We all have to go sometime," Mycroft continued as he began to walk down the stairs, Burke following closely behind him. "If it goes wrong, Sherlock, tell Mummy I died for true love; that will please her."

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Mycroft, you're being ridiculous." Burke sounded profoundly aggravated.

Sherlock helped John to his feet; John stared after the man in disbelief. "Is he…serious?"

"Very. Stay here." Sherlock moved silently to the top of the stairs. John grit his teeth and hobbled after him. Sherlock shot him an exasperated look and put out his arm to hold John back. John peered down the stairs.

"Shall I put my hands up? That will make me look thoroughly cowed, don't you think?" Mycroft's voice echoed from the stairwell as he raised his hands.

"I don't. I think you've gone--"

Mycroft whirled, seizing Burke's gun hand by the wrist and forcing it into the air. Burke fired, sending a cloud of plaster dust down from the ceiling as Mycroft slammed Burke's arm against the wall. The pistol fell from Burke's hand and tumbled down the stairs; Mycroft promptly drove his knee into Burke's groin. Burke doubled over, and Mycroft flipped him over his shoulder to land huddled at the foot of the stairwell.

"Below the belt. Below the belt!" Burke gasped, as Mycroft drew a pair of cuffs from his coat pocket.

"Some might say threatening a colleague's brother is below the belt, but I won't quibble." Mycroft cuffed him and pulled him to his feet.

Burke remained hunched over, panting. "I didn't lay a hand on him!"

"Which is precisely why I did you the courtesy of not breaking your neck. Stop moaning, Edward, it's unseemly."

"Should we applaud?" John asked Sherlock drily.

"I don't think he'd appreciate it," Sherlock replied with a half-smile. "Out of practice, are we, Mycroft?"

Mycroft glanced up the stairs with a long-suffering air. "I detest field work." He knocked on the front door twice, and opened it to reveal half a dozen heavily armed men. He gave Burke a none-too-gentle push in their direction. "Stand down. Send in the cleaners."

John watched Burke and the team disappear from view, feeling the last of his endurance disappear with them. He felt Sherlock's arm go about his shoulders.

Mycroft gave Sherlock and John another look. "They won't be long. I suggest you wait in John's room until they're finished. And Sherlock?"

"Mycroft?"

"Do try to stay out of trouble for the next few days. I simply cannot attend to matters of the public interest if you constantly require rescuing."

***

Sherlock sat cross-legged on John's bed, his back to John, and stripped off his t-shirt. "I comply under protest." He heard John's sharp intake of breath and grimaced. "It looks worse than it is."

"I can't believe I let you carry me this morning. I should be struck off." John's voice was rough, but his touch was so light that Sherlock could barely feel it as the ointment went on.

Sherlock let his eyes drift shut. "Don't be absurd. You're the only doctor I'd have come within a mile of me if I had my way. That ham-fisted cretin at St. Bart's—"

"He did a good job. A couple dozen knife wounds to stitch and these damned contusions and welts…." John's voice went strained again; he cleared his throat. "The scarring won't be that noticeable."

"I'm not concerned with scars." John touched a particularly painful spot, and Sherlock drew a little breath.

"Sorry," John murmured. "Let me know if it's too much."

"It isn't. It's just…." Sherlock groped for the rest of his sentence, annoyed that his brain seemed to be wrapped in cotton.

"Been a long day," John finished for him.

Sherlock blew some air from his lungs. "Yes. A long day." He paused for a moment. "You haven't asked."

"Asked?" John sounded startled.

"About what Wilkes told you."

John was silent for a moment. "I didn't think you'd want to talk about it."

"Why not?"

"It's personal. You're not exactly a talker when it comes to your personal life."

Sherlock managed a snort. "Very observant. You don't want to know?"

"I want to know everything you want to tell me."

"And no more?"

"And no more."

"Why?"

"You have a right to your privacy. It's bad enough that bastard told me things I had no business knowing."

Sherlock turned his head enough to catch a glimpse of John. His face was set in something very like grief. He turned back hastily, strangely shaken. "Singular. Most people in your situation would think it's entirely their business." He closed his eyes as another spike of pain caught him by surprise.

"Sorry," John said quietly. "Almost done."

Sherlock drew a breath, wondering at his strange compulsion to pursue the subject. "Everything he said was true. I was ignorant and awkward."

"You were a kid."

"Seb was the only one who expressed interest in having anything to do with me."

"He took advantage of you. All right, turn around so I can take a look at your neck."

Sherlock turned around to face John and lifted his chin. "We were consenting adults, John."

John's mouth was set in a grim line. "I'm not talking about legalities." He gently removed the bandage on Sherlock's throat, flinching. "Damn it, Sherlock, this is all—"

"You believe he took advantage of my ignorance."

"I believe he took advantage of your innocence."

Sherlock almost laughed. John and his romantic notions. "I was never innocent."

"Everyone's innocent at least once in their lives. Sometimes more than once." John applied ointment along the wound, his face twisting as if it were his own throat he was treating. Sherlock could feel the strained stitches protest and set his teeth. John pulled his hand away and wiped the ointment from his hand with a tissue. "Just let me put a fresh bandage on and we're done."

"He told you the truth. I hated it. I hated everything he did to me. And I kept going back." Sherlock wondered why he was still talking.

John applied a fresh bandage to Sherlock's throat. "Sherlock." John's strained voice almost gave out. He picked up Sherlock's t-shirt. "Put your shirt on."

Sherlock pulled the t-shirt over his head. "I've always wondered why I did that."

John turned out the light, and Sherlock sat blinking in the darkness, trying to see John's face in the faint light from the window. "Sometimes being completely alone is worse than any amount of physical pain," John said quietly.

Sherlock became slowly aware of some involuntary movement in his limbs, and raising his hands he could see, even in the darkness, that they were shaking. "My hands are shaking," he said calmly, turning them over and examining them. "Why are my hands shaking?"

John picked up his extra blanket from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around Sherlock carefully. "Because you're in shock." John's arms went about him.

"That's ridiculous. Why the hell would I be in shock?"

John leaned his head against Sherlock's. "Because you just saw someone you used to care for murdered."

"Care for?" Sherlock was appalled by John's lack of comprehension. "I hated him. I hated everything about him. I broke it off. Do you want to know why?"

John leaned back against his pillows with Sherlock in his arms; Sherlock felt no desire to resist. "If you want to tell me." John carded the hair at the nape of Sherlock's neck as Sherlock settled against him, lying on his side with his head on John's shoulder. Succumbing to instinct, Sherlock wrapped himself around John, soaking in his warmth.

"I found his collection. Video and photos. Dozens of people. Most of them were younger than I. Much younger. There was a girl in those photos who couldn't have been more than twelve."

"Dear God," John muttered.

"I confronted him. He laughed. I told him it was over. He told me not to be stupid. He offered me a hundred quid a pop."

"He…what?" John's voice dropped to a venomous whisper. "He did what?"

"That was quite a flattering sum in those days."

"Flattering?" John was breathing much too fast. "I should have—" He cut himself off and pressed closer, kissing Sherlock's forehead. "Sherlock—"

"I didn't accept."

"Of course you didn't bloody accept."

"I tried to interest the local police in his…activities with minors. Can you imagine the stupidity? Of course he had moved his collection by then. I traced the girl. She denied everything. I looked like a fool."

"You weren't a fool."

"I had thought uni would be different. A fresh start." Sherlock was annoyed to hear himself stutter, as if with cold. "No one knew me there. But after that, Sebastian made certain that everyone knew me."

"None of them knew you," John whispered in his ear.

"Why am I talking so much?" The appalling realization finally set in. "Is this shock?"

"Yes, this is shock."

Sherlock was disgusted. "I sound like an idiot."

"Not to me."

"I can't think, John. I can't bloody think." This was revolting; what if he stayed this way?

"Breathe, Sherlock. It'll pass soon." John rested his head on Sherlock's. "Would you like me to get you some tea?"

"I would like you to stay exactly where you are," Sherlock grated, tightening his arm around John's waist. "And to forget this ever happened."

"Go to sleep," John murmured, nuzzling him.

"The state of medicine in this country is positively medieval; how the devil does a blanket reset someone's cognitive processes?"

"Sleep."

"Good God, do you suppose Anderson is walking about in a state of perpetual shock? It would explain so much."

"Sounds like a plausible theory to me." John was laughing softly into his ear. "Go to sleep, you nutter." John kissed his temple, caressing him, and Sherlock subsided, feeling the tremors fade. He closed his eyes, synchronizing his breathing with John's. John was still holding him when he finally fell asleep.

 

***

 

John woke with a start, certain he had heard something, only to discover that Sherlock was gone. Damn! Couldn't the man stay put for…John squinted at the clock. Oh. It was nearly dawn, and Sherlock hadn't eaten in days. He'd probably gone out to get breakfast, or— The sound of Sherlock's violin interrupted his thought and brought him fully awake. Sherlock had left the bedroom door open, and the sound of the instrument traveled up the stairs and into John's room with surprising clarity, even though he could tell Sherlock was playing very softly.

John forced himself to his feet, every muscle and bone protesting. He hastily swallowed his dose of pain medication, slipped into his dressing gown and limped down the stairs as quickly as he was able. Violin playing meant Sherlock was thinking. Sherlock thinking when there was no case to think about could mean trouble. It could mean he was thinking about the late unlamented Sebastian Wilkes, may he rot in hell. John ground his teeth. If it were possible to raise Sebastian Wilkes from the dead and kill him again, John would have done it. Video and twelve-year-olds and a hundred quid a pop, my God; to think he'd had the opportunity to beat the bastard to death with a fire iron and missed it.

Or it could mean he was thinking about how to retrieve Wilkes' damned collection, which John had every intention of instructing Mycroft to take care of personally, even if he was a damned judo master and secret emperor of the universe.

Or it could mean he was thinking about John. The John in whom he'd confided last night, the John he'd told things he'd no doubt never told another living soul. That could be very bad for John Watson. No one guarded his secrets more carefully than Sherlock Holmes.

John slowed as he moved down the steps, listening to the music. God, the man could play. It simply wasn't decent that so many talents resided in one person. John reached the bottom of the stairs and moved to the door of the sitting room, where he stopped in his tracks.

Sherlock had evidently been playing for some time; there were candles lit on the mantel that had burned down to their sockets. Sherlock stood before the fireplace, still dressed in his dressing gown and pajamas, and continued to play like one possessed, oblivious to everything around him, his fingers dancing over the fingerboard as if they'd been created for that purpose alone.

John didn't recognize the tune. All he knew was that it made him breathe quicker and his eyes sting; he swallowed against a tight, aching throat. By the time Sherlock finished and raised his bow, John was blinking to clear his vision.

"I hope I didn't wake you." Sherlock's voice was unusually quiet as his gaze swept over John.

"My God," John croaked. "That was beautiful." He was amazed to see Sherlock's cheeks flush. "Just…exquisite. I've never heard you play like that before."

Sherlock smiled a little as he returned the violin to its case and loosened his bow. "You were right. I do tend to play while you're asleep."

"I didn't recognize the piece."

Sherlock made a fuss about storing his bow in the case. "Just a little improvisation."

John moved forward, flabbergasted. "You composed that?"

"I think it's a bit of a stretch to characterize it as a composition." Sherlock's flush was deepening.

"You are completely mad if you don't know how amazing that is. Look, I'm only a primary school clarinetist and even I know—" John found himself seized and kissed before he could finish. And God, kissed thoroughly. He was weak in the knees by the time Sherlock raised his mouth.

"I'm glad you like it," Sherlock said breathlessly. "I wrote it for you."

Well, damned if this madman was going to get away with that; John wrapped both arms around Sherlock's neck and pulled his head down, committing some snogging of his own. "I thought you only played when you were thinking," he murmured once he was satisfied he had made his point.

Sherlock hands traveled John's body gently. "Sometimes, rarely, I play to stop thinking." He paused, searching John's face, then took a breath. "I had a nightmare. You were in the water and I couldn't find you. I kept diving for you, but the current had dragged you away." Sherlock's voice faltered.

"You should have woken me." John rested his head against Sherlock's chest. "You'll always find me. Or I'll find you."

Sherlock let loose a little breath, wrapping both arms around John's shoulders. "Dangerous."

John knew Sherlock wasn't talking about water. "Second thoughts?"

"Not as such. Just…take care. Please."

John closed his eyes. It was always extraordinary to hear that word from this man. "And you. Because there's no damn point to anything without you."

"Or you." Sherlock sounded like something was obstructing his windpipe. He cleared his throat. "I understand that the nature of our work necessitates a certain amount of risk, but this compulsion of yours to leap into rivers and goad psychopaths—"

"Our work?" John murmured contentedly.

"Sorry?"

"You said 'our work.'"

"Your point?"

"And you can talk about leaping and goading, can't you?"

"I haven't the slightest—"

"Don't bother. Play that piece again."

"Later. I have other plans for the morning. In fact, I have other plans for the next few days."

"Oh?" John lifted his head and opened his eyes, surprised. "New case?"

Sherlock regarded him soberly. "No. I plan to keep you off your feet."

John chuckled. "Boring. You'll be shooting the woodwork inside of twenty-four hours."

"I don't think so." Sherlock slipped his hands under John's dressing gown, sliding it down and off.

John looked at it for a moment, then grinned up at Sherlock. "I like this plan."

"I thought you might." Sherlock reeled him in and kissed him again, one hand slipping up under John's shirt.

John tried to pull Sherlock's dressing gown off, but he got little help from Sherlock, who was too focused on keeping John in his arms to cooperate in much else. "Too many clothes," John whispered between kisses.

Sherlock grunted and shed the dressing gown, steering John toward his bedroom.

"So tell me," John asked, tugging on the waistband of Sherlock's pajamas, "Was the musical interlude part of this plan?"

Sherlock pulled John's shirt over his head and tossed it aside, backing John into his bedroom. He was smiling. "Possibly."

"I think it was." John carefully pulled off Sherlock's shirt, mindful not to snag any stitches. "I think the plan was to seduce me by appealing to my hopelessly romantic nature."

"You have no data to support this theory, John." Sherlock's long hands slid inside the waistband of John's pajamas and pushed them down; John happily stepped out of them and let Sherlock push him onto the bed, then pulled Sherlock down on top of him.

"Tell me you have something more useful in here than skin samples and desiccated lung tissue," John murmured in Sherlock's ear.

Sherlock's eyes began to dilate; he groped the front of his bedside table with uncharacteristic clumsiness.

"Is that a yes?"

Sherlock muttered something that John interpreted as "cheeky bastard" and managed to open the drawer. He pulled out a small tube of lubricant and a condom and dropped them on the bed.

John instantly picked up the tube. "Data," he said smugly. "This is new."

Sherlock kissed him, but John pulled away, laughing. "Oh, no, science will not be thwarted."

"John," Sherlock growled in a warning tone.

"Not brand-new, or you'd still have the bag from the chemist's lying about this microbe-infested swamp—"

"That is an inaccurate and offensive characterization."

"But still fairly new. How long ago did you finish that composition?"

Sherlock glared down at him. "Guess."

"I never guess. Given how familiar you are with it, and factoring in how ridiculously brilliant you are at everything, I'd say…two weeks."

Sherlock's eyes widened.

"Hah. Thought so." John opened the lubricant. "Case closed. And still too much clothing."

Sherlock slithered out of his pajamas. "Your methodology is flawed. You haven't proven your case."

"Doesn't mean I'm wrong," John said, smiling.

"Purely for curiosity's sake, and conceding nothing – if I had planned anything so preposterous, would it have worked?" Sherlock regarded John with narrowed eyes.

"Oh, you had me by the first note." John reached out and took Sherlock's hand. "In fact, I thought I had made it clear that you had me months ago, but I suppose, being the thorough man you are, it wasn't enough to have me; you wanted to have me head over heels."

Sherlock's face had gone impossibly soft. "And?"

"Mission accomplished." John started caressing the lubricant onto Sherlock's fingers.

Sherlock stared at his hand, clearly startled. "What are you—"

"I'm going to show you head over heels. Well, not literally, I'm not twenty anymore, but I'll do my best. Unless this isn't something you wa—"

"Yes," Sherlock blurted. His eyes were fully dilated now; he stared down at John. "God, yes. I just thought… " He drew a breath. "Yes." He pushed himself up to kneel between John's legs.

Sherlock's surprise confirmed all John's suspicions. He let out a breath and pulled Sherlock down for a kiss, praying for even a fraction of the stamina he'd had at twenty; from the look in Sherlock's eyes, he was going to need it. John slipped one of the pillows under his lower back and lifted his uninjured leg to rest the back of his knee on Sherlock's shoulder. "Don't let me hurt your back."

Sherlock caressed John's thigh, swallowing visibly as John took Sherlock's hand and guided a warm, slick finger inside. Oh, God, those long, talented fingers. John let out a long breath at the sensation, and Sherlock froze. "John?"

"It's good," John breathed, "It's fine. It's just…been a while." He curled his fingers around Sherlock's rapidly hardening cock, stroking slowly.

"How long of a while?" Sherlock bent over him, following John's lead, pressing slowly deeper, his eyes never leaving John's face.

"Ah. Well." Damn the man, he didn't actually expect him to think with all this going on, did he? "Seven years?" John laughed a little at the uncharacteristic astonishment in Sherlock's face. "What? I'm choosy."

"Lunatic," Sherlock whispered.

"Fair enough," John said wryly.

Sherlock's eyes drifted shut. "Do not let me hurt you."

"Not a chance of it." John guided a second finger inside, managing to keep the initial discomfort from his face. "My dreams aren't this good oh God yes—" John fought not to arch his back as Sherlock's fingers brushed his prostate.

Sherlock's eyes flew open in surprise. "All right?"

"You're joking," John said breathlessly. Christ, he had forgotten how good that felt. He let go of Sherlock's hand, leaving him to his own devices.

Sherlock bent over John with a muffled whimper and began moving his fingers at such a pace that John started to shake. "Slow, slow, God, Sherlock, please."

Sherlock instantly complied, with a wicked little smile. "Sorry. How's this?"

A pair of nimble fingers teased his prostate, and a jolt of pure pleasure made John's hips buck. "Sherlock. It's not…a bloody violin." John grabbed the condom and opened the wrapper with shaking hands. "I knew you'd kill me."

"Spoiled. For other men," Sherlock reminded him unevenly, setting a steady rhythm of strokes and gentle pressure, his eyes half-closed.

John couldn't restrain a pleasured groan. He should have known the man would learn indecently fast. "There'll be nothing left of me for other men, you daft git." John rolled the condom down Sherlock's cock with difficulty. "And that's the way I want it." He applied more lubricant, getting the mess everywhere; Sherlock seemed beyond caring.

Sherlock uttered a soft sound deep in his throat. "Yes…the way I… John. I want—"

John took hold of Sherlock's hand and gently pulled it away. He laid a guiding hand on Sherlock's hip, and one on his cock, and drew him in. Sherlock thrust eagerly, all flushed cheeks and dark eyes. John closed his eyes as his head fell back on the pillow, gasping at the ceiling, and more than a little overwhelmed at the sensation of Sherlock pressing into him. All right, that had hurt a little more than he'd expected.

"John?"

The alarm in that voice brought John around; he forced his eyes open to meet Sherlock's wild gaze. Damn. He was in bed with the one man on the planet who didn't turn his brain off during sex. John put a hand on Sherlock's free shoulder, curling up to kiss him thoroughly. "More," he breathed in Sherlock's ear, meaning it. "More, more, more…"

Sherlock uttered a cry behind clenched teeth as his hips bucked slightly; he clutched John's thigh and started to move, gently but deeply. He slipped his other hand behind John's head and eased him back to the pillow, then wrapped long, sensitive fingers around John's cock. John let loose a ragged breath, discomfort fading into mindless pleasure. He twisted the sheets in his hands.

"God, look at you," Sherlock grated. "Are you always like this? Tell me you're always like this."

John struggled to respond. "I'm…God…always like this? I mean…oh Christ…I have been known to be other ways…oh fuck! You beautiful nutter…but for the most part…yes yes yes just like that…I guess it depends…there there there right there…if you like me like this."

"Oh, yes. I like you like this. I want to keep you like this all day."

John started laughing helplessly. "Good…God…luck with that. Oh God you mad angel fuck me harder…."

Sherlock complied with considerable enthusiasm, watching John with an ecstatic expression and his eyes half shut. "Would you fuck me like this? Just like this. Exactly like this."

John slammed his fist against the mattress. "I would fuck you like this or standing on my bloody head you gorgeous idiot yes."

"I want you to. I didn't think…God, I want you to." Sherlock's rhythm suddenly faltered; his eyes widened and his breath became erratic. "No," he snarled, "No, not yet…"

"It's all right," John breathed, sliding a lubricant-covered hand over Sherlock's hip and over his buttock.

"Damn it, John, no, you haven't—"

"Show me," John chanted, slipping one finger inside Sherlock. "Come for me yes yes yes do it love please—"

Sherlock drew in a startled breath, staring down at John with lips slightly parted and eyes unfocused in pure pleasure for what seemed like minutes, although it was probably less than a second. John held his breath. God, he was beautiful, it was fucking unearthly how beautiful Sherlock was in that second. Then Sherlock's hips bucked and he came, his whole body shuddering against John's thigh as he clutched it, shouting John's name. He remained on his knees, panting and muttering something about violins and rivers for a few seconds, while John caressed his lower back.

"All ri—" Sherlock slipped out of John, bent down, and took John's hard, ready cock into his mouth, quite effectively cutting off John's question and disabling his capacity for rational thought.

"Sweet Christ," John panted at the ceiling, burying his hands in Sherlock's hair and trying desperately to move his leg off Sherlock's back without knocking him in the head. The touch of those maddeningly talented lips and tongue drove him over the edge. "What are you doing you lunatic oh god love I'm so damn close please please please—" John came hard; he couldn't see, couldn't hear, could only feel Sherlock sucking him off and swallowing his come. He seriously suspected he was screaming something profoundly stupid.

John had no idea how long he lay there as his senses slowly returned to him and his breathing slowed to normal. After a little while he felt Sherlock roll onto his side, heard him take off the condom and toss it away. John reached for him, fumbling, and was startled when Sherlock took his hand, raised it to his mouth, and kissed John's palm. "Sherlock?"

Sherlock slid up to lie on his side, facing him. "John." He laid one arm across John's chest and rested his head on John's shoulder. He was silent for a minute. "I think I may have underestimated the effort required to keep you off your feet."

John chuckled, caressing Sherlock's arm. "There are flaws in any plan."

"The effort isn't a flaw," Sherlock said gruffly. "It's a gift."

John kissed Sherlock's temple.

"Oh. And speaking of gifts." Sherlock reached over to the bedside table and picked up a small cardboard box. "I've been meaning to give you this for weeks. I…never could find the right moment." He handed John the box, flushing.

John cleared his throat. What had the lunatic done now? "You don't need to—"

"Stop being an arse and open the box," Sherlock growled.

John opened the box, bracing himself. It could be anything from a bronzed eyeball paperweight to a mummified thumb, but it was the thought that counted. He was surprised to see business cards. Taking up the first card, he realized that they were Sherlock's, but the first two lines had been reprinted.

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, M.D.
Consulting Detectives

John stared at it, thoroughly flabbergasted for the second time in one morning.

"There," Sherlock said lightly, rolling onto his back to stare at the ceiling. "Now you can show that to Angelo the next time he calls you my date—"

"Sherlock," John said, not trying to conceal his amazement.

"And tell him you're my business partner."

"Date is fine. And this is…thank you. This means a great deal to me."

"Not that it will impress Anderson or your other friends at the Yard—"

John dropped the box, took Sherlock's head in his hands, and pulled him close, kissing him deeply. He felt Sherlock roll onto his side and press against John, one arm sliding around John's waist. John pulled away slowly to look his friend in the eye. Sherlock met his gaze with a touch of wonder in his expression. "Now that I have your attention. Thank you. This means a great deal to me."

Sherlock smiled. "Tea?"