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Mary

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Last night he dreamt he went to Manderley again.

In the dream, he had stood by the iron gate that guarded the drive with the house itself hidden in the distance. He found himself on the wrong side of it, and with the distinct impression that he should not enter, as if the memory was still barred to him.

To cross the threshold seemed unthinkable, and this hesitance restrained him from proceeding further. A blessing and a curse, as the estate was the embodiment of bittersweet memories. He was convinced that no place on earth could be so loved and so hated in equal measure.

He had not once returned here in sleep. He had not yet dared to revisit it in any way, be it mind or body - Manderley was the ultimate taboo. But like anything repressed in one’s waking hours, it was only a matter of time before it slipped its way into his less guarded subconscious.

He was accustomed to vivid dreams, due in part to his exceptional visual, spatial and sensory memory. When he reached forward to touch the metal of the gate, it was cool and rough with rust beneath his hands. The man-made had decayed while the wilderness thrived, the winding drive beyond having been reclaimed by nature with branches and bush eclipsing the once clear road leading to the house.

This was an unsettling observation - it was as if he were really at Manderely in spirit as it would be now. At this thought, he found himself to be in spirit quite literally. He was able to cross through the barrier of the gate, seeping through the bars like fog drifting in. His travel was unrestricted though the path had been usurped by the natural world, with gnarled roots and branches reaching out as if to impede him. He rather wished they would. Perhaps if he had been more corporeal, more firmly in the reality of the decrepit place, he would have known what to expect at the end of the journey.

Finally – it appeared, Manderley, unchanged in its grand appearance and undisturbed in its perfection. It was the same as it had been when he’d first laid eyes on it, years ago, on the front of a postcard. He’d seen it then with no recognition or appreciation of its significance, beyond a passing thought on the possible mysteries a distinguished estate home might hold. For a long moment Manderley appeared exactly as it had, picturesque like the image on the postcard. The gardens thriving, light spilling out from the windows onto the entryway, and the house less guarded of its secrets.

This was to be a transient fiction. The house’s appearance began to alter, dripping away like a painting left in the rain. When the illusion was extinguished, he could at last see destitution and the overwhelming evidence of a home gone to waste. There was no light at Manderley any more. No part of its past owner lingered.

The harsh reality spurred him to the realization that he was only dreaming, as he knew for certain that in his waking life he could never go back to Manderley. This image remained with him long after waking - the memory of a place that had been a marriage between his rational expectations of the present, and the wistful buried past.

He should have deleted it, cut out the memory like the tumour it was. If only he could - once something became an essential part of his organization, it was impossible to remove. And Manderley had already wormed its way into his memory palace against his better judgment. An annoyance, given that he could never speak of it.

Even before his exile, John’s hand would tremble at the passing mention of it. That likely should have warned him, but he had misunderstood John so deeply then, and in so many ways. The behaviour had been curious, and he could never resist the temptation of the mysterious. Especially if at the center of the puzzle was the key to the most interesting man he had ever met.

Manderley, like a spell, always had the power of causing a dark cloud to pass over John’s countenance. John, who had the patience of a saint, and was by nature a quiet and restrained man. All warmth from his face would vacate, transforming him into something distant and beyond all reach. And he could never resist the desire to please John. The only person it was important to please.

Once there had been others he had wanted to please, in the hopes of this greater goal. He couldn’t think of Manderley without recalling its inhabitants, and its actual master. A grand estate home is no greater than the sum of its parts. Namely, those in its service. And there was no one more influential to Manderley than the man who had ruled over its machinations like a spider at the center of its web.

He can remember his voice with absolute clarity, how it would change volume and tone at random and sing out like a children’s rhyme. Most often with a taunting reminder to him of the late Mrs Watson.

How he must have seemed, after Mary. The boy he’d been then - lanky and awkward with dark unruly hair, face strange with its angular features, and clothes ill-fitting from his ongoing growth spurt. His presence like an insult, stumbling about the place that she had once reigned over with grace and mastery.

But there’s no sense in dwelling on the ghosts of the past, or so he has been told.

 

 


 

 

Of course none of this would have ever transpired if not for his unfortunate acquaintance with Sebastian Wilkes. Which in contradiction, made him a most fortunate acquaintance indeed.

The man he was today would never have associated with Wilkes, let alone have agreed to an arrangement of that nature. However, at the time he had lacked the character traits he now valued above all others, confidence and self-security, and was unaccustomed to friendship or respect from his peers.

After abandoning his chemistry degree for a brief fling with a seven percent solution, his brother and only living relative had discontinued his financial support. If he refused to finish school – where admittedly he was not able to return even if he had wanted to, due to various transgressions and destruction of property – his only other option was to enter into employment deemed suitable by his brother.

Which was how he came to be in the unenviable position of official companion to the infamous Sebastian Wilkes. The dislike was mutual, but Wilkes coveted the image of his social status above even his own personal comfort. Having a personal companion was all the rage, and spoke to his growing wealth.

The Hotel Cote d'Azur in Monte Carlo was the perfect choice for Wilkes’ breed, which was how they found themselves seated in its gorgeously vast and vacuously decorated dining room. This was to be Wilkes’ location of choice for celebrity spying, first and foremost, and dining second. Sitting across the table in complete and utter boredom, he watched as Sebastian spooned multiple pieces of ravioli into his actively chewing gob. Wilkes had a fondness for talking while eating, which he was demonstrating at that particular moment. “There isn’t anybody worth anything here!" Wilkes commented, without any interest in his reply. "If no good company turns up, they’d better damn well not expect me to pay full price. Do they think I come here to look at the help?”

The lack of ‘unique’ personalities was a complaint Wilkes made most evenings, to the general offence of the other diners in the hotel as well as the wait staff. While he observed that the staff hated Wilkes, they were unable to direct their resentment to their actual target without fear of losing their positions. However, Wilkes’ meek and socially inferior companion was of course fair game. The waiter this particular evening had brought him a plate of cold cow’s tongue, which had already been sent back to the kitchens at lunch. He had swallowed his own tongue enough on this trip to find this completely unappetizing.

Eating slowed him down anyway. So did talking. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat or speak for days, preferring the company of his own thoughts to anyone outside of himself. While he and Wilkes had been in Nice, he’d been able to collect jellyfish from the sea and perform a variety of experiments on the viscosity of their secretions. The information he’d gathered was stored reliably in a section of his mind. This is where he coded items of interest using locations, a method of memory enhancement he referred to as a mind palace. There was a specific location in his memory structure, where he could feel round stones hard against his feet, and a stiff breeze tugging at his hair. It was easy for him to recede into the pleasant contemplation of the results, like slipping into a warm bath.

Or it would have been, if not for his attention being drawn to the obvious indications that the long vacant table next to theirs was to be occupied this evening. It was to be someone of particularly high standing, given that he could see the maître d’hotel bowing at the entrance of the room before leading the new guest further into the dining room.

Silver clattered against china as Wilkes abandoned his utensil in favour of his favourite sport, rubbing elbows with affluence.

“It’s John H. Watson,” Wilkes declared, the volume of his voice making his companion cringe. “The man who owns Manderley. Even you’ll have heard of that. He looks positively wretched, doesn’t he? They say he’s completely gone to bits over his wife’s death…”

It was strange to think how different his life would have been if Sebastian Wilkes had not been such a snob.

He had never heard of the man himself, and yet he couldn’t help but feel the sting of embarrassment from Wilkes’ loud discussion of Watson’s personal life. He was going to be associated with Wilkes by proximity, and for some reason he didn’t want the new arrival thinking ill of him in that way. He prayed that Wilkes would not go further than this, but unfortunately once he had set his sights on a visitor of distinction, stopping him was futile. Wilkes was already tapping his knuckles against his chin, a telltale sign that a plan of attack was being devised.

Wilkes began eating with renewed vigour, wanting to get dinner out of the way. With sauce dripping down his chin, Sebastian directed him, “Be a good chap, go upstairs and find the letter I've just received from Mike Stamford, and then bring it back down.”

He rose from his seat with a sigh. Having never intended to eat, leaving the table in the middle of the meal was no hardship - but he did resent being sent on errands. It didn’t require his level of insight to infer Stamford must have somehow known this John H. Watson, and that Wilkes intended to use the mutual acquaintance as an excuse for introduction.

He had been given little time to examine the object of Wilkes’ interest, but it was long enough to know the man in question would not appreciate the forced company of others. John Watson - traveling alone, and dressed smart, but unobtrusive (navy blue suit, classic button down, matching tie, and the in-fashion wide-legged trousers). It was easy to conclude Watson preferred to not draw attention, or to be disturbed by strangers. Especially given his grieving, as Sebastian had announced to the entire room. Anyone with any tact would have known to leave Watson well enough alone. He hesitated in the rooms after finding the letter, telling himself it was purely to spite Wilkes. He considered using the Service staircase, taking an out of ways route to the restaurant. He could warn Watson and allow him to make his escape from a shameless hanger-on.

He dismissed this idea as soon as it formed. People often did not respond well to his good intentions. He supposedly went about things the ‘wrong way’. Why would this situation be any different? And what did he care of a famous widower’s comfort?

On returning downstairs he realized he’d been in the room for much longer than he’d thought. The sought-after owner of Manderley had already left the dining room and Sebastian, likely out of fear of losing him, had initiated conversation without the help of the letter. Wilkes now had his prize in his grasp on a sofa in the lounge.

Deciding to complete his task regardless, he walked across the room to them and handed the letter to Wilkes without a word. Wilkes waved a hand at him in annoyance at being disturbed from his success, and mumbled his name as an introduction between himself and Watson.

Unlike Wilkes, John Watson rose to his feet at once in greeting. This was especially gracious, given that he used a cane to assist himself in standing.

If Watson had been about to say anything he was unsuccessful, as Wilkes cut in to inform him that Mr Watson was joining them for coffee, and would he go and ask a waiter for the third cup?

His tone was careless, but acted as a firm reminder of his place. As per usual he was not to be involved in the conversation. This was partially because his social skills left something to be desired, but mostly because Wilkes preferred to be the center of attention. Brandishing his position above another person also allowed him to appear more impressive, or so Sebastian imagined.

He had once been mistaken for Sebastian’s friend, which had been an embarrassment for them both. Wilkes had since learned the art of communicating his companion wasn’t to be thought of at all. Which is why it was particularly surprising that Watson continued to stand, and for him to take it upon himself to signal the waiter instead.

“I’m afraid I must contradict you,” he said to Wilkes, but with a surprisingly gentle voice. “You are both having coffee with me.”

Before he could gather his bearings, Watson had taken over the hard chair that Wilkes had clearly meant for him. As a result he sat next to Wilkes on the sofa, the only option left available to him. Sebastian grimaced at being so separated from Watson, but collected himself for their guest.

“Did you know I recognized you as soon as you came in? I thought to myself ‘there’s Mr Watson, Stamford’s friend, he must be dying to see Mike’s honeymoon photos!’ and here they are –“ Wilkes presented the contents of the letter with aplomb.

Watson offered a small smile in response. He observed that Watson was not easily overjoyed, but did seem at least fond of his friend Stamford as some of the expression was truthful. A tightness about Watson’s eyes and mouth spoke to his discomfort, and boredom, at having to socialize. He knew the feeling.

Wilkes droned on regardless, “- and there’s his wife, isn’t she gorgeous? Mike’s wild about her, as I’m sure you can imagine. He didn’t know her back when he threw the party where I first met you, but I dare say you don’t remember me from then, do you?”

It was this kind of blundering line of questioning that made it difficult for one to resist the urge to do bodily harm to Wilkes, but Watson was unfazed.

“On the contrary, I actually remember you very well,” Watson said with a smile that suggested it was very likely not a positive recollection. Before Wilkes could trap him in a rehashing of this apparent first meeting, he handed Wilkes a cigarette and lit it for him. Watson did not take one for himself (peculiar, for a gentleman). He couldn’t help but respect the strategy. He too would have done anything to keep Sebastian’s mouth distracted from speaking.

“I personally don’t think I’d care much for Palm Beach,” Watson said while blowing out the match.

He couldn’t help but think ‘no, I suppose you wouldn’t’, and realized after the fact that by accident he’d spoken the words aloud.

Suddenly he had the full attention of one John H. Watson, and his very open and direct blue eyes.

“What do you mean?” Watson asked with genuine interest.

He reminded himself that his observations and deductions put people off and that explaining them in full would only cause awkwardness, or worse, offence.

“You seem like a man who prefers action, something Florida isn’t exactly known for.”

Watson laughed in surprise. While tapping his leg with his cane to draw attention to it, he repeated, “A man who prefers action?”

Perhaps his comment was foolish? But Watson’s eyes were brighter than they had been a moment ago, and his lips twitched in a facsimile of a smile. He decided Watson was amused, if not also self-deprecating.

Even if the deduction seemed silly given the apparent disability, he knew he was right. He tried to picture Watson in Palm Beach and while he could see him looking well with a tan, he couldn’t see him happy in a place intended for vacation. Watson possessed a strength in his bearing, almost military, that spoke of steadfastness and loyalty. He had calluses on his hands from shooting a gun, likely for sport, and he imagined that Watson shot with precision and without hesitation. His face was unassuming but handsome, the lines of it speaking to years lived. Watson was not a soft, idle aristocrat – rather, he looked as though he belonged in a war zone defending his country.

Watson reminded him of a portrait he’d once seen in a gallery. It was a depiction of a Captain in action, someone who was willing to fight and die for his fellow man. He remembered the feeling of the soldier’s eyes watching him, continuing to follow him as he’d walked away.

He was broken from his musings by Sebastian’s chuckling, and realized he’d lost the thread of the conversation.

“Well, if Mike had a home like Manderley I imagine he also wouldn’t be playing around in Palm Beach,” and here was the real crux of the matter, what Wilkes really wanted to discuss, “I’m told it’s like a paradise, that there’s nowhere else quite like it.”

Sebastian paused here, expecting Watson to smile and gush about his renowned home. Watson’s face remained impassive, still beyond a line forming between his brows. His only response was to move his left hand from the table to his lap. The silence was uncomfortable, but more importantly unprecedented. Why would a man not want to hear compliments on his home? But, then of course the house held sad memories – his deceased wife. Of course.

Wilkes continued, undeterred, “I’ve seen pictures of it of course. I must say, I wonder how you can bear to ever leave it.”

Watson’s silence was now painful, and it would have been clear to any other audience that he did not wish to discuss it further. Even though he hated allowing Wilkes to embarrass him, he began to again feel uncomfortable by association. He didn't like experiencing guilt, and especially not secondhand. He willed Sebastian to stop by glaring daggers at the back of his head. This did very little. If anything, Wilkes increased the volume of his voice.

“Of course, like a true Englishman, you depreciate your home so we can’t accuse you of being prideful. Isn’t there a minstrels’ gallery at Manderley, and some very valuable portraits?”

Sebastian turned to him for the first time in the conversation to ease the tension.

“Mr Watson is so modest he won’t admit to it, but I believe that lovely home of his has been in his family’s possession since the Conquest. I suppose your ancestors entertained royalty at Manderley, eh Watson?”

This was more embarrassment than he had ever had to endure, even from Wilkes, but Watson responded at last.

“Not since Ethelred,” he replied, sarcasm evident in his tone.

Watson looked as though he would have gone further, but stopped short when he glanced directly at him. He realized his cheeks were flushed in shame from Wilkes’ behaviour, and that Watson must have noticed. If he’d been more assured in himself, he and Watson could have shared a laugh at Sebastian’s expense. He could have bonded with him in that moment, both of them derisive of Sebastian, but instead he was mortified.

Watson saw his distress, and leant forward to offer him more coffee with that same gentle voice. He was torn between appreciating the gesture, and feeling annoyed that his youth and awkwardness had attracted the attention.

“What do you think of Monte Carlo?” Watson asked. ”Or, do you not think of it at all?”

Being addressed so directly was a joy and a terror. He felt like an ungainly schoolboy next to this older, confident man. He began answering the question in halting words, saying something obvious about the artificiality of the whole place, before Wilkes once again reared his head.

“He’s spoiled Watson, that’s his trouble. Anyone else would give their eyes for the chance to see Monte.”

“Wouldn’t that rather defeat the purpose?” Watson responded.

Watson cast a smile his way, and he couldn’t help but feels his lips twitch in response. Oh, but Watson was a bit glib. He found he rather liked it.

Sebastian’s criticism still rankled him, though. “I preferred Nice, is all,” he said, in his defence.

“Nice?” Watson asked, open to a new conversation topic. He would have responded, if Sebastian had not spoken over him once more.

“Oh yes, he loved Nice – he likes to do experiments in the hotel rooms, can you imagine? He was collecting things from the sea every day and doing Lord knows what with them. It’s either that or he’s obsessing over the obituaries in the papers. He’s a strange child, like you wouldn’t believe,” Wilkes concluded, smiling across at Watson, and expecting him to share in the joke of ribbing his companion.

In humiliation, he dipped his chin to avoid eye contact and flushed further at Wilkes exposing his hobbies. Now Watson would think he was weird, at best eccentric, like everyone else he had ever had sustained contact with. Watson did not smile back at Wilkes, and instead looked between the two of them in interest. He gathered Watson was unsure about the exact nature of their relationship.

“Are you two… partners?” Watson asked.

Sebastian’s jaw dropped, aghast, before laughing it off. “Us? Together? What a fantastic joke!”

“Oh – I’m sorry, I just assumed –“ Watson began, turning to look at him in apology.

He turned his face away from Watson in response. Would his embarrassment ever end?

“Watson, you’re a real card. In any event, I’m of course faithful to Monte –“ Wilkes proceeded to launch into a tirade about his constitution and the English winter, asking Watson if his rooms were large enough, if his valet was good enough, and other such asinine things. Watson continued to appear uncomfortable with questions that made any reference to his wealth. This was... intriguing. Watson was the epitome of fortune and class, but was traveling without help or company - a straightforward man of simple needs and creature comforts. Watson also continued to observe him from the corner of his eye throughout the rest of the conversation. He refused to look up and return the gaze, wanting to avoid any further loss of face.

“I hope your valet has unpacked your things, Watson?” Wilkes continued to prod.

“I’m afraid I don’t have one. Perhaps you’d like to do it for me?” Watson asked. Ah, Watson also smiled when he was angry - if gritted teeth and pulled back lips counted as smiling. Even Sebastian could feel the dig of that response, but was miraculously still able to laugh and brush it aside.

“Me! Well, this one could make himself useful,” Wilkes said, gesturing to him. As it turned out, it was possible for his face to redden further.

Watson seemed almost angered by the suggestion, before shaking his head. “I’ll have to turn down the offer. You see, I’m attached to the family motto: ‘He travels the fastest who travels alone.’ I suppose you’re not familiar with it.”

Watson stood from his hard chair following this biting comment. He watched Watson lean and shift his weight on his cane, while Watson excused himself. Wilkes might have taken more offence to the parting remark, if he hadn’t been so shocked by the abrupt departure.

“Well, did he think he was being funny just leaving like that? I can’t imagine - “

He didn’t hear any more of this commentary, as he decided to take leave of Wilkes himself. He followed the other man at a similar pace, but Watson was already gone by the time he entered the main hallway. Not that he’d been hoping to catch him. He’d rather avoid more social discomfort than seek it out. He returned to his room, taking the stairs to give himself time to clear his head.

Alone in his room, he set out to ‘obsess over the obituaries’ as Wilkes had put it. If there was a suspicious death of some kind in the papers, he could distract himself from the lingering secondhand disgrace he still felt. He refused to think of how awkward and uncultured he must have seemed to Watson, a truly competent and self-assured man.

He refused to allow himself to be affected by others. What did it matter how he came across? He preferred his own company; he had no need for the esteem of others. He had his own personal pursuits, and it didn’t matter if others understood them or him. If his fingers of their own accord flipped through the pages to the gossip columns, he of course did not skim them for mentions of a certain name. Before he could find anything of interest, there was a rapping at his door. He opened it to find Wilkes.

“There you are! What the hell are you doing going up early like that? Also, and this is kindly meant, really you know it is, but you were a little too forward tonight. You completely dominated the conversation, I can’t imagine what Watson must have thought.”

‘Watson thought you were abominable, and he pitied me for being stuck with you’, he thought. Despite feeling spiteful, he remained silent, a talent he had mastered in his time as a companion. He opted instead for closing the door in Wilkes’ face. There was enraged spluttering from the other side, but he wasn't concerned about Wilkes. He would presume it was just his companion being odd, and would forget to be affronted, as he so often did.

Except that soon after, another knock sounded at his door. Odd. Wilkes would usually have given up trying with him by now. That, and the knock had been off. Not forceful and incessant like Wilkes. A steady solitary rap against the wood.

A small card slid underneath the door. And then the sound of feet, and another object (cane), retreating, muffled by the hall carpet. He bent down to retrieve the card, curiosity mounting. He opened the envelope and read:

‘I was very rude this evening, please forgive me. - the man you had coffee with’

There was no further signature, but it was clear from the provided context (as well as the slant of the writing and the quality of the card stock) that it was from John Watson. He was floored – it was not John Watson who had been rude, and the very idea that he could have forgotten the man he’d just had coffee with. It was him who was forgotten, or remembered for being off-putting, not John Hamish Watson of Manderley.

He wondered if Wilkes had received a similar note? But then, why not just give one to Wilkes and have it include the same sentiments to them both? Perhaps he’d gotten the rooms mixed up? He wondered if he should deliver the card to Sebastian. But on the front of the envelope was his own name, and spelt correctly, which was unusual.

He placed it on his side table, and fell asleep facing it.

That night he dreamt he was in the art gallery, the same one where he had seen the painting of the soldier. He dreamt that as he observed the painting, the Captain from the portrait stepped out from the frame and walked towards him with purpose. He stopped and stood at parade rest in front of him. After saluting, the Captain reached out to touch his face.

But then it wasn’t the Captain from the portrait at all, whose face he couldn’t even recall. It was John Watson, dressed as the very same man. Watson even had to reach upwards to account for their difference in height. Watson had been shorter than him in reality, but while he was waifish, Watson was the personification of sturdy, reliable, well-built. He remembered this accurately in his dream, as he did anything that was important. He remembered that Watson had to look up to stroke his cheek, and to slide his small callused hands up into his hair. He dreamt that Watson spoke to him in his soft, strong voice, though he couldn't remember what was said. The voice was firm and calm, and he had believed every word.

The Watson created by his subconscious had been rather true to the real man, except for one large divergence. He dreamt that Watson had looked at him with care and genuine interest, rather than with kindness and pity.

Chapter Text

When he returned to the waking world, it was with a hazy recollection of the events of his dream. The full memory of it was elusive. Like trying to hold water in cupped palms, he would catch it for a moment before it slipped away again. However, even the vague understanding of its nature was more than enough for him to know Wilkes would mock him endlessly if he ever found out. Which was foolish - how could Wilkes possibly know? And know what, exactly?

He dressed with efficiency before stowing Watson’s note in its envelope inside his bedside drawer. Wilkes had a habit of barging into rooms unannounced, and he’d prefer to not have to explain the apology.

He needn’t have worried. When he went to check in on the other man, Wilkes was confined to his room, tucked into bed and coughing weakly. Wilkes declared that he was very unwell, and that he would be staying there for the rest of the day, possibly the week. Sebastian must have felt particularly rebuked by the ‘one good personality in Monte’ for his illness routine to make a repeat performance so soon after the one in Sommières.

He was fond of this particular attention-seeking ploy of Sebastian’s, as it meant he would be relieved of spending the day with him. He took his leave of Wilkes with a skip in his step, heading to the dining room for an early luncheon. It was his ideal mealtime – in between breakfast and lunch, when he could eat in peace without being distracted by the other hotel guests surrounding him. He was so enamoured with the prospect of being alone that he didn’t realize till he was halfway across the room that the dining area was not completely empty.

It was in fact currently occupied by one John H. Watson.

This was a contingency he had not prepared for.

Did he turn back? No, he was already too far into the room, meaning Watson had seen him by now.

At that moment, he wished he were older, or simply different. He had yet to grow into himself, which made him annoyingly aware of when he was ill-equipped for dealing with social situations. Watson was eating early, clearly in an attempt to avoid other people (he would know). Watson also likely wanted nothing to do with him, but would now feel forced into his company by proximity.

It occurred to him that Watson was probably eating at this time for the express purpose of evading him and Wilkes, as their table was the only one adjacent to Watson’s in the dining room. They were also the only people to have ambushed him the previous evening.

This realization only increased his uneasiness, but he aspired to remain aloof. He would be above the situation. Composed, calm. They would eat breakfast next to one another, never speaking a word.

He strode across the room, staring straight ahead as he sat down, and knocked over a vase of flowers for his trouble.

He desperately tried to catch it before it fell, but only managed to fumble it further as the water spilt out across the table. The waiter was too far away to have spotted it yet, but Watson was by his side in a moment with a dry handkerchief.

“Well, I suppose you can’t sit at a wet tablecloth,” Watson murmured, mopping at the mess. His swiftness was impressive, considering he was still leaning on a cane.

”It hardly matters, seeing as I’m eating alone," he said, but when the waiter arrived to sweep away the cloth and flowers, Watson acted as though he'd heard none of it.

“He can dine with me, if you don’t mind,” Watson instructed, and the waiter obeyed with a nod of his head. The natural inclination when met with Watson’s gentle, commanding voice was to oblige, it seemed.

He could feel warmth spreading across his cheeks in a bright pink flush, still overly conscious of his dream from the night before.

He was also conscious of the fact that this mature and solitary man did not - rather could not - actually desire his company.

“Don’t trouble yourself,” he protested, but the maître d’hotel was already setting the seat across from Watson. “I couldn’t possibly,” he added, albeit weakly.

“Why not?” Watson asked, as if that was that.

“Please,” he said, tone bordering on snappish. “Don’t be polite on my account. It’s very kind of you-“

He said ‘kind’ like it was a foul word. And to him, it was.

Watson smiled at him, benign and pleasant, painting a very different picture from the cuttingly sarcastic man from the night before. How easily he could hide his nature, slipping into docility like a disguise.

“But I’m not being polite,” Watson insisted. “I would like you to have luncheon with me. I would have asked you to, even if those flowers hadn’t done you a personal disservice.” Watson had the gall to wink at him.

If this was meant to make him less mortified, it failed miserably. But, he did finally lower himself into the seat at Watson’s table.

“So, where is your … Mr Wilkes?” Watson asked, unevenly. He was obviously still unsure of their relationship, seeing as Sebastian had never actually answered the question.

“Sebastian is playing unwell, and so is in his rooms.”

He could tell he sounded too stiff, too machine-like. He was terrible at making conversation. He had also implied Wilkes was faking it, which was not exactly in line with his companion duties – was there no end to his blundering?

“I’m sorry to hear it,” Watson said, though it seemed he was not sorry in the slightest. “It’s very good of you to dine with me, especially after yesterday. You saw my note, I hope?”

“Yes, I did, but you weren’t rude," he responded, worrying at the edge of the tablecloth. "Or at least, not the sort of rudeness that someone as thick as Wilkes would understand.”

He immediately regretted the decision to continue opening his mouth. His own rudeness evidently had no parallel. He didn’t know if he could trust this man, and he could lose his job if word got back to Wilkes that he was speaking ill of him openly.

“That is –" he rushed to correct himself, "he doesn’t mean to be offensive. He’s like that with everyone he decides is important."

“Oh, so I ought to be flattered then," Watson responded, strangely more amused than anything else. "And why should he consider me important?”

“I imagine because of Manderley," he said simply.

Though Watson’s hand was in his lap, he could still see that it spasmed based on the tension in Watson’s upper arm. This was the exact moment when he remembered that he had seen Manderley before, from a postcard. He couldn’t quite reconcile the striking image of the grand estate with Watson’s reaction, even if the place did remind Watson of his late wife.

How long, exactly, did it take to get over late wives? He certainly had no idea, but apparently the association was enough to ruin the good mood. If his brother were here, he’d be sighing in exasperation and asking if he was truly this incapable of pleasant conversation.

“I’m Wilkes’ companion,” he said, apropos of nothing. Watson had been curious about that after all.

Watson didn’t raise his brows so much as he lowered his hair – which was to say, he seemed surprised but interested by the non sequitur.

“His companion? Does that mean something I’m not aware of?” Watson asked, a quirk playing about his thin lips. Success.

“I suppose it does if you’re unfamiliar with the concept. He pays me to accompany him,” he said, smiling slightly.

“I wasn’t aware you could buy that sort of thing," Watson said, appearing thoughtful. "Sounds a bit like the slave trade."

“It would be very much like that, except that I am paid and slaves are not," he said glibly, and Watson was now smiling again.

Beaming at him over breakfast after a comment about slavery was something he was fairly sure was a bit not good - the sort of thing he would normally be chastised for. He felt strongly that Watson was less like other people than he let on.

Watson had an extremely expressive face. He felt he could read anything from it, like a written text, and yet he could misunderstand every word if he were not careful.

“You haven’t much in common with him, Wilkes,” Watson commented. “What do you do it for?”

“Ninety pounds a year apparently,” he replied, well aware that it was in fact not very much money at all. Especially to a man of wealth like Watson.

“Haven’t you any family?” Watson pressed.

“I have a brother. This was his idea," he responded, not concealing his distaste for his brother in the slightest.

“Any other family? Perhaps the people who gave you that lovely and unusual name," Watson suggested. Watson was of course teasing him, but it seemed to be the pleasant kind rather than what he was more familiar with. The waiter returned then, pouring coffee for them both, and providing him with a cup to hide behind at the opportune moment.

“My father was a lovely and unusual person, but my parents are both dead,” he replied. Admittedly, it was his middle name, but his father had chosen it.

Watson’s gaze softened. Watson looking at him in sympathy was not unlike a physical touch, and perhaps just as comforting.

“All right. Tell me about him,” Watson said.

He knew Watson was just trying to make conversation with a taciturn younger man, but he was still stunned by his request. He pretended his lap was exceptionally interesting for a moment while he gathered his thoughts. His father was special to him in a way he wasn’t certain he could articulate. He didn’t know how to resurrect the man over lunch in a dining room to a stranger in Monte Carlo.

“He played the violin, though not well," he responded, haltingly. "I took after him in that I suppose. He was generally not a very bright man. He dressed a lot like you.”

Watson barked out a laugh at this.

“Watch it! Are you trying to say I dress like an old man?" Watson asked, but was clearly not offended in the slightest. "Anyway, I think you’re lying. Not about me being an old man – I suppose I am compared to you – but about the violin. I suspect you play beautifully.”

His blush had apparently only been gone on a brief vacation, and had returned fully recuperated.

“Well, we’re quite the pair," Watson commented idly, filling in the silence once more. "I get the impression I feel the same way about my sibling as you do about yours, and I haven't much else family beyond that. Alone in the world. I think I should congratulate Wilkes, you’re cheap at ninety pounds a year.”

“You forget you have a home, and I do not,” he chided. He knew this was badly done, as he’d just established that Watson’s home was his obvious sore spot. But how could Watson possibly think they were of similar places in the world? The suggestion was ridiculous. He was no one, and Watson evidently was someone.

“An empty house can be as lonely as a full hotel,” Watson said after a pause, looking at him pointedly.

Was that a dig at him? Because, for a fact, he wasn’t lonely at all – he preferred solitude. And Watson could take his sympathy and companionship elsewhere if he thought otherwise. He only wished he was brave enough to say so.

Watson cleared his throat.

“So, the violin,” he continued, “do you play for Wilkes? Are you expected to entertain him? Do party tricks?”

He was beginning to understand Watson handled discomfort with humour, and his humour ran rather sardonic.

“I only have one ‘party trick’ as you say, and Sebastian has banned me from it.”

“And why might that be? I’m sure I’d enjoy a demonstration.“

He could feel one corner of his mouth sliding upwards, forming the crooked smile that people did not like. His fake ones were usually far better received, but Watson didn’t seem to mind. He kept licking his lips.

“Are you sure? Many don’t enjoy it.”

“Oh, now I’m very sure I’d like to know.”

He decided that Watson grinning at him like that was excellent, and that he should find out what he was doing that was causing it and repeat it as often as possible.

“Well, seeing as you’re sure. I deduce people, " he replied. "I have made the science of deduction and the study of people and their effects my business. I can tell a man’s profession from his hands, and the state of his marriage from his necktie."

When he realized he was both babbling and bragging, he snapped his mouth closed with a click.

Watson’s reaction to his speech was singular. His eyes became almost black from his pupil eclipsing the dark blue iris, and his smile had steel in it, as if he were chomping on a bit.

“You mean, you can tell a person’s secrets just from looking at them?” Watson asked, while licking his lips again.

He felt he would very much like to study Watson’s mannerisms and expressions further. The man was misleading. He appeared to be an open book, but one written in complex language. Watson’s eyes said attraction, keen interest, a man looking danger in the face. But, with his voice and posture, he aimed to convey disinterest. And he was still expecting an answer.

“Yes,” he replied, his voice wavering slightly. He took a sip from the water glass in front of him to help wet his suddenly dry throat.

“Well,” Watson said. He leaned back in his chair and tapped two fingers against the top of the table. “What can you deduce about me?”

Their eyes met and held for a long three seconds. He drew in a rattling breath. Why was it hard to breathe? The careless request obviously belied a darker challenge, but he could not fathom it, nor Watson himself.

He was however unable to come to a conclusion or to provide deductions, as there was a sudden commotion coming from the hallway just beyond the dining room.

“Thief! Thief! Someone stop him!” a woman’s voice rang out.

Watson’s head whipped in the direction of the cry for help, and he had risen from his chair before the second cry of “thief”. Watson was about to head towards the yelling – however, also audible was the rapid pounding of feet across hard floor.

“Go to the other door!” he cried, and Watson, trusting him implicitly, launched towards the exit furthest from the shouting. He followed closely on his heels.

Watson was quicker, and arrived at the perfect time to trip the sprinting bellhop, causing him to fall flat on his face in the hotel hallway. Watson pulled the young man up off the floor while a woman and several staff caught up.

“Looking for this?” Watson asked in high spirits, holding the squirming bellhop up for inspection.

“Yes,” the woman confirmed, out of breath and clutching her neck. “He’s stolen my pearls, and then tried to escape!”

“I’ve been framed!” the accused cried, speaking for the first time. Fighting against Watson’s strong grip was futile, and the bellhop was now blinking and flushed in a way that suggested waterworks were shortcoming.

With a glance between the distressed bellhop, the maître d’hotel, and several wait staff (including the waiter who had re-gifted the cow’s tongue to him the day before), what had actually transpired became quite clear.

“He’s right. He’s been framed,” he said. All eyes turned to him, and Watson’s hold on the boy’s bent forearms loosened considerably.

“How could you possibly know that?” the maître d’hotel demanded.

“Obvious,” he replied.

“Not to me,” Watson said. Watson was at that moment grasping a potential criminal, his cane lying forgotten on the ground, and restraining himself (barely) from grinning ear to ear.

Well, he supposed just this once his observations might be shared, given the current situation.

He slipped his hand into the bellhop’s pocket where he could see the outline of the necklace.

“See, he had it on him- ” the waiter began to say, before being cut off by a stern look from the maître d’.

“The bellhop currently has mud and grease on his hands from assisting with a luggage bag that had been rather over exposed to the elements. If he had pocketed the pearls during the time window I suspect the theft occurred, there would be clear evidence of his touch. Ah, but no mud or grease to be found! Instead, there are specks of ravioli sauce encrusted on three of the pearls,” he said while brandishing the necklace.

“How could that have gotten there? Hmm, seems to oddly match the stains on this particular waiter’s cuffs – and so you see, really quite obvious, don’t you agree?“ he concluded while holding up the waiter’s sleeve.

Revenge was best served cold, somewhat like old cow tongue.

“Brilliant!” Watson exclaimed while he dropped the bellhop entirely, who stumbled with relief and almost fell to the floor a second time.

He was distantly aware that there was a squabble now occurring between the accused waiter, the maître d’, and the recently arrived hotel manager, but all outside stimulus was muted. He was floating above their heads, above himself, his brain lit up like he'd taken a glorious hit of cocaine.

Had Watson said brilliant?

Back on Earth, Watson was being thanked profusely by the damsel in distress, who was now happily polishing tomato sauce from her newly reclaimed jewelry. Watson was ever so gracious, no signs of his supposed bad manners, and smiling at her entirely too winningly.

This would absolutely not do.

He pressed his foot into the handle of Watson’s forgotten cane, causing it to snap up into the palm of his hand in a move he hoped looked smooth.

“Looking for this?” he asked, parroting Watson’s words from earlier.

Watson’s jaw dropped slightly before shaking his head ruefully. It was now the woman who was all but forgotten in the hallway.

“Your limp is not a physical issue, but a problem of the mind. I’ve observed that sometimes it is almost like you don’t remember the disability,” he said, wishing he’d been able to state it earlier when it would have seemed less obvious, more ‘brilliant’ of him to notice.

“Right, yes, right on all accounts. I get the impression that will be a recurring theme with you,” Watson said, quite obviously delighted with him.

He had prepared additional impressive observations, but found that they had all promptly left his head. Acceptance and praise for his usually derided talent was so out of the ordinary, he wasn’t quite sure what to say. He was afraid if he tried to speak, only gibberish would come tumbling out. Foolish things like ‘never stop looking at me like that’ and ‘do you know you smile when you’re angry?’ and ‘let’s have dinner.’ Had they only just had breakfast?

“So. What were you going to be occupying yourself with today?” Watson asked, in place of his silence.

There were samples he’d like to collect, just past a cobbled square he’d seen, and he said as much.

“If you’d like, I can drive you there in the car,” Watson offered.

He felt the muscles in his face stretching, moving in ways he was seldom accustomed to, till he was sure he was beaming too brightly for such a simple suggestion.

“Yes,” he said.

 


 

 

Driving with Watson about Monte was surprisingly refreshing in comparison to how he normally spent his days – namely, holed up in hotel rooms or in the forced company of Wilkes and his ilk.

Watson didn’t feel the anxious need to fill the silence with talking when there wasn’t anything to be said. He was comfortable with quiet, and only spoke when he had something to say.

The only trouble with the lack of conversation was his mind wandering, and once they were in the car Wilkes’ words from the night previous came to his mind unbidden. The accusation that he had been too forward in their conversation, and suddenly he interpreted the quiet in the car quite differently.

Did Watson think he’d been needling him for a lift? And so he’d offered out of propriety? Even worse, did he think he desired his company for his status? As they’d left the hotel, the staff had treated him much differently than how they had acted towards him before. Now that he was seen about the place with John Watson of Manderley. He remembered his father’s dislike of superficial snobbery, and couldn’t help but hate himself for the changes in others.

“Is something annoying you?” Watson asked.

He looked up in surprise – Watson had been focused on the road this entire time, and he was sure he hadn’t said anything. How could Watson know?

“You just seem – annoyed, “ Watson repeated.

“No,” he said too quickly. “It’s only – the staff. They were different with me. Than before.”

Watson seemed to be contemplating this. “That made you uncomfortable? You really aren’t cut out to be around people like Sebastian Wilkes, are you? You’re too …. You’re not like that.”

He wasn’t sure if this was meant as a compliment, or merely offered as fact.

“Have you ever thought about the future?” Watson asked him. “What this sort of thing will lead to? Supposing Wilkes gets tired of keeping a companion.”

Yes, he supposed. He’d on occasion thought of his future. He’d thought about watching as fluid pulled its way up from a vial and into a syringe. Mixing the exact concentration for a perfect dose, in the perfect place, on the perfect high. The perfect high that would never end. Or end everything, rather. He used to think the perfect place was London, but maybe now it was Monte Carlo.

“No,” he said, instead. “I haven’t, and I don’t care. Wilkes is welcome to tire of me, I’m tired of him. There will be other Wilkeses for my brother to thrust me upon.”

“And that’s that then? You’ll do what your brother says till the end of your days?”

He did groan then, and turned his face away to look out the side of the car.

“What would you have me do?” he yelled out over the wind.

“You’re rather good at those deductions. Suppose you were a detective. A private detective.”

He snorted. He would rather think something ridiculous than contemplate the possibility of his own failure, if he went down such a path.

“Or perhaps with the police?”

He did not bother to dignify this with a response.

Watson was chuckling. “Not a fan of the police force? I see it’s hard to earn your good opinion.”

Hardly, he thought. Watson had gained it effortlessly.

“I’ve tried interacting with the police before. I think you’ll find they are highly resistant to good sense, and wouldn’t know sound detective work if it hit in them in the face.”

“So you have experience solving real mysteries? What happened exactly, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Not much to tell really. A boy named Carl Powers drowned to death and the police were convinced it was an accident. I was, and still am, convinced it was a murder made to look like a drowning.”

“Oh?” Watson asked, the timber of his voice higher than he’d ever heard it. Watson cleared his throat before continuing.

“And you never expressed your opinions to the authorities again, I take it?”

“The authorities or the newspapers. You’d think at least the reporters would take to the gossip, but I suppose a boy of twelve’s thoughts seem too fanciful even for that.”

Watson laughed. “A boy of twelve! You were a child genius then, of course. And how old are you now?”

He provided his age, which led Watson to reminisce on the days when he too had been a young man in his twenties. He personally felt Watson was not so old, but left him to his nostalgia.

The car eventually stopped. He had almost forgotten this outing had an objective. Typical of Monte Carlo, they were part of the way up a cliffside looking out over the sea. He immediately jumped from the car to squat down to the ground. As he went, he collected dirt from different areas, and placed them in test tubes drawn from his coat. He moved from spot to spot in a crouch, but sometimes lunged up and over when a different patch caught his eye.

Once he had filled several vials, he remembered he wasn’t alone. Watson had not disturbed him in his work at all, which he appreciated. Watson did not seem to overly mind being ignored. He had wandered away from the car, limping much closer to the edge of the cliff.

Watson’s hand was in his pocket, while the other clutched his cane. He flexed his left hand repeatedly, as if trying to shake something off. In profile, Watson was partially facing the sea. He was eying it appraisingly, and appeared almost entranced. Watson even began to lean forwards. It struck him that this was rather risky behaviour, and as this thought occurred, Watson’s hand slipped on his cane.

Test tubes scattered across the ground in a clatter as he moved swiftly forward to grab the back of Watson’s jacket.

“What the devil!” Watson cried, falling backward but caught the other man’s coat sleeve to stop his fall. “Why did you grab at me?”

Watson turned to face him, but avoided making eye contact.

“Your cane, it was – you were moving too close to the edge,” he answered, feeling wrong footed. Maybe he had imagined it?

“I’m fine,” Watson said, with a tight-lipped smile and his eyes turned down. “Did you get what you came here for?”

He nodded, retreating to gather his spilled samples. When he straightened from reaching down, he noticed Watson had moved back from the cliffside. In fact, he was standing rather close to him. Watson was staring at him in the same he had watched the sea.

“You said you could see things about people. That you could know things about them, see right through them,” Watson stated.

“Yes,” he responded, though it sounded like a question to his own ears.

“Well,” Watson asked, tilting his lips and raising his hair. “What about me?”

He eyed the other man, before folding his hands behind his back and taking in a deep breath.

“You have an occasional limp in your leg and tremor in your hand, both of which you resent as their source is the psychological rather than the physical. Physical injuries would be nobler to you, I believe. You once considered a very different life from the one you have now, I think. Perhaps medicine, considering your caretaker tendencies, like the ones you’ve displayed towards me, and the fact that you don’t smoke. Not commonly accepted, but some medical professionals believe it can’t be good for the lungs. ”

“Amazing,” Watson interjected.

“I’m not finished. A man of your status could never have gone that route however, so you had actually once seriously considered pursuing a military career. I believe you even trained for it for a time, which might explain your posture and general neatness, before you had to abandon the ambition. Likely due to responsibilities – your parents’ death forcing you to become proper master of Manderley.”

He disliked mentioning Manderley for the third time that day, and hoped this would end the request for deductions. There was a territory of Watson’s past that felt unwelcome to him, and that he did not want to examine. Fortunately Watson seemed to have been expecting the reference to his home, and did not react.

“I imagine you have a theory then, about the cause of my psychological issues.” The lines about Watson’s eyes and bags beneath seemed deeper and more pronounced, as if his entire face was weighed down by them.

His eyes slid away from Watson’s. He nodded. He had thought by mentioning the psychosomatic issues first they might be swept under the rug. No such luck apparently.

“And what might your theory be?”

This conversation was like manoeuvring through land mines. He bit his lip, hard. The taste of blood didn’t help his delivery.

“Grief,” he said.

Watson exhaled as if he had been holding his breath, and the tension in his smile receded. “Very good. Quite the talent. I can’t imagine why Wilkes won’t let you do that at parties.”

He should have found this reaction surprising, but the praise overruled all other thought. He couldn’t help but preen in response. While he had trodden over discretion by mentioning Manderley again, he had successfully avoided saying the phrase that he knew without investigating was truly reproachable to speak in Watson’s presence -- Your wife.

“And why did I accept ownership of Manderley, if according to you I had other ideas?”

Oh, this he could delve into. And maybe even show off a bit.

“Simple. You are obviously now master of Manderley, which means you likely were always in line to inherit. You merely thought you’d had more time before taking over. You mentioned earlier that you have a sibling. A brother, Harry Watson – the name was stitched into the handkerchief in your suit pocket, presumably you borrowed it and never returned it. However, Harry was deemed ill-suited for the task. Possibly due to his excessive drinking, judging by the stains on that same handkerchief.”

“Well, you’re right of course, God about the drinking you have no idea, except –“

“Except?”

“Harry is short for Harriet, Harry Watson is my sister.”

“Sister! Ugh, there’s always something.”

Watson dipped his chin to hide his smile, but he saw it anyway. He found he didn’t mind. He felt certain that Watson was laughing with him, rather than at him.

He realized that at some point he had moved very near to Watson. He had tilted his face down and towards Watson to speak, as if not wanting to be overheard. Most people reacted poorly to their personal space being invaded, but if anything Watson had only moved closer in response.

He eased away slightly. He kept forgetting he was taller than Watson – he could see each individual hair on the top of Watson’s head. They alternated between blond and grey.

Watson looked up, smiling at him playfully.

“Where to next?”

Chapter Text

The next few days, which quickly turned into weeks, passed in a pleasant blur. Wilkes continued to lounge in his room while the news of his illness took its time to travel by post. As Wilkes' companion, this meant he only had to entertain Wilkes for a few hours of the day, leaving him largely to his own devices. Which, to his complete and utter satisfaction, included being almost constantly in the company of Watson.

Their continued acquaintance was uncomplicated, and by neither man’s design. They simply met each day on the terrace or in the hotel lobby, and would carry on from there. Their conversations seemed to never end, even when they drifted into companionable silence. Nothing had ever been more natural than to move from one place to the next, without prior discussion or thought on the hows and whys of their amusements.

They traveled Monte in Watson’s car most days, which greatly sped up his own planned collection and observation work for his time in the city. Watson was a surprisingly patient and attentive assistant, and hardly ever chastised him for acting uncouth, or dirtying his knees on the ground. They got on like a house on fire.

The hard, sardonic person who had cut into Wilkes that first night was nowhere to be seen in their day-to-day adventures. Watson felt like a friend, a friend he’d known all his life, but had only just met. He would almost have called him a brother, but didn’t like to. That label itched, not unlike a bandage left too long on a wound, perhaps because he was not overly fond of his own brother.

Watson had even convinced him to play the violin for him, but just on the one occasion when the sitting room had been relatively empty. He had agonized over whether to play the most technically complicated pieces in his repertoire, or to play popular tunes Watson would recognize, and later decided on a mix of both. The recital in the end was extremely brief as a crowd had started to form, causing him to immediately cease playing and shut his violin back in his case. However, even the annoyance of public attention had been worth it for how loudly Watson had applauded.

During meals he was allowed, even encouraged, to speak at length about his deductions of the other diners and past mysteries he had solved from the papers. Watson was a rapt listener, and frequently complimented his process and conclusions. Watson would interrupt him only to nag him to eat.

Once he had exhausted all the observations that could be made of the other hotel guests, Watson would always ask to be made the next target.

“Well, aren’t you going to do me?” Watson would say, urging him on.

“Again? I’ve already observed you, multiple times,” he’d reply. Of course he would never say no, but he liked it best when Watson had to plead with him.

On this particular occasion, they were eating together in the mid-morning (they were always avoiding the busy times). By virtue of being seated with Watson, he’d been served one of the juicier cuts of beef.

“As if you have nothing else to say! Surely I’m not so boring that there isn't anything new for you to notice,” Watson said, with a bit of a mischievous look in his eye.

Secretly, he adored deducing Watson upon request. Perceiving clues from Watson’s appearance and accessories was like solving a puzzle game he had already completed many times – a fun pastime, and not overly straining.

He took care to never err again by mentioning Watson’s home, but still endeavoured to amaze Watson with his insights. He aimed to surprise, but not to offend.

Watson had missed a spot while shaving (had he been in a rush to eat?), the bags beneath his eyes had receded (was the quality of his sleep improving?), and his lips were dried from frequent licking (meaning of this was unclear, perhaps just a habit). But these observations would hardly impress.

“You used to be a gambler, but have since given it up. You always look a bit longingly at the casino, but you haven’t visited once since you’ve been here. This makes your choice of Monte Carlo for vacation particularly intriguing.” Not his best analysis, but it would do. Watson was clearly attracted to old dangers and temptations, but he didn’t provide that conclusion.

He was aware most company would consider this rude. Watson only laughed, though with a queer, intent look about his features. It was the same indecipherable expression from their first breakfast together, and which was still beyond his experience to comprehend. It was amazing how quickly Watson could transform from safe and reliable to mysterious and distant.

Unlike Watson, the states he himself swung between were manic with energy to practically catatonic, with the only constant being his sour mood.

Except even that had changed as of late. Being able to go out with company that he actually enjoyed was a pleasant enough novelty to keep him in high spirits. It was as if he had only just learned how to live life the way it was intended - he was happy, truly happy, for perhaps the first time since boyhood.

He felt this acutely later that afternoon in Watson’s open top car, listening to the rush of wind and the other man’s laugh.

His clothing was shabby in comparison to Watson’s and his hair was messed beyond all help from the wind, but none of it mattered. His face ached from smiling. He felt different with Watson, somehow more himself. The shy, awkward, and humble status of being a companion was shed like a winter coat in the spring. Wilkes and his flu were nothing to him.

This was not the artificial Monte Carlo he had known and hated while playing companion to Sebastian. He couldn’t believe he’d been bored of it, and had wanted to return to traveling about the South of France. As if Nice could compare!

The road ahead climbed the tall hills of Monte, circling around and around, as aimless as their traveling. At one crossroad, there was a young boy walking that smiled as they drove past, and who waved enthusiastically at them. In good humour, he even waved back. It was little moments like these that made him wonder if there was any place more agreeable than Monte.

The car, of course, eventually came to a stop. The hills of Monte did have an end, and that afternoon there was nowhere further to climb. They had finally reached the summit. Similar to their first outing, they were parked by the edge of a steep vertical slope, with the distance between them and the sea (he estimated) being two thousand feet, give or take.

In silence, they both stepped out of the car. Watson wandered closer to the edge to look out over the ocean, and he followed. While he was not sure why they’d climbed so high or come to this specific spot, he was well aware that Watson was no longer smiling.

When he did break their silence, his voice cracked on the first word.

“Have you been here before?”

Watson looked back in surprise, as if just remembering he wasn’t alone. The other man had forgotten him entirely. Watson noticeably did not respond to his question, averting his gaze once more.

He willed himself to say something clever, deduce something pleasantly shocking that would make Watson smile brightly and exclaim ‘brilliant!’ like he usually did.

Instead, he said, “It’s late – should we – do you wish to go back?”

His voice was careless. It had returned to its usual deep pitch, but he still sounded like a child, and must have seemed like one too. But perhaps he had once again misjudged Watson – for as he spoke, Watson’s untroubled expression returned and he ushered him back to the car.

“Sorry, awful of me to not pay you any attention,” Watson murmured. Though this was accompanied by a slow smile, the implication annoyed him. Did Watson find him overly demanding after all?

Watson skillfully maneuvered the car in the tight space, turning them around and back the way they had come. But he was not so easily distracted by Watson’s returned mild manner, and was still certain he was right.

“You had been there before,” he asserted, as they began to drive downhill.

Watson took his time answering. “Yes. But not for many years.”

“Had it changed?” he asked.

“No,” Watson said. And that was apparently to be the end of the discussion. The mood very much changed, Watson spoke not another word throughout the rest of the trip.

He didn’t need to be told they would not be dining together that evening, which was confirmed by Watson’s continued silence when they arrived back at the hotel.

As he exited the car, he reached into the front compartment to retrieve a scarf he had stowed there earlier. While fishing for it, his fingers came into contact with the binding of a small book. He left the car with both, and returned to his hotel room alone.

 


 

 

It turned out to be a book of love poems. The volume appeared worn, which could either mean it was well read, or poorly taken care of. He wasn’t entirely sure which (unusual).

Did Watson read love poems? Did he write love poems? Well, had he written them, in the past tense, he supposed.

Of course Watson had. Watson was obviously a romantic, and would thus be demonstrative with the object of his affections. The longer he considered it, the more he felt certain of this.

Had this been overly invasive of him? He had a habit of stealing people’s things when they annoyed him, and rarely felt any guilt for it. It had been in Watson’s glove compartment, hardly personal.

Except -

He flipped back to the front page where there was a written dedication, which read “To Hamish – from Mary, 17 May.”

It was written in a decidedly confident hand, clearly a woman’s. The ink had dried by the end of ‘from’, and the nib had needed to be dipped again. The M in Mary was written with thick, fresh ink. It stood out dark and strong, the tall sloping arches of the M overpowering the other letters on the page.

Closing the book with a snap, he returned to his notes on the samples he’d collected, which needed reviewing and further clarifications.

After half an hour passed, he had read several pages and yet had not processed a single word.

He had visited with Wilkes’ the day before, and found that he couldn't stop prevent the conversation from creeping into his mind.

“A horrible tragedy,” Wilkes had said in hushed tones over soup in bed, “the papers were full of it for ages. They say he never talks about it, never even mentions her name. She was drowned you know, in the ocean, in the bay near Manderley...”

He had wondered why he'd never heard of it, seeing as he read the papers consistently. Perhaps the description had reminded him of the last drowning he had taken an interest in, Carl Powers, which had never brought him any resolution. Perhaps it had just seemed too boring, a cut-and-dried death by accident on a huge estate. Either way, he had likely removed it from his memory, as he was always looking to keep his mind free from clutter.

He wished it were so easy now.

 


 

 

Due to the unfriendly end of his meeting with Watson the previous day, he had doubted they were on for their usual morning meal the following morning. He almost went downstairs regardless, but decided in the end to first fulfill his duty to Sebastian.

He still had to spend time with Wilkes occasionally, even if it was only for short periods. As Wilkes hated the violin and his deductions, the entertainment was restricted to endless rounds of card games. He started shuffling a deck on his way down the hall to save on time.

“Gracing me with your presence at long last! And pray tell, what have you been doing all this time?” Wilkes asked, propped up against pillows and prepared to be irritable.

“Playing tennis with the professional,” he lied easily, placing the cards on the bedside table.

Hopefully that would be distraction enough. He doubted Wilkes would investigate whether he was actually playing tennis.

“Oh, lucky you! Truly spoiled, honestly. Maybe you’ll get good enough to play with me,” Wilkes said, dealing out the cards.

He would have liked to point out that Wilkes hardly ever played tennis, let alone well, but as always restrained himself.

“I know how dreadful it must be for you, with me cooped up in here. You must be so horribly bored.”

Wilkes mashed his cigarette into bits while turning up the first card from the top of the deck.

“And honestly I have no idea what you do. You don’t have any experiments going, or at least none to show me. I hope your bloody tennis improves at least. You need get the hang of the backhand, and learn how to move closer to the net.”

In response he hummed noncommittally, and covered the turned up Queen of Spades with his own Jack of Hearts.

 


 

When he finally escaped Wilkes, he caved and headed down to the lobby. He walked at a brisk pace through the high-ceilinged hotel entrance corridor, hoping Watson would be in his usual spot outside.

As luck would have it, he was.

Watson was relaxed in the driver’s seat, reading a paper. When Watson caught sight of him, the paper was carelessly folded and dropped into the back seat.

Part of their routine was to be unbroken then, despite the cold parting of the day before.

“And how is our dear companion Wilkes this morning?” Watson asked, revving the engine.

He scoffed and climbed into the car.

Watson always took offence to his means of entry. “Use the damn door!”

He hadn’t felt like it. “Drive,” he demanded, smoothing his suit jacket where he'd rumpled it in his haste.

“I see we’re being a bit of a brat today,” Watson commented, while proceeding to do exactly as he was told.

A brat?>i He crossed his arms. That was unfair and uncalled for, especially when considering that Watson was the one who had been acting out of sorts.

He scowled and turned his head to observe the passing scenery. Watson deserved a bit of a cold shoulder after the strangeness of the other day. And he had been forced to spend the rest of the evening reading a book of silly love poems, all because Watson didn’t have anything better on hand to steal. His peevishness was entirely for these reasons, and these reasons alone.

Watson noticed his crossed arms, and of course misinterpreted. “Are you cold? Here, have my coat.”

Watson reached into the back seat, one hand still on the wheel, and tossed the coat over his lap. Disgruntled by having something thrown at him, he was tempted to throw it right back, even if Watson was driving.

If he hadn’t been shivering, and actually a bit cold, he might have.

Watson was shorter than him, but still wider in the shoulders. As he slid the coat around his frame, he felt like a child wearing his older brother’s clothes, playing at being grown-up. Usually he’d have hated it, but the coat smelled like Watson, which was comfortable in its familiarity, and Watson smiled at him when he wrapped the sleeves tighter around him.

And so began another joy ride. They deviated in direction each day, which had allowed him to cultivate a thorough mapping in his mind of Monte Carlo and its streets. He felt this information could come in handy, assuming he ever needed to solve an actual crime in Monte.

He imagined a real mystery, not like the trivial incident with the stolen necklace. Something dramatic, like a murder, which he and Watson could rush about investigating and ultimately solving. He was certain that if he engaged Watson thoroughly enough in something exciting and dangerous, Watson would forget his limp entirely. And then Watson would really be impressed with him.

He imagined Watson’s pastime of choice was driving for this very reason. Watson was always free of limitations when behind the wheel.

“Well, where do I turn next?” Watson asked.

He reached for the map and spread it out across his lap, not that he needed it. He was designated route master, while Watson obeyed his directions. The dynamic worked exceedingly well, as he enjoyed providing the instructions, while Watson amiably complied.

There was something perfect about the current morning, perhaps because he had been unsure if things would still be good between them. He needn’t have worried, obviously.

This was one of many moments that he never wanted to forget. Each detail on its own seemed innocuous, but in combination were all more than the sum of their parts. Watson’s warm presence beside him, the cool comfort of the leather seats, the edges of the map tugging in the wind – it was all oddly precious. It should never be lost, or felt less than how it currently felt. He closed his eyes tightly to try to attune his senses to the full experience. What were the sounds, the textures, the smells of this exact second – and if he knew them, and they stayed with him unchanged, maybe many years from now he could have it all again.

He reopened his eyes in frustration – even with his memory palace, the recollections were not perfect, not exact. They were distant cousins to the real places and things and events. Five more minutes had gone by. Soon they would reach their unspoken time limit and have to return to the hotel.

Impulsively, he tried to articulate this desire out loud. Telling Watson things usually made them better.

“I wish there was a method,” he said, “that allowed you to store a memory, like a perfume in a bottle. It would never fade, and it would be true to the exact events as they occurred, with no bias or embellishments. And you could relive that moment exactly as it happened, as many times as you wished.”

He delivered this speech decidedly and somewhat into the wind, but now turned eagerly to see Watson’s reaction.

“And what moments in your young life do you want kept forever?” Watson asked.

He couldn’t tell if Watson was mocking him or not. He was in earnest, and knew that he would not be able to stand it if he was being trifled with. Did Watson genuinely want to know?

“I don’t know,” he stumbled, and rather foolishly continued to say exactly what he truly meant. “I’d like to keep this moment right now forever, so that I’d never forget it.”

Watson huffed a small laugh. “You want to keep us driving nowhere in particular perfectly, but the solar system is a waste of resources?”

“That’s not the same! That doesn’t matter.”

Watson had already teased him endlessly about not knowing the sun went around the Earth. Or was it the other way around?

“Is this a compliment to the day, or to my driving?” Watson asked rhetorically, and really did laugh this time.

Well that settled it. He was definitely being made fun of.

He decided it didn’t matter. He would protect the memories regardless of what Watson thought. And he would never tell anyone about these drives, ever, so that they could never be tarnished. Especially not by Wilkes.

He could hear Wilkes already. How sweet of Watson to have taken him out while Sebastian had been indisposed! God though, entertaining a young thing like him all day, every day – was he sure it hadn’t bored Watson to tears?

He tore at the worn edges of the map. What had moments ago been strangely charming was now annoying.

Savagely, he said, “I wish I was thirty five years old, wearing the smartest suit a tailor could make, and not caring for a single thing in the world beyond my work.”

“You would not be in this car with me if you were,” Watson said. “And stop picking at our only map.”

He pursed his lips and ripped the map clean in half. He would have thrown the pieces from the car too, if not for one of Watson’s hands leaving the steering wheel to tightly grip his wrist.

“Jesus! Why are you acting like such a child?”

“If I’m such a child,” he spat, “why do you take me out in the car with you, day after day? Oh, don’t tell me. You’re being kind, that much is obvious – but why choose me as the victim of your charity? Why not pick someone else for your good deed of the day?”

I don’t take you anywhere, as you bloody well know – We go out together, with one another, and we do it because you are not dressed in the finest tailored suit money can buy, at thirty five years old, caring about nothing in the world.”

Watson’s face was, for once, devoid of expression. He couldn’t tell if Watson found the whole conversation funny, or offensive. Or maybe he just didn’t know how to interpret him any more, now that Watson had betrayed him and his confidence.

“I’m sorry that with my youthful years there doesn’t seem much more to me. We can’t all be the incomprehensible and mysterious John Watson.”

Watson laughed in shock. “Incomprehensible? Mysterious? Me, really?”

“You know exactly what I mean! I know nothing more about you than what I did the first day I saw you, because you never say anything of significance.”

“Oh, are these fighting words? And what exactly did you know about me then?”

Watson spoke playfully, but underneath it was something dangerous. This was the same man who had sprang into action at the barest hint of a cry, the man whose callused hands said he knew how to kill.

His earlier pettiness and bluster left him. This conversation now felt shortsighted.

“Well, mainly what I have already told you, about your limp, and that you lived at Manderley, and–,” he stumbled forward, “and that you had lost your wife.”

He had tied this knowledge up so tightly, and yet the words left his lips with surprising ease. Neither had ever discussed or acknowledged Watson’s wife before. Your wife.

Watson inhaled deeply. It caused one side of his nose to slide upwards in a way that was both angry and endearing. Watson pulled to the side of the road, and stopped the car.

“You spoke a bit ago about a way of capturing memories. I’m sorry I laughed. It’s just that I see things very differently from you. If all your memories were unpleasant, you might prefer to forget them too.”

Watson needed to pause before continuing. His voice was very low, just barely audible. Speaking personally was almost a physical struggle for the man, but he fought through admirably.

“Something happened a year ago that altered my entire life, and I want to forget all of it. Everything before it too. The whole point of me coming here was to try to begin living all over again. And I know that’s idealistic – sometimes it comes back all the same. If you want honesty I’ll give it to you, seeing as you know everything without needing to be told anyway. At the top of the hill the other day, I had been there before. With my wife.”

Watson paused again. His eyes never strayed from looking straight ahead. It seemed easier for him to deliver this speech as if it were a monologue, spoken for no one else to hear.

“You asked if it had changed. It hadn’t, but there was also no sign of us ever having been there before. Like it only existed in my memory now, and could be redone. So, you being with me there. Yeah. That helped. You blotted it out. You actually blotted out the past for me. So, damn your tight-lipped puritanical speech, and damn your idea of my kindness and charity. If I spend my time with you, it’s because I want to be with you, and if you don’t bloody believe me you might as well get out of the car now and walk home.“

Watson finally turned to look directly at him, but only once finished speaking.

He was speechless. His face was turned down in shame, his fingers frozen on the edge of their ruined map. He thought if he tried to speak, he might cry.

“Well? Do you have anything to say to that? Or are you going to jump over your door and leave me here?”

If he had been a few years younger he might have burst into tears. Instead he felt a pricking at the corners of his eyes, which he willed away stubbornly. He knew his face would be red, and that his eyes would match.

“I want to go home,” he choked out, his voice audibly wavering.

Watson pulled hard on the clutch, and turned the car back the way they had come.

He blinked and a single tear escaped, running down his cheek and staining the torn paper in his hands. Watson’s sternness immediately melted away.

“Oh, God,” Watson said, reaching to put his arm around him where the jacket was wrapped, and pulled him to his side. He laid his own head against Watson’s shoulder, as it only seemed natural.

Watson managed to keep one hand on the wheel. He thought that Watson might stop the car and pull over again, but their speed if anything only increased.

“You’re young enough to be my son,” Watson said, apropos of nothing. “And I don’t know how to deal with you.”

Watson’s driving at this point might have been described as reckless, given that he had to swerve the car to avoid hitting a dog in the road.

He expected Watson to release him from his hold, but he did not.

“Watson,” he said, glad that his voice didn’t catch, “you would have fathered a child scandalously young for that to be true.”

Watson laughed grimly.

“You know what? Forget everything I’ve said to you this morning. That’s all over now. I’m ready for that to be over. God, let’s never talk about it again. And look, my family calls me John, and I’d really like for you to do the same. You’ve been formal with me for long enough.”

He felt warm. Presumably from the jacket, and from being pressed up against another person. He nodded against the other man’s shoulder.

“Promise me something though. Promise me you’ll never wear a tailored suit – well, fine, wear suits, that’s not the important bit – promise me that you’ll never grow to care for nothing in the world?”

“Well, as long as I can still wear well tailored suits.”

He looked up and smiled then, a real smile, and found he couldn’t help but laugh. And Watson – no, John – was laughing with him.

And as easily as that, all was right between them again.

John, with the car having resumed a somewhat reasonable speed, bent to the side and pressed thin lips into the hair covering his forehead, and held them there.

He couldn’t remember the last time someone had kissed him. His mother used to kiss his cheeks, he was sure, but not since he was a boy. His father and brother had certainly never done.

That was fine though, as he didn’t think of John as a father or a brother.

Perhaps it was something friends did?

Regardless, he knew it must mean John was happy with him.

“Do you understand what I’m telling you?” John asked.

He nodded. Of course he understood, John wanted them to be friends.

The morning was perfect again.

Chapter Text

The afternoon was hell.

Wilkes had apparently made a miraculous recovery, and was organizing a soirée in his room. How he’d managed to smooth things over with the previously dismissed nobodies (now considered somebodies) was unclear. Wilkes had a way with these things, and now almost the entirety of the Hotel Cote d'Azur was to be entertained in Wilkes' generously-sized hotel room.

It could be worse, he supposed. At least Wilkes hadn’t caught him with Watson.

John.

He was meant to call him ‘John’ now.

He was still stunned by how his stay in Monte had taken a frankly unexpected turn. If he’d been told a few weeks prior that he would befriend one of the wealthiest men in England while traveling with Wilkes, he would simply have never believed it. The idea of it was so wholly unlikely - something a friendless eccentric would never dream of, nor want to dream of - and yet he wished it would continue indefinitely.

However, he was well aware that it wouldn’t. It was this that made him almost resent the brief acquaintance. His life before hadn’t been happiness, but there had been a safe simplicity in his boring existence. He had developed his mind to be an expansive and nearly tangible place, which acted as both an index and somewhere he could envision himself physically. He could almost have lived there, only being drawn out when his presence was demanded by Sebastian, and returning as soon as he was finished.

Now he had been drawn out into the real and physical world, and it was unclear how he would ever return to his baseline. If he were to be with John every day, he imagined he wouldn’t want to. But he and Wilkes would eventually leave Monte Carlo, whenever Wilkes decided he’d had enough, and John Watson would of course return to Manderley, where he belonged.

They would likely never see each other again. Wilkes was always in search of new wealth and people - becoming bored of Europe was only a matter of time. There was no particular reason why they would ever travel in the same social circles as John Watson again.

He would have agonized over those thoughts for longer, but continued to be interrupted by Wilkes. “Where the hell have you been?” Wilkes asked, while wildly gesturing at the incoming staff, directing them about the room in preparation. “We’ll need at least three buckets of ice, delivered in exactly two hours – Oh, God, put the glassware to the side! – Have you honestly been playing tennis this whole time?”

Wilkes attention wasn't dedicated to him at the moment of course, but he stood ramrod straight at the question, evaluating what Wilkes might know. This line of questioning suggested suspicion - was it possible Wilkes knew he had been lying?

No, he decided, likely not. Wilkes lacked any kind of subtlety, and would have said so outright.

He supposed at some point he would have to acknowledge being spoken to, but not just yet. Rather than reply, he lay down across an armchair, curling his feet up onto the seat. Staff was swarming the room, likely judging his sitting position, but he couldn’t be bothered to care.

“You had better not sit like that while we have company – No, no, not over there, honestly! – Listen, anyone who is anyone in Monte will be coming to see me tonight, so you’d better not be up to any of your usual tricks," Wilkes instructed, again, with his attention rather divided as a staff member had almost put a chair in the wrong spot. "In fact, don’t speak unless spoken to. And please, no repeat of that other night with Watson! I’ve already had someone run an invitation to him, seeing as you weren’t around.”

At the mention of Watson, he jerked minutely in his reclined position in the chair.

John was coming? He’d been sure the party would mean they’d be unable to see each other that evening, but he should have known Wilkes would ask John to come.

John had been invited, which didn’t necessarily mean he was coming. He could imagine John receiving the invitation, and smiling sardonically at Wilkes’ pushy ways.

Would John come? No. John would hate it. He wasn’t coming.

God, he hoped John would come.

John, who had kissed him that morning. Well, his hair. John had kissed his hair.

But naturally Wilkes would also be present at the party that night. He wondered if he would be able to speak to John without Sebastian noticing? What if others noticed? He hated that it mattered. If Wilkes knew of their – their – friendship, he’d never hear the end of it. It’s not like he and John would be keeping in touch.

Oh, had his old friend Watson ever written? Oh, he hadn’t? Not a word? Well that was hardly a surprise. How he’d pushed himself on the poor man, how kind and generous Watson had been to put up with it. How good of him.

He hoped John wouldn’t come.

“For God’s sake, stop fussing with your hair in the mirror and make yourself useful!”

 

 


 

 

Wilkes had at least three almost meltdowns, the worst being at fifteen minutes prior (wrong wine, wrong tablecloth, etc.), but had his dreadful grin firmly in place when the first guests began to wander in.

Wilkes introduced him with the usual dismissive wave in his direction, with the visitors more than happy to take the cue not to engage. He continued to sit in the lounge chair, bored, but now with his feet placed firmly on the floor. Tedious.

Sitting by himself in silence was uncomfortable for the first few socialites, but later he went completely unnoticed as the room was packed in with people speaking loudly, gulping from glasses, and laughing uproariously. He wondered whether he had died and this was the afterlife he had earned for all his sins.

His mind should have been focused on useful considerations, like the soil samples he’d collected. Instead, it revolved around the same two thoughts: the first, that John Hamish Watson had asked him to call him John, and the second, and perhaps more astonishing, that John’s lips had been pressed against his head. John’s lips had then remained, against his head, for a full twenty-two seconds. These were admittedly much more pleasant than thoughts on dirt.

He would have ruminated on them for the whole evening, except that the man himself eventually walked into the room.

John was the focal point of his attention from the moment the other man stepped through the door. John seemed to create an effect around him, one that blurred everything and everyone else in the room into blending colours and light. All other things receded, their importance and clarity fading the further they were away from him.

Unfortunately, John Watson had this influence on most in the room, and Wilkes was already descending.

As he was now very familiar with John, he could see even before the usual tells that John found this all rather painful. Wilkes was speaking to John now, pumping his hand enthusiastically while gripping his forearm with the other hand. Wilkes began to usher him about the room, showing him off to the others. John smiled tightly and inclined his head with each introduction. John hated it, he hated this – and yet, he had come. Why had John come?

John kept trying to catch his eye from across the room. He turned to look resolutely in the other direction. John’s eyes had looked brown from far away, which was oddly disconcerting.

Would John come to speak to him? Better not, not in front of all these people. They wouldn’t be able to discuss anything interesting.

But then, they’d eaten together on multiple occasions. In the very public hotel dining room. Some of the people at the party might have seen them together before, and could very well mention it to Wilkes. God, how could he have been so stupid?

John’s progress about the party was interrupted by Wilkes banging on his glass with a knife, causing everyone to quiet around him.

He cringed at the sound, and at what he knew was about to come. Would no one save them from Sebastian’s speeches?

“A toast, to our new friend Watson! How lovely it’s been to see him in Monte, finally out and about in the world. And a toast as well to his dearly departed wife, Mary Watson, in honour of her memory!”

Wilkes declared all this while facing the rest of the room with John behind him. He might not have continued if he had been watching John’s expression, though knowing Wilkes, perhaps not.

Many of the guests nearest to them reached forward to raise their glasses to John, but John was pulling away from the crowd to put his own glass down on a nearby table.

When he spoke, his voice was low and calm.

“You didn’t know her. None of you knew her." There was a terrible quiet in the room following this remark, and John looked as though he had not intended to speak at all. John swallowed once, looking up briefly before withdrawing into himself. "Sorry, I - Good evening.” And just like the end of their first night together, John left the room.

Shocked silence followed in the wake of his departure, before the crowd broke out into murmurs. Wilkes at first seemed nervous, but was soon laughing as if nothing had happened at all.

He had a feeling that shortly Sebastian would comment on the oddities of old money, to a loud chorus of agreement.

He couldn’t stand it. He stood from his chair once the noise level had returned, and followed after John, to say – to say – he didn’t know what.

Once he was out in the corridor, John was already at the lifts. “John!” he called. John turned slightly, but did not enough to face him.

“I’m sorry for leaving your party so early,” John said over his shoulder, stepping into the opening doors as the lift arrived. He was leaning heavily on his cane.

“It wasn’t my party,” he corrected.

This wasn’t right. This was not how this night was supposed to end.

The doors of the lift were closing.

“Have a good evening,” John said, before he was completely obscured from view.

John hadn’t fully looked back at him once.

 

 


 

 

He did not go back to the party. He couldn’t understand how the event could even continue, after that display of insensitivity and ensuing awkwardness, something he was usually the one to blame for.

He returned to his own room with his stomach in knots, as if he’d eaten something rotten. This was peculiar, as he’d hardly eaten anything at all.

He despised Sebastian on any given day, but never more than he did at this exact moment. Had John come for a relaxing evening, only to have Wilkes force the death of his most beloved wife into the forefront of his mind? The same wife he was trying desperately to forget, so that he could move on from painful memories.

His own memory presented the image of John standing on the edge of the hill, looking out over the same ocean that had taken her from him. Leaning closer, as if wanting to join her.

He wondered if John missed Mary as much he was going to miss John.

After thinking it, he rebuked himself. It was a reprehensibly selfish thought, and silly too. John and Mary had been man and wife, while he and John were nothing to one another beyond two people keeping each other company on a holiday.

The book of love poems was in his bedside table, still next to the envelope containing the note John had written him that first night. He opened the drawer, and flipped open the cover of the book.

He wasn’t certain what he expected to find changed, but the inscription remained the same on the first page. The ‘M’ of Mary was still bold and clear, and there it would stay, long after she was gone. To Hamish – Mary.

The book would have been a gift. Maybe it had been for John’s birthday, maybe just because. Perhaps they often gave each other presents on whims. Something would catch John’s eye and he’d think, ‘This would be perfect for Mary.’

John must have written her love poems. Likely very sweet, and very amateur, verses. She bought him the book to tease him gently about his writing. She would have presented it to him, wrapped beautifully in paper and ribbon. John, maybe working at his desk and bored, in need of a distraction. She’d come up behind him, and slip it into his hands.

“What’s this?” he’d have asked her. “Just open it,” she’d replied. She would have leaned over his shoulder while John unraveled the package, watching as the smile grew on John’s face. “A book of poems? Are you saying I should leave it to the professionals?” John asked, but he’d only be teasing back. Mary would laugh, and correct him – it was meant as inspiration.

She’d called John “Hamish” in the inscription, which was John’s middle name. He understood the preference for middle names quite well, seeing as he went by his own. John’s family, his aunts and uncles, grandmother, sister, they all called him John. People who didn’t really matter to John, the same people John hardly ever thought of, and why John considered himself largely alone in the world. With Mary it had been different. Mary wasn’t like those other people, and Hamish was her choice. She owned the name, written in her bold hand.

She would have written it time and time again, careless and familiar. She would have called out “Hamish” when she wanted him, and so that John would always know it was her and no one else. Mary would say it decidedly and purposefully, as it was written on the page. Hamish.

And he had to call him John.

 


 

 

That night he dreamt he was walking down a long dirt road. He was younger, or perhaps smaller, or both, as he was no taller than the fence on his left. As he continued forward, he recognized the road approaching as one in Monte, one of the many he’d seen before and committed to his memory palace.

It was in fact a crossroads to the main street that led to the summit, the same one they had driven up before, where John had once been with Mary.

But he wasn’t himself he realized – or rather, he must have been the young boy he’d seen the other day, who had smiled and waved at him when he’d driven by in John’s car. And just like the boy, he was walking when John’s car approached from the main path.

The car was moving faster than advisable up the winding, unpaved road. It was undoubtedly similar to the speed John had driven at earlier that day, while holding him tightly and with one hand on the wheel. He waved to the car just as the boy had, urging John to see him.

But John didn’t see him. Or he must not have, as John drove past him with no recognition, and leaving behind only a cloud of dust. Was there anyone in the car’s passenger seat, where he had once sat? He couldn’t tell - it kept changing. Sometimes it was empty, and John was alone. Sometimes he thought he saw the translucent outline of a person - a woman.

When the dust settled he was no longer on a road, but in front of the portrait of the Captain in the art gallery. And, once more, it was really John in the painting, wearing the Captain’s clothes and appearing in the same pose. He watched and waited for John to climb from the painting and come to him as he had before, but this time he remained firmly still as paint on a canvas.

Which wasn’t right – why was John a painting while he was flesh and blood? They wouldn’t be able to go out in the car together this way. How were they going to have dinner, with him like this?

He remembered the dream John touching his hair, and the real John kissing his hair, and so he reached for him. His hand passed through the frame, and met with John’s shoulder. John was smiling at him, gently, in the way John did when he was listening to him. It was a direct and open expression. John looked expectant, but he didn’t know what the other man wanted.

He knew he wanted John to do those things again like in the other dream, and he wanted him to hold him and kiss him like in the car. At this thought, John reached for him and pulled him forward till their bodies were flush against one another. He was being pressed against John, front to front. John was warm and there, and he wanted to be closer somehow, always closer.

His clothes had left his body, slipping away – or perhaps he had never been wearing any? He was so near to John he could feel the difference between his naked skin, and the starched clothes still covering the other man. His hands gripped John’s hips, his face tucked into the curve of John’s neck, and his groin pushed against the placket of John’s breeches. It wasn’t enough somehow, never enough.

He felt like he was burning up, he needed to do something, and John was already so close. He followed his instincts. Without thought or intention, his hips began to rock against John's front, against the clothed material. He groaned, it felt so good - and so he rocked against John again, and again. And just like before John was murmuring the same soft, sweet words, the ones he always wanted to hear. Yes, brilliant, yes, Sh –

He woke when he climaxed, gasping and soaked with sweat (and other emissions). He realized he’d been lying face down, and grinding himself against his bed. Oh God, oh God –

The swift realization made him feel both stupid and terrified. He wanted John. He wanted John.

There was always something.

He jumped at the sudden knock on his door. (John?)

“Are you up yet in there? As if you’re having a sleep-in, after you turned in so early!”

It was Wilkes. Damn, Wilkes. Wilkes!

In a panic, he began stripping off his nightshirt and rushed for the water basin in the corner. The doorknob was rattling.

“Don’t come in!” he yelled, trying to wash away the evidence of the turn his dreams had taken.

“Fine! You’ve been so fussy lately. But I have good news for you, so do come over whenever you decide you’re ready.”

He breathed out in relief while wetting a cloth to run across his front. Had Wilkes said ‘good news’? That likely meant anything but.

He didn’t have time to think about that right now, there were far more important things to consider – like how he could have let himself develop an attachment of this nature to a completely inaccessible man. Even without the difference in their relative social status, John was grieving for another with mind, body, and soul. John’s limp and hand tremor. His tension at the mere mention of his own family home. John staring out into the same ocean that had taken his wife from him, and slipping forward as if yearning for it to take him too. A man in such a state was not able to let go of a love easily, if ever.

As Wilkes had summoned him, he reluctantly dressed and made his way to the other man’s room just down the hall. To his surprise, he was almost run over by a newly hired bellhop leaving Wilkes’ room with a luggage case.

The implication of this hit him like a bucket of ice water. He entered Wilkes’ suite with a dull ache in his heart, which only grew when he saw Wilkes was entirely packed. Wilkes however appeared to be in an excellent mood, and only became more ecstatic after catching sight of him standing in the doorway.

“Finally, you’re here! And oh good, you do look shocked! Usually you know all these things before I even get a chance to tell you, what a novelty to get to surprise you for once,” Wilkes said, clapping his hands together.

“And the surprise I take it is our immediate departure from this hotel?” he asked. He had aimed for bored, but wasn’t sure if he succeeded.

“Yes, as you can tell, we’re leaving. I’m tired to death of Monte. Actually, of all of Europe. How do you like the sound of New York?”

He would have preferred prison. There was a cold lump in his belly that felt like it was only growing, possibly contracted from the same heavy feeling in his chest.

“Well, don’t look so enthused. I thought you hated Monte. You thought it was all facile and superficial. Christ, you even said so to Watson, God knows what he thought of that. “

“I got used to it,” he said woodenly, his thoughts elsewhere. What would John think? They were to leave this morning obviously, for America.

“Well, you’ll just have to get used to New York, that’s all. This is actually a welcome change for you, you know. There will be other young men in your position there, all in your own class. You could have your own little group of friends instead of always being at my beck and call.”

His own class, of course, Wilkes always did know how to put a fine point on things. He wasn’t part of the same world as the Watsons and Wilkeses. He’d been living a fantasy, nothing more, and it had always had an expiry date.

His own circle of friends though! What a ridiculous notion. Company with men his own age had never been anything but trouble. He had never met someone like John before, and he felt certain he never would again.

“We’re going to catch the boat!” Wilkes continued, “Isn’t that clever? You would have known all about it had you been around yesterday, seeing as I had to call down to the reception office myself. You really have been neglecting me as of late.”

This in a way was accurate, and he wondered briefly if he had jeopardized his position by being so inattentive. Luckily, Wilkes seemed to enjoy complaining about being abandoned more than actually minding it.

“But go on, you’ll be so busy packing this morning you won’t even have time to get caught up with missing Monte!” Wilkes laughed, still greatly enjoying that he had managed to keep something a secret from him.

He could allow Wilkes the satisfaction, seeing as he had successfully kept something much more important a secret from him.

How would he tell John he was leaving? Perhaps they would meet in the lounge, and they would exchange the awful formalities associated with polite farewells. There would be a pretense of writing each other no doubt. John would ask a passing waiter for a pen and paper to write down his address, as if that was needed, while he’d think, 'Four and a half more minutes to go. I shall never see him again.'

The awkwardness that had never been present before would settle in, strangers to each other in their last moment. He would have to smile of course, maybe make a joke to hear John laugh. He’d deduce a new patron of the hotel at the other end of the lounge, and they’d have a laugh at the expense of a stranger because they were already strangers to one another. He’d say “Well –“ and wouldn’t know how to continue. Likely they’d shake hands, as men do.

Wilkes would then appear from behind opening lift doors, and he’d have to cross the room to meet him. He and Wilkes would travel to New York. He lived that too, for a moment. The college boys and young bank clerks Wilkes would decide were suitable people for him to know. Being expected to be polite to them, and everyone, when all he wanted was to be alone with his own thoughts, his only solace from then on.

John and him would exchange addresses, and John would probably ask him to report back on America, and to hear about his new studies or areas of interest. John would initially read them with distant fondness for that odd child he’d driven around for his last holiday. John, not being verbose or interested in discussing his personal life, would write very little back beyond generalities. The letters back would soon be few and far between, before they would completely stop altogether once John had fully returned to his far more appropriate social circle.

He couldn’t stand the thought of it. Being a burden, nothing more than that sad lonely boy picked up in Monte. He could bear anything, but he couldn't bear that.

He would not have a final meeting with John at all. He would attempt to bottle the memories as he said he would, and they would be untouchable and unchanged. The only way to do so successfully would be to not ruin them by prolonging the inevitable.

Perhaps this was all for the best. John had been distant with him the night prior, and his response had been to dream about – things he should not be dreaming of about a widower. Even if he hadn’t been leaving, he felt he had irreparably damaged the nature of their friendship. John had called him a brat and had comforted him after he’d almost had a cry in his car. How would John feel if he knew how the comfort he had offered was interpreted?

He was making the right choice. A clean break was better for healing bone, why not for this attachment?

He had left Wilkes without noticing, returning to his room stiffly. He had very little in terms of personal belongings, having already disposed of all his studied samples. Wilkes hadn’t miscalculated by asking him to pack last minute. It wouldn’t be any trouble at all really.

Just as he’d finished with the last of his clothes, he remembered the contents of his bedside drawer. He pulled it open to reveal the envelope containing the note card, his name written on the front in John’s hand, and the book of love poems. He considered burning both in one of the many hotel fireplaces.

Instead, he slid the envelope between the pages of the book, somewhere near the beginning. He slid the book into the inner pocket of his suit jacket, and closed his case. His door closed with similar finality. He hesitated in the hallway, looking towards the lift. John’s hotel room was a short ride up.

He wondered what John would say or how he would look if he knew they would never see each other again. Would he smile wistfully, reminiscing over the weeks they had shared together? Or would it be just another time in his series of travels, avoiding his home and his grief, all the world a blur to him?

If he saw John now, he was sure he wouldn’t know what to say. Not seeing John before leaving was undoubtedly the best course of action.

He had likely made a fool of himself already, and would be the fool twice over with a heartfelt farewell. In John Watson of Manderley’s life, he was no different than that young boy on the road, waving at the glimpse of a car flying past.

It was time to put away his unrealized wants, and continue walking down his own path.

Chapter Text

Firm in his resolution, he hurried downstairs to find Wilkes outside on the front hotel steps, occupied with instructing the staff impatiently in how to secure his trunks to the outside of the car. This was apparently to be an elaborate process that required several tries, and multiple cycles of the car being almost prepared only to be unpacked once more.

He had planned to dash down the stairs, get into the car, and drive away with minimal looking back.

They were not as far along as he had expected or hoped. He estimated this song and dance might take at least ten, though at most twenty, minutes.

Quite a large time window, truth be told.

The staff’s attention was somewhat divided due to other guests departing the hotel at the same time, which Sebastian was of course being abominable about. An older couple specifically, who actually needed the aid of other personnel in loading their belongings, were waiting for the return of their stolen assistance. The couple however appeared largely unfazed by Wilkes borrowing their help. Perhaps they were actually relieved -- he realized that the wife was staying behind for a few extra days, and they were happy to have a few more moments with each other to speak parting words.

As the husband leaned in for a goodbye kiss, he looked away, causing the book of love poems to shift in his breast pocket, and press against his chest.

Dammit.

“I left my hat upstairs, I’ll just go get it!” he cried to Wilkes, running back up the stairs and into the hotel lobby.

Distantly he heard Wilkes protest, “But you hate hats!”

No matter.

He bounded down the hall and, deciding he couldn’t wait for the lift, continued up the stairs at breakneck speed, disgruntling staff as he swept past.

Would John even be in his room, he wondered. Of course he would, John always avoided the early breakfast crowd. He was breathing hard by the time he arrived at the correct floor, which in combination with his hand coiled into a tight fist banging on the door made quite a lot of noise in the quiet hallway.

“Give me a minute!” John called out from the other side.

“I don’t have a minute!” he yelled, past caring for whether he appeared urgent, rude, or more worryingly, overly-attached. He’d lost all good sense and restraint when he’d chosen not to stay with the car, not that he’d ever had much of the latter anyway. John was taking too long. He pulled on the door handle – damn John, of course he’d lock his door! Maybe he could pick it –

He would have too, if he’d had to, but John opened the door shortly after, revealing himself to be mid-shave.

God, even with a soap foam beard and towel about his shoulders John was utterly himself, entirely self-possessed. John even managed to make it look good.

He was truly in too deep.

“Jesus! Is something the matter?” John asked, and it seemed as though John wanted to be annoyed, but he wasn’t, not at all. This realization was a momentary relief—he could believe that he wasn’t truly an annoyance. It was John’s sweet, concerned tone and expression, which he had only ever heard and seen John use with him. This – this is what he had come to see one last time.

He walked past John, taking three long strides to stand in the center of the room as John closed the door behind him. He kept his back turned.

“I’ve come to say goodbye. We’re going to New York, leaving Monte Carlo this morning. All of our things are already packed and in the car, and I just thought I should say goodbye beforehand. And so, this is me doing just that.” The words came out stiff and awkward. The same could be said for his posture.

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” John asked, voice hushed.

“Sebastian just decided yesterday, and it was all done in a hurry,” he responded, stubbornly facing away from John, contrary to his plans to savour their last moments.

“And just like that, he’s taking you with him to New York?”

At this, he finally turned to John in agitation.

“Yes! And I don’t want to go. I’ll hate it. I’ll be miserable.”

“All right,” John said, clearly hoping to placate him. “Why go then?”

For lack of a better coping mechanism, his hands flew to his hair and tugged.

“I have to! You know that. I work for a blasted salary, and I can’t afford to leave him. It’s this or some other hell of my brother’s choosing. Presumably this is the better of evils,” he replied, calmer by the time he reached the conclusion. He had accepted this already, he was not going to expose his frustrations. This wasn’t part of his planned departure from John.

John limped back to his washbasin, raised his razor and continued his shave. “Sit down,” he said. “I won’t be long.”

John did not seem to understand that this was intended to be the end of the conversation. He had meant to say goodbye, and John was meant to smile at him and maybe clap his back with one hand, and then send him on his way – and he would remember John forever just as he was in this moment. This was proving difficult, especially if John was going to insist on continuing as if none of this was happening.

John came back out for his clothes, and then returned, closing the bathroom door. Getting dressed then. He was impinging on John’s privacy he supposed, but John had told him to wait.

He paced, needing to think to keep from going mad – the room, the hotel room. It was not the room of an average man to be sure, rather it was exceedingly tidy, and not just from the staff’s diligence as they obviously hadn’t been in yet. John kept military-neat corners on his bed, and the dressing table was bare. No photographs. He had looked for them instinctively, expecting one in particular, on the mantelpiece perhaps in a large dark wood frame. Instead, nothing. Nothing to deduce. Though sometimes, the absence of something was eloquent in and of itself.

One of the hotel staff knocked once before entering with a trolley of breakfast, and began setting the small table near the entrance. John had not been planning on meeting him this morning then.

“I need to leave,” he repeated in the general direction of the bathroom door, watching the waiter from the corner of his eye. Could that not be hurried up? He wanted to be alone with John. Was he imagining the boy giving him sidelong glances? He glared back - he was far beyond caring about the gossip that would spread over him being in John’s rooms at this hour.

“Wilkes is waiting for me downstairs,” he said, increasing the volume of his voice. He supposed he could leave, but John hadn’t bid him a formal farewell. That’s what he’d come here for, hadn’t he?

John emerged from the washroom, shaved and dressed.

“And he’s going to wait a little longer, sit down and have breakfast with me.” John’s tone brooked no argument. He almost considered protesting but admittedly, he did not want to go back to meet Wilkes, and so he sat as instructed.

John was looking anywhere but at him, and lifted the cover from a silver platter and began to cut into a piece of ham.

“So, Wilkes is leaving Monte immediately. And how do we feel about that?” John asked.

“For God’s sake John, I just said! It’s hateful, but what other choice do I have?”

John continued to cut into the ham, still not meeting his gaze. Was the man being deliberately obtuse?

“You’re unhappy about leaving, but Wilkes is bored and would like to go elsewhere. As would I. Him to America, and me to Manderley.”

John paused to lift the piece of meat in his fork and knife, and reached over to place it on his plate.

“The question is, which of us do you go with?”

He waited for the other shoe to drop, and when it did not, he waited even longer as he was convinced that eventually what had just been said would turn to sense in his mind. He wasn’t sure he had heard that right. In fact, he felt certain that couldn’t have been correct.

“Well?” John asked, looking up briefly to catch his eye, at last. “Will you come with me to Manderley, or will you go to America with Wilkes?”

Would he – ? To Manderley?

He was aware that possibly he should be saying something.

He had just said he didn’t want to go to America. John Watson had always been kind to him. But what exactly was this new, overwhelming act of generosity?

“Don’t joke,” he said, his throat constricting around the words as he forced them out.

“I’m pretty sure you know I’m not the type of person to try to be funny at breakfast,” John said. “If anything, I can be badly tempered. The choice is still yours. Go to America with Wilkes, or come home to Manderley. With me,” he said tapping the table with his hand in emphasis, and now looked at him fully, directly. That honest blue-eyed stare. But how honest was it, really?

“You mean, come with you to work as a secretary? Someone to do administrative tasks for you?” he asked, putting effort into speaking so as to hide that he felt like he was gasping for air, his chest tight and hot. He felt as if he might be set ablaze at any moment.

“No,” John said, “no you – I mean, I’m asking you to marry me.”

He looked away from John, and down to a scratch in the table.

Someone had nicked it with a knife, leaving behind an indent in the wood. He wondered how anyone could use utensils so poorly that they missed their plate completely. He wondered how his hearing had become so impaired.

It seemed his mind had recently been stuffed full of cotton balls. He was currently wading through them to find meaning in John’s spoken words, like reaching for pills at the bottom of a bottle.

“You mean to say – “ he began.

John nodded, his tongue touching the corner of his lip.

“That you want me to be your – "

“Husband.”

Husband. Husband.

Husband.

John’s husband. Him, as John’s husband.

“Yeah, that’s getting a bit scary now, the blinking thing,” John was saying, from somewhere rather far away.

John needed to be patient, as he was still attempting to push through the cotton padding the inside of his skull. Slowly, as he moved aside each piece, the short time he’d spent in Monte Carlo in the other man’s presence played out in revealing segments. Desiring John’s praise, attention, his company. Wanting John to look at him and laugh with him. The distress he felt at John thinking ill of him. His dreams about John, a John who either forgot him or adored him. One he feared, and the other he desired. Not to mention, the nature of the dream he’d had the previous night… It all painted a very telling picture.

He was in love with John Watson. In the brief time he had known the man, he had fallen irrevocably in love with him.

Two surprise deductions in one day was possibly two too many. Especially when they were about things of an extremely terrifying and personal nature.

John was speaking. What was he saying?

“— wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but just wondering, is there a response of any kind forthcoming?”

John as always was able to use humour in any given circumstance. Not exactly waxing poetic, was he? Where were his love poems now? Of course, nowhere to be found. They were in his pocket with John’s wife’s name written all over them.

While he might be in love with John, what exactly was John’s angle? An affluent man grieving for his beautiful and sophisticated wife, and he was meant to believe John wanted to marry him? A juvenile man with no social connections beyond his own brother?

“You don’t understand,” he said. “I’m not the sort of man people marry.” Well, he wasn’t. So really, what game was John playing at?

John huffed, apparently somewhat relieved that he’d spoken at all.

“Why not?” John asked, and gone was his nonchalance, his features softening.

“I’m not sure. I don’t think I know how to explain. I don’t belong to your world.”

“What is ‘my world’?”

“Manderley. You know exactly what I mean.”

“Hmm yeah, no," John said, a crease forming in his brow. "I really don’t. You didn’t even know what Manderley was when we first met! And I’m the person to judge whether you’d belong there. Or is that meant as an indirect refusal? You can say so, you know, this isn’t – you can say so.”

John spoke as if he were coaxing a frightened animal. “It’s only – I had started to think you might be a bit in love with me.”

Any comfort he’d found in John’s earlier words vacated the premises.

“You did, did you,” he said flatly.

John’s expression suggested that he now doubted it very much, even though he had been the one to state the supposition. “Got that wrong, did I?” he asked.

“No – yes,” he said.

“Which is it?” John asked, while again licking his lips. His hand holding the knife was absolutely still.

Not that he knew from personal experience, but he was aware this was most certainly not the usual way of doing things.

As if reading his mind, John spoke in what was perhaps an attempt to remedy the situation.

“I know that I’ve done this all wrong. This probably isn’t at all your idea of a marriage proposal. I should be down on one knee, telling you how bloody clever and gorgeous you are. Take pity on an old man’s bad knees, won’t you?”

Humour, again, John Watson’s favoured approach to many situations.

Finally, the gears clicked in his mind. He had been right all along. No man would propose this way, because these were not the usual circumstances. John knew he hated Wilkes and that he would miss John terribly – he’d been stupid enough the other day to ramble on about bottled memories. Bottled memories he wanted to keep of John.

John had known of his feelings, and felt sympathetic for another soul burdened by unrequited love. John could never love another, so what did it matter if he took pity on the poor thing? There was nothing left for John Watson in the world of love. This was exactly what he had always suspected – John Watson’s endless charity.

And perhaps also John Watson’s ever present attraction to the dangerous and exciting – an elopement was the exact sort of reckless thing that got the other man’s blood pumping. John was still teetering on the edge of that cliff, but instead of choosing to follow Mary into the sea, John was staying afloat by hanging onto him like a buoy.

He was blinking again, but instead of confused he only felt angry. On many occasions he had held his tongue despite the scathing remarks that bubbled beneath the surface, not able to be said, but now he found he could speak them very well indeed.

“If this is meant as a kindness, it’s at best unnecessary and at worst offensive. I don’t need your pity John Watson,” he said, while standing with every intention to leave, now, before this became even worse than it already was.

John mirrored him by rising from his chair at once, and crossed the floor at a surprising speed to grab ahold of him, completely unassisted by his cane.

“I swear I wish everyone thought I was as much of a philanthropist as you do!” John held him tightly, and though he thrashed for a moment, he eventually settled.

“You think I’d honestly ask you this on the spur of the moment? You told me you’d be bored in America, so hey, let’s get married? You think I’d ask you to marry me for the same reason you think I drove you around in the car?”

John was smiling, which meant he was angry.

He must have seemed alarmed, because John soon calmed.

“I’m sorry,” John said, and his voice was wrecked with true emotion. “I know I’ve done this all wrong. I’ve asked you the wrong way. I told you the other day, I don’t know what to do with you.”

John may have calmed, but this only incensed him further.

“You don’t know what to do with me, and so your solution is marriage? After what, a fortnight?” he spat, leaning his face down to John’s, using his height in a desperate attempt to intimidate.

Lashing out in anger was his last defence – John didn’t know what was to be done, and so John was clearly doing what John thought he wanted! How dare John know of his feelings before he himself had, and how dare he, how dare he –

“You give the most mixed signals of anyone I’ve ever met! If you meant to refuse, you could have said no, you could have said no, I don’t know how many times by now.” John’s voice was raised now, and they were both at a state of elevated emotion.

“I told you everything. Yesterday. In the car. But when I came to see you last night, you wouldn’t even look at me.”

“You’re the one who wouldn’t look at me!” he cried. He was breathing heavily, gasping in the circle of John’s arms which continued to hold his forearms loosely.

He made to break away, still unconvinced, until John tilted his face upwards and cupped his jaw, just like in the first dream. While he was frozen in surprise, John tilted his head further and slowly, ever so slowly, he watched John’s face move towards his until it was a blur. He was frozen, unbelieving, with eyes still wide open.

John pressed his lips against his own gently, in the same way that he spoke. It was like the kiss to his scalp, but much warmer, much softer, and he had to reach out and grip John’s arms in return to keep from slipping to the ground. John’s lips were still against his own while his heart beat frantically in his chest.

John withdrew slightly, but remained close enough that when John licked his lip, the other man’s tongue swiped across the corner of his own mouth. He felt his life divide into two distinct segments: before and after being kissed by John Watson. The entire world was composed of only the points of direct and indirect contact between himself and John: John’s breath warm against his face, the tip of John’s tongue tantalizingly close, the smoothness of John’s freshly shaved cheek. He leaned forward to chase it instinctively, but John pulled back from him, as gradually as he had approached.

John reopened his eyes. They were still very blue, and very candid, up close.

“Do you understand me now?” John asked, in a voice almost low enough to be a whisper.

“Yes,” he blurted out, voice hoarse, without conscious thought.

“And were you alright with – that?”

“Yes,” he said again.

“And will you marry me?” John asked.

“Yes.” He hated repeating himself, but the third time was supposedly the charm.

John at once released his arms, but it was only so that he could hug him tightly. John cupped the back of his head, and he let himself be led into the crook of John’s neck. John smelled more strongly there, warm and familiar.

“I know, Christ, I know, it’s too soon,” John was saying. He could hardly focus on the words. He felt like ice being dethawed, and was certain that he soon would melt all over the floor.

“— and we can go as slowly as you want. We’ll need to be married to return together, but we don’t have to – we don’t have to be man and husband. Right away. I know that it’s all a lot, and too soon.”

“It’s fine,” he said, not knowing for sure what exactly was fine.

“No, honestly it’s – I wish we had more time here, to stay in our own little world. This isn’t how I would like to do things. I want to do it – right.”

John rocked forward onto tiptoes to kiss the top of his forehead. The kiss lasted for a beat, before John was kissing his left cheek and leaning his face against his. “I’m going to make it up to you, I promise. Bungling the proposal. Let me know what you want, and I’ll do it.”

His melting process was well underway; he was almost completely fluid in John’s arms. Except, he at once remembered –

“Wilkes is still waiting downstairs for me. With the loaded car.”

John was visibly unimpressed by the mention of Sebastian.

“Hang Wilkes!” John said with a quick laugh. He walked over to his desk to pick up the room phone, still without his cane, and began to painstakingly hunt for the finger holes. John dialed a phone at a snail’s pace, as if he hadn’t quite mastered the ability to push his fingers into holes and rotate precisely. If it were anyone else he would have found it extremely annoying, but in this exact moment it was strangely and intensely endearing.

“Yes hello, can you send someone out to tell Sebastian Wilkes to come see me in my room? Tell him it’s John Watson. You’ll find Wilkes out front.”

“You’re going to bring him up here?” he asked, feeling somewhat alarmed. He’d been so nervous for so long of Sebastian finding them out. He supposed Wilkes would really need to know now, however. He wished he didn’t, Sebastian had a way of ruining anything good.

“Yes, of course,” John said, and he was smiling very toothily, and looking very pleased with himself. Why did John care about speaking to Wilkes anyway?

John kissed his face three more times, once on the nose and twice on the cheek, before breaking away to retrieve his cane. Almost as if he just remembered he needed it. John leaned on it once again, but clearly required it less than usual.

It wasn’t long before Wilkes opened the room’s door, with no knock as a warning. As a result, the door completely obscured him from Wilkes’ view as he entered and moved straight towards Watson.

“Sorry old boy! You must have wanted to bid me adieu before I left. I was being very secretive you see, I do love to cause a bit of a stir!”

“Yes, you’ve surprised us all,” John said. He could now tell when John found something ridiculous and was moments away from laughing. This was absolutely one of those times.

“But that’s not what I asked you up for. I wanted to let you know I’m getting married.”

“My God, really! You’ve quite outdone me for surprises! Well congratulations, and who is the oh so fortunate person?”

John swept his hand towards the door, specifically in his direction. He had been hanging back even after the door had closed, not sure when to reveal himself.

As Wilkes turned, his face couldn’t seem to settle between surprise, aghast, and suspicion.

“You!” he cried. The incredulity was more than implied.

“Yes,” John said, continuing to look oddly smug. “You’ll have to forgive me for depriving you of your companion.”

Wilkes recovered admirably. “Shocking! Oh, of course I must delay my trip. The poor thing has no one to give him away at the altar! And you’ll need help planning the event itself.”

He had to valiantly keep himself from vomiting on the rug at the thought. As if Sebastian cared about who gave him away! Odious Wilkes just wanted to be present at John Hamish Watson of Manderley’s surprise wedding. Luckily John was prepared to dissuade him of this idea.

“That’s so very considerate of you,” John said, in a way that suggested he meant quite the opposite. “But I think we’d prefer to keep things small. In fact, just the two of us really.”

“Of course, of course,” Wilkes said. He was clearly put out at having been denied, which became very apparent when he continued, “Of course you’ve already had a big wedding, with all the bells and whistles. A second wedding is always a smaller affair.”

Reminding John of that, now of all times? He had a fantasy wherein he wrapped his hands around Wilkes’ throat and squeezed, which he called upon now to calm himself. Hateful Wilkes!

“Yes, well – shall I go ask someone to remove his bags from your car before you leave then?” John asked, opening the door. “I’ll just go grab the young man at the end of the hall.”

No, John! He wanted to cry out after him. He was being silly – he’d been alone with Sebastian on innumerable occasions, why wouldn’t he be able to handle him now? But oh, why did John have to leave him alone with him?

Wilkes went to stand by the window and lit a cigarette, blowing out his smoke in huffs. It was an image he couldn’t wait to never see again.

“Well,” Wilkes began, his voice dry and hard, and not at all how he had spoken to John. “You work fast don’t you. I have to hand it to you, how ever did you manage it?”

He didn’t know the answer, and he didn’t like Sebastian’s smile. For one desperate moment, he wished that none of this had ever happened.

“It was a lucky thing for you I had the influenza. I realize now how you spent your time. Tennis lessons, truly! You might have told me, you know.”

If Wilkes had expected to be kept in his confidence, he really was out of his mind. And if he expected an apology, he’d be waiting for a long time. Perhaps Wilkes hadn’t expected anything, as he continued to speak.

“And he wants to marry you in a few days, with hardly any witnesses. It’s good for you that you haven’t much family to ask questions, though Lord, when your brother finds out! I’ve been sending him letters saying the trip’s been absolutely boring, and you’ve been up to barely anything. Collecting dirt, I told him. He’ll probably want to skin me! Well, it’s nothing to do with me any more of course, I wash my hands of you. I do wonder what Watson’s friends will think, but I suppose that’s his trouble. You realize he’s years older than you?”

“He’s only in his mid thirties,” he said, speaking for the first time, “and I’m old for my age.”

Wilkes laughed, spilling cigarette ash across the floor.

“He’s almost forty, and he looks it. And do you honestly think you’re so mature? I suppose, in some ways,” he said. Wilkes was eyeing him now in a way he never had, as if Wilkes had missed something about him before that now required searching for. The inquisitiveness of his look was decidedly unpleasant.

“Tell me,” he said, his voice dropping low as if they were speaking intimately, “Have you been doing anything you shouldn’t?”

“I – I don’t know what you mean,” he said, though only a moment later he caught his implication.

Wilkes laughed again, shrugging his shoulders. “Well, I suppose no one is entirely an intellectual, even though you had us all believing it. Always so high above the rest of us all, with your little party tricks. Now I see how it really is.”

To his own dismay, he flushed bright red at this comment, even though he had done nothing untoward beyond a few quick kisses.

“And now! I have to travel to New York alone, and leave you here while your beau gets a marriage license. Not letting me attend your wedding, honestly.”

“He doesn’t want anyone to come, and you have to sail out anyway,” he barely managed to make out between his clenched teeth.

“Hm, hm,” Wilkes said. “I suppose you think you know your own mind. But the whole thing has been very hurried, hasn’t it? A matter of a few weeks. I hope you realize what you’re doing. He’s not an easy man, no matter how he seems when he turns on his charm. You’ve led a very sheltered life up to now I hope you know. You’ll have your work cut out for you as master of Manderley. To be perfectly frank, I really can’t see you doing it.”

The words sounded like his own doubts repeated back to him.

“You can barely scrape together two sentences without offending anyone at my parties, what are you going to say to all his friends? The Manderley parties were famous when she was alive. I assume he’s told you all about her, and their social gatherings. His family’s reputation was rather stunning when she was running things.”

He hesitated, but Wilkes went on regardless, thank God.

“Of course, I just want you to be happy! And I grant you he can be attractive in certain lights, especially if you think about his bags of money rather than the bags under his eyes. Though I am sorry, I think you’re making a big mistake – one you will bitterly regret.”

Maybe Wilkes was finally being sincere with him, but this was not the kind of honesty he needed or wanted. Perhaps this was a taste of his own medicine, after all the people whose insecurities he’d aired in the past.

“Is he very much in love with you?” Wilkes asked in a quiet voice, implying exactly what he thought the answer truly was.

Wilkes was smiling, and moving the cigarette between his fingers, playing with it.

“Of course,” he said, “you know why he’s marrying you, don’t you? You are a clever one, you haven’t flattered yourself that he’s in love with you have you? Of course you haven’t, how could you think it? The fact is that empty house of his has finally got to his nerves, and he doesn’t want to go on living there alone. Poor man has latched onto the first naïve young thing besotted with him, willing to service him the way he likes, I imagine.”

The implication he saw now was two-fold: not only that he had seduced and entrapped John, but that John also only wanted him for one thing. He imagined this would become a recurring theme of their future lives together; people mistaking the nature of the “service” that John wanted from him to justify having married him so suddenly.

“Sebastian,” he said, and he was impressed with himself that his voice did not waver. If he wanted it enough, he could be the image of coolness and apathy. “Thank you for input.” He pulled the door open, and planned to hold it that way till he could close it behind the other man.

“Well!” Wilkes said, dropping his cigarette on the carpet before crushing it beneath his foot. “Now that you’re moving up in the world, I suppose there’s no love lost between old friends.”

“We were never friends. Please leave now,” he said.

“You’ll see, you’ll regret it,” Wilkes said, and shrugged one last time before making his exit.

He slammed the door behind him as hard as he could. God, how he hated that man!

But more than that, he hated that he was right.

John had not said anything about being in love with him. It was too soon, or there hadn’t been enough time. It was all very unexpected, but he knew for certain that he had never felt this way before, and would never feel it again for anyone else as long as he lived. He wouldn’t let Sebastian touch this, he was marrying the man he loved and was going to be very happy. John just needed time.

It was all very sudden. It was all very – something. A word he couldn’t remember.

He was going to be Mr Watson. It was foolish to feel sick in the pit of his stomach when he was getting exactly what he wanted, which he hadn’t dared hope for until it was already offered.

No, John had not said anything about being in love. Just that they needed to be married. Short and definite, very original. Original proposals were much better surely. More genuine. John was of course fond of him after they’d spent so much time together, and it was all new, and exciting. John wanted a blank slate, a way to forget the past. John needed new memories, and he would give them to him.

Besides, he and John weren’t like other people. John knew what he wanted, and he didn’t need to be in love yet. John wasn’t a young man rambling on about passion and swearing impossibilities to him, not meaning half of what he said. Not like how John would have been, when he had asked the first time, to Mary… But he wouldn’t think of that, not any more.

John had never noticed the book of poems was missing from his car. Surely that meant something. He was moving on. But still a little voice nagged at him – whose name was on the title page?

He reached for the book in his pocket and in his haste it fell from his hands. The envelope with John’s note card slid out, and the first page lay face up looking towards him. “To Hamish – Mary”.

How daringly she had written her name, how strong it looked. But she was dead! How could the dead affect him, the living?

In his flustered state, he ripped the page out of the book, and tore it into as many pieces as he could. But her pen had been full of ink, and the ‘M’ in Mary had bled into the next page, and the page after that…

He should have burned the book when he’d had the chance, but now his thoughts were rushing to a clear end that pained him somewhat with its finality.

There were several conclusions he had drawn in the course of this morning that were sure to alter the next stages of his life. Firstly, that he wanted John, physically. Secondly, that he was in love with John, romantically. And lastly, that while John knew these things and was willing to accept him in this way, the attachment on John’s end was wholly dependent not on who he was, but what he was: a method of self-medication, a dose of youthful excitement intended to dull the ache of a life left empty in the wake of tragedy.

But this was not insurmountable. John could one day forget the past. And he would be there waiting for him, situated in the ideal position, already his husband.

He would endeavour to be what John needed of him, even if it meant his own heartache.

Chapter Text

They came to Manderley in early May. John said this was meant to be the best time, or at least it was according to everyone else. John seemed to lack a full appreciation for that sort of thing, but he apparently had many flowers in bloom to look forward to.

They were going to arrive in the late afternoon, just in time for tea.

The drive to John’s home would normally have been lovely and reminiscent of their long drives in Monte, except that the end destination was grand Manderley, as opposed to just their hotel. He felt inappropriately dressed for the occasion, still longing for the confidence that came with a well-fitted suit. He fidgeted in his seat, bouncing his legs in agitation.

“Feeling all right?” John asked, looking away from the road in obvious concern. He smiled tightly in response, hoping to hide his edginess.

For John, this was likely an easy trip. John was returning to his own home. John would wander in, check the mail, perhaps ring the bell for tea. Meanwhile he would be ostensibly out of place, the obvious outsider. He feared the staff would take one look at him and know he was as ill-fitting for John as the suit currently clinging to his lanky frame. His challenge would be to convince them otherwise, as he knew John would eventually become unhappy if he was unable to assimilate into this new life. Into John’s life. He had to be strategic, charming. This was an act he had on occasion succeeded at.

He had to make John interpret his silence as fatigue. John couldn’t know he was dreading their arrival at Manderley.

He wanted to be with John, but just the two of them, without all the trappings. He wanted John and him traveling, or perhaps in a busy place like London. Not to be arriving at an estate, which John was to be the responsible master of, and him as husband to John Hamish Watson.

“Only two miles further,” John said. “See those trees there, in that valley? With a bit of sea beyond it? Manderley is in those woods.”

He had of course gathered as much, but he appreciated John clearing the air. He smiled, though it was forced, and did not answer. He was vaguely aware that he was entering a state of mild panic, which was crucial to conceal.

He was reminded of so many of Wilkes’ admonishments of his behaviour and how abominably he behaved in polite society. Suddenly it occurred to him that even the most standard knowledge of decorum befitting the spouse to the master of Manderley was unknown to him. He should have chosen someone to study and imitate till he got the hang of it. Damn, why had he not prepared? He tugged reproachfully at his clothes in a poor attempt at improving his appearance.

His plans to make sure John did not notice were failing. John kept looking over at him. “I’ve bustled you down here rather quickly, haven’t I?" John commented. "I suppose we should have bought you more clothes in London. Well, we can always order in, can’t we?”

“It hardly matters,” he said, “as long as you don’t mind.”

“Well of course I don’t mind!” John said with a laugh. “But I imagine you’d like them, all the same.”

John was politely telling him that he needed to look the part, and he supposed he was right.

“Here we are,” John said lowly as they turned a corner.

He gripped the leather seat of the car tightly in his hands.

There were two tall iron gates ahead, beside a lodge, with a long drive beyond. He could just make out the faces of people observing them from within the lodge, and he knew immediately they were pressed against the window just to see him. He imagined there would be a lot of that from there on out. Staring, that was.

He startled as John took one of his hands in his own, and lifted it from its grasp on the seat to kiss it lightly. He watched the progression of his hand moving towards John’s lips with fascination.

Since the proposal, John had been kind to him, but physically distant. John hadn’t misled him when he had said they wouldn’t be man and husband just yet - there had been nothing, not a single amourous advance, not since that kiss in John’s hotel room. He supposed he should be grateful he hadn’t been expected to muddle his way through a traditional wedding night. As he had suspected, John was still not ready. If John would go so far to please him as to kiss his hand, he must have been doing a poor job of hiding his trepidation.

“There’ll be some curiosity, of course,” John commented. “They’ve probably all been talking about this ever since they heard the news. But you only have to be yourself.”

He snorted. “Be myself and they’ll adore me? John, most people find my personality repugnant.”

John laughed, like he thought being unanimously disliked was a delightful character trait. “Be yourself regardless of whether they adore you or not, then.”

His expression must have communicated his skepticism, as John continued with more reassurances.

“I promise it won’t be anything like people say it is, running things I mean. You don’t need to worry about Manderley, Moriarty does everything. Just leave it all to him,” John said, still lightly gripping his fingers.

“Moriarty?” he asked, eyeing his hand in John’s grasp.

“You don’t need to worry about anything,” John repeated. “And on your right you’ll see quite a lot of hydrangeas, my sister raves about them. I told you this place was drowning in flowers. Perhaps you can make a study of that?”

“Hmm, are any of them poisonous?” he asked rhetorically, letting the matter of this ‘Moriarty’ drop. He supposed he’d meet the man shortly.

John chuckled as they continued their approach to the house. While he had expected a long and winding road, this seemed excessive. The length of the journey began to wear on his nerves. He was leaning against his hand in an imitation of nonchalance, but his fingers tapping furiously against his cheek likely gave him away. John kept glancing at him warily.

Suddenly, the trees began to thin, and the shrubbery receded, and they were passing within blood-red walls. This was momentarily very distracting, and he leaned over the side of the car to look closer. “Like them?” John asked, smiling.

“So many rhododendrons,” he said, awed by a boring houseplant transformed into something quite extraordinary.

“Is that what they are?” John asked, sounding pleased about the scenery being admired.

He sighed in exasperation, but mostly fondness. Of course John wouldn’t even know what they were.

Once they’d passed through the sea of red, the drive broadened, and with one last turned corner Manderley itself was in sight. The painting on the postcard had been entirely accurate in its depiction. He could see terraces bridging the gardens, and the gardens continuing on to the sea. As they approached the front of the house, he could see a group of people had assembled, all standing at attention, and leading to the stone steps. The strange blood-red entrance had distracted him from his uneasiness, which now returned with fervour.

John swore under his breath. “Damn him,” he said. “He knew – I said I did not want this sort of thing.” John stopped the car, braking hard.

His palms were sweaty within his gloves. He tore them off, and stowed them in his pockets.

“The staff of the house, I presume?” he asked in response, attempting to appear unaffected in the face of John being worried for him. John becoming upset over the nature of his introduction to their new home was the last thing he wanted.

“Jim has collected the whole damned staff in the house and on the estate. It’s fine, it’s fine, they only want to welcome us. You don’t have to do or say anything, I’ll give a little speech and we’ll be on our way.”

He pressed his hand into the top of the door, remembering at the last second that he couldn’t vault over it like he was in the habit of doing. He quickly changed tack, grasping for the handle. He managed to successfully exit the car, only to be met by many prying eyes. He wondered when their curiosity would die down, and hoped for sooner rather than later. How was he supposed to go about his business if he was to be gawked at like the new intrigue?

A man emerged from the perfectly still line-up of staff. He was not particularly tall or noteworthy at first glance, but strolled towards them with an air of effortless confidence.

Unsure how to proceed, he held his hand out to greet the approaching figure in an attempt at displaying dignity and composure. The other man took his hand and smiled – though his face was benign, his hand was deathly cold, and it lay limp in his own hand like a dead thing.

“Jim Moriarty,” the man said. “Welcome to Manderley.”

Moriarty’s voice was unremarkable beyond its faint Irish accent, which was at odds with the heavy hand the man had left hanging in his own. Moriarty’s hollow eyes never looked away from him, not for a moment, even while addressing John in an easy manner about the meaningless events that had passed in his absence. The stare was so unusual, and yet he felt he was the only one able to see how empty the eyes looking back at him were. Eventually he cut his gaze to John, searching for his reaction. However, once he’d lost the contest of holding Moriarty's gaze, the hanging hand gripped his with excessive force, before pulling away. He felt strangely like he had failed some kind of test.

The gloves that he had quickly stashed in his pockets slipped out at this moment, and Moriarty, with an action that could only be seen as in keeping with his duties, bent to pick the gloves up. As Moriarty returned the gloves to him, he could swear there was a smile about his lips that didn’t speak of politeness. Something in the expression of his face was peculiar, but it would have been impossible for him to articulate what. Moriarty receded into the line of servants, but he still stood out amongst them, the man’s eyes still wholly attuned to him.

His unease lifted as John took his arm, and began to deliver a speech, as promised. The act of speaking to a group of silent people clearly pained him. John frequently made tight smiles amidst his thanks, but overall gave the impression of appreciation for them despite his discomfort with having to express himself at all. Almost as soon as it had begun, John was clutching his arm firmly and leading him up the stairs, and into what was to be their new home.

Upon entering the sitting room directly off the main entrance hall, they were greeted by a lively dog, who was clearly fond of John as it jumped on him in enthusiasm. Unsurprisingly, John began to dote on it.

“I’ve been looking forward to introducing you to Gladstone,” John said, while rubbing the dog’s ears. “Do you like dogs, at all?” John asked. He almost sounded nervous.

“I suppose,” he said.

Gladstone eyed him with interest, and butted his wet nose into his hand when offered. It was possible he liked dogs a bit more than he was letting on.

As soon as tea was brought to them, John dove into a stack of letters with a heavy sigh. Occasionally John would look up from the task to smile at him reassuringly before returning to the correspondence. He drank his tea and watched John work, which he supposed was to be the way of a companion to such a man. Husband, he reminded himself. He was his husband now.

He realized he knew very little of John’s life at Manderley. Though it wasn’t hard to imagine, he did not know for certain John’s day to day routines at home and the people he was familiar with. These were not things easily postulated. He would need more data.

Not for the first time, he reflected on how potentially foolish this all was – running off with a man after a few weeks of acquaintance. And yet he couldn’t escape the fact that being near John felt absolutely correct. The feeling of synchrony had been immediate and stronger than anything he had ever contended with. He felt certain that to resist it would be his destruction.

John had been so free in their time between leaving Monte and arriving at Manderley. He remembered the man he had met that first night, who had been closed off and melancholy. John when alone with him was youthful and alive, much less constrained. John sometimes forgot his cane entirely, despite their travels not being overly exciting. At times he felt John and himself were the same age, and had to remind himself of the disparity.

John reviewing letters reminded him of his own - a solitary letter received from his brother in light of the news of his recent nuptials. His brother had been particularly odious in his sentiments. Certainly no offer of congratulations.

"If you were so desperate to escape Sebastian Wilkes that you were willing to marry a significantly older, and supposedly lame, man of little repute beyond his family name you need only have said. Really brother mine, are you honestly so short-sighted? Or did it not occur to you that you would have to actually be married to the man? I suppose of course it could be worse. This match would certainly have made Mummy proud, Father as well, assuming they weren’t interested in knowing your motives. I’m sure I can’t fathom them at all. Of all the foolish things brother – do you understand that my protection only spans so far?”

As if he needed his older brother’s protection. And what did he even mean? How was he not safe with John, of all people? He could easily overlook his brother’s poor outlook on his own character, but his brother’s firm dismissal of John as someone not worth anyone’s time he absolutely could not forgive. Was he actually suggesting he was with John for his money? The thought alone made bile rise in his throat.

“Has your brother forgiven me for having us keep the wedding party so small and secret?” John asked, and for a moment he wondered if John could read his mind.

“Never mind him,” he replied, absently petting Gladstone. “He hates weddings anyway.”

“Ah,” John said, looking decidedly worried, which was all very wrong and not as intended. “He doesn’t approve, does he.”

“I said never mind him.”

“He’s your only living relative! And I can understand his concern. Shall I invite him to Manderley? Show him that I have the best of intentions?”

“For God’s sake, do anything but!” he cried in a disgruntled huff, which apparently John found quite amusing judging by his quiet laughter. There, that was much better.

“Sibling rivalry. Now we’re getting somewhere.”

He huffed again. He was rather annoyed, but whatever made John look so satisfied he supposed he could allow.

“And what does that mean?”

“Nothing, of course.” John smiled at him playfully, and he liked that quite a bit, even if John thought he’d worked something out.

A throat was cleared from the entrance to the sitting room. A man with greying hair stood in the doorway, looking expectant.

“Lestrade,” John declared, looking up brightly, “What is it?”

“Begging your pardon sir, but there’s a call for you from London.”

He could tell that Lestrade, the butler evidently, was someone John was fond of.

“Oh, right, of course,” John made to stand, but paused while glancing at him, clearly concerned for him like a host would be for a guest.

“Mr Moriarty wondered, Sir, whether you would like to see your room,” Lestrade inquired, addressing him specifically. The man was a good servant then, aware of his master’s apprehensions.

A footman arrived and began to clear the tea things. Their earlier peaceful moments were to be disrupted it seemed.

“That’s an idea, how’s the East wing looking then?” John asked.

“Very nice sir. We were a bit worried it might not be done in time for your arrival, but miracles do happen. I think you’ll both be very comfortable there,” Lestrade responded.

“Have you been making alterations?” he asked, a bit alarmed. He of course realized John had communicated their arrival to the house, and had required additions to be made. Boring things that he imagined John would be responsible for - but he hadn’t known John would have made large changes to his home. That seemed highly unnecessary.

“Just a few things, I thought it might be nice to freshen it up.”

John had prepared the house especially for him? He felt almost as warmed as he did when John had kissed his hand.

He rose from his chair, deciding he’d rather like to see the new room that was to be theirs now. John hesitated, looking between them, before standing with his usual assistance from his cane.

“I’d like to come see it with you, but –“

“Never mind that, I can start without you.” It did feel a bit wrong to see their rooms without John, but surely he could do this simple thing alone.

“I’ll come find you when I’m finished,” John promised as he made his exit.

Lestrade led him out into the hall, and nodded to the stairs where Moriarty was waiting.

He made his way towards the other servant, his shoes clacking against the floor in a way that appealed to him, while also realizing he was likely making a racket. The black figure waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs was wearing felt-soled shoes, and likely thought he was an imbecile. Or so he assumed. It seemed like Moriarty had to have been thinking something – his dark eyes were ever watchful in his pale face.

Moriarty motioned with his hand in silence towards the stairs. “After you,” he said, demurely. His speech had a strange lilt, a change in tone that added a whimsical quality to it.

He made an attempt at one of his charming smiles he had in his repertoire for special occasions. Moriarty did not return it.

He moved to walk slightly in front of Moriarty, taking in every detail of the home as it was revealed to him. Perhaps he could do more exploring later when there were less curious eyes on him. Especially when this Moriarty was more preoccupied.

He reached what he assumed must have been some of the more famous paintings of Manderley, along the minstrels' gallery as Wilkes had said. As an exercise he began estimating their relative values – impressive sums in general, given their preservation. There was one in particular, clearly the most notable piece. It featured a man and a woman, twins, based on the strong resemblance in features. They were both blond, beautiful, and dressed all in white. They gazed out from the painting with their arms linked, and their expressions suggested they knew something the onlooker did not. The blondness, in addition to the painting being the obvious centerpiece, led him to believe the siblings depicted were Watsons. He supposed being good-looking was a trend in the family, along with producing one son and one daughter.

He realized that he had stopped moving forward, and had perhaps been acting in a way that would be considered eccentric by others. Moriarty had paused when he had, and was watching him in silence. His eyes gleamed from his face in the darkly lit hallway.

“We can continue, I was merely looking at the paintings,” he said. He and Moriarty were completely alone on the landing. How strange that what hadn’t bothered him a moment ago now felt off-putting. How long had Moriarty been watching him, while he was lost in his own mind?

“It’s for you to make your own time, sir. I’m here to carry out your orders,” Moriarty responded, the submissiveness of the statement at odds with the superiority of his look.

An intriguing servant, to be sure. Irish, but had obviously immigrated to England young. He was from the country clearly but liked to hide it, preferred the city, resenting his rural upbringing. For his class, he had moved up quite quickly, already the obvious overseer of one of the oldest and greatest homes in Britain. Rather impressive, considering. His appearance was fastidious, he took care with his clothing. This was standard with servants, but this one in particular liked to look smart, coveted the articles. He obviously had connections in the city, judging by the new cufflinks. He was very probably up to date on London fashion.

None of this explained what was bothering him about the servant.

Moriarty turned away from him, continuing his progression smoothly through the archway of the gallery to the long, broad carpeted corridor beyond. He followed after him, traveling down a narrow staircase, and up another. He was beginning to wonder where he was being led.

Moriarty at last opened the door at the end of the hall (with a flourish he admittedly appreciated). The immediate reaction he had upon entering was that the room was unquestionably John, and very much suited to himself as well. The perfect mix of them together.

There was first an anteroom with a sofa, chairs, and writing desk. This opened onto to a double bedroom with wide windows, complete with an attached bathroom. The room was warm colours, furniture that was meant to be used, and light pouring through the windows. A plaid throw over an armchair, which he could imagine John sinking deep into with a book, while he sat at the desk by the window writing his notes. There was even a music stand by the desk, obviously intended as an invitation for his violin playing. He could tell by smell that a rose garden was beneath the window, and this was the eastern side of the terrace he had partially seen. The woods would be in the distance. John had planned ahead, and had known exactly how to take such a large overwhelming place, and create a little corner just for them. His heart swelled with the knowledge.

“How do you like it?” Moriarty asked from the door, attentive yet still managing to sound rather bored.

“Quite well,” he murmured, having forgotten there was another person with him at all, and wishing to be alone.

He realized the sea could not be seen from this side of the house. One could easily pretend the ocean was nowhere nearby.

“No, not from this wing,” Moriarty said, and he realized he must have spoken his observation allowed. His habit of talking to himself was something he might have to curb if he was to be always surrounded by servants.

“You can’t even hear it, either,” Moriarty continued, walking slowly further into the room. “You wouldn’t even know the house was by the sea, from this wing.”

There was no subtlety in the way Moriarty spoke of ‘this wing’. Moriarty may as well have outright stated the suite they were in was somehow inferior.

“It’s a very charming room, and I’m sure I’ll be comfortable,” he said, hoping to end this little discussion. Perhaps because he hated not having the last word he emphasized, “I understand it’s been done up for our return. It’s just how I would like it.”

“Yes, well,” Moriarty sighed. “It had mauve paper before, can you imagine? Mr Watson was right to have something done. It’s never been used except for occasional visitors. But, Mr Watson wanted the room for you.”

This had not occurred to him until this moment – he had thought merely that John had his own room under renovation. “Then, this was not his bedroom originally?”

“No, Sir, he’s never used the room in this wing before.”

“Oh,” he said.

The implication hung in the air. This was not the wing John had lived in with Mary.

This was all, of course, for the best. Part of moving on, surely. Not a sign of being haunted by old memories.

Unpleasant thoughts were starting to creep in, and he absolutely couldn’t have that. Busy, busy. He needed to be kept very busy.

He began to unpack his personal things that had already been brought up to the room with an enthusiasm he would not normally have for the mundane task. He supposed he was meant to ring for a servant to help him, but he wasn’t sure he wanted anyone going through his things. He wasn’t used to other people being so involved in his business. They might tamper with something important.

In his mind, this action was a clear signal that his conversation with Moriarty was over, and that he was welcome to leave. This was apparently not understood.

“You needn’t do your own unpacking, Sir. Someone will be sent up to do it for you, and attend to you until your personal valet arrives,” Moriarty informed him, all business once again.

“I don’t have such a thing,” he said, awkwardly. “I’m sure I don’t need one.”

A valet, of all things. That would be tedious.

Moriarty’s expression was remarkably similar to the one Moriarty had worn when he’d dropped his gloves from his pocket.

“It is usual for men in your position to have a personal valet.”

He almost flushed. God, was he going to have to obey Wilkes’ rules of society now?

“Fine, fine! If it’s necessary, perhaps you would see about it for me,” he said while avoiding Moriarty's direct gaze. “Some young boy looking for training.”

“If you wish,” Moriarty said. “It’s only for you to say.”

Moriarty gave the performance of subservience, but then essentially demanded he have a valet. He wished Moriarty would leave him alone, and then continue to do just that.

He eyed him, quizzically. Was it even normal to be spoken to like this?

He fully regarded the other man; the observations he’d already made drew to the surface once again. Moriarty had worked at Manderley long enough to establish himself, but due to his youth could not have been present for so long.

After being embarrassed and caught off guard, he felt the need to return the favour.

“I suppose you think you know best, given that you’ve been working here for six years, and a half, I perceive.”

Moriarty looked at him as if he were a pet who had performed a rather neat trick.

“And a half? Six years and four months, to be exact. I came here when Mr Watson’s first spouse was a bride,” Moriarty said, and his mouth, which had previously been in a hard unmoving line, was turned up harshly at the corners, and his dull, bored voice transformed with unexpected animation.

The change was rather unsettling, and he felt acutely that his attempts at gaining some of his own ground back had failed spectacularly.

It seemed his foolish fear of being measured against Mary by the staff had not been foolish at all.

“I see,” he said, unsure of how to continue. “That’s - You may… leave now.”

Not exactly the finishing move he’d hoped for, but it would have to do.

Moriarty didn’t move.

“Very good,” Moriarty said, as if something else had been said to him. “I hope I shall do everything to your satisfaction, Sir. The house has been in my charge now for more than a year, and Mr Watson has never complained.”

Was this a thinly veiled suggestion that he had better not find anything to complain about? Honestly, were servants allowed to speak this way?

“It was very different of course when the late Mrs Watson was alive,” Moriarty said, meandering about the room, and running his hand lightly along the wood panel at the foot of his and John’s bed.

“The parties! So much entertaining. Though I managed it for her, she did so love to supervise things herself.”

He had the general impression that Moriarty chose his words with care, and that Moriarty was feeling his way into his own mind, and watching for the effect they had upon his face.

“Parties and entertaining, I would much rather leave to you,” he said, hoping that if he emphasized this would still be in Moriarty's control, Moriarty would leave off.

Moriarty was smiling politely. He could feel that the other man found him worthy of nothing but contempt. He had somehow shown himself as weak, and now Moriarty knew he would never supersede him. If Moriarty wanted to intimidate him, he had arguably been somewhat successful. Mr Watson never complained about him, indeed.

“Can I do anything more for you?” Moriarty asked while he acted out looking around the room, searching for anything missing for his Master’s comfort.

“No,” he said, attempting to regain his firmness. “No, I think I have everything. I shall be very comfortable here.”

“Have I made the room charming?” Moriarty asked, smiling benignly.

This made him want to grind his teeth. John had made the room charming, he was quite sure this Jim had nothing to do with it.

“Yes, very charming, please feel free to see to your other duties.” Would his efforts to rid himself of this person end sometime before eternity?

Moriarty shrugged his shoulders, ever casual. “I only followed out Mr Watson’s instructions,” he said.

Yes, wonderful, he thought. Get out already.

But still Moriarty hesitated in the doorway, his hand on the handle of the open door. It was the pantomime of recalling something, as though he still had something to say to him and was contemplating the words. Moriarty was like a shadow standing there, still watching him, appraising him with his sunken dark eyes set deep in his face. His head grew more and more similar to a skull the longer he observed it.

“If you find anything not to your liking you’ll tell me?” he asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, of course, Moriarty,” but he knew this was not what Moriarty had meant to say, and silence fell between them once again.

“If Mr Watson asks for his big wardrobe,” Moriarty said suddenly, “you must tell him it was impossible to move. We tried, but we could not get it through these narrow doorways. These are smaller rooms than those in the West wing. If he doesn't like the arrangement of this suite he must tell me. It was so very difficult to know how to furnish these… rooms.” Moriarty’s eyes roved the space once more, looking at the furnishings as if they were rather pitiful.

“I’m sure he’s aware, and won’t mind,” he said. “I had no idea he was having rooms redecorated and furnished. He shouldn't have bothered. I'm sure I should have been just as happy and comfortable in the West wing or any wing.”

Moriarty looked at him curiously, and began twisting the handle of the door.

“Do you? I suppose you wouldn’t mind. Maybe even prefer it? The bedroom in the big suite is twice as large as this, did you know? A very beautiful room, with a scrolled ceiling. The tapestry chairs, the carved mantelpiece. And the windows look down across the lawns to the sea. Can you imagine it? Mrs – Oh, I mean, Mr Watson’s previous room was the most beautiful in the house.”

The undercurrent of resentment in his voice was not in any way hidden. The room he was in now was obviously not to the Manderley standard. A lower class room, for him, a lower class person, he imagined.

“I suppose John keeps the most beautiful room to show to the public,” he said, his patience truly worn thin, and still trying to end the conversation.

Moriarty went on twisting the handle of the door, and then looked up at him again. Moriarty was watching his eyes, hesitating before replying, and when he spoke his voice was quieter even, and more toneless, than it had been before.

“The bedrooms are never shown to the public,” he said, “only the hall and the gallery, and the room below.” Moriarty paused an instant, feeling him with his eyes. "Not at least, when she was alive.”

His heart was beating hard in his chest, and he wasn’t sure why, why any of it mattered. He had deduced all of this of course, it wasn’t a surprise. He just really had not needed it said aloud.


A shadow fell across Moriarty’s face, and he abruptly and, finally, left.

“Let me know if you need me, for anything at all,” he said in a falsetto voice, drifting out into the hallway, silent in his felt-soled shoes.

He was not entirely sure he understood what had just transpired. A very peculiar servant, to be sure. He was quite used to people hating him, but not before they met him usually.

And so what if John and all the owners before him had lived in the other wing of the house? He didn’t care for tradition. This was fine, and he and John were going to be very happy here.

He at once became aware of John’s approach, signaled by the sound his shoes and the clack of his cane on every other step. He wondered if Moriarty had heard John first, and left before he arrived. Moriarty would need to be very observant for that to be the case.

“All right, and how is it?” John asked as he entered through the open door. His enthusiasm was palpable, and contagious. He found himself smiling, despite the rather recent unpleasant encounter.

John waved to some of his belongings he’d haphazardly collected on their Honeymoon. “Settling in?”

He realized in retrospect he’d made quite a mess of the place. He quickly rushed to repack, or organize, to avoid John thinking he couldn’t last a few seconds without ruining the new bedroom that John had coordinated for them.

“Hey, hey,” John said, moving further into the room. “It’s our room, you can leave things out however you like. Which you still haven’t said, how do you like it?”

John rubbed his brow with one hand, and leaned on his cane with the other. John’s face seemed concerned, though he couldn’t imagine why.

“It’s fine, John. All exactly to your tastes, and mine. In a word, perfect.”

The brightness of John’s smile put the natural light spilling through the windows to shame.

“Good,” John cleared his throat, before repeating himself. “Good.”

He smiled tentatively back. He had considered mentioning Moriarty’s strange behaviour, and John’s earlier annoyance with the servant, but now reconsidered. John seemed so pleased, perhaps it was not best laid plans to disturb the peace. With John beaming at him, the conversation with Moriarty seemed less disconcerting. He resolved not to reference it.

“How did you fare with Moriarty?' John asked, rather abruptly. And unfortunately, given that he had just decided he’d rather not discuss it.

He turned away, so as to hide any expression that might give himself away. He idly fussed with his hair in the mirror. “He seemed …interesting.”

He looked up to see John watching his reflection in the looking-glass, and then John turned away and went over to the window, whistling quietly, and rocking backwards and forwards on his heels.

“Interesting? That’s, yeah. I suppose. Don't mind him,” he said. “He’ll take all the housekeeping worries off your hands, and the staff do everything he says. I think they might be a little scared of him, truth be told.”

He noticed that John omitted any commentary on whether Moriarty scared him.

A very small part of him had hoped that John might offer, as a joke, to get rid of Moriarty, if he didn’t like him. Perhaps that was wishful thinking, and terribly trying of him.

John turned to face him again. “Feel free to have as little contact with him as you like. I know, I know I just asked this but – again, do you like the rooms, honestly? Because things can be changed, rearranged. I know you’re particular.”

“No, John,” he said, feeling himself blushing slightly. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was gratified by John’s doting. “Everything is how I would like it.”

He did not mention the distance from the sea, or John changing his wing of residence.

John was smiling at him again, pleased perhaps by him being pleased. It was a cycle of smiling at one another, happy for the other’s happiness.

For a moment he was allowed to feel as though everything truly was perfect, before a sharp knock interrupted them. Another call John had to answer.

John sighed. “Being Master of this place,” he said. “Almost as demanding as you, I swear.”

John clearly wanted it to be a joke, but it mainly made him feel wrong-footed. Had he been demanding? Had John put in all this effort in their suite, because John thought he was difficult?

His displeasure at the comment must have shown on his face, as John made to move towards him, but hesitated. “Well,” John said. “I’ll see you later?”

He nodded. Of course they would, they were living together after all. John left, leaving him to his own devices. He was soon to learn that his own devices were to be the theme of his time at Manderley.

Chapter Text

And so began his new life at Manderley. The first morning, he awoke to find an empty space where John had once been, up early to oversee Manderley's business. With his duties long neglected on his travels, John was busier with the estate than he'd ever been before. He wasn't surprised to find John gone early, though a part of was miffed by it. John had insisted the day before that he did not need to rise at the same time as him - John’s affairs would bore him to tears, apparently, and John believed that he would make for poor company while occupied with it.

He had no issue following this instruction, especially not the first evening he’d tried to sleep at Manderley. He had been awake half the night, writing sheet music and occasionally pausing to collect flies in a downturned glass. He was thrumming with nervous energy most nights that followed, unable to simply lay down and fall asleep peacefully in his marriage bed next to John. John, who he was well aware would not be reaching for him in the night, or at least not any time soon.

He supposed he wasn’t exactly acting properly, but John made no complaints beyond turning to face away from his light.

That first morning, he had taken to wandering around the house. He’d wanted to achieve the air of belonging, but was largely uncomfortable with so many people lurking about. There was a feast laid out for breakfast that he had no interest in eating. He’d tried to return to their room for his violin, only to find two servants sweeping and cleaning, shocked by his reappearance.

When he had tried to find something of interest in the library, and had made to start a fire, Lestrade had arrived on the scene to tell him there was always a fire in the morning room. The library wasn’t to have a fire until the afternoon. Mrs Watson clearly had always used the morning room, well, in the morning. That had been on the tip of Lestrade’s tongue of course, but not said aloud, thankfully.

He had arrived, and was completely out of sync with the routines of Manderley, the place almost a living, breathing entity of its own. And him going against its natural order, carelessly stumbling into the wrong rooms at the wrong times. How could one house have so many rules? And why did there need to be so many people around the place?

He imagined the morning room would have similar trappings to a library, and maybe wouldn’t make much of a difference. Incidentally, he hated the room on sight. The only redeeming aspect was Gladstone, who was there waiting patiently for him. Even the dog knew he was meant to be in the morning room.

He rather resented that. He imagined the dog had returned there, to sit by the settee, based on memory. Gladstone recalled a different time, a time when there was an elegant woman writing letters in her chair at her desk in her pale yellow morning room. She would have written her directives to the household staff and messages to London, occasionally reaching down to feed Gladstone sugar cubes.

He imagined she was an industrious sort of person. The pigeon-holes of the desk were labeled for organization, ‘letters answered’, ‘estate’, ‘menus’, etc., written in handwriting he was able to immediately recognize, though he hadn’t seen it since he’d torn out the page in the book of poems.

He had rummaged through the desk drawers, and happened upon a rather complete account of the ‘Guests at Manderley’. The volume detailed when visitors had arrived and left, which room they had stayed in, what food they had eaten - she had been meticulous. As someone who indexed his socks, he had to appreciate the attention to detail. Beneath it, he found a stack of thick creamy writing paper. He had assumed they were all blank, until he lifted one from the drawer to find ‘Mrs Watson’ written in bold print, with ‘Manderley’ written in the other corner. He dropped it as if burned, and forced the drawer shut. He looked around, as if someone might have been watching.

He realized he was snooping in his own house, rifling through drawers as if he had broken in on a case.

He jumped slightly when the silence of the room was disrupted by the shrill ringing of the telephone on the desk in front of him. “Shut up!” he snapped, before realizing he should probably answer it.

“Hello,” he said into the mouthpiece.

“Mr Watson,” Moriarty’s voice spoke crisply through the phone.

“Sorry, wrong, Mr Watson is attending to his duties somewhere else. I suggest calling that room,” he said, confused by why Moriarty would need to call in the first place instead of meeting in person. Manderley was one set of rules after another.

There was a brief moment of silence on the other end of the line. “Mr Watson, would you like to approve the menu for today?”

He felt himself flush in embarrassment. He was Mr Watson. He was married to John. He had taken John’s name. His name was Mr Watson now. Only, he kept forgetting.

“I’m sure whatever you’re planning is more than suitable, today and all days in the future, good day Moriarty - ” he tried to say as quickly as possible.

“If you ever change your mind, or wish for anything, my number is on the table in front of you,” Moriarty responded, calmly, as if he wasn’t acting like a bumbling idiot.

He now saw that the number had been written out on a piece paper, left next to the phone. The ‘M’ in Moriarty in bold, written larger than the other letters.

“Good day Moriarty,” he repeated, before hastily dropping the phone back in its cradle.

His attempts at appearing to belong were not going according to plan.

However, if Manderley was like a living thing, he could deduce it like he could any person. He decided it was time to distract himself by learning the ins and outs of the place, which he imagined he could master fairly quickly. When introduced to a new environment, it simply needed to be studied.

He began an investigation of Manderley that very day, slipping into all the rooms and hallways he could as soon as the staff had vacated the areas. He wore his slippers instead of his loud, clacking shoes to move about unheard. However, as Gladstone was kind enough to join him on his explorations, he was hardly as soundless as he wished. Ah well, the company made up for it.

He imagined an old home would have secret passages, old servant’s hallways, hidden rooms, and he endeavoured to find them. And it was good that he had his own missions, as John had been correct in thinking he would not be much available once they returned to Manderley.

He hardly saw John the first day, though they dined together in the evening. John, as always, asked after him, and insisted that he eat. And so began their little routines.

If the staff complained to John about how he snuck about the place, John did not let on. Every room in the house was kept pristine as if Manderley was in fact a museum, and likely he mussed things up as he went about, but what else was he to do? Why have a home that couldn’t be lived in?

A highlight of those early days came in the form of a letter – a contact made via Mike Stamford of all people, of whom he was now rather distantly fond. The idea of attributing his and John’s meeting to Sebastian irked him greatly, so he instead gave the distinction to Mike Stamford’s postcard, their unofficial way of introduction.

The letter in question was a message from a woman in Florida, whom Mike Stamford had met during his Palm Beach vacation. Stamford, the delightful man, had advertised his newly made acquaintance’s skill at puzzling out mysteries to the dame. She had written to ask for his aid with respect to her husband, as she didn’t quite know where else to turn, and was looking for a creative problem solver with an interest in crime. The problem itself was asinine - drug cartel, possible double homicide, etc. - but he had never been more glad for a case. Respite from his boredom could not have come too soon.

Another discovery he made, which he was less than thrilled about, was that his brother had wasted no time in seeking out a new spy. His dear older brother was clearly trying to make up for his previous negligence in keeping an eye on him.

Lestrade, John’s most trusted staff member, had been contacted. Obvious, given the guilty looks Lestrade had been furtively sending his way. The loyalty of servants was easy to buy he supposed. He contemplated approaching Lestrade, but what harm could the servant really do? ‘Your brother tried to light a fire in the library before noon, send for back up’. Besides, Lestrade was infinitely preferable to Wilkes, and if he was shadowing him he was rather distant about it. A blessing, really.

It was in no way an exaggeration to say that he would have perished without these small distractions, as the inner workings and obsessions of his own mind would have otherwise slowly driven him to madness. Manderley didn’t offer distractions itself. With so much free time on his hands, he was unfortunately left to ponder and agonize over the reality of his present situation, which otherwise could have been ignored for quite some time.

Namely, that John was not touching him.

Oh, John touched him often enough in a sweet, kind sort of way that would likely be more than acceptable between family members, but he did not touch him in the way he truly wanted. John had said they would move slowly to make up for the rushed nature of their marriage, but he hadn’t realized how slow John had intended.

He reminded himself (frequently) that he had prepared for this, that he knew John required more time. He also needed time, arguably. He’d never been involved in anything even resembling a fling, let alone a marriage. But he had hoped, for something…

His bath in the evenings became a time when he’d imagine many somethings, as it was the only time and place he knew for certain no servant would be nearby. Clinging to the memory of the John from his dreams, he’d imagine John walking into the bathroom, mistakenly thinking it empty. John would offer to leave him - but he was bold in his fantasy, and he’d tell John to stay, glibly informing him there was more than enough room for the two of them.

John would smile, initially hesitant, but would oblige him, slipping the dressing gown from his shoulders to reveal himself fully. At the sight of John nude in front of him, he’d move forward in the bath, allowing John to slide in behind him. It would be awkward at first, but they’d make do, eventually slotting in together. John, ever the caretaker, would begin to wash his back with a cloth, a pleasant shared intimacy. But the feeling of John naked, pressed up against him, touching him softly and sweetly - he’d inevitably grow aroused. John would see of course, and kissing the side of his neck, slide his hand down across his chest, whispering, “Shall I wash here too?” He’d gasp at the feeling of the cloth rubbing across his front, and press back, to find John in the same state as himself and - well, this was all usually more than enough to result in him spilling himself into the bath water.

If things continued like this any longer, John might wake in the night to find his arms full of a surprisingly needy husband.

Of course, John choosing him to be his partner at all, in his home and life, was more than enough, more than he had ever dreamt of. And yet, the actual impossible things he had dreamt of…

He could have borne it easier perhaps, if John had not been so very... there. John slipping out of his clothes in the evening, or wearing only his robe after a bath of his own. The glimpses of bare skin he was allowed to see, but not yet to touch. John seemed oddly shy at being nude in front of him - he had not even seen John’s bare chest. Meanwhile, he shamelessly eyed him, especially after his bathing, hoping desperately for a slip, or the tie of a dressing gown to come undone.

He felt reasonably certain that lying next to John in bed every night without touching him was a circle of hell even Dante could not have envisioned. Pathetically enough, it began to feel very much like a ‘divine comedy’. He spent his nights with his back turned to his husband, fearing John could hear his heart beating like mad. Or worse, was able to guess at the things he thought of, other things they could be doing with each other in the evenings - besides John asking him to read out the most macabre news items, or report on his day.

He was comforted by the fact that at least John was painfully bored with his duties, and would obviously have much rather been doing anything else.

John was attentive when he was free – John wanted to know all about his interests, and what experiments he wanted to try. When he’d mentioned he wished to develop the ability to distinguish between every perfume and cologne by smell alone, John had asked Lestrade to order him as many different bottles as possible to be shipped within the week. And as promised during their car ride in, a servant had taken his measurements and they had ordered him new suits from the finest shops in London.

By any standard John spoiled him, but in the way a benevolent guardian would dote on their young charge. Perhaps because they were not lovers in the physical sense, he felt the distinction keenly. John often moved towards him as if to kiss him, like he had after proposing, but something always held him back. Each time John leaned in, John would look at him so intently before retreating, as though he had thought better of it. John would reach for his hand instead, or brush his hair back from his face, or bestow any number of other calming, pleasant touches. Which he liked, but would have preferred for John to commit to what he suspected was the original intention in initiating these exchanges between them.

From all of this, he concluded that John was not a liar. John wouldn’t make love to someone when he was not yet fully prepared to give over that part of himself. He respected that, and knew he would appreciate it more when he knew without a doubt that John was his. This recognition did not, however, make it any more possible to endure.

It was also not made any better by the constant reminder of what John missed, and sought to forget. There were 'M'’s monogrammed on everything. One could not turn a corner at Manderley without seeing an ‘M’. The ‘M’ in Manderley, even the ‘M’ in Moriarty, all seeming to match and long for the corresponding ‘M’ in Mary. The letterhead in the morning room, even the return address on the mail (Moriarty had pulled the stack of letters away from him when he had begun noticing that trend, suggesting that he needn’t sort through the mail himself.) He could not escape the presence of 'M''s. As a person ruled by logic, he was aware this was inflated in his mind, likely caused by his boredom. However, knowing it and preventing it were two separate things entirely.

To continue distracting himself, he exhausted his search of Manderley. Except of course, for one part he had been avoiding. As if mirroring John’s restraint from him, he had not yet ventured to the West wing.

If he had been restricting himself from the wing out of respect, it was out of character. However, fearing what he might find there was even more illogical, so it must have been the former. Whichever it was, it was all rather foolish.

Or so he convinced himself, as he made a left turn rather than a right one late morning. He could only entertain himself with one section of the house for so long after all.

He passed through the door he had often eyed from afar at the head of the stairs to find himself looking down a long corridor. As he had assumed from judgments made from the outside of the house, it was similar to the East wing. Or it would have been, if not for the dark paneling along its walls and its wider, grander size. As he passed to the other side of the door he realized his usual shadow, Gladstone, would not follow after him.

“Gladstone, come here,” he called. But the dog would not come. He hesitated, but his curiosity was stronger than his desire for company.

He knew exactly where to go, and where to turn. Subconsciously he had been preparing himself for this moment, anticipating the floor plan. He quickly reached a broad landing with another staircase. The wing itself was silent, and rather dark. He sniffed the air - there was no lingering smell of dust from the carpet being swept, a smell he associated with the staff having been through an area recently. No staff, no sound, and no light – all very unusual. The entire hall reminded him of a deserted mausoleum, as though the actual owners had been long away.

There was another door ahead, and he believed he knew where it led.

He turned the knob slowly, and pushed in. While the room itself was in complete and utter darkness, he could still smell the staleness of the place. The closed shutters allowed not even a sliver of light to pass through, but once his eyes adjusted he could see the outline of furniture swathed in white sheets for keeping off the dust. He stepped into the room, his hand still on the door. He could see the outline of a bed in the center of the room.

He immediately stepped back, closing the door behind him with finality. What was he doing entering dark, unused rooms? What knowledge was to be gained?

Feeling the sudden desire for natural light and fresh air, he moved further down the hall towards a broad window, partially hidden in an alcove. He grasped the edge, looking out to see the lawns, and past them, the sea.

He had of course realized the sea was close, but the reality was something else entirely. The ocean ran just below the lawns, past a much thinner section of woods. He could hear the waves breaking against the shore of a bay, though the bay itself was not visible from his vantage point.

He decided he much preferred the rose garden.

Pulling back from the view, he made to return to the landing and the rest of the house. However as he was about to hurry down the stairs, he heard a door behind him open, and turned to find himself face to face with Jim Moriarty.

For one long, silent moment, they merely stared at one another. He couldn’t determine if what he detected in Moriarty was anger or curiosity. This was made more difficult by Moriarty promptly slipping on his usual mask once their eyes had met.

It occurred to him that now would be a good time to invent an excuse for being in the West wing, and be on his way.

“I must have lost my way,” he said, making to turn back down the stairs.

“You’ve come to the opposite side of the house,” Moriarty said primly, enunciating every word. “This is the West wing.”

“Yes, I know,” he said, which rather blew his cover.

“Did you go into any of the rooms?” Moriarty asked him, as if only mildly curious.

“No." Realizing Moriarty could probably now tell he was lying, he recovered by saying, “I just opened a door, but didn’t go in. I expect you like to keep all this shut up. I'll just be on my way – “

“If you wish to open up the rooms I will have it done,” Moriarty said, speaking over him slowly. “You have only to tell me. The rooms are all furnished, and can be used.”

“No,” he said, perhaps too quickly. “No. I did not mean you to think that.”

“Perhaps you would like me to show you all over the West wing?” Moriarty asked, his expression changing, till he appeared almost manic with excitement.

“No, I think I’d rather not,” he said, finally moving away to walk down the stairs whether Moriarty was done talking or not.

To his annoyance, Moriarty followed him, traveling fast enough to walk beside him.

“Anytime you’d like, perhaps when you’re bored? You have only to ask me, and I will show you the rooms in the West wing,” Moriarty persisted. “I will have the dust-sheets removed, and then you can see the rooms as they looked when they were used.”

Despite his attempts to walk faster, Moriarty kept pace, practically pressed against his elbow.

“I gave you my number, I thought you might call. You have only to ring through to my room, you know, when you want me. It would only take a short while to have the rooms in readiness.”

He could feel his lips pressing together tightly in an effort to not respond as he continued to descend the stairs. Why did Moriarty insist on following after him?

“I wonder how you came to get so lost?' Moriarty asked, in a mockery of consideration. “The door through the West wing is very different from this way.”

“I did not come this way,” he said, and he had once again given himself away.

“Then you must have come up the back way, from the stone passage?” Moriarty asked. Moriarty made a clucking noise with his tongue. “Have you been exploring?”

He continued to not meet Moriarty’s eyes. “Yes, I came through a stone passage,” he replied succinctly.

Moriarty stared at him, as though he expected him to explain why he was lurking in the back regions of Manderley. He felt suddenly that Moriarty knew - that Moriarty must have been watching him all this time, that he had seen him wandering perhaps in that West wing from the moment he had detoured, the man’s dark gleaming eyes pressed to a crack in the door.

“Ms Watson has been here for some time,” Moriarty said abruptly. “Her car drove up shortly after twelve.”

For a horrifying and confusing moment, he thought he’d heard Moriarty say “Mrs”.

“Ms Watson!” he said, “I had not realized.”

John’s sister had finally decided to visit, and he had not been present to receive her. He truly wasn’t much good at this master of the house lark.

“Lestrade will have taken them to the morning room,” Moriarty said, helpful, yet exceedingly not at all.

Always the damn morning room, he thought ungraciously.

“It must be getting on half past twelve. Do you know your way now?” Moriarty asked, with exaggerated concern in his tone.

“I know my way,” he replied, gladly taking his opportunity to leave the other man.

As he walked on to the morning room, he couldn’t help but glance back over his shoulder. Moriarty was still standing at the head of the stairs, ever watchful.

He himself stood outside the door, listening for a moment to the voices within. It sounded like a room full of people, though it couldn’t have been more than John and two others.

He breathed in, and opened the door for his grand entrance. He just managed to not trip over Gladstone on his first step in, and found himself in the presence of John sitting across from two ladies, a blonde and a brunette.

“Oh my, is this him?” the blonde woman asked, standing immediately to cross the room to shake his hand.

“Yes,” John said smiling. “We weren’t sure where you’d got to – I would have warned you that we were expecting my –“

“Your sister, Harriet, and her wife, yes, I can see that,” he said, maintaining eye contact with John’s sister, who had not yet released his hand from her firm grip. She was almost taller than her brother, a sturdy woman. A good shooter, going by the callouses on her hands. And she still had a drinking problem, judging by the flask somewhat discreetly hidden on her person. Harry was not exactly the typical upper class lady, truth be told. Maybe this would actually be interesting.

“You’re nothing like what I expected,” she said, dropping his hand as if she was now bored of it. “And call me Harry. Everyone does.”

He cast a glance towards John. What had John told his family about him? And what aspect of the description was he not matching up to? He should have paid more attention to John’s outgoing correspondence.

“And this is her wife, as you said, Clara,” John spoke, acting the part of polite host rather than meeting his inquisitive gaze. “As I was saying, I would have prepared you, except that Harry decided to surprise us.”

Harry rolled her eyes, and turned away to return to her wife.

Clara was shyer than her partner, inclining her head slightly in greeting with a murmured, “Hello”. Her gaze was no less observant than Harry’s however, and seemed to study him for a moment before appearing relieved.

What exactly had they all been expecting?

“Well, I must say John, you’re looking like a completely different person,” Harry commented loudly, sitting down next to Clara once more. “Very good thing you went away. Doesn’t he look well, Lestrade?”

Lestrade, who had only just stepped in, was momentarily caught off guard. The servant still answered with a hurried, “The master looks very well, Ma’am,” after which Lestrade looked at him, of all people, pointedly. Lestrade smiled like he knew a good joke.

John’s hand tremor made a sudden reappearance, which John quickly hid behind his back.

The light remark had obviously not been amusing to him. John was barely restraining his temper – discussion of his wellness was apparently not welcome to him. He considered it rather tactless of Harry to purposefully make her brother angry. It might be time for him to make a move as mediator.

He descended, taking his place next to John on the sofa.

“John’s had a lot of sun,” he said, attempting to be droll for their audience. “A tan can cover a multitude of sins. You should have seen him having breakfast on the balcony, trying to get brown on purpose. He thinks it makes him better-looking.”

Everyone laughed, even Lestrade, though he tried to hide it behind his hand.

John spluttered. “I did not, and do not!”

But John was smiling again. Perhaps he could do with more teasing.

“Admittedly, it is a rather nice look,” he said, to soften the blow. John turned to fully face him then, with a warm smile spreading across his (truthfully, very handsomely tanned) face. He couldn’t look away despite his awareness that others were watching. For as long as he held John's attention, he would bask in it.

Harry cleared her throat. “Well, you’ve certainly been eating well while travelling. I see you’ve let your dog get fat too.”

John looked away from him, and he wondered if he'd imagined that it had been with some regret.

“Say what you want about me, but lay off Gladstone! Besides, I’d rather he looked colossal than half-starved like the one you keep,” John said, his genteel host act dropped completely.

“Not a very intelligent remark John,” Harry replied, “considering Lion won two firsts at Cruft’s last February.”

“Oh, Cruft’s, well then –“

The sibling bickering was straining the atmosphere a bit, which he wouldn’t have minded in the least, except that there were narrow lines forming around the sides of John’s mouth. He was after all familiar with sibling sparring, and how annoying they could be.

“Speaking of my hound, when might we expect you for a hunt? It must be awful for you, keeping to the house always,” Harry commented. Ah yes, the insinuation that she had the better lot in life despite not inheriting the place. He assumed the rivalry over that had been present since birth.

“I suppose we can’t all be as dedicated to our pastimes as you, Harry,” John grumbled.

“I wasn’t talking to you, John. We all know you are perfectly happy slopping about the Manderley gardens and never breaking out of a slow walk.”

John’s hand and arm quaked, as it did when reminded of his limp.

His earlier amusement over John’s sister and her glibness left him at once. He suddenly felt the strong desire to boast of John’s hand in life, and his Manderley.

“I’m fond of slopping about as well,” he said evenly. “I’m sure walking about Manderley is fine as exercise. And when it’s warmer, perhaps the estate is good for swimming.”

Harry laughed with a hand pressed to her chest and her head tipped back. “My dear, you are an optimist. I can hardly ever remember bathing here. The water is far too cold, and the beach is shingle.”

“Temperature hardly matters, and I’ve observed the currents are not very strong. The sea here is perfectly safe.”

This time, no one responded. Even Harry was frozen, beyond openly observing John’s reaction. He immediately realized the blunder he’d made. How did he manage to be cruel even when he was trying to be kind?

Hiding his discomfort and likely red cheeks, he bent down to stroke Gladstone’s ear. The dog always sat nearest to him, which he appreciated.

“Well,” Harry said, breaking the silence. “Gladstone could use a swim to get some of that fat off, but he’d find it a bit too much for him in the bay, wouldn’t you Glad?”

She reached out to pet him, but Gladstone seemed a bit put out by the comments on his weight.

Lestrade cleared his throat. “Lunch is ready, if the masters and their guests were interested in dining earlier than scheduled.”

Bless that man, he thought as they all rose without further ado and exited the room for luncheon.

The conversation remained on fairly safe topics throughout lunch, thankfully. Instead of inserting himself into situations he could only make worse, he chose to let his mind wander as he often did in company. John and Harriet argued amiably. He went unnoticed, except to the ever present and silent Clara, who occasionally glanced at him with a small smile.

Following lunch, John offered to take them on a walk around the house to see the gardens. Harry immediately agreed, and grabbed him to corner for conversation on their little excursion. John, ever the gentleman, offered to escort Clara, who he likely realized had been rather neglected throughout the visit. He could hear their soft voices from behind him and Harry, the space between them growing as Harry set a punishing pace that John could never hope to keep up with. Gladstone at least seemed happy for the change of speed.

He wondered briefly, and madly, if some of the tension between John and Harry was caused by John being overly fond of her wife. He turned to look back over his shoulder. He was being paranoid. John was being kind, that was all.

“You know,” Harry began, now that they were far enough from John, “don’t mind me saying so, but you are even younger than I expected. John told me your age, but you’re an absolute child. I mean, you just look so young! You’re one of those – you’ll probably look about twelve when you’re in your thirties.”

“I am my age, what of it?” he asked. If she had intended to get under his skin, she might make quite the success of it.

“Tell me,” Harry continued, as if he hadn’t spoken, “are you very much in love with him?”

He was not prepared for this question, and attempted to make his face devoid of any expression. Haughty, even. He should endeavour to seem as though a question of such a personal and emotional nature was beneath him.

“Don’t answer,” she said, “of course I can see it.”

He tried to protest, but only managed to make a disgruntled sound in indignation. In the end, was he really so obvious?

“I’m an interfering bore, aren’t I?” she asked, finding his reaction hilarious, clearly. “Don’t mind me. You must know I’m devoted to John, though we always fight when we meet. I do really congratulate you on his looks. We were all very worried about him this time last year, but of course you would know the whole story.”

He supposed the ‘whole story’ was the circumstances surrounding John’s wife’s death. He wondered how Harry would react if he said John had provided no details around the events of the preceding year. That John kept these things to himself, and that he had questioned John on the subject never. He knew nothing beyond that there had been a sailing accident in the bay, and he had learned that from a paper.

“When John wrote and told me,” Harry continued, now holding onto his arm tightly, “and he said he had discovered you in the south of France, and you were a decade younger, and very good-looking, I must admit it gave me a bit of a shock. For one, who knew he still had it in him! Of course, we all expected a social butterfly, very modern and plastered with paint, the sort of boy you meet in those sort of places.”

He felt he knew exactly what she was implying, and wasn’t sure if he should be more offended for himself or John.

“But then, well, it was you! When you came into the morning room before lunch, well, you could have knocked me down with a feather."

“Poor John,” she said, as if now on a completely different vein of conversation. “He went through a ghastly time, and let’s hope you have made him forget about it. Of course he adores Manderley. He and I are not a bit alike you know.”

He could concede that point.

“Yes, I can see you agree – there’s no reserve about me, whereas John is all reserve, isn’t he? So very quiet, so reserved. Some might think him a simple man, because of how closed off he is. They couldn’t be more wrong - I swear I never know what’s going on in that funny mind of his. I often lose my temper, flare up, but then it’s over. When John loses his temper – my God – does he lose it. I wonder if he’ll ever lose it with you?” she asked, speculatively. It sounded like a casual threat.

“Tell me, did you get any clothes in London or Paris?”

This was a pleasant change of topic, thought he imagined Harry might be able to twist his answer any way she liked. “No,” he said. “We had no time, with John anxious to get home to settle his business. But I’ve ordered some new things from catalogues.”

“Oh, I can tell by the way you dress that you don’t care at all what you wear,” she said flippantly. “Someone didn’t take your measurements right, or perhaps you’ve grown since? Are you young enough to still be having growth spurts? And the dust along your sleeves. I can see you’re low maintenance.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, but he realized distractedly that she was right – his exploring about the unused recesses of the house had mussed his already shoddy clothes terribly. He brushed at his sleeves, stewing in annoyance. He was buying even more suits, he decided.

“I understand you’re not using the West wing,” Harry commented, with a false casualness.

“No, John’s had the suite in the East wing done up for us,” he replied, his defence of the change beginning to sound weak to his own ears.

“Has he,” she said, looking ahead. She was silent for a moment before asking suddenly, “How do you get on with Moriarty?”

He bent down, concealing his expression by patting Gladstone’s head. “I’ve hardly seen him,” he said. This was somewhat true. He hadn’t seen much of Moriarty, though now he was questioning whether Moriarty had been trailing him all along.

“I don’t suppose you have,” Harry said. “Whatever you do, don’t let him see that you’re frightened of him.”

“Who said I’m frightened of him?” he asked, though his voice caught on the first syllable. Damn, he was always giving himself away.

“I’ve never had anything to do with him,” Harry continued, “but I don’t think I’d ever want to either. He’s always been very civil to me, of course. The perfect servant.”

She paused again. “I dare say he’ll get over it in time. Of course, it’s only natural at first.”

“What is?” he demanded. He truly hated seeming to never know what anyone was on about in this damn place.

“I assumed John would have told you. He simply adored Mary.”

“Oh,” he said. “Oh.” He’d known that.

Adoring Mary. It seemed everyone had.

They finally reached the end of their walk, once again returning to the front of the estate. He was relieved Gladstone had stayed with them, as it gave him something to do while they waited for Clara and John to catch up. He kneeled down on the gravel to scratch Gladstone’s ears, who gazed back at him with adoring eyes. He kissed Gladstone’s head. He felt very grateful to John for owning a dog.

He realized perhaps playing with the dog on the ground was probably not master of Manderley behaviour. He looked up to catch Harry’s eyes on him. Her look was puzzled, almost reflective. He imagined her thinking to herself, “What does John see in him?”

When John returned, Harry announced that it was high time she and Clara left. John smiled blandly, looking excessively relieved.

He went to stand next to John, and perhaps to counter Harry’s earlier look, he took hold of John’s arm.

He would look the part of John’s husband, even if it was something he’d never done before. John seemed slightly surprised, but continued his smiling and departing pleasantries. They were talking about their grandmother. He hoped they would actually leave soon.
He leaned slightly towards John’s arm, and John lightly covered his hand. John patted him, absently.

He realized it was something similar to what he might do to Gladstone. John liked him, rather in the same way he liked Gladstone. A pet to give pats and affection to, when it was convenient.

“It’s a pity you don’t ride or shoot,” Harry said, speaking to him once again. “You miss out on so much. You don’t sail by any chance do you?”

“No,” he said, bristling – he wasn’t an idiot. He knew what event she was referring to now.

“Thank God for that,” she said dismissively, “and goodbye you two. Forgive me if I’ve asked you rude questions, and said all sorts of things I shouldn’t. Tact was never my strong point, as I’m sure John will agree. And, as I told you before, you’re not a bit what I expected.”

She looked at him directly, placed a cigarette between her lips, and flashed her lighter. She played with the lit cigarette, switching it between her fingers, before finally walking towards her car, Clara following after her devotedly.

“You see,” she said, snapping the top of the lighter, speaking over her shoulder, “you’re so very different from Mary.”

Chapter Text

“Thank God that’s over,” John said under his breath as they watched Harry and Clara’s car disappear around the curve in the drive.

He couldn’t help but laugh in relief. John whispering ungracious things to him was reminiscent of their time together before Manderley. Their once growing friendship had almost ground to a complete halt since they’d arrived, and he had been sorely missing the easy-going nature of their Monte Carlo excursions.

John must have agreed, for he took hold of his arm. “I know we’ve just had a walk, but what would you say to another?”

He eyed the oncoming dark clouds in response.

“In the imminent rain?” he asked, perhaps unkindly. John’s expression fell, though he tried to hide it. John was much more strained by Harry’s visit than he’d realized.

“Well, we’ll just need to grab coats from inside?” he suggested, and John’s good mood seemed to return. He nodded towards Lestrade, who had appeared at the top of the stairs to the house.

“Right, yeah of course,” John said, already making his way up. “We have spares around, I’ll just go ask for them.”

While he watched John ensure they would be rain-proof, he wondered what exactly had made John so agitated. It was probably wrong of him, but he was glad John felt as drained from entertaining as he did. They were in synch with each other once again.

He decided to make no mention of the usual duties John was likely neglecting, hoping they could be forgotten for the afternoon.

“Damn the rain,” John said as he descended the stairs with care, coats in hand. “I can’t stand sitting around a second longer.” John came up behind him, and helped him into the sleeves of the jacket, with John's hand brushing against the back of his neck while drawing away. The coat was far too small for his lanky frame, but he found he didn’t mind.

As they began their walk, he made sure to match John’s pace. He wanted to be as far removed from Harry as possible.

Gladstone on the other hand inevitably grew bored, and would bound ahead only to return to them and repeat the process. It seemed Gladstone remembered a time when his master could keep up. John, of course, had only developed the limp within the last year. He once again felt nostalgic for their daily drives in Monte, and the freeness they had brought John.

“I find a little of my family goes a very long way,” John said. His tone was casual, but his side glances were meaningful. “Harry always sticks her nose where it doesn't belong.”

Had John overheard them? He studied John in return, but after a beat, decided John could not have caught their conversation. John was inferring. Was there something about his demeanour that suggested their conversation had made him troubled? Or was John merely referring to his own negative reaction earlier in the morning room?

He faced forward, and hummed, noncommittal. He would rather talk about Manderley’s finances than John’s sister. She’d already been a sore spot for him personally (his long ago blunder of assuming John had a brother rather than a sister), and his bad luck with respect to her only seemed to continue.

“What were the two of you even talking about?” John asked. Again, too casual. What was he getting at?

“Only what she repeated as she left,” he replied. “That I was quite different from what she expected.” Her expectations were something he actually would have liked further clarification on.

John scoffed. “What the hell did she expect?”

“I don’t know John, what did you tell her?” he asked, shorter than he had intended. He had wanted this to be them together like before - he’d have to resist instigating an argument.

“I didn’t tell her anything, just that, you know - that we’d met and been married.”

Of course, John wasn’t exactly a sharer.

To prompt him he said, “I imagine she expected someone more -” he paused.

He’d been about to say ‘more like Mary’.

“More sophisticated,” he recovered. “A social butterfly, she said.” He politically left out the rest of the implication.

John’s expression became thunderous in a seconds, lines forming around his mouth, his hand tightening its grasp on his cane. He looked as though he might hit something.

“Harry has always been aggravating, please feel free to ignore anything that’s ever come out of her. I certainly do.”

He hadn’t realized how tight his chest had felt until it loosened at this remark. Harry had been operating on her own assumptions then. Harry’s outlook was independent of John’s. John wasn’t a good liar - he really hadn’t told her anything.

They traveled past the lawn, with their earlier tension lifted as they climbed the grass bank above it. Ahead, they had only dark forest to look forward to. The rain had started as predicted, and as they trampled through dampened branches and leaves, he was on alert for any moment John might need an arm to lean on.

Once they were further in, two paths appeared before them in a clearing in the woods. Gladstone raced ahead, choosing the right path without a second thought. “Not that way,” John called.

Gladstone craned his head back to observe them, his tail wagging in enthusiasm, but he would not return from the right path.

“He’s used to going that way clearly. Where does it lead?” he asked. While he’d made an in depth exploration of the house, he had yet to cover the surrounding woods.

“A small cove,” John said, ducking his head. “Gladstone, come on.”

John turned onto the left path without waiting, though Gladstone followed behind them eventually.

“This path leads to a valley that I thought you might like,” John said, with a brightness that didn’t reach his eyes.

The tightness about John’s features spoke of restraint, and he was reminded of his earlier conversation with Harriet. He wondered if he had only ever seen John restrained as she’d said, even in his moments of anger. What would it be like to see John truly lose his temper?

“There,” John spoke suddenly, “this is it.”

They had reached the slope of a hill, and the path through the woods twisted into a valley banking a stream. Azaleas and rhododendrons flanked them on either side, surrounding the area in pastel colours. The earlier darkness and muted tones of the forest was behind them. He inhaled deeply - the air was full of the flowers’ scent, amplified by the rain.

When John spoke again, he kept his voice low as if not wishing to disturb the peace. “Do you like it?”

“Yes,” he said, thinking that he’d been remiss in not spending more time outdoors.

“The family’s always called it the Happy Valley,” John said, still speaking in a hushed tone.

“Hmm,” he said. “That’s a terrible name.”

John laughed, and it felt like they were back to their old selves. Or rather, where they had once left off. Before all this marriage business.

John was still smiling as he murmured, “I was actually thinking - I thought you could rename it, if you like.”

“Me, rename it?” he asked. “What a romantic notion. And what would I call it?”

“That’s rather the point of you naming it, isn’t it? Got something better than Happy Valley?”

“Anything would be,” he said. John was grinning at him as if mocking the nickname of landmarks around his family’s estate was a true delight.

They stood in silence for a moment, before John leaned on his cane and dropped on his bad leg to the ground. He wondered why John would go to the trouble, before John handed him a white flower that had fallen to the ground. John didn’t seem to know where to look. It was all very… endearing.

The flower’s petals were crushed and bruised, their once white colouring stained around their edges. However, as he rubbed it against his palm, the scent of the flower became strong and sweet.

As he watched John stand once more, he found himself thinking the valley was indeed a happy place. He supposed he’d contracted John’s romanticism. It was so different from the vast house, all shadow and echoing halls, unused wings wrapped in dust-sheets. He didn’t quite belong there, always the outsider wandering in places he wasn’t meant to be, and using possessions that weren’t his. The outdoors were another thing altogether. No one really owned or trespassed. And John wanted him to name it.

“Happy Valley suits it,” he decided. “In its own idiotic way.”

“So glad you approve,” John replied, only pretending to be offended. “Well, shall we continue?”

He followed after John, though he was reluctant to return to the house. Luckily, John was in fact leading them further down the path, rather than turning around. Gladstone was ecstatic.

They passed beneath a tunnel of flowers, the whole area beyond picturesque, till they suddenly reached a cove. The difference in atmosphere was dramatic - behind them was the valley, azaleas and trees, and ahead there was the sea breaking hard on the shore and white shingle. He could see now why Harry had never swam here. The beach wasn’t overly inviting.

John reached down for a stone, which he threw for Gladstone to chase. This soon became a game for the three of them, John and himself hiding stones behind their back, or faking a throw. While Gladstone only fell for their tricks the first few times, his tail never stopped wagging. Once this grew dull, they moved to the water’s edge and tried to see who could throw stones the furthest. John and himself were rather evenly matched, as it turned out.

When John caught sight of a plank in the water, they both negotiated carrying it beyond the reach of the water. He kept lifting one side of the plank higher than John’s height to tease him, and John was laughing, dropping the plank and rolling up the sleeves of his coat that had been hit with sea spray. They were no different from little boys playing on the beach with their dog, entertaining themselves with whatever came to mind.

That was until, he realized, their dog had disappeared.

“Gladstone,” he called, rotating in a quick circle, but there was no sign of him around the beach. John and him began to call and whistle while walking along the shore, but Gladstone did not come. John kept glancing at the mouth of the cove where the waves continually broke hard against the jagged rocks.

“No,” he said, wanting to stop John’s worries before they grew. “We would have seen him, and he can’t have fallen. Perhaps he’s just gone back into the woods?”

“He was by that a rock not more than a minute ago, sniffing at the seagull,” John said, his concern mounting as he began walking towards the Happy Valley. “Gladstone, Glad!”

At last, he heard a bark from beyond the rocks to the right of the beach. “He’s climbed over this way!” he called back to John, as he immediately hopped up to climb over the terrain separating him from Gladstone.

“Don’t!” John cried. “Just - stop. You don’t want to go that way. I’ll go after him.”

He paused, looking back at John from the rock he had already scaled. He gazed pointedly at John’s leg.

“John,” he started, though didn’t quite know how to continue.

Why did John not want him to go, and why had he sounded so urgent? Or rather, frightened, he realized. John had sounded frightened.

John’s obvious concern now warred with his annoyance at his own limitations. He put more pressure than usual on his cane, as John always did when reminded of it.

“The tide won’t have cut him off, I suppose. Does he know his own way back?” he asked, attempting to smooth over his earlier mistake. He wanted John to forget, not remember. Perhaps they had both overreacted, and Gladstone was fine on his own.

“You’re right of course,” John said. “But, what if he’s fallen? Never mind, just, let me go, I’ll take the long way around - ”

That settled it. “I’m going to fetch him,” he said, and continued his ascent over the boulders ahead despite John’s protests. They were slippery and he almost stumbled several times, but he was more than capable of climbing them. Which begged the question, why on Earth had John pleaded with him not to go?

He eventually reached the top of the upcropping of rocks. Once he was beside the largest boulder obstructing his view, he could finally see down into another cove. The bay beyond it formed a tiny natural harbour, with a buoy anchored there. A buoy with no boat.

He was able to easily make the connection. After all, something’s absence was at times more eloquent than its presence.

There was a reason Gladstone was drawn here, and John was not. This had been the late Mrs Watson’s boating bay.

The cove was the same as the other, with woods that came down to meet the beach. At the edge of the shingle and the start of the forest, there was a cottage. Made of stone, one-floor tall, long, and rectangular - on further examination more similar to a boat house.

More alarmingly, there was a man on the beach at whom Gladstone was barking.

All of this he processed in at most the blink of an eye.

“Gladstone!” he shouted. “Come here!”

He would prefer unknown men to be as far away from his dog as possible. Long boots, a sou’wester, dressed for the wet - a fisherman, likely. Gladstone paid him no heed, preferring to run around the strange man in circles while barking. The man didn’t seem to mind, and simply continued bending to scrape at the shingle. He would have to go down and extract Gladstone himself, it seemed.

He slid down the rocks as gracefully as he could, though the man only took note of him once he’d stepped onto the pebbled beach. The stranger had an unkempt beard and manic eyes, and looked a bit like an idiot.

“Good day,” the man said. “Nasty out, isn’t it?”

Oh God, small talk about the weather.

“Yes, it is in fact raining,” he replied, intending to be dismissive. “Gladstone, come here.”

Gladstone looked at him, wagged his tail, and started racing about the beach in circles, barking at nothing.

He was not in the mood for this.

“Look,” he said to the man, “have you got any string?”

“Oh no, I’ve just been digging for shell,” the other man responded. “No shell here though, been digging all afternoon.” The man appeared to now be talking to himself.

He sighed, aggrieved. He needed something to tie the dog with, but had no lead.

“I know that dog,” the other man declared, pointing at him. “He comes from the house!”

“Yes,” he said, “and I want to take him back to the house.”

He called for Gladstone one for time, before giving up and moving on to the only other option available, the boat house. Though whether he would find anything of use in there was doubtful. There had once been a garden, that had now been let go, judging by the overgrown grass and distinct lack of flowers. The windows had also been boarded up. He assumed the door would be locked, and planned to pick it, though it opened with surprising ease. Due to the low-ceiling, he had to bend to fit through the door.

While he had expected the dusty interior, he had not expected it to be completely devoid of any boating equipment. No ropes or blocks or oars. Instead, he found himself in a furnished room, complete with a desk in the corner, a table, chairs, a bed-sofa, even a dresser. As if someone might have lived there. There was however no sign of recent occupation. He could tell there had been no fire in the rusted grate for months, no footprints in the dust covered floorboards, and the sofa-bed had been largely eaten by rodents. The plates and cups on the dresser were blue-spotted with the damp, and cobwebs clung to nearly every surface. Simple conclusion: no one lived here and no one ever came here.

String, string. He was looking for string. And there didn’t seem to be any, or at least, not in the immediate vicinity. There was another door at the end of the room, which he supposed was his next option. The rain hitting the roof made a hollow soft sound, the erratic noise putting him on edge. The entire cottage smelt of rot. A strange feeling crept into him with the damp as he crossed the room, and he wondered wildly whether something would be lurking behind the door.

It was nonsense of course, and he opened the door with unnecessary vigour because of it.

It was only a boat store. Here were the ropes and blocks he had originally anticipated, and with luck, he found a ball of twine.

He left with an almost irrational urgency, wanting to be out of the place. “Gladstone!” he yelled once out the door, and at last the dog came into the far-gone garden. He tied the string around his collar as efficiently as possible with stiff gloved hands. They were going to return to the other cove and find John.

“Good afternoon,” he said to the strange man as an afterthought, tugging Gladstone away.

He assumed the man had returned to his own little world, but the fisherman had turned to stare at him.

“She doesn't go in there now,” the man said.

He felt chilled. Too much time in the rain.

“No,” he said, not sure what more there was to say.

“She's gone into the sea, hasn’t she?” the man said. “She won't be coming back any more?”

“No,” he repeated, beginning to regret his decision to chase after the dog.

“I never said anything, did I?” the man asked.

He blinked in confusion. This conversation was pointless. Better to not continue speaking with someone who was obviously muddled. Gladstone, finally obedient, followed him over the rocks and back to where John was waiting anxiously. John’s agitation had returned in full force, if the tension he read in John’s shoulders was anything to go by.

John’s focus on him was more inquisitive than he was used to. What John sought to find, he didn’t know.

“Gladstone wouldn’t come,” he said, as way of explanation. John smiled at Gladstone, but only spared a sidelong glance for him.

“Shall we?” John asked, before turning, and making his way back into the woods.

“There was a man on the shore, dressed a bit like a fisherman,” he said, thinking John might like to know that there was a stranger on his beach.

“Oh, that’ll be Anderson,” John replied. “He’s harmless. His father used to be one of the keepers, he lives near the home farm.”

John paused, eyeing the lead attached to the dog’s collar. “Where did you get twine for Gladstone?”

“I found it in the cottage on the beach,” he said, waiting to see how John would respond.

“Was the door open?” John asked, his expression immediately closed off.

“Not wide open,” he answered, “Though it was an odd place. Deserted, dusty. All those things entirely spoilt now. Rats have eaten most of it.”

He felt himself crossing a line he had previously shied away from, especially since moving into the house. But he felt like pushing John, digging a little deeper. If John wouldn’t talk, he would make John react.

John said nothing, and began to walk fast despite his cane, his movements almost violent. Even Gladstone was having trouble keeping up.

“Abandoned cottage, clearly at the end of the path Gladstone is used to taking,” he continued, as if deducing one of the patrons at their old hotel. “Been let go to waste, I wonder why?”

John stopped walking. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” His voice was low. John was restrained, or attempting to be anyway. Always so restrained.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, with a false carelessness. “Let’s stop this.”

“Let’s not actually, seeing as you started it. What are you implying? I thought you didn’t spare people from this kind of thing.” John’s hands were clenching and unclenching, and John couldn’t look at him for more than a few moments at a time.

Well, in for a penny and all that.

“You obviously didn’t want me to go to the other cove, John. And you wish I hadn’t, I can see it in your face.”

John finally turned to him. “See what in my face?”

He realized this was rather like poking a wild animal. And what he thought was a confrontation was becoming a circular argument - John was a master of denial and deferring.

“I’ve already told you. I could see you didn’t want me to go, or for yourself to go for that matter.” It was now his turn to shuffle his feet, and have trouble meeting John’s gaze. “Let’s have an end to this. I’m already sick to death of the subject.”

“No, you’re right, I didn’t want to go to the other beach. Will that please you? I never go near the bloody place, or that God-damned cottage. I don’t - ,” John squeezed his eyes shut in frustration, and breathed in to calm himself before continuing.

“I don’t want to go there. There. Is that - are you happy now?”

John had transformed during their brief exchange, now looking completely drained and wretched. It reminded him of their car ride in Monte when he’d torn their map to pieces, and John had finally spoken of bad memories. How did they always get so lost?

He could feel their earlier happiness slipping from them, and desperately, he reached out and grabbed it by taking hold of John’s free hand.

“John,” he said, and stopped. They were always starting and stopping.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” John asked, his voice as rough and wrecked as he was.

“I don’t want you to look like that,” he said, in a momentary fit of honesty.

He didn’t want John to look like he was thinking about the past. Forget, not remember.

“We should have stayed in France,” John said, gripping his hand back as tightly as it was being held.

“We should never have come back to Manderley. Oh God, what an idiot I was to come back here.”

This was wrong, all wrong - John loved Manderley, according to his sister, and he was supposed to be fixing it for John. He was meant to be renaming Happy Valleys, overwriting the past, and making Manderley new again for John. New memories, new memories.

John made to pull away from him, the hold on his hand loosening. John wanted to stride away through the trees faster than before, leaving this all behind. It was so like John to finally voice his dark thoughts, and then to turn away from the words as if they wouldn’t catch him.

Instead, he exerted a harder force than John’s pull, causing John to tip forward into him. He gripped John’s upper arms, and lowered his own head.

“I don’t want you to look like that,” he repeated slowly, not even fully aware he was speaking, letting his instinct take control. This felt natural, after being so out of his depth for so long.

He was still graceless in this, not knowing exactly what he was doing. On his first attempt he banged into John’s forehead, and their noses bumped. His mouth pressed somewhere to the right of John’s chin. It was painfully awkward for a moment, before John angled his own face upwards and to the left, and caught his lips in a hard kiss. He sighed in relief - John had understood his intention, and finally, after so much waiting, John’s open mouth was moving against his with urgency. John was unrestrained, pressing in and withdrawing, only to return with renewed fervour. He could barely manage to do more than receive the kisses, letting his lips go slack and pliant, being whatever John needed from him in the moment.

This quickly changed when he felt the tip of John’s tongue lick at the seam of his lips, before sliding into his mouth. His knees went weak, and he leaned fully into John’s one-armed embrace. He had forgotten about the rain, which had started to come down harder, and John’s inability to stand without aid.

John caught him when he slipped slightly, dropping his cane, and quickly grabbed the sides of his face in both his hands. He gasped, giving John further opportunity to deepen the kiss.

But he could no longer lose himself in the feeling, not with the knowledge that John might fall at any moment. He wrapped himself as tightly as possible around John’s upper body, ready to hook himself beneath John’s arms if needed.

This was unfortunately a self-fulfilling prophecy. His attempts to anticipate John’s collapse only made sure of it, as John was immediately reminded of his limp. His problem was an issue of psychology, after all.

John’s leg gave out, and he was there to prevent the slip with John hanging onto him on one side.

Their laboured breathing misted in the rain, mingling in front of them. John was looking up at him before his expression collapsed like his leg. John redirected his gaze down to where his cane had dropped to the ground.

John’s face, when he had seen it briefly, was ashamed. John was embarrassed. Meaning, he would now not want to address what had just happened.

This had all backfired spectacularly. Worse yet, he wasn’t sure if he could reach John’s cane while holding him up.

Gladstone, bless him, picked one end of the cane up with his teeth. The dog was able to lift it high enough that he could grab it from him. Gladstone would normally have been whining by now from the cold, but had instead been patiently waiting for them all along. A silent observer.

“Good boy,” he said, breaking the silence, and feeling the dog deserved it.

John took the cane from him without saying a word. Once John was standing on his own again, John finally looked up and to the side of his face. “Sorry,” John said, with no attempt at making clear what the apology was for. And just like he had imagined earlier, John began to walk back to the house through the woods at a breakneck pace.

He watched John’s retreat with Gladstone pressing a cold nose into his palm. It was now pouring, strong enough that rivulets of rain were running down his face. If he was to cry now, he thought, no one would be able to notice.

He followed after John shortly, soon passing the path that led down to the other cove. If Gladstone’s old routine had been to travel down that lane, the Watsons must have favoured that beach. And their cottage.

He caught up to John as they reached the lawns, and they walked on to the house in continued silence. John was stoic, but he could still tell John was chastising himself for what had happened. But what aspect?

Did John hate himself for his issues of the mind, or for what he had done? Was it weighing on him, even now, no matter how he tried to forget? The guilt of replacing an old love with someone new, bringing that replacement into their home, and their old haunts.

John regretted it. John regretted him.

The library door shutting behind John once they were inside Manderley was more than enough of a confirmation.

His eyes felt itchy, and wet. From the rain he thought, rubbing at them irritably. Lestrade was standing in the hall collecting their coats after all, and he mustn’t see anything worth noticing. Not only was Lestrade his brother’s spy, he was also perfectly capable of gossiping in the servants’ hall. If Lestrade thought they were quarreling he could only imagine the talk. “Mr Watson’s husband was crying in the hall just now - things aren’t going very well, are they?”

He tucked in his chin at the thought to partially conceal his face. Lestrade came towards him anyway, to help him out of his coat.

“Not a very pleasant afternoon for a walk I’d say,” Lestrade commented.

“No,” he said, keeping his face turned away. “No, it was not very nice.”

“Oh, your handkerchief,” Lestrade said, bending to pick something up that had fallen on the floor. He held out his hand to receive it, and hastily returned it to the pocket. He wondered if this was Lestrade’s way of saying he might want to dry his eyes.

He hesitated in the hallway, overly aware that the servant was still standing with him. Did he go upstairs, or did he follow John into the library? The closed door seemed to suggest the former. He and John were similar after all. He too would much rather run than meet anything of a distressing emotional nature head on.

Lestrade cleared his throat, rocking back on his heels.

“There’s a good fire in the library now,” Lestrade said, raising his brows meaningfully. “Might be a good idea to warm up a bit after being out in that rain.”

Lestrade had no subtlety, but then apparently neither did he.

“Thank you,” he said, ducking his head, and crossing the hall towards the library door.

He entered the room slowly, hoping to ease his way into John’s hiding place. John was sitting in his chair with Gladstone at his feet. There was a newspaper on the arm of the chair, but John was not reading it.

Perhaps John wasn’t hiding at all, but rather was waiting for the confrontation.

He walked towards him, and boldly, sat on the arm of the chair not occupied by the paper. He leaned over, and tucked his head into John’s shoulder.

“Don’t be angry with me any more,” he said. This was not a good start, nor was it what he had planned to do or say, but the feeling bubbled up out of him all the same.

John lifted his face with a hand beneath his chin, and took his face in both his hands once more. The bags beneath John’s eyes seemed endlessly deep. He looked exhausted from the strain of an unknown exertion.

“I’m not angry with you,” John said, quiet and perhaps a bit confused.

“You are,” he insisted, “I’ve made you unhappy, which is the same as making you angry. God, look at you! You look wretched, and I don’t want to see you like that, I -”

He stopped abruptly, and stood from his perch. He would not speak again until he was sure he was under control. He had almost told John that he loved him, like a little fool. What was the point in declaring things that his own husband couldn’t yet, and wouldn’t, say back?

“I’m sorry,” John said, and despite the pronounced lines in his tired face, he looked young. Like a child, lost and in pain, a mirror of his own current state. They possessed an odd kind of symmetry, reflecting each other while still not understanding what was looking back.

The moment was broken by Lestrade entering the library with a servant in a tow. He pretended that he had been reaching for a log to throw on the fire, and thanked them for bringing the tea in.

Five minutes passed before he and John were alone again, and by then John appeared to be recovered and happy to eat sandwiches. “Having all that crowd over must have put me into a mood,” John said, “Harry does always rub me up the wrong way.”

He felt used up from the day, and not hungry in the slightest. Was John honestly content to act as if nothing had happened? Ready to drink tea and pretend?

His hand brushed against the outside of his pocket, and he felt an edge of lace from the handkerchief Lestrade had returned to him. He pulled it out, and found that it wasn’t his at all, but something old and worn from the coat he’d had on. He turned it over to see a monogram in the corner, ‘M.W.’, with the ‘M’ so large it practically eclipsed the other letter.

Had Mary honestly put her damn name on everything?

He rolled it into a ball, and threw it into the fire with a certain degree of satisfaction.

“Do I want to know why you’re burning bits of cloth?” John asked pleasantly, a few bread crumbs about his lips.

He was now tired, fed up, and sour, and wouldn’t have been able conceal it for another second longer even if he had wanted to.

“I wonder, is it Harry who rubs you up the wrong way, or me?” he asked with vindictiveness, and the last bit of energy he had left. Before John could respond, he turned on his heel and walked out.

He closed the door behind him with finality. Let the servants talk, if they would. Perhaps it was hypocritical to flee when he was mad at John for not facing him earlier, but he was not in the mood for that level of self-awareness.

He thankfully passed no one in his rush to their room in the East wing. Exhausted, he changed into his nightshirt and laid down beneath the sheets. For once, he wanted to sleep. More specifically, he wanted to fall asleep, and forget.

This was easier said than done, however. He couldn’t forget that horrible look in John’s eyes, and he couldn’t forget his words. “We should never have come back to Manderley.” This was his doing - it was him who had decided to go to the other beach, her beach. He’d inadvertently brought this on them by opening John’s memory to the past. The exact opposite of what he intended.

Despite his dwelling, he hadn’t rested properly in days, and did eventually fall into a fitful sleep.

He dreamt he was inside a portrait, looking back out into the art gallery on the other side. The frame was there, open and inviting. He could pass through it if he so chose. He could return to the other side, and leave the world of the painting, but still he remained.

Slowly, as if not fully corporeal, a body pressed up against him from behind. He knew it was John from feel alone, and from the head that only reached his shoulder. He was spun around by small, strong hands, and his face tilted down for a kiss. He realized belatedly that he and John were both wet, soaked. It must have been raining in their painting, though he couldn’t remember when it had started. All he knew were John’s lips, kissing him warmly and languorously, as if they had all the time in the world. John, the genius, shifted slightly to the left, slotting a hard leg against his groin for him to press against. He groaned, and with no self-consciousness, began to grind against him. The sweet slow kisses grew hot, more forceful, and he drew John as close to himself as possible, feeling his aching length thrust against John’s thigh. As his hips moved in their addicting rhythm, he felt a hand sliding up his back, and into his hair --

He awoke with a startled cry, realizing that the latter sensation had in fact not been imagined. Several things became clear instantaneously - it was the middle of the night (half past one), John had come to bed following him after an early dinner, and he had just woken John up by pressing his erection repeatedly into the back of John's upper thigh. John had turned over in response, and was currently holding him still with a hand to the back of his head.

It was fortunate their room was entirely shrouded in darkness, as he felt his already flushed face grow hotter than if he’d had a fever. He whipped his head away from John, with the rest of his body shortly following suit. For good measure, he scooted himself to the other edge of the bed.

His heart was pounding in his chest and he had never been more mortified in all his life. Please, he thought desperately, please let this be something John would be happy to never acknowledge or discuss.

Annoyingly, his arousal had not in any way subsided after finding his dream to be somewhat a reality. If anything, it was more insistent. He suspected he was not going to be able to fall asleep any time soon. Which was fine, that was all fine. They would both just need to sleep it off, he reasoned, and act like this hadn’t ever happened.

Except that after he drew away, John followed, albeit gradually. He could feel John shifting, and eventually reaching out to brush knuckles across the nape of his neck. He was unable to resist leaning back into the touch.

“Um, hey,” John whispered, but thinking better of speaking perhaps, merely cleared his throat as he continued moving closer. John's hand drifted down from his nape to lightly touch his right arm. This was followed by John’s arm sliding forward, until John was holding him in a partial embrace, John’s hand pressed against his chest.

He lay absolutely still on his side, holding his breath. John’s hand began to slip lower along his chest.

“Can I?” John asked, his voice almost inaudible, wavering. As though he didn’t know what to ask, when they both knew what he meant.

He nodded. John certainly could. He was willing to agree to anything, anything at all, if it meant John continuing in that vein.

“Yes?” John asked again, but his hand was already resuming its path downward, till it finally skated across his erection, jutting up from his nightshirt obscenely. He exhaled harshly as John lightly brushed his hand over him, drawing down and then up, stroking from the root to the tip, pausing over the growing wet spot in the cloth.

No academic or scientific study had ever been given this much of his focus. He felt as though all the blood in his body was seeking out John’s touch, and his mind was thrumming and buzzing in anticipation.

John repeated this motion twice, growing bolder with each upstroke, before moving his hand away entirely. His breathing stuttered at the loss of contact, and he almost whined in protest, before realizing John was merely reaching lower to lift his nightshirt. The cloth was pushed upward, and bunched around his waist. He felt exposed and over sensitive, and desperate for John to touch him again. In a moment of lucidity, he reached for a handkerchief from the side table, which he imagined would prove useful very shortly.

John reached for him again almost immediately, touching the outside of his bare leg with a gentleness he would have appreciated more under different circumstances. John was kissing his neck beneath the line of his hair, and stroking his hip with the same reverence. It felt sweet, nearly sweeter than he deserved. But he had waited too long, and was not interested in being gentled and teased. In a fit of impatience, he reached for John’s hand and led it back to where it had stroked before. John let out a surprised huff of breath in response, but was a natural at taking direction.

He fit well into John’s small palm, and he gasped when John finally, finally, gripped him and began to stroke. He’d been grinding himself against John for long enough while asleep that he was already slick with precome, and ready to drive himself hard into the tight heat around him. He let go of John’s hand to the grip the sheets beneath him, willing to trust John wouldn’t withdraw again.

He at first let John set the pace, with languid movements and soft kisses, but when it became clear it would not be nearly enough, he began pumping his hips in time with John’s downstroke. His breath came out in pants and small groans, but he was far past the point of caring about making noise. John lying close to him every night and never touching him, the sheets smelling of him, John kissing him that very day and then leaving him behind. It had all caught up to him and was boiling over into a hot and heady need, which he was unable to resist when he was half-awake, and half-mad with want.

His hips were thrusting back against John enough that he could feel the other man’s erection pressing into his bare skin. The knowledge that John was not unaffected, that John even desired him, was more than enough to send him over the edge with a quiet, urgent “John!”

He was grateful for his foresight to have the handkerchief at the ready, as he managed to catch his release in hand with hardly any escaping. He crumpled it up, and tossed the soiled thing back onto his side table. Deliriously, he hoped one of the servants would find it.

He felt more relaxed than he had in ages, as if all the stress in his new life had left his body in one climactic moment. He stretched lazily as he lay back down, but then at once remembered - John was hard and wanting too.

He turned over, ready to seek John out, but John had fully retreated to the other side of the bed. Similar to how he himself had acted before.

“That’s all right,” John said, when he reached for the edge of John’s nightshirt. John took his hand, and kissed it, returning it to him.

“Don’t worry. High time you got a good night’s sleep.”

To add insult on top of injury, John leaned upwards to brush away his sweat soaked fringe before kissing his forehead. John then promptly lay down on his back, and pulled the covers back over both of them.

The equivalent of being tucked into bed, and told to have ‘sweet dreams’.

He tried to battle his disappointment - this was more, more than he had thought John would allow this early into their rather hasty and unconventional marriage. This was fine. He turned away to his side once again.

This was perfectly fine, he repeated to himself, as he stared at the used handkerchief on the table. For a spiteful moment, he wished he’d used the one he’d found that afternoon instead.

Never mind that. The obstacles to his end goal were not insurmountable. The path ahead was clearer now, with new boundaries having been established.

He would need to be patient. John was showing that he was capable of overcoming his reservations. John’s restraint couldn’t last forever, and he would simply need to be ready to strike when the iron was hot. John could apparently perform husbandly duties so to speak, even if it was done out of sympathy for his aroused state.

But, and perhaps more frustrating for said husband, John was not yet able to allow himself to be touched. He worried about how this reflected on his own ability to provide the distraction John so clearly needed, while also wanting it desperately for his own selfish reasons.

Once again he drifted off, fretting all the while.

Chapter Text

Despite his new appreciation for the outdoors, it would be some time before he would get another chance to enjoy it. The weather continued to be wet and cold for almost an entire week, which John assured him was common for the early summer. The benefit of this was that John seemed to spend more time with him indoors. John still had boring things to do, but the diligence he needed to see to them had waned, indicating John had obviously neglected the estate for many months before and while he traveled.

When John had first offered that they work in each others’ company, he had nearly jumped at the opportunity. John had at first insisted that he didn’t need to stay around if he didn’t want to, especially if something else caught his own attention. He wondered what John thought he did about the place. Maybe Mary had always had so many self-created assignments, she was never bored and always busy. He for one felt no remorse helping John, or hindering him as the case may be, in his daily process. His presence certainly seemed to distract his husband - even though John attempted to be responsible, he still frequently felt John’s eyes fixed on him. John clearly thought he was being discreet, and would redirect his gaze if caught, but it was hard to miss. He imagined John was checking in on him, as though John couldn’t believe his husband would want to sit with him during the day.

John’s first attempt at entertaining him on a rainy day inside was with card games for two, which didn’t go quite as well as John might have hoped. (He couldn’t help it if the games all had rules that were wrong.) John later suggested that he discuss the results of his minor experiments, or any new or old cases from the papers, the latter being of more interest to John. When he’d tried to recount his analysis of the perfume samples, John had drifted off in his chair. He couldn’t feel particularly cross with John about it though, given that the man slept with so wide a smile on his face.

He had much better success with describing his deduction process. Their routine in Monte was in full swing in their new home. John would ask, in amazement, “But how did you know the brother had done it if he had a green ladder?” or some other such thing, and he would walk John through it with as much flair as possible. After all, John was a romantic. He had to make him feel like they were on an adventure, even if they were just sitting in the library.

John was even able to romanticize them further than he would have thought possible, and had started to jot down his daily summaries. “Hold on, I have to write this one down,” John would say, and clearing his throat, start on some silly tirade. “Despite only being equipped with a bunsen burner and litmus paper, today it was determined that the silk damask of the morning room curtains is not flame resistant, and in fact offers no defence against mild chemical burns when experiments go awry...”

He’d scoff appropriately at John’s lackluster writing skills, but, if he were being honest, he rather enjoyed John’s embellishments. Quite a lot, actually.

And so it became custom that while John worked, he would see to his own business, or play the violin for him. John seemed to enjoy this very much, even if he was just plucking at the strings absently.

The day of his introduction to the Happy Valley was an anomaly in many ways.

For one, they didn’t return to the beach. Judging from what he could see of the ocean from the terrace, he didn’t think he missed it. The sea during stormy weather was particularly uninviting. Even though he would have preferred to forget, his mind kept returning to the abandoned cottage, and the strange man on the cove.

For another, John hadn’t touched him again. Progress in that area continued to be at a stand still. However, while John hadn’t attempted to initiate anything between them, John now slept on his back rather than on his side. His husband no longer curled away from him. Surely, that was a good sign? And when his new clothes had arrived, and he’d tried his favourite of the suits on and unveiled it to John, he’d thought John had looked... appreciative. Though perhaps that wasn’t the right word. He’d done a bit of a spin as a lark, and when he’d turned back to see John - his face had grown warm in the heat of that look. He could have been imagining things, reading too much into them, but he rather thought that things were promising.

If he were being rational, reasonable, he could see why John would be hesitant, given John’s character. Even without John’s emotional baggage, their relationship was in its infancy. Perhaps due to his youth and lack of experience, he was being given time to know John fully before trusting John with more of his vulnerability. He would have had a greater appreciation for this if he hadn’t been sure he trusted John within moments of knowing him. And it also didn’t mean he had to like it.

Of course, there was more than consideration holding John back. People were complex after all, and their motivations usually were as well.

John had recovered in some ways, and was himself again. They lived their lives together as the best of companions, sleeping, eating, walking, driving to the village, working each day in the same room. But he felt all the same there was an unspoken barrier between them because of it. John walked alone in the world, fighting against some unseen enemy. And he himself was on the other side, despite desperately wanting to assist John. All he knew for certain was it was related to Mary.

He was now at full attention, attuned to the possibility of any careless word or conversation that could bring John back down into his memories, and cause him to be as strung out and wrecked as John had been that day Harry had visited. He had known the implications of Mary’s death and the circumstances surrounding it before, but had still heedlessly brought John’s attention to the unpleasantness too many times to count. He had acted like a reckless child, and if he were to ever fight back against John’s demons, he would need to grow up. He could be the partner John needed, he was certain of it.

He overanalyzed conversations, looking for how they might derail. Any discussion of the ocean was to be nipped in the bud, as talk of the sea could lead to talk of boating, which could lead to accidents, which could lead to drowning.

This was essential, for they were called upon often. People who lived in the same area of the county came to see them in droves, the goal of the visits transparently for the chance to gather gossip on the new Mr Watson.

They would hear the sound of wheels on the drive, and the bell ringing out once, and in unison he and John would announce, “Visitor.” He would deduce the arriving personage based on the sound of the tires, and if given enough time, their shoes clicking in the entrance hall. His conclusions were always confirmed by the cards delivered to them on a silver salver. John would muffle his laughter into his fist. “Stop, they’re almost in -” John would choke out, before they would assume their assigned positions, in their pantomime of the obliging, newly married couple.

He shook hands, living the torture of the formal half-hour of social niceties expected of these house calls. It was somehow impossibly worse than he had predicted. Not only because he was bored stiff (and so was John, even if the man wouldn’t admit it), but also due to his newfound fear that their guests would trigger John’s darker contemplations.

The visitors would enter the morning room or library, depending on the time of day, and always said the same lines, as if speaking from a script. “We felt we simply must come and pay our respects to the grooms!”

Must they. Tedious. He wore his new suits and a forced smile, knowing that if he attempted too much conversation he would be unable to suppress his ruder comments. They each had their own part to play in the performance, and his was that of the docile new husband. And no one could accuse him of not being a good actor.

It didn’t require an imagination like his to picture what they would say to one another as they drove away. “My dear, what a strange boy. He scarcely opened his mouth.” And then, the words that Harriet had first spoken, which had stayed with him ever since and which he heard in every look and whispered comment, “He’s so different from Mary.”

On a handful occasions he performed the duty of calling on others himself, as was expected of him as husband to Mr Watson of Manderley. He had thought paying his respects without John would ease his anxiety, as the possibility of someone reminding John of Mary was otherwise ever-present. This had the unfortunate result of encouraging them to dare to touch the subject, or more so than they ever would if John had been there.

“Will you be entertaining much at Manderley, Mr Watson?” they would ask, and his answer, always the same, “I don't know, John hasn’t said much about it up to the present.”

“The house used to be full of people in the old days, coming in and out,” they’d say, then pause. “People from London, you know. There used to be tremendous parties.”

“Yes, so I’ve been told.” The ‘many times’ he would leave unspoken, though perhaps implied, and the guests would fidget in their seats. Why was he not able to carry on an effortless conversation like Mary, they would think, why could he not make them feel at ease?

They would all be thinking it, and perhaps it was this that prompted them to dive right in, using the hushed tones ridiculous people always did when speaking of the dead.

“She was so tremendously popular, you know. Such a personality.”

As if he could casually respond to a comment on his new partner’s dead wife. He would glance at his watch under cover of his glove in response. “I'm afraid I ought to be going, it must be after four.” And then he’d smile brightly, his eye crinkling at the corners from the effort, and they’d return the favour.

They would ask him to stay for tea, and he would decline. The meaning would be understood. He sometimes wondered what would happen if he took them up on their offer. What if he suddenly said, “I don't think I'll go back after all. Perhaps stay for dinner, even sleep here, if you don’t mind.” Would their manners hold up in the face of it? He would have been delighted to see their pained and accommodating expressions. This was the kind of thing John would disapprove of, but would find hilarious nonetheless. He almost wished he had done, just to have the story to tell John later.

A party though, he had to admit, was an interesting thought. He hadn’t considered a party seriously, at least not until the bishop’s wife of the neighbouring cathedral town was forward enough to ask specifically whether his husband would be reviving the Manderley fancy dress ball.

“I do hope the party won't be dropped,” she’d said, clutching at his arm in a beseeching manner. His mask had dropped to eye her hand on his jacket sleeve with disdain. “You must use your influence with him! There wasn’t one last year, of course, but two years ago it was quite enchanting. Manderley so lends itself to fancy dress. The hall looked wonderful. There was dancing in the hall and music in the gallery. A tremendous thing to organize, but everybody appreciated it.”

There hadn’t been one last year, of course, how delicate of her. With restraint he managed to not ask what she meant by his influence with John, whatever that was. A tremendous thing to organize he could well imagine. He could see a woman sitting at the desk in the morning room that he had covered in beakers and burners, indicating which select names were worthy to be invited, reaching for the monogrammed cards with purpose.

For whatever reason, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He decided he did not ever want to see the bishop’s wife again. He didn’t want to see any of them, ever again. He didn’t mind if they thought him rude and ungracious for not returning their calls. How the upper-class could act so low in his estimation was astonishing. They only came to call at Manderley because they were curious, prying gossips. They stared at him, assessing his looks and manners. They liked to watch how John and him behaved with each other, their small eyes hunting for clues - did they seem fond of one another? Were they very much in love? Was it anything like how John was, with Mary?

They came to see them only so they could return to their own nests, whispering behind tea cups, their saucers clutched in their talons. “Haven't you heard? John found him in Monte Carlo or somewhere, without two pennies to rub together. He was a companion to some other man.” It all unfolded like the following scene in their play. Cue the laughter, and the raised brows. “You can't be serious? John, who was so faithful? How could he, after Mary?”

No, he wouldn’t be calling on any of them again. They could say what they liked. He didn’t mind. He had bigger fish to fry.

Namely, the mystery of John Watson. And how to solve it.

An opportunity to explore that particular case presented itself as his car returned to Manderley, following his disagreeable visit with the bishop’s wife. He spied a grey-haired figure walking up the road in the drive, alone. John’s longest employed and most trusted servant was as good as any a place to start.

“I think I’ll get out and walk with Lestrade,” he said to the driver, who obliged him without question. He had been getting better at saying what he wanted, as of late.

“Been paying calls, Mr Watson?” Lestrade asked while making to open his door for him, but he hopped over the side instead. Following rules was starting to itch.

“I've been calling on the bishop,” he said, “though only found the bishop's lady to be at home.”

Lestrade nodded, amiable, but clearly curious why the master had decided to join him for a walk in. He motioned forward with a smile to ease Lestrade's mind, and they began to walk along the lane toward the house.

"The bishop's wife wants to know when we are going to give a fancy dress ball at Manderley,” he said, watching for Lestrade’s reaction from the corner of his eye. “She came to the last one, she said. I hadn’t known about the fancy dress dances here, and couldn’t comment.”

Lestrade hesitated a moment before replying, looking somewhat troubled. “Yes, the Manderley ball was generally an annual affair. Everyone in the county came. A lot of people from London too. It was a big spectacle.”

“It must have taken a lot of organization,” he commented. “I suppose, Mary did most of it?”

Despite keeping his face turned forward, he could see Lestrade’s head whip towards him. If Lestrade expected to be able to read his expression, the man would be disappointed. He was prepared for his own interrogation, and had no interest in giving an inch.

“Everyone was involved, that is, we all worked hard,” Lestrade said quietly, seeming hesitant to discuss it. He wondered suddenly if Lestrade had been a bit in love with Mary, if everyone had been. He knew immediately that was ridiculous, he was being ridiculous. His deductions were skewed by his own feelings, which would absolutely not do.

“I'm afraid I should not be much use if we were to have a ball,” he said. “You may have noticed, but I’m not exactly one for social events.”

“There would be no need for you to do anything,” Lestrade said. “Though if I may say so sir, I think you’d actually be quite talented at organizing such an event.”

"That's very polite of you, Lestrade,” he replied, somewhat taken aback by how genuine Lestrade had sounded. “But I’m not sure we’d want to test that theory.”

“All the same, I think you would do it excellently,” Lestrade repeated, speaking again as if he truly felt it. Dear Lestrade, how tactful and considerate.

He almost believed him. But he wasn’t deceived so easily.

“Will you ask John about the ball?” he asked, deciding to be direct.

“Why don't you ask him?” Lestrade replied, somewhat incredulous.

“No,” he said, simply. And maybe that was childish. But him asking John would defeat the purpose. John handled him with kid gloves - if John thought he wanted a ball, there would be a ball. The entire point of the exercise was to return John to his previous vivacity, which would only work if they brought back things John had enjoyed. Honestly, why couldn’t Lestrade catch on.

With reluctance, he clarified, “You know him better than I do.” Though he hated admitting it.

“I’ve known him for many years. And no, I don’t.”

It was his turn to stare at Lestrade’s profile, while Lestrade faced ahead. What a peculiar thing to say.

Silence grew between them as they continued walking along the drive.

He felt that once he had broken his restraint on saying Mary’s name, the urge to continue was overwhelming, like a child learning their first bad word. It was as intoxicating as a drug in his system, giving him a curiously dark sense of satisfaction each time he said it.

“I was down on one of the beaches the other day,” he said, with practiced carelessness. “The one with the breakwater. Gladstone had run over to bark at a man.”

“You must mean Anderson,” Lestrade said. His tone was easy, relaxed. Good. Lestrade was no longer suspicious of him. “He always potters about on the shore, wouldn’t worry much about him.”

Things he already knew. Time to get to the heart of the matter.

He hummed for a moment before continuing. “I noticed that the old cottage hasn't been well maintained. When I went in to find string, the china was mouldy and all the books ruined. Is there a reason why nothing’s being done about it? Seems a pity.”

He could have guessed that Lestrade wouldn’t answer him immediately. What was it about that place that put people so on edge?

“If Mr Watson wanted anything done, I think he’d tell me,” Lestrade remarked stiffly, while bending down to tie his already perfectly tied shoelace.

Ah, he may have wounded Lestrade’s professional pride. Subtleties weren’t getting him anywhere.

“The cottage and its decaying things. They’re all Mary’s, aren’t they?” he asked directly.

“Yes,” Lestrade responded, and he was fully alert now, trying to suss out what he was being asked. Lestrade clearly suspected this conversation might not end well.

“What did she use the cottage for?” he asked. “It was furnished, but from the outside appears to be a boat-house.”

“It was a boat-house originally,” Lestrade responded, his words weighed before he spoke them, and his pacing that of someone who was uncomfortable with the current subject. “She converted it then, like the way you saw it. Had furniture put in.”

He noticed Lestrade did not say Mary, or Mrs Watson, always simply saying 'she'.

“Did she use it a great deal?” he asked.

“Yes, she did. She was fond of sailing, and - well - late night picnics.”

They were both looking ahead now, not daring to meet the other’s eye.

“Late night picnics,” he repeated dryly.

His mind conjured an image of John and Mary out on a moonlight picnic, and then after, pretending they were young lovers meeting each other illicitly at a boat-house. Using the cottage for purposes that made the staff a bit hesitant to discuss.

“The buoy is still there in the little harbour, so there used to be a boat moored there,” he stated, rather than continue with that thought.

“Yes,” Lestrade confirmed, looking like he greatly regretted entering into this conversation.

“What boat?” he asked. He was being sharper than he had intended, but he was on a roll now.

“Her boat,” Lestrade replied simply.

They had stopped walking momentarily. Lestrade obviously did not want to continue their little talk. It was possible this was cruel of him. He continued regardless, like a dog with a bone.

“And what happened to it?” he asked. “Was that the boat she was sailing when she was drowned?”

“Yes, it capsized and sank. She was washed overboard.”

“What type of boat was it? Do you know the exact size? Did it have a cabin?”

“Yes, and I suppose, maybe about three tons?”

“And what made it capsize?”

Lestrade cleared his throat. “I don't know sir. It can get windy out there.”

The ocean ran down channel beyond the headland, meaning the wind would have needed to come down suddenly from over the hill to knock a boat over, even if it was a little one. It was possible, he supposed. But then, how was that risk allowed? Did the boat maker not account for the conditions of the area when selling a boat to the Watsons of Manderley?

“Could no one have gotten out to her?” he asked. Some aspect of this story struck a chord in his mind, some part not seeming quite right.

“Nobody saw the accident. Nobody even knew she had gone,” Lestrade said.

No one had seen it? She had been alone then. No other boats, no one watching from the cliffs. Except, that seemed improbable as well.

"Surely they knew she had gone sailing, up at the house?”

“No. She often went out alone like that. She would come back any time of the night, and sleep at the cottage on the beach.”

“She never had any fear for her own safety?”

“Fear?” Lestrade asked, as if the suggestion was ludicrous. ”No, she was not afraid of anything.”

Not afraid of anything. Had the woman been perfect? In every aspect of her character? Brave, cunning, organized, capable, graceful -

“Did John mind her going off alone like that?” he wondered. He wasn’t sure he had really intended to ask it aloud.

Lestrade was a silent for a long moment. “I don't know,” he said shortly.

Was Lestrade being loyal to someone? It sounded like it. However, was it to John, or Mary? He didn’t know what to make of it.

“She drowned while trying to swim to shore then, after the boat sank,” he said, continuing to think aloud.

Maybe the sails had pressed her down as she had tried to escape. The bay would have been dark, how she’d ever have found her way he couldn’t imagine. The shore would have seemed very far away to anyone swimming in the water.

“When did they find her body?” he asked.

“About two months later,” Lestrade said.

Two months. Drowned people were usually found after two days, if they were found at all. The body would have washed up close to the shore when the tide came. Two entire months?

“Where did they find the body, and be as exact you can,” he directed. His arms were reaching out almost to grab Lestrade’s. He couldn’t quite control himself when he was on the scent of something.

“Near Edgecoombe, about forty miles up channel.” Lestrade seemed resigned, as if he saw now that discomfort was to be the nature of this conversation, and he had chosen to accept it.

Edgecoombe? He had been there once, when he was seven. It was a big place, with a pier, and donkeys. He made a flicking gesture with his wrist. The donkeys weren’t important.

“How could they possibly identify the body - after two months, how could they tell?” he asked, his voice raised. And why did Lestrade insist on pausing before each sentence. God, the man was a nightmare to get information from.

“John went up to Edgecoombe to identify her,” Lestrade said.

His earlier frantic urgency faded away. At once, he did not want to ask Lestrade any more. He had seen this as a game, a puzzle, thinking out the circumstances and how the death had transpired. John had -

John had needed to identify the body of his two-month decayed wife.

He felt a bit sick with himself for the first time in a long while. He had never felt guilt before about asking to see corpses, or asking questions of the dead. He was always able to dissociate. Taking care with the dead wouldn’t help solve their murders, after all.

But now, he thought of John approaching a beach, the police lifting a sheet. John having to look for a very long time because it was hard, very hard, so much of her had been taken away by the sea. However, there would still be the things someone who knew her well could see, the resemblance would be there hanging about the corpse, in the shape of her jaw perhaps...

At once the scene changed, and it was him watching as the sheet was lifted. “Is this your husband, Mr Watson?”

“It must have been a terrible time for all of you,” he said, grasping for something to say, to appease, and to draw himself out of his own head. “I don't suppose you like being reminded of it, I just wondered if there was anything one could do to the cottage, as it seems such a pity, all the furniture being spoilt by the damp -”

“Catch your breath, sir,” Lestrade advised, and he realized he’d been speaking too fast, possibly too fast to be understood. He did that sometimes.

Lestrade was an idiot, everyone was, but even he must have sensed that it was not concern for the empty cottage that had prompted all these questions.

He had grown to consider Lestrade an ally. Even if Lestrade was reporting on him to his brother. He might have ruined that tentative relationship with this conversation. He wondered if Lestrade had been absolutely loyal to her. She likely would have been worthy of it.

“I understand I’m nothing like her,” he said, his new fascination for discussing Mary not entirely abated. “A disappointment for you all, I’m sure. Lacking in all the qualities needed for being in charge of this place. I can barely stand one visit with the neighbours.”

“You must not say that,” Lestrade pleaded.

“Why not? It's true,” he insisted, daring Lestrade to contradict him.

“You have qualities that while maybe different are just as important, far more so in fact. It's perhaps cheek of me to say so as I don't know you very well, but I should say that sincerity - as in, being true to who you are as a person - is worth far more to a man, to a husband, than all the charm in the world. And I think the master finds you charming besides.”

Lestrade’s amiableness in the face of his own rudeness was truly remarkable. He felt his lips quirking up, just slightly. The master finding him charming besides, really, the things Lestrade would say to cheer him.

“Sincerity," he scoffed. "I assume you mean my brutal honesty. Do you think people find it sincere, being married in a hurry in Monte Carlo, and being alone there in that hotel beforehand? But, perhaps you don't count that?”

Lestrade was well and truly taken aback. He couldn’t help but grin in the face of his expression. He did enjoy being a bit scandalous, truth be told.

“Mr Watson, you don't think people honestly think things like that? About the nature of your meeting?” Lestrade asked, attempting to impart the seriousness of the matter.

“No, of course not,” he responded gravely. He really had shocked Lestrade with the implication that things had not be entirely above board, as Lestrade would likely say. These people and their niceties.

It made one think of the sort of things that would happen below board. And how much one wished they had.

“Look, the master would be very worried, very distressed, if he knew how you felt. I honestly don't think he has any idea that you think these - these - things, “ Lestrade finished lamely.

“But you won't tell him?” he asked.

“No, God no. But you see, I do know him fairly well, I've seen him through many ... moods. You need to understand, if he thought you were worrying about the past, it would distress him more than anything on earth. I can promise you that. He's looking very well, very fit, but Miss Harriet was quite right the other day when she said he had been on the verge of a breakdown last year, though it was tactless of her to say so in front of him. That's why you are so good for him. You need to forget it, as he has done, along with the rest of us. We none of us want to bring back the past. John least of all. And I hate to say it, but it's up to you, you know, to lead us away from it. Not to take us back there again.”

Lestrade reminding him of his responsibility to John, and subsequently Manderley, was a bit heavy-handed, but then of course Lestrade was right. He had been selfish to bring his own insecurities down on the other man, but it was tiring attempting to be the saviour. Could he really be the hero of the hour everyone wanted him to be?

“Well, don’t tell John then,” he said in response. Worrying John was definitely not the intention of his actions. “Not like how you’ll likely tattle to my brother.”

Lestrade immediately looked away to stammer, “I have no idea what - what you could mean -”

“Save it Lestrade,” he said, his feet under him once more. “Don’t try to trick me. It won’t work. Are you going to pick up your pen once we’re inside, or will you wait till I’m thoroughly occupied with something else? ‘Today sir your baby brother implied that something below board may have occurred before the wedding -”

“I would not, and am not!” Lestrade exclaimed, stopping him with gentle grasp on his arm, which was then used to turn him to face the other man. “Look, yes, your brother contacted me before you even arrived. I thought it very strange a man’s own brother would ask me, a servant, to keep an eye out, but I thought maybe it was for my master’s, and your, safety. I haven’t been reporting to him or anything like that! I wrote back to say you were settling in, and that - that he should ask you if he was worried about you. That’s all.”

He assessed Lestrade carefully. The man was in earnest.

“Did he offer you money?”

Lestrade flushed hotly. “Yes, sir, such a thing was implied, but I did not take it.”

He considered the situation.

“You’re not a wealthy man, Lestrade. Take the money.”

Lestrade was completely flummoxed. “What?”

“You’re never going to settle down with whatever maid you have your eye on at this rate. Accept the offer. I will review your letters before you send them, if it will ease your conscience.”

“And why would you do that, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I need someone on my side,” he replied, and began walking again. He needed at least one servant he could trust, after all.

It really was a long walk he noted, they were only just out of the dark wooded drive. He was looking forward to the rhododendrons. Their in-bloom season was almost over, and he wanted to enjoy them while it lasted. They were already looking faded.

“Lestrade,” he said, “Before we put an end to this conversation, forever let's say, will you promise to answer me one thing, quite truthfully?”

Lestrade had returned to eyeing him a little dubiously. "That's not fair,” he said, “you might ask me something that I shouldn’t answer.”

“It’s not that sort of question I promise you.”

“Fine,” Lestrade conceded.

They had turned the sweep of the drive, facing Manderley at last. With its classic appearance and impressive size, Manderley was somehow always pleasing to the eye. Something to be painted and admired, and for all who saw it to think the place a paradise.

“Tell me,” he asked, “was Mary very beautiful?”

Lestrade was looking away from him again, towards the house.

“Yes,” he said slowly, “yes, I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life.”

They walked up the stairs together and into the hall, silence settling over them once more.

Chapter Text

If he had been told months ago he would soon spend days on end sitting in a room with another person, and that rather than finding this hateful he would just be glad of the other’s presence, he would have likely raised his brow with doubtful scorn. But months ago, he had not yet met the right man.

Now he found himself lounging in perfectly companionable silence, writing a letter while John wrote his own. John’s pen scratches were much slower than his, as if John had to think about each word carefully before he put it to paper. The rhythm of the different writing paces against parchment somehow fit well together, like two accompanying parts. He was currently occupied with responding to a case with great satisfaction, and was for the moment, content.

Perhaps counterintuitively, it was John who often tired of whatever he was doing, and would invariably question him about his work.

“Are you solving something over there?” John asked, a small smile already beginning to form. “Are you keeping a diverting murder mystery from me? Like the Chinese acrobats or the ginger dwarf?”

“I’m hardly keeping it from you, as I will tell you now that you’ve asked — and why on earth would you list the unsolved ones?” he exclaimed. John would be annoying and choose to remember the ones he had admitted to not knowing the answer to.

“Because you’re more reluctant to discuss the unsolved ones,” John replied. “Oh, don’t look like that. If I ever write stories about you, people would want to know about those ones too!”

“Why would you ever write stories about me, and why would people want to know of my failures?”

He might have been pouting. Just a little.

“Because they’d want to know you’re human! And they’re not failures, no one can know everything. There’s nothing wrong with that.” John’s voice was gentle, but he sniffed at him.

“Regardless, I’ve solved this one,” he said, with not a little smugness.

“Oh?” John prodded, turning completely away from his desk in his excitement. “Are you going to send an anonymous tip to the police again?”

“Not needed, and besides, it’s not in this country,” he replied, grinning. Would John remember, and be able to figure it out from that clue?

John’s brow furrowed, but he quickly caught on. “Is this about the lady who contacted you through my old acquaintance Stamford? Mrs Hudson?”

“Very good, John,” he said. He did so enjoy when John paid attention. “It’s all been resolved, though it took some time. Her husband was on trial for double homicide after all.”

“And you prevented his execution?” John asked. Somehow in his eagerness, John seemed much younger than his years.

“Oh no,” he replied. “I ensured it.” Considering how Mr Hudson had treated his client, from what he’d gathered, he took great pleasure in it in fact.

John looked at him rather queerly for a moment. He relished his ability to shock and intrigue John, though in this case he wasn’t entirely sure what to make of John’s expression. John eventually shook his head as if to clear his thoughts, and relocated himself to his armchair and newspaper.

Returning to his own task, he realized this meant his correspondence with Mrs Hudson of Florida had come to a close. He would have liked it to last longer, truthfully. He had grown fond of her, and his mind was always chomping at the bit, waiting for its next endeavour. Between the sparse opportunities for ways to engage his brain, and determining how to bring John out of the past, he was managing to keep busy. But only just.

He had taken up smoking again, though he suspected that had more to do with the occasional looks from John, and their significant lack of follow-up. Now that he’d concluded his business with Mrs Hudson he would only be agitated again.

Without realizing, his body had sunk lower in his chair, with his legs splaying out. His fingers were tapping against his thighs, his feet rocking on the floor, and his hips shifting in the chair. He would likely have not even noticed his limbs were moving, if not for John watching him with a woefully concerned expression. When he was worried, John’s brows always pushed towards one another with lines forming all around. It should have looked ridiculous. It didn’t.

Something new, something interesting, that’s all he needed. Maybe a quick game of deductions. But of what?

The maid who scurried in to clear away their tea things - the mousy, shy one. She was wearing face powder when she hadn’t been before. Or, she’d had some on, but had touched it up using the compact she carried on her person. Somewhat of a luxury product, for a servant anyway, though almost all women used powder. Expensive for her to be reapplying. Obviously she was keen to impress.

“If the powder is for the brown-haired one who brought in the tea tray, I wouldn’t bother, have you seen the amount of product he puts in his hair? Cherchez l’homme,” he advised as she leaned forward, in a low conspiratory tone.

The tea spoon she’d been collecting clattered against the tray, and she scrambled for it with a scarlet flush across her cheeks. She was badly shocked, he realized. He thought he might have rendered her speechless until she squeaked out a hasty, “Yes sir,” before hurrying away.

John was staring at him, reproachfully. John was capable of saying more with a look than there were words in the English language.

“What?” he asked, defensive. “Isn’t it kinder this way?”

“No,” John said, the lines in his face now more concerned than ever. “No, that - that wasn’t kind. Do you honestly not know who Molly’s actually sweet on?”

“Molly?” he asked, feeling very wrong-footed.

“Molly, the woman who was just - do you not know any of their names?”

“Some,” he evaded, looking to the side.

“Well, at least you know Greg’s name.”

At his blank stare, John dropped his paper. “Oh my God!” John laughed, as if he was unable to contain himself. “You really don’t, do you? But the two of you are always talking!”

“Who is Molly actually sweet on?” he asked, now annoyed that he’d guessed wrong. How could John know something he didn’t? (And who was Greg?)

John was laughing in disbelief, and rolled up the paper to swat at him with. “You! It’s you, you - whatever you are!”

Me?” he asked, looking down at the ring on his left hand. Not to mention the amount of product he had in his own hair. He blinked several times. “Does she not know -”

“Yes, oh my God, of course she knows. It’s just -” John paused, leaning back in his chair, now that he was done hitting him with the news. “People just can’t help who they’re sweet on, no matter how unavailable the other person happens to be.”

He shifted. Molly, which was apparently her name, being interested in him was unfortunate. He wouldn’t wish unrequited love on his worst enemy. Especially as he imagined that when John said ‘unavailable’, in his case he meant ‘deceased’.

That unpleasant thought was luckily cut short by Lestrade entering the library, though he did not appear to be in good spirits. “Sir, do you mind if I speak with you for a moment?”

“Of course not, what is it?” John asked, the request surprising him.

Lestrade was uncharacteristically dour. He assumed there was an issue with one of the staff, which Lestrade would hate to bring to the master’s attention.

His suspicion was proven true as Lestrade explained, “It's about Robert, sir. There has been a slight unpleasantness between him and Mr Moriarty. Robert is very upset.”

“Oh, God,” John said. He had expected John to maybe turn and discretely make a face at him about what sounded to be a petty dispute. Instead, John sounded rather genuinely distressed.

Lestrade sighed before elaborating.

“Mr Moriarty believes Robert has stolen a valuable ornament from the morning-room. Robert is in charge of bringing fresh flowers to the morning-room, and placing the vases. Mr Moriarty went in this morning after the flowers had been done, and noticed one of the ornaments was missing. It was there yesterday, and Mr Moriarty, as you know, is fastidious about this sort of thing. He has accused Robert of either taking the ornament, or that he has broken it and is now lying about it. Robert denied both accusations most emphatically, and came to me nearly in tears, sir. You may have noticed he was not himself at lunch.”

“Was he not?” John asked, taken aback perhaps by the news that his servants were squabbling below.

He searched his own memory. “He handed you the cutlets without giving you the plate,” he said.

“Oh,” John said, before turning back to Lestrade. “Right, well. I don’t think poor Robert would lie, would he? Are we sure a servant didn’t just knock it over and forget, maybe while dusting?”

“No, Mr Moriarty oversees all the dusting in the morning-room,” Lestrade replied. He noticed Lestrade didn’t say Moriarty actually did the dusting. It occurred to him that Moriarty likely wouldn’t want to get his hands dirty.

“Tell Moriarty to call off the witch-hunt,” he said instead. “I broke the ornament in the morning-room.”

John and Lestrade both turned to look at him. “What? Why didn’t you say?” John asked.

“I’d forgotten,” he replied simply. He’d been there yesterday, and when he’d stowed one of his volumes on the high desk shelf, something had rolled off and smashed. He had intended to do something about it, but then completely forgotten once he’d been occupied once again.

“Why didn’t you say when Lestrade first - well, doesn’t matter, but where is it now?”

“How should I know? It rolled off somewhere. Probably underneath the desk. Maybe a spare bit of curtain. Did they not look for it before making accusations?”

John looked heavenward, appearing both amused and exasperated. “Lestrade, would you mind checking to see if the broken thing is beneath the desk?”

“Yes, of course, and shall I bring in Mr Moriarty?”

“You might as well.”

The next several minutes passed awkwardly. Gladstone had come in to keep them company at least, and he pet the dog’s ears as they waited. It was something that had become a habit for him when he wanted to avoid conversation. If John was going to be cross with him for his carelessness, he wasn’t going to invite it.

At last, the servants reappeared. The ornament was found beneath the desk, as he had guessed.

“Sorry for the mishap,” Moriarty drawled, entirely unapologetic. “It hadn’t occurred to me that Mr Watson had broken it himself. Perhaps, if such a thing happens again, Mr Watson could inform me to save everybody a lot of… unpleasantness.” Moriarty glanced at him only at the end of the statement.

Robert was still sniffling outside. Unpleasantness was one word for it.

“I’m sure he just forgot to, Moriarty,” John replied, with much more anger than he had expected. Was John actually upset with him over this?

“Perhaps, Mr Watson was not aware of the object’s value?” Moriarty asked, speaking of him as if he was not present, while still staring directly at him.

He bristled. He knew the exact value of the object, or he could tell it, if presented with the thing. It just hadn’t occurred to him to care.

“Well, no use crying over spilt milk,” John said. “Do whatever you can with the pieces, even if that just means tossing it. Also, Lestrade, give Robert the rest of the day off, and a day’s extra pay. He’s too distraught to work.”

Lestrade nodded, and he and Moriarty exited the room. The nasty business was concluded.

He immediately retreated to the window seat, to look away from John. He didn’t want to discuss it, and John would just have to follow his lead.

John unfolded his paper and began reading it again. Neither of them spoke.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted out, giving in within a few seconds. “Isn’t that what people say in these situations?”

John glanced up at him, with a soft expression. “Forget about it, who cares. You’re the one who uses the room, and somehow I doubt you’ll miss a cupid ornament.”

This was true, and he agreed but — “The servant, Robert,” he said. There had been someone upset in the process.

“Right, yeah, I think you should apologize to him if you get the chance, though really it should be Moriarty doing the apologizing,” John murmured, trailing off as he looked studiously back down at the paper.

But it had been him to cause the fuss in the first place, and if he was ever going to be a good ‘Master of Manderley’, he needed to be more responsible. His first instinct had been to be mad at John for being upset, but now frustratingly enough, he found himself mad that John wasn’t mad.

“You don’t need to let me off easy,” he said, facing the window. “You can - be angry with me, or scold me, when I’ve destroyed property. You don’t need to be so careful with me. I am the one who broke it and told no one.” He realized this was at the heart of the matter. John must have been cross at him for being immature, and he wanted John to - well, to notice him. Be annoyed by him at times. Tell him off when he was in the wrong. How else would he ever be kept right?

John brushed it off. “I’m just relieved. Better you than Robert, obviously.”

Better him than a servant, he supposed that was true.

“I am like an untrained servant,” he said, thinking out loud. “Breaking things. Getting in their way. Burning holes in the carpet.”

“Jesus, what holes in the carpet? And what do you mean, like a servant?”

Everything he had kept to himself, that he thought he could hide from John, he could feel coming to the surface. Like the sea he could just see a glimpse of through the window, the waves of his dissatisfaction were at last reaching the shoreline, and foaming as they hit the shingle.

“I’m not fitting in here, am I?” he asked. “And they can tell. The servants can, and the people who come here and look me up and down as though I were a prize cow.”

John scoffed. “Who’s been looking you up and down? I’d be happy to pay them a visit.”

“Oh, I don’t know John, only everyone,” he snapped. He wished he wasn’t like this. He wished he were cool and calm, laughing over the whole thing like it was nothing.

John sighed, and stood gradually from his chair. The deeper John had sunk down, the harder it was to lift himself with his cane. John walked over, and sat next to him in the window seat. He continued to face the window, not sure he wanted to meet John’s open, honest eyes.

“You’re the talk of the town - you’re new, and they’re all incredibly bored.”

“Lovely, and I have to be the one to supply the entertainment, why?”

“Well, life at Manderley is the only thing that ever interests anybody down here.”

“What a slap in the eye I must be to them then,” he said, finally turning to face John in defiance.

John exhaled harshly, his mouth agape. John hadn’t been prepared for him to ‘have a strop’, as John would say.

“What a slap in the eye I must be to them,” he repeated. “I suppose that's why you married me, you knew I was young, inexperienced, not to mention a misanthrope, anti-social and rude and avoidant, so that there would never be any harmful gossip about me.”

He had expected John to be angry, to shout. To throw his paper to the ground, if he had still had it. Instead, there was almost a touch of fear in John’s eyes.

“What do you mean?” John asked, his voice barely audible.

“I-I don't know,” he backtracked, leaning back against the window. “I suppose I don't mean anything."

Why did John look like that, and where had the man with the open-book expression gone? Who was this person he couldn’t read at all?

“What do you know about gossip down here?” John pressed. He seemed… anxious.

“I don’t,” he said, terrified by the prospect of John looking—and actually being—frightened. “I only said it because – because it was something to say.”

If there had ever been fear in John’s eyes, it was no longer there, leaving only a quiet sadness behind. “I know you’re used to being the observer rather than the observed, and I can see why you’d hate that. I hate it too. It’s just -” John took a moment, as he frequently did when collecting himself for small speeches. Always choosing his words. He waited with bated breath.

“You’re extraordinary,” John stated, as if it were a fact of nature, undeniable. “You wouldn’t just ‘fit in’ anywhere. Everyone will always find you fascinating.”

He blushed hotly. Extraordinary. Fascinating.

He would have loved those words more if not for the guilt he read in John’s tone and posture.

“I wonder if I did a very selfish thing in marrying you,” John said, slowly, and painfully.

He could feel the cold of the window pane pressing into his back.

“What?” he choked out. He couldn’t think. He was aware he was blinking, and that his eyes were dangerously close to growing wet.

“I'm not much of a companion to you, am I?” John asked. His voice was so quiet, heartbreakingly soft. How could such a gentle voice say such terrible things?

“There’s a decent number of years between us. I didn’t let you wait, or think it through - you could have married someone your own age. Instead of someone with half his life behind him.”

"That's ridiculous, you’re being ridiculous,” he insisted, in a rush to squeeze the words out before John could be allowed to continue being an idiot. “You know age doesn't mean anything in marriage. Of course we are companions. The best of.”

“Are we? I mean, am I a good friend to you?” John asked, desperately, and he could see truly that John didn’t know. John had no idea. The damn fool.

He abruptly knelt up on the window seat, and wrapped his arms around John’s shoulders. He buried his nose in the crook of John’s neck, and John immediately held him back tightly.

It was easier with his face hidden, to say all the things he felt. That way he didn’t need to see John’s reaction, with John’s chin on top of his head. “There has never been anyone but you,” he whispered. It was so quiet in the library. “You’re my friend, my companion, and my colleague, when you like to be. All of those things.”

“You’re all those things to me too, of course you are. ‘Colleague’,” John laughed, but without his heart in it. “Being your colleague would be an honour, of course. I only mean there was so little time. I rushed you into it. I never gave you a chance to think it over.”

“I didn’t want to think it over,” he said, his throat closing up around the words. “There was no other choice. You don't understand, John. There was no other choice for me.”

“I know, I know,” John said. Did he? he wondered now, if John knew.

“Between going to America with bloody Wilkes or coming here, yes, I know. But are you happy here?” John asked. “Have you gotten thinner? Paler?”

He lifted his head from John’s shoulder to stare at John in disbelief.

“John, I’ve gained at least 7 pounds since meeting you, even someone with your poor assessment skills should surely be able to see that. And of course I’m paler, we went from being in the sun all day to English country weather.”

John still looked unconvinced, his forehead crinkled in its funny way. He leaned forward to kiss it.

“Of course I'm happy,” he said, as he drew back. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been.”

And that at least was true. It was only that being with John caused a variety of extreme emotions. He understood this was not unique to him, but characteristic of people in love.

“I've never for one moment regretted marrying you. Do you understand, John?” John felt guilty, for whatever reason. John believed he’d done him some kind of disservice. He had to convince him otherwise. John had to understand.

He wasn’t sure if John got it, but John was gazing back at him with a look akin to wonder and amazement. John reached upwards, as if driven by a force outside of his control, and cupped the side of his face gently. Whatever John read in his expression must have rung true, for John leaned closer at once to press lips against his own. It was a sweet kiss, and over too soon.

“I’m not questioning you, or your commitment,” John said, stroking the top of his cheekbone with his thumb. “I’m just afraid I’m not giving you enough. You like a bit of drama. Not much of that here. It must be… difficult.”

“It’s not difficult,” he insisted, placing his hand over top of John’s. “It’s much easier than wherever I thought I would be. I have infinitely more freedom here than I would have elsewhere. I’m out from under my brother’s thumb. And I won’t lie to you, I used to think it would be dreadful to be married. I’d never even considered it. Frankly, you’re nothing like what I imagined a spouse would be.”

He’d imagined a spouse would have been yet another boring, hateful person, like all the others, the only difference being they would expect to be able to paw at him whenever they felt the urge. Matrimony had been a state to be avoided. Now, what he wouldn’t do to be pawed at.

“Well, that’s something - I think,” John said, and he was smiling, and somehow lighter. A weight had been lifted.

He returned the smile, and took hold of both John’s hands. It felt... nice.

“John, how truly absurd of you to say we are not companions,” he scolded.

“I didn’t mean to imply that, you know I - you must know that I -” John paused, and didn’t continue. John apparently would not be finishing that train of thought.

‘He must know’. He supposed he likely did know, as he knew most things. John had been unsure if he could make a new marriage work. He would have to convince John that he could, but not against John’s wishes. How was it that something so intangible could cause such an acute physical pain?

John was worried that he wasn’t happy - was John projecting?

“If you don't think you’re happy, it would be much better to admit it,” he said, dropping John’s hands from his loose grip. “I never want you to pretend anything, not with me. I'd much rather go away, and stop this.” When he spoke, he was nonchalant. Like commenting on the weather. Or the tea growing cold.

It was not really happening of course. He wasn’t himself, but the man in their play. The proper husband, who smiled, and called on the neighbours. It wasn’t him talking, not him to John. He imagined the type of person who would play his part. Lanky and sharp, a bit manic.

Once more, John slowly reached out to hold his face, but this time with both hands. He was trying to hide, play his role, but John drew him out. John who looked at him as if he truly saw him, saw past everything. There was something else there as well, just as there had been in John before, the day they visited the beach.

“I’m sorry if I haven’t been clear - you know, I’m not good at this sort of stuff.” John laughed at himself a bit, and he couldn’t help smiling back a bit in response. He had a weakness for, well, John.

“Of course I’m happy. Isn’t it obvious? Doesn’t everyone always tell you what a wreck I used to be? But I’m not the one who really matters. I’d hate it if you were to go away, but I won’t — I wouldn’t stop you. I would never keep you here,” John said, with those round, blue eyes focused intently on his face. If not for the honesty he heard in every word, he would have wondered if it was even possible for someone to get so many ridiculous ideas in their head.

“Of course you’re the one that matters John, and don’t be foolish, of course I don’t want to leave,” he replied, scrunching his eyes closed in frustration. John really, honestly believed that, didn’t he?

John kissed him again while his eyes were closed, but broke away as soon as it started, almost embarrassed.

When he opened his eyes, he averted them from John’s face as soon as he’d seen it, choosing to look down at his hands in his lap.

“You know why I’m saying all this. I warned you in Monte Carlo how it would be,” he reminded John. “That I wouldn’t be right for Manderley.”

“And I told you in Monte, I’m the one who gets to decide who’s right for Manderley.”

“And you think I’m right for it?” he asked, daring John to say to his face what they both knew was highly debatable.

“Hang whether you’re right for Manderley!” John exclaimed, his loud voice in stark contrast to the rest of their conversation. “You’re right for me.”

He looked up through the curls hanging over his face, startled by John’s tone. Now he blinked, and ducked his head again. He wanted to believe that, he really did. But that wasn’t quite right - of course Manderley was about John, an extension of himself. To be right for John, he had to be right for both.

“We've argued in a circle,” he said. They’d arrived back at the original argument, in fact. This was stupid. “Somehow this all began because I broke a cupid in the morning-room. If I hadn't broken the cupid none of this would have happened.”

The cupid — something suddenly occurred to him. Moriarty didn’t seem the type to care about ornaments, not really. Unless he was looking for an excuse to cause grief in the life of a servant. That was possible. But he had a feeling there was more to it than that.

“When was the morning-room furnished as it is now?” he asked slowly.

“When I was - uh - well. Why does it matter?” John answered, clearly thrown by the change in topic. He was rubbing his forehead, looking away.

“It doesn’t, never mind,” he said, but John was already miles away.

John had been about to say ‘when I was first married’. Mary’s ornament then. Likely a wedding gift. No wonder Moriarty was hyper-aware of it. He was Mary’s man, after all.

As was John.

John stood, cane in hand, and moved to the mantelpiece. John with his hand in his pocket, trying to not meet his gaze, obviously remembering Mary. John was probably considering how strange it was that a wedding present to Mary had been destroyed by his second spouse.

Wondering about the turn of John’s thoughts was more dangerous than anything they’d discussed earlier. His mind was primed to launch into another one of his imaginings, the hateful ones about what John would have done with Mary in the past. He cut it off before it started.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked instead, with a cool voice and a rapidly beating heart.

“I’m thinking that the overnight trip to this public dinner couldn’t be coming at a worse time,” John replied. “Though, you could still come with me?”

Oh God, the dinner. There was a string of things he’d forgotten about, apparently. John had mentioned it days ago, a public dinner for the county. The date had crept up on him.

He felt resentful at the moment. John had clearly been thinking about Mary, and then had said he wasn’t. And now John was leaving him for a day. He had originally told John no out of consideration - John was so dreadfully worried about boring him, and he would absolutely be bored beyond all reason at a public dinner. However, John asking him to come normally would have swayed him. But now, now, he was also annoyed.

“No,” he said, turning to look back out the window. “I’d rather not.”

John nodded for a moment, before returning to his chair, and his paper.

John was right. This was coming at the worst possible time.

They were silent for the rest of the afternoon.

 

 


 

 

He dreaded John’s going for the rest of the day, and the night. And when the morning came, he watched the car disappear round the curve in the drive from his bedroom window. He didn’t like to say goodbye to John properly in front of all the servants. He didn’t trust his own impulse control. He couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t make a fuss and beg John not to go.

Before leaving their room that morning, John had come over to his side of the bed and had kissed the top of his head. John had whispered goodbye. He had feigned sleep, and now regretted it. A bit.

There was something so final in seeing the car leave, as if he might never see John again, even though he knew John would be back soon.

It was just a public dinner. Something to do with the county. Only, accidents happened all the time.

Sometimes he hated his own mind.

He drew away from the window, pulling the curtains closed as he went, and slipped back into bed. He had no interest in getting up, getting dressed, and pretending to bustle about the house. He wanted darkness, and time to be a bit mopey.

He was annoyed with John. Very annoyed. Or at least, that’s what he had planned to mope about. Stew in his irritation with John.

Only, being angry with John ultimately meant thinking about John, and the true source of his frustration. Which had only been mounting. The sweet kisses from the day before, which John had broken off. The figure he cut in his suits. His still-tanned skin, all covered up beneath starched white collars. His tongue peeking out to lick his lower lip. Maddening.

If he turned over to the other side of the bed, the sheets still smelt of him. Indescribable, but entirely John. He breathed in, and then reached for the handle of his bedside drawer. He was hard, he already missed John, and he wanted to make the most of it.

He had included massage oil in his order list, and Lestrade seemed to have understood very well what that had meant. Or misunderstood rather, seeing as John wasn’t actually in the bed with him. But that was a minor detail he was still working on, and this was something he rather thought he’d like to explore a bit himself first.

He poured a small amount of oil into his palm, and took himself in hand as he usually did. The rhythm he kept was slow to start, gradually increasing. It felt infinitely better with the oil, making his palm slick and hot.

He imagined that the day before had gone differently between him and John in the library. More melodrama perhaps than their real life conversation - he told John he would go, he’d leave, and instead of being reasonable, John had begged him to never go. Maybe he’d tried to stand from the window seat, but John had pulled him back towards him, kissing him the moment they were reunited. He’d fallen partially into John’s lap, and, clever thing that he was, readjusted himself to be straddling John’s legs. The kisses only grew more heated, with John occasionally breaking away to press possessive open-mouthed kisses and nips to his neck. He’d thrown his head back, unable to contain his groans, rocking his hips into John, and John meeting his every thrust. He imagined John lowering his hand between them, opening his trousers with urgency and sliding them down his hips. At first, John would just stroke him, smooth and fast. But then, John would slide the other hand along his side. His breath caught in his throat. John’s phantom fingers ran a line across his lower back, and dipped once they reached his spine.

While John in his fantasy was teasing him, he’d moved a pillow beneath his hips, and poured more oil into his right hand. He was spreading his legs with knees bent, the covers kicked off. His left hand had taken over the duty of stroking, his right slipping beneath.

Returning to the library, John’s fingers had stopped their teasing against his back, and pulled away. He almost whined at the loss of contact, but John was pressing two fingers against his lips. He was told to suck, to get them nice and wet, and he did. John pulled them from his mouth shortly, and returned them to the small of his back. At last they dropped lower, and lower, until slid between his bare cheeks, slowly circling his hole.

He’d done this before, but never gone past one finger. With his investigative nature, of course he’d explored his own body to its fullest. On past attempts, the discomfort of it had always caused him to lose his erection. However, now there was hardly any resistance at all, his arousal barely waning. He wondered if this was from practice, or from the thought of it being John.

And it was John. Yes, John pressing into him, in the library. Where John worked and sat and read. He imagined that now whenever John looked at the window seat, John would see himself fingering his husband open with gentle insistence. One slick finger leading to two, both pushing in further, stretching the rim, and pressing against that spot inside that made him gasp and squirm. He was pressing back and down, for the first time wanting more, wanting to be stretched and ready, for John, always John -

This all came to a grinding, terrible halt when there was a knock at the door.

“A message from the club, sir,” Moriarty’s lilting voice spoke through the door. “Mr Watson arrived safely ten minutes ago.”

He ripped his hands from his body, and hastily rubbed the oil off against his nightshirt. “Thank you, Moriarty,” he called. “Good to know -”

“Shall I come in sir?”

“No!” he shouted, and kicked himself for it almost immediately.

That damn voice. It was as if Moriarty knew exactly what he was interrupting. And that thought was more than enough to kill the mood.

“Very well sir,” said the voice on the other side. “But the dusters would like to come in sometime this morning.”

His head thumped back against the headboard. “Then I’ll be out shortly.”

Just after he finished yelling into a pillow.

He washed himself with a cloth before dressing, which would have to do. Now he was unsatisfied in the worst possible way, thanks to Moriarty. He’d preferred it when the servant had been remarkably absent. He needed a smoke.

Moriarty had left by the time he was out, thank God. He just felt that somehow Moriarty would be able to read it, read it all over him, in the same way that he himself would be able to see it in someone else. He ran downstairs, taking two at time. The ‘dusters’ moved fast after his appearance, taking their chance to have at the East wing.

He called for Gladstone, and pulled on his new coat. It was a particular favourite of his in look and feel, especially when the collar was pulled up against the wind.

He felt better the moment they stepped outside. He put a cigarette between his lips, which he lit almost as soon as he was out the door. He paused for a moment to breathe out the smoke and admire the view out across the lawn.

It was finally sunny out. It was rather wrong of the world to be sunny, now that John had left. Almost like a natural impossibility.

Without a second thought, he headed straight for the aptly named ‘Happy Valley’ with Gladstone happily following him down the path on the left. It was like a breath of fresh air. John asking him to name the place made it feel more his own, somehow. He wasn’t sure how much time he spent smoking in the valley. He moved about the small area, needing to feel grounded in something. He seriously considered lying down on the floor of fallen petals, but Gladstone eventually grew bored. The dog was making his way through the overhanging flowers to the little cove on the other side. The flowers were all fading fast anyway, if they had not done already. The bluebells were holding out, but the azaleas were mostly brown, crushed beneath his feet in the moss.

Annoyingly, Gladstone apparently intended to complete the full circuit of their last trip, and had begun climbing over the rocks to the other cove as soon he arrived on the beach. The dog at least had the decency to look back at him, urging him to follow.

“Must we?” he sighed, and then more firmly, “We’re not going that way today, so you might as well come back.”

Gladstone paid him no mind and continued his scrambling way up the boulders. Who had trained this damn dog? John? Of course John. Probably spoiled him rotten, and now he thought he could go wherever he pleased and his owner would simply follow. No obedience.

As he was already scaling the rocks, he had to concede that Gladstone’s assumption wasn’t entirely off base.

“You’re a nuisance,” he called, though if he were being honest, he was only pretending he didn’t want to return to the other beach. John wasn’t with him now. There was no one to be disapproving. And he was rather curious.

He jumped into the pools forming on top of the rocks, humming to himself. The beach was decidedly changed from when the tide had been in. Less intimidating, considering he estimated that there was only around three feet of water in the harbour. Still deep enough for a three-tonne boat to float in the dead low water.

Gladstone was running about, which the dog was welcome to, as he himself was going to investigate the cottage.

Except that as he approached the entrance, the man from the day before walked out. Anderson, his memory supplied.

Anderson was holding fishing line, which he then pressed to his chest, as if he expected it to be taken from him. The man immediately made to run.

“Stop!” he yelled, chasing him and cornering the other man easily.

Anderson was terrified, which he felt was rather unwarranted, given that they’d met before. “Look, I just borrowed a bit of fishing line! I swear, I didn’t see nothing and don’t want any trouble!”

“Lovely motive, still considered breaking and entering - however, there won’t be any trouble, I just want to ask you some questions,” he said, holding his hands out in what he hoped was a placating gesture.

“I swear I won’t go back in the cottage, just - you won't send me to the asylum, will you?” Anderson pleaded.

“The asylum?” he asked. “That’s not really what they do with thieves.”

He thought the man must have been joking, or confused, and yet Anderson seemed truly afraid. Anderson’s eyes were as manic as he remembered them, but he could see the man was harmless. Maybe a bit off. Not violent. Hardly asylum material.

“Of course not,” he said gently, hoping to have a conversation with a calm person.

“I’ve done nothing,” Anderson repeated, “I’ve never told anyone, anything.”

He was beginning to see he wasn’t going to get any sense out of the man.

"That's all right, Anderson,” he said. “No one is going to do anything to you over a piece of fishing line. All the same, you shouldn’t really be going into the cottage.”

Anderson transformed as he calmed, almost seeming sensible. In fact, it seemed Anderson was now assessing him.

“I thought you’d be the same. You aren’t,” Anderson remarked.

“I don't know what you mean,” he said slowly. “Good afternoon.”

He turned to walk up the beach to the path, catching Gladstone by his collar on the way by. Interesting that John and Lestrade were both unconcerned about Anderson wandering around. He imagined the man had a reputation for being off, and no one overly minded him. When he turned his head to look back to the beach, Anderson was gone, the cove empty once again. He hadn’t gotten to do much exploring at all in the end.

He could still hear the sea, even further up the path. He could understand now why John didn’t like the right path, or that cove. He was finding he didn’t particularly like them either.

As he returned to the house, he was momentarily blinded by a beam of light reflected from something metallic in the distance.

Metal along the lane? Possibly the radiator of a car. He shaded his eyes, and confirmed - there was a car mid-way along their drive.

Had someone called on them, unannounced?

But anyone who called on Manderley drove up to the house itself. County visitors weren’t in the habit of leaving their cars hidden from the house, at the turn of the drive, practically in the rhododendrons. He approached, and yes, it was definitely a (not well-concealed) car. He could see the wings and the hood.

Not a visitor, but also not a tradesperson. They knew to go around the back way, by the old stables and the garage. It was also not anyone’s car who had visited before. He’d memorized every make and model for identification purposes. Besides, most people in the county didn’t drive sports cars.

If it was a caller, a servant would have shown them into the library or the drawing-room. From the drawing-room they would have been able to see him approaching as he walked across the lawn. They would see him coming and be prepared, and here he was left unawares.

This was odd, all very odd - in an effort to search for clues, his eyes were caught by a change in the appearance of the house. The West wing, normally all shut up, today had the shutters on one of the windows opened.

To his shock, somebody was standing by the window. The sunlight reflecting off the glass at the moment made it difficult to see more than the outline of a person.

He must have been spotted, for the person standing there suddenly drew away from the window. However, there was another figure behind them, and their arm reached forward to close the shutters.

This at least he was able to catch a brief glimpse of, and he would have been able to recognize that suit sleeve anywhere. The arm had belonged to Moriarty.

Visitors were never taken to the West wing. Ergo, the figure in the window was no ordinary guest, and certainly not anyone he knew. However, as he continued across the lawn to the house, he supposed he was about to.

“A mysterious stranger,” he murmured to Gladstone, his only audience, “and I thought it was going to be boring around here.”

Chapter Text

He strode across the last stretch of lawn, well aware that he might have an audience if Moriarty and the person unknown were peering through the gap in the shutters. That was assuming they hadn’t fled the West wing after being seen.

It was interesting that Moriarty would choose the only day John was away from home to show a guest the old, closed off wing. Interesting was one word for it, anyway.

He climbed the stairs to the house with Gladstone close at his heels, and immediately began to search for the usual signs of a visitor once in the entranceway. But there was no card on the salver, or hat hanging on the hook. His suspicions were confirmed - this was no usual guest.

He would have given Moriarty credit for the subterfuge, if not for the wide open door to the morning room. It was as though this guest was being badly hidden on purpose.

He made his way to the room, eager to see if he could deduce the nature of Moriarty’s rendez-vous. To any other eye, the room would have appeared unchanged. To him, it was impossible to miss that two vials on his desk, placed carefully in their holders, had swapped places. No servant would have touched his chemistry set. He moved to examine the desk, but found nothing else had been disturbed. Nothing but the two vials. Curious. He switched them back to their proper places - having to see the incorrect arrangement irked him.

He had the distinct impression he wasn’t going to like this person.

He turned on the spot, and surveyed the rest of the room. He moved to the divan, and crouched to the ground in front of it. He smoothed his hand across the fabric, while Gladstone came over to sniff at it, as if to help him with his inspection. There was not even a slight dip in the divan, no imprint from someone seated. The chair across was the same, as well as the chair by the desk.

Moriarty had entertained someone in the morning room, but neither of them had been seated? He understood that was not how things were done. But then, a servant entertaining while the masters were not in the house was definitely not the done thing either. It was time for him to see if he could catch up with Moriarty’s little tour.

However as it turned out, the tour had caught up with him. As he stood to leave, the drawing room door swung open and he could hear the murmur of voices. The drawing room indicated that they had come by the stone passage and back premises, moving through the house via the lesser-used hallways that he had discovered early on.

The door to the morning room was open, but not flush against the wall, leaving him space to stand on the other side of it. He slid behind the door just in time to avoid being seen, hoping to overhear their conversation if possible. Unfortunately, Gladstone wasn’t quite with the program. The dog was standing by the door while pointed directly at him, with tongue hanging out and tail wagging. He made a shooing motion with his hands, though little good it did. The damn dog was going to give him away.

At least he was finally able to hear them speak.

“The new one’s come home early, for some reason,” he heard Moriarty say, boredom evident in his tone.

He presumed he was ‘the new one’. Lovely.

“I thought you said he was out?” a man’s voice responded. There was an accent there, but he’d need to be closer to detect it.

“And so he was, and now he’s back,” Moriarty said, annoyance slipping into his slow drawl. “If he’s gone to the library, you can go through the hall without meeting him.”

“And we wouldn’t want that. Why don’t you check the hall for me, Jim?”

The man’s voice was smooth, despite the accented English. There was a dangerous edge to it as well, like the two men were on thin ice with one another. `

Moriarty sighed before he shuffled down along the hallway. A strange dynamic. They didn’t sound much like friends. Moriarty’s sarcasm was too clear, much less hidden than it ever had been with him or John.

While considering his next move, Gladstone chose for him by stepping forward and beginning to growl.

The man approached the morning room in response. “Oh, remember me, do you?” the voice asked.

The man’s shoes were nearly silent as he moved across the floor, as if he had planned ahead to avoid the sound of a heavier sole.

Gladstone was still growling, but began to retreat back into the room, looking toward him behind the door as if seeking protection. Gladstone’s alarm only grew as the man progressed into the room.

He could see the back a greying blond head, and a tall frame wearing a sharp suit. Gladstone’s hackles were raised, snarling at the intruder. This brave face didn’t last long before the dog came running over to him behind the door.

His hiding spot hadn’t quite panned out.

The man watched the dog retreat, turning slowly on his heel till they were fully facing one another. The uninvited visitor showed no surprise at finding someone behind the door, beyond pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“Mr Watson, I presume,” the man said crisply, with mild amusement. Now that he could hear him better, he could tell without a doubt that the accent was Danish.

He had gotten better at hearing ‘Mr Watson’, and knowing that it referred to him.

“You presume correctly, though I don’t have the pleasure of knowing who you are sir,” he replied, stepping out from the wall. If he was to be found out, he should at least be on the attack. The other man was in his home after all.

At first the man maintained eye contact with him, unblinking, before eventually dropping his gaze. Those shark-like eyes trailed up his body, focusing on certain areas for longer than others. The direction of the man’s gaze never went higher than the hollow of his throat, before returning back down once more. The look in the man’s eyes was simultaneously lecherous, and clinical.

He had never been made more uncomfortable by someone simply looking at him. Attempting to gain control of the encounter, he outstretched his hand in offering, and raised one brow in inquiry.

A smile stretched across the other man’s face. A hand at last slid into his own.

“I hope I haven’t startled you,” the man said, his voice low and smooth. Instead of shaking his hand, his visitor gripped it loosely, a damp thumb stroking over his index finger. He barely resisted the desire to flinch away from the touch.

“I would be less startled if I knew your name, and your business,” he responded, smiling in the way he knew could be alarming. “I wasn’t expecting any callers this afternoon.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” the man said with faux gravity. “No callers? Just us?” The man tutted, and brought the hand still in his grip up to his mouth.

“More for me,” the man murmured, before pressing a wet open-mouthed kiss to the back of his hand. When the man’s lips didn’t leave his skin after a full five seconds, he ripped his hand back, wishing he’d never extended it.

The man seemed to find this very amusing, his eyes gleaming behind his glasses.

“Charles August Magnussen,” the man offered. “I’ve come by to see the old place, and my old friend, Jim.”

He had gathered as much, though not the name. Which did sound oddly familiar.

The memory of thinking there were M’s everywhere came to him in a flash of insight - even seeing M’s on the return address of the mail, which Moriarty had been quick to pull from his grasp. The letters he’d seen had been from Magnussen.

“I see you’ve heard of me,” Magnussen commented. “Are you interested in the newspaper business, Mr Watson? ”

This had not in fact been the connection, but better not to let that on. Expensive car, nice suit, but not native to England - the man being in business wasn’t hard to guess. Based on the hint just provided, an owner of a newspaper. He didn’t keep up with society names, though he imagined Charles Augustus Magnussen probably wasn’t a well-liked personality. An immigrant and a businessman - the social circle surrounding the Watsons probably looked down on that sort of thing.

“You came all this way just to see the house and ‘Jim’?” he pressed. “Seems quite a long way from London.”

“How did you know I came from London, Mr Watson?” Magnussen deflected, moving away from him to walk around the room. The conversation was apparently not enough to hold his attention.

“Obvious,” he replied. “The mud on your tires.”

Magnussen’s back was turned to him now, but he could still see the man’s shoulders shake as he laughed.

“Clever. Jim had mentioned you were a bit of a detective,” Magnussen murmured, his tone entirely patronizing.

Gladstone, who had been hiding behind his master’s legs for the duration of the conversation, began growling again.

“The mutt hasn't forgotten me, has he?” Magnussen noted without interest, turning to face him once more. “He was so young last I saw him. He’s gotten fat since then.”

He felt himself and Gladstone bristle. Only Harry was allowed to poke fun at the dog’s weight. And what had this man done to Gladstone, when he’d been but a puppy? How foul a person was this Magnussen?

He reached behind himself to place a comforting hand on Gladstone’s head, which Gladstone pressed up into.

Magnussen watched the gesture with a strange attentiveness, adjusting his glasses on his face. He then proceeded to pull a cigarette from a case in his pocket. “Do you indulge, Mr Watson?”

“No, I don’t smoke,” he lied.

“Don't you?” Magnussen asked, with a look that suggested Magnussen knew all about the smoke break he’d had earlier in the Happy Valley. Magnussen didn’t press him further however. He slipped a cigarette between his own lips, and lit it.

Magnussen, an uninvited guest, stood in the middle of the morning room and began to smoke a cigarette - heavy Latakia with Perique, if his memory of tobacco served him. The smell was potent and hung in the air, likely seeping into their curtains.

Normally this would not have bothered him, he might have even appreciated the second hand smoke, but he was aware this was considered rude. Smoking in someone’s else house, dripping ash on their floor (when there was a perfectly good ashtray available), in their all-pastel hosting room. The act of it was almost... territorial.

“How is old Hamish?” Magnussen asked, lowering the cigarette from his mouth.

His eyebrows knit together, before he realized Magnussen meant John. No one ever called John that. Except for… her.

“John is well,” he responded, wondering how well the two men knew each other. “He’s gone for a dinner.”

“And he left the pretty new groom at home all alone?” Magnussen asked with exaggerated disapproval. He took a long drag, slowly releasing the smoke through his open mouth. Magnussen eyes’s were once again sliding from his face, and roaming over his figure. “Isn’t he afraid someone will come along and carry you off?”

Magnussen’s look could only be described as predatory. He was being assessed, not as a person, but as a body. He half expected to be told to do a turn so Magnussen could see the back.

He had never been so glad to see Moriarty enter a room. Moriarty’s eyes slid over both of them with disinterest.

Despite Moriarty having been instructed to check if the coast was clear, the man seemed unsurprised to find them chatting in the morning room. Perhaps Moriarty had known that Magnussen wanted an audience with the new master after all, and had left them the opportunity. Very little seemed to escape Moriarty’s notice.

“Hullo Jim, there you are,” Magnussen said. “All your precautions were for naught it seems. The master of the house was hiding behind the door.” Magnussen’s mouth didn’t smile, but the look in his eyes suggested that he found it all very entertaining.

Moriarty said nothing. He stood in the entrance with his hands in his pockets and shrugged.

“Shouldn’t you introduce me? Bring my name in on a card? Oh, the English and their manners,” Magnussen said, sitting down on the divan behind him. “It’s the usual thing to do, isn't it? To pay one's respects to a bridegroom?”

“Oh, yes,” Moriarty agreed, looking over at him with a strange gleam in his eyes, before cocking his head to the side. Moriarty’s spine straightened as his head tilted, until he transformed in front them into the image of the polite and obedient servant.

“This is Mr Magnussen, sir. Would you care to stay for tea?” Moriarty inquired, his posture perfect, and his tone airy.

And so it seemed he was to return to his play-act of host - except this time part of the performance was pretending Magnussen had just been brought in from outside, like any other guest. And with Moriarty, the ideal servant, beyond his constant overstepping of his bounds.

“Isn’t that a charming invitation,” Magnussen said, leaning back against the seat cushion.

Moriarty bowed his head before leaving the room, likely to go about preparing the tea. They were to be host, guest and servant, it seemed. He was witnessing something incredibly bizarre, but two could play at that game. Or, apparently, three. If Magnussen and Moriarty wanted to put on a show, far be it for him to break character.

He sat down in the chair across from Magnussen and watched him smoke in silence. He was glad for the table between them. He suspected Magnussen’s legs might have otherwise traveled toward his. Gladstone was curled up behind him, almost entirely underneath his chair.

The tea arrived, Moriarty bringing it in him himself, and even pouring them each a cup. He thanked Moriarty, and sipped the tea while holding the saucer beneath. Magnussen didn’t reach for his, or appear to have any intention to.

“Mr Watson, you should come have a look at my car,” Magnussen suggested, his lips tilted upwards at the sides, almost smiling.

“Oh?” he replied, quirking one of his brows. “So you can ‘come along, and carry me off’?”

If there was to be innuendo thrown at him, he put his foot down at acting the part of the blushing bride.

Magnussen chuckled. “I think you’ll find that it... performs better, shall we say, than anything poor old John has.” He pulled the cigarette from his mouth to lick at his lips. “Tell me, Mr Watson, do you always moisturize your hands with massage oil in the mornings?”

Moriarty, still standing by the tea tray, snickered before resuming his impassivity.

He made sure to keep his well-moisturized hand steady where it was holding the cup in its saucer. Too many astute men in one room, and he’d been the idiot to forget to clean off thoroughly. Of course, he hadn’t expected an ambush. Or commentary on his masturbatory habits.

“No one likes dry hands, Mr Magnussen. And I’m more interested in the performance of the driver, than of the equipment,” he quipped, lowering his cup back to the table. He was through fumbling with tea when no else was making the pretense.

Magnussen repeated his earlier movement of adjusting his glasses on the bridge of his nose while staring across at him. He felt as if he’d been reassessed.

Moriarty continued standing next to them, truly the picture-perfect servant, with his hands clasped behind his back. The only thing that gave him away were his eyes, and the bit of madness that always crept back into his gaze.

Magnussen stood from his reclined position, and moved towards him around the table. “I think you’ll come see it, all the same,” Magnussen murmured, while dropping the finished cigarette into the tea cup he had just set down on the table.

“I’ll see you out,” he said, watching the ash swirl in his ruined tea.

Magnussen paused in the doorway of the morning room, waiting for him to stand. “It will be a ways Mr Watson, as I didn’t drive up to the house.” He provided no explanation.

Neither of them said another word as he followed Magnussen out through the drawing room and into the hall. Magnussen didn’t stop, but did look back over his shoulder at Moriarty.

“Lovely seeing you Jim. You know how to get… in touch.”

Moriarty offered no parting words, and did not come with them as they exited the house. He was still Jim the dutiful servant, who opened the doors for them, and watched them walk down the stairs.

Gladstone did trail behind them, but subdued, perhaps still frightened. Even though Gladstone was wary, he was also reluctant to leave him alone with Magnussen. As they walked across the lawn away from the house, he admittedly did feel better for having the dog with him.

“Dear old Manderley,” Magnussen commented, turning his head to look back at the house. “Jim does such a good job with the place, doesn’t he? What would Watson do without him.”

“I suppose Jim does, yes,” he replied, noncommittal. He imagined John relied on Moriarty’s overseership of the place more than he knew.

“And you, are you under Manderley’s spell? Do you enjoy being buried down here, out in the country?”

“I'm very fond of Manderley,” he replied tightly, staring straight ahead where he knew Magnussen’s car was covered. He would show Magnussen out, and would not respond more than necessary to any comments.

“You were living somewhere down in the south of France when Watson met you, weren’t you? Monte Carlo, I believe,” Magnussen said, taking time to enunciate each syllable.

“Yes, I was in Monte Carlo.” He waited for Magnussen to comment on the implications of picking up a man in France, but they never came. Perhaps Magnussen assumed he’d fill in the blanks.

They eventually reached Magnussen’s car, and not a moment too soon.

“So, how do you like it, Mr Watson,” Magnussen asked, gesturing to the sports car. “Have you reconsidered being stolen away?”

That joke was getting rather tired. “I think it’s time you took off, if you had any intention of reaching London by a decent hour.”

“Yes,” Magnussen conceded, opening the car door. “Best not to have the new master of Manderley seen out and about with a man of my… inclinations.”

He tried his best to keep his expression blank, but the man’s constant leering at his body was becoming unbearable. It made him feel like the kind of man Magnussen presumed he was.

“Pity, but we wouldn’t want to lead the bridegroom astray, would we Gladstone? That wouldn't do.” Magnussen, at last, started the car.

“It would be better for you if you didn’t mention my coming to John,” Magnussen said, easing threats into casual conversation like they were pleasantries. “I’m afraid he doesn't exactly approve of me. And we wouldn’t want poor Jim getting into trouble.”

He suspected Jim always had something up his sleeve that kept him from ‘getting into trouble’. Perhaps it was friends in high places.

“Good-bye Mr Magnussen,” he said, rather than make any false promises.

He could tell now that Magnussen found his dismissal amusing, like the prey asking the predator if they would kindly leave. Magnussen held out his hand. He reached to shake it warily.

“Farewell, Mr Watson. It’s been a pleasure. I think I’ll come to see you again sometime.” Magnussen held his hand in his own once more, and lowered his lips to kiss it. Luckily, it was brief.

“Apologies for the dampness of my touch, though I think you’ll get used to it. Perhaps, you’ll even welcome it?” Magnussen asked, as if speaking to himself. “Seeing as your husband leaves you alone…. with massage oil.”

“I like being alone,” he replied, putting his hands behind his back, not interested in rising to the jibe.

“Do you? Well, I’ll leave you to your solitude then. Do you know,” Magnussen added, seemingly apropos of nothing, “it must be from all that tea, but I’ve got quite the full bladder.”

He couldn’t help but raise his brows at this - not only was this not something polite people mentioned, Magnussen had not once touched his tea.

“I think I’ll make a stop off in that lovely valley on my way out,” Magnussen concluded, before finally putting the car into drive. As he watched the monstrous car drive over the fallen rhododendrons, he felt certain he had not successfully concealed his look of disgust.

His earlier enthusiasm about a mysterious stranger now seemed foolhardy.

He looked down at Gladstone. “Back to the house?” he suggested. Gladstone looked relieved.

He headed back across the lawn for the second time that day, and once again with a mission in mind. He knew who the stranger was now, but not what he had been doing here with Moriarty.

As he walked through the entranceway it occurred to him that there were far less servants about than usual. More of Moriarty’s orchestrations?

By luck, he caught sight of a maid outside the dining room. He recognized her now as Molly, the one John had said liked him.

“Molly!” he called, startling her. “Where is Lestrade?”

“Lestrade is out, sir,” she responded.

“And Robert?” he asked, soon about to exhaust his memory of people’s names.

“Robert went to the post this afternoon, and isn’t back yet,” she said, twisting her hands in her skirt. “But sir, if you want tea now, I can get it for you? I don't think it's quite half past four yet.”

“That doesn’t matter Molly, as a matter of fact I’ve already had it.”

Lestrade and Robert being away at the same time was unusual. Moriarty must have planned all of this accordingly.

And who exactly was Magnussen? He had called John ‘Hamish’, which no one ever said, and he had only ever seen written once on the inside of a book, next to that tall sloping ‘M’.

And, more to the point, what had they had been doing in the West wing? With Lestrade and Robert out, and the maids in their bedrooms changing - Moriarty had control of the entire place with everyone else gone. But what was the meeting about?

There were expensive things in the West wing he supposed, going unused. Stealing? That seemed unlikely. Magnussen didn’t look like he was in need of money.

He was making conclusions without all the evidence, which he knew would lead to false assumptions. That settled it then - he would need to go to the West wing to see for himself.

He made his way up the stairs by the gallery, knowing he wouldn’t be found out. The servants were all in their own quarters beyond the kitchen, Molly having been a straggler. He made sure to leave Gladstone behind with a dog treat and a full water bowl, poor thing had had enough excitement for one day.

He was returning to the West corridor, where he had not been in quite some time. Not since he’d had that odd run-in with Moriarty, which he hadn’t really wished to repeat.

The wing was silent, but due to the sunny day outside, the dark paneling was illuminated as he continued down the hall. He noted it was still just as musty and damp as he remembered, the entire area feeling unused. And yet, Magnussen had been brought here.

He eventually reached the door that he recalled Moriarty appearing from behind, the first time he had gone snooping. Based on his judgments made from the outside of the house, the position of the room would make it the one whose windows looked out upon the lawns to the sea.

He opened the door, and peered into darkness. He had watched as the shutters were closed again, after all. Unlike his previous visit to the West wing, he reached along the wall till he found the light switch. Once turned on, he found himself in an anteroom, specifically a dressing room. There wasn’t much to the space aside from several large wardrobes, and another door at the end of the room. This door was wide open, and beyond he could see into a larger room. He crept forward, and turned on the light in the room attached.

The room when washed in light was an impressive sight. It was still furnished, nothing packed up, as if all still in use. He had expected dust sheets over the chairs and tables, dressers, the bed - instead he found a completely preserved bedroom, with nothing covered.

Perhaps more unusual was the presence of fresh flowers, which were on the dressing table, the bedside table, and the mantel.

A woman’s brushes, combs, and all the best scents and powders money could buy were laid out on the dressing table. A satin dressing gown was hung over the back of a chair, with a pair of slippers beneath. The bed had been made.

It was difficult to believe that someone was not inhabiting this room every day. Even though he prided himself on not being fanciful, it made him feel as though he was the ghost, looking into the life of the living from another world. In a moment, Mary was going to appear. She would walk through the door, and begin brushing her hair with the comb on the left, the one that showed more use than the others. Maybe she’d look into the glass, and see him standing behind her. Trying to take her place.

The clock ticking on the wall was a comfort. He was able to ground himself in reality via that reliable steady sound.

He eased himself further into the room, through the open door. The closer he came, the more obvious it was that the place was not inhabited. This room was not lived in any more. Moriarty could try to make it seem otherwise, but the flowers didn’t hide that old musty smell. She was dead. Mary had been dead now for a year.

He went to the window, the one he had seen Magnussen standing in front of. He could hear the sound of the sea through the shutters. He swung them open, and could confirm that it was the same window he’d seen Moriarty and Magnussen in half an hour ago. He opened the shutters further, until the daylight filled the room. It shone off a case on the bed, lying on the pillow, and the glass dressing table, and the perfume bottles.

He felt less…. uneasy with the daylight in the room. The closed windows and electric light had made the perfectly laid out room appear like the backdrop of a play. As if he was on stage in between scenes, behind the curtains. He was a spectator here, not a player. He had walked into someone else’s spotlight. Being caught in a woman’s room had never been much of a concern for him, but now he felt as though he was truly somewhere he should not have been.

It was, however, a beautiful room. Moriarty had not been exaggerating that first afternoon when he had made all those remarks about his current wing. This was, without a doubt, the most beautiful room in Manderley. The mantelpiece was worth its weight in gold, the bedstead intricately carved, the curtain hangings only the finest of materials. Even the clock on the wall and the candlesticks upon the dressing table were better quality.

The perfume bottles were, at the very least, out of date to his own sample collection. He went to inspect the brushes next to them, and caught sight of his own face in the glass. He looked pale and worn, and the curls of his fringe were lying flat. He hated when his hair lost its volume. He reached for a comb, before realizing what he was doing. Even though she was long gone, her presence was thick in the room, hovering over every possession. None of these things were his.

The sun was still shining on the bed, where the satin case on the pillow kept catching his eye. He moved to the bed, a part of him questioning what he was doing, and the other wondering what all this had to do with Magnussen.

He lifted the case gingerly in his hands. It was monogrammed M.W., stitched into the golden satin. He reached inside, and pulled out what he realized was a black lace nightdress. It smelt of azaleas and was cold to the touch. Why had this been left out? Why was everything set up like this, in this specific way?

It occurred to him belatedly that he was holding a dead woman’s underthings, and he folded it immediately, and slid it back into the case. With slight discomfort, he realized the nightdress had been ruffled, still creased. It had not been touched or laundered since it was last worn.

He drew away from the bed and the bedroom, returning to the dressing room with the wardrobes. He opened one of them to find the wardrobe still full of clothes. Evening dresses, gold brocade, wine-coloured velvet, and white satin, long enough to reach the floor. The wardrobe smelt especially musty. It was like the azalea scent of the nightdress, but old and faded. He closed the wardrobe and returned to the bedroom.

There was nothing here. This was a wasted exercise. Nothing made any sense, and it was high time he left. He couldn’t determine what Moriarty and Magnussen had been doing by rustling about in a dead woman’s clothes.

As he was about to leave he heard a footfall behind him. He turned to find himself facing Moriarty, approaching him from the ante room. He moved backward instinctively in surprise. Was the man just constantly in this wing, waiting to spring himself on people?

Perhaps more startling than the man’s presence was the expression on his face. Moriarty was excited, his lips pulled back into a sneer. He looked like he was gloating, but over what he didn’t know. He felt like Gladstone, wanting to hide beneath a chair. Which was ridiculous. Afraid of one of his own servants, in a deserted hall.

“Is anything the matter, sir?” Moriarty asked, in that strange lilting voice. His Irish accent was always strongest like this, seeping through with his natural tone.

He tried to return the man’s eerie smile, trying to keep up with the game, but found he could not. Moriarty had given him a scare, and was frankly continuing to do so. He opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t settle on the right words to say.

Moriarty strolled around him in a semi-circle, staring at him with dark, shining eyes. He was now observing the reverse of the transition from earlier, the prim and proper servant Jim reverting into his true self. He turned to follow the path of Moriarty’s movements, never letting him out of his line of sight. This caused him to rotate on the spot, with Moriarty in control of which way he spun. He felt like an insect who had unsuspectingly flown into a web, and now the spider was spooling his thread.

“Are you not feeling well, sir?” Moriarty asked, stepping into his personal space. He took a step back, most certainly feeling unwell.

“I’m perfectly fine,” he insisted, averting his gaze from that terrible face. He had come here for a reason, and it wasn’t to be the prey. “Earlier on the lawn, I saw you here standing in the window, and you saw me. What were you and Magnussen doing in this room?”

“If the shutters were open sir, you needed only to ask me. I will fasten them for you,” Moriarty said, demure once again. He walked across the room to close the shutters, returning them to artificial light. The room appeared unreal again. The stage was set, but for what?

Moriarty walked back to him, smiling, playing dutiful servant to master again.

“You needn’t lie sir,” Moriarty said in a soft voice, conspiratory and overly familiar. “The shutters were closed before you came here, and you opened them again yourself. You wanted to see the room sir, didn’t you? I told you before, you need only to ask, and I would have shown it to you.”

Moriarty leaned closer, and rocked his head from side to side. The movement was off beat with the ticking of the clock.

He could feel Moriarty’s breath on his face as the man whispered, “I was ready to show it to you every day. You had only to ask me.”

He had the intense desire to turn on his heel and escape this situation, but he was frozen in place. He wouldn’t run from Moriarty, and he wouldn’t show he was bothered. He watched Moriarty’s eyes, even though they were unsettling.

“Now that you’re here,” Moriarty continued, “let me show you everything.”

Moriarty’s voice was syrupy, sickly sweet, like the smell of blood in kick buckets beneath surgical tables.

“You’ve wanted to see this for a long time, haven’t you? Didn’t I tell you it was the best room in the house.” Moriarty took hold of his arm, and steered him towards the bed. The man’s touch made his skin crawl, but he didn’t pull away. Moriarty was right, after all. He had wanted to know for a long time. Who would have guessed Moriarty would offer him the answers to all his questions.

"That was their bed, gorgeous woodwork. She had excellent taste. And the gold coverlet, that was her favourite.”

Moriarty picked up the nightdress case, and held it out to him. “Oh, naughty, you've been touching it, haven't you?” Moriarty tutted at him, like he was a schoolboy caught going through a girl’s intimates.

“Do you know, this was the last nightdress she ever wore, before she died. Would you like to touch it again?” Moriarty pulled it from the case, and held it out to him. He did his best not to recoil.

“Don’t be shy - feel it, hold it,” he said, “I haven't washed it since she wore it. Everything’s the same here, since the night she drowned.”

Moriarty pulled the nightgown back as quickly as it had been offered, thankfully having given up on getting him to touch it. As soon as the gown was back in its case, Moriarty’s hand darted out and grasped his arm again.

“I did everything for her, you know,” Moriarty said, dragging him away from the bed. “We tried maid after maid, but not one of them suited. She had to have me with her, her servant always.”

Moriarty pulled him to the chair with the dressing gown thrown over its back.

“Here’s her dressing gown - she was just the right height, on level with the master, you can see by the length. Oh, let’s put it up against you and see how you size up.” Before he could protest, the gown was pushed against his frame, with Moriarty running his hand along him to smooth it out. Even through all the fabric, his touch felt like ice. “It comes down to your calves. Of course, you don’t have much shape, whereas she had a beautiful figure. Look - her slippers, put your hands inside them. They’re so narrow, aren't they? She had the smallest feet.”

Moriarty bent down for the slippers beneath the chair, and forced his hands into them. The man was smiling, truly manic now. He was staring at him still, always watching his face.

“You like playing little games don’t you? You like guessing someone’s height from their shoes - you would never have guessed she was tall from her slippers, would you?”

He would have liked to point out there were other clues to suggest her height, but simply pulled the slippers off his hands and dropped them back on the floor.

“Oh, and you've seen her brushes, I bet you can guess which one she favoured,” Moriarty said, moving him to the dressing table, and pushing him down into the seat. He let himself be led. He was delirious, possibly as mad as the mad man dragging him around. A part of him believed that if he let Moriarty go on like this, Moriarty would finally slip up and let on to something he could use to his advantage. The other part was darkly fascinated, obsessed with his husband’s dead wife, whose ghost hung over them all. And her relationship with his husband.

“Did you know the master used to brush her hair for her?” Moriarty murmured, as if reading his mind. “I’d come to the door to help her, and here Mr Watson would be, in his shirt sleeves, running a brush through her hair.”

Moriarty leaned down close to his ear, staring at him through the mirror. “‘Harder, harder,’ she’d say,” Moriarty whispered.

“Old Watson was good at that, when he was able. Though, I guess you wouldn’t know,” he said, pausing meaningfully, before continuing. “- seeing as you don’t have long hair.”

Moriarty pushed his curls back from his ear. “She’d laugh up at him, and he would do as she told him. He was always laughing with her.”

“It was shocking when she cut it all off,” Moriarty said, dropping his hands from his hair, “but she didn’t care. Shorter hair was easier for hunting and sailing. Did you know she was painted hunting? A famous artist did it, and the picture hung in the Academy. Have you ever seen it?”

Dumbly, he shook his head. “I haven’t had the pleasure,” he replied, his voice scratchy from disuse.

“Watson didn’t like it, so it never made it to Manderley. In his opinion, it didn’t do her justice.” Moriarty’s eyes lighted upon the wardrobes in the other room. “Oh, but you have been snooping haven’t you? Would you like to see her clothes?” Moriarty moved into the anteroom without waiting for a response. He flung open the door of each wardrobe, his arms outstretched as he swiveled back to face him.

“The furs here, a Christmas present from Mr Watson. She told me the cost once, but I've forgotten it now, something outrageous. This wardrobe on the left is all evening clothes. This is the one you opened, isn’t it?” Moriarty asked, motioning to the one closest to the door.

“I know you did, because the latch isn’t quite closed - oh, aren’t I clever? I could be a detective.” Moriarty spoke in an imitation of his voice. He blinked at the man, struggling to keep up with his jumpy, erratic movement throughout the rooms.

“I believe Mr Watson liked her best in silver and whites. But of course she could wear anything. The velvet was particularly fetching. Feel it against your face, the scent is still fresh, isn't it? You could almost imagine she had only just taken it off. Did you go through her underwear, in this drawer? The pink set she had on when she died. They were torn from her body in the water, of course. There was nothing on the body when it was found, what with so many weeks gone by.”

Moriarty’s grip on his arm became vice-like. His white skull face was gleaming, his eyes almost black. “Did you know? The rocks battered her to bits,” Moriarty sung, low and sweet, like a lullaby.

“Her face was unrecognizable. Did you know she had no arms? They’d been torn - whussssh - clean from her torso. Mr Watson had to go to identify the body. He went up to Edgecoombe to go see her, all alone. He was very, very ill then - poor master hadn’t left his room in days, but he would go. No one could stop him. Not even Lestrade.”

He had lost feeling in the arm that Moriarty was holding. He suspected he would find a bruise there later. Moriarty never stopped grinning.

“Mr Watson had been dining out,” Moriarty explained. “He got back after eleven, but she hadn’t. The wind was howling - ooooo - like you wouldn’t believe! I went to look for Mr Watson, to warn him that she was still away, but there were no lights under the library door. So I came here, and knocked on their door. I asked Mr Watson about her, worried as I was that she hadn’t come back. But Mr Watson wouldn’t open the door. He yelled through the door that she’d be spending the night down at the cottage, because of the wind and the weather. She used to spend many nights at the cottage, and would sail in anything.”

“But the next morning, there was no sign of her. When the servants went down to the beach, the buoy and the dinghy were there, but her boat was not. Later that afternoon, one of the life-buoys washed up at Kerrith. And then another was found, and another, and another. Life-buoys, and rigging too, all started to wash up on the shingle with the tide.”

Moriarty at last released him, and shut all the wardrobes with a bang that made him jump. He watched him silently, wondering what his next move would be.

“Well,” Moriarty said, returning to his slow, bored drawl, now that his bedtime story was done. “Now you know why Mr Watson doesn’t like the sea all that much any more.”

And the unspoken - why John could not use the nicest room in the house any longer. Even though Moriarty had closed the shutters tight, he could still hear it. The waves crashing against the shingle beach down in the cove.

“After she drowned,” Moriarty continued, “he had his things moved out from here. We made up one of the rooms at the end of the corridor, though I don’t think he ever slept there. When they were finally let in the room after a week, the bed hadn’t been slept in. They think he used to just sit in the armchair. He might as well have disappeared along with her. None of us saw him those first few days, once he realized she wasn’t coming back. Eventually, he’d come out to the library, but he wouldn’t leave there. During the day, we’d hear him pacing back and forth, back and forth.”

Moriarty started to walk from one side of the room to the other, and back, while mimicking the heavy sound of footfalls. “But the sound of the pacing was off!” Moriarty shouted, and his strides changed. He started to lean harder onto one side, one of his feet dragging. “You could hear it through the floor, one of his legs getting lazy, tsk tsk tsk, and the other one had to take more weight. Poor old master, he started to limp!”

He could see it too now, brought so terribly to life. He could see John devastated, sleeping in an armchair every night. He could hear John’s footsteps, the first step always harder, his weight being thrown onto the other, propelling himself up and down the library. John realizing what was happening to him, in the midst of his grief. John needing to ask for a cane. John unable to face anyone, but especially not himself. He’d been told the night before that Mary had been out, and he, rightly so, hadn’t been alarmed, hadn’t done anything. How that must have chewed at the man, eaten at his conscience. All the things he could have done or said differently - Moriarty a constant reminder that he’d known she was down there, and had done nothing.

In stark contrast to his earlier loud steps, Moriarty tiptoed across the anteroom, and turned off the light in the bedroom. He closed the door between the bedroom and the dressing room, where they were standing. The bed, the nightdress, the dressing table, the slippers, the perfumes, the mantle - they were all out of sight, but left etched in his mind.

Moriarty exited the dressing room, and he followed.

“If you ever want to come again you have only to tell me,” Moriarty repeated. “No one ever comes but me.”

He had returned to being the complacent servant, fawning after his master. It was a false intimacy that he couldn’t stand. Moriarty smiling pleasantly was the most unnatural thing in the world.

“Whenever Mr Watson goes away and you feel lonely, you should come up to the rooms. You have only to tell me. The way they look now, isn’t it like she never left at all?”

He did not respond, and only smiled tightly. He wouldn’t rise to Moriarty’s bait.

“It’s not just here,” Moriarty said. “It’s all over - you can feel her everywhere. You do too, don't you?”

“Sometimes I think I hear her just behind me. Do you think she can see us, talking to one another now?” Moriarty asked, faking a gasp, with his mouth hanging open. “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”

“No,” he said sharply. “Of course they don’t - that’s - impossible.” His voice sounded high, which was unusual. His voice was normally very deep. It hadn’t sounded like him at all.

“Do you ever wonder?” Moriarty whispered. “Sometimes I do. I wonder if she comes back to Manderley. I wonder if she comes back, and watches you and Mr Watson together.”

Moriarty raised his brows, as if suggesting there wasn’t much to watch. Or maybe that was him filling in the blanks.

They stood there, facing one another outside the door of her room. He couldn’t look away from Moriarty. He couldn’t tell if there was true hatred there, or if he was just a plaything to the man. Someone’s vulnerabilities to expose, and to press into, just to watch the bruise form.

He should have left earlier. He stepped away from Moriarty, and opened the door into the corridor beyond.

“The other servants will be back now,” Moriarty called, the unassuming helper once again.

He said nothing in return, and finally fled to the outer corridor. He went down the stairs without thought, all his focus on finding his way to his own rooms in the East wing.

When he closed the door of his room, he locked it behind him. The memory of that morning, which seemed so long ago, still hung in the air. The threat of Moriarty walking in, and finding him here, in the space meant for him and John.

He sat in John’s armchair, curling his feet up beneath him. He steepled his hands together, and closed his eyes. He had never felt more ill.

He didn’t know why Magnussen had come, or what Moriarty’s game was. He’d been told and shown so much, but he had solved nothing. He wasn’t even certain if it all pieced together - perhaps everyone was just mad, like the man Anderson on the beach. At least he knew one thing for certain - Manderley was a very different place when John Watson was away.

Chapter Text

Waking to find he had slept the entire night slumped over in John’s chair (with his face mashed into the upholstery) was not a joy. Having never left the room after the bizarre events of the previous day, he must have dozed off while thinking. He raised his stiff neck to blink at the light pouring across the bedroom floor, indicating it was well into morning. He wondered if the servants would notice the wet spot on the chair back where he’d drooled, and come to the easy conclusion he’d slept there. He hoped John wouldn’t be as observant, whenever he returned.

He had the vague memory of a dream, involving John. It seemed to continue on from all his previous dreams, but there was no longer any evidence of the frame he had stepped into, no lingering signs that he was living inside a painting. He was fully submerged in the world he’d entered, and there was no way back out. In the dream, he and John had been walking together through the woods of Manderley. They started walking side by side, but as they went further from the house, the distance between them grew. It was gradual, but eventually John’s trajectory was to one offshoot of the path, and him another. Despite the paths having no distinguishable features, he knew John’s trail was the one that lead to the cove and the boathouse. It made no sense that John should get so far ahead, with his shorter legs and cane, and it annoyed him in the dream. He tried to call for John, but John made no sign of hearing him. He could no longer see John’s face. He felt sure if he could see John, he would know something, something that was obvious -- but it was just John’s figure, limping further down the wrong path.

The hazy recollection of it left him with a tight feeling in his chest. He stood from the armchair and tried to smooth out his wrinkled suit. He hadn’t intended to sleep there, or at all, yet he couldn’t help but think he’d been influenced by Moriarty’s story from yesterday. John, in his grief, sleeping upright in an armchair for days, possibly weeks. The servants whispering of it, and the whole house affected by the depth of John’s heartache.

But he didn’t care to dwell upon the previous afternoon. He couldn’t shake the feeling that outside of this room, everything was a part of Moriarty’s net. Even if he went outside, Moriarty could be watching. There were so many empty rooms, not just the West wing - all the areas that had once been occupied when John’s parents were alive. He understood there used to be significantly more entertaining, and more servants. Hard to believe, but this Manderley was a downgrade from its previous livelihood. It would be easy for Moriarty to slip into one of those empty rooms and peer out from behind the drawn curtains. He felt certain Moriarty had eyes and ears everywhere.

He had two options: he could convince John to fire Moriarty, or play Moriarty’s game. The prior option - while appealing - would be counterproductive to his primary mission, which was bringing Manderley, and therefore John, back to life. In the short term, this meant convincing John to host the fancy dress ball. He had to admit Moriarty’s leadership seemed to result in smooth operations, and he wasn’t entirely sure they could pull a ball off without him. There had to be a reason John had kept him on. The man seemed… ‘off’ to be sure, but he supposed Moriarty hadn’t ever done anything that would justify the harshness of terminating his contract. Moriarty wasn’t anything more than a servant who had grown too comfortable in his position in the house, looking to intimidate the new master - and he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

He leapt up from the chair, his body protesting, and drew back the thin curtains to find, to his delight, John’s car parked outside. John must have arrived recently for them to not have already taken it to the garage. He would have denied it to the ends of the earth, but his heart kicked in his chest at the sight of it. It had only been a day, he told himself, but it didn’t change that lightness he felt, or the blood rushing to his cheeks in excitement.

There was nothing to be done with his rumpled suit, but he fussed a bit with his hair in the mirror. He didn’t have time to change, he wanted to see John now, and he was wearing the suit he knew was John’s favourite. The one he’d put on first, that had made John stop and stare.

He unlocked their door, having almost forgotten his paranoia from yesterday, and hurried down to the main hall. His eyes lit upon John’s hat and gloves lying on the table and, embarrassingly, even those were a joy to see. Moving towards the library where he imagined John would be, he heard John’s raised voice through the door. He reached for the knob but hesitated, deciding he’d much rather hear the conversation than disturb it. He pressed his ear against the closed door.

“- you think I don’t know you’re up to something, when you send Lestrade away while I’m out?” He had expected anger, but had never heard John more resigned, more beaten down. Before he heard the other voice, he knew who must have been in the room with him.

“What are we going to do about that, sir?” Moriarty asked pleasantly, as though they were discussing what they were going to do about being short on ham for supper.

John was silent for a moment before he continued in a much softer voice. “Do whatever you want, just not here, and don’t - all I ask is that - you don’t bring him into this.”

“Pardon me sir, but it was you who brought him in,” Moriarty said, and it was darker than his earlier voice, and he could hear the smile in the words. He could imagine Moriarty’s skull-like face, with lips pulled back across his cheeks.

This comment was met only with more silence. Perhaps John agreed? And who had been brought in? Magnussen?

“You’re dismissed,” John snapped, short, and crisp. John was truly military, his forceful instructions given in the style of a drill sergeant, John’s way of coping with any situation slipping from his control.

“Mmm, yes sir,” Moriarty replied benignly, before finally moving to take his leave.

This was his cue to back away from the library door. His knowledge of nooks and crannies throughout the house came in handy for his quick retreat. He moved up the stairs to the first landing and crouched against the wall in the gallery. Moriarty’s face was smug as he passed, and turned to disappear down the West corridor.

He slid back down the stairs to the library, eager to see John, and suss out that queer conversation.

When he entered the library, he found John standing by the window with his back turned. He watched him for a moment, enjoying the sight of him. John had shed the trappings of his outside clothes, never one for wearing suit jackets. He leaned on his cane to one side enough that the muscles along his shoulder stood out against the thin, white shirt.

“Who is it now?” John grumbled, before turning and seeing him. John’s posture immediately relaxed. His eyes seemed to soften, and a little smile grew across his face.

“Oh, sorry, I’ve just - why didn’t you say anything?” John asked, both apologetic and bemused, while walking towards him.

If John had been angry earlier, it seemed to all melt away.

He didn’t provide a response, instead moving forward into the room to meet John mid-way, where they stood in front of one another. John was beaming up at him, and he couldn’t help but smile back. He realized they hadn’t been separated for a night since they’d been married, and he didn’t know what their greeting was. He felt the overwhelming urge to lean down and give John a kiss, but he wasn’t sure how this would be received. Perhaps a hug would be appropriate? He could settle for that, or clasping each others’ hands?

John made the decision for him by reaching up to hold the back of his neck, and pulling him down into a hug. He felt immediately comforted, and hadn’t realized how badly he’d needed it. He wanted that light pressure of John’s hand against his neck, the feel of it, memorized. Bottled, like he’d once said to John in Monte Carlo. When John pulled back, he realized belatedly he hadn’t returned the gesture in any way, too focussed on the hug itself.

“So,” John said, clearing his throat, “what did you get to up while I was away?”

What had he been doing? He felt as if between John leaving, and this exact moment, several weeks had passed at the very least.

“Reviewing some of the unsolved ones,” he eventually replied. Was it a lie, if that had only been his original intention for the previous day? Or did lying by omission count? It seemed ill-advised to launch into what had happened yesterday. Despite both John and himself being aware that Magnussen had come.

“Oh, some of the ones that never sat right with you? Like the blood-stained car with the missing driver?”

“Yes John, one of those. Specifically, the actress who supposedly died from tetanus,” he ad-libbed, and which John seemed to accept.

He wondered what had just happened in the library between John and Moriarty, though he could obviously grasp the basics. John had found out from Lestrade about yesterday, and didn’t want Magnussen brought to the house. John knew, had been annoyed by it, but not enough to even reprimand the man. And, beyond not bringing people in while he was out, John didn’t seem to care what Moriarty did. John not caring what servants did or did not do seemed easy to believe, though he was surprised John would accept the insubordination. Was John so reliant on Moriarty for the house’s operations? It was possible. Saying that overseership was a chore to John would be an understatement. Perhaps it was hard to find good help. And Moriarty was very good.

He clasped his hands behind his back, and bit slightly at his lip. Maybe John would say it, if he wouldn’t?

“Are you worried about something?” he asked, hedging at the subject. “You seemed… on edge. Did anything happen in London?”

“Well, I had a long drive,” John said, leaning back onto the edge of the nearby armchair. “I started out at the crack of dawn, and I shouldn’t have. That drive twice in twenty-four hours -” John arched his back with a hand on his spine, which had the benefit of stretching his shirt tight across his chest. “- it’s too much for anyone. But I also had the pleasure of meeting a friend of yours.”

“Friend?” he asked, his eyes sliding sideways to John, incredulous.

“Well, he said you’d describe him as an enemy.”

“Oh,” he said, relieved. “You mean my brother.”

“Your brother?” John asked, taking over the role of incredulity, with his brows knit together in confusion. “Brother… God that makes a lot of sense, now that you mention it. So then he genuinely meant he worried about you constantly.”

“He has a passion for drama,” he said, looking skyward. Except -- his brother disapproved of their marriage, and would have no qualms employing scare tactics with John, clearly. Such as exposing his past to make John wary of him. Like his drug habit.

“Listen, John,” he started hastily, “if he told you anything about me, I can explain -”

John looked at him oddly, his confusion only growing. “He didn’t tell me anything about you -- if anyone was going to be getting slandered, it was me. He asked me what my intentions were - as if I hadn’t already bloody married you!” John laughed, mildly angry, but mostly disbelieving. “I knew he didn’t approve, I knew it -”

“John,” he interrupted, “I cannot emphasize the insignificance of my brother enough.”

“He snuck into the party in the night like a criminal - how far up did you say he was in the government?”

“I didn’t. If asked, he’ll tell you he fulfills a very minor position in the British government. In reality, he practically runs it.”

“You might have mentioned.”

He hummed, happy to accept the change in topic, even if if that meant discussing his brother. John had cleverly diverted them away from openly addressing Moriarty or Magnussen.

He couldn’t believe that before John had left, he’d been mad at him. They’d had a charged conversation that ended neither here nor there. He hadn’t even said good-bye to John the following morning. He would have likely continued acting out about it, if not for the events of yesterday. John was his ally in this strange life after all, and that seemed so long ago. Any thought of feeling upset or bringing up Moriarty’s eccentricities left him. If John didn’t want to talk about unpleasant things, how could he blame him? It would just put a wrench in his plans to ensure the continuation of the pleasant domesticity which they had finally begun to fall into.

Ignoring John’s suggestion for him to talk about his brother, he said, “If you didn’t sleep well, you shouldn’t exert yourself.”

“God, I wish,” John groaned. “We’ve got more visitors coming today. I was going to tell you, I wanted to give us a day off from all that, but you try prying Lady Norton off.”

Lady Norton: a name he had heard, but a face he had yet to see. A famous socialite, with quite the reputation if even the people in the county were gossiping about her. She would likely be exhausting, but could also perhaps be of use.

More visitors?” he griped. “And I’m certain I do better at discouraging people than you.”

“Don’t be so sure!” John protested, moving back across the room to the library telephone. “I’ve gotten a reputation for being a right bastard as of late.”

He watched as John called Lestrade, instructing him briefly in the preparations to be made for the impromptu visit. It wasn’t hard to see why John had left at the crack of dawn - the bags beneath John’s eyes told a story of their own. John hadn’t slept well last night (perhaps from needing to be his personable self for the entire evening?), and would need rest before more hosting.

“You need to sleep,” he said when John finished the call.

“Oh? Putting the old man to bed?” John laughed. “I’ll be fine -”

“I’ll lie down with you,” he interrupted, and John almost dropped the phone, recovering enough at the last minute to fumble it into its cradle.

“Oh, all - all right,” John answered slowly, and softly. His brows fully lifted, before scrunching together, unsure what to make of him. The expression was… endearing.

Not waiting for John to change his mind, he opened the library door, and began leading the way back to the West wing. John followed behind him in silence, beyond the sound of his footfalls. He remember Moriarty’s dramatization from the day before, with John dragging his one leg across the library - but today, John’s steps were measured, equal in weight. The cane hit the ground with a light tap, as if John didn’t need it at all.

When they reached their room, he locked the door behind them. If John thought that was strange, he didn’t comment. John mostly appeared unclear on what to do next.

He closed the shutters around the room with efficiency, while motioning John towards the bed. John eventually crossed the room to lean his cane against his bedside table, and untie his shoes. He lifted one leg, then the other, onto the mattress. When there was darkness in the room, he finally joined John on the bed. John turned to face him, and they stared at each other for a long moment, both of them on lying on their sides.

For a moment, he felt the unwelcome and ill-advised desire to tell John about Magnussen. The things Magnussen had said to him, and the things he’d implied. Magnussen kissing his hand, and alluding to more.

“I spoke to Moriarty yesterday,” he said instead, in a low voice.

A shadow passed across John’s face. He didn’t like it, and kicked himself for blurting it out. He wished he had continued their pretending.

“What about? The guest that came?” John asked, that strange look in his eyes.

“Nothing,” he murmured, suddenly terrified that John might say something he didn’t want to hear. “Never mind.”

He was overwhelmed with all that they weren’t saying. And ever since he’d seen the West rooms, he couldn’t help but wonder - were the rooms kept like that, untouched, unchanged as if Mary had never left, under John’s orders? Did John ever go there, like Moriarty, to touch the dressing gown over the back of the chair, or the brushes on the dressing table, or to peer into the wardrobe doors, and at the nightgown on that bed? And was this why John let Moriarty get away with whatever he wanted, an agreement between them, an understanding - Moriarty had been Mary’s man, after all.

He flipped over onto his other side, with his back facing John. He didn’t fall asleep for a long time, though he heard John drift off.

 

 


 

 

His nap was cut short by the sound of voices and of cars pulling up onto the gravel outside. So, the Lady and her fleet had arrived. And he would have the chance to meet with them before John, if the soft snoring behind him was anything to go by.

John in sleep had turned towards him, and carelessly thrown an arm over his waist. He would have liked to enjoy the unintentional embrace, and forget all about Lady Norton, but a strategy had formed in his mind - and he required her assistance. And it would be for the best if he could have a private moment with her before John joined them. He gently lifted John’s arm, and slid out his side of the bed. He changed into a less rumpled suit, and set the little alarm clock on the bedside table to wake John five minutes from then, before exiting their room and leaving the East wing.

As he was descending the stairs to the main hall, he just so happened to come upon the very lady herself, alone and at the base of the stairs. Lady Norton, nee Adler, resplendent in white with her dark hair folded artfully into an updo, and whom he had heard far too much about to not be suspicious of her already having shucked her companions.

“Are you lost?” he asked as he descended the stairs towards her.

“Oh I believe I’ve found exactly what I was looking for,” she practically purred, extending her hand towards him “- the new bridegroom!” He bent to place a brief kiss upon it, but her hold on his hand was unusually strong, considering it wasn’t quite a handshake.

“Irene Norton, I presume,” he said as he lifted his head, eyeing her rouged lips. He understood where her reputation come from - her appearance was a bit racy for afternoon tea. Who was she intending seduce, or perhaps more likely, distract?

“Charmed I’m sure Mr Watson,” Lady Norton said, and used her hold on his hand to pull him back up the stairs with her.

“My little assembly is still outside, one of your servants was kind enough to show them the gardens. But I just couldn’t wait for a quick look at the famous gallery,” she informed him, only releasing him once they reached the landing.

“Clearly,” he said, trailing after her. He had a feeling Lestrade had been roped into that by her own cunning suggestion.

“The entire collection is to die for,” she commented airily. “I bet it all fetches a pretty penny.”

He watched her amble her away across the floor, in command of the open space. Here was someone who knew the value of the possessions Manderley had to offer. Someone to watch for indeed.

“How strange that the famous painting of Mrs Watson never made it here,” Lady Norton said over her shoulder, her sharp eyes piercing him for a moment. “A great huntress, I understand. Do you ride Mr Watson?”

“No,” he replied evenly. If there was one skill he had mastered, it was no longer reacting to mentions of the past Mrs Watson. Or obvious attempts to rile him. “Do you, Lady Norton?”

“Oh, I’m wicked with a crop,” she said with a wink. “And call me Irene, please.”

He knew a distraction technique for what it was, but no flirtations or digs could disguise Lady Norton leaning closer to inspect the signature on one of the Raeburn pieces. Ah, a motive, at last.

“It’s unfortunate that you can’t take a photograph, Lady Irene,” he spoke into the vast room, his voice carrying. “Hard to ensure there aren’t any discrepancies between a fake and the real thing, just by memory.”

That certainly turned the lady’s head in his direction. “Who said anything about a fake?” she asked, demurely.

He shrugged. He wasn’t going to expose her, as long as thievery wasn’t her (current) inclination. Forcing an invitation from John the evening before, and then sneaking off to see the gallery, after making sure to arrive early, and bringing a crowd with her. A convenient method of keeping the staff busy. Stepping in close enough to one of the most expensive pieces to see the individual brush strokes.

Buying and selling forgeries of that specific artist’s, and checking that the signature and style passed. Obvious.

And amazingly arrogant of her to assume she’d know better than the forger.

“When had you seen the gallery last?” he asked instead, setting her up for the bait of his own scheme.

She appeared startled by the change in direction, but recovered smoothly. “Not since the Manderley fancy dress ball, almost two years ago now. I suppose there won’t be any more of those.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” he said, walking around her with his hands behind his back.

“Oh?” she asked, vaguely interested. “Are they back on? I haven’t had a good excuse for a costume in ages.”

“Nothing’s been discussed, but if you desire it back on, today is your lucky day. In more ways than one.”

Lady Norton eyed him, reassessing. “What are you suggesting?”

He rolled his eyes. He had hoped he wouldn’t need to spell it out. “I’m suggesting you broach the subject this afternoon over tea.”

“You want me to convince your husband to throw the party again?” she asked, clearly surprised. “Why not just ask him yourself?”

Why did everyone insist on asking him that question? No one understood the point of this exercise. John needed to be made happy at Manderley, and the Manderley parties were a happy event, as far as he knew. However, if he suggested it, John would host the ball even if it made John miserable. Ergo, it was essential someone other than himself float the idea to confirm or disprove his hypothesis. And Lestrade was no help.

“I just - would rather not,” he responded eventually.

Lady Norton raised one brow, with her lips tilted like she knew a very grand secret. “So I tell him to throw the party - what’s in it for me?”

“My silence on your interest in the art forgery business, and on the subject of your relations with one of the women you drove here with.”

“Hmm, fair enough,” Lady Norton agreed easily, before she leaned in close to his ear to say, “- though, it wasn’t just the one.” She smiled before brushing past him to exit the gallery hall, her hips swaying as she walked.

He was beginning to question whether he had made the best choice of confidante. Maybe he should have chosen an idiot and whispered the idea in their ear, but what was done was done.

He would scheme if he must. If he was to return Manderley to life, and by extension, John, he needed to set Manderley back in motion. If that involved enlisting Lady Norton to drop hints about the Manderley ball, what harm could it do?

Except that once he and Lady Norton returned downstairs to join everyone in the drawing room, Lady Norton proceeded to flirt and prattle away at John rather than make the damn suggestion. John had clearly just woken, realized the guests had arrived while he’d been asleep, and hurried downstairs. In spite of this, John was playing the part of welcoming host quite well. Perhaps too well.

“Oh, Mr Watson,” Lady Norton’s voice rang out, “you are such a card.”

Despite what he thought had been a clear instruction, Lady Norton had yet to make herself useful. A move which would be best to reconsider, before he forcibly separated her from his husband. He would have maneuvered himself closer to their conversation, except that he was stuck pouring out tea for the guests. The steam from the pot was making his face hot, with his hair beginning to stick to his forehead from condensation. He glared at the back of Lady Irene’s perfectly coiffed head from behind his pot.

She shot him a sideways glance, looking very pleased with herself.

“I can’t lie to you Mr Watson, there is something that I’ve been wanting to ask you about for ages. Is there any chance of you reviving the Manderley fancy dress ball?”

The Lady pressed a hand to John’s sleeve, overly familiar, simpering and smiling in a manner she probably considered attractive. He wondered if he could deliver her cup to her personally. Perhaps he’d have an accident, spilling some of the scalding hot tea on her lap.

“I haven't thought about it,” John said, “and I’m not sure anyone else has either.” John looked down at his clasped hands in his lap, uncomfortable with a stranger making so forward a suggestion.

“Shocking! He’s being obtuse on purpose! We have of course all thought of it endlessly,” continued Lady Norton, gazing over at him she did. Subtle.

“Everyone adored it, it was always heralded as the most important event of the summer. Can't I persuade you to think about it again?”

“You’re persuading me to think about how much work those things were to organize. Who you should really ask are the servants, like Lestrade here, who will likely have to pull it all together,” John deferred, attempting a joke and a rebuke all in one, motioning to Lestrade who had been in the process of sitting a cup in front of one of the guests.

“Oh, Lestrade, do be on my side,” she persisted, and some of her group were beginning to support her, nodding enthusiastically. “You know it would be popular with the county, and we all miss Manderley.”

Lestrade looked like he’d been caught in a trap. He bowed his head while smiling politely, remaining respectable despite the unusual turn of including him in the conversation. “I don't mind organizing the ball if Mr Watson has no issue with giving it. It's up to him and Mr Watson.”

He shot Lestrade a look for drawing the attention to him, and Lestrade looked slyly back at him. The man was a menace.

Of course he was now bombarded all at once. Lady Norton even moved her chair over to him, despite her knowing this had been his idea. “Now, Mr Watson, you get on your husband. You’re the real person he will listen to! Oh, a thought - he should give the ball in your honour as the bridegroom!”

She leaned over, smiling at him in a way that could only be described as devilish. Perhaps she thought this was what he’d been angling for all along. He resisted rolling his eyes.

“Yes, of course,” someone else interjected, one of Lady Norton’s yes-men, and someone whose name he hadn’t bothered learning. “Everyone missed out on the wedding, which is such a shame. Let’s take a vote - hands up for the Manderley fancy dress ball!” Everyone raised their hands, besides the hosts, and they all began laughing and clapping their hands, clearly thinking the battle won.

John’s eyes met his across the room.

“What do you think?” John asked, careful. Always so careful.

“A ball in my honour?” he replied, nonchalant. “How could I say no.”

“Of course he longs for a party in his honour! What young man wouldn’t? And you’d look exquisite in a black mask,” Lady Norton raved, leaning further into his personal space.

His mouth quirked up at the side. Did this woman plan to flirt with everyone in the room?

He noticed John shoot her a sharp look, not that she was facing him to see it. Was John... jealous?

This ball was looking better and better.

“Or maybe all in black, with the white collar? I think a priest might suit you,” she murmured, shifting her look between John and himself. Now it was his turn to shoot her a look, though he had to admit, she was astute.

Luckily John didn’t seem to know what to make of that comment, but continued to eye him doubtfully. He realized John thought he would hate it. Perhaps John thought he couldn’t last that long, that eventually his true face would break through after hours of hosting a large party. John needn’t have worried - he was an excellent actor. And if John’s only reservations were for him, it meant that secretly John missed those once famous parties, as he’d suspected.

With one last look at Lady Norton, he stood, deserting the teapot, and walked over to stand behind John’s chair.

“I think it would be entertaining,” he said, and leaning down to John’s ear, whispered, “and think of all the new people to deduce, while we stand watching over the proceedings.”

Lady Norton wasn’t the only one who could act a bit scandalous during afternoon tea.

John hid a smile behind his hand, as well as the beginnings of a flush across his face. John was pleased then. His plan was working.

John reached for his hand to hold lightly, and shrugged his shoulders. “That settles it of course,” he said. “Lestrade, you will have to go ahead with the arrangements, and I suppose you’d better get Moriarty to help you. He knows the drill.”

“Oh, is that Moriarty still with you then?” asked Lady Norton. “What a capable resource that one is.”

He raised a brow at that - was Moriarty really so good, that he was well known to the visitors?

“Yes,” John replied curtly, “has everyone had enough cake? I think it’s time to go see the garden again, seeing as I missed it the first time.”

With tea officially ended, Norton and her crowd spilled out on to the terrace in a frenzy, all of them speaking animatedly about John having agreed to host the ball again. Discussion of dates, what they would wear, and who should be invited were murmured between them amongst uproarious laughter.

Eventually, the multiple cars began to organize themselves for departure. Before leaving Lady Norton bid them both adieu, with the promise that she would ring them with all the best people to invite. It was a relief when the cars finally pulled out.

He, John, and Lestrade waved to them from the terrace.

Once they were finally gone, he turned immediately to Lestrade. “What do you think of the party?”

Lestrade stalled for a moment, looking toward John. “I take no issue with it. And it is conventional for something to be done in your honour.”

He snorted. “I’m hardly a fresh bridegroom. It doesn’t need to be in my honour.”

John smiled. “He’s right, it should be for you. Though really, it’s like forcing you to plan your own party. That Lady Norton is something else,” John said, looking particularly sour as he said her name. He couldn’t help but a hope some of John’s annoyance stemmed from her flirting. “And for Lestrade as well - are you sure it won’t be too much work?”

“Oh, it’s all old hat now. I’ve got the records in the office. Besides, Manderley is a sight to see decked out for the ball, and the whole county comes,” Lestrade replied. “And Mr Watson won’t be too taxed. All you need to worry about is receiving the guests and dancing.”

“I plan to be taxed actually. I’m going to help you plan everything,” he said, thinking of the pen-stained pidgeon-holes in the desk in the morning room. “I insist in fact.”

Both John and Lestrade seemed to not expect this answer, as they shared a look between them.

“Well, I won’t get in your way,” John said amiably. “Though I’ll help, of course.”

“Will you?” he asked archly, not sure he’d been under the impression John had ever been much involved with the party planning before.

“Yeah, I’m great at licking stamps.”

“Hmm, your talents will definitely be needed.”

Lestrade looked between them with a soft smile. “You’ll also have to choose a costume. Once you decide, we can order it from London.”

“That’s right,” he murmured. He’d forgotten that detail. “What will you be wearing, John?” They would need to coordinate.

“Oh I never dress up, the one advantage of being the host,” John said, rocking back on his heels. “However, I’m sure whatever you end up choosing will be the talk of the night - probably something incredibly posh.”

He pouted at John. “No costume? Boring.”

“Yep, that’s me,” John said, undeterred.

“Well, I’ll endeavour to surprise you,” he said, lifting his chin in the air. Though he hadn’t the faintest idea with what.

“You mean, you won’t tell me what you’re wearing before?”

“No, though you may guess. You don’t get to know, seeing as you’re being boring.”

John laughed once, short and sweet. He knew he’d been right - the ball would change everything.

“I’d better start in on the books sir,” Lestrade said, looking well and truly pleased.

“Now or never. After you,” John gestured, and the three of them made their way back into the house, and dove right into organizing.

The preparations went on for the ball without a hitch, with the three of them holed up in the estate office. He soon discovered he had particular tastes, and excelled at party planning. He even made a miniature model of the main halls, identifying where everything would be and where everyone would go. He would frequently provide John with multiple options only for the man to have no appreciation for the distinction between any of them, and began to take over as main decision maker. Lestrade was far more help in that area, and the two of them began to coordinate more often with each other, with John nodding his assent.

Moriarty was of course highly involved as well, but not with the bookkeeping. To avoid having to hear that sing-song voice over the line of the house phone, he used Lestrade to act as mediator. The expression on Moriarty’s face as he’d left John’s library still irked him. He wouldn’t speak to him, not for a while yet, and managed it rather successfully.
And so, he managed to keep very busy, and the days passed smoothly without any of the past unpleasantness.

The only thing that plagued him was the question of his costume. It couldn’t be anything too childish. A small part of him had always wanted to dress up as a pirate but…. no, his costume had to be more mature. He wanted to be seen as an adult. He wanted to be John’s husband. And no one’s suggestions were any good.

Lestrade thought he should be a detective (he had a funny hat prepared already, apparently), and all of John’s suggestions were sarcastic. The only reasonable idea came from a surprising source - the Lady Irene Norton, who as promised, did call to tell him all the right people to invite.

“You still haven’t decided what you’re going to be wearing?” she asked when she realized. “You know, all the best places in London are going to be filled up to the brim with everyone else’s soon.”

“I’m still thinking!” he said, defensive. He would choose something, and it would be excellent, something that would impress everyone, but particularly John. John would be so taken with it, he’d take him to bed before all the guests had even left the dance hall. That was the idea, anyway.

Lady Norton hummed, and he could hear her on the other end playing with the phone cord.

“I wonder why you don’t just choose someone from one of those paintings in the gallery,” she suggested, carefully, strangely cautious. Perhaps she recalled that he was all too aware of her original interest in their art.

“One of the paintings? I suppose,” he responded, wondering dumbly why the thought had never occurred to him before. To dress up as one of the figures famous to Manderley - it was obvious, and an excellent idea. He wanted to appear like he belonged, what would be better than to become one of the characters in the portraits?

“Now, of course,” Irene continued, “all the pictures would work fine as costumes, but the real show stopper is the one with the brother and sister. The two siblings dressed all in white? You could even get a wig. I think you could pull of blond.”

He knew the painting she was referring to of course, it was the first one that had caught his eye when he’d arrived at Manderley. “Isn’t that more of a pair costume?” he asked. “Besides, isn’t it going too far to dress as one of John’s ancestors?”

“You’re all about the details, but not the ones that matter. I think it’s a wonderful idea, and you could even make it a period ball officially. Have a theme. That way everyone is in keeping with the general style. No one wants to see a clown dancing with a lady in powder. Besides, they’re more like distant relations.”

“Let me guess, you’re dressing in a period costume,” he said, rolling his eyes for no one to see. “I imagine some people enjoy having variety, whereas for you it detracts from the class of your ensemble. All the fools with their crass costumes.”

“I think you’ll find Mr Watson that I can be very crass.”

As he’d learned, Irene Norton’s seductions turned on and off like a light switch. “I’d rather not find out anything of the sort, Lady Norton.”

“If you change your mind, about the costume that is, do tell me and I’ll handle everything. I know the outfit of course, and the only place to get it done is Bond Street in London. I’ll be going anyway, no need to pester your Lestrade. And no need to send your measurements, I already know them. Must dash now, give my love to John,” she cooed, ending the call abruptly.

The woman was so domineering, it was hard not to concede her point. It was a rather grand idea. He would look good in that suit, and it was the best painting at Manderley. And with a wig, John might not recognize him at first. He imagined descending the stairs in a well cut white suit with his hair in soft blond curls, and John momentarily wondering ‘who is that?’. He had wanted to surprise him.

As he sat down for dinner that evening with John, he was still thinking on the costume, and fantasizing about his entrance to the ball. It would be like transforming himself, and at the opportune moment to strike. Give John his old Manderley back, and then present himself as the confident partner who would lead them out of the dark past. He imagined for a moment how Mary would have come down the stairs, poised, calm, and cool. Moriarty and Mary were tightly linked to him now, and in his mind’s eye she possessed perhaps similar traits. The ability to change personalities at the drop of a hat, taking charge of every situation with subtlety and grace. Seeing through someone in moments, and using it to charm or destroy them.

“What are you thinking about?” John asked, putting a sudden end to his musings.

He blinked across the table at John, jarred from being pulled out of his mind. He hadn’t realized he’d been so lost in his own thoughts.

“Sorry, deep in the mind palace? It’s just you haven’t eaten anything, well not that that’s new, but you sort of looked like you were up to something,” John said, smiling tightly. “What is it? Another mystery?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly, “just party. Things.”

John looked bemused. “Things?”

“Why do I need to tell you?” he asked, aiming for teasing. “You never tell me what you’re thinking about.”

“What? That might be because you’ve never asked me, and you always know anyway.”

“I’ve asked you.”

“No, you haven’t.”

“No, I haven’t.”

John burst into a fit of giggles, and he found himself chuckling along as well.

“It’s hardly the same, I’m never thinking about what electric burns look like on a corpse versus a living body, or the change in the speed of a bullet as it goes through plywood, or any of the stuff you’re ever thinking about.”

“Hmm, what a disappointment.”

“To you maybe! Which is what I mean. It’s you who’s always thinking something. Like just now,” John said, leaning back, and gazing at him through slightly narrowed eyes. “You almost didn’t quite look like yourself.”

“What does that mean?” he asked. It came off defensive.

“I don’t know,” John struggled. “You had… a different sort of expression. Your head… tilted.”

“My head tilted,” he repeated dryly.

“Never mind, I can’t explain,” John replied, flustered. “You looked different. Older, maybe.”

He lifted his water to look at John over the rim of his glass. “Don't you want me to look older?” he asked.

“I don’t - I wouldn’t want you to look any particular way.”

“I will age you know, I’ll have grey hair and wrinkles.”

“Something to look forward to.”

“What did you mind about my appearance then?”

“I didn’t mind anything. You just for a moment, looked different. I don’t know….. colder, I guess. Almost, far away,” John finished, quietly. John looked away. The index finger of his right hand tapped the table once, and his lips pursed.

“I wasn’t thinking of anything,” he lied, and in an attempt to lighten the mood, smiled slyly. “Maybe I was thinking of how you’ll have the surprise of your life when you see my fancy dress.”

John laughed, relieved. “The surprise of my life, oh God. I can’t imagine. There won’t be blood involved will there? No maiming? I’d prefer minimal maiming.”

“No maiming,” he promised, and he could feel himself smiling. The kind of smiling when you know something someone else doesn’t.

“So you still won’t tell me?” John asked, resigned. John was actually pleased that he wasn’t telling him, enjoying the little game.

“Not on your life,” he replied, feeling his smile grow and grow. Oh, but this was going to be fun.

When he finished dinner, he went immediately to the minstrels' gallery to refresh his memory. He had all the paintings quite memorized at this point of course, but he’d never observed them from the perspective of creating a costume. Irene Norton was absolutely correct, which he imagined she often was. He truly had been an idiot to not have considered it. The painting of the siblings was also a Raeburn, and the portrait was of the two Watsons, the sister and brother of John’s great-great grandfather. The outfit wasn’t overly dated, but enough to be recognized as fancy dress. And he would look excellent in it.

The decision was made. He would send Lady Irene a sketch of the portrait in the morning, not entirely trusting her to know what he wanted, even if she did already know his measurements. He was more than a little excited for the upcoming party, and of course, John’s grand return to being master of the old Manderley once more.

Chapter Text

Manderley was a changed place with an upcoming ball on the horizon. The previously vast and empty space became alive in a flurry of activity: servants cleaning, polishing and decorating, workers moving through the halls with their ladders and tools, Lestrade sighing in exasperation with every hitch, and Gladstone nipping at everyone’s heels and barking in excitement. He imagined it was beginning to resemble its old self again.

The day of the party, Manderley’s air and physical appearance were truly something to behold, lights hanging from strings all along the exterior, and the sound of the band practicing from within spilling out across the lawn. He, for once, was in tune with the house - a ball of energy, constantly moving and ensuring their plans were performed exactly as dictated. Every detail had to be exact. And most importantly, John’s spirits seemed to be lifted. John, as promised, mostly kept out of their way, but he consistently caught John watching them all with a pleased smile whenever he himself lifted his head from giving a tirade on the floral arrangements.

If the energy had been high before, the day of the ball the house was abuzz. He didn’t sleep a wink the night before, obsessing over the miniature model that he’d brought up to their room, and occasionally looking over John’s sleeping form. His costume had arrived the day prior, and he hadn’t left John alone in the room since, not trusting him to not take a peek. John laughed and held up his hands every time he pointed his finger at him when John even so much as moved near his wardrobe. He had forced John out of the room when he’d tried it on, and Lady Irene had not been lying - the place she’d suggested had been very good.

Of course, he hadn’t had a second opinion yet. He would have shown Lestrade, if he wasn’t sure the man would blabber to John, and then think it was a fun anecdote to share with his brother through their correspondence. Regardless, he knew it would be quite the success. It imitated the portrait exactly, and Lady Irene had been correct in thinking he could pull off blond.

The morning and afternoon passed quickly with last minute setup, and then Harry and Clara arrived early, driving up in the late afternoon already dressed to impress. Harry requested an aperitif the moment she exited the car, which didn’t bode well for her sobriety for the evening. Clara was dressed in a Regency era period costume, and Harry dressed as a Strong Man (or woman, he supposed). She passed her fake dumbbell to a servant to shake his hand.

“You’ve done quite a bit with the place - I doubt this was John’s work,” she commented, waving toward the string of lights. “You know I may have underestimated you.”

Before he could respond to the backhanded compliment, John cut in.

“Harry,” John said with exaggerated pleasantness, “a pleasure to have you as always. And you, Clara.”

They were ushered into the house, and even Harry’s dedication to drinking in the drawing room at 5 o’clock couldn’t dampen his nor John’s spirits.

“What are you dressing up as?” Clara asked him quietly, while John and Harry bickered amongst themselves.

“It’s a surprise,” he said, and Clara smiled, delighted.

“Oh, excellent! I guess we’ll just have to see?”

“What’s that?” Harry called out, as she made her way over to their couch, “you won’t tell her your costume? You’re going to be wearing it shortly aren’t you?”

“He hasn’t even told me yet Harry,” John said, his aggravation for his sister somewhat lessened as John smiled at him across the room. “He’s going to shock me he’s said.”

“Oh lord, something scandalous then I hope?”

Clara giggled, “Harry, stop!”

They made a charming scene, the four of them, smiling at one another before a party, discussing costumes. It all felt normal, comfortable, and as though he were one of them.

However, Clara’s inquiry did remind him. He looked down at his wrist watch. It was almost time.

“Harry’s right - perhaps I’ll show you sooner rather than later,” he said, with a little smirk he couldn’t resist.

Clara clapped happily, and John’s eyes lit up in intrigue (Success!). Even Harry’s interest seemed piqued.

The ball was of course all for John, but he couldn’t help feeling pride in his ensemble and a stirring of excitement at a room full of people awaiting the surprise. He’d teased John for so long about the costume, and he couldn’t wait for his husband’s reaction.

He hurried upstairs, and immediately slid on his new white suit. He fiddled with the blond wig till the hair was just right. The wig was shorter than his own hair, but had been waved in a way that he felt he could pull off, despite his dark brows. Admiring his work in the work, he couldn’t stamp down the thrill of it - they weren’t going to recognize him at all!

As he made his return to his expectant audience, he caught sight of one of the fiddlers on the landing and motioned at him towards the stairs. The fiddler understood immediately, smiling and bowing, and headed down to tell the band to announce him. He felt his pulse in his throat, unusually rapid, and his face felt hot. It must have been from the warm costume and having just raced down the East corridor.

He heard the band play a quick tune with the fiddler announcing “Mr Watson!”, with a flourish he appreciated, as he walked forward onto the landing. As he stood at the top of the stairs, he felt one of his few genuine smiles growing across his face. He was practically giddy, the excitement of unveiling his costume buzzing through him as he descended the stairs.

But there was no reaction from his audience. No shouts of "Oh, the portrait! The Watson twin!”. No one spoke. No one laughed. No one moved an inch.

John, Harry, Clara, and Lestrade had assembled at the base of the stairs, and they were all staring at him in complete shock and silence. He hadn’t realized his choice would be truly that…. surprising?

Clara, of all people, let out a startled cry, and covered her mouth with her hand. It had almost sounded like she was afraid.

He looked amongst all of them, focussing most of all on John. John was completely frozen to the spot. Harry and Clara were still staring up at him, but Lestrade was also watching John.

Trying to hide his confusion, he attempted to continue smiling. Was he simply bad at reading reactions? Was John just a bit stunned?

“Good evening,” he said, teasingly. He raised a brow at John. Why was the man so dumbfounded? Why did he look like that?

He realized, slowly, with dawning horror, that John’s face had lost all its colour, and his eyes - oh God - the look in John’s eyes -

He saw from the corner of his eye Lestrade reach out as if to go to John, and he realized John looked like he was about to faint. He reached out one hand as well, but John finally moved, breaking eye contact with him at last and steadied himself with his cane.

He hesitated, still standing on the last step of the stairs. This was all not - not at all what he had - Why did John look like that? Why did everyone look like that? It was alarming, and that he of all people couldn’t read them, didn’t understand, what was he missing -

John raised his head once more, and he could not comprehend what he’d done to put that look of pain and distrust, and eventually, coldness into John’s expression. John continued to stare at him, like John wasn’t sure - as if John didn’t know who he was. It was just a blond wig, he thought desperately. John had never looked at him like this, and frankly it terrified him.

“How,” John’s voice cracked and he paused, taking a breath, and swallowed before continuing, “- how could you do this?”

Now he was riveted to the spot, his hand frozen on the banister.

“A ‘surprise’,” John choked out, but couldn’t finish the thought. John’s breathing began to come in short, uneven inhales and exhales, till the man was practically gasping. He realized John was visibly having a panic attack, and Harry rushed forward to draw John away from the sight of him, and into the drawing room.

“Get him changed!” she yelled at Lestrade, pulling John after her as they all watched John struggling to draw breath. He made to follow after them, John - , but Lestrade blocked his path. Lestrade tried to usher him back up the stairs, but he resisted - he wanted to know if Harry was lying John down, he wanted to know what she was doing, she was already drunk, and John was his husband -

“It’s the painting,” he said, his voice hushed, smaller than he’d ever heard himself, as Lestrade guided him back up the stairs. “It’s just the painting from the gallery.”

“I’ll explain when we’re back up,” Lestrade said, “but better leave him alone for a moment, eh? Especially with you dressed up like that.”

“Dressed up like what?” he asked, hearing as if from far away how distressed he sounded.

Clara still stood at the bottom of the stairs, silent, and looking at him with pity in her eyes.

“I’ll explain, later,” Lestrade kept saying. He didn’t care, he didn’t care, all that mattered was that John didn’t look like that.

“Go to John then, if I can’t!” he cried, turning to move up the stairs if that was what was needed. “Just don’t leave him in the care of his sister!”

“Yeah, yeah, all right - look, just - I’ll be up to your room in a minute,” Lestrade promised, before descending the steps and heading into the drawing room, taking Clara with him.

Reluctantly, and still feeling shell-shocked, he returned the way he had come. His eyes stinging, he ran up the stairs, and onto the landing. The band appeared to be as confused as he was, but he didn’t have time to spare a thought for them. He didn’t understand what had just happened, and now partially wished he’d forced Lestrade to come with him and explain.

He rushed to the hallway that split the house between the West and East wings, which initially appeared to be empty, before he realized a figure stood in the door leading to the West corridor.

Moriarty. Of course. To his dying day, he would remember that man’s face as he stood in the entranceway of the West wing. Those dead eyes were gloating, delighted with his success. Moriarty saw him in the depths of his devastation, and simply smiled.

He understood at once what had happened, and had to close his eyes with the force of the realization. Lady Irene Norton, casually asking whether Moriarty still worked at Manderley. Moriarty’s description of Mary, her daring hair cut, her short blonde hair. The painting of the twins, in matching ensembles.

Mary had dressed up as the other Watson for the last fancy dress ball she’d been alive for.

Obvious. And he’d walked right into it, trusting a suggestion from a stranger. As he’d always expected, Moriarty was no mere servant. He had strings he could pull from anywhere. And if Moriarty wanted to torment someone, they would be tormented.

He opened his eyes and stared back at him for a moment, before he walked away, back down the long narrow passage. He resisted the urge to run from the man, barely, tripping down the halls, but no - he had exposed too many of his weaknesses already.

He entered his and John’s rooms, and closed the door behind him. He didn’t lock it. Lestrade was coming after him, wasn’t he? Besides, the worst had already happened.

He moved to his wardrobe as if in a dream. He removed the blond wig and dropped it to the floor. His hair would be a disaster from being kept beneath it. Wig net hair. Next went the white suit jacket, and then the trousers. The dress shirt was fine, but he removed it anyway. He would replace it with another plain white shirt that John hadn’t almost fainted at the sight of.

He would dress in his best suit and say the advantage of being the host was not having to dress up. He’d wanted to match John. Anyone who had heard of him having a costume would be told there’d been a mix-up at the shops. Yes, it was all easy, easy enough to fix. Wasn’t it.

He heard the sound of Lestrade’s gait along the outside corridor, and then him entering the room.

“I know,” he said, as he ensured the cuffs of his new shirt’s sleeves slid just beyond the end of his jacket.

“Right,” Lestrade said from somewhere behind him. “Then why did you do it?”

“I didn’t know then!” he seethed, turning on Lestrade, and losing any composure he had intended on upkeeping. He was breathing hard he realized - when had be begun breathing this hard?

Lestrade winced at the volume of his voice, but otherwise appeared to be more relieved by his show of emotion than anything else.

“I didn’t think you’d known, but I wasn’t sure,” Lestrade said, rubbing the back of his neck

“I know I can be cruel Lestrade, but surely you didn’t think me capable of that,” he spat.

“God, I don’t, but I did wonder if you were maybe trying to be funny? In your own way.” Lestrade smiled to appease him, but it was awkward, more like an apologetic grimace. “Mr Watson doesn’t think you’re capable of it either, you know. It was just such a shock for him, and then after, he probably didn’t know what to think. When you first stood at the top of the stairs -”

Lestrade paused, looking more uncomfortable than ever. “It’s strange to say, but with that wig on, and the outfit, you looked just like her. Like her ghost coming down the stairs, she’d worn something so similar.….”

Lestrade stopped again, and seemed unsure how to fill the silence.

He didn’t know how to respond. How could he have known? And yet, how could he not have?

But all his conversations over the last few weeks, telling John that he would give him the surprise of his life. John at dinner saying he looked cold, distant.

He had given John a fright, and then, in that following moment where John realized it was him, he had set John up to wonder. To wonder what he was truly capable of.

The irony of making John see the ghost of his dead wife on the evening of the ball he had planned to make him forget about her was not lost on him. His plans had spectacularly failed.

And he supposed he finally had his answer to the question of whether John could ever forget Mary.

As if the thought had summoned him, the sound of pounding steps could be heard again from outside the door, giving him little time to prepare before John stepped into their rooms.

“Lestrade,” John said, out of breath, “I appreciate all your help, but -”

“You want me to get out, got it,” Lestrade replied easily. Lestrade shot him one last parting look that was sympathetic, while also seeming to beg him to not mess anything up further, before closing the door behind him.

“Sending the help away so you can yell at me, John?” he asked with as much nonchalance as he felt able to muster. He turned away from John to play at inspecting the line of his jacket in the mirror.

“I didn’t come here to yell at you,” John said. His voice was still strained. He was not quite returned to his usual self. “I’m not angry. This was obviously an innocent mistake, and I’m sorry for reacting the way I did -”

“Oh, God! ” he shouted, pushing his hands into his hair, and cutting John off entirely.

John was apologizing for having a panic attack, which he had triggered. He could hear his own breaths again, loud in the room. He could hear John’s as well, and watched a muscle in John’s jaw twitch through the mirror. “Don’t say you’re sorry,” he eventually said, scrunching his eyes closed. The exhaustion that he had previously warded off was now coming over him.

“But I am,” John repeated, truly in earnest. “You were so excited about your costume, and you couldn’t have known - “

“I could have, if I’d told you beforehand - though, what would you have said, I wonder?” he asked. He hadn’t done this in awhile. Tried to rile John up. He thought he could bury this, this, whatever made him try to upset John about this. Rationally, he wanted John happy. Irrationally, he wanted John to be as miserable about him as he was about John.

“What do you mean?” John whispered. John’s voice was pure anguish, anguish of which he was the cause.

“Would - you - have - said - her - name?” he bit out.

 

He received no response, beyond John’s mouth falling open, his face a mixture of shock and confusion.

“What - what are you on about? - ” John began to say, before a knock at the door interrupted him.

“Guests are starting to arrive,” Lestrade called through the door, obviously having left only to realize he had to return. He cleared his throat before he continued. “Might be good if the hosts were out.”

John turned his head back to look at him warily.

“We need to go out there,” he said in response to John’s stare, lifting one of his brows in sarcasm, “- to play host.”

John continued to eye him with worry. “We obviously need to talk,” John said simply.

He snorted. Understatement of the century.

“There are things,” John whispered, his throat moving with the effort of swallowing, “that I’ve been meaning to tell you, that I should have told you before -” John was gripping the handle of his cane. John was looking down at his feet. John was looking anywhere but at him.

‘Before I married you’, he supposed would have been the next line.

“But they will have to wait till later,” he said loudly, and perhaps with undeserved venom. He brushed past John as he made his way to the door, and followed Lestrade down the corridor. It was time to put on a brave face, if he could stomach it. They had to start dinner on time.

There were things John had meant to tell him. What a lark. He already knew what those things were. Things he himself had put into John’s mind again. He might as well have dug up the woman’s grave and forced John to look at her painted corpse.

Moriarty telling him that story, about her cutting her hair. Her short blonde hair. Him buying a wig of that exact cut. He should have recalled that. He should have known.

As they walked downstairs, he noticed the door to the West wing was closed. In his mind’s eye he could see Moriarty, and if he tried hard enough, he could hear the sound of the sea, ever present in the corridor.

From its ideation to execution, the Manderley fancy dress had been the focus of his attention, his resources fully devoted and he remembered precisely every detail of its planning. It seemed fitting then that the actual event then passed in a blur, with few landmarks to ground himself in its passing.

Faces he knew and others he did not were paraded past, and he and John greeted each and every one with forced aplomb.

“Oh the Messrs Watson! And neither of you in costume?”

“The advantage of being the hosts,” he’d repeat, parrotting John’s words. If he said them enough, perhaps he would even convince himself.

There was a dinner, of course, and though he had spent many afternoons agonising over the menu to exacting specifics, he couldn’t remember if he ate a single bite. Dinner conversation was tortuous.

When they were freed from eating, the party divided into dancers and card players. Most opted for the former, who all congregated in the great hall where the band was constantly playing. The musicians started with a slow waltz that seemed to never come to an end, one Strauss piece leading into another, with certainly no pause for tuning the sharp violin, and the couples spun to it with no reprieve. The same style, the same dancers, the same smiles. While it was still early, John and he stayed standing at the base of the stairs. The same stairs where John had almost fallen earlier, and they stood shoulder to shoulder, welcoming those arriving after dinner.

His mind, ever working, analyzed every guest and every costume - seventeenth century noble woman, lavender crinoline, fake jewels, about to go cheat at cards - but he couldn’t have been less immersed in the proceedings. He noticed everything, and absorbed nothing. He watched distantly as Robert dropped a tray and Molly helped him clean it up, with Lestrade groaning behind them. Lestrade, moving through the sea of faces, acting as another host, brandishing food, drink and cigarettes wherever they were needed.

Nothing piqued his interest, until he saw perhaps the most erotic Marie Antoinette to ever have graced a fancy dress ball in polite society in any of her many revivals. Yards of purple gown ballooned from a narrow waist, leading up to a plunging neckline, and hair piled high atop her head. It was of course none other than the esteemed Lady Norton. He broke away from his role of smiling, welcoming master at John’s elbow, and pushed his way through the dancers.

“Mind if I cut in?” he asked, maneuvering a wealthy elderly gentleman out of the lady’s claws.

“Mr Watson,” Lady Irene greeted in her false insipid tone, only her eyes giving away her immediate understanding of his lack costume. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

She placed one arm loosely along the back of neck as he began to lead her masterfully to the tune of Roses from the South. The Strauss was endless.

“Why did you do it?” he asked flatly. “I already know, so you might as well tell me. What was in it for you?”

She had the grace to look almost guilty. “For someone who respects logic, that isn’t very sound.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t suffer under the illusion that you didn’t know what you were doing,” he commented, and wasn’t sure why he had bothered.

Lady Irene smiled at him. He wasn’t sure if it was wishful thinking on his part that it appeared regretful. “It is a pity - I think under different circumstances we could have been quite good friends.”

He scoffed. “I don’t have friends.”

The lady had the gall to look towards John, still at the base of the stairs, after she had been instrumental in ruining everything. His anger and revulsion momentarily seethed, and he gripped her forearm and pulled her close on the next swing.

“I know things about you that I could very well expose, things that might make you regret making me your enemy. One might think you’d lost your head.”

Irene's only response was to tip said head back and laugh, a performance for the benefit of the onlookers he supposed. She wrapped her long fingers around his neck and pulled till his face was inches from hers. Their waltzing continued, the couples around them seemingly unaware of the tense nature of their conversation.

“You don’t get it yet, do you? When a spider asks you to return a favour,” she whispered, trailing one finger lightly up the line of his neck to his hairline and back down once more, “- you don’t ask questions.”

So, and as he had long suspected, their mutual acquaintance was much more than he seemed. And his net extended further than just an estate in the country.

Lady Irene made to move away from him, but seemed to reconsider at the last moment. “Whatever you’ve done to attract his attention,” she murmured, and he truly believed he detected genuine feeling, for once, “whatever it is that has made him interested in you as a plaything, I’m sorry for it. He will destroy you. Do you understand?”

He smiled stiffly over her shoulder, maintaining the appearance of a pleasant dance till the last.

He thought he did understand, very well.

“What are you suggesting I do, Lady Irene?” he asked, his lips numb as the words left them. “Bow out?”

“It’s either you or him,” she replied softly, “and darling, it won’t be him.”

At last she did pull away, and he watched her retreat back into the gaiety of the hall. What did she mean? His marriage with John, the farce though it was…… If he asked John, pleaded with him, would John truly not fire Moriarty? And how would Lady Norton of all people know John’s mind on the subject?

Before he could come to a conclusion, a gloved hand grabbed at his elbow and turned him around abruptly.

“What game do you think you’re playing at?” Harry Watson demanded sharply, sober in a way only true alcoholics could be after that many brandies, judging by the smell of her breath. “That little costume joke earlier, hilarious by the way, and now you’re flirting with The Woman in the great hall? Are you trying to humiliate John?”

He attempted to steer Harry and himself away from the midst of the dance floor to allow them a modicum of privacy, but this was to little effect. Her words were hardly fair, but he was wracked with guilt by them all the same.

“As you might have noticed if you’d been paying attention,” he snapped back, pulling on her strong hold of his forearm, “the costume was not intended to be a joke.”

And his conversation with Lady Irene had in no way resembled flirtation, but perhaps being seen in the lady’s presence at all was enough cause for suspicion.

“You know, I think I was wrong about you,” Harry asserted, completely ignoring his defence. “You are a bit like her after all.”

When she had voiced the opposite opinion he hadn’t known what to make of it. He still didn’t.

Clara saved him from having to respond to the nebulous comment, as she appeared from behind Harry. “Let’s have a dance,” she said brightly with a firm smile, and Harry reluctantly released him from her grasp to take Clara up in her arms instead. Clara smiled at him in sympathy over her shoulder, but he was too preoccupied to nod his thanks. He finally moved away from the throng of the crowd, wondering if he should locate John again. Could he tell John he already knew the things he planned to tell him, and that he’d rather he didn’t hear them?

A plate of cold chicken was thrust in front of him, and he looked up to see he was now to be accompanied by Lestrade. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked, growing tired of people approaching him.

“I don’t know sir, maybe eat it,” Lestrade suggested glibly.

“I’m not hungry.” He was thinking, about what Lady Norton had said, and Harriet as well for that matter - he had to think….

“Look, I’m not really interested in force feeding you. Mr Watson mentioned you had actually only mimed eating during dinner.”

John. Was John honestly still worrying about him, and fussing after him to eat? Was this pre-guilt for the news John planned to break to him, once their guests were gone? He looked around, but couldn’t see John anywhere.

Lestrade cleared his throat. “That suit looks fine. Makes everyone else here look like an absolute nutter.”

He sighed, and ate a piece of chicken if it would make the man leave. Dear Lestrade, thinking that he was actually moping about his costume.

Raucous cries of laughter erupted from one side of the room, and the sound of a champagne glass being hit sounded out through the open space. He realized John was in fact at the centre of the mob, being accosted by group of guests, who clearly had a suggestion to make.

“A dance!” the voices were calling, with individuals shouting “a waltz for the newlyweds! The Messrs Watson must dance!”

He was not quick enough at hiding, as the guests nearby him had already noticed his presence and were ushering him over to John. Lestrade with his plate of chicken smiled at him encouragingly when he looked back at him desperately for aid. Useless.

John and him were to dance then, in front of all these spectators. While planning the event, he might have entertained foolish imaginings of this moment, when he’d been excited for the evening like an idiot. He’d imagined him and John perfectly matched, gliding across the dance floor, everyone forming a circle around them to watch. John would, as he sometimes did, forget the need of his cane, and lead him beautifully. As John spun him slowly, they would catch each others eyes and never look away, as if they were the only two people in the room. He had always loved to dance.

This was likely not to be his reality. He in fact expected John to protest due to his injury, but John merely walked toward him and extended his hand, smiling genially but with awkwardness. Whether this was due to John’s lack of confidence in his dancing skills, or the cold reminder from earlier that evening, he wasn’t sure. He realized John intended to manage without the cane, as Lestrade came to take it from his hands. He immediately reached forward to offer his arm, which John gladly took. John turned the hold into a light grasp of his hand, and moved the other arm to encircle him. John held him in his arms lightly, with the hand on his back practically floating there rather than pressing. He returned the favour with his hand on John’s shoulder.

John’s eyes were distant, appearing farther away than he had ever seen him. John was in his own private world, one that he suspected was torture. A place that he still did not have access to. If only John knew, he’d gladly go to hell and back for him, as long as they were together.

The dance floor cleared marginally to give room for the hosts, and the band’s continuum of music paused for a moment to lend dramaticism to the start of their waltz. When they began again they at last took a departure from Strauss, to his immense relief, until he recognized the piece. The Merry Widow Waltz.

Merry widower more like, and what a joke that was. He wondered if Moriarty had been the one to suggest the piece to continue his little game, and then he wondered if Moriarty had been the one to whisper the suggestion to the crowd. Moriarty’s absence spoke louder than his presence would have.

In a way he was thankful for his paranoia, as it granted him a distraction from John moving them about the great hall floor to their audience of onlookers. What John may have lacked in natural ability, he made up for in pure determination. For a moment, he turned his head to watch John’s profile, just as John gently led him in a backwards step. John’s head turned a fraction, and they were looking at one another, as he’d once hoped they would.

He felt his forced smile start to drop at the corners. He had forgotten how handsome John had looked, his hair neatly arranged, his eyes shining brightly. The expression John wore was inscrutable. There were many times when John became unreadable to him, but this was the worst of all, as he had never more desperately wanted to know what John was thinking. John eventually swallowed, and ducked his chin, before looking out across the room once more.

He wondered if while John looked away, John was able to imagine he was dancing with Mary once more, or if his own too-tall frame and curveless form prevented the illusion.

The dance came to an end, and everyone applauded them as if it had been a true performance. He supposed in a way it had been.

Now that John had showed himself capable of dancing without his cane, guests begged him to take them for a turn about the room. He watched John be swept away by the elderly cousin of a countess (as she had been telling people all evening) as if from afar. His duty in dancing with others was also called upon, though he couldn’t remember who he had danced with beyond whether they were wearing particularly offensive perfumes or possessing of sweaty hands.

The rest of the night continued on in a whirl, the costumed nature of the evening creating a strange sequence of snapshots in his mind. A Tudor woman in dark velvet, spilling champagne on her husband’s mistress to the Destiny Waltz. A sailor swindling an Arabian knight at cards to the Blue Danube. A phantom stubbing out a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray to Vienna Blood. It was truly to be waltzes for hours. He dreamed of escaping to the terrace for a cigarette, but his torment did not cease. If he had to hear Strauss one more time, he thought he might break a violin in half. He was saved from committing this sin to an instrument by the fireworks on the lawn, when the band finally paused for the guests to rush out to the terrace. He used the opportunity for a smoke break, unable to enjoy the abrasive lights and sounds through the night air. They had been meant as the climax of the evening, but little did their guests know, that had come and gone long before they had even arrived.

When everyone returned indoors, the band started Auld Lang Syne, and then God Save the King, the only merit of this being that it signalled the end of the evening. People then began approaching him to say it was the best night they’d ever had, and so-and-so would be furious they had missed it, and that he had to visit them sometime soon, etc. etc., and then Lestrade would help them to their cars.

He saw John ambushed by people near the library, presumably performing similarly, accepting thanks and ushering people out. The great hall eventually became vacant once again.

He watched John drawn out onto the terrace for more farewells, and he took his opportunity to at last retreat. John had said they’d needed to talk. He was both desperate for John’s honesty, and wanted nothing to do with it.

It was later, or earlier, than he had realized. The musicians had turned the lights off in the gallery when they left, but the approaching morning outside lit the room enough for him to see by. Soon it would be fully light out.

As he passed beneath the archway, he noticed the door to the West corridor had been opened again since last he’d passed it. The sound of the sea was no longer a part of his imagination. He felt he knew exactly what led down that way. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that, either.

He turned down the East wing, and along the corridor to his room. He removed his suit jacket woodenly, throwing it over the back of the armchair. His wig and his white suit still lay in a pile. He should probably discard them before John had to see them again.

He laid his suit jacket over the back of his chair facing the mirror and dressing table. He leaned out towards the window. The rose garden was in upheaval, guests had moved the chairs around and left empty glasses in their wake. He pulled the curtains shut, till only a sliver of the early morning light crept in through the crack.

It was this light that drew his attention to a morocco case laid out on the dressing table that had not been there before.

He hadn’t locked their door before they’d left, despite having been attempting to grow the habit. A dark corner of his mind already knew what lay within the case, but there was only one way to be sure.

He reached for it with a trembling hand, undoing the clasp, and revealing the contents within.

Nestled within the morocco case was a hypodermic syringe. And next to it, an empty vial. The fluid had already been drawn up. Someone had wanted to make it easy for him. It was colourless, but he knew exactly what it was. The perfect drug, and the perfect dose. The end he had always fantasized of, in his lowest moments.

He sat in his chair at the dressing table and stared at the open case. The bedside clock ticked out each passing second. He observed the syringe, as if expecting it to perform an act of mercy itself. He wondered what John would think when he came back to the room to find it here. He wondered what John would think if he came back to the room to find him here after injecting its contents.

He needn’t have bothered, as John never returned to the room.

John hadn’t returned yet, and he wasn’t going to, not tonight. Just like he had known what was within the case, he knew exactly where John had gone after the party, after the guests had left. Where John would go to prepare before telling him “things”.

Staring at the empty bed, he wondered if a marriage could be declared a failure after a few months. He supposed it could, when one of the parties still loved someone who was dead.

All those reservations he’d once had, back when John had proposed - that he was too young, too inexperienced, and not of John’s world. And it turned out none of those barriers were the true issue in the end. The issue was, he loved John. Worse still, he had loved John instantly, though he had denied it to himself, ignorant of it till it was too late to turn back. That he still loved John desperately, like a loyal dog or servant, was the issue. For it didn’t matter. John had tried, but this was not the sort love John needed. John was still longing for the love of someone who was long gone. He had been naive, a simple little fool, thinking he could fix John and fix his happiness. If he threw a party, John would be happy again, and forget about his wife. John had known happiness already, and it hadn’t been him to give it to him. Even bloody Sebastian Wilkes, despite his idiocy and ignorance, had known it. “You’ll regret it,” Wilkes had said. He’d thought him odious, but he’d been right. Wilkes had told him not to flatter himself that John was in love with him, that John was just lonely in the now empty, large house, and God - he’d been right. It was the most incisive thing Wilkes had ever said.

John was lonely, but John didn’t belong to him. He belonged to Mary. John still thought of Mary, and he would never love him because of her. Moriarty was right - Mary was still in the house, in the bedroom in the West wing that John could no longer stay in, in the library where John had paced in grief, in the morning room with her pen-stained pigeon holes. Even in the woods, and that little cottage on the beach. They even still ate according to her damn menus. Mary’s things still occupied the master bedroom, her clothes were still in the wardrobes in the anteroom, and her nightdress still laid across the pillow. Mary was still the mistress of Manderley. He had come to Manderley like an idiot onto ground that had already been claimed. Harry at their first meeting, looking him up and down, frank, direct, knowing he wasn’t the same. Lestrade uncomfortable, hesitating whenever he spoke of her, and his voice admitting, “Yes, she was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen.”

It was Mary, always Mary. He would never be rid of her. If she had been alive, he could have contended with her. If John had loved some other woman in London, who he stole away to and slept with, he could have at least fought for him. The woman would have weaknesses, flaws he could expose - but Mary would always be rendered eternally perfect in memory. And she was not something he could fight and win.

John didn’t love him. John loved Mary. It was always Mary, Mary, Mary. He stared at that empty vial and filled syringe, and he admitted it to himself. And the man who left it there for him had intended it that way.

He could feel the self pity overtaking him till he feared there would be nothing left. Desperate, he clung to the only other emotion he could experience, and it was of course the antithesis of what had brought him here. Hatred.

Moriarty had brought the inevitable to its head. If the man wanted to shake his hand in hell, he wouldn’t disappoint him. He picked up the case in hand, and slid it into the inner pocket of his jacket. He knew where he would find him, and he had a feeling Moriarty would be waiting. He closed the door behind the room John had created for him with finality, and began his way to the West wing.

Chapter Text

Just as dawn was breaking, he began his journey from the East to the West. He moved along the long corridors in silence, thankfully meeting no one along the way. Through the windows he could see fog rolling in, and the closer he drew to the West side of the house, the thicker the mist from the sea appeared. When he passed beneath the archway that led to the West corridor, he found the door was still open, waiting for him. It had been left that way in invitation.

He walked with a dead calmness, for once knowing what would await him when he crossed through the door into the anteroom, and then the master bedroom. Though no electric light could be seen from beneath the door as he approached, he knew it would not be vacant. He turned the knob to the dressing room, and slowly pushed open the door. There was a faint natural light, passing through the fog, which allowed him to dimly see within. He moved past the wardrobes, and into the main chamber to find his target: there, standing by the window with his back turned, was Moriarty. For once, he would come up from behind him. This would have been more satisfying, had Moriarty not been expecting him.

“I found your present,” he said without emotion, breaking the silence of the room, and holding out the morocco case. He walked as far as the dressing table, pausing at the chair with the dressing gown thrown over its back. “Lovely costume idea too, by the way.”

Moriarty turned gradually from the window, his expression a pantomime of innocence.

“I don’t know what you mean, sir,” Moriarty responded. “But you’ll have to do something about that case. Best not let the master know of your bad habits.”

Moriarty drew away from the window abruptly, and stepped toward him. Before coming too close, he gave him a wide berth, walking along the foot of the bed. Once again he felt spun in, the spider finally home to claim the prize from his net.

“Oh! You considered it, didn’t you?” Moriarty asked, his voice loud in the stuffy air of the long-preserved room. “Oh, I know you - It’d be a treat for you, wouldn’t it? You’ve been so good for so long. The best high for the worst low.”

He couldn’t look away, watching in abject horror as Moriarty began his process, transforming from the fawning servant and into his true form. Moriarty’s strange smile, his dead face whiter than he’d ever seen it, and his eyes two dark pits.

“You’re so easy. So easily beaten,” Moriarty said, his contempt seeping through. “She doesn’t even need to be here to beat you. But then, no one could ever get the better of her, you know.”

Moriarty’s head turned from him for a moment to face John and Mary’s old bed.

“She did anything she liked, and she could tame anything she wanted, and she cared for nothing and no one. The only thing that ever won was the sea.”

He stopped speaking, and his head rocked back and forth as it sometimes did. Moriarty spoke like he was telling a bedtime story, or a fairy tale.

“I know what you’re doing, and it won’t work,” he said, infusing his voice with confidence he barely felt.

Moriarty’s appearance changed swiftly, from frightening smiles to fierce anger. “‘I know what you’re doing,’” he repeated, mockingly. “It’s already working, stupid. You don’t know anything, do you? An amateur detective, thinking he can see everything, when you see nothing. You were the best distraction I’ve had in awhile, I’ll give you that, but now, now, you’re not even that. You’re boring, just like the rest of them. Such a disappointment.”

Moriarty calmed for a moment, tsking at him.

“You thought you could come here and actually be the new master of Manderley? You honestly thought you could take her place? You thought you could replace her, in his heart?” Moriarty sang out, gloating and smiling once more.

“Stop this,” he seethed, his eyes squeezing shut against his own volition, in pain. “Stop this stupid little game, or I’ll have you fired!”

Moriarty had the gall to laugh. “Fired? Ooooh. Try sir, try and see. I’d love it if you tried. I’d enjoy watching you, when you realize John won’t do as you ask.”

Moriarty was relishing this, telling him exactly what he had always been too afraid to find out - that when it came to Mary, John would never let anything go, and would never do it just for him.

“How would you convince him? You'll go running to Mr Watson saying, ,‘Jim was mean to me, Jim was so rude’. You'll go running to him like you did before, when Magnussen visited.'

“
I never told him,” he said, though he didn’t imagine his loyalty on that subject mattered.

Moriarty, ignoring him, continued, “I made up my mind then that you’d grown too big for your boots. Time to punish you a little, and him too.”

Moriarty moved away from him and closer to the bed, where he ran a hand along the coverlet from top to bottom.

“The master has quite the jealous streak, to still get in such a tizzy over men who knew Mary coming to the house. Can you imagine, being that hopeless over someone?”
 Moriarty asked over his shoulder.

He smiled tightly in response. Moriarty seemed to enjoy that, before turning his gaze back to the bed.

“He was jealous when she was alive, and now he's jealous when she's dead. Of course he was, though, a man had only to look at her once and go cuckoo over her.”

“I don’t want to know,” he said, and it revealed far too much, but he didn’t care, he didn’t care, he didn’t want to know. “Don’t tell me, I don’t - I don’t want to know.”

Moriarty, as if drawn towards the smell of weakness, returned to him, coming much closer than he had before, almost pressing his cheek to his. He startled at the movement, but Moriarty grasped him by his upper arms, holding him still.

“It's no use, is it?” Moriarty whispered. “It’s like I said, no one could ever get the better of her. She's still mistress here, even when she’s dead. You already know that don’t you? It's you that doesn’t fit. Do you understand, the final problem?”

He tried to back away from Moriarty, but the other man only proceeded to advance on him, tracking the retreat of his prey.

“Poor old John, so lonely, so meaningless without her. He tried to run away, to forget all about it, and he found a lost little kitten. He even brought it home with him, out of pity, thinking it would fix everything. But now he’s ashamed, ashamed of being so weak. Every day he has to look at you, and knows he failed her. He’s reminded of his inconstancy every time he sees you, and you feel it, don’t you?”

He could feel himself being taken in, taken under. Moriarty was stabbing him sharply, with a million little pin pricks, and then he would offer him the solution: the end to his pain. Moriarty’s grinning face peering up at him, and him, turning his face away, powerless to the man’s spell.

“Why don't you go?” Moriarty sung, his voice changing in pitch with every syllable. “He doesn't want you, and he never did. He can't forget her. You know he can’t. All he wants is to be alone with her again. She’s dead, but really, it should be you instead.”

He drew in a shaky, rattling breath, despite already knowing that this was what Moriarty had been working towards. The syringe in the case in his hand had already declared his intention. He had come the West wing knowing this. He had come here to hear this, and to listen to why he should go through with it.

Moriarty kept moving forward, and him backward, till he felt the draft from the open window at his back. He turned away from that devil’s face, and looked down to see only white fog, covering the terrace.

“All that pretty mist,” Moriarty murmured, stepping up till he was flush with the line of his back. “Like jumping into a cloud. I thought you might like my little gift, but you’re right - this is sexier. And just as easy. Why don't you? Painless, quick. Not like what you’ve been doing, what you’re doing right now - so slow, so painful. It’s agonizing to watch -- well, for everyone else. I’ve been enjoying it. But this, we could both enjoy.”

He knew the terrace was beneath them, and not even that far down, but he couldn’t see it for the fog. Moriarty was right, it would be like falling into nothing. He felt as if he had actually indulged in Moriarty’s offer, that he had already plunged the needle into his vein. The thought of it was soothing. It made him forget Mary, for a moment.

“For John,” Moriarty whispered. “What wouldn’t you do for John? You think the little mixup with the party is all I’ll do to him? As long as you’re here, I promise you, I’ll make sure he never forgets. And I barely have to lift a finger, because you’re already doing it for me. You can see that, can’t you? Your presence is slowly destroying him.”


The fog had drifted through the windows now, smelling of salt and seaweed, the kind of brackish damp that clings to everything. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept, he was so tired, but there was something, something, he had to do -

“For John,” Moriarty repeated, “to bring him peace. If he can never love you, not like her, what’s the point of living? Staying alive is just that.... staying. There’s an easy solution.”

He knew that beneath this window was the stone terrace. He could visualize where each individual flower pot would be, but he couldn’t see anything beyond that cloud of sea air. He wasn’t tied to anything, not this place, not to this life. The only thing grounding him was the pressure of Moriarty, along his back. If he did jump, he wouldn’t see anything. The stone wouldn’t rise up to meet him, only the pure driven white of fog. The anguish he felt, the cold pit in his heart, it could all soon be over. He would do anything for John. If John wanted to be alone again, with his memories of Mary…. He heard John saying that they should have never returned to Manderley, John calling after him, not wanting him to go their cottage. A man in John’s position could never divorce. The only way out of an unwanted marriage, logically, would be in death. If that was what John wanted.

“Go on then,” Moriarty soothed him. “For John.”

He wondered if Moriarty had really drugged him after all, or whether the man was capable of hypnosis. Or maybe he hadn’t resisted the call of the hypodermic syringe, and remembered himself being stronger than he was. All that filled his senses was the cold, sharp smell of the sea, and the sound of it against the shingle beach. And John. Even now all he could think of was John. He had to either die for John, or live for him, but he couldn’t remember which any more. The sea was calling him, and seemed to answer the unasked question. It wanted to claim him, like it had Mary.

His body relaxed, and he felt himself begin to fall forward, over the railing. At this moment, the sound of a shot being fired startled him from whatever trance he had entered.

He reared back from the window ledge, Moriarty moving away from his back. For a disorienting moment, he thought Moriarty had shot him.

His eyes snapped open as the glass in the window pane shook, and he whipped his head to stare at Moriarty’s blank face. There was another blast, and then another. Rockets. It was the sound of rockets.

“The signal,” he said aloud, still dazed. “For a ship in distress, out on the shore.”

The shore, where John had spent the night, in that little cottage along the cove. He wondered if John had gone out this morning, in a small boat. If the flares were signalling that it was John in need of help.

His wits returned to him in a sharp, painful flurry of activity within his mind. He couldn’t understand what had just happened, how he had been overtaken by Moriarty. As his mind cleared, he knew, he knew that this would be the last of his childish self-pitying, the last of his selfish pursuits for things to make him stop feeling. Moriarty had only been so close to success because he had spoken his own thoughts to him, things he secretly had wished for.

But he knew that was wrong. His death could never bring John anything but pain, and guilt. Like in his dream, where he went down one path and John another, he had almost left John to struggle through this life alone. He knew now which path he needed to be on.

He would, however, take Moriarty’s suggestion to heart. He would kill himself. Not in the literal sense, but figuratively. He would kill his old self, whom he was done with now, once and for all. The person who was haunted by a dead woman, who let her name written on a page or a handkerchief take over his good sense and his confidence. He had been slowly growing away from that old self naturally, he realized, his feet becoming sturdier beneath him, and he had almost let a small hitch ruin all his progression. He didn’t know that part of himself any more, that nameless person.

This, the most decisive moment of his life, all occurred within a few seconds. Moriarty was still watching him, curious. Wondering if he would still go through with it. Moriarty still thought he’d won.

He felt himself beginning to smile, and then he started to laugh.

“What?” Moriarty asked, “What is it? What did I miss?”

“Sherlock,” he said simply.

That was his name, after all.

Moriarty, for once, appeared confused, though mostly unimpressed. He wasn’t overly angered that his game hadn’t worked. Moriarty liked a challenge too well, and oh, he would give it to him.

He’d been letting a lowly insect whisper in his ear, leading him down a path of misery and doubt, giving a dead woman more power than she had. Whatever hold Moriarty had over John, he had to protect John from him all the same. He would take back Manderley from her and her minion, if it was the last thing he did, if only for him to return it to John.

But first, he had to find John. The rocket signals. He was done with Moriarty, for now. He brushed past him, as if still in a dream. He offered no further parting words beyond the statement of who he was. He didn’t have time for the petty indulgence of Moriarty’s tricks. He tucked the case into the inner pocket of his suit jacket, planning to deal with it later. He ran down the West corridor, and down the stairs into the main entranceway, stopping only to grab his coat from the hall. He was vaguely aware of servants calling after him, but he couldn’t hear anything beyond the sound of rockets.

He couldn’t see more than a foot in front of him through the fog, but he knew his way without sight as he crossed the stretch of the lawn. He thought of the window of the West wing, just behind and above him, but he did not turn back to look. He climbed the slope of the lawn and continued into the woods, where the fog grazed the tops of the trees. When he eventually arrived at the split in the trail, without hesitation he went down the righthand path to the cove.

There was little warning, beyond his memory, for when he reached the shingle beach. As his feet slid across the round stones beneath them, the fog seemed to lift. He could see the clear outline of a ship that had come ashore, approximately two miles away, with its bow facing the cliffs. The stern was tilted by the ship’s contact with the reef, creating a stirring image. Due to the poor visibility, the sailors had likely confused their little bay for the Kerrith harbour. Luckily, the sea was calm. The people on board would be safe. The owner of the vessel, however, would not be regaining their ship in one piece.

He had known rationally that it wouldn’t have anything to do with John, and that the momentary fear that John was in danger, somehow, would be unfounded. He felt relief nonetheless.

It didn’t matter what had happened last night, or this morning. He could move past anything, do anything, as long as John was safe.

And, as suspected, so were the people aboard. There were life boats already in the water, and someone yelling unintelligibly through a megaphone. He looked up to see that a crowd had formed along the top of the cliffs, which were open to the public. He heard the sound of another motor boat, and saw uniforms, indicating the harbour-master. The situation was well in hand.

But he had still not found John. He doubted John would remain in the cottage at the time of a shipwreck, though he checked the windows just in case. Finding it empty, he began the slow climb of the cliff face. Someone atop would know, he had a feeling.

More people had gathered by the time he’d reached the top. As he came closer, he spied Lestrade in the midst of the throng, currently speaking to the coast guard. The coast guard saw him first, and appeared to recognize him.

“Come to see the shipwreck, Mr Watson?” the coast guard asked, overly jovial given the circumstances.

“Where’s John?” he asked Lestrade, barely glancing at the man who had addressed him.

Lestrade turned at the sound of his voice, surprised momentarily to see him. “He’s gone into Kerrith with one of the sailors,” Lestrade responded. “One of the crew thought it’d be a genius idea to jump from the ship once it struck. Mr Watson was there before the alert signals, and found him holding onto a rock under the cliff, soaked and ill from all the swimming and rock-clinging. The sailor was bleeding, and the master went about temporarily mending him with supplies from the cottage.”

He sighed, aggrieved. John had already been helping before the signals had gone off, of course. John wasn’t even there, he’d gone to Kerrith. That wasn’t that far away by car however, so John would be back shortly. His skin itched with the knowledge that he’d have to wait even longer to see him. Of course he’d saved a sailor, damn that man’s caretaker tendencies.

“Is the master of Manderley a doctor?” the coast guard joked, obviously doubting John had done any such thing.

“He had an inclination for that area at one point, yeah,” Lestrade replied easily. “Just a passing interest, of course. Not suitable for a man of his position.”

“Well, if you’d like to know what they’re up to down there, Mr Watson,” the coast guard said, beginning the conversation he likely had expected to be having, “they’ve been exceedingly quick. The harbour master has already sent a diver down to see if the ship broke its keel. You can see through the binoculars, if you’d like.”

“What is there to see if the diver is currently under?” he asked, but took the binoculars regardless. The diver would be investigating where the ship had struck, and would find it unmoveable from the reef. The shipbreaker was going to make a mint. Fine, good, great - who cared? Where was John?

For a time, he watched the boats circling the ship waiting for the diver, through the offered glasses. The coast guard had likely not intended for him to keep the binoculars for so long, but then he shouldn’t have offered if he hadn’t wanted them borrowed. He allowed them to be swapped back and forth when the man became impatient for them.

Lestrade suggested he return to the house with him for breakfast, but he refused. He knew that when John came back, John wouldn’t waste any time returning to the house. John would come straight back to the wreck.

Eventually the diver resurfaced, and was returned to shore in one of the grey motor boats. There seemed to be a commotion amongst the several circling boats, and discussion occurring between them in the cove. Some of the sailors from the ship had returned to the shore to hear of the news, and there appeared to be animated talk. The moment he recognized a blond head with a cane walking into the group, he immediately pushed the binoculars back to their owner, and climbed back down to the shore.

The diver had already been returned to one of the boat’s, likely to be delivered back to the harbour master’s port. He descended the cliff face faster than he had climbed it - he could see one of the men who had spoken with the diver, the Captain of the sunken vessel by appearances, now talking to John. If he was quick, he would reach them in time to hear it.
“What news of the ship?” he called out, as he dashed down the last part of the slope. John turned his head to see him, wearing that alarming, unreadable expression he had unfortunately grown familiar with.

“Never mind what’s happened to the ship, Mr Watson,” the Captain replied. “That’s already being settled. There’s other news, from the diver.”

“Deliver it then, seeing as we’re both here,” he said, only half listening, still trying to catch John’s eye.

“I will sir, only, I hardly know how to break it to you,” the Captain hedged, looking in John’s direction.

“Whatever it is Captain, I’m sure we’d rather just hear it,” John said, resigned, and frustratingly still not looking back at him.

“I do truly hate to be the bearer of bad news Mr Watson. I imagine the past has been hard enough on the both of you as it is.”

He felt a dawning horror come over him, the knowledge of what was about to be said becoming immediately clear to him, but too late to do anything beyond watch John’s profile. John, with his face hardened, visibly dreading the Captain’s next words. John who was sharp enough to already know what bad news from the diver signified.

“While the diver was checking the ship's bottom, she saw another boat. A sailing boat, to be exact, just the hull on the bottom there. It’s completely preserved, hardly damaged at all she says. Given that the diver’s local, she’s seen it before of course. She found the late Mrs Watson’s sailing boat.”

John breathed in heavily, and lowered his head. His right hand came up to rub his forehead, and cover his closed eyes. He knew what this meant of course. There was about to be a reason the Captain felt the need to tell them this, rather than simply leaving them in peace.

“I swear, we would have left it alone if we could. I wish I didn’t have to tell you anything. But you see, the diver investigated the sailboat, and found that the door to the cabin and the portlights were closed. She looked into the cabin, and discovered it was full of water, likely filled by a hole in the bottom. And then, well, she saw more than she bargained for.”

The Captain’s speech halted as he looked around at the others on the shore, all of whom were thankfully busying themselves. He dropped the volume of his voice all the same. “She saw a body, on the cabin floor.” He swallowed, bowing his head in deference. “It’s… it’s decayed, but she’s sure it was a body. So, you understand why I had to tell you.”

By the end of the Captain’s speech, his attention had fully moved to John, who had at last dropped his hand from his face, and nodded. John’s face was drawn tight, lined and tired.
He felt ill.

He filled in the blanks. “That presents two distinct possibilities,” he said, thinking aloud. “Either my husband’s late wife had someone with her on the ship, or - “

“That’s enough,” John said sharply, his face lowering once more.

If there had been another person on board, someone would have been reported missing. And who would it have been? Mary Watson’s death had been famous, in the news for weeks. Someone shut in the cabin who was unaccounted for made no sense. They all knew what it likely meant - it was Mary in the cabin.

The horrible irony of him, just last night, thinking that he’d forced John to look at his dead wife dragged out from her grave. He watched John, absolutely sick for him, at having to constantly be reminded. Always reminded. He had to make things right, if he could.

The Captain was clearly distraught from performing his role as messenger, but luckily did not seem to be drawing any conclusions that he would voice out loud. “All we know sir, is that the body is there, and I’m sorry Mr Watson, but we’ll have to report it. I apologize for dragging your names through the papers once more, but there’s no way to get around it. I realize how difficult this must be on both of you, with the two of you here, settling down together, and then this has to come in -”

“Yes, thank you Captain, we appreciate your sympathies,” he interrupted, at last moving to John, and taking hold of his arm. “My husband and I need a break from all the activity I think, in light of the news.”

“Yes, of course -” the Captain said, but he was already steering John away from the cove, past the stone cottage, and far away from that still, calm sea.

He needed to support John. He had decided this morning - he was going to grow up, and be the good man he always had the potential to be. His own time for devastation and misery had come and gone last night and earlier this morning, but John’s was only just beginning. Part of killing his nameless self was facing all his fears, and his self esteem. This was his last chance to do right by John.

John seemed to need the walk. He left him to his thoughts, both of them walking side by side in silence. He hadn’t decided where he was taking John, beyond away, through the fog scaling the tops of the trees. When they reached the fork in the path, he reached for John’s arm once more. Perhaps against good sense, he led them down the left hand trail rather than back to the house. Manderley didn’t feel safe for them, not at the moment. He would take them to the Happy Valley, the one place he felt actually lived up to its name.

John did not say a word. He allowed himself to be guided, unresisting. When they entered the clearing, difficult to see through the mist, he reached for John’s hand. He lifted it, and placed it against his own cheek. John watched him, his eyes so tired, and so deeply sad. He felt as though he were looking at himself from the night prior, all his feelings reflected back at him.

“John,” he whispered, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am that this has happened.” He kissed the back of John’s hand, but stopped there, not sure it would be welcome for him to go any further.

“But, John, listen to me, you can’t keep bearing this burden alone. You’ve shut me out this whole time, perhaps to spare me from it,” he said, intense and focused. “I am begging you to share this with me. I've made up my mind to grow up, in twenty-four hours, if that’s what it takes. I'm not the child I was before that you needed to coddle, and I promise to you that I never will be again.”

To his surprise, John’s expression fell, his face crumpling, before John pulled him close into a tight embrace. Overwhelmingly relieved, he thought of nothing else but hugging John back, and burying his face into the space between John’s head and shoulder.

“I’m sorry for last night, John,” he pleaded. “I didn’t mean to, but I am sorry all the same. I’m sorry I snapped at you, instead of - apologizing.”

When John finally spoke, his voice betrayed the fatigue that the morning and previous evening had wrought on him. “Forgive you?” John asked. “For what?”

“Last night, the costume,” he said, a bit amused, despite their current situation.

“I’d forgotten,” John murmured. “But I already told you. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

John continued to hug him, tucking his chin on the top of his head. He had to bend himself to manage it, but he didn’t care. Reluctantly, he pulled back from John’s neck to speak clearly. It was important John saw his face, that John saw he was serious.

“John,” he started, “I’m asking you to begin again with me today, so that we can face things together from now on. I promise I won't ask you for anything that you can’t give, nothing beyond the warmth and constancy of your friendship. In turn, I vow to always be your friend and companion. But to do this, I need you to let me help you.”

John was watching him with a look of abject wonder, but it was still too sad for his liking. John, still leaning on his cane, reached out and cupped his cheek with one hand, mimicking his gesture from earlier. The lack of sleep from the night before, and the weight of the news, showed in the lines in his tightly drawn face, and bags beneath his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” John said simply. “It should be me apologizing, and making promises. But it’s too late. The game is over.”

He couldn’t stand the defeat in John’s tone. “The game is never over, John.”

“No, you don’t - you don’t understand. If you did, you wouldn’t offer me your friendship, which is still more than I deserve.”

John was right, he didn’t understand. Was this more of John’s guilt, for not sharing with him earlier that John could never love anyone else? He had just said none of that mattered! He had spared John the need to tell him those things, by facing and accepting them preemptively. What else could John mean?

John sighed, and then seemed to reassemble himself. His posture changed, his back ramrod straight. It was a military stance. John was preparing for the worst. He couldn’t fathom it.

“You’re going to figure it out on your own soon enough. I know you. Somehow, by some miracle, it hasn’t occurred to you yet, but with this - this thing that I have been sick with dread about - with that, there’ll be no way to keep you from it. God, this whole time, always wondering when you’d finally realize -”

He tried to cut John off. “John it’s fine, whatever this is, I’ve already said I don’t care about that.”

“What -” John said, startled and then confused. He held up his hand, as if to pause him. “Hold on - what exactly do you think you know?”

“That you still love Mary. That you always have, and that you always will. I understand that John. I’m sorry that I ever tried to change it. We can still be happy like this, with what we are, when you help me with my cases and I -”

“Sherlock,” John said - his name, John had said his name, and it cut through all other thoughts like a hot knife through butter. John must have said his name before. John must have said his name many times before. He felt as if he’d never been able to truly hear him, but he was ready to hear it now.

“Sherlock,” John repeated, “listen to me, very carefully, and know that I understand if you can’t - if you can’t stay with me after you hear it.”

He nodded, thinking he knew what John meant. John needed to say this himself, and he was prepared to listen to the words he had long dreaded.

“Mary didn’t drown while she was out sailing.”

“What?” he asked. They’d just found her ship. With her body in the cabin. She’d somehow locked herself down below, and then the stormy weather had overtaken it. Surely, that was the most logical answer. Unless, John was suggesting….

“I can see you’re on the right trail,” John said, with a wry smile, at odds with the tone of the conversation.

“You’re saying,” he said, his mind beginning to spin the implication of John's statement, “that she died before she was on the boat. That someone killed her and made it look like an accident.”

That was certainly plausible, but what had given John cause to suspect it? And if it was true, how could John have guessed at it before him, with the evidence they currently had?

“John,” he murmured, mulling it over, exploring the possibility - what it could mean, and who could have done it. “- how could you possibly know that?”

“Because,” John said, “I killed her.”

Chapter Text

If Sherlock had been capable of moving a single muscle, he would have blinked.

Instead, he was frozen in silence, waiting for John to laugh. In a moment, John would reveal his shocking statement had been a jest made in poor taste. Revenge, perhaps, for the night before. John was joking, surely, and he just couldn’t tell. The fog around them made it difficult for him to tell much anything, in truth.

It was starting to make it hard for him to see John.

“Sherlock, did you hear me?” John asked. The sound of his voice was muted.

Though that wasn’t quite right. John’s voice was of course at its average volume.

It was the noise in his head that was the problem.

He was still able to hear him, though faintly. John’s queer edginess had returned, and it was that same fear he’d perceived in John so many times before. Whenever Sherlock had gotten close to something, to anything connected to John’s past with Mary, this was how John had looked and sounded. He had finally discovered the source of it, the answer to the great mystery of what ailed John Watson, and it was not something he could have ever imagined.

“John, I don’t understand,” he said weakly. Sherlock didn’t understand because it didn’t make sense. He had misheard him. He had misheard John, and this was a joke. Because John would never have –

“I killed Mary,” John said plainly. “I shot her in the cottage in the cove, and then I carried her body into the sailboat cabin. To make it look like an accident, I took the boat out and made sure it sank. Do you understand now? This is what I had decided to tell you, before I lost my bloody mind waiting for you to sort it all out. And this is why I can’t ask anything of you, not even friendship, let alone - anything else.”

John was speaking to him, telling him things that were indescribably inconceivable, and he felt nothing. Though that wasn’t quite right either. It was rather that he felt too much. He couldn’t settle on any one feeling. It was quieter now, but there was still a slight buzzing in his head. His entire skull had been packed full of cotton again, as it had been when John had asked him to marry him.

While he stood stiffly, half wondering if he’d fallen asleep from exhaustion and was in fact dreaming, John in contrast became a live, wild thing. John reached out toward him in a sudden burst of movement, his cane making a dull thud when it hit the ground. He cupped Sherlock’s face in both of his hands, and his thumbs made twin paths across Sherlock’s cheekbones. John looked at him like a drowning man looks at a lifeboat one mile out of reach, and then, with unrestrained fervour, began kissing his lips.

It was not like other kisses he had come to expect from John, where John was painstakingly gentle, treating him like glass. It was hard, and honest, and anguished in a way that was as frightening as it was thrilling. It felt like John was saying goodbye.

“God, I love you,” John whispered, sounding as if the words had been wrenched out of him. “I love you, so much, more than I even know how to say.”

There was a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach, like the feeling of falling from a great height. He realized it was loud in his mind because the beating of his heart was almost deafening. Had he heard that? Had he really heard John say those words? Was it possible he was being given all that he wanted, directly on the heels of being told an entirely different fantastical impossibility? Or, was this all a fabrication, imaginary, from all the days and nights he’d desired it to be true, wanting to hear the words?

He’d never been more overwhelmed in his life, and John continued kissing him through it, pressing his thin lips against his own, and saying his name over and over whenever he broke away. John was saying “Sherlock,” softly, desperately, repeatedly. It was as painful as it was perfect.

Except then, John was pulling away. The hands, that had just been holding his face so dearly, were drawing away to rest on his shoulders. Why was John stopping? Unless it was true, that he had imagined everything, everything John had said -

“I was right, wasn’t I?” John asked, his voice pitched low, his eyes downcast. “If there’d been a chance before, it’s gone now. And besides, you don’t - feel things that way.” John’s hands had now completely left his person, all contact between them severed. John laughed, high and strange. It pierced through the noise in his head. The sound of it was distressing.

“Forget I said that,” John told him, hurried, and looking down towards his forgotten cane, “I’m sorry, I won’t do that again.”

His heart’s previously thunderous but steady thumping skipped a beat in alarm.

“The chance isn’t gone, John,” he insisted, willing himself to return to the moment, to be present, to react. “Don’t say that, you’re not allowed to say it. There’s always a chance, for us.”

John backed away further and laughed again, that soft, sad laugh. “I don’t know what you think you owe me, but you were as stiff as a board just now, you can just say it - I won’t be angry, Sherlock, it’s all fine -”

No - no, no, no - that was all wrong, how could John have gotten it all so wrong?

“John,” he demanded, husky and breathless. “I want you to kiss me again.”

“What?” John asked, his voice still strained. “I shouldn’t have done that in the first place, you should be distancing yourself from me - ”

“Please, John,” he pleaded, not caring that he was begging.

He was grateful for his lack of shame when John rushed back to him at once, one hand holding his hip, the other reaching to touch the back of his neck. John guided his head down towards him once more and Sherlock allowed himself to be pulled, unresisting. He was ready this time, and when John’s lips finally touched his again, he kissed back with everything he had.

John said that he loved me, Sherlock thought, claiming John’s lips again and again, frantic.

“John,” he heard himself saying, each time they broke apart. “We can’t lose each other. We need to stay together. Just the two of us, against everyone and everything else in this damn world.”

John exhaled, his face still contorted with misery. Sherlock kissed the corner of John’s eye, to smooth the wrinkles there.

“Believe me, I want that, more than anything,” John whispered back to him, his voice nearly breaking. “But there’s no time now. We only have maybe another few hours, perhaps a few days at most. They’ve found the boat, and Mary. Mary’s actual body. It’s all over.”

Sherlock’s lips were still in contact with John’s cheek, and he pulled back slightly to speak. The numbness of the shock was beginning to recede and he was able to think again - something he hadn’t been doing enough of lately, or too much of, depending on one’s perspective. He had certainly overthought the fancy dress ball to disastrous results.

“They’ll be able to correctly identify her body based on whatever clothes or jewelry remains,” he commented, inferring what John meant.

“And then they’ll know I identified the wrong body,” John concluded. Solid John, John who knew what that would mean, and that he would need to confront it.

But he didn’t have to do any of this alone.

“John, listen to me,” he said, grasping John’s upper arms with both hands and bending himself so as to be directly at face level. “You have to say that was a mistake, an honest mistake. A body was found in the water, hardly recognizable, and a body for Mary hadn’t turned up yet - of course you were biased into thinking it was your late wife.”

“There’s much more than just that. That’s only the first in a string of things that will all point back to me. If they’ve found the boat, I haven’t any hope,” John said. John’s expression didn’t betray fear any more, only resignation. So brave, in the face of what John believed was the inevitable.

Sherlock was thankful his faculties had fully returned to him, otherwise his gears wouldn’t already be turning over how to protect John from the outside forces that would try to pull them apart.

“You didn’t mean to kill her, obviously, it was an accident,” he stated, his hands releasing John momentarily to gesture along with his train of thought. “If it comes out, perhaps we can use that….”

“How can you be so sure? That I didn’t mean to kill her,” John asked, strangely desperate. John hadn’t tried to defend himself at any point in their conversation - but then, John didn’t need to, not to him.

“Someone who had intended to murder wouldn’t feel this kind of regret. And you’re not stupid enough to have premeditated such an easily unearthed crime,” Sherlock said confidently, his strength returning to him in the face of John’s doubt.

“You know more about human nature than you let on,” John said, smiling softly, in spite of it all. “And you’re right, of course, you always are. I didn’t mean to kill her,” John affirmed. “I can explain it, though it’s a long story.”

“I have the time,” he said, beginning to see the situation as a case, approaching it as a problem that required a solution. Sherlock had to think of a defence, and to do so, he needed to know the entire sequence of events.

Shortly, everyone would know that it was Mary’s body in the sailboat. The diver, the Captain, the harbourmaster, the coast guard… The news would spread like wildfire. Possibly in a few hours, but certainly by the next morning, everyone would know that Mary was not currently in the family crypt. It would be in the papers. John was right in that they didn’t have much time.

John would be relying on him now, would need him to devise their strategy. Sherlock needed to think, to properly think. Which required a brief mental exercise. “Hold that thought,” Sherlock instructed John, and resting the tips of his fingers against his temples, eased his way into his mind palace.

When Sherlock opened his mind’s eye, he was in the entranceway of the Hotel Cote d’Azur. His mind worked in mysterious ways, at times surprising even to himself. His organization system, which had once been a childish assembly, an unconnected collection of places used for storage, had reoriented itself. And of course, it had done so around the place he had first met John.

Which was immensely convenient, as he knew exactly where he needed to go. He walked across the well worn carpet of the hotel lobby, passing where John had once caught a runaway bellhop, beneath the high ceiling and decorations he had once thought vacuous, and into the lift. Without direction, it began ascending till it eventually jerked to a stop at John’s old floor.

Through the lift’s metal screen, he could see a figure standing at the end of the hall. It was Mary - or at least, the Mary he had invented in his imagination. She was faceless, blonde, perfect. As he pulled back the lift door, question marks materialized in the air around her, and the dark shadow of John loomed just over her shoulder.

Mary hadn’t drowned. John had killed Mary. John had shot her in the cottage, and then moved the body to the boat and had sunk it.

He was overcome by a montage of events, past clues he had unknowingly been accumulating. They flashed through his mind, memories projected at rapid fire onto the tableau of John and Mary at the end of the hall. John saying that something had happened to him that past year, which had altered his entire life, that he had needed a new start. John’s sadness, his guilt, and never, ever speaking of Mary. John’s fear of him going to the cove, to the cottage, thinking that he might find something there that would reveal the murder. John saying not all memories were ones worth remembering. John’s reaction to him mentioning the first murder that had intrigued him, the boy Carl Powers, that had been made to look like a drowning. John not sleeping after Mary died, John pacing, John developing a limp caused by psychological distress. Wilkes, saying for the whole hotel to hear, “They say he’s completely gone to bits over his wife’s death…”

“Does anyone know?” he asked, his eyes snapping open to look into John’s vaguely concerned, and now startled face. This was the most crucial detail. Wilkes’ loud mouth had reminded him - John’s suffering had been interpreted by everyone as grief of the most devoted nature. Even he had been fooled. This could be used to their advantage. “Does anyone else know?”

“No one, except,” John paused, before reluctantly admitting, “I believe that Moriarty suspects. Or at least, he knows well that he could accuse me of it. He’s never said anything, not explicitly, but he has a way of letting you know that sort of thing. He knows at the very least that if I let him go, it would appear suspicious. He’s hung it over my head for a year.”

Sherlock closed his eyes over the obviousness of the revelation. Of course. John had seemed angered by Moriarty when they first arrived at the house, and had been angered again over Magnussen. And yet, John put up with Moriarty’s insubordination, never terminating his late wife’s servant. John had been under Moriarty’s thumb the entire time. No wonder John had run away from Manderley. No wonder John had never wanted to come back.

“Anyone else?” he asked, though John had already named the worst person he could have provided.

“No, no one else.”

“But how could it have happened?” he wondered aloud. The visit to his mind palace had provided him the opportunity to assemble puzzle pieces of John’s past behaviour, but had not in any way explained the event itself. “You would never have drawn a gun on someone without cause, you treat firearms with care and respect. You would only shoot to kill if in self defence, or in defence of someone else’s life.”

“I suppose I’m glad you think that of me,” John said. “Would you like me to tell you?”

“No, no, I need to understand it this way. An accident, an accident,” he murmured, trying to make sense of it. John killing his beloved Mary, by accident - this was much worse than he had ever thought. “There had to have been an attacker. You tried to shoot Mary’s assailant, but the bullet hit her instead, by mistake. Was it Anderson, the man from the beach?”

Anderson was a bit mad, and easily frightened, and had seemed to have a penchant for going into that cottage. John would never have condemned a man to an asylum if he seemed otherwise harmless beyond one episode - but then, how forgiving could John honestly be?

“It wasn’t Anderson, Sherlock,” John said, bringing the runaway train of his possible explanation to a grinding halt. “There was an assailant, but there wasn’t a third person.”

He felt his brow furrowing. John meant -

“Mary shot me,” John said. “And I shot back.”

For the hundredth time that day it seemed, he was to be rendered almost completely speechless.

“What?” he asked, dumbly.

“Mary tried to kill me,” John stated, looking away for a moment, needing a moment to gather his thoughts. John’s hand, characteristic of him dealing with unpleasantness, clenched and unclenched several times.

“I’d just got back from London,” John began, looking deeply uncomfortable, and anywhere other than at Sherlock. “Someone had seen her out with one of her many lovers. Luckily, they’d just assumed it had been a family member and nothing untoward, but I knew I had to confront her about discretion. I went down to her cottage the moment I got back. I took a gun with me, in case one of her affairs was with her, just to - God, I don’t even know - I suppose, to scare them off. But she was alone, and looking for a fight. Well, more than that, seeing as she actually drew a gun on me,” John lashed out through clenched teeth, breathing hard, before resuming his explanation.

“I tried to tell her off about being in public with another man, but of course she reminded me I was powerless to stop her. I’d never have a leg to stand on in a court of law, if I had ever wanted a divorce. I tried to leave, but I guess she didn’t want me walking out after that, actually thinking I could challenge her. She reached for her purse. She carried one of those small pistols, a derringer. It’s difficult to even remember what was said, or why she would have, I just know - she shot me. When I saw the gun, I moved to get out of the cottage, but she still got me in the shoulder. And then I - stupidly - shot back. The only difference being, my shot didn’t miss.”

“Of course,” Sherlock whispered. He’d never seen John’s naked torso, and maybe that was for a reason. John had been shot in the shoulder. John had been ill for several days after Mary’s death, not letting anyone see him, because he’d been hiding a bullet wound in his shoulder. John, with an amateur interest in medicine, removing the bullet, and suturing his own wound. It was a cruel irony that John had successfully concealed that rather incriminating injury, only to have his emotional and mental distress manifest itself in his leg.

What Sherlock had once considered impossible now merely seemed improbable, and what remained was the truth, nonetheless. The Mary in his mind was beginning to fill in, and the face painted on looked sinister.

While Sherlock had immediately known John couldn’t have intended to murder his wife, he hadn’t taken that thought to its next logical conclusion. He was still so deeply entrenched in one way of thinking. Confirmation bias - he had focused only on the evidence which supported his presumption, and had ignored anything that contradicted it.

He had believed in a Mary that didn’t exist, a Mary whom everyone adored. Mary, the ideal wife, whom John still loved – not this other woman who had, apparently, wanted John dead. Which was the real sticking point. The details made sense, but the motive did not.

“No, not ‘of course’ actually, I still don’t understand. Why would you and Mary have been shooting at each other?” he asked, his hands leaving his temples in frustration.

“We hated each other,” John said, slowly, so he would understand. “I never meant to kill her, and I’ve regretted it every second of every day of my life since, but God I hated her. If you’d known her you’d understand. Or, maybe you wouldn’t have. She could fool anyone. Before I met you she was the cleverest person I’d ever known. She knew how to take people in, win them over. Smart, funny, goodness incarnate - anything you wanted her to be, she could be. She did it to me, for as long as she needed to. I had to marry, continue the line, and she made herself the perfect candidate at the perfect time. Right after the estate came into my name on its last legs. Once I realized who she really was, we were already engaged.”

John paused, his expression grim, but appeared relieved as well. John spoke as though he had been holding this back for quite some time, and at last it was able to spill out without repercussions.

“The top of that hill I took you to once when we were in Monte, the one where I told you that you helped me blot out a memory. That’s where she revealed herself to me, so to speak. The things she told me about herself, then... just hearing them was enough to make me sick. Christ, you have no idea how much of an idiot I was. I’d honestly thought she was interested in me, genuinely interested. I was stupidly optimistic, hoping we would grow to be fond of each other. But even when I knew that would never be the case, I went through with it anyway. Manderley had been suffering back then, financially and in the public eye. She made a deal with me, a bargain on top of that hill, that she would bring Manderley back to what it once was. That we would be the most envied couple in all of England.”

John stopped once more, drained by his ongoing confession, having spoken more in one conversation than he had in weeks. “Do you understand what I’m telling you?” John asked, his voice raised. “I hated her, but I never divorced her. I debased myself for this wretched place. I put Manderley first.”

John met his eyes with defiance, daring Sherlock to scorn him, call him an idiot maybe, or a coward. Something Sherlock could not have done, even if John had begged it of him. John’s family had ingrained in him that honour and the family name were to be prioritized over the individual, and John had taken whatever measures were available to do right by them. Sherlock’s admiration for John Watson, if anything, only had cause to grow.

“You hated Mary,” Sherlock repeated weakly. After all this time, after constantly hearing everyone sing her praises, it was like being told that up was down, or that night was day.

The fog around them was starting to thin, but he felt more removed from his surroundings than ever.

Mary being cruel, calculating. Mary having affairs, and bringing them back with her to the cottage. Sherlock recalled Anderson on the beach, insisting that he hadn’t seen anything, and begging to not be sent to the asylum. Sherlock had wondered who would be monstrous enough to threaten a harmless simpleton with such an action. It seemed he had an answer.

“Yes, Lord, I did. And now she’s won. Mary knew she would, too,” John choked out in anger, with such a cold ferocity, a side of John he had hardly ever seen. “Do you know, even as she died, she was smiling? Because she knew this would happen. She knew I’d go down for it. That I could never move on.”

“I almost lost my mind,” John murmured like an afterthought. “Waiting, every day, for it to finally happen. Trying to act normally, trying to be normal – something I’ve learned I’m not much good at, trying to be ‘normal’ – which is how I got into this bloody mess. And Moriarty hanging over me, like this dark, twisted thing. All these people, offering their sympathies, and me knowing that everything I said was a lie.”

“John, none of that matters now,” Sherlock insisted, exiting from his dazed state once more to stop John from tailspinning into a panic. “The worst of what you were dreading has happened, and now all we can do is work with what we have.”

John looked at him in amazement, wonder, and Sherlock realized now, with honest, open affection. John looked at him with love, and it was the way John had always looked at him.

“I do love you,” John said, confirming the sentiment he was just beginning to comprehend. “I nearly told you that, so many times, but it always felt like too much, too soon. And now I’m saying it when it’s far too late. I should never have dragged you into this with me at all. You can’t stay with me through this. It would be better to separate, rather than be smeared along with me.”

“Why didn't you tell me?” Sherlock asked, uninterested in the rest of John’s self-sacrificial speech. All this time, they could have been together, fully together - the idea of it was dizzying.

“You were always so distant,” John said, his brows knit together. “You were so independent, finally able to do your work in peace, without Wilkes hanging over you. You were either out in the woods or about the house with Gladstone, and working all night instead of coming to bed - and I know what that means. And then when you did – when you were affectionate, it always seemed to be out of pity, like when I fell on this path. Or, like you were returning the favour. You even said that, that day in the library, that you stayed with me so you could beg off Wilkes.”

Sherlock couldn’t believe this, the idea of it – that John had misinterpreted him so badly, and that he in turn had done the same with John. That John didn’t know, that John still didn’t know –

“How did I not see it?” he wondered aloud. “And all those times you wanted to say it, why didn’t you?” He was repeating himself, which he hated, but he didn’t understand. It couldn’t be possible that John didn’t think Sherlock loved him, that John didn’t know it every day, see it pouring out from him every second.

“I thought you were bored of Manderley. Or, worse than that – I thought you were already bored with me. You seemed so unhappy here, and I could understand it. I'm so much older than you, and you’d agreed to this under less than ideal circumstances. You were always talking with Lestrade, much more than you ever did with me,” John explained, and his voice soured toward the end. He realized John was jealous, that John had been jealous.

“John, you’re hardly that much older, and never doubt what I agree to – if I was bored of you, I would say so in no uncertain terms,” Sherlock assured him, completely amazed that John could have thought these things, essentially mirroring his own doubts and insecurities.

John still appeared unconvinced.

John,” he cried - how could John somehow not know this, this, which had been so obvious to everyone else whom had ever seen them together? “I barely ever even speak to Geoffrey if I can help it! I gave him permission to write letters to my brother on my status, and sometimes made a show of reviewing them. And at other times, it was to ask things I couldn’t ask you. How could I ask you about Mary and what happened, when I believed you thought of nothing but your grief for her loss?”

Unspoken, but implied: how could I have asked you to love me when I thought you loved only her?

John, at long last, stepped back towards him. The movement was gradual, almost experimental. John’s eyes roved over his face, searching. “What are you talking about?” John asked. “Why would you think that?”

He groaned, exasperated. “You acted like a deeply heart-broken man, pining after a love that could no longer be returned! I thought you were constantly reminded of her here, and were always comparing me to her, and thinking how unlike each other we were.”

“Oh my God!” John cried. “Me, comparing you to Mary? Thank God you’re nothing like her – my marriage with her was never anything more than a show for the public.” John drifted off, the pain in his expression only seeming to increase as he recalled it.

“You have no idea what she was like,” John said, clutching him by the arm. “How cold, and- and manipulative. I didn’t have a single moment of happiness with her. It was a nightmare from start to bloody finish.”

John was out of breath by the end of his tirade, and paused before he continued at a much lower volume. “If I acted like a man suffering from unrequited love, it’s because I was, and am. But it was never over Mary, it was always you, Sherlock, you - you -”

Sherlock realized that he had truly made the largest error one could make - reasoning without all the facts. John, John, who was always so gentle with him, always so careful, trying to do right by him, but not knowing how, and not knowing what it was he wanted. John, all this time thinking that his husband had made a rash decision, that he regretted the marriage, that he didn’t want him.

He couldn’t restrain himself any longer, and wrapped John up in his arms as tightly as he was able, and bent his head to kiss John’s face, his right eyebrow, his left cheek, the skin beneath his left eye -

“I couldn’t help myself in the end,” John murmured, accepting his kisses with a pained restraint. “I thought if I could at least make you happy, give you a certain amount of freedom… but all I did was trap you with me -”

“John,” Sherlock interrupted, strong and sure. It was inconceivable that John didn’t know this, but his John did sometimes need help with these things. “I am wildly, madly, and incomparably in love with you. I love you, with my entire heart and soul.”

All the breath seemed to leave John’s body in one long exhale, his guarded expression opening in honest surprise. John’s grip on him tightened, and he realized they were both clinging to each other like they were one another’s last lifeline.

“Don’t you dare ever say you wish you hadn’t brought me here,” Sherlock fumed, his intensity mounting, his need for John to understand overcoming all other thought. “I am meant to be with you, and not despite this, but for this. I love you, now, then, tomorrow, and the day after that, even if we are separated in the next few hours, or the next few days. It will be the two of us, against this, and everything else, together.”

“Sherlock,” John murmured in disbelief, before John was finally closing the gap to kiss him again with pure abandon. John’s tongue slipped past the seam of his lips, sending a frisson of heat down his spine. Sherlock thought of that night when he’d woken in John arms, grinding against him, and John spooning him from behind and bringing him off with his careful ministrations. John thinking that he wasn’t ready, that he hadn’t sought John out for sex, that Sherlock didn’t want him. John drawing away when he’d reached for him, John thinking that he’d felt he owed John something.

And then, Sherlock thought of John looking at him with exhilaration every time he deduced someone in Monte Carlo, every time Sherlock claimed he could flay someone open and see all their secrets. That queer intent look in John’s eyes – loving the thrill of the risk, the possibility of being discovered. In contradiction, John had sought out the danger he claimed to have feared.

“You’re a ridiculous man, John Watson,” he murmured into the kiss.

“Oh, how so?” John asked. It was the most carefree he had sounded since Mary’s boat had been found.

“While trying to conceal that you murdered your wife, you not only invited a man who solves murder mysteries for a hobby into your home, you went so far as to marry him.”

John laughed against his lips, a sweet high-pitched giggle. “God, that is mad,” John murmured back. “I’m absolutely mad, aren’t I?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Luckily, we both are. How mad do you think I can be?”

He pushed John backward, until the backs of his thighs hit the remains of a fallen tree in the clearing, the log the perfect height for leaning back against. He cupped John’s face in his hands to kiss him once, twice, and a third time, each softer than the last, before drawing away. John looked at him questioningly. Perhaps John thought he would now suggest they return to the house, rather than kissing in the mist where anyone could find them. John was quite mistaken.

He dropped to his knees in front of John, the soft ground cushioning the blow. There were still white azalea petals on the ground, difficult to see before through the fog. John made a soft sound in response, wonderingly beginning to ask, “Sherlock, what -”

Sherlock spread John’s legs, forcing John to sit on the high ledge that the tree offered, and began to undo John’s flies with more confidence than he felt. He performed all of this with driven focus, never having wanted anything more in his life. Knowing that John would finally let him have it, without guilt, spurred him forward. He had never done anything like this before, but despite his general naivety, he knew well what sorts of things men could do with each other. He only hoped that the lewd comments he’d often overheard, exchanged between young men at school, wouldn’t prove to be poor advice.

His breathing was loud to his own ears, but then, so was John’s. When he was finally able to reach into John’s trousers to draw his cock out into the open air, he couldn’t help but momentarily stop to appreciate the sight of it. He had estimated it in his mind of course, the shape, the look and feel, but nothing compared to the real thing. The foreskin was already drawn back over the head. If John wasn’t yet fully hard, he was about to be.

He stroked John first, wanting to get a sense of his girth, and remembered John doing the same for him. He prayed determination and care would make up for his lack of experience.

John gasped at the first touch and reached out to brush a curl back from his face. “You don’t have to –” John began to say, but broke off when Sherlock suddenly leaned down to lick at just the tip. Sherlock pulled back briefly.

“No, but I want to,” he said, and spurred on by John’s concern for him, widened his mouth and lowered himself to swallow the head of John’s cock.

John moaned and ceased discouraging him, instead slipping his hands back into Sherlock’s hair. It wasn’t to push or to pull, just to gently cradle his head. It took him a moment to work his lips around the substantial size of it, but he soon adjusted and set about taking in as much of John as he could, using his hand to make up for whatever he couldn’t accomodate. He had to pull off almost immediately to avoid gagging, but John hardly seemed to mind as he took his time. When he returned to his task he began to set a rhythm, sliding his mouth down over John’s flesh and up again, moving his hand in synchrony, with John’s hands in his hair lightly guiding his head back and forth. With the feeling of John’s hard length in his mouth and the sound of John’s moans in his ears, he repeated to himself, in utter and complete awe, ‘he loves me, he never loved her, he loves me –’

Sherlock knew his inexperience came across – likely he was sloppy, but he was a quick learner when dedicated to a subject. He settled into the pace he could tell John preferred best, and on every other stroke took John in as deeply as possible, making sure to swallow around the head (something he had heard did wonders).

This would have been more than enough for him, being filled by John, his senses completely attuned to him, but John, brilliant John, slid his right leg in and pressed it in between his open thighs. Sherlock groaned around John’s cock, which he could tell John liked very much, and began to rut against the offered leg. He was grinding in time to his swallowing of John’s cock and John was repeating his name, over and over, as if invoking a deity. He felt John’s hands in his hair tug at his head, trying to pull him off. But he would have none of it, continuing to move his mouth over John, tonguing at his slit till John’s come flooded his mouth and John said his name one last time.

Sherlock had thought he might find his own release against John’s leg, with John in his mouth, and a part of him was disappointed he hadn’t. He wiped at the side of his lips. As suspected, he’d been rather sloppy.

John was breathing heavily and murmuring, “Oh my God” repeatedly, but it only took him a few more deep breaths to recover. The moment Sherlock drew back from John’s splayed legs, John had dropped to the ground beside him, and was insistently pushing him down onto the bed of fallen azaleas.

His head was soon bracketed by John’s arms, with John’s mouth on his lips, and then his neck. It was rather like his dream John come to life, the mist surrounding them only lending credence to that impression. They were in their own little world for this one precious moment, and he couldn’t quite believe their incredibly good, and bad, fortune.

As John trailed his mouth downward, nipping at his throat, sliding fully down his body, he realized John’s intent. “You needn’t -” he stammered, but John only shushed him and began opening his trousers.

Sherlock was already incredibly turned on, and stimulated from the friction provided by John’s leg – he knew he wouldn’t last much longer than a few minutes at the mercy of John’s attentions. He had barely felt the cold air on his skin before John’s mouth was at the base of his cock, his tongue licking up the underside of his length. He keened, covering his mouth with his hand in surprise.

“You have no idea how much I’ve thought of you like this,” John growled, pressing his face into the place where Sherlock’s thigh met groin, kissing him there.

“Tell me,” he gasped, as John licked him again from root to tip.

“I’ve thought of almost nothing else – touching you, teasing you, for hours,” John murmured, before doing quite the opposite of teasing, and swallowing him down all at once. He cried out, his right hand restlessly touching the back of John’s head. John was talented, especially with his tongue, but it was the man’s words more than anything that drove him wild.

He grasped at John’s shoulders frantically, and John eventually drew away, allowing himself to be pulled back up till they were lying face to face. Without prompting, John wrapped his left hand back around Sherlock’s cock, now wet from John’s mouth, and began to pump. He could feel John’s wedding ring, warmed by the friction, pressing against his skin on every downstroke. Sherlock moaned helplessly, as John leaned forward to kiss it from him.

“I want to hear you,” Sherlock choked out, breaking away from John’s mouth. He was nearing his peak, feeling it coming over him. But he wanted to hear it first.

“Shouldn’t I be saying that to you?” John asked, his voice low and gruff in his ear. “And hear me say what?”

“You know what,” he panted. What I want to hear, what I’ve always wanted to hear, that I thought I never would.

John, moving his fist over Sherlock’s cock, his pace steadily increasing, looked directly into his eyes. “I love you, husband,” John said simply, and the dam within him burst, his eyes shut tight, hearing John’s words thrum through him.

John worked him through the tremors, and he shuddered against him, knowing that if that were true, anything in the world could be fixed.

It felt like an age passed before he returned to himself. A part of Sherlock had left his body to float up into the fog. Another part was still stuck in a continuous loop of newly acquired information – Mary’s body had just been found. John had killed Mary. John had hated Mary. Mary had not been who she had seemed. John could be discovered as the murderer at any moment. John loved him. John had married him loving him. John had always cared for him, with both small and large gestures. John had caught his release in a handkerchief, and was now using it to gently clean him off. They were lying on the damp ground of the Happy Valley, crushing the azaleas, and he would have to solve this all, somehow.

They both lay there for a beat, facing upwards. The tops of the trees were still not visible.

“What am I going to do about all this?” John asked softly, and possibly unintentionally.

“I think you mean what are we going to do about all this. And I don’t know,” Sherlock said. He hated not knowing. “But I’ll think of something. You’ll have to start at the beginning, again, and tell me everything.”

Chapter Text

While still lying on their backs in the valley, Sherlock prompted John to repeat the facts of the situation, confirming and reconfirming that John had left everything the night of the accident the way Mary would have, and that no one had seen him.

Sherlock asked a flurry of questions, whatever came into his mind: Were there any traces of blood? (No, as John had carried salt water back to the cottage, and scrubbed at any marks he could find.) Had truly no one helped John at all with the boat? (No, John had wrapped his shoulder, crudely, running on pure adrenaline during the setup, but had patched himself up on return to the house.) Had anyone ever seen his shoulder? (No, no one had helped John with the wound, and so no one knew of that either. John had sewn stitches into animal hide as a child, playing doctor, and had miraculously managed to do it himself, though apparently not until after much trial and error.)

Sherlock would have asked more questions and probed further, but John had largely returned to his senses, and had the wherewithal to remember that them staying outside for so long would begin to seem bizarre. Sherlock had to agree. Their behaviour would be under constant scrutiny from there on out, and nothing they did could seem suspicious.

After agreeing to discuss more later, John sat up stiffly from the damp ground, but rose to his feet without assistance from his currently misplaced cane. John even pulled Sherlock up without any sign of losing his balance, and they both made a futile attempt at cleaning the dirt from their clothing. John retrieved his cane from where it had fallen, almost as an after thought. On their return to the house, John proceeded to use it only so much as someone would use a walking stick.

Sherlock had always believed John’s limp came and went with his ability to forget, and now wondered if it was remembering which had unlocked the root of the issue. If John viewing his life as lost had been the cause of the phantom pain, the key to his relief was in believing that his past could be overcome. Sherlock desperately wondered if John understood it this way, but would not have drawn John’s attention to his cane for the world, not wishing to disturb John’s apparent miraculous recovery.

They continued in silence along the path back to the house, knowing that it was unsafe to continue any of their earlier conversation. Once they crossed the threshold of their home, they exchanged a look, knowing they would need to find a private place to speak. He had hoped to enter discreetly so as to avoid anyone seeing them, but Lestrade came to attend to them only moments later.

“I see you’ve heard the news,” Sherlock observed, affecting nonchalance. Everyone at the house would have heard about the boat by now.

“Yes,” Lestrade replied awkwardly. “We’re all sorry for it of course.” Lestrade wore a sympathetic expression, until he took in the sight of their mussed coats and trousers, which caused his eyebrows to rise several inches.

“It’s impossible to see anything out there,” Sherlock commented, almost overly loud. “I tripped and took John down as well, clumsy me. Better clean these.”

John was quick to nod in affirmation while Sherlock pulled the coat from his shoulders, and then his own, holding them both out to Lestrade expectantly.

“Right, of course, sir,” Lestrade complied, but he was smiling rather devilishly. Sherlock suspected he knew very well what had happened. Now, there was a rumour he wouldn’t mind the spread of. Though, on second thought, maybe not on the heels of John finding out his dead wife’s boat had been discovered with a body inside the cabin.

Before anyone could see them who wasn’t Lestrade, Sherlock ushered John into the library and closed the door behind them.

“The telephone will start ringing soon,” John said, sinking into his armchair and propping his head up with his hand. “Now, what other details did you want me to go over?”

“Shh,” Sherlock shushed him, walking over to John’s desk for a pen and paper. “We can’t speak here. I’ve eavesdropped on you from the library before, it’s remarkably easy to hear from outside.”

“You’ve eavesdropped on me?” John asked, his voice raised, using the tone that meant John found his behaviour bad, but not bad enough to care.

“Yes, when you spoke with Moriarty, that doesn’t matter right now,” he said, rifling through the desk for a blank page. “Either you write down everything so I can remember it, and then we burn it, or we wait to talk later in our bedroom. Which would you prefer?”

“Seeing as you’ve often complained that I write too slowly, I think we’d better wait,” John said. “And besides, what if I miss details in the account that you otherwise would just be able to ask me?”

“Fine, fine,” Sherlock agreed, pushing the paper back into the drawer. “But we can’t go up to the room just yet. We’re meant to be having tea in the library at this time. Or, is it stranger to upkeep rituals, to carry on as if nothing has happened?”

John stood from his chair, and crossed the small space between them. “Sherlock,” John said to get his attention, reaching to smooth a thumb over the top of his hand on the desk. “It’s fine. Just - be natural. Not every move needs to be calculated.”

Sherlock let out a long shuddering sigh, not realizing how tense he had become, wanting to be responsible for John. John had seen it in him, and would now start to return to his caretaker instincts, which he supposed he wouldn’t fight. Being in this together was a two-way street after all.

Then, just as John had said, the phone in the small room attached to the library began to ring.

John met his gaze. “I imagine that’ll be someone about taking the boat out of the water,” John commented with surprising ease, walking to the little room and closing the door behind him. It seemed John and he had swapped roles within minutes. The moment Sherlock displayed anxiety, John was serene, and vice versa.

Sherlock took John’s place in the armchair, hands steepled beneath his chin, and waited for the news. He needed to review all the facts, and discover what areas he might be missing. Sherlock, with eyes shut tight, relived the story he had just been told, based on the specifics John had provided. Sherlock imagined he had walked along the path to the cottage that night with John, and that after the act was committed, he watched John wrap his bleeding shoulder, knowing he would need to move a body regardless of the wound. Sherlock watched John carry her body to the cabin, drive holes into its planking, open the valves, all the while injured. John, on his last legs, cleaning away the evidence and stumbling back up to the house, his hand pressed into his shoulder, John knowing he would need to see to his own wound. John hiding in his room as the storm fully hit, the rain and wind howling, and finally, the confusion and guilt catching up with him.

He had lived John’s experience, and felt as if he had killed Mary, too. In some ways he had - he had killed the Mary existing in his subconscious. Learning that Mary possessed terrifying qualities had contradictorily only served to make her less terrifying. She had no power over him any more. Mary couldn’t hurt him, not from the grave, and not if he knew that John loved only him. Sherlock could go to the morning room, even the West wing, and he knew now that he would feel nothing.

This meant many things - namely, that he could be with and love John, knowing that John was completely his. It meant he could fight for John, and that Mary hadn’t won yet. She would lose ultimately, if he had any say in the matter.

It also meant Moriarty had played him spectacularly. Moriarty had known all along that John and Mary’s marriage had been a sham. That talk of John being jealous, and Moriarty finding them together in the bedroom - that had all been invented, hadn’t it? To lay him low, to manipulate him?

John eventually returned from the other room. Sherlock had no concept of how much time had passed, but it must have been some, as there was a tea tray in front of him that hadn’t been there before. Lestrade and Robert must have come in and out, all with him in deep thought.

“That was Colonel Barclay just now, and all the arrangements for pulling the boat out have been made,” John said as he closed the door behind. “Tomorrow morning the diver is going back down and they’re going to raise the boat. I’m going to go out with them.”

Colonel Barclay was the Kerrith magistrate, Sherlock’s memory provided him. He knew John, they were on good terms. That could work in their favour.

“I’ll come too,” Sherlock said, moving to rise from the chair.

“You don’t need to - ”

“John,” he interrupted. “I’m coming with you. What will they do with the boat once they have it? Where will it be taken?”

“Well, if the wood isn’t rotted, the crane will put it onto the lighter to take it to Kerrith. Then they’ll drain it in a bay and get the doctor to examine the body.”

John’s face was drawn tighter now than it had been before - the Colonel had asked about the body on the phone then.

“What did they say?” Sherlock prodded. “Did they ask you who the body could have been? What did you say?”

“I told them I don’t know who it could be. I had assumed Mary was alone.”

“And? What was his response?”

“Whether it might be possible that I’d made a mistake in Edgecoombe.”

Sherlock sighed. “They’re onto that already. You told them it was possible?”

John nodded once. “There’ll be an Inspector with us as well.”

“Yes, that’s typical for when a body’s been found.”

They lapsed into silence.

“It’s possible they won’t be able to raise the boat at all,” Sherlock said offhandedly, grasping for anything to say in comfort. “And in that case, we won’t even need be concerned about what the body might tell them.” That she had been shot and killed by a bullet, for example, he thought but did not say.

“We don’t know anything yet,” John said, moving closer to the window to look outside. The fog still hadn’t lifted. There was no wind, and none coming. The sea would be perfectly calm for the diver the next morning.

Their silence was interrupted again by the shrill tone of the telephone in the adjacent room. John moved to answer it this time without meeting Sherlock’s eyes, once again closing the door behind him. While Sherlock’s fear of Mary may have been gone, there was now a new dread growing within him. Could they escape this? Could he protect John from the law? Or, could the world really be this cruel - now that he could have John, would John be taken away from him?

John’s return to the library was faster than with the previous phone call. “Well!” John said with sarcastic enthusiasm, “it’s really started now!”

“What has?” he asked, his apprehension poorly concealed.

“The papers,” John said, his mouth twisted into a smile. He was furious. “That was a reporter, asking me if it was true that Mary’s boat had been found, and that a body had been found in the cabin, and who the body might be. They already know! How is that even possible?”

“That’s inevitable,” Sherlock said dismissively, simply glad it wasn’t anything worse - like the Inspector calling to ask them a few questions, before they’d had time to prepare. “Rather forward to directly ask the master of the house. I expected them to skulk around the lawns and grab at the servants.”

“God!” John exclaimed, rubbing his hand across his forehead. “These people can’t be stopped. And this is front page news, for this area anyway. I told them I didn’t know anything about the body, who it could be. And that I’d be much obliged if they never rang again!”

“John, in any other instance I’d encourage you to say far worse, but it might be wise to take care. You’ll only turn them against you,” Sherlock warned, approaching John and eyeing the door. They couldn’t be overheard speaking loudly.

“They were going to turn anyway! They always do, and I can't possibly stop them. Besides, I don’t care what they say about me. Maybe if I make enough of a spectacle of myself they’ll leave off you.”

“We may want them on our side John, and leave off me?” Sherlock asked, wondering if there was even a limit to John thinking about Sherlock’s wellbeing rather than his own. “Why would you care what they say about me?” he dropped his voice, heedful of the possible eyes and ears about the place. “My reputation isn’t the one we need to worry about.”

John stared at him as if he couldn’t believe him, before shaking his head. “If it comes to it, I will fight this alone. I’d rather that than newspapers backing me, I promise you that.”

Sherlock sighed. “They’ll only call someone else. The magistrate, or the captain of the ship that got us into this.”

“Let them talk then,” John said, and that was apparently to be the end of that. Sherlock rather missed the days of John chiding him to behave, but he had said he wouldn’t be a child any longer.

They returned to their assigned seating arrangement in the library, attempting to act out normalcy. Gladstone barked at the door to be let in, and Sherlock had never been happier to see him. John and him pet Gladstone in silence, before returning to their own room to change for dinner. They went through the motions, anxiously waiting for when they could be alone again behind closed doors. They ate in front of a silent Lestrade, till John caught his eye, signalling it was more than past time they had that chat.

They eventually were able to retreat to their rooms, the only place they could really speak in private. Sherlock wished he could make John forget the stress of the oncoming inquest, but he needed to prepare the both of them, which required pressing John for information. They would need to start now if he was to get John ready in time. John was not good at lying outright. However, John was in fact excellent at misdirection and choosing his words so as to not tell a lie at all. And they could certainly use that.

Sherlock ushered John into his chair in their room, and then dragged the chair from the dressing table to sit in front of him. He asked John to recount again how he had covered his steps, going over the sequence of events one more time. John repeated that he had copied everything Mary would have done - leaving the dinghy on the buoy, the cottage door locked. Moriarty had knocked on John’s bedroom door once he’d returned, but John hadn’t opened it.

Sherlock started his full inquiry, partially for his own knowledge, but also to act as a practice interrogation. A simulation of the courtroom was needed, since it was clear that an inquest would be unavoidable, if not a full-blown criminal trial. He asked John all the kinds of questions he could imagine John would be drilled with, so they could prepare their answers. The sailboat would be found with all its seacocks opened and holes in its hull, as John had intended for the boat to sink. They had to make the court believe these suspicious things had been natural, that the boat hadn’t been scuttled.

Sherlock began a tirade of questions: Had the seacocks on the boat’s hull been difficult to turn? Would they have already been open while the boat was in the bay? (“John,” Sherlock instructed, “say that Mary never had trouble with them.”) Where was the first hole in the boat in relation to the second? What was the state of the ballast? How would the stability of the boat been affected by the shifting of the ballast? Could Mary have performed all of this alone? Did the cabin door normally close so tightly? What was the water pressure required to burst the door open?

“Enough,” John pleaded, when his patience started to wear thin. “Enough Sherlock, please, I’ve already told you everything I know.”

“John, I know this is tiring, but it will be so much worse in court,” Sherlock said, but he dropped the matter, realizing he was exhausting John unintentionally. He reached out across the small distance between them to touch John’s knee, and John smiled back faintly, covering his hand with his own.

At once the chaste touch was not enough, not nearly enough, not now that Sherlock knew John would not object. He abandoned his chair for the carpet, easing his way across the floor till he could turn to rest his back between John’s legs and against his chair. John made a soft sound when he’d dropped down from his seat, but seemed more than willing to accommodate him if he wanted to sit at John’s feet. John began to run his fingers through Sherlock’s hair, and he tipped his head further back against the chair’s seat, humming in pleasure. He understood that John took comfort in caring for him. Allowing John to be the comforter rather than the comforted was the best gesture he could offer to calm his husband. Though, admittedly, it wasn’t entirely selfless, as Sherlock greatly appreciated the spoiling.

“I sank the boat too close in,” John murmured, his exhaustion almost stronger than his regret. “I should have taken the boat all the way out of the bay. They would have never found it then.”

“John, they don’t have any evidence against you, not yet,” Sherlock insisted, turning his head to speak over his shoulder. “By your account, no one saw you that night. You went to bed, and that’s all anyone can say as a witness. And, if you’re right, the reasons Mary cited for why you would never have been able to divorce her - your performances being too convincing to the public eye - will now be in your favour. They can’t prove anything against you.”

John was silent, still looking apprehensive, so Sherlock tilted his head back further in a plea for more finger-combing. John obliged him.

“I almost can’t believe you,” John whispered after a moment. “Can you really still… want to do this, with me? After everything I’ve told you?”

Sherlock fully twisted himself back around, craning his head to look up at John sharply. “I’ve told you quite explicitly that I do. What else can I say to convince you?”

The trouble was, John had been unsure of Sherlock’s interest even prior to revealing that he’d killed his wife in self defence. John had divulged so much of himself to Sherlock, while also dealing with the knowledge that his mistake could be discovered at any moment. Beyond confessing his own feelings, Sherlock had not reciprocated in kind.

The forgotten morocco case was now burning a hole in the large inner pocket of his suit jacket. Sherlock did have his own secrets to share. Perhaps now was the time. In light of recent revelations, John would likely be interested in knowing the nature of his interactions with Moriarty.

“The real reason why I ended up needing to work as a companion, in a roundabout way,” Sherlock began slowly, “was because I once had a drug habit.”

Sherlock turned his lower body, so that he sat fully facing John, able to see his incredibly shocked expression.

“You…?” John said with the corners of his mouth lifting, as though it was too ridiculous to be serious. Sherlock was relieved to hear the question in his tone was more surprised than accusatory.

“My brother cut me off because of it,” Sherlock explained, still kneeling between John’s legs, convenient for asking forgiveness. “Which put me at his disposal. Before you ask, I’m clean now, entirely. Aside from the indulgence of the occasional cigarette.”

John leant forward and reached for both of Sherlock’s hands which were currently resting atop John’s knees. “Well, good, as frankly I’m not overly fond of you poisoning yourself. But if it’s all in the past, what prompted you to tell me this now?”

“Because of this,” Sherlock replied, removing the case from its hiding place in his jacket, and passing it to John. John, looking quizzical, opened the clasp and sucked in a quick breath at the sight of the syringe.

“I thought you just said….?” John began to ask, looking back at him through his light lashes with a confused and wholly endearing expression.

“I haven’t taken any of it, as you can see. If I had, I would most certainly not be speaking with you at this moment.”

“You mean to say it’s a lethal dose?” John asked, his voice raising in alarm. “Sherlock, oh my God, I had no idea you were -”

Sherlock held up his hand to cut off John’s incorrect assumption. “I promise you I’m not suicidal - or at least, not at the moment - but I didn’t draw up the dose. It was left here in the room, to get my attention.”

“What do you mean not at the moment - and who would leave that for -” John started and stopped, before all the colour drained from his face, replaced by a truly thunderous expression. “Moriarty,” John said, his voice a low rumble, and his grip on the case tightening. Sherlock could not remember ever seeing John this angry before, not even for the brief moment John had believed Sherlock had planned to dress as Mary - not in this way, with quiet, coiled fury, ready to be unleashed.

John slid the case onto the side table as if burned, and reached for Sherlock blindly, lifting him up from the floor and onto the chair with him. He was too tall, and the chair was barely wide enough for the both of them, but they managed somehow, and he was glad for it. John clutched at him, and he embraced John in return as much as he was able, with John’s arms like a vice around him.

“I’ll kill him,” John whispered hoarsely, his nose pressed into Sherlock’s curled fringe. A thrill ran through Sherlock at the rageful protectiveness contained in those three words, excited despite knowing that was a terrible, terrible idea.

“Haven’t you done enough of that already?” Sherlock asked in an attempt to lighten the mood. He pulled back to confirm the comment hadn’t been found insensitive.

As expected, John’s face split into a smile, and he laughed. “Yes, yeah - I should try to rein that in. But Sherlock I can’t believe he - ,” John said, quickly returning to his earlier fury. “I told him he could do whatever he wanted, as long as it didn’t involve you. How dare he - ? I’d like him to come give our room another little visit, while I’m around this time.”

Sherlock supposed he was meant to be discouraging this, considering them being at odds with Mary’s servant would be evidence against them that they absolutely didn’t need. But John’s wrath fully focussed on a man who had forced him to suffer made his pulse race, warmth flooding his chest. He still wasn’t accustomed to the idea of John loving him like this, that even a fraction of what he himself felt was reciprocated. And he’d be lying if he said John’s anger wasn’t somewhat…. arousing.

But now didn’t seem to be the appropriate time for having thoughts in that direction. He turned both of John’s hands palm-up and kissed them, John watching him with that same reverence and amazement. He wondered if John would ever come to stop being amazed by him doing the simplest of things.

“You can’t, John,” Sherlock said. “It’s important to know him for what he is, but we can’t allow for any kind of confrontation. Which you already know well, as you’ve been suffering him all of this time.”

A muscle in John’s jaw twitched, but he did nod his agreement, albeit reluctantly.

Sherlock drew away from their crowded arrangement on the chair, and began to ready himself for bed, with John taking the cue to follow suit. They had an early morning and long a day ahead of them.

They slept fitfully, facing one another, his left hand held in John’s right. Even when he eventually drifted off, Sherlock believed his hand still remained in John’s grip through the whole night. When they woke before sunrise, John’s small hand was still cupped loosely around his.

They went down to the bay together, picked up by the magistrate, Colonel Barclay, and the captain of the ship they had met the day before. The lighter was already out on the water by the time they arrived, despite it being half past five, ready to drag the boat up from the water. John was right in thinking that Sherlock would never have voluntarily stood and watched the process. It seemed to take ages, watching as the crane was lowered, and eventually, as the chain pulled, the hull of the sailboat breaking the water’s surface. Looking on as the water spilled out from the boat’s sides, Sherlock still holding John’s cold hand in his, thinking about Mary’s body being there inside the cabin.

The boat’s retrieval was a long and grim process. He chose to remain distant from it, as if it was happening to someone else. John and Sherlock couldn’t speak privately, and exchanged very few words. Sherlock drifted in and out of the events around them, the only thing grounding him being his ever present focus on John.

Once the cabin of the ship had been drained in the bay, the doctor on duty and John were asked to see the body. Despite Sherlock’s protests, he was kept from joining John when viewing the body extracted from the wreckage, draped tactfully beneath a sheet.

John was very pale. There was discussion. It was obvious to him now that there would never have been any pretence of considering that it could have been another person. They all knew it was Mary. This would have come out eventually, the real question was whether the true nature of her death would as well.

The apologetic Captain and Colonel Barclay approached him, having for the most part held their tongues that morning. “I am sorry, to you and your husband,” the Captain said, repeating his sentiments from the day before with head bowed. “This is all a dreadful business.”

“Thank you,” Sherlock replied, nodding his head and offering a small smile. He would need to improve his manners for all interactions with the investigative team. He couldn’t be dismissive like he had been the day prior. Colonel Barclay knew John, had even come to the ball, and they especially needed to be in his good graces. Everyone involved in the inquisition had to think well of them, and he could be charming when it suited him.

“You see, the trouble is that Mr Watson misidentified that body last year,” Colonel Barclay stated, with little consideration for breaking the news.

“Is that so?” Sherlock asked. “You mean to say -?” It was important to feign ignorance.

“It seems quite likely to be that of the late Mrs Watson.”

Sherlock looked down, attempting to appear to be processing. They all lapsed into a silence.

The Captain cleared his throat awkwardly. “What wretched English weather we’re having!” he remarked, waving as if to indicate the light drizzle. Sherlock rolled his eyes beneath his eyelids. The man wanted to talk about the weather while they waited for the discussion between John, the doctor, and the inspector to finish. Just a few meters away from them was a shipwreck and the corpse found within it. Sherlock was truly being tested.

“Nothing like France I imagine?” Colonel Barclay asked, apparently deciding to join in.

“I suppose not,” Sherlock responded, his forehead wrinkling slightly in confusion. What did France have to do with it?

“You know France well, don’t you Mr Watson?” the Captain asked, looking at him in a way he wasn’t sure he appreciated.

“Not particularly,” Sherlock responded, still perplexed by the direction of the conversation.

“Oh, I’d thought you were living there for several years,” Colonel Barclay said, surprised.

“He was staying in Monte Carlo on a vacation when I met him,” John interrupted, coming in from behind him. “Would you call that living in France?”

Sherlock smiled in relief, and reached for John’s arm once more. John’s usual polite and courteous persona he used with company was obviously nowhere to be found. Sherlock had been right in thinking he would need to work doubly hard on their public face.

“Mr Watson, we’re both sorry about this business,” Colonel Barclay began immediately. “You both should head home and get some rest. We all wish you wouldn’t need to go through with the formality and the publicity of an inquest, but -” the Colonel trailed off. John’s smile only seemed to grow tighter as the Colonel continued.

“It can’t be avoided, yes, we’re aware,” Sherlock responded, before biting his tongue. “Thank you for all you’ve done,” he added graciously.

Manners. He was meant to be playing at manners. The morning had taxed him more than he had realized.

“Thank you Colonel, and thank you Captain,” John added in. “I think we’ll take your advice though about heading home.”

They returned to the house in low spirits. He had so desperately hoped that the wood would have rotted so badly, blindly prayed that the lighter would fail to drag it up out of the water. They would need to go through with re-affirming the body’s identification. He was glad he had already drilled John on the boat’s damage. The boat maker who had converted it would need to give evidence that the boat had been seaworthy. He would be the most troubling of all people providing evidence.

Once they were outside of Manderley once more, Sherlock caught John’s eye, hoping to silently communicate their largest concern. Sherlock leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “I can judge from your expression, but don’t leave me in suspense - was there any evidence of the bullet at all?”

“No,” John answered, his voice gruff with disuse. “I don’t think it touched the bone. Thank God.”

Sherlock sighed in relief. “They’ll think she went down to get something, a novice mistake but they’ll think it anyway,” Sherlock murmured under his breath, pulling John along with him towards the steps leading up to the house. “They’ll assume she became trapped in the cabin. That’s something a jury will think, John.”

Sherlock met resistance from the arm he had been holding, John bringing their walking to another stop. John eyed the door above them, and looked around, confirming they were quite alone. “I’m sorry,” John said, gripping his arm. “For all of this. I wish you didn’t need to worry yourself over what the jury will think and how this inquest will go -”

“Don’t be sorry for me, when you’re the one who - who has to go through this all,” Sherlock finished lamely, also overly aware they were out in plain sight.

“I only mind it all because of you,” John murmured. “This has changed you. Maybe for the better, but maybe for the worse. You used to be so brash and careless, in your own funny way, and now -”

“We’re being watched right now, John,” Sherlock interrupted. “There’s no avoiding that. I promise you the moment this is all over, I will fully return to being rude to the neighbours and carelessly defacing all of your property.”

John laughed out loud once, turning his head away to muffle the sound, but Sherlock could tell his heart wasn’t truly in it.

After they finally entered the house, John instructed the servants to draw him a bath as Robert hung up their coats. Sherlock loathed to let John out of his sight, but he sensed John needed space and time to unwind from the long morning. Sherlock wandered into the library, and spied a pile of letters on a plate and the morning paper. The letters were of course all gracious thanks from the many people who had attended their ball, which he was now expected to respond to. God, why had they even had the damn thing?

Sherlock would need to write back all the same, otherwise it would fall on John. He took the letters to the morning room, supposing he ought to write responses in the place intended for penning letters. Sherlock sniffed the air upon entering, scrunching his nose up in distaste. It was stuffy, musty, old. Like the smell of that damn sailboat. He walked across the room to open all the windows, letting air into the room, and noticed the flowers on the windowsill were almost all dead. Their petals were on the floor, like the azaleas outside in the Happy Valley. Was anyone even working in this house? Before he realized what he was doing, as he had never done such a thing before, he was ringing the bell for the servants. Molly arrived promptly, peering around the door rather surprised.

“Sir?” she asked.

“Hello Molly, can you tell whoever is responsible for this room that the flowers need replacing, and the room needs airing,” Sherlock requested motioning to the wilting hydrangeas.

“Yes, sir,” Molly replied. Queerly, he noticed that while Molly was still her usual timid and apologetic self, she seemed pleased by the instruction.

As she took the vase from his hands, he thought to also mention, “And Molly, rather than hydrangeas, make it lilac this time? Goes much better with the room’s colouring. And don’t let it get like this again.”

“Yes sir, that’ll look lovely!” she said enthusiastically, leaving with the flowers and a secretive grin on her face. What an odd girl.

After the removal of the dying floral arrangements, he returned to the writing desk. His eyes fell upon that day’s menu, placed neatly by his chemistry set, and found a simple list of cold foods easily identifiable as leftovers from the ball. Sherlock realized the ball would have been the last time John had eaten a hearty meal. A cold lunch after the morning they’d had? That simply wouldn’t do.

Picking up the telephone partially hidden behind two beakers and a persian slipper, he rang through to the servant’s line. “Tell Moriarty we’re eating something hot,” he instructed to a surprised Robert, barely waiting to hear the clumsily stuttered “Yes sir” before hanging up. He crossed out the menu list items for good measure.

He sat to work on writing replies on the Manderley letterhead, finally having been replaced with new stock, with Mr S. Watson printed in the corner. While bored to tears, he wanted to appear occupied when his company arrived. As predicted, two knocks sounded at the door shortly.

“Do come in,” he called out, not looking away from his tongue in cheek response to the bishop’s wife.

He heard the door open, and the slow, ambling entrance of his visitor. Moriarty, of course.

“The menu displeased you, sir?” Moriarty asked, effectively sounding bored, but Sherlock detected an edge all the same. Moriarty was a bit put out after all.

“There was a salmon that arrived yesterday,” Sherlock said from the desk, signing his name on the page. He did not look at the other man. “If the servants don’t want the cold food either, and who could blame them, feel free to toss it and give them the cutlets I saw on the sideboard.”

He could feel Moriarty’s eyes boring into the back of his skull.

“You didn’t the ring the house telephone,” Moriarty commented, his tone that of obliging servant Jim, always looking to please. “Robert isn’t as good at handling these things. You should feel free to contact me on the house line.”

Moriarty paused before delivering what he likely believed was quite the parry. “Mrs Watson always used to.”

Sherlock could feel a grin spreading across his face. It was true after all. He felt nothing. Hearing her name no longer struck him to his core. Moriarty was still playing the game, but all the cards in his hand were facing his opponent.

Sherlock turned in his seat to observe Moriarty at last, his pen still in hand. “Hmm, I find that I rather don’t care what Mrs Watson used to do.”

A brief flash of interest crossed Moriarty’s face, before smoothing out once more into his earlier docile expression. It was enough for Sherlock to grin in triumph, his eyes crinkling at the edges. It was the kind of smile that made people wonder if his oddness was in fact madness.

“I’m Mr Watson now, and if I choose to speak with Robert about meals, I believe that’s what I’ll do.”

As if summoned, Robert appeared behind Moriarty in the doorway, looking between him and Moriarty nervously. “Sorry to interrupt sir, but the county paper is on the phone asking for you, what should I tell them?”

“Tell them I’m not at home, and that I won’t be home at any other time they call,” Sherlock answered, without breaking eye contact with Moriarty.

Robert ducked his head, and departed as quickly as he had entered. Moriarty continued to stare at him with those same empty eyes, but Sherlock wasn’t in the mood to be so easily unsettled.

“Well?” Sherlock asked, “don’t you have a hot meal to organize?”

“I wonder why the county paper would want to speak with you,” Moriarty pondered aloud, rubbing his chin and looking upwards.

“I have no idea. Is that all, Jim?”

“I heard quite the story from Lestrade, and others who heard it from Kerrith. That it was Mrs Watson’s boat that was found,” Moriarty continued, speaking in a hushed tone.

“What a tale,” he commented, turning back to his desk.

“They say the diver who went to investigate the ship found not just Mrs Watson’s boat, but also a body.” Moriarty hummed contemplative. “Why would there be a body, if Mrs Watson always sailed alone? Unless of course ….”

“Are you quite finished?” Sherlock asked, his back still turned. He hated the thought of Moriarty being able to read the tension in his shoulders, but it was better than showing his face. “I know nothing about it.”

“Don’t you?” Moriarty drawled. Sherlock resolutely remained facing his desk. The room was silent for a long moment.

“But I suppose you’re right sir, I’d better get dinner sorted,” Moriarty said crisply, with exaggerated politeness, before finally leaving the room.

Moriarty couldn’t frighten him any more, he reminded himself. Mary no longer had any hold over him, and Moriarty’s influence had left with it.

The trick would be to protect John from the papers, whatever Moriarty might have planned, and the inquest, all combined. Not entirely a small feat, especially with respect to the reporters. Which reminded him, the paper from the morning - he reached for it where he’d unceremoniously dropped it with the letters, having tucked it beneath his arm when he’d grabbed them, not even sparing it a glance. He had truly underestimated the speed of the vultures - the boat being found had of course been in the headlines.

He read through the front page article with cold efficiency. It was several columns of ridiculousness, though he lingered on an absolutely terrible photograph of John that had apparently been taken during a period where the man had unaccountably grown a moustache. His eyes narrowed in on the comments about himself, almost surprised that he was mentioned at all. John Watson’s second spouse - an unnecessary turn of phrase, specifically worded to draw attention to him not being the first. John Watson’s second spouse, whom Watson had picked up in France, barely waiting a few weeks before marrying him -- Sherlock now understood the Captain and Colonel’s comments.

The article described how the boat had been found immediately after the fancy dress ball that he and John had hosted, as if the two events were sordidly connected in some way. Mary was depicted like a tragic heroine in a novel, and exactly as she had always been described to him - beauty, brains, breeding, everyone loved her, etc. etc. There was particular emphasis placed on Mary dying a year ago, and John having remarried the next spring. The implication was clear: how audacious of John Watson, to bring his new husband to Manderley after the wedding, and for hosting a ball in his honour. That same ball that was somehow ludicrously tied to finding his dead wife’s boat the following morning.

The terrifying aspect of spinning a story and of having the power of being the storyteller was that everything in the article was essentially true to events, besides a few small inaccuracies to embellish them, but the truth read like a shocking scandal. They painted John as quite the rake, a man with no honour, taking home his “young husband from France” (as Sherlock was continuously labeled), to the home he had shared with his late wife, whose body may have been lying at the bottom of the ocean this whole time.

He stashed the paper in a drawer, planning to burn it later. There was no need for John to see that trash, on top of everything else.

They had only been parted for a short time, but he found himself desperately wanting to check on John. He knew John would be back downstairs shortly, but it didn’t feel soon enough. Sherlock wondered if he went up now, if he’d catch John still taking a bath. He knew he should be leaving John to relax, but the idea was wholly appealing. He abandoned the damn letters, and made his way to the East wing.

Sherlock’s excitement grew when he found their bedroom empty, and the attached bathroom door closed. John must have been remarkably sore from their morning of standing. However, as Sherlock approached the bathroom door, his initial excitement turned to nervousness. What if John wanted to be left alone, especially in a private moment like this? What if Sherlock’s presence would be unwelcome? Sherlock was still attached to his past way of thinking, struggling to believe that John could truly want him as intensely as he wanted John. After all, John had never initiated physical intimacy between them. It was always him. Sherlock knew it was because of John’s lack of certainty in Sherlock’s feelings, and his guilt over the imbalance in their relationship due to their ages (wrongly inflated in his mind). Sherlock knew that, intellectually, but was woefully unable to grasp it emotionally.

Sherlock paused, before eventually knocking softly at the door.

“I’ll be out in a minute,” John called, and the sounds of water sloshing in the tub suggested he was moving to get out. John had been done his bath for some time then, letting his muscles soak. Sherlock thought of John lifting himself from the bath, his naked body just on the other side of the door, and the water dripping down his bared form.

“Don’t - no need to get out,” Sherlock stammered, and then, in a much smaller voice, “can I come in?”

Two seconds passed that felt like two hours before John replied, “Yeah, of course.”

Sherlock breathed out, and opened the door. John was partially sitting up in the tub, watching him enter with a small smile. There was a wash cloth over his left shoulder, covering where Sherlock knew there to be a scar. He wondered if John had placed it there specifically for when he came in.

“What’s the matter?” John asked, his smile dropping, concern etched in his features. “Has anything happened?”

“No,” Sherlock said, walking further into the small room, “You’d been in here for so long, I was just - checking on you. To see that you hadn’t fallen asleep in the tub. Is that all right?”

“Yes, of course. Of course it’s all right,” John replied. John’s eyes were bright, lending his face a soft expression, and his hair was wet and slicked back across his head. Sherlock had never seen John nude before, and couldn’t tear his eyes away from John’s bare shoulders and chest. Sherlock thought, if he stepped closer, he would be able to see much more through the water. His instinct was to conceal that interest - he kept having to remind himself that John was his husband.

“Would you care to join me?” John asked, the smile returning, and spreading wide across his face. He realized John had meant it as a joke, but yet, only if Sherlock wanted it to be a joke. John was excellent at this kind of thing, testing the waters but providing himself with an escape route. Sherlock admired it despite it making him unsure what John was ever asking of him.

“Yes,” he said simply, calling John’s bluff. John’s smile became decidedly flirtatious. It occurred to Sherlock that he had not been able to read John this well before. It made him think of how often John had flirted with him, and he hadn’t understood. Sherlock also realized he was fully dressed, and began slipping out of his suit jacket, then unbuttoning his shirt. John watched him avidly, looking away once, before immediately turning back. John was just like him - guilty to be caught staring before remembering that he was allowed, that Sherlock was in fact stripping for him.

Sherlock felt relieved at this revelation. John and he might have their misunderstandings, but at least they were always on the same page. He slid the white dress shirt from his shoulders slowly, attempting to add sensuality where there hadn’t been much before. John seemed to appreciate the effort, his tongue peeking out from the corner of his mouth. Sherlock unlaced his shoes, and then pulled of his socks, and rather self consciously, his trousers and pants, till he stood completely nude in front of John. John’s mouth hung slightly open, his eyes trailing Sherlock’s body, but always returning to his face. John looked at all of him with adoration, and Sherlock loved him for it.

John moved further back in the tub to make space for Sherlock to climb in, and, sensing his discomfort, turned his head way as Sherlock stepped in. Even in Sherlock’s past bathing related fantasies, this part had been uncomfortable. His legs needed to be bent to fit into the tub, with John’s shorter legs bracketing his, and he had to be mostly lying down while John sat up, but they eventually arranged themselves. He rested his head back against John’s good shoulder, and John’s arms wrapped around him from behind, resting lightly across his abdomen. Sherlock felt completely safe, like nothing bad could ever happen to them, nothing could bring them apart, so long as they remained together with two locked doors between them and the rest of humanity.

“I used to think about this,” Sherlock commented offhand, almost without intending to.

“What? Us in the bath together?” John asked, his voice dropping several pitches.

“Yes,” Sherlock replied, surprised to hear his own breathlessness, responding to the way John had made it sound.

John’s hand on his stomach began to make a trail, moving from a gentle hold to a light touch along his skin beneath the water.

“What did we do in the bath together?” John asked, kissing his shoulder.

Sherlock was aware his cheeks were flushing, but thankfully his face was hidden from John’s view. The water was barely more than lukewarm, but he felt hot all over.

“You would come into the bathroom by accident, while I was bathing,” he started, pausing to swallow.

“Would I?” John asked, his hand tracing a path along Sherlock’s side. “Sounds a bit like a lousy cover. I think I was just trying to sneak a peak.”

Sherlock laughed softly, any tension he’d felt easing away, leaving behind only a warm, bubbly sensation in his chest. “Oh, is that what you were doing in my fantasy? You really are a very bad man.”

John hummed, his lips drifting to the back of Sherlock’s neck, and upwards to press a small kiss to his ear. “So it was a fantasy?” John murmured while his hand skimmed one of Sherlock’s nipples, Sherlock almost moaning aloud. Embarrassed, he nodded, knowing John could see and feel it. John was teasing him, as he had promised. Sherlock was far too keyed up from just a bit of talking and touching. He was wretchedly hard, his cock now pressed against his stomach under the water.

John’s hands began to make their way from his chest back to where they had rested before, and Sherlock drew in a short breath in anticipation. “Did I do this next?” John whispered, the tips of John’s fingers skating across his abdomen, lower, and lower. “Yes,” Sherlock gasped. “Yes.”

John didn’t leave him in suspense for much longer, taking him in hand after his clear affirmation, and stroking him firmly. Sherlock did moan then, his feet sliding closer into his body, spreading his legs wider, and his head tipping back over John’s shoulder. Just like in his imagined version, John was hard against him, pressing into his lower back and arse, and he loved the feeling of it almost as much as the hand on his length. The evidence of John’s desire, undeniably real, combined with John moving his fist over him was all incredibly divine, and he began shifting his hips upward to meet the touch. John was rubbing against him, minutely, possibly unconsciously, and the idea made him moan aloud. Sherlock thought of John’s cock, grinding against him, so close to where he truly wanted him. He lifted his hips, high enough in the water for that a moment the tip slid in to press against the space between his cheeks. John groaned in his ear, and Sherlock tensed and spilled hard into the water to the sound of it.

As he waited for his breathing to return to normal, he turned his face to the side. John placed a small kiss on his open mouth, and Sherlock trembled with the knowledge that this could be taken from him. Sherlock almost wished he hadn’t ruined the bath water, so they could stay in their own space for longer. It didn’t matter if he stashed newspapers in his drawers, he wouldn’t be able to hide John from the world forever. The only thing beyond those doors was the oncoming inquest, and John’s character being defamed in the public eye. Sherlock laid his head back onto John’s shoulder once more and closed his eyes, pretending for a moment that it would all be fine, and that it was just the two of them alone in the world.

Chapter Text

Though Sherlock had successfully concealed the county paper from John that first morning, he was unable to prevent John from catching sight of the photographs of Manderley sprawled across the front pages of the papers from London in the following days to come.

These at least had the decency to be less salacious, and did not include the horrible photograph of John with the moustache. This was except for, of course, the paper he now knew to be owned by his most memorable past guest, Charles Augustus Magnussen, which did not mince words on his French reputation, in particular.

The gossip in the papers unfortunately took its toll on everyone. Lestrade, for one, seemed to visibly regret being required to leave them out with breakfast, and who in particular was beginning to look rather haggard as time and rumour continued on. The master of Manderley being in bad form had a way of trickling down and impacting everyone associated with the estate. The servants, and even the farmers, being dragged into the mess with them did not make it any easier. Especially not for John.

At least they never ended up having to deal with the press directly.

“Sir, I've already spoken to the exchange about putting calls to Manderley to the office,” Lestrade had offered, the morning following the boat being dragged from the water. “Robert and I will screen all the calls, and only forward on those from within your acquaintance.”

“Thank you Lestrade,” John said, his knuckles still white where they gripped the edges of the paper. “Have we had calls from any of the locals?”

“Yes, I’ve told all of them that while the Misseurs Watson appreciate the interest in their well-being during this difficult time, you would not be receiving calls for at least the next several days.”

“God, let’s hope we can beg off longer than that,” John muttered, at last putting the news down after having read mid-way down the page to the third paragraph on them having thrown a party the night before the boat’s discovery. (Sherlock couldn’t help but notice.)

“At least those damn reporters might be good for something,” John commented ruefully, causing Sherlock to smirk back at him. Sherlock would always have an appreciation for John exposing his natural anti-socialness.

Sherlock took a look at the papers for himself to read the articles in full - one of them needed to know exactly what was being said about them. “John, don’t bother yourself with these people,” Sherlock reminded him, eyes lowering to where the article said it continued on page ten. “Focus on preparing your statement for the inquest.”

“I already know what I’m going to say,” John responded, immediately defensive.

“I’ve done some digging into the Coroner,” Sherlock said, pleased to see he was no longer referred to as the “young French husband” in the recent editions. “He apparently has a penchant for being a stickler. You’ll have to be able to keep your temper restrained under a litany of irrelevant questions, aspersions cast on your character -”

“I don’t have a temper!” John interrupted, practically bending his fork in half. His face pinched for a moment as he rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “Pretend I said that without shouting.”

Sherlock would have liked to tease him about that bit of contradiction, but even he occasionally knew when to be appropriate. “John, anyone can become frustrated and say something they don’t mean, under pressure and high stress circumstances.”

“You wouldn’t,” John said, straightening his utensil gently. “You’d be cool as a cucumber. Though, probably still somehow manage to offend the judge and the jury.”

“I’d probably get put in jail just for talking, so let’s be thankful I’m not the one testifying.”

This at the very least coaxed a small smile from John, which warmed him considerably, even with the trial looming over them.

True to Lestrade’s word, they weren’t called by the reporters again. Rather, they waited. The inquest date was only a few days later, which seemed to simultaneously take forever and come too quickly. Sherlock busied himself by eavesdropping on gossip - hearing what they said in the kitchens, and having to infer from it what was likely said on the estate, at the lodge, and the farms. He imagined worse was spoken of them in Kerrith, but he didn’t have the means or interest to investigate. John and Sherlock largely remained at the house, not even venturing beyond the gardens when they were outside. Everything was too close to the sea, and that horrid little cottage. They were both tense with it. If at night they slept too close, practically clutching at one another, he told himself it was purely due to their new openness with one another, and not because the inquest was at 2 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon.

Neither of them ate before it, John for once not nagging him to do so. They were both relieved Harriet had begged off coming with them, and had asked minimal questions about the whole ordeal. Sherlock suspected that John would not have been able to handle his abrasive sister, unaware of what they were hiding, on top of everything else.

Typical of dreaded things, the anticipation was in a way worse than living through the actual event itself. It was a great relief when it was finally time for them to walk out to the car. He and John hadn’t had much cause to go on drives since Monte, and the act of it was calming, familiar. Sitting in the passenger seat beside John was infinitely better than being stuck in Manderley, waiting like sitting ducks.

John drove with his usual steadiness, cane still tucked in by his leg. They had both decided John’s limp could not appear to have improved before the trial. It was tied to grief in the public’s eyes. If Sherlock thought they had been putting on a show before, he’d had no idea it was only a warm-up – though he could never have predicted needing a warm-up for this.

Sherlock openly observed John in profile, aiming for objectivity. What would the courtroom see? John’s mouth was a thin line, his jaw tight, and his eyes shadowed by a furrowed brow. He was grim, serious, but did not come across overly anxious. The stress showed around his eyes and mouth, and yet not any more so than one would expect of a man being asked to reopen old wounds.

Sherlock’s observations ran their usual course, attempting to view John as he would a stranger. John was clean shaven (he had originally missed a spot, but Sherlock had drawn his attention to it that morning), and plainly, but immaculately, dressed. If someone were particularly observant, they would infer he either took good care of himself or was well cared for. John’s wedding ring was spotless. The indent it made in his skin indicated he did not take it off, and that he had been fitted for it in the spring, as fingers swelled more in the summer. If someone were clever, it would be overwhelmingly obvious that John’s new marriage was quite the success. Sherlock reflected that he might have been focusing on the wrong details out of a clear bias, and doubted the impact such signs would have on the Coroner, given that he would likely be unable to observe any of this at all.

A useless exercise then, which had done nothing to calm him. Sherlock held two fingers to his own neck, on the side away from John. His pulse was racing. It didn’t sound like the right rhythm for the heart. He wondered if a heart knew to fear the prospect of losing its keeper.

He was somewhat offended that the event which would dictate their future happiness was going to take place in a market town outside of Kerrith. The trip should have seemed long, but in the end was rather too short. They were soon parking their car in a square, between that of the doctor who had identified the body, and Colonel Barclay’s.

While leaving the car, a man walking past them recognized John and whispered something indistinguishable to his wife. Sherlock hated them with an irrational viciousness.

John seemed to hesitate once they were outside of the building. He leaned on his cane, but mostly out of habit. “It’ll be a very long time in there Sherlock, everyone giving their evidence again -”

Sherlock would need to nip that thought in the bud.

“John, I’m coming in with you. I will sit there for seven hours or seven days, it doesn’t matter how long,” Sherlock said, opening the door for John and motioning for him to pass through. John thankfully accepted his determination.

They made the mistake of sitting at the front of the courtroom. This being an error in judgement only became apparent when Sherlock thought to survey those in attendance, and was given a shock when he turned his head to meet the eyes of Moriarty, and next to him, Charles Augustus Magnussen. Sherlock’s first instinct was to climb from his seat and demand they leave, and his second was to curl around John protectively. He luckily suppressed both urges.

There was a blond man sitting next to Magnussen who caught his eye for a moment, as he was similar in appearance to John from afar, though it was unclear if they were together. Sherlock had glanced at them for less than a second before turning back around, not wanting to draw attention to himself. And then, he had to face forward, knowing the two of them were behind them, enjoying the show. He was plagued with wondering why they would bother being present, and what they were planning. He hated not knowing.

The presence of their enemies was a momentary distraction before the actual ordeal began. John hadn’t been wrong in thinking the inquest would be quite a long time, and a boring one at that. Better boring than interesting in this case, however. The Captain was the first to give evidence, mostly related to how the boat was found, and then the diver, providing similar details. Sherlock held his breath when it was the doctor’s turn, concerned that maybe there had been evidence of foul play on the body after all, but even his testimony passed without incident. Next up was John, and after him, the man who had renovated the boat.

John squeezed his hand once before standing, always looking to be the one to offer comfort. Sherlock felt his heart in his throat the entire duration of John’s turn, but it went smoother than he could have imagined - John kept a level head, not reacting in any noticeable way to the intensity of the thorough Coroner. Sherlock was glad for it, but still couldn’t shake the feeling of apprehension. He alternated between pressing his fists into his thighs to stop his legs from bouncing, and turning his head slightly to see Moriarty and Magnussen in his peripheral.

Magnussen was blank, expressionless. Moriarty looked like he wanted to put a gun to his own head out of boredom. Sherlock supposed they had that in common.

A breath of relief escaped him when John finished and returned to his seat, but they still needed to hear from the boat builder. The one person involved in this who would not be pleased with the outcome Sherlock desired, which was that the boat had just not been up to the task.

The boat builder was standing up, finally, and the Coroner was asking him if he had worked on Mrs Watson’s boat. Did they honestly have to reestablish the obvious? Was this going to finish while they were all still alive?

“Yes,” the builder replied tersely, “I converted it from a fishing boat to something more like a small yacht.”

As Sherlock suspected, this man was no friend of theirs in this situation. His clothes showed signs of repeated mending, his shoes were on their way out, but he hadn’t replaced them, and his repeated jaw clenching suggested he was already angry and had been for quite some time. If Sherlock had to guess (and he never guessed), he’d have said that Mrs Watson’s boat sinking a year ago had been very bad for the builder’s business, very bad indeed.

“And had the boat been seaworthy after you converted it?” the Coroner asked, thankfully getting to the point.

The man’s jaw clenched, again, at the implication in the question. Mrs Watson’s death had obviously dragged his good name through the mud. “The boat was better than, sir. At least it was when I last saw it, which was early spring last year.”

From there on, they hashed out the questions as Sherlock expected. From having just watched four previous inquisitions conducted by the Coroner, Sherlock was able to predict each question with reasonable accuracy, and mouthed the words along with him as they were asked. Had the boat ever capsized before? Did it take great proficiency to sail? If Mrs Watson had gone to the cabin for a shawl, could the boat have tipped while - ?

“No,” the boat builder interrupted, and Sherlock’s lips froze along with the Coroner’s. Sherlock had been right to fear the last testimony the most. The builder was going to be stubborn. He was going to ruin everything for them.

“No,” the builder repeated. “I don’t think that boat could have capsized. Not even in a bad storm.”

“I’m not sure I see another explanation,” the Coroner responded, and Sherlock had to appreciate that the stickler was at least willing to cling to the easiest answer. “Sir, please remember that your handiwork is not on trial, and no one is suggesting you are to blame for Mrs Watson’s unfortunately lax sailing in a bad spot of weather.”

“If you would let me make my full statement sir, you’d understand that there would be much more required than what you’re suggesting.”

Sherlock couldn’t look at John. He stared only at the builder, watching the man who held their future happiness in life in his hands. They were doomed, and all for a boating business in Kerrith.

“Please provide us with the full statement then sir,” the Coroner requested, patience wearing thin.

“People accused me of giving Mrs Watson a leaking boat,” the boat builder stated, clearly feeling the injustice of it smartly. “- which was simply untrue! I lost good work over it. So, I went to go see the ship the other day, to see if my work had been just as I remembered it. And it was! Nothing wrong with it at all. And the diver said they found it on sand, did she not? The boat didn’t strike the ridge, and no signs of it either. So if the boat couldn’t have hit the ridge, how did all those holes get in the planking? It wasn’t done by the ridge or any kind of rock, sir. They looked man-made to me.”

Sherlock’s eyes closed tightly, a wholly pained expression overtaking him before he could suppress it. Against his own better judgment, he turned to John. He appeared devastated, though that at least could be interpreted as a natural reaction to learning someone had purposefully sabotaged his wife’s boat.

Sherlock had to keep thinking - think, think, think - He couldn’t let himself accept that they were ruined, not even for a moment, because then they really would be.

John wasn’t giving anything away, but Sherlock realized he couldn’t trust what was showing on his own face currently, and needed to settle on a reaction. Should he look haughty, cool? Or, should he seem affected, but appropriately affected? He kept his head down in the mean time, facing the floor till he decided. There was a horrid shade of green oilcloth covering the floor boards. Why was the Coroner not responding? What was this unnecessarily lengthy silence?

When the Coroner did speak, the man seemed to wish he didn’t have to. “What holes in the planking? What do mean by man-made holes? What are you suggesting?”

The builder explained everything, exactly as John had originally disclosed it to Sherlock. The three holes, their positions, that the ballast had been left lying loose, and that both seacocks had been turned on. And with all that done, the boat would have sunk quite easily, very easily in fact. The atmosphere in the room was palpably tense.

“You’re saying the boat didn’t capsize at all,” the Coroner said, stating the man’s conclusion slowly as if to give him time to retract it. “That it was, in fact, deliberate.”

“That’s right sir,” the boat builder affirmed with a confidence that made Sherlock want to stand up and begin airing all the man’s dirty secrets to the courtroom at large. Others must have had similar ideas, as people were beginning to stand, to respond to the accusation - there were many voices speaking at once all around them, with him and John sitting in the center of it, trying to appear too shocked to take part. The Coroner was begging them to be silent, and the momentary raucous died down. The Coroner was calling for John to respond. Sherlock couldn’t take his eyes off him. He should have looked away.

“Mr Watson, what do you make of this statement? Do you have any knowledge of previous damage made to the boat? Who was responsible for the boat’s care?”

“It was my wife’s,” John replied, his voice steady. “She looked after it, on her own. If it was damaged, I wasn’t aware of it.”

“You can’t think of anything that had happened, that could explain it? This is the first you’ve heard it?”

“No to the first, and yes to the second.”

“Is this a shock to you, Mr Watson?”

“Do I not seem shocked?” John responded, deadly quiet. Sherlock almost leapt from his chair to take over. It was a good job that he didn’t groan aloud. This is not the time for sharpness or witty rejoinders, John, or so he wanted to say. Instead he stared desperately at the back of John’s head.

John seemed to take his silent reminder to heart, as he then replied in a much politer tone, “I’ve been shocked throughout this entire process, starting with learning that I had made the wrong identification a year ago. That I am being now told that my wife’s boat also had holes driven into it with the intent of having it sink is, yes, quite the shock for me.”

Oh God, John. John was going to turn the old man against them, when he’d been on their side not but a few minutes earlier, looking for the simpler solution. Anything but that caustic tone John, Sherlock almost begged. Don’t lose your temper.

“Mr Watson, I would of course like to emphasize that all of our sympathies are with you in this trying time,” the Coroner said, appearing surprised by the animosity in John that there had not been previously. “I am only trying to get to the bottom of how such a thing could have occurred to your wife’s sailboat, such as a prior accident or natural cause, to attempt to understand the nature of your late wife’s death.”

“Yes, thanks, I am aware of why we are all here,” John said, and Sherlock cringed. Would the Coroner not ask someone else? This conversation with John needed to be ended immediately.

“I’m glad to hear it Mr Watson. The builder of your boat has said there are three holes in your boat that have no explanation, and that the seacocks had been left open. Do you have cause to doubt the builder’s testimony?”

“No,” John said quickly. “No I do not.”

“Could a stranger have scuttled the boat Mr Watson? Is it likely they could have come into Manderley’s private harbour to do such a thing?”

John paused. Sherlock prayed he wouldn’t tell an easily disproven lie, just tell the truth, even if it was vaguely incriminating.

“There is no public path that goes to that cove,” John confirmed. His grip on his cane was tight, considering he no longer needed it.

“Would you think it possible a trespasser would go unnoticed in that cove? Was it not a quiet area?”

“I suppose it’s possible,” John replied. Yes, possible, emphasize that it was possible. An unknown person, sabotaging the boat. However, Sherlock realized, that would cause a witch hunt, and possible identification of the wrong person. That road only led to madness. If an innocent was found guilty, Sherlock knew John would confess. There had to be another way.

“We’ve just been told that the boat had been purposefully damaged, Mr Watson, and that with the seacocks open and holes drilled into its sides, it would have sunk in a matter of minutes. I think we can agree that rules out the possibility of earlier damage, as the boat would have already sunk before Mrs Watson went sailing. Do you agree?”

John’s neck tilted, his shoulders tensing. “As you’ve just described it, it would be hard to not agree sir.”

“Would you not also agree that the next logical conclusion is that someone that evening had intended for the boat to sink?”

Sherlock’s breath caught in his throat. He wished he could see John’s face, and what it was giving away.

When John did answer, his voice was choked with restrained emotion. “I suppose I must.”

“Mr Watson, you yourself have confirmed, along with the doctor, that your late wife’s body was found in the cabin, with its door shut. Is that still your statement?”

“Yes,” John said, his quiet voice loud in the silent room, everyone collectively on the edge of their seats, all wondering where this line of inquiry would take them.

“With that in mind, does it not seem peculiar that not only were the seacocks open, but holes had been driven into the bottom of the boat?”

“Peculiar,” John said, his voice high and strange. Don’t laugh John, Sherlock prayed. “That’s one way of putting it, yes.”

The Coroner’s patience had officially run out. “You have no further comments Mr Watson? No thoughts to put forward on the meaning of all this? No thoughts at all?”

“None whatsoever,” John said. That seemed strange in and of itself, but Sherlock had to agree that no answer was better than hedging a guess to lead them off his own trail. What was more or less suspicious? He wasn’t sure he had the objectivity any more to be sure.

“Mr Watson, please understand that as sympathetic as we are for you, I will need to question you on your personal life.”

John dipped his head, nodding. The courtroom was hot, stifling. Sherlock could feel the energy in the room all focussing in on John, and the personal information that was about to be exposed.

Sherlock could hear the question before it was asked, and John, not a stupid man, knew it too. The Coroner would ask about Mary. “What was the state of your relationship with your late wife?” And John would be unable to conceal his temper, his anger. He would be completely incapable of dodging a direct question, and of lying about it. The whole room would know in an instant that John had hated his late wife, giving him both motive and opportunity for murder.

Sherlock needed to think on his feet.

He considered seven - no, make that three - possibilities they could use to prevent John’s reaction from being their downfall. In the end he admittedly selected the solution that presented itself to him with the best possible outcome, and that he felt he could personally perform to his own level of satisfaction.

And so, by the time the word “wife” had passed from the Coroner’s lips, Sherlock had gasped once and then, to all outward appearances, fainted in his chair. The gasp was repeated by all in the audience, previously in reaction to the question itself, but now focused on him. John immediately turned backward and rushed to his side, catching his frame before he slipped from his chair to the green oilcloth. John’s voice rang out through the ensuing din of the courtroom. “Will someone please take my husband outside?”

John’s voice was laced with concern, which had not been Sherlock’s intention. Sherlock cracked open one eye, and John’s face flooded with relief - the kind of half pleased, half annoyed expression Sherlock often inspired in his husband. All and all, he thought his plan had worked out rather well. Instead of exposing that John had despised his first spouse, they had brought to everyone’s attention that John adored his second.

The only downside of this being that Sherlock was assisted from the courtroom, and taken to a small waiting room at the station. He would now not have any idea what was happening, and instead of living through the twists he would have to wait for the end of it. Sherlock then regretted his choice of action bitterly. What if, even after his great effort to distract him, John was still asked the question, and lied terribly? What if now John was being cross examined and making himself out to be the murderer? Who else would anyone suspect, given the circumstances?

If only the boat maker hadn’t been so thorough, so obsessed with the nature of the marks along the boat. Sherlock had of course identified the damage as man-made as well, but how was he to know a boat builder would decide the same.

Someone brought him a glass of water. Waiting was an agony. The Coroner would now have to re-question all of them, possibly, or just John, for much longer. An entirely different angle had been provided after all. He imagined the Coroner drilling John the way John had drilled the boat with a spike, until John inevitably snapped in anger. With Magnussen and Moriarty watching on, in silence, gloating.

The Coroner, older, feeling entitled to a certain degree of respect, John responding harshly. Oh God, what if John really did come under full suspicion? An image he’d seen millions of times before in the paper presented itself to him, of men being taken away from court to be held for a full trial.What if they didn’t let Sherlock see him?

No, he would force them to. There was no law, no holding cell that could keep him from getting to John. He’d make his brother pull strings, even though he’d never called on such a favour before and would detest it. But even if he was allowed to see him, if John was found guilty, it would not be a simple matter of visiting him in prison. John would be hanged. His mind, his terrible, wretched imagination capable of drawing up possibilities with frightening accuracy normally so helpful to his personal interest, now only disturbed him. John, hanging by his neck, a bag over his head, reduced to something else so that people wouldn’t see who it was they were taking away from him. John’s blue eyes still open beneath their covering, and only he would know.

Sherlock pressed his hands to his temples in frustration and desperately, hopelessly, tried to think of something, anything else. He thought, for the first time in a long while, of awful Sebastian Wilkes in America, bragging to anyone he could get his hands on. He imagined Wilkes playing cards, leaning over the table, “Do you know they say John Watson murdered his first wife? You wouldn’t believe it, but my old companion is his new husband! I told him he’d regret it, though at the time I hadn’t meant it like that!” There would be raucous laughter, and questions as to the character of his past companion. “My taste in those have greatly improved, you have no idea! What a strange thing he was!” This train of thought barely distracted Sherlock for a second. God, he didn’t care. He didn’t care at all. But, anything, anything, to make him not think of John.

He vaulted up from his chair the moment a police officer entered the room. “Where’s John?” he asked, and there, behind the officer, was John - not in cuffs, not being led away. John who looked completely and wretchedly tired, like he hadn’t slept in months, but John all the same. Sherlock rushed forward.

“It’s over,” John said. Sherlock remained standing, awkwardly, unsure what John meant.

“Suicide,” John said. Sherlock’s mind spun. The police officer closed the door.

“In the event that there is no evidence one way or another to confirm her state of mind,” Sherlock deduced, slowly, as if just waking from a deep sleep. “They can conclude suicide.”
“Yes,” John replied, perhaps still too shocked to appear relieved. “They didn’t figure out a motive for it, but it wasn’t needed as some do so without. They asked me if Mary had been in with a bad crowd, whether she maybe had money troubles. Can you imagine?”

Sherlock thought of Moriarty and Magnussen sitting in the back of the courtroom, but didn’t comment. He was too grateful for the current state of affairs. The Coroner didn’t suspect John. He had pinned it, rightfully so, on Mary, though not for the actual reason.

“Are they letting you go? Can we go right now?” Sherlock asked, eager to be gone.

“Yes, yes, of course,” John said, motioning towards the door. “I thought you’d want to question me a bit first on what happened.”

Sherlock waved his left hand dismissively, taking hold of John’s arm in his other as he ushered him out. “I only cared about questioning you when the outcome had been unclear, you can tell me everything in the car.”

He wanted to already be back at Manderley. He was walking on air, arm in arm with his husband, who now had no issue keeping up with his stride. They were going back home, and they’d be able to put everything behind them.

They both attempted to look sombre on their way outside, though he imagined they still made quite the picture as they climbed into their car, and drove off from that cobbled square.

“Let me guess,” Sherlock began once they were on the road. “They asked you about the boat, and how easily all of it could have been done. By the end of it, they decided Mary could have done it all herself, and that due to the holes, she must have done it to cause herself harm. They asked you questions about her mental state leading up to the event, but even if you answered that she had seemed fine, many people put on a brave face. Without anything else to go on, it would be the most sound conclusion.”

“Yes essentially,” John confirmed. “It was just like all those questions you asked me the other night, and going over all the same ground again. You were right, he questioned me incessantly, and it was bloody aggravating. Thank you, by the way.”

“Is that sarcastic?” Sherlock asked, recalling his fainting spell and John’s brief annoyance.

“No, I mean it sincerely,” John said smiling, and looking away from the road to catch his eye. “I really did almost lose my head in there, and your distraction reminded me not to. You, you reminded me to - ”

John broke off for a moment, and stared ahead. Sherlock remembered that John had always found it easier to talk this way, in the driver’s seat, looking out at the road before them. When he began again, his voice was soft, barely audible over the sound of the engine. “I don’t know that I would have made it through this without you, I always thought if this day came I wouldn’t - ,” John stopped again, his eyes glassy where they looked ahead. “I was so alone, and I owe you so much.”

For a moment Sherlock was concerned he was experiencing an episode of arrhythmia. That wasn’t right - it was he who had been alone, it was he who owed John so much. He reached out and covered John’s hand over the steering wheel. John glanced at him, and smiled. Sherlock tentatively returned it.

Sherlock wanted to tell John that he would never need to be alone again. That they would never need to dwell on the past again. But his mind kept returning to Moriarty, and Magnussen. He wasn’t as naive as he had once been. He knew this wasn’t over.

When they arrived at the house, they retired to the library, but John only stayed for a short time. Mary’s burial had been scheduled for that evening, regardless of the outcome of the afternoon in court. However when Sherlock stood to accompany him, John refused to let him come, which irked him, to say the least.

“Sherlock, you’ve suffered through enough with me. This is something I need to do alone,” John insisted, gently pushing him back into his chair where Gladstone lay at his feet. “You never even knew her. It won’t be seen as strange that you’re not there.”

Sherlock didn’t care about seeming strange now that John was a free man, or at least, for the moment. He cared about John not being alone. But John begged him not to follow him when he left, and they had agreed to be honest with one another. Damn.

John kissed his forehead, a gesture Sherlock had once mistaken as platonic, which he now found decidedly romantic. “I’ll see you in a bit,” John promised. “We’ll move on from this. Maybe we’ll go somewhere soon, get away from this place. I’ll make all this up to you, somehow.”

“There’s nothing to make up for,” Sherlock said in frustration. He tried one last time. “Let me come with you John, I don’t mind.”

“No, no,” John repeated, already pulling on his suit jacket once more. “I’ll feel much better knowing you’re comfortable here with Gladstone, and up to one of your experiments.”

Sherlock watched John leave with reluctance, and listened to his car pull out from the gravel drive.

And then silence. It was odd, that, the stillness. The thought that maybe it could all be over so easily. He and John in Manderley, and Mary in the crypt.

That had of course been the state of things, to the best of his knowledge, when he’d first arrived. Mary’s ghost no longer clung to him, as long as he remembered John loved him. The old version of himself would have wondered if John had wanted to be alone at Mary’s burial for sentimentality. Sherlock needed to remember that John was a private person, and that he sometimes needed to do things his own way. But then, old habits did die hard.

The urge to don his coat and follow after John came over him, but he stamped it back down. John’s trust was precious, and he would need to resist his instincts to keep it.

It started to rain sometime after John left, but even over the sound of it against the window, he could still hear when a car arrived. He didn’t bother to make a fool of himself peering out the library window to see who it was. The sound of its tires against the wet gravel was more than enough to identify that it wasn’t John returning. It was bold of him to drive up the house, this time around, but Sherlock should have suspected it for this confrontation.

As he heard Lestrade’s steps approaching the library door, Sherlock shooed Gladstone from the room, and went to stand by the window.

“Sir,” Lestrade said from the door, “Will Mr Watson be back shortly? It’s only, there’s a gentleman here asking to see him.”

“Is there?” He should have known it had been far too early to think they were done with this trouble. Out of the frying pan, and into the fire.

“Yes, and if you don’t mind me saying, I don’t think he’ll be leaving without a word with one of you.”

“Sounds like I’d better see him then,” he said turning to Lestrade with a false smile. Lestrade appeared to be vaguely worried, but also as if he wasn’t entirely sure why he should be.

Sherlock returned to observing the rain against the window glass, though briefly considered changing his position for a long deep stare into the fireplace. Better stay at the window - it wouldn’t do to appear like he had put effort into his presentation.

However, he felt a pang of regret that he hadn’t moved closer to the fireplace by the time Magnussen strolled into the library. The man seemed to bring a certain chill with him wherever he went.

Sherlock had actually expected a meeting with Moriarty post trial, but perhaps he should have known that Jim preferred to keep his servant guise in tact.

“John is out at the burial, as you might have guessed given you just attended the related hearing,” Sherlock said, still facing the window. “He won’t be back for some time.”

“I have no issue with waiting Mr Watson.” Magnussen’s quiet voice drifted towards him, in contrast to the alarm he felt in the other man’s presence. “Besides, I had promised you another visit, hadn’t I?”

“How long are you willing to wait?” Sherlock asked with disinterest. “He may be quite awhile.”

“Has he scampered off? Always leaving you alone in this big, old house. I wonder if this is a preclude to the grand departure?” Magnussen said, as if thinking aloud. “Gossip can be so damaging. And one cannot kill an idea, once it has been put into the minds of others. Much better to avoid it entirely, wouldn’t you say Mr Watson?”

Sherlock turned around neatly, pivoting on his heel. “I’m afraid I have no idea what you mean.”

The fire reflected in Magnussen’s glasses, but he could still see the cold smugness of his eyes behind the lenses.

“Would you care for a drink Mr Magnussen?” Sherlock offered. “Tea? Or something a bit harder?” He crossed the room to ring the bell for the servants, not waiting for his response.

“Oh,” Magnussen commented, softly and with obvious amusement. “Someone’s grown up since last I saw them. How grown up though I wonder?”

Sherlock moved to stand in front of Magnussen, his hands behind his back. “You didn’t answer. Can I interest you in a scotch?”

Magnussen’s eyes trailed his body, as they had on their previous encounter. “You can interest me in a great many things, Mr Watson.”

Sherlock resisted a look of a disgust. “Did you have something specific to say to John? I’m sure I’d be happy to pass it along for you.”

“Has your English politeness been replaced with a bit of spine Mr Watson?” Magnussen asked in hushed tones. “Or, supposing your husband doesn’t return, perhaps I should call you Mr Holmes?”

Sherlock startled. He hadn’t heard his own surname in far too long, and frankly associated “Mr Holmes” with his brother.

“Why on earth would John not return from a brief visit to the family crypt, Mr Magnussen?” he asked. He was stepping into the trap, but what did it matter if Magnussen’s ploys would not affect him?

Magnussen stepped closer to him. Sherlock could feel his breath against his cheek. It was fresh, but acrid all the same.

“Suicide,” Magnussen murmured, as if allowing it to settle on his palate, like the scotch he had turned down. “I wonder if that verdict were to be… scratched at… if it would hold up under scrutiny.”

Magnussen reached out, and pressed two fingers to the underside of Sherlock’s chin, tipping his face slightly. Sherlock’s hand moved upwards to push him away, but stopped in its path. “I hope you’re feeling better, Mr Watson,” Magnussen’s lips brushed the side of his cheek as he whispered, “- after your little performance. Won’t you put on another show for me?”

Sherlock’s transfixed state was broken by the sound of the library door banging hard against the wall, with John’s entrance immediately following it.

“What the hell are you doing?” John asked, and Sherlock quickly stepped back from Magnussen’s reach. John did not stop his brisk pace forward into the room, till they were all uncomfortably close to one another in the center of the library, John’s eyes never leaving Magnussen’s smiling face.

Sherlock had allowed himself to be distracted by Magnussen’s presence, and had missed the telltale signs of John’s arrival. Magnussen obviously had not, and seemed delighted that he had been able to inspire John’s aggression.

“I believe I asked you a question, sir,” John said, his voice in no way concealing his suppressed rage.

“Mr Watson,” Magnussen said, speaking slow and clear, “I’ve come to congratulate you on the result of the inquest.”

“Congratulate me on my wife’s suicide?” John asked, laughing once, short and bitter. “Thanks, yeah.”

John’s thin lips turned up at the corners, and his nose lifted on one side. “Now that you’ve done that, do you think you could get out of my house?”

Sherlock almost laughed, if he hadn’t been terrified of what Magnussen had only but a moment ago implied. John’s temper being unleashed in full would otherwise have been a joy to see. Now however, it was still a liability.

“With the both of you so inhospitable,” Magnussen commented, turning from them to calmly sit down in John’s arm chair. “It’s impressive you’ve managed to maintain your family reputation for as long as you have.”

John knew a threat when he heard one, and looked as though he might haul Magnussen from the room at any moment.

“And you have done well for yourself haven’t you?” Magnussen observed, gesturing to the room, and presumably meaning Manderley at large. “Mary put this place back on the map, didn’t she? And I suppose now, you can finally enjoy it. You’ve come out much better than you had ever expected. How lucky your husband fainted when he did, and at such a crucial time in the questioning.”

John stepped toward Magnussen, but held still when Sherlock gripped his arm. Magnussen lounged back while John looked on, his hunched shoulders complimenting his stoney expression. Sherlock wondered if there was to be another murder on the premises shortly.

“What the hell are you implying?” John asked, voice more than a little raised. Sherlock feared he might kick the table, though he supposed that would be a compromise if the alternative was a physical altercation.

“Oh, don’t play dumb Mr Watson,” Magnussen murmured. “Though I’ve been told you often don’t need to play at it. I suppose there are no secrets between you and your husband. Shall I speak plainly?”

“If you’d be so kind,” John said, through gritted teeth.

“Mary committing suicide,” Magnussen repeated, as if mulling it over. “You were married to her, weren’t you Hamish? Is that act something you find to be in her character?”

John bristled more at Magnussen using his middle name than at the revelation that Magnussen somehow knew. In all of this, Sherlock still felt joyed by further evidence that John hated that name.

“We have a different understanding of speaking plainly,” John said, remarkably steady. “Either you tell me what it is you mean to say, or I’ll be happy to escort you to your car, personally.”

Sherlock had a feeling John’s personal touch would be a bit rough in this circumstance.

Magnussen’s lips twitched. “Allow me then to state my purpose. What if I told you that there is a piece of evidence, one that would cast some doubt on Mary wanting to kill herself?”

Sherlock drew in a short breath, hoping to find signs of it being a bluff, and coming up short. If Magnussen had actual proof that Mary hadn’t -- but then why would he come to them first rather than the authorities, if he wasn’t willing to make a deal? There was still hope then.

“What proof? I’m sure I’d love to see it,” John replied, laughing slightly, anger clear in his humour.

“You’re aware of course that Mary had affairs,” Magnussen stated, and the bottom of Sherlock’s stomach dropped. He imagined John’s did the same. “All married men with lovely wives are jealous, aren’t they? Who knows what they might be driven to do.”

John and Sherlock stood together in silence, the feeling not unlike watching an accident unfold before them, and providing Magnussen with the dramatic pause he appeared to relish.

“I have in my possession a note she wrote to one such lover, asking to meet with her the day after she died. Why would a woman who planned to kill herself write such a note? Imagine if the Coroner had been made aware of it. The authorities might have found it necessary to investigate other reasons for why holes might have found their way into a ship’s hull, wouldn’t you think, Mr Watson?”

John swallowed, and licked the corner of his lip. “How do I know you’ve got anything of the kind? And how would you come to have a letter written to a lover?”

“I buy and trade in secrets,” Magnussen replied, smiling. “It’s been sold to me.”

Of course, Sherlock realized now. The man sitting next to Magnussen at the inquest. One of Mary’s men, who had understood the value of the correspondence.

“Buy and trade in secrets,” John repeated. “Let me guess. Given that you and your client chose to not bring this forward today in court, to continue your silence, you want me to buy it from you.”

“Oh no, Mr Watson,” Magnussen said, standing from John’s armchair at last. “Quite the opposite. I want to buy something from you.”

John’s face was the definition of confusion. “I don’t understand,” he said, shaking his head.

Sherlock’s eyes shuttered closed. Of course.

He did understand. Unfortunately.

“You see Mr Watson,” Magnussen said, savouring each word. “You’re going to sell me Manderley.”

A log in the fire popped as it burned, while John’s silence stretched on.

“For a reasonable price of course,” Magnussen continued, as if discussing any business transaction. “Everything would need to look clean on paper.”

“I still don’t understand,” John said. Magnussen glanced at Sherlock briefly, as if to ask what he saw in such an idiot. The look grated on him almost as much as the outrageous suggestion.

John had been willing to sacrifice everything for Manderley, had withstood the worst of marriages for it, and once John had finally been able to reclaim his family home in spirit, Magnussen wanted to take it from him. No move could have been better calculated, better chosen, to cause more pain. Magnussen had found the perfect sore spot. The greatest humiliation.

“I think I’ve already asked you to leave my house,” John said after a stretch, his simmering anger approaching a boil. “Don’t make me ask you again.”

Magnussen tsked. “Perhaps you really don’t understand, Mr Watson. What does an old house matter to you, once you’ve been hanged?”

“What matters is that I don’t respond to blackmail Mr Magnussen,” John replied, voice low and calm. “And I believe I said, don’t make me ask you again.”

“Do you really want to die, Mr Watson?” Magnussen asked, moving closer to John, and leaning over to emphasize the difference in their respective heights. “Would you really leave behind your young man from France, so soon after acquiring him? Or are you afraid that the papers are right about his true interests? Are his affections reserved for the man of the house? I did promise to pay him another visit. Perhaps, I’ll wait till after you’ve been trussed.”

Anything else Magnussen had to say on the subject was abruptly cut off by John punching him quite hard in the face, causing him to stumble backwards several steps and fall back into the chair behind him. The impact of John’s knuckles with Magnussen’s nose made a very satisfying crunching sound, and Magnussen held it in his hands, blood pouring from between his fingers. Sherlock had never enjoyed a bit of violence more in his life.

John’s entire frame heaved with the force of his breathing as they stared one another down. Sherlock belatedly moved to step between them, but thought better off it.

John was ready to tear Magnussen limb from limb, but Magnussen wasn’t interested in a physical fight. In fact, he began to laugh.

“Oh John,” he murmured, muffled by his hands. “You will regret that.”

“Hmm, I don’t think I will actually,” John muttered darkly, spoken between short huffs of breath.

“John,” Sherlock said, once, an entreaty and a warning in one.

“I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon,” Magnussen said, undeterred by John’s current attitude. “I will bring two guests with me, Mary’s once-lover David, and our magistrate the Colonel. I’m being generous, giving you the evening to reconsider your stance.”

John clenched his fist. “The door is still behind you.”

Magnussen shook his head and at last departed, his earlier confidence still in place, though his hand covering his bloody face rather detracting from the effect. It was immensely satisfying, but a brief victory that could lose them the war.

“John,” Sherlock repeated, his tone bordering on begging, once Magnussen had left the room. They would need to bargain their way out. It was the only way.

“You asked me to trust you,” John said, exhausted. “And I’m now asking you to do me the same courtesy.”

Sherlock gripped John’s arms, turning him till they faced one another.

“John, he will have you killed.”

“There are worse fates,” John replied, brushing Sherlock’s fringe back from his forehead, and trailing his hand down to where Magnussen had pressed his face.

Sherlock’s expression must have given away his fear, for John looked alarmed as he stroked his cheek. “Hey, hey, look at me.”

He lowered his eyes, and what he saw in John calmed him for a moment, though it didn’t last for long.

“I promise you I won’t let that happen,” John said. “But I can’t give in to him on this. It would never stop. He would have power over us, forever. Do you understand what he was really asking me for? What he would have eventually asked for as part of his sick little trade?”

John’s anger was mounting and Sherlock needed to it all to stop.

“I know,” Sherlock choked out. They both did. “The requests would not have stopped at Manderley.”

John held his face in his hands like he might break. Which wasn’t far off from what he felt.

“We’ll handle this my way,” John whispered. “Stop it before it ever starts, before it gets out of control.”

John kissed him on the forehead once, then twice. They clung to each other, and Sherlock told himself they were ready to enter another trial, and the one after that. That they would always come out on top. He only wished he knew that as well as he knew that Magnussen, and Moriarty, would soon be closing in on them.

Chapter Text

Sherlock wondered if it was all some kind of cosmic joke that after painstakingly preparing John for the inquest, they were now to be faced with a threat he could do nothing to avoid. If it was, he didn’t find it particularly funny.

That evening they retreated to their room much earlier than usual, as if shutting themselves up in their wing would hold off the inevitable arrival of the magistrate at their home the next day. Once locked away from the prying eyes of the servants however, they easily fell into their recently created habits.

Since the great success of their first shared bath time, John had made repeat appearances, though not in the tub itself. Sherlock bathed while John sat on a stool behind him, washing his hair with gentle fingers. It was their bolthole. They could both finally relax for the first time in days.

“You asked me to trust you,” Sherlock said, as John massaged his scalp. “Does that mean you have a plan?”

“No more planning,” John replied, and began cupping water in his palms to pour over Sherlock’s head. “I think we do best when we wing it. Don’t you think, drama queen?”

Sherlock scoffed while John spilled the water over his hair. “I’m not a - the fainting was a timed distraction -”

John made a loud, fake gasping noise behind him, clearly meant as an imitation. Sherlock spluttered. As if he’d been that obvious!

“Shut up!” he whined, partially turning in the tub to look over his shoulder, and John laughed, helplessly.

Sherlock made a show of huffing as he twisted back around, but there was a growing smirk in the tilt of his lips. John being able to laugh was a relief. There might not be much more of this. He would have to enjoy it while he could. His smile was long gone by the end of that thought.

“You’re just going to deny the accusations then,” Sherlock surmised, looking straight ahead. There were too many factors. He could never account for all of them. How much the note itself divulged. How convincing Mary’s lover would be. How much Colonel Barclay currently suspected, or was capable of suspecting.

They couldn’t stop the accusation from coming forward, and they couldn’t change that there was proof. Their hands were tied.

“If only we knew what was in the note,” Sherlock commented absently. “Magnussen of course didn’t bring it with him, otherwise we would have never let him leave the house. Who knows how much of a threat it is. A planned meeting with a lover might not have been enough to live for, after all.”

Sherlock had expected John to find that a bit funny, but his hands stilled where they had been wringing the washcloth. “I have a feeling I know what it’s about, actually,” John said slowly, almost hesitant. Sherlock craned his neck to face him. John’s expression was regretful, and apologetic.

“There’s something you haven’t told me,” Sherlock concluded, leaning on his arm over the side of the tub. “What is it, and why?”

“It’s not like I intended to keep anything from you,” John said, dropping the cloth and crossing his arms over his chest, sleeves rolled to his elbows. “There was a lot to tell, and not all of it relevant. I don’t even know if she was telling the truth.”

“About?” Sherlock prompted.

“The baby,” John stated. “Well, that is, her pregnancy. She told me she was pregnant.”

Sherlock blinked, the pace of the blinks slowed by his wet lashes. John had only briefly summarized his conversation with Mary in the boat house. Sherlock should have known there was much more to it than discussing her affairs. A pregnancy. No matter how hard he tried, resisted, he couldn’t stop the thought from creeping in, that it might have been, could have been -

“It wouldn’t have been mine,” John said, interrupting his treacherous thoughts. “Obviously. I thought she might have been lying, to get under my skin. She told me I’d never be able to divorce her, and that I’d have to live knowing her child would inherit Manderley. I thought it was all just part of her starting to become unhinged, seeing as she shot me after.”

“And you think this David is the father?” Sherlock asked.

“Might have been,” John replied, lowering his gaze to the tiled floor.

If the note implied in any way that Mary had been pregnant….

John lifted his head, and a look passed between them over the lip of the tub. They both knew what that meant. More than just cause for reopening the investigation into her death. A pregnant woman planning to meet her lover the next day, but committing suicide that night. More than enough to put John on trial. And, in Sherlock’s experience, when someone had actually committed the crime, there would only be more evidence to be unearthed.

This could easily be their last night together. Or one of their last nights. Who knew what tomorrow would bring. John must have thought the same, given that he’d been reluctant to let Sherlock out of his sight, even to take a bath.

Sherlock stayed in his turned position, and watched as John began to work himself up to say something, in an attempt to once again be self sacrificial. If the results of the next day were not in their favour, John had quite the court case ahead of him. John knew this, and was going to offer Sherlock another exit - but Sherlock would beat him to the punch. There was too much that he still wanted to experience with John. He needed to make the most of the time he had.

Sherlock placed both hands on either side of the bath tub, and abruptly stood up. He had grown more aware of his own charms as of late, and flattered himself that his nude form presented a rather fetching view from behind (behind being just the asset he specifically intended to draw John’s attention to). Sherlock looked over his shoulder to find John momentarily startled, but he soon recovered. John reached for the towel hanging from the rack, and held it open for Sherlock to step into. Sherlock climbed over the edge of the tub, dripping water across the floor, but didn’t accept the towel.

“John,” he said plainly, “I want to consummate our marriage.”

The towel dropped from John’s hands.

John always did have the most amusing expressions. Right now, he looked rather like a gaping fish left out of water.

“I - ” John began, bending down quickly to retrieve the towel. John cleared his throat. “Sorry, but, have we not been recently doing a bit of that, or -”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “You know exactly what I mean. Not to borrow the words of our friend Magnussen, but don’t play dumb.”

John was taken aback, and to Sherlock’s delight, his earlier temper returned at the mention of Magnussen. “I could go a long while without having to hear that name again, and sorry, how am I playing dumb?”

Sherlock sighed. “Whether it’s consciously done or not, you must know that the marriage can still be annulled without the need for a divorce if we haven’t formally consummated. A part of you still thinks if this gets really hairy I can still escape all this trouble, allowing me to remain unsullied in the eyes of the public if they convict you.”

“Christ, Sherlock!” John cried, turning away from him for a moment in anger, before swiftly facing him again. “I don’t bloody think like that! I’m not like you, I don’t have double and triple motives for every little thing I do!”

He had made John angry clearly, but John was making him angry, so as far as he was concerned they were even.

“Do you deny that you were going to suggest it?” Sherlock asked, eyes narrowing to slits. “If not tonight, then after what happened tomorrow? You would have brought it up. That it could be annulled.”

John was silent at first, rubbing at his forehead. “The thought had yeah, maybe, it had occurred -”

Sherlock was still naked and dripping, so when he abruptly leaned forward and down to aim a quick uncoordinated kiss to John’s mouth, he got John a bit wet in the process.

He hadn’t meant for them to fight, but a bit of bickering was always going to be par for the course with them, he supposed. John kissed him back immediately, without question, but broke away after only fifteen - no maybe twenty - he had lost count - seconds.

“To be clear, if that was your idea of a seduction - ” John stopped, laughing briefly. “I don’t need convincing Sherlock, I’m a sure thing. You could have just left it at, you know, asking me.”

Sherlock kissed him again, uninterested in whatever John thought he had just conveyed. “You don’t need convincing, really, John? If that were true, you’d have had me months ago. I certainly would have let you.”

John groaned, almost closer to agony than pleasure. This time it was John who stretched upwards, nipping at Sherlock’s bottom lip as he drew back. Sherlock’s eyes slid closed and didn’t open, even after John lips left his entirely. “I didn’t know that then, did I?” John murmured. “I’m happy to agree with you that I’m an idiot, as long as we’re clear it wasn’t because - ”

Sherlock opened his eyes drowsily. “I didn’t mean to accuse you of duplicity, John. I just want to make love.”

John’s lips parted slightly, the tip of his tongue darting out to slide across his mouth. The blue of John’s eyes appeared darker from the widening of his pupils, and Sherlock felt certain he could see John’s heart racing, his carotid artery pulsing.

Ah, so that would have been the better tactic to start with. Well, he’d know better for next time. (Sherlock stamped down the small voice that reminded him, ‘if there is a next time’).

Sherlock would have thought on this more, but John’s hand was on the back of his neck, and he naturally bowed his head in response. There was a rawness to John’s demeanour, his nostrils flaring and eyes blazing, and Sherlock soon found himself being kissed nearly senseless. The sweet slide of John’s tongue past his lips distracted him from the transition between the bathroom and their bedroom, till he was surprised by the feeling of the bed baseboard at the back of his calves. He was, however, pleased by their progress.

John was still holding the towel in his right hand, (the left hand wreaking havoc along Sherlock’s sides and back), which Sherlock decided would be very useful for protecting their sheets. Sherlock eased it from his grip, and threw it behind him, and then followed it by falling backward onto the bed, taking John down with him.

John’s lips found his again readily, and as Sherlock scooted himself further up the bed, John crawled after him, never allowing him to be any further from a kiss than what a quick lunge could compensate for. Once Sherlock was far enough backward that his head struck a pillow, John promptly lay fully on top of him, and returned to devouring him properly with wet open-mouthed kisses. John’s clothing rubbed against his skin deliciously, but Sherlock did not intend to be the only nude person in their bed. While Sherlock had no qualms about being bare, this just did not seem fair. Sherlock scrabbled for the buttons of John’s shirt until John paid him the courtesy of unbuttoning them himself, and Sherlock watched the display with hunger - that is, until his eyes focused in on John’s shoulder.

Sherlock could see the ridged edge of the scar tissue peaking out from beneath John’s undershirt. John pulled the shirt over his head, ruffling his hair, which would normally have held Sherlock’s attention, but his focus was all for John’s shoulder. The scar was small, healed remarkably well, given the circumstances. John had never shown this to anyone before. No one else had ever seen his scar, and no one else ever would. Sherlock was immediately and acutely obsessed with it.

Which might have explained why it took him much longer than it should have to notice that John was uneasy, his chin tucked in toward his neck and face turned slightly away. Sherlock placed his hand over top of the raised skin, feeling the edges with the tip of one finger.

“Us not being... intimate, before I knew about Mary. This was part of it, wasn’t it?” Sherlock asked, already knowing the answer. John would never have been able to remove his shirt in front of him without explanation.

Sherlock leaned forward, resting his head on the once injured shoulder. He felt glad for it, despite knowing it was wrong of him. If Mary had never shot John, he and John would have never met. John would still be married to someone else, unable to divorce. Was it wrong to covet something that had given John pain, if in its own way, it had inadvertently brought him joy? It couldn’t have been coincidence. The universe was rarely so lazy.

Sherlock concluded it was the kind of thought that would be better kept to himself. “You could have made love to me with your shoulder covered,” he whispered instead. It was a good point, after all.

John breathed out a small sigh, and Sherlock could feel a shudder run through him. He had made quite the discovery with that particular phrasing. John truly was an embarrassing romantic.

“No,” John said eventually, turning to give a kiss to his ear. “I’m glad I didn’t. If we’re going to do this, really do this - I mean you committing to me, like this - I’m glad that you know everything. That I’m not hiding anything from you.”

Sherlock pressed his lips to the tissue in response, and John made no protest. He began to undo John’s belt, and John made no protest to that either. Sherlock’s normally fast hands moved more clumsily than usual. He swallowed once, hard. John took over for him, and removed his own trousers and pants in one go, easing them down his thighs, and then turning on his side to get them the rest of the way. There was no self consciousness now that his scar was uncovered, and truthfully, there was nothing to be self conscious about. Sherlock couldn’t help but take in the sight - John’s body was perfect, proportionally and aesthetically, he was sure of it. It reminded him of a drawing by an old painter, whose name he’d erased for some such reason.

Sherlock at once was overly aware of how long he had been waiting and thinking and fantasizing. He wanted very much to move along with it. He slid away from John, moving toward his bedside table, where he had stashed the oil after his last attempt at similar activities. Sherlock waved his hands at John till he rolled off the bed so that Sherlock could pull the covers down, and then Sherlock primly spread the towel out over the center of the bed.

He climbed back onto the bed, oil in hand. He wondered if he should now hand the bottle over to John, or when would be the appropriate time for this pass-off? Was lying down on the towel too much? Whereas not a moment before he’d been in a rush, he was now becoming painfully aware of himself, sitting on his knees on the bedspread, requiring so much preparation. That small part of him that always plagued him with self doubt came back in a flash, unhelpfully pointing out that sleeping with Mary wouldn’t have required pre-planning, and any ruining of the mood…

John freed the oil bottle from his clenched hand and laid it on the bedspread before guiding Sherlock from his kneeling position to lay down on his side.

“Hey, hey,” John said, concern etched in his brow, “you know we don’t have to do this, right? And I mean, never, if you’d prefer. I’m more than happy with what we’ve been -”

Sherlock shook his head quickly, willing his earlier confidence to return. “I want to,” he insisted, and he meant it.

John looked unconvinced, proving exactly what Sherlock had pointed out earlier. John did in fact need convincing, every step of the way.

“Do you want to want to, or do you want to consummate our marriage so that it’s legally binding?” John asked, smoothing a hand down Sherlock’s side. Sherlock groaned, and not for the reasons he would have wished.

“Why can’t it be both?” Sherlock asked, and then, rethinking his approach, leaned his face towards John while closing his eyes, knowing John would be unable to resist taking the hint. John’s hand skimmed upwards to cup the back of his neck, drawing Sherlock’s head further in for a gentle press of closed mouths. When they broke apart, Sherlock employed his next strategy. Looking at John through heavy-lidded eyes, he said, “I’ve thought of you taking me, while I’ve stretched myself. I thought of you taking me in the library, on the window seat, for everyone to hear - ”

“Christ,” John gasped, and kissed the rest of the words from him, right hand traveling up the back his neck, tugging on Sherlock’s curls. Sherlock wanted him to pull harder.

“I’ve never thought of anyone else, I’d never let anyone else,” he murmured. He meant every word, and the breathlessness wasn’t an act - but he was hoping to prey on John’s possessive streak, to remind him of his fury from earlier that evening. John practically growled. John kissed his mouth, his chin, his neck, nipping at his collar bone.

John’s animalistic reactions paused for a moment, as if something had just occurred to him. “That first time Magnussen came here, while I was away in London,” John said slowly, speaking that man’s name with particular venom, “did anything...? Did he...?”

“No, no,” Sherlock reassured him, leaving out the rather uncomfortable kisses to his hand. “It was only ever... implied.”

John’s expression was, in a word, murderous. “God,” John said, voice low, like a spring wound tight, ready to release. “I swear, if he ever so much as looks at you again -”

Sherlock’s erection had waned during his earlier anxiousness, but now made such a fast reappearance that he was almost made dizzy. The image of John’s fist connecting soundly with Magnussen’s face and the noise of cartilage crunching was still fresh in his memory. He planned to save that particular seven seconds forever, and hoped he would always remember it exactly as it was.

“Hmm, I don’t think he’ll be trying that again,” Sherlock hummed, returning to his earlier closeness to John, till he could rub himself against John’s bare skin. There wasn’t any more talking after that, though John did in fact growl when Sherlock nipped at the lobe of his ear. John’s kisses and touches alternated between being bestowed with ferocious energy, to the softest gentleness, keeping Sherlock always surprised, and distracting him considerably. Sherlock writhed against John, and in the process against the towel beneath him, reminding him that his end goal was to have John inside him, rather than rutting off against each other. While not breaking the kiss, Sherlock fished for the misplaced bottle in the sheets, and pushed it into John’s hand against his shoulder. “Now John,” he demanded, rolling onto his back, spreading his legs, and motioning for John to proceed.

John obliged him, uncapping the bottle and spreading oil onto his fingers. Sherlock widened his legs further in encouragement as John got up on his knees to move between them. He couldn’t show nervousness, or John would back off once again. John rubbed his bent knee with his unlubricated hand, and Sherlock blew a hasty breath through his nose. “Please, John,” he said, sliding his feet up the bed, attempting to put himself on display.

John’s eyes on him were burning, and Sherlock smiled coyly. He loved it. “You’re already begging,” John commented, low and gruff. “And I haven’t even touched you yet.”

“Hardly begging, and that’s why I’m asking you to -” he began, but was cut off by John’s thumbs running twin paths down the sides of his groin, left thumb briefly pressing against his perineum, while the other found its way down to his furled hole, tracing it in a circular pattern. Sherlock groaned in appreciation. As suspected, it felt completely different from his own hand. Better. More intense. John massaged the outside of the ring with oil for what felt like an age, making Sherlock think he really would need to beg.

When John finally got on with it, he was all calm instructions, and asking before each and every thing. Could he manage one finger now? Two? Now, what about three? Sherlock thought he might go mad, constantly repeating “yes”, more desperate each time, over and over again.

“Are you sure you want to, in this position?” John asked, three fingers moving and pushing inside of Sherlock, conscientious to the last, despite his own clearly mounting level of interest. “It might feel better for your first time, on your front.”

“Another time,” Sherlock gasped out, “I want to see you, John.”

And then finally, finally, John was slicking himself and lining up. Sherlock moaned at the feeling of his cock head nestled against him, ready to push in, but John hesitated. Of course.

“John?” Sherlock asked, uncertainty coming through in his tone rather than his intended imperiousness.

John, holding his dripping cock in his hand, hard as a rock, was still somehow able to have a moral crisis. “I just - I need to be sure,” he said, looking up at Sherlock. “You really will be tied to me.”

“John, you’re an idiot,” Sherlock said, still breathless. “We are already tied to each other, whether this happened or not. This is just the declaration. I want this, and you. I want this marriage, and whatever comes with it. I want it to be real. I won’t let them hang you, but even they do, we’d both go down together.”

John leaned up and kissed him once, incredibly chaste, considering their relative positions. And then, slowly, John realigned and pressed against his entrance. The pace of it would have driven any reasonable person to absolute distraction. Sherlock felt his body begin to give way, but not enough, and the discomfort of the act made itself known. John retreated, and then pushed back again. Sherlock, willing every muscle to relax, allowed himself to be breached. It was uncomfortable, at the start, but he had expected that. His senses were capable of intense focus, and when met with the reality of John being inside of him, John was inside of him, the discomfort became a distant and remote thing.

John barely moved at first, letting him adjust, letting him feel every inch as it was given to him. He took, and took, everything he demanded of John, and John would never deny him. When John finally did move, it was nothing like anything else they had ever done together in bed (and outside) before. It bared no similarity to taking John in his mouth in the Happy Valley, or John’s hand and mouth on him at night, the promise of orgasm very much his end goal.

This was his promise. From now on, John would have to know, and he would never be able to suggest otherwise again. Sherlock doubted he would be able to come like this, but he hadn’t expected to. It was more than enough watching John’s face, overcome with the intensity of the feeling, as though Sherlock was the best thing he’d ever found. John’s constant praise made Sherlock feel not unlike a God - telling him he was so good, he felt amazing, that he was gorgeous - till Sherlock buried his flushed face into John’s upper arm and shoulder, his legs gripping John’s hips as his husband moved inside of him in long, deep thrusts.

John’s pace increased once Sherlock was holding onto him like a limpet, the change causing Sherlock’s cock to rub harder against John’s abdomen. He ground up into John, moaning, feeling completely filled and perfect. As John’s movements grew more fevered in his oncoming orgasm, Sherlock met his thrusts with enthusiasm, wanting desperately to see John come inside of him for the first time. John grunted once, murmuring “Sherlock” under his breath, and finished with a groan exhaled against the underside of Sherlock’s jaw.

The feeling of John’s release inside of him should have been unpleasant. It wasn’t. When John began to draw back, Sherlock instinctively held John tighter, not wanting him to pull out. Realizing John would now be over sensitive, Sherlock did relax his grip, letting his legs drift down from where they had held John like a vice.

When John looked up from where he’d had his face buried in Sherlock’s neck, he looked alarmingly concerned. Sherlock didn’t understand why, until he realized his face was wet. “Did I - ?” John asked, horrified, and Sherlock wrapped himself around him again tighter than before.

“No! No,” he protested. His voice sounded strange. “It was just…”

“Intense,” John finished, still out of breath. Sherlock nodded. He hadn’t meant to cry. How embarrassing.

John kissed the trails on his cheeks, and without further ado wrapped a hand around Sherlock’s very hard cock, pulling twice. Sherlock gasped, almost having forgotten how turned on he’d been from their prolonged foreplay, and his eventual enjoyment of being penetrated. John inside of him had been incredibly arousing, occasionally striking upon that spot just right, but it hadn’t been enough, not nearly enough -

John was moving down his body, still stroking him languidly. Sherlock imagined John intended to suck him, and knew he wouldn’t last for very long. As a result, it was the surprise of his life when John licked around the base of his cock, but rather than moving up to take the length into his mouth, he slid further down, and licked around the rim of his slackened hole. If Sherlock had still been in possession of his mind, he would likely have been embarrassed by the howl he emitted as John ran his tongue around the outside of it, slipping just the tip of his tongue inside.

John pulled back at the sound, and Sherlock managed to put himself together enough to shout, “For the love of God, don’t stop!” John proceeded to lift Sherlock’s legs over his shoulders, raising his hips, and opening him impossibly wider. John started again, circling his rim with his tongue, and then pushing back in, repeatedly pulling out and returning with his tongue, lapping at his own come while stroking Sherlock’s cock in time. Sherlock’s entire being was a litany of high, breathless gasps of “ah, ah, ah, ah -”, in time with each of John’s thrusts with his tongue. All it took was one well timed teasing circle, tongue pressing past the muscle’s resistance, and a particularly hard stroke to his cock, till Sherlock was coming hard across his chest, some of his release landing as high as his neck. John continued to work his hole through his orgasm, drawing it out, till he thought he might black out from pleasure.

“Good?” he heard John ask, and all he could manage was a series of nods. John truly was full of … surprises. He felt certain he’d momentarily left this earthly plane, though he was vaguely aware of John gently turning him onto his side, and removing the towel from beneath him. The towel had been an excellent idea, and was now used to clean his chest, and lower areas, by his ever caring John. He would need to at some point stand up to properly wash himself in their bathroom, but for now he remained as the puddle John had left him. It was unclear how long he lay there recovering, but when he did, John’s face was touching his, lips against his cheek. His face was wet again, but this time the tears weren’t his.

“I won’t let them, John,” Sherlock said, his conviction clear, despite his voice sounding utterly wrecked. “They can’t take you away from me.”

“I know,” John said, petting his side. “They won’t.”

Sherlock was tired of seeing John’s unconvinced expression.

____________

The following day Sherlock woke with a soreness that he very much appreciated, and the need to make an important phone call. John would never cave in to Magnussen’s threat, and Sherlock had no interest in convincing him to do so. With this knowledge, prior to John waking (as his husband was still drained from the day in court), Sherlock dressed and went downstairs into the small room attached to the library, and made the call.

Magnussen let him wait five rings before answering.

“No lackeys to take your calls? How forward-thinking,” Sherlock began, rather than bothering with pleasantries.

“This is my private office line, as you well know Mr Watson,” Magnussen replied. Sherlock could hear the man’s amusement, even over the phone line. He could also hear that his speech was slightly muffled through his broken nose. Bless John.

“Are you calling to tell me that your husband has accepted my offer?” Magnussen asked. “I would be delighted to put down roots beyond my office in London. The country can be quite lovely in the spring I understand.”

“We don’t have a deal,” Sherlock stated, enunciating each word precisely. “Looks like you’ll need to find yourself a different historical home to steal.”

Magnussen sighed. “Do you really think I’m bluffing Mr Watson? This is my last offer before David is returned his letter, and contacts the magistrate instead.”

“Let the Colonel come,” Sherlock said. “I’m aware of the consequences. You said you’d bring him, and David.”

“If you refuse to accept my offer,” Magnussen said slowly, “I regret to say there is no reason for me to be involved past this point.”

Sherlock scoffed. “You mean you want to nurse your broken face in the comfort of your own home.”

“I am just a businessman, Mr Watson. If there is no business to be done, I will leave you to it. Enjoy - I think you’ll find David to be quite the convincing mourner, completely devoted to Mary. Rather unlike her actual husband. We’ll see what the magistrate makes of his note, and the knowledge that your husband punched his messenger.”

Sherlock ground his teeth, wishing that John had done far worse. “Messenger indeed,” he bit out.

“Farewell Mr Watson.” The click, followed by a dial tone, signalled the end of the call, and the last of his dealings with Magnussen.

He should have known Magnussen would not be getting his hands dirty, seeing as he normally traveled with an entourage of guards in London, and likely regretted not bringing them when he had visited the day before. Now he was done sticking his neck out for blackmail that wouldn’t pay off. He wondered how much David had wasted on such a thing. If David was easily bent, they could win against him in the eyes of the Colonel.

When Sherlock returned to their wing, John was woken by his entrance, and his brow immediately furrowed, obviously wondering where he had been. John wore confusion like some men wore a bespoke suit. Sherlock wanted to see John confused over many things, and well into old age. “It’s done,” he said simply.

“Oh, Sherlock,” John said, and lifted the corner of the covers.

Sherlock slipped back into bed, and there they waited for the next call to come.

_________

Early afternoon, John called Colonel Barclay himself, which they both agreed would be in their favour. They were aware that there was a man who wanted to bring forth new evidence. The Colonel confirmed that he had been contacted by a David, and agreed that Manderley would be an acceptable meeting place for the discussion. The Colonel arrived, seemingly perplexed by it all, and then David, the man Sherlock had seen at the inquest. Describing the man as upset would have been a gross understatement - he seemed beyond himself with grief, when he wasn’t glaring daggers at John.

When they’d all assembled in the library, John motioned for David to begin.

“Well, you’re the one who called us here today,” John said, good naturedly (which showed an impressive amount of self control, to say the least). “Tell the Colonel what you have to say.”

David cleared his throat. At first glance, it was easy to see he was not a naturally confident person. Likely, he had expected Magnussen to accompany him - but after all, he should have known he’d only been involved for the business end of things.

“I’ll be direct, so as to not waste your time Colonel,” David began, with an attempt at a strong voice. “I have reason to believe that the verdict given at the inquest is not correct, and I also have the evidence to prove it.”

The Colonel appeared taken aback. “I would have thought it would be for Mr Watson to take issue with the verdict. What exactly is the evidence you’ve mentioned?”

David, with a nervous sort of bluster, pulled a note from his pocket. "Mary wrote this to me only a few hours before she supposedly killed herself. Read it for yourself and tell me if it sounds like the person who wrote it was about to commit suicide.”

Colonel Barclay appeared more than a little skeptical. If only his outlook would stay that way. As the Colonel read the note, his dour expression remained unchanged.

The Colonel returned the note to David saying, “No, I suppose the note would seem out of place. But then I have no idea what the contents of it referred to, and people suffering emotional distress may do many odd things. Mr Watson, are you aware of what the note means? Why was your wife meeting with this man?”

John took a moment to respond, looking towards David in annoyance. “I’ve haven’t read the note sir, so I can’t comment.” Sherlock searched John for any trace of jealousy, and of course, found none. Sherlock knew it was not just wishful thinking on his part - John clearly disliked David for what he was doing now, but not what he had done with John’s wife before.

“You don’t need to know what it was about,” David protested, looking at the Colonel as if surprised he didn’t have him for an ally. “Mary made an appointment in the note, plans for after that night. She asked me to drive to Manderley because she had to tell me something. Obviously I never found out what she was going to tell me, no one can speak to that, but for her to drive holes into her boat to - to - to kill herself! God! She would never!”

Sherlock observed Colonel Barclay closely, noticing at once that David’s bit of hysterics at the end had not helped his case. Not at all in fact.

“I’d ask that you try to keep your head sir,” the Colonel said in a low tone. “I understand you’re not happy with the reality of the verdict, but I’m not the Coroner or the jury that decided it. As the district magistrate, I want to be as thorough as possible. If you say Mrs Watson didn’t kill herself, then what do you believe happened?”

David’s gaze immediately fell upon John, who returned his look calmly. John was not a good liar, so it was lucky that a man about to accuse him of murder was the sort of thing that only made John exasperated. This caused David to appear as the more irrational, more emotional, and less composed of the two of them, and his agitation seemed to only be increasing.

David shook the note slightly. “I’m telling you that Mary never sabotaged her own damn boat! If you want an alternate answer, I’ll tell you that I think Mary was murdered. Mary was murdered, and I’ll tell you who I think it was - he’s standing right bloody there!” David pointed the folded note at John with gusto, and the Colonel naturally turned his attention to John, surprise evident in his features despite not being an expressive person.

“Mary and I were in love, and he knew it, and he killed her for it! Just look how quickly he was able to move on. Identifying the first corpse dredged up on the shore - he didn’t even a wait a full year before remarrying that Frenchman!”

David now pointed the twisted note at Sherlock, breathing hard, and looking between the both of them as if they were demons come to haunt him. Under difference circumstances, Sherlock would have clarified his nationality, but it seemed a moot point - especially with David making himself look like a lunatic in the Colonel’s eyes.

“You’re upset by this news about someone you were - close with,” Colonel Barclay said, attempting to diffuse the awkwardness of the situation. “I understand this is hard to take.”

David laughed, and it did nothing to help his cause.

“You’re not listening to me. I’ve got evidence! I don’t care if you’ll stick with Watson in this, the law is on my side, and I will find another magistrate! John Watson killed Mary Watson, and I will prove it.”

“I might ask,” the Colonel began, annoyance now apparent, “why you didn’t mention this evidence while you were present at the inquiry yesterday. Why would you not show the letter in court if you were so certain?”

David wavered. He couldn’t very well admit to originally intending to sell it to be used as blackmail. “Why - why - well, I wanted to speak to Mr Watson first! And he refused.”

“Is that true Watson?” the Colonel asked.

“We’ve already heard his accusations yes,” John confirmed with only a slight bite to his delivery. “His … associate proposed we make a deal to keep David quiet, in fact.”

“Blackmail!” the Colonel exclaimed, turning back to David. “This is all an unpleasant business. Sir, once and for all, have you any actual proof to back up your accusation of Mr Watson?”

“Proof?” David asked. “Well, what proof would you need? Watson punched my associate in the face I might mention!”

This caused the Colonel to again turn his attention to John in surprise, and consideration. Sherlock didn’t like that look at all.

“It is typical to present witnesses,” Sherlock pointed out, unable to resist poking holes in David’s accusation. John glanced at him. Sherlock got the message - he might have picked the wrong moment to be a smart-arse.

“A witness,” David groaned, frustration mounting.

“Without a witness, you have no more proof against Watson as you do against any man,” the Colonel stated. “Whether you claim he was a jealous husband or not.”

With any luck, the abuse the note in David’s hand was receiving would make it illegible by the end of their confrontation, with David twisting it between his two clenched fists.

David’s head shot back up, in a moment of realization.

“Wait a minute!” David said. “There just might be someone who saw Watson that night. What if I did produce a witness? You’d have to listen to me then wouldn’t you?”

Sherlock’s heart was in his throat. But John had said no one had seen him - David must have been bluffing. Was he bluffing?

The answer came to him less than a moment later. There was only one person always on the beach, always watching, always around that little cottage. Anderson.

“By all means, produce your witness,” the Colonel encouraged. Sherlock watched John, but John was staring at David.

"There's a local man, always around that cottage,” David said, already triumphant. “He’s odd, sleeps on the beach. I bet you anything he saw it.”

“Do you know who he means?” the Colonel asked.

John and Sherlock exchanged another glance. “He means Anderson,” John clarified. “He lives with one of my tenants.”

Sherlock clasped his hands behind his back to keep any possible trembling from sight. David wasn’t wrong. Anderson probably had seen. But - would Anderson talk? And could they dispute it if he did?

“The man is an idiot,” Sherlock commented, all eyes turning to him. “That is - I’ve met him on a number of occasions and invariably found him to be more than a bit odd. You can interview him, but whether you get any sense from him is another matter.”

“Who cares if he’s odd if he’s got eyes and a memory,” David said, earlier bluster still intact. “Not feeling so sure now, are you Watson?”

If the Colonel and John had not been present, Sherlock would have made David sorely regret his decision to come into their home at all. As it was...

“There’s no need for that,” the Colonel said. “Can anyone bring this person in so we can question him?”

John nodded once, and rang the bell for the servants. When Lestrade arrived, looking about the tense room briefly with concern, John instructed him to take the car and find Anderson at once.

And so they stood together as a group, waiting. The silence stretched thin as Sherlock watched the Colonel watching John. He could tell the Colonel was beginning to wonder. John hadn’t noticed yet, but Colonel Barclay was asking himself if it were possible, if John Watson really had it in him.

Sherlock saw first when the car arrived, and Lestrade did have Anderson in tow. He was brought into the room with them, agitated and strange as per usual.

“I haven’t taken anything,” Anderson said, looking at Sherlock and John. “I swear, I haven’t gone in the cabin!”

“That’s not what you’re here for,” David said. He approached him first, eager to prove himself right. “You can go home very shortly in fact, you just need to answer some questions. You know me don’t you? You’ve seen me in the cottage with Mary?”

“I’ve never seen anything,” Anderson stated, eyes roaming around the room, and the door, like a trapped animal.

The Colonel was now looking at David. Sherlock continued to appear somber, but felt like beaming.

“You’re saying you’ve never seen me with Mary at the cottage? You used to always peer in at the windows, remember?”

Anderson shook his head. David was beginning to look flustered, while the Colonel’s growing doubt was plain.

“You’re not in any trouble Anderson,” Colonel Barclay said, attempting to redirect the questioning. “If you don’t remember this man, do you maybe remember Mrs Watson?”

Anderson looked towards Sherlock, and back to the Colonel, confused.

“No, not Mr Watson, Mrs Watson. She had the boat down at the shore. Do you remember the evening a year ago, after which she never came back?”

“You were there weren’t you?” David asked, pressing in. “You peered in at the window, and you saw John Watson with Mary. You saw him.”

Anderson looked at John, and then Sherlock, and back to David. “I’ve not seen anything like that.”

“Your proposed witness does not seem to be a witness at all,” the Colonel commented dryly.

“This is a - a setup! And you’re all in on it!” David exclaimed. “Watson lets this man wander his property however he pleases, of course he wouldn’t rat him out!”

“Let Anderson go home now, I think, perhaps with a bit of food in him,” the Colonel suggested, and Lestrade ushered him back out. Sherlock and Anderson made eye contact, and for that one moment, Anderson appeared to be clear headed. He ducked his head once, as if in thanks. Sherlock could hardly believe it.

It seemed that David was right, but luckily, being correct made him sound completely insane.

“Sir, if you can’t even prove the motive of jealousy,” the Colonel began, “you really do not have a case to present.”

David was stricken, on the brink of defeat, before another thought occurred to him. “That I can prove!” David said, rushing over to ring the bell for the servants.

“What are you doing now?” Colonel Barclay asked. By Sherlock’s estimation, the man considered the situation handled.

“Moriarty,” David answered.

John and Sherlock both froze where they stood. That was a card Sherlock should have expected to be on the table, given that Moriarty seemed to be the connection between David and Magnussen, but he had hoped otherwise.

Lestrade had returned to join them, and John caught his eye. Eventually John nodded his head. “Better bring him in I suppose,” he said, resigned.

“Moriarty is the… housekeeper?” Colonel Barclay asked, suggesting he’d hoped the ordeal would end with Anderson’s departure.

“He was also Mary’s confidante,” David declared. “They were together for years before coming to Manderley, and he won’t be under Watson’s thumb like our last witness.”

The Colonel seemed to repress a sigh.

Lestrade returned in record time, with Moriarty trailing behind him. Moriarty bowed his head in greeting, appearing to be in his role as Jim the servant for the time being, though Sherlock knew how quickly that could change.

The muscle in John’s jaw jumped at Moriarty’s entrance, his standard tell for nervousness. Colonel Barclay saw it as well. He was watching for apprehension in John’s expression. Sherlock felt as though they were walking a tightrope - David was not overly convincing, but the tenseness of John and his husband surely was.

“Good evening, Mr Moriarty,” the Colonel said, “I’m afraid I will need to interview you on a sensitive subject, namely your previous mistress. To your knowledge, what was the relationship between the late Mrs Watson and this man here?” he asked, gesturing to David.

“I'm afraid I don't understand, sir,” Moriarty replied, his eyes widening as if he was made uncomfortable by the question. He was an excellent actor, Sherlock would grant him, and he seemed to feel no loyalty to Mary’s old lover. Sherlock had no idea what Moriarty's next move would be, a rogue player in their game. Would Moriarty truly deny it, just for the sake of making a man look foolish, even if it meant making the case against John weaker?

“Come off it Jim!” David cried. “Mary and I were together, on and off for years. She was in love with me! Tell them!”

Moriarty’s head tilted to the side, and he looked at David in consideration for a long moment, scorn in his gaze.

“She wasn’t,” Moriarty drawled, confident and disinterested.

David’s face turned an alarming shade of beet red. “Now, you listen here, whatever Watson has offered you - ”

“She was not in love with you, or anyone,” Moriarty said, gaze cutting towards John. If he’d thought that would land a blow, Sherlock was cheered to see Moriarty was greatly mistaken. John didn’t care, not even in the slightest. Though, John still appeared concerned where Moriarty intended to lead the conversation.

“Moriarty,” Colonel Barclay said, attempting to bring the conversation to heel, “are you aware of any reason why Mrs Watson would have wanted to meet with this man to tell him something? Any idea what that something might have been?”

David reluctantly passed the note to Moriarty, who received it gingerly, holding the edge of it between two pinched fingers and showing obvious distaste for its crumpled state.

“I’m not sure what it could mean,” Moriarty said, his courteous manner returned. “My mistress had been in London. Perhaps it was information gained from her time there?”

“If we knew how she spent that day in London, we could get to the heart of matter, and I would feel I had done my due diligence. Does anyone know?” the Colonel asked, looking to John and David.

John shook his head, and David clearly knew nothing either. “She left that note at mine sometime that day,” David said. “Other than that….”

“Did Mrs Watson keep a diary?” the Colonel asked Moriarty. He nodded, and Sherlock felt sick.

“I've got her engagement diary locked in my room,” Moriarty said, his eyes gleaming. Sherlock wondered if Moriarty had always intended to use such a thing as blackmail, or if that wasn’t Moriarty’s game. He thrived on unrest, but never seemed to act for personal petty gain. It was what made him difficult to predict.

“Mr Watson, do you have any objections to this diary being reviewed?” Colonel Barclay asked.

“Why would I?” John responded, causing the Colonel to eye him again with curiosity. Sherlock cursed John’s natural edginess, which would otherwise have delighted him.

Moriarty returned swiftly with the book, but not fast enough for the tenseness in the room to not have grown tenfold in his absence. Moriarty presented the book with aplomb. “I’ve opened it to the day she died,” Moriarty said, disconcertingly helpful.

Sherlock watched John as they all stood in the library, waiting for the Colonel to read the page, waiting for the moment he found something incriminating. They didn’t need to wait long.

“There isn’t much here besides a Murray at two o'clock, with an asterisk next to the name. Who was Murray?” Colonel Barclay asked, immediately looking to John, and then Moriarty. It was the same answer as before. No one knew.

“Well, it’s been well marked. This is our answer. She went to London evidently to see this Murray, whoever they are.”

“Did Mrs Watson have enemies?” Colonel Barclay asked the room at large. “Money-lenders, blackmailers?” John seemed only able to shake his head, and David was at a complete loss.

“Watson killed her, what does it matter about this Murray?” David scoffed, at the end of his rope.

Moriarty looked over at Sherlock, innocence incarnate. “Sir, don’t you enjoy a bit of detective work? Perhaps you can help the Colonel, if given a chance to inspect the diary.”

All eyes were once again on him. The cruelty of it burned him. Moriarty was asking him to solve the case, knowing the only answer at the end of the line was that his own husband had done it.

But, perhaps this Murray was harmless. Perhaps they would find Murray, and it would turn out to be no lead at all. Perhaps it was just a man who sold stockings and powders, and the Colonel would find the whole exercise ridiculous, and leave this behind with the firm belief that accusations against John had no real backing.

“Brilliant suggestion Jim, have Watson’s husband try it out, as if he isn’t in on it too!” David interjected, but the Colonel was already holding the diary out to Sherlock saying, “By all means, tell us what you make of it.”

Sherlock and John exchanged a glance. John trusted him.

He flipped open the diary. “It’s undeniably her handwriting,” Sherlock murmured, and continued his deductions within his own mind. Meticulous. Kept record of all her meetings and appointments. There were many that were labeled with false names. Mary, Mary, quite contrary. She certainly was hiding something - he hadn’t considered her secret life past the aspects that affected John’s future, but now he wondered what she had really been up to. Having multiple affairs - perhaps she had been covering a larger vice with a smaller one. He would need to think on it further.

He reached the back of the book, where he found a list of four digit numbers. One of these numbers had the same symbol next to it as was beside Murray’s name in her schedule. Obvious.

“She wrote his number in the back, as indicated by the asterisk, but without the exchange. We’ll have to try every exchange in London with the number till we find a Murray.”

Colonel Barclay seemed impressed, and was looking over to Lestrade to get started.

“Try every exchange in London!” David protested. “That’ll take you all night, this is just another play for more time!”

Sherlock peered at a smudge beside the number. It looked like it might be an ‘M’. But then, every bloody thing Mary wrote had an ‘M’. “John,” he said, holding the diary out. “What would you say that smudge most resembles?”

“An ‘M’ I suppose,” John confirmed, and then seemed to realize the same thing Sherlock had. “An ‘M’, perhaps - ?”

“There are several possibilities. Mayfair, Museum, etc.” Sherlock finished. “Lestrade, ask the exchange for Mayfair 1895, and if that doesn’t work, try Museum.”

Lestrade quickly left for the small room attached to do just that.

“What a sleuth you are, sir,” Moriarty commented, back to his overzealous, fawning airs.

Sherlock’s anxiety did not abate. Moriarty being glad, encouraging him to find this number, did not bode well. Sherlock stared at John, but John was no longer looking back at him.

Lestrade returned to the room. All other noise in the room was muted, till all Sherlock could hear was the dull thudding of his heart. Clearly, Lestrade had found Murray.

“I got through to Museum, and the night porter answered. The place is used as a doctor's consulting rooms. Murray isn’t in practice any more, but the porter gave me information on where to find him in London.”

John, at last, lifted his head to meet Sherlock’s eyes. John was saying goodbye, and it made Sherlock want to rip the diary and note to shreds. A dark, awful part of him wanted to kill David and the Colonel, and then Magnussen - remove everyone who would ever try to drive them apart. He knew it was wrong, and that Barclay was a good man, and he dismissed it immediately, knowing John would hate him for it. But John was looking at him as if to say farewell, and Sherlock would have done anything to change it.

John cleared his throat, and turned to Lestrade, ending their brief connection. “Well done Lestrade,” John said, smiling tightly. “We have an address then?”

“An address is more than enough,” the Colonel declared. “Well done Mr Watson, for coming up with the number!”

Sherlock tilted his head in response. It was like being thanked for tying the knot in his own noose.

“She was seeing a doctor, perhaps even for her psychological issues. This may settle the matter once and for all.”

“But what about my note?” David asked. “That wouldn’t explain why she wanted to meet me.”

“Perhaps the results of the appointment were something she wished to communicate to you. But we won’t know until we speak to him.”

“Well,” Lestrade interrupted, “I can write a letter to the doctor’s address and ask him if he remembers this appointment from last year, on behalf of Mr Watson.”

“The case would be confidential,” Sherlock said, accepting that the investigation would have to move forward. “We would need to explain the circumstances to him in person.”

“That settles it,” Colonel Barclay said with finality. “What say you Watson?”

John smiled grimly. “I am willing to do whatever you suggest. Should I drive to this address, and wire ahead to let Murray know I’m coming?”

“You’re not going alone,” David said. “I insist that I come. And that I bring an Inspector.”

“If I come as well, will that satisfy you?” the Colonel asked. “There is no need for an Inspector just yet.”

Sherlock’s heart sunk at the use of “yet”.

David looked very pleased indeed. “We’ll meet at the doctor’s address tomorrow at the same time. And Barclay will follow you in another car on your drive down, so you don’t get any funny ideas.”

They all agreed to these terms, and the Colonel concluded their meeting. They spilled out into the hallway, and Lestrade began to bring them their coats, making sure to drop David’s on the ground ‘by accident’ with Gladstone growling at him from behind Lestrade’s legs.

“You’ll regret covering for a murderer you know,” David directed at Sherlock, as he donned his hat, put off by his perceived ill treatment. “Your life story in the papers won’t be very pleasant for you. My associate will make sure of that.”

“I’m very familiar with your associate,” Sherlock replied, smiling wide. “I look forward to his creativity. From Monte Carlo to Manderley, the life of a murderer's French groom. I’ll be delighted. Better luck next time.”

David’s jaw clenched. “You’re both bloody psychopaths!” he stammered out. “Enjoy your last night together!” he cried, before turning on his heel and rushing out the opened door.

He had to give David credit for using the one ending parry that could actually sting.

The Colonel also bid them adieu, though with much more class, and glancing at Sherlock specifically in sympathy. The man obviously had a false understanding of his character, helped along by the newspaper articles.

“I can’t tell you how sorry I am about all of this,” the Colonel said, standing in the doorway. He looked between him and John, and Sherlock could see that the seed of doubt about John had already been planted in the Colonel’s mind. The Colonel wasn’t sure any longer if John could be trusted. Magnussen had been right - once the suggestion of John’s guilt was in the world it couldn’t be easily reclaimed. Ideas couldn’t be killed.

“Good evening Colonel,” John said.

They eyed each other, before the Colonel finally left with a murmured, “See you on the morrow.”

John at last turned to him, and any words Sherlock might have spoken died on his lips. They walked back to the library in silence, and closed the door behind them.

“At least we can sit together on the drive up in the car,” John said with forced brightness.

“Don’t,” Sherlock pleaded.

“We’ll have tomorrow night as well,” John continued. “And they’re less strict now, they let you see people. It takes some time to -”

“John,” Sherlock pleaded, reaching for John. “Don’t. It won’t come to that.”

“You can’t promise that,” John whispered, and his whole face crumpled, folding in.

“I can,” he insisted, though he couldn’t. John was right, and there was no guarantee. Tomorrow would either settle the matter forever, or ruin them.

Chapter Text

Their embrace was to be cut short, disturbed by the ringing of the telephone in the small room attached to the library. John pulled away with a lingering touch to Sherlock’s jaw to answer it, leaving the door ajar.

It was Harry - presumably she’d finally heard the news of the inquest from the day before (her timely interest in them was truly touching). She spoke loudly enough down the phone line that Sherlock could hear her, and her outlook, which was that the verdict was of course ridiculous. Harry must have always known Mary for what she was, which made her certain that Mary would have never committed suicide, but still naive to the true alternative.

Sherlock moved to stand in front of the fire, and briefly thought on his own sibling’s reactions. The papers would have told him more than enough, and Lestrade must have also written to him. He imagined Mycroft reading the headlines while lounging at his silent club, and his eyes rolling skyward at how his baby brother could never stay out of trouble. While Sherlock hated to admit it, Mycroft was the smarter of the two of them, which likely meant he actually did know who had killed Mary. In that case however, his lack of interest in Sherlock’s husband having a history of offing his spouses was patently odd. Either Mycroft had learned to be less oppressive (doubtful), or he supposed John would be locked up soon enough. Not much of an ally for helping John escape the noose.

And it was a trying time indeed if he were choosing to distract himself with thoughts of his brother, rather than thinking on the present. John was still talking, offering ambiguous responses to Harry’s disbelief, before tersely cutting her off and hanging up the phone. It started ringing again almost immediately, but John shut the door to the attached room. They caught each other’s eyes. They both agreed to ignore it.

John crossed the room in three strides, his unaided walking something Sherlock was still becoming used to. John grabbed hold of both his arms, turning Sherlock the way he needed him, before kissing him firmly, and then, repeatedly. At the prospect of that night being their last, John kissed him as if it was their first. The only sound in the room for quite some time was that of their laboured breathing, and the neglected phone ringing off its hook. John eventually pulled away and smiled, a touch wicked, and Sherlock felt his heart kick in his chest. If John never looked at him that way again, he thought he might just burn the world to the ground.

As John began to direct him backward with a gentle push to his chest, Sherlock realized the reason John was looking at him like a school boy up to no good was because they were heading for the window seat. Sherlock flushed, both embarrassed and amazed that John could think to tease him after all that had just happened, and all that was about to.

“What will the servants think?” Sherlock murmured, lips twitching at the corners, despite the ridiculousness of what he knew John was suggesting.

“What they already think, probably. They all want to know anyway,” John replied, sitting down on the seat and pulling Sherlock towards him, such that Sherlock’s legs bracketed his thighs.

John held him by the waist, lowering him till he was resting on John’s spread knees, without putting pressure on the area of his seat that was currently quite tender. He regretted being sore at the moment, as John seemed intent on apparently making all his fantasies come true, but that one particular detail would need to be changed. No bother, as there were many other things he’d enjoy to do with John in the library window seat - including grinding himself against John’s muscular thigh, which he started on immediately while John nipped at his lips.

“Oh, God Sherlock,” John muttered under his breath as Sherlock panted into his mouth, working himself up from the thrill of it alone. John gripped his arse, egging him on, and Sherlock continued to hump without shame. Sherlock reached down to cup John through his trousers, groaning at just the feeling of him hard beneath his hand, till John’s patience broke down.

Hands moving in a flurry of motion, John freed the both of them from their trousers before pulling Sherlock further back along the window seat. They both moaned as their cocks aligned, John pulling on his hips with an unrestrained possessiveness, as they frotted against one another in a steady rhythm. John took hold of Sherlock’s larger hand, curling it around their cocks together. Sherlock couldn’t tear his eyes away from the sight of them, focusing on keeping his grip just right, just the way John liked it.

They came in synchrony, their grunts and groans barely audible over the continued shrilling of the telephone.

 

 


 

 

That night, Sherlock dreamt of the West wing.

In waking life, he hadn’t returned there in what felt like ages - not since he had last confronted Moriarty with the hypodermic syringe. He felt certain he dreamt that musty lilac smell, with the bedroom otherwise perfectly preserved. He faced the mirror at the dressing table and watched as John approached him from behind, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. In the dream, it was their room. The whole house had always been theirs. He couldn’t recall anything different.

Except that when he returned his gaze to the mirror glass, the reflection altered. His face slowly became unrecognizable, blurring. The shape was rounder, and his hair lightened, until a woman gazed back, triumphant with John’s hand on her shoulder. The wallpaper behind them began to drip - and then the furniture, the mantle, the bedposts, the flowers, and their vases - as if everything had been painted on, and the colours were being leached from their surfaces, melting away.

As he watched the mirror, its ornate metal frame dissolving around the image, the face staring back at him flickered into a wide, smiling mouth. The head tilted side to side in a reptilian fashion, and he stood abruptly, the chair teetering backwards and dissolving where it hit the floor. The painting he and John had been living in was disappearing around him, and leaving behind nothing but a blank canvas. The only part left in colour, the only thing still real, was John, his John.

Sherlock turned and reached for him, begging John to escape, but before his very eyes his own hands turned to twine, his arms to thick rope, and Sherlock could do nothing but watch as John received him, and consequently placed his neck into the noose of his hempen embrace.

Sherlock startled awake, and took a few moments to allow himself to be calmed slightly by the sight of John’s face turned towards him, lined with worry even in sleep. Eventually he forced himself from bed, throwing open the shutters on their windows.

The early morning dew on the petals of the rose garden beneath their window reminded Sherlock too much of dripping, red paint. He redirected his attention to the lawns that stretched out into the woods, and the Happy Valley beyond. Shortly, the gardeners would be on the grass, Gladstone nipping at their heels. Molly would prepare the masters’ breakfast, while Robert dropped the glassware, and the dusters would air the morning room and fill it with fresh lilacs, as they had been newly directed. Manderley went on regardless of what darkness occurred within its little world, and regardless of whether John, or he, was there to see it. Perhaps that at least was a small mercy.

An even greater mercy was John still sleeping when Sherlock heard a shuffling gait approaching their door only minutes later, accompanied by a quiet whistling. Sherlock gripped the edge of the windowsill, and waited. There was no knock or attempt to enter. Something was deposited outside their door, and then the footsteps returned the way they had come. Moriarty had left him another present.

Moriarty had slipped away the previous afternoon while their guests had been seen to the door - out of sight, out of mind - but Sherlock would not make the mistake of forgetting Moriarty again. The inquest, the blackmail, and now the visit to the Doctor, these were all small hurdles. He kept losing track of Moriarty’s position while the other man was still in the background, playing a different game altogether.

Sherlock unlocked their bedroom door to find the hallway outside empty, apart from an old pair of shoes. They were small in size, indicating a young man’s shoes, dated in style to at least a decade ago, and hadn’t been worn since. Unlike the last gift, Sherlock found he did not understand the message. He brought them into their room, and slid them into the desk drawer as John began to stir in their bed. With their visit to Doctor Murray, whose intel might create the need for a trial, John had enough on his mind without Moriarty’s diversions.

He and John had grown accustomed to each day being a new obstacle to surmount, and prepared for it perfunctorily. It seemed no time at all passed before Colonel Barclay arrived at their lodge gates, waiting for them to travel into London. As their car drove up, John and the Colonel nodded at one another before continuing their drive into the city.

Sherlock had partially hoped that David, much like his associate, might have backed out from the actual confrontation at the last minute - but, there was to be no such luck. They met David’s car at the agreed upon crossroads soon after. David appeared grim through his windshield, deadset in his belief, and waved them on ahead. John gripped the steering wheel harder at the sight of him, and Sherlock pressed a hand to John’s knee for the rest of the long trip. The length of the drive was helpful incidentally, as Sherlock had much to think on.

Moriarty had been helpful the previous afternoon, arguably too helpful, and then had disappeared again as soon as he had the chance. It was not a difficult deduction to conclude that Moriarty wanted them to meet with this Murray, meaning Moriarty must have known what they would discover from the Doctor. But then - could Moriarty have always possessed the power to destroy John? And if so, why now? It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. Unless -

“Are you all right?” John asked. Sherlock realized the fingers drumming against his leg had grown sporadic. Possibly twitchy.

Sherlock nodded, and gripped John’s knee with his other hand tighter. He alternated between thoughts on Moriarty, and on John. John sitting pale next to him, exhausted and from then on, silent. Sherlock had memorized their route from the map earlier that morning, and directed John through the streets only once they neared London. It was fitting that they had returned to their previous roles from their long Monte drives, the ending reflecting the start.

Sherlock was the first out of the car when they eventually arrived at their destination in a largely residential neighbourhood. If Murray was still in practice, he must have earned enough money to start one of his own from out of his home. Colonel Barclay and David parked nearby, and they all met in silence in the path outside of the house. There was little to say, beyond confirming that this was indeed the correct address. The Colonel inclined his head, and Sherlock and John walked towards the entrance, with David close behind.

Sherlock knocked on the door, which was answered shortly after by Doctor Murray himself. A very unremarkable looking man (army medic in the past, struggled when he first returned to English soil, now happily married with one child, a boy of seven, etc.), and yet all signs suggested Murray held the key to confirming or disproving the current life-saving verdict.

“Doctor Murray,” Sherlock greeted crisply, “our servant Lestrade rang ahead to warn you of our arrival?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” the man replied, looking over Sherlock and John’s shoulders to the Colonel and David behind them, clearly wondering what matter could possibly require such a crowd. “I’ve been expecting you, come in.”

They were all shown into a drawing room which attached to a room further back, likely the one used for patient consultations. Murray scanned their small group again, confusion still obvious, prompting Colonel Barclay to initiate their discussion.

“This must seem strange to you Doctor,” the Colonel said, embarrassed himself for having to be involved in the invasion of a stranger’s home. “I’m the magistrate for a county not far from here, and these are Monsieurs Watson, who you may have heard of recently in the papers.”

Murray nodded, still unsure what it had to do with him. “Yes, an inquest I understand?”

“Yes, and the jury decided on suicide,” David interjected, pushing past the Colonel to approach Murray. “- which we’re now here to settle. Mrs Watson would have never taken her own life, you see, and there is no known motive -”

“That’s quite enough David, the doctor has no idea what you’re on about,” John interrupted, and Sherlock had to agree. He could not abide by David asking the questions, and biasing Murray beyond what he might already know.

“We’ve contacted you because your name was found in Mrs Watson’s diary on the day she died,” the Colonel said, taking control once more. “Along with your past telephone number. Can you verify what the visit was for?”

Murray appeared no less confused than before. “I would love to help you, but I’m sure I would remember if Mary Watson had been a patient of mine,” Murray said, directing the last remark at John, who bowed his head in response.

The Colonel held out the diary and directed Murray’s attention to the telephone number and name, which Murray confirmed had once been his. Sherlock exchanged a glance with John, and felt strangely certain the thought had both occurred to them that Mary might have used a false name. In fact, it was very likely.

“I’m terribly sorry for causing you so much trouble Doctor Murray, but do you have any record of your visits for the day Mrs Watson died?” the Colonel asked. “It may affect the verdict of suicide.”

David muttered something under his breath that sounded rather like “murder”, putting Murray and everyone else in the room on edge. Murray agreed to dig into his old files, and left briefly for the other adjoining room. He returned after with a case, which he then flipped through in front them, agonizingly slowly, till he reached the date of Mary’s death.

Given that the days leading up to the visit with Murray had felt like a continuous awaital of an oncoming death sentence, Sherlock had come to be numbed to it. He went through the motions. He watched John and their enemy, and they all watched Murray’s face as he read through the names in his schedule.

“Well, on that date,” Murray began, “I saw a Mr Jenkins, a Ms Stapleton, a Mrs Moriarty - “

All four men exhaled sharply at the name, with David the first to cry, “That’s her! That would have been her! Blonde, medium build, beautiful?” David asked, and Murray nodded.

“She used her housekeeper’s name,” the Colonel provided as way of explanation to the Doctor. John stared ahead, face ashen. Sherlock felt his numbness begin to recede, fear replacing it, slipping in through the cracks in his armour.

Murray continued to search through the file, reading it carefully to himself first before speaking. “If that’s the case,” Murray said, “I remember a Mrs Moriarty quite well in fact. I saw her on more than one occasion.” Murray continued scanning the documents in an effort to clarify the details.

Sherlock wondered when the man might be planning to spill the “happy” news to the room. Perhaps he was delaying, considerate of how crushing it would be for his patient’s husband to learn that there had been more than one life potentially lost with his wife's death. Many lives lost in fact, if Mary’s pregnancy became the catalyst for opening a case against John.

Murray was eyeing John, somewhat nervously, before he said, “Look, we aren’t meant to divulge patient health visits, but as your wife is no longer with us, and I want to help, I’ll tell you whatever you need.”

“That’s fine Doctor,” the Colonel responded. “We just need to know the events of the session. Was there anything that occurred that might have led to Mrs Watson’s actions later that night?” Colonel Barclay asked, despite David’s minor protestations at the continued assumption of suicide.

“Based on my session with her that day...” Murray murmured, contemplating. “Can I suggest any motive for why Mr Watson’s wife should have taken her life? I couldn’t say. But I can confirm she was very unwell when she came to see me. It was a last minute booking, I just squeezed her in after a cancellation. She had symptoms in line with morning sickness, and wanted a pregnancy test.”

Unknown to the doctor, he had a rapt audience, four men collectively holding their breath. The pause stretched out, as long as the drop from the opened trap door to the end of the rope.

“Oh, God!” David cried out, and Murray looked up from his notes in response. “You mean she was pregnant!” David turned towards John pointing at him. “Pregnant - and you killed her!”

“Sir, please calm yourself!” Colonel Barclay yelled out, and Sherlock instinctively stood in front of John, as if that would keep them away from his husband.

“You are getting ahead of yourselves,” Murray said, breaking the tension. “The results were inconclusive.”

Everyone’s attention returned to the doctor, John and the Colonel both exhaling in relief, though for somewhat differing reasons. Meanwhile, Sherlock’s gaze narrowed in on the Doctor’s notes, reading the writing upside down.

“What do you mean inconclusive?” David asked, suspicious to the last.

“I performed a rabbit pregnancy test,” Murray began, still rereading his notes to refresh his memory. “Normally we take a urine sample and have the patient go on their way since the test takes a fews days to show results, but Mrs Moriarty - well, Watson - insisted on staying to watch the injection. She wanted me to do it that moment. I suspect she thought otherwise I would delay.”

“And?” David demanded, “Surely, she was either pregnant or not? What happened?”

“Yes Doctor,” the Colonel prompted. “What was the result of the test?”

“The rabbit died,” Murray replied. Sherlock blinked once, before his eyes shut tightly in thought.

“Did you not repeat the test with another animal?” he heard the Colonel ask.

“She reacted … badly, in a word, to the rabbit dying. It’s possible she was upset that the pregnancy test might have killed it. I was still green to the procedure at the time, and assumed I had botched the injection. However, she wouldn’t let me try again. She left almost immediately after the fact, and she was…. well, very upset.”

“Upset enough that you might suspect her mental health was suffering?” the Colonel asked, hopeful.

“She was a very composed women,” Murray responded. “But yes, I would describe her as unwell and distraught that day. She - she pushed past me to leave, and wouldn’t hear anything about repeating the test. It was quite unusual.”

“How large was the rabbit?” Sherlock asked, eyes snapping open and focussing in on the Doctor.

“How - how large?” Murray clarified. “Oh, I suppose it was small? Not a hare by any means.”

“You suppose it was small,” Sherlock repeated, unimpressed.

John cleared his throat. Sherlock glanced at him. John’s raised brows and lowered hairline seemed to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t the right time to be asking about the rabbit.

“What symptoms did she describe?” Sherlock asked, ignoring the look, the cogs in his mind beginning to turn. Mary had been unwell, bad enough to seek out a doctor under short notice, and then to later instigate a fatal encounter with John. Could that behaviour be explained as just aggression, tension and dislike building in their marriage, coming to the surface?

“Nausea, vomiting,” Murray replied. “Could have been morning sickness, could have been any number of things. Maybe she ate something bad, and realized that must have been it. I can’t be certain.”

Sherlock hummed. As the Doctor said, based on that description it could have been anything. Anything, except for one key element - the rabbit died. The rabbit died, and Mary left. Why would she leave, rather than attempt the test again? She would have to have known she wasn’t pregnant to leave without the test result. And Mary was a famous huntress - he’d eat his own tongue if it was the rabbit’s death that had upset her.

Sherlock gasped, nearly biting said tongue in the process.

Mary must have come to the doctor’s appointment with more than one hypothesis for her condition. The rabbit dying had confirmed one, but not the other. The pregnancy had been ruled out, but what had been the other answer?

“Is your husband quite well Mr Watson?” Colonel Barclay asked.

“He gets like this sometimes,” Sherlock heard John say. It was fond. Did John always sound so fond? He wondered how many details he had missed over the months, all from being too close to the subject.

Sherlock lowered his fingers from where they had been pressing into his temples. He’d quite forgotten himself. Distantly, he was aware of Barclay thanking Doctor Murray for telling them all he knew, and asking for a copy of the patient visit file. Obviously he planned to use Mary’s distressed behaviour as additional support for the suicide verdict. David must have been fuming, but that was no longer an issue. The visit to the Doctor had in fact helped them, in the end, except...

Now there were loose threads hanging, and he knew if he pulled on any one of them, it would all unravel. He needed to think. He needed -- John.

Sherlock grabbed his husband by the arm, dragging him through the foyer and back out of the house. John attempted to provide some kind of hasty explanation to their host, apologizing for their abrupt departure.

“Mind telling me why we just left everyone back inside?” John asked once they were on the stoop, still too relieved about the failed pregnancy test to actually be miffed with him.

John was right to feel relief, seeing as Murray had just saved him. John, he mused, had in fact been right all along. Mary had lied to him about being pregnant. John thought they’d finally won, and Sherlock wished he could feel the same.

“John, can’t you see there’s more going on,” Sherlock insisted, while desperately trying to determine what exactly that was. “Why would Mary have gone to see a doctor for a pregnancy test, and then refuse the follow up when the rabbit died? And then, why would she leave a note at David’s saying she had to tell him something, only to go home to Manderley to shoot at you?”

“No clue, but at least there’s nothing to say she was pregnant,” John responded, nonplussed.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Sherlock said, leading John off the stoop and away from the door. “Meaning there’s something missing, more to the story.”

“And you have theories?” John asked, as Sherlock paced in short, brusque movements, back and forth in front of John.

“Loads,” Sherlock replied, “but without the facts they’ll remain that way. I can’t make bricks without clay!”

Sherlock’s hands moved as he spoke, before settling on tugging at his hair. John gripped his shoulder, presumably to calm him. “I admit it’s strange, but it’s all fine now,” John said, speaking gently. “Sherlock, you can’t solve everything.”

“You and your obsession with my unsolved cases!” Sherlock cried. He shook his head, agitation only increasing. He had to think, think, think -

“It’s hardly an obsession,” John protested, likely still trying to relax him. “Back before we got ourselves sorted, you not being able to puzzle something out reminded me you were flesh and blood. Can you blame me for being fond of them, when in my mind they were all connected to that?”

Sherlock’s frantic actions ceased, as he raised his head and held John’s face in both of his hands. “Connected… That’s it!” he cried, jostling John’s head in the process. “John, you’re a genius!”

“Did you get your wires crossed and mean to say idiot?” John asked, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth while his lined face scrunched in confusion.

“No, no no no,” Sherlock said, flapping his hands at John. “On your own you’re no genius of course, but you are incredibly gifted at stimulating genius in others. The unsolved cases, you made notes of them did you not? You remember them?”

“Yeah,” John replied, looking back at the house, expecting the Colonel and David to come out at any moment. “But what are you on about?”

“List them out,” Sherlock demanded, “you can use the funny little names you gave them if you must.”

“All right, uh, the one with the ginger midget, the one I called the speckled blonde and you groaned, the Chinese acrobat from the circus -”

“Stop, there -- the acrobat,” Sherlock said, gripping John again by the sides of his face. “What were the details?”

“He’d been shot,” John said, “dumped off in an alley.”

“And when was the body found?” Sherlock asked.

“Well, it was an old one that had been plaguing you, since before you met me,” John said.

“Would have been a little over a year ago.” John paused, expression changing to realization, and then to confusion. “That would have been around the same time that Mary… had...”

“Yes, John. And what was the size of the bullet?” Sherlock murmured, feeling the stirrings of a hunch.

“I don’t remember the exact calibre, but it was small,” John responded. He was watching Sherlock, while Sherlock eyed John’s shoulder in consideration.

“What are you thinking?” John asked. “You’ve got that look. How are the unsolved ones connected?”

“They were expertly orchestrated, seemingly random, but with someone at the source pulling the strings,” Sherlock began. “What if there was someone planning these crimes for people, a consultant of sorts. Someone well connected with powerful allies, but always hidden from the public eye.” His mind returned to Irene Norton’s words from the night of the ball. When a spider asks you to return a favour….

“A criminal mastermind? But what does that have to do with - ?” John trailed off, motioning to the Doctor’s house behind them.

“Maybe nothing. Maybe everything,” Sherlock replied, under his breath. “John, what if Mary shot you because she knew she was going to die?”

John huffed a breath. “What? You mean… shoot me so I’d kill her? As what? Her last dig at me?” John’s eyes widened slightly. “That actually… makes a lot of sense. Sometimes I thought she got a sick kind of joy out of tormenting me.”

Sherlock thought of the book of poems he’d once stolen from John’s car, in which Mary had purposefully used his middle name to annoy him, and mocked his trapped state with their pretend romance. He had never interpreted an object so incorrectly in his life.

“You once told me she died smiling,” Sherlock said. “You said it was like she knew she’d won.”

“It was her last hurrah,” John said, with realization. “If she knew she was dying, and decided to take me down with her. But then… her doctor didn’t know anything about it. How was she dying? Was she ill?”

Sherlock didn’t answer. There was only one way to find out, and if his theory was correct, the answer to perhaps everything would be found back at Manderley.

“Ah. There the two of you are,” Colonel Barclay called from the front door of the house, with David in tow. “I wasn’t sure if you’d needed to take off.”

“Just needed a breath of fresh air I think,” John replied, turning slightly, but reluctant to look away from Sherlock. “I’m sorry we didn’t thank Doctor Murray for his time, he’s been very helpful.”

“Well you would think that, wouldn’t you?” David sniped, the tremor in his voice suggesting he was one wrong word away from blubbering. “This has all worked out wonderfully for you, hasn’t it Watson?”

“My God man, compose yourself,” the Colonel admonished, ushering David further down the path to the street.

“Colonel,” Sherlock said, “I imagine at this point you and John might consider informing your friends in Kerrith that a London doctor has supplied additional information in support of the verdict.”

“Yes, that would be best laid plans I think,” the Colonel agreed easily, while John turned to Sherlock in suspicion. “Why just the Colonel and I?” he asked.

Sherlock met his gaze for a moment, begging John silently to trust him. “I’m going to head back early, I think,” he replied, smiling apologetically at Colonel Barclay. “I’m quite drained from the day. I hope the Colonel won’t mind giving you a lift back to Manderley after a quick stop in Kerrith.”

Before John could openly protest, Sherlock had already turned on his heel, and was on his way to the car. He slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine with the keys he’d swiped from John earlier in their conversation. With a twinge of regret, he pulled away from the kerb just as John approached the window, calling his name. He was sorry for it, but there wasn’t time to dally with John and the Colonel -- he needed to know now. If he was wrong, the precaution of leaving John behind would be unnecessary, and the worst of it would be John cross with him later. However, if he was right, he wanted John a world away.

The return trip was faster than the drive in, but still unbearably long with his suspicions left unconfirmed, and the guilt he felt over leaving John behind weighing on him. Sherlock sped past the gates, through the winding woods, till Manderley appeared once more ahead. He cut the engine once he reached the entrance, and abandoned the car to rush up their grand steps.

Not stopping to remove his long coat or scarf, he hurried to the library to dig for John’s old notes. While John’s writing was colourful to say the least, the notes did prove helpful, confirming the details from his own memory. The acrobat had indeed been shot with a small bullet, one of a caliber which Sherlock was familiar with, having recently learned the wound it would leave rather intimately.

Stepping out from the library, Manderley’s main stairway loomed before him at the end of the hall. It was almost evening, and the servants were all below stairs eating an early supper, as the masters of the house had been out all day. The house was silent beyond the sound of his shoes against the steps, his approach to the West wing loud in the empty space. He passed through the minstrels’ gallery and the hall of paintings, and resolutely turned away from the twins dressed all in white. He walked beneath the archway and through the opened entrance to the West wing, door left ajar.

There was a distinctive scent in the air which didn’t require his own keen sense of smell to identify. It only grew stronger as he continued down the corridor. Like the entrance to the wing, the door to the ante room was wide open. He was expected.

There was no electric light, leaving the ante room dim, and illuminated only by the soft glow from the bedroom. The windows in the bedroom were open, and the long, white curtains let free from their ties. From Sherlock’s vantage point by the wardrobes, the fabric fluttered in the breeze, the curtains’ ends just touching the fresh bouquet of flowers on the dressing table. Next to the vase was the pair of old shoes Sherlock had found outside his door that morning.

Sherlock stepped forward with caution, wondering if that grinning face would appear from behind the constantly moving material.

As he finally reached the bedroom doorway, his eyes followed the direction of the candlelight to the bed where Moriarty lay prone, leaning back against the headboard. There was a cannister next to him, which he had clearly already doused the room with liberally. The whole room stunk of it. As always, Moriarty wanted to play with him, but this time the stakes were higher. Before it was his life. Now, it was Manderley.

Finally,” Moriarty groaned from the bed, one finger tracing the ‘M’ in an embroidered pillow. “I thought you’d never slip away. I can’t believe how slow you’ve been, Sherlock.”

“Aren’t you getting tired of this, Jim?” Sherlock asked, clasping his hands behind in his back and holding his chin high. “This little game?”

“Oh, but this is the big one, the final act,” Moriarty said, crossing his legs at the ankles. “You already know what’s on the table, dear heart. I think you even know what the question is.”

Sherlock inclined his head. “The question,” he repeated, as if considering it. “I suppose you mean why Mary would confront John and pull a gun on him? What was her motivation, why that night, etc.?”

Moriarty slipped over the side of the bed, making sure to meet Sherlock’s gaze with his dark, empty eyes. “Barely under the skin Sherlock,” Moriarty said, dropping the tone of his voice, low and slow. “I’m disappointed. I’ll spell it out for you, shall I?”

Sherlock waited while Moriarty walked around the bed, to where he then leaned against the bannister.

“Who killed Mary?” Moriarty asked, simply. “Your kingdom for a riddle.”

“My kingdom,” Sherlock said, smiling tightly. “I suppose I don’t need to ask what happens if I get it wrong.”

Moriarty shrugged, and began pouring the cannister out over the dressing table chair in the same way he poured a cup of tea. “Hmm, if you get it wrong, I think you and I will have a smoke together.”

Sherlock watched grimly as the gasoline darkened the floor boards. “Why are you doing all this?” he asked, voice hushed. “Someone will know it was you. If you destroy Manderley, you’ll have to go into hiding.”

“Silly, silly,” Moriarty scolded. “I’m already in hiding.”

“You mean by working as a servant. Oh, I see,” Sherlock said, attempting to gain an advantage. “You realized Magnussen wanted Manderley for himself. That’s why you didn’t assist with the blackmail letter. He tried to get the upper hand on you.”

“Nice try, but not the question I asked,” Moriarty sang. “Clock’s ticking, tick tock, tick tock.

“I suppose you wouldn’t accept John as the answer,” Sherlock said, eyes roaming the room, attempting to identify all the areas where Moriarty had already spilled the fuel.

Moriarty tutted. “Now, now, Sherlock, you know better than that, don’t you?”

Sherlock took a breath. Even if John didn’t know it, John was relying on him. Which meant Sherlock needed to trust what he knew.

“Mary knew she was dying,” Sherlock began, “because she’d been poisoned.”

Moriarty smiled, and paused his pouring.

“And not just poisoned once,” he continued, voice growing stronger, “but many times, enough that Mary would have known no antidote could help her. Without the body I have no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect thallium. Odourless, colourless, tasteless - could be administered to her over time without her noticing, and it can be detected in urine. If the build up had been enough, there could have been more than enough thallium in her pregnancy test sample to kill a rabbit.”

Sherlock grinned crookedly, before concluding, “Acute lethal poisoning, after which point organ failure would be an inevitability. Mary came home to have one last laugh, to take John down with her.”

“Oh, oh, well done you,” Moriarty crowed. “But that’s how. Not who.”

“The acrobat,” Sherlock declared. “The Chinese acrobat, who was found dead in London. They were shot with a bullet matching the gun that shot John in the shoulder. Mary killed them after discovering their exit from her flat. Likely they had been slipping in and out undetected, administering the poison.”

“Good boy,” Moriarty praised, and twirled in a small circle with the still opened cannister. “Good thing Johnny took such good notes on that one, hmm?”

“That’s it?” Sherlock asked, voice flat. “You only wanted to know the killer.”

“Hmm,” Moriarty hummed. “The acrobat was just the medium. Tsk, tsk. You still haven’t answered the question.”

“You mean who would hire the acrobat assassin,” Sherlock said, stalling for time. Who? And how could he know with the evidence provided? “One of your enemies. Mary was the more public face of your little organization. You’ve been busy haven’t you, Jim? Fixing crimes for people?”

Sherlock moved to the right as Moriarty stepped towards him, the both of them moving together in a circle. “All the odd ones I couldn’t sort out, and possibly many of the ones I could. And I imagine if I dug deeper, there’d be one London newspaper that will have always downplayed these events, or not reported them at all.”

“You have it all worked out,” Moriarty said, “except for who did it. Who hired the assassin Sherlock, or the bedroom you never got to enjoy goes up in flames. Hmm, though maybe you prefer the library?”

Sherlock’s teeth clenched as he retreated to the dressing table, keeping his back to the mirror. “You’ll only light the one wing on fire, and with us in the room? I think you’re bluffing,” Sherlock said, eyeing the candle flickering on the bedside table.

“Am I?” Moriarty asked, his smile twitching at the corners. Sherlock felt the other man’s madness in that moment like it had its own presence in the room, and realized that he did not honestly know how much Moriarty valued his own life.

“If the alternative is you and the pet living here in married bliss…” Moriarty trailed off, and began whistling. “No, no no no, couldn’t have that. Not Magnussen, and not you two either. But come on Sherlock, save John’s legacy. His family home, that he gave everything up for. Stayed with Mary for. Who killed Mary?”

There was a slight tremor in his hands where they were clasped behind his back. He had already made (what John would consider) a large leap in logic to arrive at the assassin, but it seemed he needed to make another. Moriarty did however obey his own set of rules - he wouldn’t ask Sherlock if he couldn’t discover the answer. It was possible he even knew the enemy.

The answer must have been something he could piece together with the information provided. Additional clues, hints that Moriarty had left all along. Moriarty’s immediate and alarming interest in him, his resentment, his manipulations, all culminating in his attempt to convince Sherlock to commit suicide. An enemy of Mary’s, an enemy --

At once, a letter Sherlock had read when he’d first moved to Manderley months ago percolated to the top of his mind palace, the torn shreds riding the Cote d’Azure lift to the top of his consciousness. Do you understand that my protection only spans so far?

“Someone who wanted Mary out of the picture, the well connected partner in your duo,” Sherlock murmured, and Moriarty he noticed bristled, just slightly. “Linked to your animosity and interest in me from the outset - a strange coincidence even I will admit, though perhaps there is no such thing.”

“My brother wrote me a letter when I first arrived here, warning me that he couldn’t protect me, suggesting he had a shared history with the place. He knew I was in a den of vipers, which given his distaste for legwork he’d been handling remotely, and long before I was ever connected. It was my brother who hired the assassin, who organized to kill your right hand, wasn’t it Jim?”

Moriarty’s eyes never left his face as he spoke, his expression amused, like watching a dog do a trick. Moriarty then began to clap.

Sherlock tilted his head, and raised one brow. He’d sorted it all out. He was sure of it. Moriarty had hated him when they’d first met in place of his brother, of course, who controlled much, much more within the government than he let on. It was logical. There was no other possible connection.

Moriarty laughed. “For a moment, I almost thought you had actually figured it all out. You always want everything to be clever, don’t you, and you always want the goodies to win. Big brother having gotten rid of your hubby’s wife for you!”

Moriarty seemed to find this hilarious, as he nearly doubled over in hysterics. “You’d love that, wouldn’t you?”

“What?” Sherlock asked, fear creeping into him from the edges where he had pushed it away. “What did I get wrong?”

“You were wrong about John’s loyalty to Mary,” Moriarty tutted, smile dripping into a frown. “Making the same mistake twice? What do they say about assumptions…”

“Loyalty,” Sherlock repeated. “You mean…?”

Moriarty nodded, scuffing his shoe against the fuel soaked floor as if bashful.

“You?” Sherlock said, shocked, and then, not at all. “You killed Mary. But why?”

“Why, why, why. Why not? I made it look like someone else outside of us had hired the hit, of course,” Moriarty said, turning back towards the bed to lay the cannister on the sheets, seemingly uninterested in confirming what should have been obvious. “Couldn’t have her growing resentful and retaliating. I’ve been quite comfortable here. No one thinks of the country housekeeper. No one thinks of them at all.”

“But why?” Sherlock repeated. “Why kill your own associate, whom you had been working with for years?”

“Working with?” Moriarty snarled, whirling towards him. “She was meant to be working for me! She was the blunt instrument, who thought she was the brains.”

“Oh, I do see now,” Sherlock murmured, the corner of his lip sliding upward. “You were below her. Did killing her make you feel more powerful?”

Moriarty scoffed. “Below her. Not in your wildest dreams. She was boring, ordinary. Just like you. You both had so much potential, but in the end you’re nothing. And I thought we could have had something special, you and I, what with fate bringing us together again.”

“What are you talking about?” Sherlock demanded, sick of games. His heartbeat reminded him of the time ticking by, and of how long he could stall Moriarty before he remembered Sherlock had gotten it wrong, and that he had lost the game.

God, Sherlock,” Moriarty groaned, like a child embarrassed by their parent. “I left the shoes out for you. Carl Powers? Remember?”

Carl Powers. He did remember, he remembered telling John about his first case, a drowning that hadn’t been a drowning ….

“The boy who was killed,” Sherlock said, in a very delayed moment of comprehension. “They never found his shoes.”

“You were very nosy back then, not that anyone listened to a boy,” Moriarty commented. “Very good of you. That’s when I learned the power of having the press on my side.”

Sherlock was about to point out that Moriarty’s connection with the press had in fact planned to backstab him, but was interrupted by the sound of shouts coming from the east, traveling up from the lawn.

“You didn’t just plan to burn the West wing,” Sherlock realized. “You already started a smaller fire, somewhere else in the house.”

“I asked Robert to return a vase to one of the West rooms after supper,” Moriarty explained idly. “A row of lit candles on one side of the door, some gasoline, and - whoosh !” Moriarty said, splaying his arms out wide.

“You never intended to let me win,” Sherlock stated, voice deadly calm. “It doesn’t matter. Manderley would be destroyed no matter what.”

“One fire on one side of the house could be fought,” Moriarty drawled. “If you’d solved it fast enough, I could have called off Robert. We do have a phone, as I’ve reminded you, Mr Watson, not that you ever called me. Oh, but Molly will be stumbling into another one very shortly - oops - she’ll probably even think it was actually her fault. Can you imagine? Thinking everything was all your fault? Poor John Watson and his little spat with Mary.”

Sherlock shuddered, eyes turning to the door, wondering if he could warn them all before it was too late.

“You’re just like her,” Moriarty sang out. “Both of you, so attached to your pet.”

Sherlock wasn’t paying attention any more, inching towards the window, attempting to see how much of the rest of the house was already on fire.

“How so?” Sherlock asked, in an attempt to distract. “Everyone wants to change their tune on that subject.”

The ‘M’’s on the bedspread, and on the lingerie case, still shone bright in the low light.

Moriarty made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. “She chose to die with him in the end. Pathetic.”

Sherlock turned from the window, eyeing Moriarty appraisingly, and started to laugh. Moriarty watched him in annoyance. “You’re not as above her as you thought,” Sherlock said.

“Huh?” Moriarty asked, purposefully leaving his mouth hanging open, while easing a matchbox from the front pocket of his suit jacket.

“Sentiment,” Sherlock said, spinning away from the windows, just managing to take stock of the fire’s progress through the house. “The true motive. You killed Mary out of sentiment.”

“What sentiment?” Moriarty demanded, still standing by the head of the bed.

“You were jealous of John,” Sherlock declared. “And you still are. Oh, but you like to have a partner in crime, don’t you? You said you thought I had potential. Two geniuses in a row who prefer John to you - that must sting a little.”

“You don’t know anything,” Moriarty snarled, moving towards him, and then pausing, thinking better of it. “Mary and I owned Manderley. She chose Watson as her plaything, to torment, and now - you’re mine.

“Here’s to sentiment!” Moriarty cried, striking the match and throwing it in the air. Sherlock had less than two seconds (exactly 1 second 89 milliseconds) to dive from his current position near the dressing table into the ante room to avoid the ensuing blaze. Sherlock skidded across the floor with several milliseconds to spare, and thankful for his long coat, as the fire roared behind him. He had a short moment to watch as the sheer curtains disintegrated, before he was chased from the ante room by the spreading fire.

The hallway outside the room had not received the same gasoline treatment, but it was difficult to see past the flames licking at the main bedroom door. The West wing had been the only section of the house he had never investigated for secret passage - if Moriarty had escaped, Sherlock did not know what direction he had headed. Sherlock shut the ante room door in an effort to contain the fire, and ran back towards the main entrance where the wings split, pulling his scarf upwards to cover his mouth. The fire was raging by the time he passed beneath the archway, with serious damage likely already inflicted to the structural integrity of the house. Overhead and around him, Sherlock could hear the popping and groaning of the wood as it burned.

The walls of the gallery were well under siege by the time he reached it, luckily leaving enough space through the center of the hall for him to pass through. As he ran past, his eyes were drawn to the Watson twins, the sister’s face dripping from the canvas like wax down a candle.

Distracted perhaps by the sight of the prized Manderley collection in ruins, he was caught unawares as a falling beam landed not one meter in front of him. He stumbled backwards, his arm lifting to protect his eyes from the sparks, when further debris fell from above. Crying out, he was struck to the ground, and effectively pinned underneath. With his breath knocked from his lungs, he struggled to no avail. Trapped, he estimated how far the fire would have spread from the points he had already seen, how soon the smoke would grow thick, deadly. People almost always died from smoke inhalation in fires, he thought deliriously.

Over the crackling of the flames, he could hear whistling, and saw Moriarty in the distance at the other end of the gallery, seemingly untouched by the inferno of his own creation. Moriarty was approaching him, for once last gloat, while he lay prone, helpless --

A cry of “Sherlock!” and the sound of gunfire rang out, and Moriarty crumpled, his right leg collapsing underneath him. Sherlock craned his neck, unable to see, but knew who his saviour was regardless.

“John!” he shouted, voice wrecked. “John, get out!” The wooden beams above were unstable, the room was on fire, and he had explicitly planned to have this confrontation while John was out of the house -

“Not without you, you bloody idiot!” John raged from somewhere above him, and Sherlock gasped as the weight over top of his mid-section was lifted a half-inch, high enough for him to squeeze himself out from underneath.

John lifted him immediately, slinging Sherlock’s arm over his shoulder to assist him. Sherlock turned back, and could see just the silhouette through the fire of Moriarty retreating, dragging his right leg behind him, reminiscent of his long ago mockery of John. Sherlock had one last glimpse of Moriarty’s turned head, with his gleaming smile and dark, dead eyes, before he was lost to the flames.

John dragged Sherlock past the gallery, and at one point lifting him while hurrying down the large stairway that was littered with falling planking from the above rafters. The main hall had already been damaged, smoke billowing out from the cracks beneath the library and morning room doors. John maneuvered them both expertly, out the front hall and into the open air of the night outside, where they were met with the relieved cries from all the servants. They spilled out onto the lawn, breathing the night air, stumbling away from their ruined home.

“Never,” John said, pulling Sherlock to face him at once, and kissing him till they were both gasping. “Never - do - that - again,” John said, each word punctuated by another kiss.

“I will promise you that,” Sherlock managed, still breathless, “If you promise to never run into a burning house again.”

“If you’re inside of it,” John said, eyes shining in the dark orange light of Manderley, “not a chance.” This time, Sherlock ducked down and kissed him instead.

“Is there anyone missing?” Sherlock thought to ask when they broke apart, gripping John’s shoulder while looking over it towards the crowd gathered closer to the woods. “Gladstone? Where is Gladstone?”

“The dog and everyone else is fine,” John said, moving him further out across the lawn. “By the time I arrived, Lestrade had done roll call of the staff. Everyone was out already. Except for you, and Moriarty.”

They joined the other servants, all ecstatic that Sherlock had been found. Lestrade clapped him on the back, and Gladstone eagerly licked his palms. Colonel Barclay, who had dropped John off, had already been sent out to call for help. They were still waiting for them to arrive, but likely, it would be far too late.

The mood was somber as John and Sherlock turned back to watch for a moment. In the abstract, it was a beautiful sight, Manderley alight. From further away, the fire on the horizon could be mistaken for an early sunrise.

“Do you think he made it out?” Sherlock wondered. If John was surprised that Sherlock wasn’t able to tell, he didn’t show it.

“I don’t know,” John said. “Though, I won’t be shedding any tears if he didn’t.”

“They won’t be able to save it,” Sherlock pointed out, ready for the worst.

“I know,” John said, looking at him when all eyes were on Manderley. “I know.”

Chapter Text

The sound of John’s tread on the stairs of their London flat, with the noticeable squeak on the third step, distracted Sherlock from his thoughts. With John out collecting supplies that afternoon he’d been left to ruminate on his dream from the night before. The memory of it had threatened to send him into what John might refer to as one of his “black moods”. He would have greatly appreciated it if his subconscious did not ask him to recall a period of his life that, while not entirely regrettable, was better off forgotten, and now left him with the renewed desire to remove Manderley from his mind forever.

Sherlock had already come to learn their new home better than any other place preceding it, a relief after traveling from hotel to hotel (and, for one memorable evening, imposing on his brother). They had previously lived like vagabonds, with nothing in the world beyond a good coat and a good dog. Which had suited him just fine.

Manderley, as he had predicted, could not be saved from the damage inflicted by the fire. The house had been reduced to bleak sections of its outside structure, a ghost of its former self. If there had been a body buried within the wreckage, there would exist no evidence of it beyond ash.

The estate had been doing poorly before the fire, and truthfully even prior to John coming into the inheritance of the land, and only worsened further following Mary’s death. John hadn’t been prompted to renew his dedication to the estate’s well-being until remarrying, which had required his split attention when they’d first arrived at Manderley in the spring so many months ago. As such, there was no money to rebuild, and truly no impetus to do so. English country estates were being sold, the families unable to provide the upkeep, and Manderley was just another added to the ever growing list of grand homes laid to waste.

John made sure all the servants landed on their feet, of course, with brilliant letters of recommendation. Sherlock did his part, though perhaps minorly, helping ensure Lestrade worked for his brother, who was well familiar with the man from their correspondence. Lestrade still visited them of course, and to Sherlock’s annoyance, still seemed to consider himself Sherlock’s overseer. Sherlock had once noted Lestrade had his eye on a maid, who turned out to be none other than mousey Molly. Quite over her brief crush on Sherlock, she and Lestrade had found themselves well situated and well employed.

Sherlock and John had initially avoided London during the worst of the gossip, agreeing to not read the papers at all, avoiding Magnussen’s in particular. Sherlock imagined that one day in the future their paths might cross again, and that he might even find allies in the city, other victims of Magnussen’s blackmailing schemes…. But that was a dragon better left for another day’s slaying. Revenge was so much better served cold.

The papers in London had luckily never run photographs of them, and no one expected the Monsieurs Watson to take up in an eclectic space of no particular significance. Hiding in plain sight, as Sherlock had told John, worked like a charm. Sherlock didn’t mind the changed lifestyle, and if anything, it was preferable in every way. He had never known to wish for it, or to think that they could be so happy, and his life so occupied with mentally stimulating pursuits.

And so, they had transitioned from notoriety at Manderley, to obscurity in a small house in London. Their new address, 221B Baker Street, was quaint but well located. They were in the midst of the bustle of the city, but with the reprieve of a quiet, warm space that was not unlike their cozy bedroom in the East wing of Manderley. They no longer had any need for the full staff of servants John had once employed. As luck would have it, his long ago contact Mrs Hudson had returned from Florida to London following her husband’s execution, and was happy to offer herself as housekeeper to the pair of gentlemen. With her mother-henning and immediate fondness for both him and John, it went without saying that she was infinitely preferred to their previous housekeeper.

Mrs Hudson had in fact become indispensable to them, having catalyzed Sherlock’s new small business. She had happened to connect him with another woman in trouble, and from her another, till his reputation had spread and formed an informal consultancy. Even the police were starting to take notice of his occupation, seeing as he and John often ran into them at the end of their engagements.

To them he was known as Sherlock Holmes, as John had encouraged him to use his bachelor name in his work for discretion. Decidedly English, no one connected that name with Watson of Manderley and his français husband from the papers. John Watson was in itself a common enough name, and while John was his constant companion and helpful partner, he was the less noticed of their duo.

Sherlock could not have been more changed from the awkward young man John had seen something in months ago in a Monte Carlo hotel drawing room - he was now by far the flashier of the two of them. Overlooking John was foolish, of course, but of benefit to them for the present. John seemed to delight in it, thinking the attention was now rightfully focussed on Sherlock. John was of course wrong in this, but whatever helped keep them from attention, and John by his side. And so, they became Holmes and Watson, husbands in crime solving.

Another creak at the top of their stairs announced John’s imminent arrival moments before he walked into their sitting room, a medical kit and kettle of boiling water in hand. Gladstone jumped up from where he had been lying at Sherlock’s feet, racing over to greet John, tail wagging. Sherlock felt much the same, but remained seated.

“Ready?” John asked, laying out the supplies on the table. Sherlock nodded, motioning for John to perch on the chaise lounge. Sherlock stood to wash his hands while John poured the boiled water into a bowl, along with the instruments from the kit. Gladstone proceeded to get in John’s way, attempting to get up onto the couch with John to lick his face. They spoiled the dog tremendously, but letting him up on the furniture at the moment just wouldn’t do.

Mrs Hudson!” Sherlock shouted down the stairs.

“I’ve just come up from there. And we have a bell for that,” John commented, still petting Gladstone’s head and attempting to get him to heel.

Sherlock crossed the room and began ringing the bell, pulling a face at John while he did so to John’s great amusement. “All right,” John laughed. “Give her a moment.”

Sherlock paused his ringing to listen to the sound of a disgruntled and put-upon woman climbing the stairs. “You’ll be the death of me, Sherlock Holmes,” Mrs Hudson announced as she entered. “My hips aren’t what they used to be -- and there’s no need for all that racket!”

“Mrs Hudson, do you mind taking Gladstone downstairs with you for the evening?” Sherlock asked, kissing both her cheeks in apology, a habit which he’d developed as he’d come to think of her as a mother.

“Of course dear, we’ll have a lovely time,” Mrs Hudson replied. “And you and your man need the alone time - I understand,” she said in a loud whisper, patting his cheek to his absolute mortification, while John cleared his throat loudly in discomfort.

However, Sherlock supposed that assumption was better than her knowing what they were actually about to do.

“Here boy, oh, you’re a good one, aren’t you?” Mrs Hudson cooed as she led Gladstone back downstairs. He was happy to follow, given the treats he knew to expect from her.

John cleared his throat again. “Good thinking that,” he said. “Don’t want to be in the middle of it and get jostled. Are you still sure you want to do this?”

“John,” Sherlock said, scrubbing his hands in the basin. “We’ve already discussed it. I’m happy to do it. Unless you’re unsure…?”

“No,” John assured. “No, of course not. I’d trust you with much more than this.”

Sherlock returned to the main area of the sitting room just as John slipped out of his suit jacket, and began to unbutton his shirt. Despite the context, Sherlock couldn’t help but watch with an interest beyond the clinical.

“Ready when you are, Mr Watson,” John said, when his shoulder was exposed. With Sherlock known as 'Mr Holmes' to the public, John had taken to calling him by his married title at home. John had initially meant it as a little joke - but after seeing from Sherlock's flushed face the effect it had on him that first time, John had become enamoured with saying Mr Watson, in the same way other married couples might use more saccharine endearments. John thought this was charming. It was.

However, now wasn’t the time to become distracted. “Has it caused you any pain recently? Any changes?” Sherlock asked, waiting for the boiled water to cool. John shook his head, while Sherlock reached into the bowl for the scalpel.

While John had managed to remove Mary’s bullet from his own shoulder nearly a year prior, John had always been aware of the possibility that fragments from the bullet had been left behind. However as no one else could know of his injury, and with the risk of lead poisoning so low, John hadn’t spared it another thought. And he wouldn’t have ever thought of it again -- if not for Sherlock palpating the area surrounding the wound recently, conscious of the possibility of shrapnel still within the soft tissue, and discovering he could feel them, just beneath the skin.

Sherlock wouldn’t have presumed to encourage John to take action but, once John could feel them himself, he had wanted them out. They discussed enlisting a doctor, finding someone they could trust, but decided against involving an outsider. As his shoulder was too awkward a place for John to easily access, Sherlock had offered himself.

It would be simple, or so he continued to remind himself. It was hardly an issue to locate and extract palpable metal fragments so near the skin. Now that the coroner knew him, he’d been practicing his approach and his stitch work on corpses, till he was certain he could perform the task with absolute perfection. If possible, he wanted to avoid inflicting any more damage than the likely harmless bits of bullet would, if left in John’s shoulder.

Sherlock held the scalpel in hand, hoping the boiling had appropriately disinfected the metal. “Did you bring yourself something for the pain?” Sherlock asked, already unfortunately knowing the answer. John licked the corner of his lip rather than answering.

“John,” Sherlock admonished. He’d specifically asked him to do so, to steal something if he must, but of course John thought himself tough enough.

“They’d notice if something like that went missing Sherlock, and I don’t think I need to remind you that this needs to be kept discrete.”

Sherlock conceded the point.

“Besides, I thought you might kiss it better for me later,” John said with a small mischievous smile. John thought that was charming. It was.

“You’re an idiot,” he replied, and John didn’t contest it. Sherlock examined the area once more, feeling where he believed one of the fragments was. He caught John’s eye, silently asking for permission to proceed, and John granted it.

The first cut was shallow, and John’s only indication of discomfort was a hiss as the blade went through the skin. Sherlock blotted it with cloth immediately. His actions were precise, attempting to hide his nervousness behind his now well practiced entry. The first shard was found easily enough, and delicately lifted from the tissue with tongs that had received the same treatment as the scalpel. John’s body had formed its own scar tissue around the foreign object. Sherlock wondered if John would be made uncomfortable by him studying it later. Probably, but with likely no intention of stopping him.

“I guess I didn’t do a very good job of it,” John said through gritted teeth. “But then our room back at Manderley, it was all Mary’s things. All I had was what I grabbed from her damn cottage.”

Sherlock paused in his work, just as he was about to begin on the next piece. John had never so casually discussed Manderley, or Mary, or any of it -- or at least, not since they’d left that life.

Not since their house had burned down due to Sherlock being too stupid to solve Moriarty’s little “riddle”, the answer to which was painfully obvious, and could have even been arrived at in a blind guess. John had sacrificed everything for Manderley, and Sherlock had destroyed it in little more than an afternoon. It was Moriarty’s act of course, but Sherlock had forced his hand, and he hated himself for it every day that went by that John did not discuss it.

His agonizing over the subject must have shown in his face, as John’s expression was beginning to crumple in apology. “Sorry, I’m sorry,” John said in a rush. “That wasn’t on. I know you don’t like to -- sorry.”

Sherlock blinked, scalpel in his hand still raised.

“I don’t like to?” he repeated, a crinkle forming between his brows. “It’s - it’s you who doesn’t like to. You’re the one who doesn’t ever want to talk about it.”

“What?” John asked, confusion in his face reflecting Sherlock’s own. “What gave you that idea? I’ve been avoiding it because of - ” John motioned towards him, and then paused. “This might be another one of those times.”

“What times?” Sherlock snapped.

“Where we’ve both been a bit stupid,” John replied. “Why would you think I didn’t want you to mention Manderley? What have you been thinking in that funny little head?”

Sherlock sighed. “What have I been thinking -- Isn’t it obvious?”

John shook his head. “Not to me.”

“Do you blame me? For what happened?” he heard himself ask. He wasn’t entirely sure he had intended to be that candid.

John’s head tilted backward slightly, with his face further scrunched in confusion. “What? No, God no. Christ Sherlock, have you been thinking that? Is that why you always get that - that - look about it?”

“What look?” he asked, wondering if John was just trying to pacify him. No darling, of course I don’t blame you for burning down our house and forcing us to live as nomads. More tea?

“That look!” John said, pointing at his face. “That bloody look - whatever you’re thinking, stop it.”

Sherlock was still pressing against John’s wound, but managed to retreat from his gaze by turning his face away. “I can’t help it. I - I got it wrong.”

John hushed him, and moved forward on the chaise lounge till he was within reach to kiss Sherlock’s forehead. “For one, you didn’t get it all wrong. All those other incredible things you figured out along the way were right. Your brother even had an eye on them, so truly top marks.”

“I got the important aspect wrong,” Sherlock pointed out, though slightly mollified.

“You thought he was loyal to her,” John said, definitely attempting to placate him. “How could you have known otherwise? He’d always acted like they were as thick as thieves. I had sort of thought Mary was his partner, similar to what I am now to you - you know, the audience of the genius. Maybe you thought he was a bit like you.”

Sherlock raised his head, smiling softly. “That’s very astute of you John.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not always an idiot,” John replied glibly, returning the same look.

“No, you’re not. Which is why I am loyal to you, and why you’re much more than an audience,” Sherlock said, voice quiet. “I couldn’t do the work now without you.”

John’s eyes shone bright in the low light. John cleared his throat, and ducked his head. And yet, Sherlock thought dryly, it was him who was supposed to struggle with feelings.

“So you never miss it?” Sherlock asked, still somewhat incredulous. He understood people got sentimental about things like their childhood, and entire family history.

“Honestly? It’s a relief,” John said. “I was never cut out for that life. I was terrible at balancing the books, and there was a lot to balance - and Harry certainly never took any interest in it. That kind of living was just unsustainable. I think our class is on its way out.”

“Optimistic,” Sherlock muttered, and John chuckled in response.

John reached out for him then, cupping Sherlock’s jaw in his right hand for a long beat of silence, those blue eyes meeting his without guile. “Listen to me, all right? All I want in my life is this. Being here with you, neither of us ever bored, and to have you be happy. You can’t deny that you’re happier here, now, being Sherlock Holmes.”

Sherlock considered it. Happy. Truthfully, he was. Being Sherlock Holmes, however...

“What does that even mean?” Sherlock asked, raising one brow, and the scalpel. The next piece was pulled out easier than the one before it, and they were finished. As easy as that.

Sherlock decided that if any other fragments came up to the surface, he would take them all out of John. He would remove all the leftover remnants of Mary, and the nightmare John had lived, till there was nothing of it left still inside of him.

John barely twitched as Sherlock stitched up the reopened wounds, neat and meticulous, already well on their way to healing.

“Then, we’ll start talking about it,” John concluded, as Sherlock secured the bandaging. “If we want. You can say it any time you want. You can say her name over and over again if you like.”

“Hmm, good to know, but I think I’d still rather not,” Sherlock said, lips twitching. The power that name had once held over him, and the excitement he’d felt in saying it when it had long felt taboo, was completely gone. Apathy was in itself, a relief.

John nodded. “Well, glad we’re agreed.”

With their pact and bandaging finished, John poured himself a nightcap, as Sherlock went for his violin. His previous one had been lost to the fire, but it had been in bad shape to begin with, and had been replaced with a far superior instrument. Mycroft had at last trusted him with their father’s old Stradivarius, the only convincing he’d needed being witnessing John and him together. His brother had apparently found them sickeningly infatuated and settled with one another, and grudgingly conceded that Sherlock was possibly made better by the arrangement. To Sherlock’s immense satisfaction, Mycroft had even admitted to deep regret at ever leaving him alone with Sebastian Wilkes. Mycroft would however not budge on the idea that keeping him in the dark about Moriarty and Mary had been for the best -- he and John had been equally unimpressed by this conviction.

Still though, his father’s instrument had been relinquished, and Sherlock played while John watched. John sipped scotch from a glass, eyes on him over the rim, the kind of look that caused Sherlock to feel a bit hot under the collar, and reminded him that John owed him from earlier that day. While it had been a close thing, John hadn’t taken him that morning, and another bout couldn’t come too soon.

John had gradually learned to become less restrained when with him, so to speak. They still of course had gentle times, and soft words, but there was a time and a place for a bit of roughness between the sheets, which Sherlock encouraged with increasing frequency.

And John did of course still need encouragement in that direction. That morning for example, John had been readying himself to leave their bedroom when Sherlock had teasingly began to writhe on the bed, sliding his nightshirt up inch by inch, smiling all the while. John, who had only just put trousers on, managed to tear them off again in record time, and proceeded to flip Sherlock onto his front, as John pressed himself flush along Sherlock’s back.

“You’re a torment,” John had groaned as Sherlock continued to writhe against the bed, basking in the feeling of John’s weight holding him down, and his cock dangerously close to sliding between Sherlock’s cheeks over top of his nightshirt.

John’s dirty talk in bed was another aspect of his husband that he’d been delighted to discover once John had allowed himself to start letting go. John praised him and scolded him in turn, the latter usually in a way that didn’t discourage Sherlock in the slightest. It should have also all sounded ridiculous. It didn’t.

“You’d like that wouldn’t you,” John had murmured, teasing with the edge of his nightshirt. “For me to lift this up, and have you?”

Sherlock’s only response had been to squirm, his coy smile slipping into an open mouthed gasp as John began grinding against his arse. Sherlock frotted against the bed, stimulated but frustratingly covered up, with John whispering very bad things in his ear throughout -- until John finally did follow through on rucking his shirt up.

By the time John had pushed one finger past Sherlock’s lips for him to suck, Sherlock was far beyond all reason, licking with enthusiasm and continuing to rut and push back into John’s erection. When John pressed that single wet finger against his hole, sliding in just the tip, it was more than enough to push Sherlock over the edge, coming hard over the sheets beneath him. Barely managing to get his breath back, Sherlock insisted that John still take him -- but John had promised him later. John had also promised that him coming like that had been the hottest thing he’d ever seen, and had thrust against his arse immediately after till he made a mess of Sherlock’s back.

Suffice to say, John was now well on his way to learning to unwind. And, having just luxuriated in the memory of how unwound he could be, Sherlock now felt that it was as good a time as any to collect on that promise.

Sherlock returned his violin to its case before promptly sitting in John’s lap, making sure to lean on his good shoulder. John, surprised but pleased, laid his drink down and helpfully pressed kisses along Sherlock’s neck when it was offered.

“I believe we have some unfinished business from earlier,” Sherlock said in a low voice, leaning his head down to kiss John’s thin, and very amused, mouth.

“Do we?” John replied, trailing his hand up Sherlock’s leg.

That hand would have continued on to a very lovely place indeed, if it was not interrupted by a shrill call of “Boys!” shouted up the stairs.

“Shall we save this for later?” John asked with reluctance, squeezing his knee in affection.

“Hmm,” Sherlock said. “Your debts are increasing, Mr Watson.”

“I suppose I’ll just have to pay you back with interest, Mr Watson,” John replied, nipping at Sherlock’s bottom lip as he withdrew.

“Boys, you’ve got another one!” Mrs Hudson yelled.

“Yes, Mrs Hudson,” they called back down in unison, still looking at one another.

“And so late at night!” Mrs Hudson continued. It was unclear if she was scolding them, or their apparent visitor. Likely both.

“Yes, Mrs Hudson,” they repeated. Sherlock stood, straightening his suit jacket, as John pulled his own back on. “Send them up,” Sherlock said. “They will find us at our leisure!”

 

 


 

 

In the following early morning, after John and Sherlock stumbled back in from their case, Sherlock returned to Manderley’s lodge gates once more.

He dreamt he was on the other side of the gate, much like the night before -- except this time, John was with him. John held a key in his hand, and turned it in the lock attached to the chains wrapped round and round the iron. Sherlock thought perhaps John meant to open it -- but instead, John pulled on the chain to ensure it was still locked in place, before throwing the key into the nearby underbrush.

Sherlock’s attention turned from the gate, and in the distance, he caught sight of what they had been seeking. He shot off like a gun, shouting for John to follow. Neck and neck, they chased after their next big adventure, with the former frame of a house fading into irrelevance behind them.

Chapter Text

Nothing ever happened to John Watson.

That was, of course, until something did.

The first ‘something’ was his wife and would-be tormentor attempting to kill him. In a twist, one which John had only ever fantasized of in the darkest recesses of his mind, Mary’s attempt on his life ended instead with that fate befalling her.

John was forced from that moment onward to live in a state of constant fear of discovery, and with the knowledge that everything he had done in the name of his parents’ legacy was largely for naught. John had brought Mary on himself for the good of Manderley, had suffered her and their loveless marriage for years, and he knew now it was for nothing at all - beyond ensuring his own eventual ruination. A futile attempt at selflessness, and all John had gained in return was a limp and a guilty conscience.

John Watson’s life became a monotony of waiting in the wake of his wife’s death, as a part of him was convinced he would eventually be discovered. John, not unlike the estate he was overseer to, was a dead weight, barely self-sustaining.

Despite all this, John would never have described himself as suicidal. If he occasionally looked at a gun for a moment too long, or leaned over an oceanside cliff too far, it was nothing more than a dalliance. Watsons were made of sturdy stuff, as his late father would have reminded him, and there’d never been a death by that means in the family. John was certain he would never commit such a drastic action, if only because he couldn’t imagine putting Harry through it (or so he told himself).

However, none of this explained his moment of selfishness, almost a year later, when something even more unexpected happened to him.

This second ‘something’ was a striking man wearing an ill-fitting suit and a sardonic expression walking across a Monte Carlo hotel sitting room toward him. John hadn’t felt much of anything in a long time, so the immediate spark of interest came as a surprise. But then, he had always possessed an eye for the clever, gorgeous ones -- whether he could swing it with them or not.

The man was definitely a few years younger than himself and Wilkes, so it was an even greater surprise when he stopped in front of them both, and handed Wilkes a letter from Mike Stamford, of all people.

John had offered him the seat intended for himself, partly out of politeness, but largely to increase the distance between himself and Wilkes. It did not escape his notice that Wilkes must have asked the young man to go all the way to his room to retrieve the letter after recognizing John in the dining room. John was familiar with Wilkes’ elbow-rubbing breed, which was in fact his reason for traveling outside of England, and was resigned to the inevitable unpleasantness of the conversation.

Wilkes introduced the letter-bringer as Sherlock, which John found as striking a name as the individual himself, and then didn’t return to him again. John immediately wondered if they were together. He wondered if Wilkes didn’t pay Sherlock much attention in public so as to keep the gossip from them, due to their currently unwed status. Perhaps they were engaged in secret. John didn’t know, but certainly wanted to, or at least far more than he wanted to hear anything else Wilkes had to say.

When John gathered the gumption to ask, Wilkes denied any romantic association rather rudely. But John had already seen the way Wilkes had looked at Sherlock. It was, embarrassingly enough, likely the same way John had been. John decided Wilkes either wanted Sherlock and didn’t act on it, or was lying. Wilkes had reacted as if it would have been beneath him. A social class difference, John concluded.

John had at the start attempted to draw the newcomer into the conversation, unoriginally asked him how he was finding Monte Carlo. Sherlock, with a surprisingly deep voice, expressed loathing of the falseness of Monte, and gave the general impression of finding Wilkes embarrassing in the extreme, like an annoying uncle who had been forced upon him.

Sherlock also saw through John in seconds. As of late, all anyone ever saw when they looked at him was a cane and a limp. They saw an invalid, someone who enjoyed the ‘quiet life’. They, luckily, saw grief.

Sherlock, apparently, saw a love of adventure, and his confidence in this was infectious. It made John want to believe him. John wanted to be that man again, if he could.

Wilkes had dominated the conversation, cloying and cruel in turn, but John still regretted his short temper after leaving in a huff. John, not completely bereft of manners, slipped an apology beneath Sherlock’s door, concerned Wilkes might have blamed him for John’s behaviour. John knocked once and left the note before he could lose his nerve. John imagined Sherlock had likely continued his evening with Wilkes, forgetting entirely about the short, lame whoever of some-such-house. He probably wouldn’t even encounter the man again.

For once, however, luck was on John's side. The next morning John had the pleasure of watching Sherlock walk across another room, and was even provided with an excuse to dine with him by the grace of an unbalanced vase of flowers.

Sherlock was a touch shy, a touch odd, frighteningly intelligent, and wholly charming. John was completely taken in. John had the immediate urge to spend as much time as possible with him, and oddly enough, Sherlock acquiesced.

John was enamoured, and he thought Sherlock at the very least found him to be enjoyable company. Sherlock was at times almost desperate for his praise and attention in fact, which John was more than willing to give, and in return Sherlock helped him forget for awhile.

If the purpose of John’s traveling had been the search for a distraction, Sherlock certainly delivered. John’s dreams for a year had featured Mary’s cruel parting words, the pain of her bullet through his shoulder, and the image of her blood seeping out onto their cottage floor. Now John’s sleep, and waking hours, were filled with thoughts of high cheekbones and witty remarks, and how those cheeks looked when flushed.

John should have felt guilty for thinking of his obviously inexperienced friend in such a way, but John was tired of feeling guilty. And -- his heart hoped. The way Sherlock sometimes looked at him, and the way Sherlock sought him out…. Sometimes, John believed his instant and overwhelming infatuation could be reciprocated.

John did not test this theory, knowing that he shouldn’t, and hadn’t planned on it either. A brief and chaste kiss pressed to the top of the other man's head was the most that would ever come of it, and the most that he would allow himself. John had dark secrets, ones he could not in good conscience put on the shoulders of an unsuspecting person, and which also happened to be the very same kind of secrets that an aspiring sleuth would have loved to dig his teeth into. In summary, there were many reasons why exploring his interest was a bad idea.

Of course John could not think of a single one of these reasons when Sherlock told him he was leaving for America. With Wilkes. Slimy Wilkes, isolating Sherlock even further than he already had been, and God, John imagined, maybe finally having his way with him.

John convinced himself that his proposal was the best he could do, that at least offering himself was better than Sherlock provided with no alternatives whatsoever. This was a lie, but John was capable of great feats of denial. And so, John selfishly asked the man he had fallen in love with over little more than two weeks to marry him. Which in fact did not go particularly well, as he might have expected - but even if John was selfish, at least he was brave. The end result was a “yes,” but in John’s mind it was conditional. He would need to give Sherlock time.

John still clung to enough optimism to hope Sherlock could feel the same. John lived in the moment in Monte Carlo, and he tried to continue this lifestyle past it when they returned to Manderley. Unfortunately, he had left Manderley in a sorry state, just as he was to bring a young husband into it. John tried desperately to correct the natural turn of the tide against his class and his own neglect of the estate, all in the hopes of keeping his new life intact. Ironically, in an effort to not neglect the estate, he neglected the very man he had wanted the estate for.

John had told Sherlock once that he didn’t know what to do with him, and this largely continued to be the case. John had small successes in pleasing Sherlock. The new room seemed to go over well, as did the perfumes for sampling, and the new clothes -- if Sherlock was eye-catching before, nothing could hold a candle to him in a well-cut suit and coat. Sherlock hardly ever sleeping in bed with him at night, or at least not while John was awake, was in some ways a blessing. John wanted Sherlock with a singular focus, and having him so mouth-wateringly near was truly maddening, but John knew it was too soon. John would think of approaching him, perhaps for a simple kiss, and then remember Sherlock’s cold response to his marriage proposal.

John would wonder -- was he just the better of two evils? John’s conscience was racked with guilt at the prospect of Sherlock having agreed to marry him to avoid a worse situation. John knew he could have offered Sherlock a job, or provided connections, but had instead acted on his own feelings and desires. He had wanted to believe he saw those feelings returned by Sherlock, but now, was not so sure.

While John realized the difference in their ages was not exceptionally large, he still sometimes felt as if he had a burdened a bright young thing with an old man, barely even able to walk. This was especially pronounced in John’s mind when Sherlock’s face lit up in boyish excitement over his experiments, or when his face was softened in sleep, sweetly framed by dark curls splayed out over his pillow. But then, there were also Sherlock's sly glances when John came out after a bath or climbed into bed with him at night, and the way Sherlock still yearned for John’s praise and attention for his work.

When John awoke one night after a fight to the feeling of Sherlock's groin pressed flush against his leg, his husband seeking his pleasure out against him in small unconscious movements, John realized that his restraint was truly to be tested. When Sherlock woke shortly after, and immediately withdrew to the other side of the bed in understandable self consciousness, John was no longer able to hold back. He had felt Sherlock's interest against him after all, and it hadn't seemed like the kind that went away on its own. John had reached for him, testing the waters, and Sherlock had been unresisting. He'd asked permission, and Sherlock had given it.

John felt like a rider attempting to gentle a wild horse, expecting that he might be bucked off at any moment. John's attention was devoted to Sherlock's reactions, ensuring his enjoyment and comfort, always waiting for the moment Sherlock would ask him to stop - but he never did. John treasured every small noise he coaxed from Sherlock, completely intoxicated by him, and the gratifying sound of him reaching his peak.

The act had been uncomplicated, until Sherlock reached for him after, obviously expecting that he had to return the favour. It was John who withdrew then, his guilt coming back to him swiftly and soundly. Was everything they were to each other simply John helping a friend, and the friend in turn feeling indebted to him? Besides, it was safer to hold off, lest he embarrass himself. Since Mary, John's trust issues had caused him some difficulty in that area, and at the moment he wasn't even sure if he could perform with his current thoughts. John had wondered then if he would ever see Sherlock's face during the height of pleasure, or if the most he could ever expect was the cold, hard outline of Sherlock's back. John had said he didn’t know what to do with Sherlock, but the truth was he knew what he wanted to do with him, and that was perhaps worse.

Not to mention, the clock was always ticking for them. John felt the weight of Manderley being barely manageable, Mary’s boat still sunk just off the shore, and Mary’s man Moriarty like a vulture, always circling above them, ready for the moment he smelt blood. And, in John’s mind, it was only a matter of time before someone found out, and that someone could very well be Sherlock.

The day Sherlock had come back from Mary’s cottage, John was certain that Sherlock would somehow know. Maybe John hadn’t scrubbed the floors well enough, or maybe there were still signs of a fight, or some other such thing that Sherlock just always seemed to know. John’s waiting continued, and if anything only grew more dangerous. But John could have borne anything, if it had meant Sherlock’s happiness. Except of course, John had believed he’d jeopardized that as well.

Which was why following the boat’s discovery, despite the terrible revelation that John was likely to be hanged for murdering his wife, John was still filled with an almost disbelieving and dizzy happiness to learn that Sherlock had loved him all along.

Sherlock dropping to his knees and demonstrating that devotion in the physical sense had also been, to say the least, a delightful addition to the surprise.

John found he hardly cared if he was strung up, if the payoff was these few days with Sherlock during which he could be completely honest and in love. Sherlock felt differently on that subject – or at least, on the matter of John being hanged. Sherlock devoted himself to ensuring that be avoided if at all possible, and dived into coaching John through the process. Sherlock transformed from someone who had once felt remote to John into a supportive and loving partner, more loving in fact than John could have ever dreamed. And so, his heart overflowed with gratitude for being given Sherlock in this capacity, even if it was on the heels of his own execution.

Sherlock may have been inexperienced in some aspects of life, but John found the younger man certainly knew how to take the bull by the horns (and to John’s eventual great satisfaction, this included the bedroom).

 

When the court case decided a verdict of suicide, and David’s letter turned out to be a dead end, John was almost afraid to believe it could all be that easy.

Sherlock’s behaviour following the pronouncement was his first tip off. The second was Sherlock abruptly disappearing, along with their car. John had a bad feeling, and as calmly as possible, explained to the Colonel they would need to keep their trip to Kerrith extremely brief.

If John had known what Sherlock had somehow concluded from a dead rabbit, he would have skipped Kerrith altogether. Despite his unease, John couldn’t imagine what trouble Sherlock could possibly get into while out of his sight for an afternoon drive from London to Manderley. John realized he had never made so large an error when Colonel Barclay remarked that the horizon in the distance was oddly bright.

Sherlock had made them both so preoccupied with the prospect of John’s demise that John was woefully unprepared for considering the possibility of Sherlock’s. It was perhaps for the best that John wasn’t driving, as he might have run them off the road in his haste. Barclay was a very competent driver, and held up well in the face of John’s panicked urging to go faster, faster, damn you man! John might have been an idiot to let Sherlock out of his sight at all, but even he knew where there was smoke, there was fire, and where there was fire, there was Sherlock.

The damage to the house itself was well under way by the time they arrived, and the servants on the lawn rushed to their car, urging them to keep back from the main drive. John barked at the Colonel to send for help, desperately scanning the crowd for one person in particular.

“Sir, I believe almost everyone’s been accounted for,” Lestrade informed him, barely audible over the sea of distressed voices.

Sherlock!” John yelled, searching the faces illuminated by the fire, “Lestrade, where is he?”

John felt his stomach drop as he watched the colour drain from Lestrade’s face. “Was he not with you sir?” Lestrade asked with unease.

Oh my God,” John whispered, spying the car they had taken into London parked further up the drive.

Lestrade yelled after him, but John had already taken off at a sprint, pulling his jacket off and over his mouth as he went. The entrance hall was fortunately still mostly intact, but John closed the doors to the library and the morning room as he ran past to the staircase, in an attempt to contain the flames within for his return trip. Which he was going to make, with his husband.

While there were already obvious signs of falling debris, John didn’t have time to waste on looking up to assess the danger of anything else giving way overhead. John moved fast, and trusting his instinct without question, climbed the stairs and headed for the West wing.

By the time John reached the gallery, the fire had taken full possession of the once grand collection that had been curated by his family meticulously over the ages.

John didn’t spare the ruined portraits a single glance.

His eyes were trained on Sherlock’s prostrate form crushed beneath a beam, and then, the figure of Moriarty approaching him in the distance. John shouted Sherlock’s name, drew his pistol, and shot the man who had once offered his husband death in a Morocco case. John was rewarded with the sight of Moriarty’s leg crumpling beneath him as John’s once had, long ago in the library beneath them - but John didn’t pay him any further attention, instead rushing to Sherlock’s side.

With a feat of strength John hadn’t even believed he was capable of, he lifted the beam high enough for Sherlock to escape from beneath it. Sherlock could walk, barely, but he was fine. Sherlock was fine. John had never wanted to shake someone and kiss them at the same time before, and the burning wreckage around them suggested that the urge to do so might be best left for later.

John had also never felt more pure uncomplicated relief than when he miraculously managed to get them out in one piece. John kissed that damn fool mouth, and wanted to laugh. Mary hadn’t won after all, in fact, she hadn’t won at all. Mary was dead, and even her presence that had clung to Manderley like stale perfume was now being eradicated. John felt they were all much better off for it.

When Sherlock looked at John a moment later, concern etched in his brow and obviously thinking he needed to be break it to John that the house would be lost, that relief only grew. If he had traded bad memories for the only thing that really mattered in his life, John Watson had come out on top.

Nothing ever happened to John Watson, until of course, Sherlock Holmes finally did.