Dr. John Watson gave his beard a scratch as he sat in his well-worn armchair, slouched and barefooted with a tray of tea stacked on the side table. His laptop sat in his lap warming two day old jeans with the rust colored cardigan open over the busy plaid of his button down shirt. The room was cool but the fire hot, the soles of his feet perhaps the warmest part of his whole body save for moments when the warm brew coated his throat and spread through his belly. Winter was holding on tight to London and London, like a reluctant lover, seemed just too tired to pull away. John didn't mind. Spring didn't hold the best of memories for him.
221B of Baker Street fame would not have been recognizable to those who had seen it almost three years before. It was the lack of clutter that made the difference. The furniture was the same but arranged slightly different, seating no longer centered around two individuals sitting apart but rather two or more sitting together. The desk was a proper work area with the bookshelves home to several medical journals. The couch was covered in a cheap upholstery cover to 'lighten up' the room. John had intentionally kept only two things which were iconic to the life he'd lived: the spray painted smiley face and the skull on the mantlepiece. The open bowls of potpourri, the pictures in their frames of black and white urban-scapes, the throws made with the extra soft material which were folded and resting neatly over the arms and backs of the rest of the seating area, those were all Mary. Mary had cleaned, decluttered, arranged and decorated nearly every surface in John's flat in the year and a half they'd been seeing one another. It was a proper residence now as Mrs. Hudson put it; home to a reputable man of a respectable trade.
John took up his saucer and cup and sipped at the cooling liquid, eyes fixed on his laptop screen. They followed the lines of text spilled out on the white backdrop; another e-mail, further correspondence with a colleague about drug reps and potential case studies, research grants they'd never get and directors who needed their asses kissed. They were the dull types of messages he normally ignored on a Friday night, preferring to start off Monday with a full dose of disappointment than bring down the joy of another week's end. A night out with Mary, diner out or takeway, a quiet evening in just the two of them, that was how Fridays were meant to be spent. This Friday was different, however. John looked at the clock in the bottom right corner of his task bar, mentally ticking off the time left before his visitor arrived. Not even an hour. Just forty-odd minutes left until he would finally meet his pen pal.
The spare room above, currently purchased by Mycroft for the purpose of storing Sherlock's things, had been arranged into a space more befitting a guest with a twin sized bed and small bedside chest crammed in among the boxes. It had been ages since the room had belonged to John, the space having become akin to a mausoleum in the belief that someday the busy brother would come and sort through Sherlock's personal affects. Instead they remained packed as Mrs. Hudson had packed them, somewhat haphazard and unmarked beyond the vague 'science things' and 'stuff from the table'. As long as it was paid for, Mrs. Hudson was not particular about how the room was used. It was now the only room Mycroft paid for, the courtesy of affording John's rent as well rejected with a resurgence of pride once the depression had ebbed. Despite that, in his head, the room upstairs was always thought of as his own. It would be fine to put up James for a few nights within the mausoleum. Knowing James, he wouldn't have it any other way.
The secret agent was a bit of a Sherlock fanboy; that was how the two of them had started talking in the first place: a discussion on Sherlock and on what came next for John. As much as John wished it weren't so, James was a large part of the reason he had managed to get by that first year. E-mails about foreign travel and espionage were distractions from the daily boredom and loneliness. Texts throughout the day gave him a small boost in knowing someone out there cared. It gave him something to look forward to which was as much akin to hope as could be found in the shadows he'd lost himself in. He always expected the other man to eventually tire of their acquaintance and sign off for good, wishing him well but accepting the fact that a global SIS agent does not need to be leaking information to a normal bloke in London. He never did though. For what it was worth, it seemed to him that James needed a connection to the normal life of an Englishman as much as John needed one to something bigger than himself and his own troubles. And now he was coming here, to Baker Street, on an unprecedented return from his years of constant travel. It was somewhat flattering that more than those he'd left behind, it was John he first wanted to see. Surely is was going to be awkward but with any luck his travels would have been as unusual and interesting as they had been in the past and at least give them something to speak on after cordial greetings.
John's phone gave a trill, light beeping in display; a message. He picked it up and gave it a glance, smiling despite himself.
My cab smells of frying oil. Fancy a chippy for diner?
Perhaps it wouldn't be quite so awkward after-all.
I know a place. A favorite of mine. See you when you get here.
He put the phone back down, picking the laptop from his lap and placing it on the floor. He took up the tea tray and carried it back to the kitchen, disposing of his leftovers and giving the counter tops a quick once-over for crumbs or spills. It wouldn't be long--not long at all. He was going to get to spend proper time with his best mate for the first time ever. He checked the fridge's stock of beer, not at all surprised to see several containers of left-overs seated in neat stacks on the wire racks. Mary again. Bless her. John smiled as he took his phone back out from his pocket, scrolling down to their thread of messages where emoticons and tildes flourished like animals on the savanna. Every third message seemed to say 'I love you', sometimes with less-than-three, sometimes without. It warmed John's heart, reminding him all the more of why there was a ring waiting in the cavern of the skull's, well, skull. It was the one thing in all the flat that Mary was sure not to go through and the skull certainly wasn't keen to share his secret.
Someday soon, he told himself. When everything was perfect.
He texted a quick thank you and an X then hopped up the stairs for one last check to be sure the mausoleum was truly habitable. He'd only been a minute, the check cursory at best, and though he thought he'd heard the front door open, he dismissed it as imagination. Mrs. Hudson was gone for the night and the front door locked tight. All the more reason to be surprised to find a man on the stairs, halfway between the first and second floors with cane in one hand and his hat in the other.
John stood in silence, not at all versed in the art of hiding his alarm. He looked like no burglar he'd ever seen but one usually did not break into someone's home for other reasons.
The stranger was a tall man, very fair of skin and round of face with a heavy beard thickly covering the lower half. He was ginger and bespectacled, wearing a proper suit under the weight of his winter coat. The cane was well beaten and worn along the bottom fourth but the handle looked polished, the hat in his other hand thick of brim. A business man--one didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce as much. John breathed out heavily, letting his heart settle back in place rather than pressed against his ribs.
"Did you just pick my front door, James?"
The man's lips parted in a soundless laugh, teeth shown with an approving smile as he nodded with a sheepish tuck of his bearded chin.
John shook his head, strolling into his living room with the sweat of a life remembered but long gone clinging to his brow. "You're lucky I didn't have my gun. I'd have shot you. And then where would Her Majesty's special forces be?" he chided in jest. He heard and felt James follow him into the room, surprised again as he heard the man close the door behind them. He turned, feeling the anxiousness which was permeating the room. Awkward hardly covered it. "Well, uh.. not much in the way of luggage. Someone bringing it 'round later?"
James ignored the question, eyes searching the room for a moment before coming to rest on John. "May I have a bowl?" the man asked. His voice was muffled and strange, deep but lacking in articulation. John wondered if there wasn't a very good reason indeed for why all their communication had been through writing.
"A bowl? Uh... yeah. Sure." John went to the kitchen and returned with a white ceramic dish, brows arched in curiosity. "What's the bowl for?"
He waited for his friend to take it but instead watched as the man opened his mouth and withdrew from it large wads of cotton balls which he placed inside the bowl. A tooth ache, oral surgery, a gum disorder; John went over in his mind why someone would fill their mouth with enough cotton to fill a small container as he stood watching the round cheeks turn hollow.
Empty of the needless accompaniments, James took the bowl from his hands and set it down on the table where his hat sat and his cane rested. "Thank you, John," he said, voice deep and rolled in honey.
John's jaw set as he took a step back, fingers trembling at his sides. He forced a deep breath, tried to swallow. There were plenty of reasonable explanations for why a man would chipmunk his cheeks. Plenty of men had deep voices void of gravel.
James's delicate fingers reached up and pushed the head of ginger hair from his crown, a net holding down black waves carefully pinned into place. He pulled out each pin and set them on the table, the net removed and set beside the wig while slightly greasy curls flopped down across his brow.
He was a secret intelligence officer. Of course he'd wear a disguise.
James took his glasses off. From his temple he peeled away at the beard, spirit gum ripping as the mantle fell, cheekbones like the cliffs of Dover no longer masked by accessories and augmentation.
John felt the heat of the fire burning against his calves as he backed up into the fireplace, shaking his head from side to side with his eyes unable to remove themselves from the pale stare. "No," he uttered, unable to think of anything more eloquent than the mantra in his head.
"John," James half whispered, now the very image of Sherlock from the tips of his curls to the pout of his bottom lip.
"No. No." John side stepped, pulling his eyes away as he circled a chair, putting furniture between them and giving something to anchor his fingers around. His knuckles went white with the force of his grip. "No, you're dead. I saw you--I saw you."
"John, I can-"
"No! No, you're dead!"
Sherlock took a step towards him, a motion that only caused John to pull further back. "John, let me ex-"
"You just stay there; stay right where you are! Don't you take another step, do you hear me?"
Sherlock sank into his heals, nodding. "I hear you," he said. His pale blue eyes burned like ice but refused to waver from their stare not at but into John's.
Why was his revolver in another room? There was nothing that would have given John more pleasure in that moment than getting to raise his gun to that chiseled, stoic face. He concentrated on breathing, everything else winding its way further and further out of his control. Sherlock. Sherlock. In his home, in his life, alive, standing like a porcelain copy of himself with all the sense of a china doll. His heart was mad, hot blood pumping like steam from a broiler but extremities numb and cool. He could feel his muscles twitching in his face and hands and knew that somewhere inside his gut was a bottomless, empty pit into which his stomach had fallen. No chair was going to anchor him to this reality, if one could even call the past two minutes real. With rage he hadn't felt in years, John shoved the chair as hard as he could, the plaid furniture too stubborn to fly but toppling over in a somewhat satisfying way as the rug caught on the legs.
Sherlock flinched only slightly--a flickering of his lashes, a wince along his cheek. He remained perfectly still otherwise, as promised.
Pressing in on a brain that was running out of control, John dug his fingers into his own hair, pulling at it in frustration; impotent. There were not enough things to break or enough obscenities to utter. Part of him still wanted to try, regardless. Anything would be better than spinning in circles waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He crossed the room quickly, fingers curled into fists at his side as he marched like a good soldier across the tangled rug and stood before the familiar man he'd laid to rest. "I should have known, I guess. A fan of Sherlock's? No one's a bigger fan of you than yourself," he spat with every effort made not to haul off and strike him. "You, you, you were James Sigerson. It's been you the whole time. The whole--Do you have any idea, any at all, what you... What the hell is wrong with you?!"
Sherlock looked down at him patiently. One might have thought he looked remorseful, maybe even sorry, if it weren't for the fact that Sherlock was obviously just as much a machine as John had always feared. The taller man swallowed, adam's apple dipping before he took a short breath from which to fuel his speech. The fist in his face rushed the air back out of him as he fell against the table.
John shook his hand out. He'd at least managed to exercise some amount of restraint. Now was the hard part: not jumping on him and doing it over again.
With an almost lethargic effort, Sherlock stood back to attention once more. He shook his hair out of his face with a single twitch, fingers touching lightly at his jaw where the fist had collided. He made no effort to strike back. His acceptance was enough to keep the second blow from flying--for now.
"I never wanted to deceive you, John," Sherlock began, this time getting the words clear. "But there were reasons which necessitated such action. Reasons outside of my control. I tried to-"
"You faked your own suicide, Sherlock! A fake five-story dive which you asked me to watch! How 'outside your control' am I supposed to believe that was?!"
"No. Shut up." John grabbed him by the shirt. He was still a very thin man. "You are a sick, twisted, inhuman bastard, Sherlock. Were you laughing at me while I mourned you? Did you find your little stunt amusing? Because I sure as hell didn't!"
Sherlock flinched just slightly at the crack of John's voice. Hurt. Betrayal. Anguish. For once, John believed he didn't have to explain to the sociopath the emotions he was seeing. Sherlock's own eyes reflected several of them. It was enough to make John let go and take a step back, gain distance to assess the man who might as well have been a stranger for all the good his past knowledge of him had served.
He felt a smile part his face, not of joy but mockery. A short chuckle of deprecation erupted from his throat as he shook his head. "The whole bloody time. James Sigerson, international consulting detective. Pretending to die wasn't enough; you have to go and make up a whole 'nother life to mess with me? What could I have possible done to deserve all this?"
"You've got it wrong. I invented James Sigerson to try and help you, not hurt you. Leaving was the last thing I wanted to do and I couldn't--I wasn't strong enough to do it even if it was for the best. I tried to tell you. I asked you. Things had to be this way, John."
"You tried to tell me, hm?" John chortled again. "Oh, really. Funny, I don't remember James ever mentioning to me that he might be someone I might remember."
Sherlock took a deep breath, a cue for the second strike but managed to beat him to the punch. "The timestamp," he said, no more than a brief pause given before he could not help but explain. "Twenty-six letters in the alphabet, twenty-four hours and fifty-nine possible minutes in a standard twenty-four hour electronic timestamp. So long as letters 'y' or 'z' fall as the even letter in a word or phrase, there's no trouble in setting up a sophomoric substitution cipher. Using time means no more than 24 hours has to pass between reception and reply as well making it rather ideal unless what you want to say is 'Sorry'."
John stared at him with unbelieving eyes round and wide as cricket balls. His jaw clenched, the pit in his gut filling up even more with the rock hard weight of his heart. "You mean to tell me you've been leaving me messages in timestamps for three years?"
"No, just the first three months. If you didn't know when the sequence began, coming at it would produce only random nonsense even if you substituted correctly. O-C-K-H-O-L is gibberish unless you have the first set."
John took several steps back from him, turning away from the depths he found in his eyes to walk back to the other side of the room. The smell of him, the look of him, the mannerisms that were just so Sherlock which he had assumed he'd forgotten, they were all there. Three years had done nothing to change him save for the strange quality to his eyes which reflected far more readily those glimpses of humanity that he'd believed in before. John wrestled with the anger, the sadness, and--god help him--joy he felt at being that close to him once more. He was not ever going to be that stupid again. "You are, without a doubt....the worst person on the face of this planet."
"That's superlative hyperbole."
"No, that's gospel, Sherlock," John turned to him, gesturing wildly. "I would rather see Moriarty come up those stairs after three years than see you."
"Moriarty was a psychopath."
"I know he was! And that's the sort of thing I'd expect from him! You were my friend! Friends don't fake a suicide and run away for three years! Do you have any idea what it was like for me after that? Did you think for even a moment that maybe, maybe this was going to effect me? Three. Years. Sherlock. Fuck you."
It felt good. It felt really good. Watching Sherlock flinch, watching him turn away, watching that face fall and those shoulders slouch, watching every hint of body language Sherlock had ever pointed out to him in one of his self-satisfying tirades of masturbatory gratification, every bit of it felt like it might have the power to resurrect even the most deeply buried pieces of his soul which had broken off and died on the pavement at Barts. It felt like justice.
For his part, Sherlock remained quiet for a while. It was hardly his strong suit. With his head bent and eyes half closed, he began to rattle off once more. "Two years, eight months, twenty-two days, seventeen hours-"
"No, shut up! Don't even start with that like you've consciously kept track because I know you!" John warned.
Sherlock nodded, standing tall once more though every blow still showed as visible in the facade as the rising bruise on his jaw. "I know you do; one hundred percent. I know right now you're not exactly in the mental state from which to reconcile that in being James Sigerson I know everything you've had to deal with in response to my death but perhaps, given time, you will. I know everything you wrote to him--to me--and I was sincere with every reply. If you would give me a chance to explain, I promise you I can do so with as much detail as is required to satiate your curiosity as to why."
He paused, eyes widening. "No?"
"John, I understand-"
"No, Sherlock, I really, really don't think you do understand." John walked to the door of the living room, pulling it open to the stairway's landing. "I'll hear you out but not today. Today I want you gone."
For a moment John thought he'd have to argue with him further, escalate the already tense and violent atmosphere in the room with the retrieval of his revolver. Sherlock's straight faced frown was a sign of acceptance, however. Slowly but purposefully, the secretive man began to pull back into place the pieces of his disguise. The hairnet went into his pocket but the wig sat just as convincing. The beard was hardly tacky enough to stick but the scarf around his neck helped make up for its shoddy replacement. The glasses framed the look of utter defeat in his ice blue eyes. He left the cotton balls in the bowl and took back up his hat and cane.
Walking slowly with the gait of a wounded creature, Sherlock stepped out of the room, turning on the landing to John just once more. "You have my number if you change your mind. Please tell no one you saw me."
John nodded, curiosity getting the better of him. "Right. Why the disguise? Afraid someone is going to recognize you and blow your precious brains out?"
"No," Sherlock said. "I'm afraid they'll blow out yours."
He walked down the steps, slow enough to be counting each of them as he descended from the flat they once shared with none of the foresight as had been shown the fall from Barts. John watched him, heard his deep voice ringing in his head, felt the pit in his gut become a chasm that deepened and widened with every footfall taken towards the front door.
"Sherlock." It was his own voice but it still startled him slightly. His once-friend turned to look at him, head craned up as it never was when they spoke. John hated himself as he let out a short, shuddering breath. "Eleven. Come 'round eleven. And text me for Christ's sake if you're not coming or you're running late."
A very small, pleased smile pulled at the corners of Sherlock's lips. "I'll be here on the hour."
John almost wouldn't have put it past him to be just that punctual. With slightly more purpose in his step, Sherlock opened the front door and walked back out onto the sidewalk of Baker Street, closing the door behind him with a quiet click.
In and out of his life like a boomerang he was willing to keep throwing over and over and over again. He was an idiot.
John walked to the overturned chair and tangled rug and set his living room back as Mary had designed it, feeling childish and far less impressed with himself than he had at the time. He took back up the laptop from the floor as he sat, his e-mail client for work full-screen but his other e-mail, his personal account, open in the task bar promising no new messages. He pulled it up, glancing at his folders, opening the one simply titled 'James' where two years, six months, five days and four hours of messages were stored.
John opened up the first one he'd ever bothered saving, finding in the body the thread of their correspondence from the very first hello. He opened up notepad and carefully noted the timestamp on each reply, rereading every message he'd sent and received with the new knowledge that it had been Sherlock from the start. He raged, he blushed, he cringed and he stared. He puzzled over the numbers he'd collected and plugged away at them like a bored child in class.
"It's called a Catch 22 I believe. No matter what I do, I will inevitably hurt someone."
"Your friends and loved ones will understand when you finally come home. That's what makes them your friends and loved ones."
S H E R L O C K H O L M E S L I V E S
John put his face in his hands, breath coming in short, difficult gasps, as ancient sobs dredged up from that chasm with the last of his restraint.
It was precisely eleven o'clock when John heard footfalls on the steps again. He did not move from his chair, head barely lifting from its dipped posture in the reading from his laptop. He saw the flutter of the heavy coat as the man who could only be Sherlock stepped inside the room and walked to the table where the cotton balls still sat to disassemble his features once more.
He paced towards the coat-rack this time, shrugging off the vestiges of winter down to his brown blazer and plain, crisp button top. John eyed the bone of his wrist as Sherlock trailed a hand over familiar cushions before taking a careful seat in his familiar throne now half disguised under floral throws. Sherlock never ate when he was on a case and he'd been gone on assignment for several years now. A thin man indeed.
There were other changes--small ones--that John noticed as he closed the lid of his laptop and set it aside. There were the eyes, of course, both in depth and darkness with clear signs of exhaustion ripening the thin skin above his cheeks into an ashen amethyst. Travel abroad had not darkened his complexion with a healthy tan but rather left him just as pale as in memory. Much to John's envy, his face still failed to crease with age outside his curiosity lines. He wasn't sure what he expected to find after only three years. The sameness of him was ghostlike.
"Are you alright?" Sherlock asked, seated and comfortable, fingers already tenting in front of his bottom lip as he scanned and thought with visible attention.
John'd forgotten what it was like to be under that stare. He breathed a laugh, looking away at his hands, his knees, the wall, the spray-paint smile. "Fine," he said, turning back to his friend with nerves causing his right leg to jump. "I mean, I'll be fine. Just... Just a lot to take in. A lot."
Sherlock nodded, face impassive as deductions whirled through that brilliant head of his. "You have questions."
It was needless to say and an understatement by far. John hardly knew where to begin. He'd spent most of his time rereading old e-mails with the new knowledge that they had been from a known colleague and not some stranger. Sometimes he felt like a complete idiot for not having realized. Sherlock was a master of disguise and a fairly convincing actor but in hindsight he had done a rather poor job of pretending to be whatever James Sigerson was supposed to be. He was Sherlock through and through with only a touch more of what the man normally considered to be 'normal' mixed in. James Sigerson was Sherlock Holmes's Clark Kent; a reflection of himself and a parody of everyone else. Considering their correspondence, it was difficult to see just where that line was drawn between the two. James had seemed like a lonely man who had found himself in a kind of impromptu, work related exile. James hadn't pretended to kill himself to get to Florence and Tibet, however; that was all Sherlock and still very much a mystery. It was the first question to come to his mind and in many ways the only one that needed answering.
John cleared his throat, scooting closer to the edge of his chair. "Just one for starters," he said, swallowing the doubt that warned he may not like what he heard. "Why? Why would you... I mean the set up, the deception, the planning, all of it; why did you do it?"
Sherlock nodded, lips pursed in the facial equivalent of a shrug. "It was Moriarty's answer to the final problem. Discredit me, strip me of everything I'd ever achieved, and then force me to end my own life to complete his version of the story."
"So you just played along, did you? You just...let Moriarty think he'd won?" There was anger there. It being Sherlock, John was sure he'd have known he was angry either way.
"No." The detective shook his head. "Moriarty lost. He made one fatal error which could have given me an out, in response to which he put a revolver in his mouth." Sherlock scowled, leaning forward in his seat with tented fingers now covering his nose and mouth. "I had planned for the eventuality, of course, but only as a worse case scenario. You weren't supposed to be there, John."
"Hang on," John waved his hands for his friend to stop, trying to follow but lost without context. "Alright, from the beginning, Sherlock. Just start over and tell me everything."
The consulting detective nodded and stood up from his chair, hands clasped behind his back as he began to pace along the rug."You'll remember our first encounter with Moriarty," he began, voice strong and louder than necessary. "He promised he would burn the heart out of me if I did not stop interfering with his work. Given his changeable nature I'm not entirely convinced taking on only the small cases would have changed matters. His means would have had to have changed but eventually it would have come down to the death between us. Moriarty knew exactly what needed to be done to burn me and everything else up to that point on the roof was just part of the game. The trial, the papers, the police, they were all minute details in the final solution: my death. As we know, Moriarty didn't like getting his hands dirty so it was easy to assume someone else was going to end my life. He could have had any of the known assassins kill me at any time, however, so the killer would have to be a pawn, someone directly linked to me whose final act of betrayal would be more painful than a sudden shot. I thought perhaps Lestrade but he was already being used in my incrimination. That left only you but you remained unwavering in your convictions. Therefore the killer became very obvious. Who else could be motivated to kill me but was familiar enough to strike a psychological blow as well? Only myself.
"Facing myself as my own executioner, the means to my survival became more varied and more assured. By choosing a location like the roof of Barts as the place for the final stand off, I was choosing my means of destruction. I needed only two accomplices: Molly and the homeless network. Having a coroner willing to write me off as dead was crucial; there needed to be records and someone to fake forensic evidence as Miss Adler had proven. The homeless network is very easily bribed into silence and extremely resourceful. I worked out the physics of the leap and supplied the funding, they supplied the lorry and the necessary ground crew with borrowed costumes from the hospital for the more important players. No matter my audience, there would be enough confusion to make for a convincing suicide for most observers of which you were not intended to be among. I had to have you as far away as possible--for your own safety."
Sherlock stop pacing for a moment, hands moving from clasped behind his back to engaging in simple gestures as he continued with his lengthy, breathless account. "The gingerbread man, John. Burnt to a crisp, remember?" He pointed to the door where they had stood that day, eying the sealed parcel and its cryptic message. "He'd taken my career and my reputation from me but he had not yet touched those closest to me: my heart. It was a warning and a promise. I knew Moriarty was going to try and convince me to kill myself but how he would achieve that was still uncertain. I had my informants watching all of us. When Moriarty appeared my informants made the call--the call to get you out of Barts and out of danger by fabricating news of Mrs. Hudson's imminent death. It wasn't until it was all too late, however, that I discovered Moriarty had his own men watching us as well: assassins put in place to spy on Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade and you with the express intentions that you all be murdered if I failed to comply with Moriarty's schemes. There was a word, a phrase, that could have been used to call it all off. I tried to convince Moriarty to trust me and somehow get him to change his mind but he killed himself instead--along with any hope of walking away. From that point on I had to jump, and not only appear to die but remain dead or else the assassins would carry out their orders.
"And then you arrived. Just in time--or rather, several seconds too early. You were a wrench in the works. You could have ruined everything. You were.. so close. If you hadn't listened to me, all the planning, everything, it would have been for nothing. In a way it worked out well. Your performance convinced the assassins as much as my fall did."
John clenched his jaw to keep from interrupting, wanting so very much to correct his friend. If by performance he meant absolute devastation and shock, he was an utter dick.
Sherlock would have been unapologetic besides. "From there Mycroft became accomplice number three," he continued, his story winding down. "I received a new identity complete with passport and was given a position with the SIS in tracking down international crime rings with the promise of being given every assistance and opportunity available to target Moriarty's closest associates to try and weed out the assassins and put an end to the threat against Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, and yourself. The rest, of course, you know. Every place I went, every annoyance I had with food, customs and the general attitude of my associates I wrote to you about under my new identity: James Sigerson. Which brings us to now." He turned on his heals, planting himself directly in front of John as he stood and waited, somehow not at all out of breath for all the speed at which he spoke.
John stared as he digested, eyes no longer too nervous to lock on to his friend's own. Generally when Sherlock completed a long breakdown of cause, effect and motive, words like fantastic! or brilliant! or even astounding! came to mind and fell out of his mouth before he could gather them up. Not this time. This time John sat in complete silence, regarding his long lost friend with uncertainty. He swallowed hard, lips pursed and relaxed as he thought of things to say, rethought them, and abandoned them. He drummed his fingers on his knees, nodding his head like a dashboard doll as words continued to fail him. He ran his tongue along the backs of his teeth, breathed, looked from the corner, to Sherlock, to the window. Swallowed. It was hard. It was very, very hard.
"You-" his voice cracked and he pursed his lips again, wincing. He swallowed once more. "You did all this... to save my life?"
"You once tried to do the same for me."
John chuckled, closing his eyes and dropping his head."Yeah, well, you weren't supposed to be a hero, remember?" John pinched at the space between his eyes and concentrated for a moment on breathing. If he tried, he could still feel the weight of the explosives on his chest, feel them pressed even closer as he threw himself against Moriarty's back, hear Sherlock's stuttering appreciation for his efforts, see the flattered nervousness.
Standing only a few footfalls from him, Sherlock's hand seemed to stretch out towards John but retreated, winding back around behind the tall man who took a step back, weight shifting from right to left. "Would you like a beer? Something stronger perhaps?"
"No, I'm alright. Just... utterly blown away." John leaned back, wiping his palms on his thighs as he took one last deep breath. "You are... without a doubt... the cleverest man I have ever known."
Sherlock stood a little straighter, brows pitched a little higher as his face reflected nearly three years spent in the company of Donovans and Andersons, lacking greatly in Lestrades and Watsons. It had become almost annoying how expectant of praise Sherlock had become before but seeing again that surprise and slight shock at it made John remember just how lonely they had both been before they'd met. Sherlock flushed just slightly, a more healthy tone coloring his pale cheeks.
"You still think so?" Sherlock asked.
John nodded sagely. "You managed to disappear for three years and not miss a single thing. There is not one thing I could tell you now that you don't already know and for every time I needed a friend you somehow managed to still be there. You have literally outdone yourself in every way imaginable." John smiled despite himself, unable to withhold his own satisfaction in pleasing his friend. "Three years and we haven't missed a day. You could move back in tomorrow and it would be like you'd never left."
"Glad you feel that way. My things are upstairs, yes?"
As if nothing had changed.
John nodded. "Right, Mrs. Hudson packed them all. You really want to be going through all that tonight?"
"Probably not," Sherlock admitted, plucking at a loose thread from one of Mary's printed throws. "At least, not until we confirm the 'all clear'. Bit suspicious to unpack a dead man's things if he has to remain dead."
John stilled in his chair, the momentary relief rushing back in to hide under suspicion and dread. "You mean it's not over? You might have to leave again?"
"It's a possibility," The consulting detective admitted. He paced again, less from nerves and more from habit. "Mycroft feels strongly that anyone who had any such orders to kill you and the others has been taken care of based on comparative records of who was in the country at that time and who we've confirmed capture or destruction of."
"And if not?"
"Libya?" John leaned forward in his chair, face following Sherlock's to-s and fro-s with interest. "For how long?"
Sherlock raised one shoulder in a half shrug. "Until we can be sure."
"And if it doesn't end?"
Sherlock shrugged again, dismissively, though his eyes fell and his feet became still.
John stood, the nervous energy in his leg begging to find an outlet. "Sherlock, you mean to tell me this could go on forever? You, out there, just so we're safe here?"
"I've got, what, forty years to try and fix this?" He looked up, as though calculating via the spots on the ceiling. "I'm sure I can beat out forever somewhere in that time."
"Don't feel sorry for me, John." Sherlock turned to face him, cold eyes warm but sharp with intensity. His voice was stern like an adult speaking to a child, chiding him as though he should know better and face similarly austere. "If it wasn't worth the price, I wouldn't pay it," he said.
John stood still for a moment, not even willing to blink under Sherlock's uncompromising stare. "Alright," he said at length, "Not another word about it then." It was Sherlock's heart he was criticizing. John nodded minutely, pursing his lips as he took a step back, eying the clock at the mantle and its skyward arms. "Well... I don't know about you, but I'm absolutely knackered."
"You look it."
"I look it?" John scoffed, gesturing at his friend in his travel-creased suit, "Look at you! You look like you haven't slept in weeks. You'd be laid out if it weren't for the adrenalin. Get to bed. Doctor's orders."
Sherlock nodded, a content smile on his lips as his lids drew heavier over his pale eyes. John recalled James complaining of sleeping in strange beds, the way he would catalog the spring density and wondered if one could figure out the age of a mattress by the sound of its groan. He'd though the man was being funny. Him being Sherlock, he was probably halfway through with the thesis.
"Good night, John,"
Goodbye, John he said, giving his friend's shoulder a brief pat as he moved past him towards the door.
John suppressed a cold shiver "Yeah, good night," he replied, watching him go with a sense of needing to follow. He stood up, catching him in the hall. "Sherlock, one more thing," he called out, one hand braced on the wall. "I checked your pulse that day; you didn't have one."
Sherlock's eyes danced with their customary delight in being clever. "Rubber ball under the arm."
"Oh. Right." Of course.
Sherlock nodded to him and retreated into the bedroom--John's bedroom. John didn't have the heart or will to correct him. He could have the old room for the night. There would be plenty of time to sort everything else out in the morning.
Two a.m. and John shot up gasping. He was sweating in the cold room, heart racing, breath short but labored. He could see it still, even with his eyes open. He could see Sherlock falling. He put his face in his hands, rubbing at his cheeks and temples, concentrating on every breathing exercise he knew to stay calm, not to shout, certainly not to cry. It had been years since that dream had ended. He could recall months of his name on his waking lips, throat raw from shouting. To see it again now--
John startled as he looked beyond his small bed. This wasn't his room. Boxes everywhere, heavy black marker screaming 'SHERLOCK' down at him from every corner. He felt the panic like an electric shock before sleep and dreams drifted back far enough to remind him why he was there, and who was downstairs in his bed. He breathed deeply, closing his fists around handfuls of sheets as his head hung. Everything was alright. The dream had been a memory but one proven false by the night's encounter. Everything was just fine. Sherlock was alive now.
It sounded utterly preposterous. He'd fallen so fast. Even if he did land in a prepared lorry he'd have been hurt. Far too fast. Not terminal velocity--could the human body reach that from five stories?--but too fast a drop for a sudden stop not to greatly injure him. His eyes had been open. Could he lay that still while in pain and hold his eyes open and uncreased for that long? There had been no pulse. A rubber ball? How had he manage to place it there? Would he have had the forethought to have it on hand at all if John wasn't supposed to be on the scene? Too many holes. Too many uncertain variables.
Which was the dream?
John swallowed an uneasy breath, looking out towards the bedroom door. He stood quickly, trying to enact calm as he walked back down to the second floor, steps creaking with age and weather. He tried to be quiet. He walked slowly to the bedroom he'd began calling his own and paused with his shaking hand on the handle. His palm was wet with sweat and he let go to wipe it against the printed sleep pants he wore before taking the handle once more. He was too old for this. Too tired for this. Sherlock had been dead too long for this feeling to still be there if the room was as empty as he feared. He turned the handle and held the door open.
The room was dark, every corner black with shadow. Though the bed was sat against the nearest wall, the light from the hall failed to illuminate it. Even so, close as he was, he could see the black curls on the pillow. Sherlock slept curled up on his side, back to the door with bare shoulders pale against the white sheets and navy comforter. John let out his held breath and closed his eyes, leaning heavily on the door frame as his strength left him in a wash of relief.
He winced at his name. Though the body on the bed had not moved, his voice was unmistakable. He'd woken him. John cleared his throat, feeling like a fool. "Sorry. Just.. making sure. Go back to bed." He heaved himself up straight, pulling the door to close.
He paused at his command. "Yeah, Sherlock?"
There was a rustling of fabric as Sherlock pulled back the sheet behind him, comforter as well. He said nothing more as he pulled his arm back in towards his own chest, leaving the other side of the queen sized bed empty and turned down.
John blinked for several minutes, pretty sure he was reading the situation clearly but still faltering with the sense of it. "You.. want me to get in bed with you?"
"Excellent deduction." Sherlock's voice was somewhat muffled with his face turned partially into the pillow.
"Because we're both tired and judging by your combined trust and abandonment issues--apologies for the latter--this is not going to be the last time you wake up tonight and possibly not the last time you come down here and wake me up to assure yourself I'm real. Save us both the trouble and lay down."
John clenched his jaw, hand squeezing hard on the door handle. He had half a mind to tell him he was perfectly fine and didn't need any assurance. It was hard to make that stance barefooted and purposeless at two o'clock in the morning.
He walked over to the bed, tugging the sheet back down with a jerk before laying on top of it, helping himself to the comforter and making sure plenty of space remained between himself and Sherlock on the mattress. "Don't analyze me, Sherlock; I don't need two therapists."
"Noted," the deep, sleepy voice replied.
I originally wasn't going to write this chapter but it felt like a cop-out not to. Sorry to bore with what is already known. Still tried to be rather vague on the unknowable bits. Might come back and reword some of Sherlock's monologue later. Thank you~
John's first thought upon breaking through the first layer of sleep was that Mary had lost quite a bit of weight. His second thought was that she had also grown more than a foot taller. His third thought didn't matter. Wide eyed and wide awake, John lay frozen with his cheek pressed against black curls, his arms wrapped quite possessively around a bare chested Sherlock Holmes.
Somehow he wasn't surprised. By his own actions, oh yes, quite surprised, but that he was yet again in a somewhat compromising, easily misinterpreted position in respect to his best friend was in many regrettable ways status quo. Clothes ripped off in a darken swimming pool, holding hands on a mad escape through the streets of London. Eating by candlelight in Soho. Like christening a ship before sailing, waking up with his arms around Sherlock was just another meaningless ceremonial gesture in homage to the years before. Which did not in any way make it less awkward, weird, or unnecessary.
John lifted his head, trying to look down at Sherlock's face to see just how deep asleep he seemed. Sherlock's nose was turned towards the pillow, nothing but cheek bones and his right ear offered into John's visual range. It would have been an easy enough task in pulling his arm away had he not at some point during the night snaked his left arm underneath Sherlock's body. It was going to be a bit tricky to slide that one back without disturbing the consulting detective's slumber. And all of decent society demanded he do just that or else face the consequences of everlasting shame and embarrassment. One did not sleep in the same bed as their best mate to begin with and one most certainly did not initiate an accidental snuggle.
John wondered if chewing his own arm off to escape would be a manly enough gesture to make up for it.
"While I agree you look smart with the beard, it is a bit rough on the skin," the voice John least wanted to hear said.
The soldier closed his eyes, cursing his continued string of luck. "How long have you been awake?"
"Not long. Half an hour, perhaps?"
"Half a--?" John wriggled his arm back out from under Sherlock, no longer concerned with being careful. "Why didn't you pushed me off or move?" He hated the way his voice rose in pitch as embarrassment colored his tone as well as his face.
Sherlock rolled over just slightly, looking over his shoulder at him, stolid. "John, are you aware that you are an excellent conductor of heat?"
"Get another blanket then! Or put something else on!" John rubbed his face, already feeling a headache coming along with the early morning row. At least he didn't have to feel entirely responsible anymore what with Sherlock now guilty by proxy. "We don't cuddle, Sherlock. That's not us. We're not cuddlers."
"A cuddle? Is that what you'd call that?"
"No, no I wouldn't, because we don't do that," he reiterated, feeling defeated in the hopeless pursuit that was trying to explain 'normal' to Sherlock Holmes. The unconcerned shrug he gave as he turned back into his sleeping posture at least put things in their place, the same ole 'agree to disagree because Sherlock can't be bothered' conclusion that put an end to most rows that needed at least one of them to act like a grown up. Somehow 'one of them' always seemed to read 'John Watson'.
John slid his way off the bed, tugging at the sheets under him and the blanket above. The rug on the floor was cool under his feet but he didn't wish to bother searching for his slippers while he friend pretended to sleep. He gave his chin a good scratch with a rustling of short hairs from his stumbled beard. Maybe it was time for a shave. He certainly didn't want to give any further thought to what he'd been doing in his sleep to introduce Sherlock to beard scruff.
Rolling his shoulders, John loosened his back and neck, working out the morning cricks and crinkles from his joints and muscles. The sunlight through the window had stretched only a few degrees into the room. The clock on the wall confirmed: nearly eleven-thirty in the morning. For years his body clock had been set to rise at six. Even in living with Sherlock he'd only managed to retrain himself to sleep in as late as eight-thirty. Sleeping past that had only been a habit in his darkest times--if sleep came to him at all. High emotions were certainly exhaustive.
It was too late for breakfast but a nice brunch sounded just as good. John could think of several nice places in the area where he and Mary had enjoyed themselves. Sherlock was the one who always knew where to get the best food but he was nearly three years out of circulation now. John rather enjoyed the idea of getting to show Sherlock around to all the new bistros and gastropubs that had popped up or changed hands in that time. He'd probably have to stay in his disguise--harder still, John would probably have to refer to him as James in public--but they'd still have an opportunity to enjoy a bit of London together again. It wasn't the action packed, edge of your seat excitement he'd generally associated with the man but it was still part of what he missed. Even the still times of between-case quiet were part of the Sherlock experience. They'd have to find the violin upstairs and unpack that at least.
"Hey, Sherlock, fancy brunch or you going to sleep in more?" He asked, turning back to the bed's occupant. His face fell at a sight of his sheet clad silhouette, or rather what the sheet was no longer covering.
Bare backed he could see scars he didn't remember, instances from correspondence reminding him of where and when they'd claimed him. The scars weren't the issue. John could see the shape and shadow of his spine and ribs from years of forgetfulness and obstinance. Had no one reminded him to take care of himself? Worrying as it was, it too was not the current issue. John pursed his lips, debating whether he wanted to ask or even broach the subject, but curiosity and almost certainty won out against all other options. "Sherlock, are you naked in my bed?" he asked, eying the base of his friend's spine.
Sherlock sighed softly, as though the inquiry were tedious and dull. "I didn't exactly arrive with an overnight bag."
"Oh, for goodness sakes. Sherlock!"
"I'm sure your 800 thread count sheet well protected your masculinity."
"Oh, ha ha," John grabbed the pillow from his side of the bed and tossed it at Sherlock's head with a solid whomp. "You'll be doing panel shows next. Just because you don't have the sense to find sleeping naked beside another man awkward doesn't mean I'm wrong."
Sherlock breathed a sigh, readjusting the new pillow under his head as well for a bit of added fluff. "No, but you're making an issue out of nothing based on social standards which aren't applicable in private considering there's only the two of us here and I could care less. You're warm, I'm naked, and you're accustomed to sleeping with your girlfriend. It's not exactly an intuitive leap to deduce that you might gravitate towards me in the night and I might find the added warmth acceptable."
"I could have given you something to sleep in if you'd said something." John hated ranting at Sherlock's back but this was one instance where he would rather he didn't roll over. "Normally you just help yourself to my things anyway," he noted.
"Your clothes don't fit me."
"You are thin as a rail. They'd be too short but they'd go on." John groaned with his imminent defeat. It wasn't worth it. It really wasn't. Sherlock was going to be Sherlock regardless of what he said. John shook his head, grabbing the end of the blanket and piling it up on top of his friend till he was more than half buried. "There. Plenty warm now?"
"Brunch in thirty?"
"Lunch in thirty," John corrected. At least he could still win in stating absolute fact. "Need your disguise?"
"Spirit gum's in my coat pocket. The front door just opened and there's someone coming up so I'll need it brought in here."
John hadn't heard it but it was hardly worth it to argue with Sherlock further. "Mrs. Hudson. I left it on the table; better get it before she gets a look." He paused at the door, hand closing around air instead of the handle. "So... you're not going to tell her, then? Mrs. Hudson."
"Right..." John shrugged it off. It was Sherlock's decision, even if he didn't agree. "Right, I'll just be back with your face, then." He opened the door and closed it quietly behind him, turning the knob so it noiselessly slid into the pocket of the jam. The footfalls on the stairs were drawing closer--was it any wonder that Sherlock had been right?
John ran through the kitchen as fast as possible on the balls of his feet, no time left with the door to the stairs nearly facing the table of false hair and accessories to do anything more than throw his body in the line of vision, crossing his legs at the ankles as he stood, arms crossed, half sitting on the table in the least convincing 'act casual' attempt he'd ever performed.
The table, feeling unhelpful, let out a squeal as his weight caused it to scoot back a tad. All casual looks needed a whistle, after all. John pursed his lips, unable to work out just what sort of smile was the least suspicious as finally he saw his visitor.
Oh, God, no.
"Mary..." John froze as his girlfriend smiled at him, her arms carrying two small bags from the grocer as she approached. The tap of her cork heals, the slight sway of her beige skirt, the pressed fit of her pink cardigan over a cream lace top, her blonde hair neatly falling to her shoulders--she looked absolutely beautiful. And she was the worst person on the planet to choose to come into his flat at that time.
"Hello, John. Still in your night clothes?" She gave him a kiss, the softness of her lips falling to the corner of his mouth. She made a soft hum as her lips tickled against his beard then left him for the kitchen, bags released on the center island as she began busying herself with the unpacking of sundry items. "How did it go last night? You and that James fellow stay out all hours at the pub?"
John felt around behind his back, trying to quickly gather up the pieces to Sherlock's disguise without calling her attention. "Uh... no. Quiet evening in. What, uh, what are you doing here?"
"Thought you boys might like something to eat," she said with a smile, unpacking a bottle of wine and some dried pasta.
John walked sideways towards the coat, keeping his back facing away as he shoved the facial scraps into a pocket. "That's.. very thoughtful," he said, joining her in the kitchen with his task mostly fulfilled. Getting the things to Sherlock had become much less important than getting Mary out. "It's just that he's... he's really tired and I think he'll probably sleep the rest of the afternoon," he lied, and hated himself for it. "He's also really shy. I think he'd sort of prefer it if he didn't meet any strangers just yet."
Mary's shoulder's sank, her cute face wrinkling into a pout. "Are you sure?"
"Oh, yeah, sensitive bloke, really. Very insecure." John helped her put the last of the groceries away as he spoke, trying as hard to assure her as he was trying to usher her out. "I'll tell you what, though. Let me talk to him today and we can see about doing dinner together, alright? But now's just not the best time."
"Well, if you're sure," she said, her good intentions denied. It was obvious he'd disappointed her. It was a look he had once been very used to seeing in his girlfriends' faces. He felt like a dick for doing it yet again for all the same reasons.
John put his hand on her shoulder, kissing her cheek in condolence. "I promise you'll get to meet him. I want him to meet you too. No surprise visits while he's here though, okay? Makes him nervous. Call or text me and I'll let you know."
Mary nodded, smiling a bit more bravely as he lead her with an arm around her waist towards the stairs. "Well, have fun with your friend but don't forget to call me. I missed you last night."
John gave her a squeeze. No argument, no complaining; nothing but trust and selfless consideration for his own needs and life. There were so many reasons why he loved Mary and time to time he had to wonder how in the world he managed to get her to love him too. He was the luckiest man in the world.
Unfortunately, sometimes it was with the wrong type of luck.
The sound of bed springs creaking emanated from John's bedroom.
Mary looked over towards the closed door, one brow arched in consideration. "...John, what was that?"
"Hm? I didn't hear anything," he lied.
"There's someone in your room."
John hurried his pace slightly as he continued to lead her towards the stairs. "My room? No, no one in there. Why would anyone be in my room?"
Oh cue, the bed creaked again, louder and longer as someone obviously sat up or moved.
Mary pulled away from him, not as versed in deduction as Sherlock but hardly an idiot. Her brown eyes narrowed as the little vein appeared on her forehead--the one that only became visible during a row or bout of crying. She pushed past him towards the bedroom door, quick but not quick enough. Instantly John slid his way between her and the entrance, arms out, barring her way inside and keeping hidden the contents within. He had a lot of quick explaining to do if he was going to diffuse the situation.
Only, for very obvious reasons to him, he couldn't. He couldn't tell her Sherlock was in his room, retreating there from habit, and that he had to be kept a secret. And what could he possibly say to make it plausible for James to have gone to his bed instead of the guest room Mary had helped prepare? That they'd stayed up all night chatting and he'd fallen asleep in there? What were they, fourteen year old girls? And why block her entry if it was so innocent a misunderstanding? Every request for a decent lie returned a quick mental bursts of 'I am fucked' as well as a mantra of 'Propose! Distract her with something shiny! Get the ring! Divert! Divert!'.
"I knew you were too good to be true," Mary spat, eyes already beginning to water but her face pinched with rage. "Who is she? Is this one of those reverse internet horror stories where the man you've been talking to online turns out to be a woman?"
John grabbed her by the forearms, trying to make her look at the honesty in his eyes even as she fought to shake him off. "Mary, it's nothing like that."
"Oh really? Go ahead and explain then. Let's here it."
"I... can't," His voice nearly cracked again, still waiting for some spark of genius to ignite inside his brain. He hadn't been awake nearly long enough to be prepared for this. "Look, if I could, it would be a very good explanation. Most innocent, blameless explanation of all time. You would be blown away with how truly, genuinely innocent this all is."
Hands again free, Mary raised her fingers to John's shoulder, peeling off from the waffle knit of his shirt a single black hair.
John stared at it like a bullet with his name on it.
"Who. Is. She." Mary's voice was low and forced, husky with combined emotions ranging from grief to homicidal.
"Mary... I know what this looks like but I'm trying to tell you it's not-."
Mary snaked her hand in around him, beating against the door he refused to allow her through. "Get out here you bitch!" she screamed.
"Mary!" John grabbed her by the arms again, trying to calm her though she kicked his shins and the door instead.
"No, don't touch me; don't you touch me! How dare you cheat on me, John Watson!"
John let her go, as much in self defense as as an answer to her plea. "Please don't do this, Mary," He begged, "I promise you, I swear to you, I've never-"
The door opened behind him.
"John, while you're doing an excellent job of ingesting your own two feet, let's save room for lunch, shall we?" Sherlock, wrapped up in his Buckingham best, smiled at the suddenly speechless woman stuck staring at him in shock and disbelief. "Mary, was it? Sherlock Holmes. John has told me a great deal about you."
John wasn't sure if he should hang Sherlock or kiss him.
"Sherlock Holmes?" Mary's lips nearly stuttered around the name, her brown eyes fluttering. She looked at John, head shaking slightly from left to right. "John, you said the papers got it wrong between you two."
Well, certainly not kiss him, then.
I sort of loved writing this chapter. We'll go back to more plot related drama in a bit but we have a character to introduce.
Mary Morstan was a short blond in her late twenties, a primary school teacher by profession, orphan by misfortune, and reasonably good at karaoke. That was unfortunately about as much about Mary as John had ever really told Sherlock in their e-mails. He'd mentioned they'd had good times together, perhaps shared a few quick stories about particularly humorous or outrageous outings in which she was a part of, but as far as describing her as an individual person, he'd erred on the side of caution. He didn't doubt for one second that Sherlock had read into things, deduced from them some manner of further detail about the woman he planned to marry. It made him wonder what all could be deduced from her as he watched her fill the kettle from the sink, her straight back to him as they waited for Sherlock to dress. His friend probably knew exactly who she was down to her favorite color after standing in a hallway with her for only a matter of minutes. What did he think? What clues had he seen? Sherlock's way of looking at the world and people had always been fascinating, even when it drove him mad. It was a skill John'd pretended at on occasion and felt himself inclined to do again in the awkward silence.
Mary's earrings were ornate with small, yellow sapphires set in polished gold. The style was middle eastern or Asian and they were genuine, not costume imitations. They didn't match with her beige and pink attire so they were likely worn for sentiment. Not a gift from John, no--they were too valuable to be purchased with an army pension and a surgery paycheck. Being a known orphan, it was likely the earrings had come from a parent. Not a style most older women would fancy so not a handed down piece from a mother and therefore a gift from her father. Her straight posture and sure chin pointed to a very disciplined upbringing with her more conservative clothing choices making it even more pronounced. Why then would a strict father purchase expensive, foreign looking jewelry rather than a set of classic pearls like the set she wore around her wrist? A military man stationed abroad--the earrings were a souvenir. John smirked to himself just a little, very much pleased at the way he wound his way to her father's profession from his own cheap imitation of Sherlock's brilliance. It was very easy when one knew the answers in the first place. He had no doubt at all Sherlock had mapped out her life's story in one look. John wondered if there was a line somewhere on her face that said she was funny, though, or a way in which she moved her eyes that let on as to how generous she was with her time and how close-fisted she could be with her money. Could Sherlock see in the way she made tea just how much she loved football or that she fancied Chelsea? Was the way she flipped her hair back over her shoulders capable of letting slip that the most embarrassing moment in her life was sneeze-farting during prayer at mass aged eleven?
John sometimes envied Sherlock's ability to know people at a glance but it was very hard to take for granted the level of knowledge available through years of conversations and laughs. In many ways, he preferred his own methods. Making memories was part of life's enjoyment. He'd made many wonderful memories with Mary. He tried not to think too much about the fewer but more intense ones he carried with him from his life with the consulting detective.
The door to the bedroom opened and Sherlock ghosted down the hall to the living room, the sound of him falling into the couch likened to a wheezing sigh from the disguised leather. John watched Mary flinch slightly at his returned presence as she busied herself with the tea. Awkward and tense. John stood and gave her shoulder a pat, not sure how angry she still was at him or if a kiss would earn him a scowl. Her shoulders were drawn taut but she did not shrug him off. He gave her cheek a quick peck to be sure then walked out to the living room to debrief the now briefed Sherlock.
Though he'd told him to help himself to his clothes in the interim, John hadn't expected Sherlock's selection. Laying on the couch as though he too owned the place still, Sherlock blended in with the beige upholstery cover in a rather old cable knit sweater that looked heavy and warm indeed. The well-worn jeans he'd located were most certainly too short but not too loose despite the narrowness of his frame. He looked normal--not Sherlock normal but every other bloke sort of normal. John Watson normal. In a way it made it the most convincing disguise he'd even dawned. It was a little like looking at a child playing dress up in daddy's clothes. There was something about that sweater though. John hadn't seen it in years--hadn't worn it in longer. He'd forgotten he had it. He decided he liked Sherlock in it, even if it didn't fit with his mental image of the man who was forever in tight button down shirts and impossibly well tailored suits. Sherlock looked warm and cozy enough in the bulky sweater at the least.
"Like I said, we can go through the boxes upstairs later. Get you your own stuff down," John said, choosing not to remark on his choice in clothing. He could do so later when complaining about the assured mess he'd made finding something suitable.
Sherlock nodded, a lump of immovable mass now that he'd settled in for the coming chat. His right hand felt along the pattern of the sweater against his stomach, miming hunger, perhaps, or more likely just being tactile. He looked over at the kitchen, face scrunched and sullen. "We'll be having something more substantial than tea and biscuits I hope."
"I'll take us all out later if you like. Just.. really don't need to have this all out in public."
"Thought by now you were used to defending your sexuality in public."
"Yeah, well, saying 'I'm not gay' is an easy fix to most suspicions but explaining why I'm sleeping in bed with a naked dead man generally requires something a bit more substantial." John rubbed at the back of his neck, the anxiousness and slight terror at Mary's rather well supported conclusions still bubbling away inside him below the soldier's trained calm. He was this close to proposing to her and he'd almost seen her walk out of his life forever thanks to necessary secrets and an alarming lack of tact. "And thanks for that, by the way," John added with dripping sarcasm, giving his friend an unappreciative look. "Would it have been too much to have thrown on clothes instead of bedding?"
Sherlock shrugged with his eyebrows, unimpressed. "She's still here," he pointed out in his usual superior tone.
Yes, she was. And John had been completely lost before he'd stepped in. In the hundreds of ways it could have gone better, there were thousands in which is would have gone worse. "Alright. In all honestly, truly, thank you. But what happened to the bit about this being a dire secret? I thought there were possible assassins out there waiting for an excuse to blow my brains out."
"Well, if you're going to spend the rest of your life with her, there's no trouble in asking her to share this small secret now."
"Small secret?" John scoffed. "Sherlock, small secrets don't normally involve threat of death."
Mary set the tray of tea down on the short table in front of the couch with just a tad too much force. The cups chattered on their saucers, the milk sloshing just a bit over the top of its porcelain container. Under her breath she apologized and gently began setting the plate of broken biscuits and a mismatched serving set within Sherlock's reach.
"You're out of nibbles, John. Sorry," she said, pouring for them all with her middle finger gently holding back the lid to the piping pot.
John put a hand to her back, rubbing along her shoulder blades between the straps of her bra. "No, don't, don't worry about that. I'll go shopping. Need to buy some of the essentials for Sherlock anyway before he decides to help himself to my toothbrush." He paused. "You haven't, have you?"
Sherlock picked up a half-moon digestive with a frown. "In what detestable manner do you think I've been using my mouth that would contaminate your toothbrush beyond its current scope? You leave it uncovered in the bathroom, John. It's not exactly a sterile environment."
"Make that two toothbrushes," John was going to strangle him. "In fact, why don't you start thinking up a list for me and I'll take charge of explaining things." Sherlock had already pretty well proven what kind of help he was going to be in this: none whatsoever. His indifference was easily misinterpreted as jealousy and his inconsiderate behavior came across threatening and territorial. John was used to it; John knew what was normal and what was put on for display. Mary, despite having heard an embarrassingly long list of stories about the legendary consulting detective, was not nearly prepared enough to handle the force of Sherlock's personality.
Mary tucked two lumps of sugar into her own milky cup before picking up her saucer and finding a seat close to Sherlock. "Actually, I'd rather like to hear this from him," she said, looking towards the dark haired man. She rested her tea on her crossed knee, her gaze somewhat challenging.
John stammered as warning lights flashed in his mind. "Him? From Sherlock? Ah, Sherlock's not exactly--"
"I've heard it all from you already, John. No reason to make you repeat yourself." She smiled at him but let the expression drop as she turned her face again towards Sherlock. "So why don't you tell me, Mr. Holmes, what your relationship is to my boyfriend?"
John looked towards the skull where the ring was hidden. Divert. Divert! "...Can I at least give a forward to his testimony?"
"I'm quite capable of describing our relationship, John." Sherlock sat up, the full weight of the sweater showing as it hung from his shoulders rather than hugged against them. He took up his tea, meeting Mary's calculated look with one of his own.
"Yes, but you're an idiot and you don't realize what people hear despite what you're actually saying sometimes."
"You need an example?" John shook his head, almost finding it hard to pick from the multitude the one which would paint the best picture. "Okay, Sherlock, our first supper together. I asked if you had a girlfriend and you said 'not my area'. 'Not my area' is not the same as saying 'I'm asexual and/or too busy to be bothered with love'; 'Not my area' sounds like 'no, John, I'm gay' to everyone who isn't you."
Sherlock's mouth became smaller as his eyebrows fell against his eyes. "I can hardly be held accountable for your false assumptions. Besides, I set the record straight when I turned you down."
"Christ, Sherlock, I wasn't flirting with you! We'd just met! I was sorting you out!" John put his face in his hands, begging any gods alive to please make his friend shut up. "You see what he's like?" he asked, looking at Mary, imploring her to reconsider. "You honestly want to hear this from his end?"
"Honestly, yes. More than ever."
"The woman knows what she wants, John."
"I'll just go hang myself now, shall I?"
"Don't worry; this won't take but a moment." Sherlock washed down his bite of biscuit with a splash of tea then set both aside for his frank and uncomplicated explanation. "John is my best friend, in many ways my only friend past and present and I intend to keep him well into the future. Last night was not an intimate affair but rather two friends comforting each other in light of rather obvious facts brought to light. If it makes you feel better, as it did John, he slept on top of the sheets."
Mary nodded, eyes bright. "Are you in love with him?" she asked without the slightest trepidation.
John found his bottom lip stuck between his teeth.
"I would die for the man," Sherlock said simply.
"You did die for me," John corrected.
Mary looked between them, her tea untouched. "So it's purely platonic then?"
John nodded, looking away from Sherlock's pale, ash grey eyes. "Absolutely. One hundred percent."
"I can assure you that all my relationships are platonic in nature. I'm no more physically attracted to John than I am to you," Sherlock explained, comfortably leaning back into his spot on the couch. "Though frankly," he continued, "I'd prefer to shag John."
John was glad he hadn't sipped his tea at that moment or he'd have choked. He put his cup and saucer down, clearing his throat of all the words he'd like to say to make way for the ones that mattered. "That.. that didn't need to be said. At all. Ever. To anyone."
Sherlock looked genuinely confused. "What?"
"This is exactly what I was talking about! How the hell does 'I'd shag John' sound the same to you as 'I don't think with my-'--You know what? Never mind. It doesn't matter." Besides which, there was a lady present and John had worked hard to be a gentleman in front of her at every opportunity. He turned to Mary, engaging every bit of body language he was fluent in to try and demonstrate his frustration. "Mary, this is my best friend Sherlock. This is what I had to put up with for over a year and somehow what I had missed for ages afterwards. And it's extremely, extremely important that no one else know he's here or that he's even alive." Funny business aside, it was more than time to move on to the more serious matters at hand--a suggestion that his phone seemed to have other opinions on.
John looked over at his mobile as it gave its short chime and lit up on the desk behind him. Well more than half the time his text alert sounded it was Mary. Half of the remaining bit was James Sigerson. It certainly wasn't either of them. Curious, he stood up and collected the phone, sliding his thumb across the screen to view the sender's name and message.
Sherlock ignored her question, eyes following John. "Mycroft?"
The good doctor closed his phone and walked quickly to his bedroom. Out of Sherlock's mess he picked up some jeans, pulling them on over his sleep pants. Layers would help in the cold anyway. He didn't bother to change out of his plain undershirt as he pulled his coat on over it.
Mary came to stand at the door, worry pinching at her eyes. "John? What's the matter?"
"Nothing. I need to talk to someone; won't be long. Sherlock will explain everything while I'm out. Keep an eye on him for me, will you? " John took her by the shoulders, guiding her back down the hallway whence they came. He pressed his cheek to hers as the guidance became a one armed embrace, faces turning to kiss in quick parting. "I love you."
"I love you too."
John's smile grew as his heart warmed. Everything was going to be okay. He pressed her back into the living room, giving Sherlock one last look before heading out. "Best behavior. I mean it," he warned, more so he could say he had than with any belief it would make any difference.
"Always," Sherlock replied, validating his expectations.
John kissed Mary one last time, her soft lips lingering, then hurried down the stairs. His heart was pumping strong in his chest with a swell of importance and purpose. It was like the good ol' days all over again. Twenty-four hours ago he had been sitting in his surgery with normal concerns like rail traffic, dinner plans and when to schedule in laundry day. Now he was possibly an assassins target and en route to speak to the most powerful man in England. Sherlock wasn't the only one to have been resurrected the night before. John hadn't felt this alive in ages.
On the street's edge was a polished black car with an attendant standing at the back passenger door. Wordlessly the man nodded his head and held it open for John, standing aside to allow him to slide inside. No words were required; John knew the drill. He ducked in and took his seat on the shining black leather, expecting to see the distracted Anthea in all her unattainable glory.
Mycroft's somber, lined face was not at all what he had expected. "This is a surprise," John said as the door closed beside him.
Mycroft smiled briefly, faked. "I find there are few places private enough to discuss these matters," he explained.
The car engine started with an expensive sounding purr. With a privacy glass between the driver compartment and the back of the vehicle, John had to agree the setting was quite secure from prying eyes and ears. The tinted windows that kept the man seated across from him hidden from the world's view made the car its own little haven for the privileged--a black, rolling office for a quick, meaningful chat. John looked at Mycroft in his impeccable suit and tie and made himself sit up just a bit taller.
The elder Holmes hadn't changed a bit. John had made a habit of avoiding him over the years but could see plainly that while some worry lines had grown deeper, he was still no different a man now than he had been then. His eyes were still cold, his smile still tinged with practiced superiority, his presence was still one of power and collected calm. His were the lips that had launched a thousand tabloids and sent a man falling to his death. Sorry hadn't cut it back then and John still felt himself hard pressed to forgive him now.
"Yeah, I can see how you'd want to avoid making a scene seeing as I'd still like nothing more than to punch you in the face."
Mycroft continued to be less than amused. "Striking me would do you very little good, Dr. Watson. Matters are more complicated and dangerous than you can imagine."
"Oh, I'm quite good at imagining danger. I'd have thought sometime in three years, though, that someone would have mentioned to me that my name is on someone's hit list."
"You were in no danger so long as Sherlock remained dead."
"Yes, well, he's not dead." John rubbed at his knees, making an effort not to shout. One never won anything against a Holmes by shouting. "Would have liked to have been let in on that little secret as well."
Mycroft breathed out slowly. "There were reasons-"
"Yeah, I know all about the reasons, Mycroft. My question for you is what you're going to do about it now. Because now that he's here, there is no way in hell I'm letting you ship him off to Libya to wait out the rest of his life for a chance to come home. We're fixing this now. You owe me that much."
The official's face parted into a perverse smile as he chuckled. "I owe you?" he repeated, smile melting from mockery into anger. "Have you any idea the efforts I've made to get him even this far? If it weren't for you, he'd be retired somewhere safe solving cases for fun instead of investigating crime syndicates and terrorist cells looking for every last man who stands between him and his beloved blogger. Three years spent jetting across most of Europe and half the other continents for the singular hope that things could be made right again. You showed my brother he had a heart just in time for someone else to break it. I should be asking you what you intend to do about it."
John breathed his indignation out through his nose, chin dimpled in thought. "You expect me to feel sorry for showing Sherlock the same courtesy that every other human being in the world is privy to?"
"No, I expect you to take responsibility and protect him." Mycroft looked down at his pocket watch, breaking off his stare for the first time since John had entered the car. "You are both vulnerable while he's here," he continued. "And Sherlock will die before he accepts defeat in this case."
"You don't actually have to ask me to watch his back, Mycroft. I do it anyway."
"Good." Mycroft took up a briefcase and set it in his lap, unlatching it with a loud click. He opened it just half way, pulling out of it a file with a post-it note affixed to the top which read 'Sigerson'. He passed it across to John before setting the briefcase back down. "Something has come up. Normally it wouldn't flag suspicion but considering it happened on the eve of Sherlock's return, it could mean something. Ronald Adair, a returned solider not unlike yourself, was found dead this morning with a bullet wound to his head. The room was locked from the inside and no weapon was found."
John flipped open the file, finding the standard photos and police reports detailing the crime. He flipped through the photos, not at all bothered by the sight of blood. "Couldn't have shot himself then. Alternate escape for the murderer?"
"Sounds like the kind of case Sherlock would enjoy," John admitted.
Mycroft nodded, fingers tenting in front of his lips as his brother often did. "I agree. Especially since the striations on the recovered bullet are a close match to several others found in similar hits."
John's heart skipped a beat. "Hits? You mean this was an assassination?"
"That or this serial killer has coincidentally taken down a handful of rather influential people."
"You think this could be one of Moriarty's boys? Someone who knows about the deal?"
John closed the file, his fingers itching for his Browning. "Right... We'll get right on it."
He could feel the car slowing, see through the tinted glass the familiar sights of Baker Street. A short conversation only needed a once around the block.
The doctor looked back at official, hands already gathering up the file to take with him, ready to leave immediately once the car came to a full stop.
Mycroft sighed, tapping his fingertips together. "You don't have to do this. Sherlock and I can take care of this ourselves. I hear you're going to be married."
John knew better than to be surprised but still found himself a little put off at the idea of Mycroft keeping up with his life. "I haven't exactly proposed yet but yeah. That doesn't mean I'm going to just sit back while Sherlock deals with this. Like you said, he's my responsibility."
"So is her involvement. Can you truly protect them both?"
Mycroft smiled. Though the car had stopped, the locks remained engaged. He shifted forward in his seat, resting his chin on his interwoven fingers as he looked out at the darkness of the world outside. "My brother is a selfish man despite whatever selfless choices you believe him to have made. If you let him take control of your life again, you may never get it back."
"You're wrong, Mycroft," said John, never one to back down from an opportunity to defend his friend in the face of his brother.
"Am I?" Mycroft tapped a finger on a side panel, a signal apparently ringing in an attendant's ear as the suited man came to stand beside the car, pulling open the door with the same poise and importance of a man performing a much more grandiose task. "Be careful, Dr. Watson," Mycroft warned as John scooted his way out the door. "You have more to lose this time than ever."
With the file in hand, John kept his back to the official and hurried back to his flat. He'd learned long ago only to hear but never to listen to the words the guilty man said.
Massive overtime this week or this would have been finished sooner. Thanks to Allacaya for being lovely and letting me bounce my ideas off her.
I'm playing Sherlock in a journal based RPG right now. Don't suppose there're any Johns out there who might want to come play at Eway?
John thought better of running straight into the flat waving the file for all to see. Sherlock wouldn't eat if he handed him a case and Mary would worry after hearing the danger he was already in. He tucked it up under his coat when within their sight then slid it into one of the dresser drawers as he dressed himself in earnest this time. It would have to wait until he managed to get several thousands of calories into his best friend and appeased Mary until she left them to catch up. His body jittered with anxious energy as he concealed his gun in his coat pocket.
And to think he'd only been awake an hour.
Lunch was the first uneventful thing to happen that day. Sherlock and Mary weren't the best of friends after their little chat but Sherlock at the very least seemed mildly interested in her, enough so not to ignore her or complain about her addition to their duo as all three found there way to the table of a favorite cafe. Mary was sure to acclimate to the situation eventually. John assumed it was a bit much to expect her to get over the fright she'd had that morning so quickly or to accept the danger of their present circumstances so readily. He was pleased to see her smile as he tried to barter with Sherlock for at least five more bites of veg before pudding. She'd understand eventually and things would get easier. She had nothing to fear from his relationship with Sherlock.
He could still tell she was hesitant to leave them, though, when they parted outside the cafe. Previous engagements, promised outings that couldn't be rescheduled. John wasn't much for public displays of affection but he knew the influential power a few kisses here and there had on women, especially when they felt threatened or scared. It wasn't being manipulative if he was with good intentions. If it took a million kisses to make her forget the fright of finding someone else in his bedroom them he'd shower her in a million and one. John liked to think that made him a romantic and not a wounded man with his own trust issues compounded by a fear of abandonment. It would only please Sherlock to find more evidence for his deductions.
Sherlock, ginger and bearded once more as they stood on the street, watched him with interest. His grey eyes were bright with intensity and a well concealed smile. "Isn't she a little young for you?" he asked, hands deep in his coat pockets as they turned from Mary's retreating back.
John scowled. "Don't even start. I get enough of that from Harry."
"I see." They had taken all of five steps before: "You would have been how old when she was in diapers?"
"Drop it, Sherlock."
The consulting detective hummed his final note on the subject, going quiet again though his breathing sounded like laughter. John could actually feel the smugness coming off him. He shook his head, trying not to smile--it would only encourage him. If her age was the only thing Sherlock could think to point out, though, Mary must have done very well indeed.
"So. Where's my case?"
John walked a little stiffer, unintentionally pulling his shoulders back further and his chest out higher. "How did you know there was a case?" he asked.
Sherlock tilted his head, eyes and eyebrows doing a fine job of communicating the obvious.
He was right, of course. It was a stupid question. "Right. It's at home. Closed room murder. Mycroft seems to think it might be related to our assassin friend."
"In what way?"
"In so much as there's a clear pattern of other deaths which have been committed using the same weapon."
Sherlock seemed to be thinking it over. His lips, just as expressive in non-words as his eyes, were unfortunately quite disguised by the ginger hair glued under his nose. "Worth looking into. Always a chance of being recognized so we'll have to wait till nightfall."
John couldn't agree more. He looked down at the watch on his wrist. "That gives us.. well, four hours. Could go through those boxes then. Get you into your own clothes."
Sherlock pulled his hand out of his pocket and held up a crumpled piece of paper.
"What's that then?" John asked, making no effort to take it from him
"A list," Sherlock explained. "You told me to make a list."
John nearly faltered over his own feet, dodging the other pedestrians on the sidewalk with a quick shuffle of steps. "That's the shopping? You.. you want to go shopping? Seriously?" It wouldn't have been the first time but it might have been the fifth. John couldn't help but be suspicious. "Does the word 'formaldehyde' appear anywhere on it?" he asked.
His friend straightened the paper out in his hand and began to read his own scrawling script. "Two toothbrushes, five razors, packet of biscuits, crisps, resin, milk and gloves."
John did his best to not be impressed by something as simple as making a shopping list. He failed at the attempt but he did try. "Alright... not going to find it all in one shop but that's.. surprisingly sensible. What do you need five razors for?"
"Your beard." Sherlock shoved the paper back into his pocket as his long legs carried him faster ahead. "It's easily a job for two fully sharpened blades but it's best to be prepared for the worst."
"What makes you think I'm shaving it? It makes me look professional." John argued as he walked faster to keep up.
Sherlock produced the paper once more. "Because I made a list," he said.
It was arguably the worst excuse ever offered for any decision ever made at any point in time. And as John wiped the remnants of shaving foam from him smooth face, it gave him little satisfaction to know it.
No matter what anyone thought, though, it wasn't because Sherlock asked him to. He'd been meaning to shave but simply hadn't gotten around to it. For two and a half year. He'd almost done it not long after meeting Mary, a sort of symbolic gesture in his mind of returning to a happier time, but she'd bought him a beard trimmer for Christmas and it wouldn't have done to have shaved it off after that. It kept his face warmer in the winter and the way she wrinkled her face when it tickled her upper lip was one of her most endearing expressions. It was just hair. If she missed it, he could always grow it back. Looking at himself in the bathroom mirror, though, he could see quite plainly the reasons he'd let the hair grow in the first place.
It was a little off putting to see his own face as it had been in memory. The frown lines that the beard had hidden were dark against his flesh. His lips looked thinner, his eyes bigger. The bags beneath them looked even more large and heavy, double puffs of lethargy like a fat man's double chins. It was a younger face than he remembered and with far more innocence than he felt it deserved to pretend at. Warm water, shaving foam and a razor were perhaps the strangest time machine ever invented. In many ways, he didn't like it. He was looking into the eyes of an idiot he'd left behind who put too much of himself into one person and lost it all in an instant. He didn't want to be the fool who thought he could live on the dagger's edge and still enjoy a long and happy life. Moriarty's fantasy had made one man die and John's had nearly made it two. He gripped the edge of the sink, looking at the drain and with uncertainty his own reflection through the length of his own lashes. It was a fool's face he'd uncovered. There was a very sure reason to fear for sanity.
Hands clapped together behind him and John's eyes chased up the smooth glass to the reflection of a second ghost in the mirror, Sherlock's hands now clasped in front of his chest as he smiled with approval from the doorway. "Excellent," he exclaimed, looking very pleased with himself. "Our efforts seem to have culminated concurrently."
He'd found his old things. John was glad his hands were on the sink already or he'd have let on perhaps more than he intended how much the sight affected him. He'd seen Sherlock in disguise, Sherlock naked and sheet draped, Sherlock in his borrowed, baggy clothes. This was Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, as he was meant to be, tight shirt and tailored trousers perfectly framing his narrow, lithe body. And sharing the surface of the mirror was his Dr. John Watson like in any one of the tabloid photographs that had once littered their sitting room table. John swallowed, turning away from the mirror to face him properly. It was less eerie to see only one of them in frame.
He cleared his throat, another cursory glance given to the resurrected man in his aged wardrobe. The buttons no longer arched away between sets down his chest as they used to. "How much have you lost?" he asked.
"Immaterial," Sherlock stepped back to allow John to walk past him at his current haunt.
It was not an acceptable answer. John leaned in as he walked past, getting as much in his face as possible from a half foot deficiency. "I'm your doctor. I'll say what's immaterial."
Sherlock leaned back with his hands on his hips, not in challenge but in statement of fact. John understood. He was fluent in Sherlock. If Sherlock was half as good at deducing things about him as he was corpses, he'd know exactly how long his obstinacy was going to win as well.
"When the case is solved," he warned him with a short finger wag.
Sherlock smiled but agreed to nothing. He pulled his phone from his back pocket, messing around with it while they made their way the short distance back towards the heart of their flat. He put his hand on John's forearm, pulling him to stop as they passed the kitchen's entrance. John looked up at him, finding him still engrossed in his phone.
"I need you to hold still for a moment. The lighting in here will suffice," Sherlock explained, taking a step back as he held his phone out in front of him, aimed suspiciously at John.
John pulled his lips in taut, arms crossing over his chest. "What are you doing?...Are you taking my picture?"
"As opposed to awkwardly showing you the back of my phone for no apparent reason? I thought you were a bit quicker than that. Were you trying to be redundant or was it meant rhetorically?" Sherlock stared at his phone but rather obviously was looking at John through it.
"Just.. put the phone down, that's.. weird." John put his hand out to block his view, not at all comfortable with the sudden attention. "Why do you want to take my picture?" he asked, expecting the normal variety of Sherlock reasoning.
"Because I don't have one," his best friend explained.
Tabloid photographs with blacked out headlines and scraps saved from the proper paper; those were a small part of what John had with him to remember his dead friend by. They were bitter sweet to savor, like keeping the knife to remember the blood it had split. Sherlock looked annoyed and angry in most of them. In those where he smiled, the ones when they still referred to him as the Reichenbach Hero, it was his fake smile, his 'pretending to be normal' smile that was eerie in comparison to the genuine article. John had shoved the lot of them in a box but never in the bin. They were part of all he had left to convince himself it really was all real and exactly the way he remembered it.
Much as John hated that box of fake smiles, deer stalkers and insinuating text, it had been there when he needed it. When he wanted it. And Sherlock had no such box tucked away under his arm in his flight off Bart's roof.
John cleared his throat of the emotions that had settled there from his own memories. They made his voice hoarse and naked. "If you want a picture, I could get you one." he said, eying the back of the phone, his hand still guarding against a candid shot. He was tired of looking pitiful in photographs.
Sherlock shrugged. "This way is better. Saves the trouble of a transfer since it needs to be stored on the phone in order to program the image for texts and calls. Facial recognition is seven times faster than that of just a name so it seems a worthwhile function. It will make our communication that much more efficient."
John wanted to take his phone and throw it across the room. It was his own fault for assuming Sherlock had any sentimental reasons behind his sudden request for a photograph but it was almost too much to be faced with the machine-like quality of Sherlock's mental processes with so much racing in his own head that was still raw and healing.
Sherlock took a step back, angling the phone's lens to look around John's hand. "Try and look natural," he instructed. "Oh, and don't do that thing with your face where you look mildly surprised. Not your best expression. Tends to make you look like you're contemplating the curious smell of your own fart."
John dropped his hands, glaring at Sherlock through his phone as though the look in his eyes could more effectively explain to him that Sherlock was not only completely insane but was quickly falling from his graces.
The perfunctory sound of the camera phone's shutter clicked. Sherlock smiled. "Perfect," he said. "Just as I remember you." He tossed the phone in the air and caught it, cradling it in his palm with a grin of self-satisfaction. Without further adieu, he returned to his unhurried stride towards the couch, plugging away at the phone as he changed whatever settings he'd had his heart set on.
John watched unblinking. Without giving it much thought, he pulled his phone out and took a quick snapshot of his own, the shutter noise causing Sherlock to pause in step before turning back around.
"Did you just-"
"Yyyyep." John poked away at his own keypad, not the most techno-savvy of blokes but determined to navigate his way through the various commands all the same. "Just the way I remember you," he said, finding the option to save and store.
Sherlock cocked his head just slightly, brows pinching together towards his nose. "You remember my back?"
"Nope." John managed to get the picture to display and turned his phone around for Sherlock to see. "I remember you as an ass."
Sherlock tucked his lips between his teeth in an obvious attempt not to laugh or smile like a primary schooler. His cheeks colored as his shoulders trembled just slightly with the effort to contain the great belly laugh bubbling away inside.
It was the blush that did it. John's own self-satisfied smile fell from his face as horror at his own impulsive actions rose instead. "Oh, Christ." He pulled the phone close, trying to find the delete option. There was no way in hell he was keeping a photo of his best friend's narrow ass on his phone. "How do I delete this?"
Rather than help, Sherlock abandoned his efforts not to laugh. His deep, punctuated chuckle pulsed through the hall.
John scowled at him, still tapping against the touch screen in hopes of stumbling upon the correct sequence. "This isn't funny! And stop blushing; you're not helping!"
"I'm not blushing."
"Right, you're always that shade of pink. Fuck!" John poked furiously at his screen as the photo attached itself to the wallpaper of his phone, his 'call home' quick task button now centered almost perfectly on his friend's digital backside. "No, no, no, no, no, no. Sherlock, seriously, stop laughing and help. It's saved on here now. What is Mary sees this?"
"Could be worse," Sherlock mused as his chuckles slowly subsided.
John held out his phone as to better show him the level wrong he'd achieved. "How could this be worse?" he asked.
Sherlock shrugged. "You could have remembered me as a dick."
John's lips buzzed as Sherlock's positively evil smile widened again into a second round of giggles. Sherlock was a very bad man with a terrible sense of humor. John's whole body lurched with laughter as he let go of his tightly wound control.
He hadn't laughed like this in ages.
Minutes later and his mouth hurt from smiling, his ribs aching from the percussion of his heart and lungs with uneven, interrupted breaths. He leaned against the wall as did Sherlock, both of them caught in cycle of laughs fueled by the other. It hurt to be that happy. It was wonderfully painful to have that kind of joy again.
John wiped away at the water in his eyes, trying to stop thinking about why they were laughing and finding it was more or less meaningless anyway. It wasn't about photographs or techno-failure or particularly crass jokes. John wasn't even sure he knew what it was about. He just knew it felt good to laugh that hard and to watch Sherlock reflect back to him an honest emotion that wasn't practiced or planned.
Sherlock had tears in his eyes as well and he wiped them away, mouth stretching open to settle the tightness in his jaw. It was obvious such outbursts had become uncommon for them both.
He held out his hand to John. "You really are quite terrible with some of the newest technologies," he said.
"Only the ones that think they're better than me." John placed his phone in his best friend's hand, chest swelling with his panting breaths.
Sherlock leaned against the wall, unlocking the screen and shaking his head with a smile as the interior lit up. "Congratulations, John. I think you found my good side."
John pursed his lips to try and not start laughing again. "Just fix it, alright? No more commentary. It was stupid of me in the first place."
The genius smiled and tapped away. "Message from Mary," he noted, obviously distracted from his task. "Wants to know what your plans are for dinner."
It wasn't all that surprising he'd missed the chime during their corridor chuckle. John sighed, still waiting for his heartbeat to settle. "I don't know. You won't eat if we go out before the investigation. How late do you think we'll be?"
John sighed again. At least this time around he could explain to his girlfriend that his life depended on his running off with Sherlock all hours of the night. "Tell her I'll text her later but it'll probably be tomorrow before we meet up again."
Sherlock nodded, nimble thumbs typing out the text quickly. "Are you ready for this?" He looked up from the phone for only a second, sensing and correcting the jump in his mental progression. "It's been a while since you've been on the battle field," he explained. "May be that you don't enjoy it as much as you did once. It's not uncommon."
John smirked and pulled from his pocket his Browning L9A1. The gun was immaculate. For two and a half years he kept it clean and serviced; ready for action. Like its owner.
Sherlock's eyes scanned the gun, seeing the unseen in quick sweeps of deductive brilliance. He smiled the same flattered smile he'd worn when John had photographed his backside, grey eyes positively glittering. He nodded his head, pushing off the wall as he walked away to claim the couch. "It's good to see you were still in there, John," he said.
Putting the gun back in its concealed place, John could do little more than nod. Same man, same mistakes. He hated himself for the eagerness in which he rushed to repeat them.
"What is it that makes you call it love?" Sherlock asked from his seat next to John in their cab. "With Mary, I mean. What about her makes you believe it's more substantial than friendship with sex?"
If John had expected anything more delicate to come out of his friend's mouth, he'd been fooling himself. He tucked his phone back in his jacket pocket, his last text already sent to assure Mary things were just fine. They were on their way to a crime scene, of course, but that didn't mean he'd lied. Crime scenes were only dangerous if the killers were still around. Any chance of that was why his gun was in his other pocket.
Tapping his fingers against his knees, John tried to work out what exactly it was that Sherlock wanted to know and what information he could share that the detective might understand. The only experience with love that Sherlock had ever had--as far as John was aware--came from Irene Adler, a woman who had heartlessly played him not once but twice. Sherlock could deduce lust but love? It wasn't as chemical, wasn't sensible; it was far different from most other human motives that he could dissect and experiment with from observation alone. It was like describing color to a blind man, John thought. He felt more than inadequate.
"I really don't know what to tell you, Sherlock. I know I love her because I have words for everything else and this doesn't fall into those categories. Sort of like pouring all my thoughts through a sieve and love is the one only that catches her."
Sherlock nodded, the small smile on his lips saying he approved of his metaphor. There was no disguise this night to mask his lips--or face at all for that matter. His own face, he'd said, was far more unremarkable than James Sigerson's and thus more fitting if one wanted to call as little attention as possible to oneself. It was a fugitive's face but Sherlock had put to rest most of John's arguments in favor of the beard and wig. It was dark, it was a busy night, and by proof of John's own continued existence, Moriarty's men still thought Sherlock to be dead. No one was following them, no one was expecting them and, above all else, the spirit gum sometimes gave him a bit of a rash. John felt sometimes he allowed himself to be convinced more than the evidence supported. It was easier this way, though, and it just felt right.
Less right and downright awkward were the lines of questioning Sherlock had been subjecting him to since they'd first shared the cab from Baker Street. He'd wanted the less censored version of how he and Mary had met rather than to be contented with the sparse and less detailed version he'd written in an e-mail. He was curious as to where she lived, what her friends were like, what sort of hobbies she had. It was surprising how much data the man required to form an opinion on her. One look was generally all it took. John was a little flattered to think that more than fact and fiction, Sherlock was interested in what John thought. Considering he couldn't be bothered to put most of his girlfriend's names to their faces, his new found interest in his love life was both refreshing and overwhelming.
Sherlock titled his head towards the door, black curls resting on the window as he looked out at street signs as they passed. "Have you always loved her?" he asked, rich baritone making fog against the window with the breath that carried it.
John relaxed into his seat with creak of imitation leather, smiling slightly at the memory of the straight-laced young women who had bought him a drink all that time ago. Cute, he'd thought; cute and young and not exactly his type. She'd given him her number and he'd called on a whim. Two dates and he hadn't felt the slightest desire for her. Not even their kisses sparked anything in him. "No, not at first," he admitted. Lying or withholding information only made Sherlock more curious. He glanced out the cab window at the couples along the streets. Saturday night; date night. Nearly everyone seemed to be in pairs. "There was this one night when I was walking her to the corner to call a cab, was probably going to be the last date, just wasn't really working out, and this mugger comes out of nowhere, knocks her down and tries to grab her bag. And I beat him to a sobbing pulp. I mean knuckle splitting, fractured my hand kind of punches. I just went mental on the guy. And she was so scared and her knees had kind of gotten roughed up when he pushed her down so I brought her home and... well, things changed after that. Talking was suddenly more interesting, I realized how a few of the cute things she did were actually kind of sexy, and I just... wanted her to stay. To be around her more. I felt like I became a better person because she was there. And that's what love does. That's why people come together. Because they are better together than they ever could be apart."
Sherlock said nothing for a moment, his contemplative nature requiring time to digest, categorize and assess the information. He worked his mouth to one side, lips pursed and eyes fixed on the roof of the cab. Not his most dashing of expressions. "So in the midst of an adrenalin high you regained a sense of self and latched on to the closest thing that would affirm that for you."
"You're sitting on your best side again," he chided.
Sherlock smirked at the remark. "I tend to do so." It was a less than substantial apology. "I imagine her gratitude for your efforts did not go unrewarded; that you 'got lucky' as they say."
"Oh yes, very lucky. Which is about the only part of that you got right."
John sighed with exasperation. The sky and the oceans were blue, Sherlock. They were blue and they were beautiful. "Stop trying to understand love through chemical compounds and psychology. You're missing the point."
"The point being that you're happy with her and wish to remain with her as your partner."
John sat up a little taller, as though stature could help him plead his case. "Yes. That point. That would be the one."
"Then I suppose I understand it well enough. I'm sure she'll say yes when you finally ask her." Sherlock turned his attention to the street signs once more as the cab wound closer to their destination.
Something about the way he said it made John almost certain there was an insult hidden somewhere in there. But then, most things Sherlock said could be taken as either inadvertently or purposefully antagonistic. He decided to be the adult once again and ignore whatever insinuation the machine next to him was going for. At least Sherlock was making an effort to understand his relationship with Mary. That, regardless of how awkward, was comforting.
Eight o'clock and the sky was dark and cloudless. There was already a couple waiting to take their cab as Sherlock paid the driver: an eager man and a loose looking woman in hot pink fishnets and--he hadn't meant to look--no panties. John averted his eyes to the block of flats situated above a row of diners including a curry house and Chinese. Not a particularly high-end establishment but the long, wide windows and the local nightlife seemed to suggest a pricey enough neighborhood with all the amenities. A bit much for an a army pension, John thought. He wasn't sure what they would be able to find in the flat itself with the body removed and most of the evidence bagged and taken away by the chief inspectors. He hoped it would be more substantial than the amount of evidence in the man's personal file and police report. John's own life, he feared, depended on it.
He followed Sherlock's coattails towards the door to the interior halls and stairwells. He stood watch therein while Sherlock picked the lock to a door covered in police tape. As the last tumbler fell into place, Sherlock stood and held it open, flipping on the lights as though they were returning to their own home. Idiots believed bold but sneaky was a tell for all types of intelligences. No torches, no nonsense, just an overinflated sense of importance that said they knew better than any officer down at Scotland Yard. John went in first, gun in hand as they'd discussed. If there was no evidence of a killer leaving the flat, there was a chance--a slim chance--one never had.
John had taken great care to familiarize himself with the Sargent Ronald Adair's file. Even without having read of his time spent in Afghanistan, the order and limited luxury of the flat screamed soldier at every interval. As he investigated every corner and cranny, John could recognize many of his own habits in the details around him. Most everything was plain, unassuming, and utilitarian save for a large plasma television and a single, wide candle sitting on the dining room table. For John it had been a decorative wall clock. Both the clock and the candle were nothing more than a conscious attempt made to break away from the habit of not thinking about personal tastes. John envied the telly and was almost certain he'd had that exact same table. He knew for a fact he'd had that same lamp on the desk, a desk now stained in blood.
He kept his gun out in front as he moved from room to room, turning on lights: kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. Other than the blood on the desk, nothing seemed disturbed or out of place. For a military man, even a quarter degree turn of a utensil in the drawer would be an oddity worth noting but for all his eyes could see, John observed only order and sameness. He checked closets and under the bed, inside cabinets and even the fridge which was empty save a half case of beer and a carton of milk. Satisfied, he put his gun away and returned to the sitting room. All was clear in the empty home.
Sherlock stood at the windows looking out at buildings across the street. One whole wall of the sitting room was devoted to a long, multi-pane style window that spanned from one wall to the next with only a three foot breadth between its sill and the floor. The darkness outside made the window reflect Sherlock and the room as a whole almost as clearly as a mirror. John stood behind him, following his eyes, seeing what he saw though aware its meaning would always be different.
"So," he said at last, arms clasped behind his back. "Any ideas what we're looking for?"
Sherlock smiled just slightly. "Several." He approached the window, fingers tracing the old, wooden panes that cut their view into many rectangular pieces. It was hard to tell whether Sherlock was looking out the window or using it to see into the space behind him. "According to the reports Mycroft gave you, Sargent Ronald Adair had only been home a month before his murder. No known criminal associations, an upstanding citizen and a respected soldier. He had no civilian occupation as of yet and his family of limited means reported he'd adjusted well to being back. Not much to be going on there with but luckily the police report offers a little more substance. Time of death was ten p.m. with the location, as you well guessed, right here at this desk. The lights were on, the telly off, and Adair was alone with the doors and windows locked." Sherlock turned, looking at the simple desk and its lamp amidst the dried blood which had turned brown against the stained wood. "No body so we'll have to recreate this to get the best picture. Have a seat, John."
John gave him a curious look but did as he was instructed, sitting gently into the stiff backed chair which gave a tired squeak as he settled into it. There was definitely something strange about sitting where a man had died. John was uncomfortable but tried not to look it as he sat, waiting for further instruction.
"There would have been a computer just there. Laptop most likely; no additional power supply cords to support a monitor and CPU tower. No means of acquiring his browser history at this time but we do have the next best thing," Sherlock smiled at John as he placed his hands on his shoulders, squeezing tight as he leaned down closer to his head. "You've been here before, John; you know what a man like Ronald Adair is thinking. So, a recently returned solider sits at his desk at ten o'clock at night. What's he doing?"
"Looking at porn," he said, clearing his throat.
Sherlock seemed to pause at that. "Interesting admission."
"I'm a bloke. Blokes look at porn. Especially when you're finally, completely, properly alone for the first time in ages."
Sherlock shrugged slightly, releasing his shoulders to pace back towards the windows once again. "But he's not alone. With the lights on at night, this room becomes much more visible to the outside world than vise versa. It's a laptop so there's no problem taking it into the bedroom for privacy if what he's browsing for is sexual in nature. So it's easy to say it's not a sex addiction that has him rooted to that spot at all hours. What else? What else would compel a man to sit in front of his laptop all day?"
John felt he'd missed something. He looked at the desk, looked at the wall, and glanced towards the windows. Nothing sprang to mind to help him follow Sherlock's interesting deductive leap. "How do you know he spent a lot of time at his desk? Could be he just happened to be checking his e-mail when he got shot."
Sherlock's mania was setting in, the tell in his speech patterns causing his words to fire faster and faster as his tongue kept up with his thoughts. "The chair, John," He said. "It squeaks. Everything in this apartment is new as I'm sure you've noticed. There are three common causes of chair fatigue and his history as a soldier eliminates obesity and bad posture. Final option is repetitive usage. He's not been home for more than a month and yet the chair already squeaks. It's not high end but it's serviceable enough that it shouldn't squeak yet. Conclusion is that he has spent a large amount of time in that chair. So why?"
It wasn't rhetorical but so much of what Sherlock said was for his own benefit that John had almost stopped thinking for himself when the man got caught up in his own brilliance. It was fun to watch. The interactive parts always seemed to sneak up on him when he wasn't paying attention. John looked down at the desk again. Perhaps the clue wasn't in this room, he considered. Maybe in the bedroom, somewhere he was consciously not trying to be rather than in the place he was. That was how Sherlock's mind found these things, wasn't it? Lateral thinking was not his strong suit but he did try to learn from his friend.
He stood up from the desk, hearing the squeak yet again and feeling like a fool for missing its importance the first time. He knew this room, this furniture, this lifestyle, knew it because in so many ways it was his own, just bigger.
John stopped mid step towards the bedroom, a tumbler in his brain falling into place as the lock's had at Sherlock's ministrations. He stood in place and turned around, eyes counting the different rooms. It was the first thing he'd noted when standing outside. Funny how passing observations could be so important. "Nice this. This flat. Did you notice? Separate bedroom even. It's a lot nicer than what I could afford and I was a captain." John licked his lips, taking it all in again with fresh eyes. "I can tell you right now he's not making rent on this on just an army pension. No civilian occupation, right? No rich parents. So where's he getting his money from then?"
Sherlock turned to him, hands in his coat pockets, a genuine expression of interest in his eyes. "Good; excellent, John. So we can assume his time spent online was lucrative. Several ways to go about that for a man his age."
"There's that whole currency trading thing," John remembered. "I hear you can make a lot of money that way. Definitely requires a lot of time invested in watching the global markets. Would lead to him sitting here like you said."
John hated his leading conjunctions. "But.... you don't jump right into something like that and become good enough to support yourself in a short amount of time."
Sherlock smiled. The pleasant turn of his lips seemed to say that John was right or at least he was helping to get Sherlock on the right path. Either way, John felt it best if he continued to try and work his way through to the most logical answer his mind could offer up.
He clasped his hands behind his back once more, looking left, then right, before settling on his final thoughts. "So, likely it's... well, online gambling. There's always a deck of cards available no matter where you're stationed. Plenty of time to get good at poker so it's a skill he could have easily adapted to making it in his civilian life."
"Exactly." Sherlock announced.
John hadn't been expecting that.
"Ronald Adair had returned home to make his fortunes in gambling. And much like yourself, I'm willing to bet it wasn't enough. Winning was the desired outcome but there's no thrill to it without the interpersonal stakes, reading others and being read by them, having your fortunes made not by the cards in your hand but by the fall of your face. He'd have sought the excitement outside the online arena. Online would be his fortune but at a real table with the stakes much higher would be where he got his kicks. Plenty of enemies to be made there, people who don't take kindly to losing."
"So, wait, we're saying he got killed over gambling disputes--debts, grudges, whatever--based on the fact that his chair squeaks?"
John looked at the chair once more then cleared his throat. "No. Not at all." Sherlock had been right too many times before going off of far less to ever doubt him. "So he goes to this game, wherever it is, and that is where he meets our assassin?"
"Or possibly an even more powerful man who pulls the assassin's strings." Sherlock's pale eyes were sparkling, his fingertips resting against his lips as they tented under his nose. "Gambling is the sort of sport for people who don't like to get their hands dirty. It's a mind game and most assassins prefer to be much more straight forward. We find out where he gambles and who his gambling companions were, though, and I'm sure we'll find a link to our own problems."
John nodded slightly though he saw a slight flaw in this next appointment. "The police would have taken any diary or schedule when they searched the place."
"He's into high-stakes gambling, you think he keeps a physical trace of the activity?" Sherlock asked. He shook his head. "No, he'll have all his connections listed online or on his computer somewhere. I'll phone Mycroft. I'll need him to get me a copy of the saved information from Adair's hard-drive. Once we have a username, password, a handle, something we can link him to, we'll be able to access everything we need."
All from a chair squeak. John shook his head in amazement, scratching at his head with the sheer brilliance of the man. It never got old. He never grew tired of watching him work. And a not so small part of himself was proud to have assisted in this case to the extent of which he could. There was still one detail that bothered him, however. "What about the murder, Sherlock? How did he get killed in a locked room with none of the doors or windows open?"
"You mean you didn't notice?" Sherlock asked, as though the answer were very obvious.
Sherlock walked back to the window, spreading himself out over the reflected surface. "You see now?"
"One of the panes doesn't reflect the interior of the room like the others do." Sherlock said, moving his hand which suddenly faded from the reflection only to reappear in the next square as it waved. "Plexiglass. The shooter shot through the already repaired panel which did not shatter like glass would. The flat was inspected during the daytime which means the panel would have blended in almost exactly like the others and the small hole from the bullet would be virtually undetectable if the absence of shattered glass had caused the inspectors to rule out the window completely."
John felt his anxiety giving way to relief. "So we're not dealing with a particularly tricky assassin, then? This is just a one in a million coincidence that the part of the window he shot through was a cheap repair job?"
"Precisely." Sherlock turned towards him partially, no longer using the window as his means of tracking John through the flat. His boyish delight in having solved it so quickly was evident in the lines that sprouted around his eyes.
It was the red light that caught John's eye, however, as it refracted through the window and fell to Sherlock's chest like a stuck pixel. He felt himself move before his mind could even comprehend the nature of his panic. Never before had John's brain screamed 'run!' more clearly. Like the whistle of artillery on the battle field, the air's screaming prelude to the eventual bang and splatter, the red light over Sherlock's heart was a fleeting warning before inevitable destruction. John grabbed him, hands closing tightly around his arms, and threw his weight into him as the glass shattered once then twice.
They hit the ground hard. John knew what being shot felt like and waited for the adrenalin to be overcome, almost praying to feel the bite of a wound if it meant he'd flown fast enough across the room to catch it. The pain never came. He remained on top of Sherlock, legs open around his hips and head ducked close to his. One arm had risen in their fall to shield the other side of the detective's head and pull it closer to the crook of the soldier's neck and shoulder. John didn't dare move for a moment, glad to feel the breath on his neck even as it distracted him from listening for footsteps or further gunfire. Hell, given the people they were dealing with, John wouldn't have been surprised if someone lobbed a grenade in after them; life and property meant so little to the lunatics who seemed obsessed with dictating their lives. He breathed out slowly through his nose, trying to calm his racing heart and listen past the pulse beating in his eardrums. The soldier in him wanted to leap up and race to the window, search for the person who thought to fire at them and give chase. The part of him that was a doctor wanted simply to pull away and check Sherlock for bullet wounds, forgetting the threat entirely. He was taking far too long to make up his mind and move, it seemed, as Sherlock's hands pressed against his stomach, fingers curling towards his waist.
"John? John, are you alright?"
John nodded, his cheek brushing against his. "Yeah.. yeah, I'm alright." He slowly loosened the cradling hold of his friend's head, hand sliding over the black curls to spread against the floor. He pushed up on his arms, hovering for a second as he tested the strength in his limbs to rise. Sherlock pulled on his jacket sharply as he did, keeping him from rising above a crawl.
"Careful," he whispered.
John's adrenalin spiked at the word as his eyes scanned over Sherlock's chest and shoulders, searching quickly for signs of pain that might have caused the sudden jerk and warning. "Oh, Jesus, Sherlock, you okay?"
Sherlock nodded, gesturing towards the broken window with a quick glance. John understood and stayed on his hands and knees as he exhaled deeply, hanging his head. Not hurt; just smart enough not to want to reenter anyone's line of fire just yet. John sighed loudly to break through the anxiety that was slowly suffocating him. Sherlock always lead him with the promise of danger and there he was, dodging bullets and straddling his best friend in an empty room. He almost felt inclined to comment on it if the joke would ease the tension.
There was very little to hear above the sound of their breaths. No footfalls in the hall, no speeding cars peeling away, no screams at the brandishing of a weapon on the street below. The silenced shots had broken through the window but the sound was too base to make any neighbors consider calling the cops--outside, perhaps, a noise complaint. Whoever fired the shots was long gone by John's reckoning. He was fine waiting until Sherlock felt it was safe, though. Despite the lack of personal space, he didn't mind hovering above his best friend like the meat shield he pretended to be. There was no greater victory than hearing the man make unlabored breaths beneath him. John smiled to himself, eyes closed as his body and mind came to rest in the present. It really was the best feeling in the world to intervene with fate.
"You're amazing, John," Sherlock said, just barely above a whisper.
John opened his eyes to look down at him, seeing the fall of black curls on his forehead, the ash grey of his ignorant eyes made greener under his shadow. Not 'thank you', no, never a word of thanks. One thanked the man who held a cab for him or who put his hand out to keep the lift doors open that few seconds longer. You thanked a person who showed you a random act of kindness or performed as any other person was capable of performing. When faced with excellence or a singular example of personal brilliance, one didn't thank a human being for being what they were born to be;--
--you complimented them.
Sherlock's genuinely impressed expression filled John with a lust for his approval. He wanted another gunman just to show his friend he could be braver and faster and stronger than this small demonstration had allowed. Not really, but almost. He knew exactly why Sherlock's brilliance needed an audience: there was no greater feeling than the validation of one's most important attributes.
His text alert sounded. John looked down at his jacket pocket as Sherlock slid his hand inside it, slow and trailing, producing the phone without request. He held it up to his own face, thumb sliding it awake as John watched, licking his lips.
"I love you," he read in his rustling baritone, skin tinted blue by the phone's illumination. "I'm worried about you. Call me."
Mary. John smiled, shaking his head just slightly at the thought of her sitting alone at home, sensing his danger with that so-called woman's intuition. "Tell her I'm fine and I'll call her in the morning."
Sherlock was already texting his reply. Slowly, John separated himself from his friend, crawling on his knees towards the window, careful of the broken glass. The cops wouldn't be missing those clues now. On the street there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary, no one suspicious among the crowd. All was alive and bustling with no care in the world towards them in the flat. It was hard to see past his own reflection but he was certain he would be able to see a panic on the sidewalk if there was one. They'd lost him. The assassin had drawn them both out into the open, taken his shot, and vanished.
John sat with his back against the wall, looking at Sherlock still prone on his back, phone held above his head. "Gone, Sherlock. What now?"
"Now we return home," he said. "We got what we came here for."
"What about the assassin?"
The detective sat up, coat falling off his shoulders with his hair oddly brushed to the opposite side in suddenly unmanageable curls. He looked disheveled and satiated by the smile on his face. It painted an entirely different picture for John than the reality of why they were both breathless on the floor.
"We got lucky, John," Sherlock explained. "Very lucky."
John licked his lips, unable to look away as Sherlock pocketed his phone.
Based on "The Adventure of the Empty House". Hope my contemporary take on it is acceptable; always a challenge to write a Sherlock crime and more challenging still to base it off an existing idea.
John popped the top of his third beer, slouching down deep in the couch with his feet resting up on the coffee table in the way that made Mary tut. He was too full to care that people ate off that table or that his feet had been in sweating in shoes for hours or any of the other completely valid reasons for why feet belonged only on floors and furniture designed for feet. The point of the matter was simply that Sherlock had his feet on the short table and--as he was certainly not going to listen to John's defense of the feet argument--it wasn't fair that he alone got to take exception to the rule. They solved crimes together, they got arrested together, and by God no force on earth was going to stop them from putting their feet on furniture together as well.
Oh yes, that was them; a couple of mavericks full up on leftover chicken tikka masala, watching QI so they could both feel like idiots with their feet up next to dirty plates, three empty beer cans, and an empty bag of poppadoms. If Stephen Fry ever managed to see them through the telly, John firmly believed they would be treated to an elegant and ruthless scolding the likes of which would put color in both their cheeks and uphold Mary's respectable beliefs for all of English society. Luckily, that day was set to happen after the Zombie Apocalypse when most people would have better things to worry about than what John put on his coffee table or what he intended to do with his feet.
Sherlock yawned. John watched out the corner of his eye as the man arched his back, arms reaching up behind him as he stretched, legs pushing out till his feet nearly dangled over the far edge of the table. He was all skin and limbs. The dressing gown was well wrinkled as were the sleep pants and shirt. He looked more homeless than usual without his tailored suits or expensive coat. Sherlock in repose was nothing at all like the man when engaged in his pursuits. John was hard pressed to decide which side of Sherlock he had missed the most now that all of him was there again to infuriate and enthrall him.
"You bored?" John asked, nodding to the television. "We can switch it to something different if you like."
Sherlock crossed his legs at the ankles, arms folding behind his head. "Do people really have so much room in their heads that they care about things like scrotal asymmetry and its relationship to Greek artistry?"
"Says the man who categorized--how many different types of tobacco ash was it at last count? Two-hundred and forty-three, was it?" John smiled at Sherlock's slightly disdainful pout. "People have hobbies. They have areas of interest. People get overexcited about something and obsess over it and devote their time and studies to it. You liked smoking so you researched tobacco to ridiculous lengths."
"And what, he enjoyed looking at testicles?"
"Even weirdos get bored."
Sherlock smirked, his cheeks pushing up high against his eyes. "You do realize this information has potentially ruined all Greek sculpture for you in the future."
"Oh yeah? How's that?"
"You will now forever be inclined to stare at the statue's genitals to see if this man was right," he explained simply.
John chuckled, shaking his head. He'd never considered adding potential embarrassment to the list of reasons why he didn't frequent museums. For years the best excuse he had was that they reminded him of Sherlock. Chasing an assassin through ancient artifacts, dodging bullets, finding a murdered young woman among antiques, fighting off an enormous man in a planetarium, staring down a painting with ten seconds and a child's life on the line; there was very little in the way of art or natural history that wasn't wrought with memory. Science museums were right out.
They had been, anyway. As John watched Sherlock turn his own attention back to the screen, he couldn't help but reflect on what Sherlock's being home meant now. The night before his return had meant years of mourning and loneliness spent in vain. He'd been happy, angry, confused, and desperate to believe his one wish really had come true. The night before Sherlock being back meant having his old life back, having his best friend back whom he cared for more strongly than it seemed most people could understand. After a day of tiffs and chuckles, of danger and intrigue, of mundane tasks and extraordinary luck, it wasn't so simple.
Mary would kill him if she knew about the shots fired through that window that night. She would be absolutely mortified to know he risked himself and that the worst of it was probably far from over. The danger he was in was not really something he had any control over but the lengths he and Sherlock were bound to go for answers was. He was going to have to lie to her. The way he lied to the others, the way he made them wait while Sherlock's needs of fancy stole his time and attention. He was a junky for the man and he'd foolishly taken that long forgotten hit and believed he wouldn't love it to the point of obsession once again. Like any addict, if he wasn't careful, he was going to lose everything to the high.
John eyed the beer cans on the table, feeling the growing emptiness in the one he still held. It wasn't the first time that night his thoughts had returned to the man's ominous warnings or lingered on the guilt of loving every second he'd spent that night. Having Sherlock back meant all the wonderful things he loved and missed were again a part of his life and eventually, inevitably, it meant throwing them all away with his own two hands. For Mary. For himself.
John downed the last of his beer and put it down next to his other three and Sherlock's one half empty can. He began to rise but felt a hand on his arm and stilled.
"You've had enough," Sherlock said, eyes still locked onto the television. The audience was roaring with laughter but his eyes said he hadn't noticed anything funny.
John took a breath, contemplating for a moment ignoring his comment, but fell back into the couch instead. He hadn't had near enough as far as he was concerned. The ache was still there, left to awaken every time his mind wandered towards the future or his eyes fell on the secretive skull on the mantle.
Sherlock looked at him and held him under his stare. John didn't mean to meet his eyes but found them and in their lock let out a shaky breath. It was far too soon for the honeymoon to be over. Another day, a week, a month, another life to spend in complete ignorance would have been bliss.
"Let me explain something, John," Sherlock interrupted, face as impassive and unreadable as the red Tibetan mask. "My decisions are wholly my own and do not require your acceptance or adherence. I am fully aware of what is coming and it in no way affects my own plans."
John wished Sherlock's explanation came with a preamble. He started at him in confusion for more than a moment, waiting for more or a clue of some kind. He shook his head. "That's.. great, Sherlock. Really. But I don't--"
"You're worried about me."
John swallowed, pulling in his lips.
"Don't be." Sherlock looked away, eyes again on the telly though seeing far further than the ends of the room. "When we first moved in together, I was unsure how long I would live here or how long you would last as my flatmate. Within a month, however, I decided that--baring something far outside my own ability to conceive of--I would live here with you all my life."
John's heart rate picked up tempo up and he breathed slowly to try and calm it. He was scared. He was scared of what words would come out of Sherlock's mouth and too anxious to interrupt and stop them. Too curious. He tried not to swallow, not to let his breath tremble through his nose. Not to do anything that would allow Sherlock could hear or see his worry over what sort of admission might follow a decision to spend his life with him.
Sherlock darted a quick glance towards John but looked forward again just as quickly. "My decision to stay with you in no way is dependent upon you staying with me. That is and has always been your own decision to make. All it does mean is that whether you wed Mary or any other woman for that matter, no matter how long you are gone or how distanced we become, this flat will always be thought of by me as your home and there will always be a room here for you to return to, no provisions or exceptions, until we both are dead."
John raised his eyebrows to keep his eyes dry, his lips pinned together by his teeth to keep the sounds in check. He put his hands over his mouth and nose, sliding them to his cheeks, rounding them to cover his eyes, pulling them over his forehead into his hair then back to crowd his nose. He could feel a tremble in his jaw. It was a different sensation from crying. He felt tense all over. Nervous. He was more worried of being perceived as wanting to cry than of actually crying. He wasn't sad. He wasn't happy. He was so lost he wasn't sure he knew what feelings were anymore. Somehow he'd managed to invent a new one. It was misery and gratitude and it hurt while it healed. He unpinned his lips and took in a deep breath, closing his eyes for just a moment. Leave it to Sherlock to reinvent falling and name it flying.
"Sherlock," John started when the tremble faded and his breath supported a voice. "You are.. a full-time occupation. And no matter what I say or do or think, honestly, I wouldn't have you any other way. But I have a job. And I have Mary. And, Jesus, Mary wants kids someday. It's not just a matter of me not being where you are, it's about me not being the me you would want to be around. I won't be able to run off at the drop of a hat and chase bad guys once this is over. I can't do that to Mary or a family for that matter. Right now my life is sort of dependent on me doing the things that we used to do but once this case is solved, that all changes. Then I have to go back to being a good boyfriend and make sure Mary comes first. I have to go back to being a good employee and come to work rested and stay my full shift and do whatever is needed of me. Once Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson and I are all safe and you're settled in, I have to be the person I've been since you left. I can't be your assistant anymore. It'll go back to just.. conversations and e-mails of me living a normal life and you having your... mad adventures."
Sherlock nodded, curling his legs against his body on the couch. "Those are all your decisions to make, John. They do not inform my own."
John smirked without pleasure, shaking his head from side to side. "You're just going to wait for me forever, are you? Here. Just... waiting for me to come back like nothing ever happened. Just like this," John motioned to the themselves, sitting in their sitting room after a night of casework inhabiting three year old habits and wardrobes. "What happens if I don't. What if I never come back? What then?"
"Then your room remains vacant."
"Sherlock, you can have other friends!" He hadn't meant to snap but the words came out with a bite. "You can have other assistants, other flatmates, other everythings. I'm not the only person in the world who could care about you!"
Sherlock's expression darkened slightly as he wrapped his arms around his drawn legs and let his chin rest between his knees.
John refused to believe it. Mycroft laughing at the idea of his brother having any friends from school, Sebastian telling him how they hated Sherlock at University, Scotland Yard calling him a freak and a weirdo; surely someone at some time before John had shown the man some compassion. Mycroft meddled because he thought him unstable, Molly thought him broken and wanted to fix him; there had to be someone else who accepted him as himself. Lestrade found him heavily flawed but useful, Irene had had feelings for him but no respect; just one person in the whole of his life had to exist who cared about him more than about what he could do for them.
Just one more.
"You are the exception that proves the rule, John," Sherlock said with a slightly cynical smile. "I won't be unhappy. It's not waiting. It's rather optimistic, really."
"I don't want that for you. I don't want you to be alone. Not because I don't think you should be left alone or that you're not capable of living by yourself but because no matter what you say, I know you care what other people think. You would give anything to prove them all wrong and show them that someone does love you."
John regretted it the moment he said it. He saw the slight flinch of Sherlock's cheek, the clench of his jaw, the weight of his brows falling deep against his eyes as he turned a dark stare towards him. He'd made him mad. Sherlock was turning that deductive mind against him, searching for his own ammunition, ready to sling shit with the best of them. He'd already taken a stab at the trust and abandonment topics; John wondered what soft spot he'd try to uncover next in his rebuttal. Not a word John'd said did he feel was untrue but he knew better than to analyze Sherlock to his face and show him how naked his thoughts and feelings could be to even those with normal intellect.
Sherlock raked him with his eyes, every moment another scathing conclusion ready to turn their slight row into a full on fight. But he didn't. Slowly his anger slipped from his face, replaced by something much worse and far more difficult to rebut: naked vulnerability.
"As I said, John," he reiterated. "My decisions are my own. I don't require your approval or your adherence."
John swallowed hard, hands in clammy fists. "I can't take the responsibility of being your only friend. I can't."
"Then we should both be grateful that I am not your responsibility." Sherlock stood, giving further insult to the foot/table debate as he walked over it rather than around. He paused on the other side, physically swaying just slightly as his mind seemed to weigh its thoughts. "Would you rather I left?" he asked at last. "We could go back to John and James and-"
"No." John didn't need to think about it. Not at all. "No. Don't... don't go. Anywhere. We're getting you your life back and that's final."
Sherlock smiled though he did not turn his face towards John to show it. John could tell in the way his shoulders moved. He nodded his head and went for the door.
The man paused but still did not look back.
John breathed out deep, a nagging question once more coming to mind which would not fade away now with the name still in the air. "Why James? Why his name? He's the reason everything is like this. Why did you name yourself James when you could have any other name?"
Sherlock shrugged, casting at last one small look over at John on the sofa. "Did you know Hamish is Scots for James?" he asked. And with that he went up to his room.
John pressed a kiss to Mary's lips as he stood with his arms around her, his cheek pressed against hers as she tried to carry on at the stove, bacon sizzling away in the pan. She chuckled, one hand resting on his arm around her waist. In her other hand she held the tongs out safely away from both of them as they glistened in pork juices. The morning sun was already casting itself over the floor and cabinets. A beautiful morning with a beautiful woman and the smell of delicious foods; John couldn't have been happier.
"I'm starting to get used to this smooth face thing you've got going on," Mary said, nuzzling just slightly against his cheek. Her fingers and the dangling peals of her bracelet brushed against the hairs of his forearms as she ran her hand along his exposed skin. "Careful you don't get burned. You should probably wait until I'm finished with the bacon until you decide to get all cozy."
"Nope. Too late. Should have thought of that before you let me kiss you." He squeezed her tight, setting his body flush against her back. "This is where I've landed and here is where I'll stay," he said. She smelled of grease and brown sauce and he felt he might quite literally eat her up.
Mary giggled and gave his arm a warning pat as she brought the tong arm down to carefully maneuver the dancing pork belly as it cooked along in its fantastic juices. He felt the prick of a few renegade grease spits on his flesh but said nothing and refused to move. His favorite part of the weekends had always been spending the night with her in his arms and waking to her peaceful snores. He'd missed that. Missed this. Her petite frame fit comfortably against him and the softness of her body was very inviting on a Sunday morning. Were it anything other than bacon, he might have suggested it wait for a while and scoop her off and away towards more private surroundings.
"Did something happen last night?"
John paused, holding her tighter. "Nothing you need to worry about." Breaking and entering, crime scene tampering, gunshots fired, awkward confessions of who-knew-what. "Sherlock and I had a pretty normal day together."
Mary leaned her head back on his shoulder, looking at him crooked with a smile on her face. "Normal for you includes running from the cops in handcuffs holding hands."
"I knew I should have never told you half of those stories." John kissed her cheek and slid his hand down her arm to take the tongs from her. He didn't want to think about normal with Sherlock. He didn't want to think about eighteen months spent sharing a flat and a resulting lifelong tenancy. He didn't want to think about a violin concerto with no audience. He didn't want to think about the skull's reprisal of his role. This part of his life, at the very least, still made sense. He needed Mary. She grounded him and with his head full of Sherlock he needed that stability.
His eyes glanced towards the other room where the skull and its hidden treasure sat in silence. It would only take four little worlds and maybe a total of ten steps. So easy. No bother. Slip on the ring, have breakfast, live life.
He picked up the bacon with the tongs, careful not to splash grease on his beloved as he emptied the pan and placed them on the kitchen roll. "Mary?"
"Mmm. Yes, John?" She was leaning with most of her weight supported by him, eyes closed with her face next to his.
"Sebastian Moran!" Sherlock exclaimed as he walked into the room.
The soldier was too used to the outbursts to be startled but Mary went stiff in his arms, eyes flying wide open with her weight wholly against him now. John let go of the tongs and grabbed her instead, helping them both not to fall over.
"Timing," John muttered under his breath. He looked over at Sherlock, the man already dressed and looking smart in his suit, laptop--John's naturally--casually tucked under one arm.
The detective eyed them both, an uncertain look shaping his face as he paused for just a moment then went about his business without a further care spent on either. He flipped the laptop out in his arms, awakening it to a mess of windows and files which he swung around to show his friend proudly. "Mycroft provided the information we needed from Adair's computer last night."
He hadn't slept then. John wasn't surprised but he wasn't exactly happy that some habits died hard.
Sherlock was buzzing as he continued in his latest unveiling. "By comparing his contacts to the information I've been compiling over the years on Moriarty's current connections I've found one very substantial link. Sebastian Moran, marksman extraordinaire; Moriarty's right hand man and current head of his London based operations."
It was not what John wanted to speak about in front of Mary but impossible not to pursue. In any case, the actual case was a much better topic to revisit than their conversation the night before. He was grateful in that respect that his friend had such a one-track mind. "You think that's the guy from last night?" He asked, keeping his reply vague, keeping it safe. Sherlock was hardly one to take a hint but one never knew with him anyway. He was the most observant idiot ever to grace the planet. "Hang on, if he's so high up and important, how come this is news to you that he might be the one still waiting with a sniper rifle to finish the job?"
"Because I didn't have what Adair had." Sherlock pressed a key, one of the five walls of text sliding away to reveal a calendar. "A schedule, John. Places and times of secret card games to which Sebastian Moran has been in regular attendance. You can't chase an invisible man but with this he's practically standing in front of us. No surprise he's back at the tables. Business isn't exactly booming with Moriarty out of the picture and a certain someone making things that much more difficult overseas." He smirked, obviously referring to himself and proud of it. He pointed at the screen, calling John's attention to three highlighted boxes in March. "There are only three more dates on Adair's schedule: tonight, Thursday, and next Saturday. Disguising ourselves won't be difficult, nor will gaining access."
"You think they'll actually still be holding those games?" John tightened one arm around Mary, feeling her growing tense at his side.
Sherlock nodded, snapping the lid to his laptop closed again as he spun around the table's edge to set himself up on the fold-out surface on the wall. It had already become his spot with the customary clutter building up over night. "Adair's murder isn't a high profile case and the police aren't looking for this information so I doubt they'll uncover it. They'll be there. And so will we."
John nodded but felt Mary wrestle from his grip, arms opening wide as much to gain attention as to gesture at the tall, thin man. Sherlock looked over at her, a rather pompous look raising his brows into the curl of his overgrown bangs.
"Wait, sorry, I'm confused." She took a few steps forward, leaving the warmth of John's side. Her voice was pleasant but her face was harsh. "You found the person who you think is trying to have John killed and you're going to go play cards with him?"
"Normal. Remember?" John joked.
She didn't laugh. She turned to him, standing between the two men, replacing worry with fear as she crossed her arms below her breasts. "John that isn't... does it have to be tonight?"
"Well... The sooner we get this guy, the sooner things can go back to being safe. And Sherlock won't really eat or sleep until we've got this taken care of so it's... not really in anyone's best interest to wait."
"I know. I just...-"
"Three," Sherlock interjected, apparently bored with their conversation. He pointed to her arm. "Your bracelet. You were missing four pearls yesterday. Now there are only three empty settings."
Mary glared. "You're changing the subject, Mr. Holmes."
"Making an observation."
"About jewelry? This is John's life at stake here! John, please don't go. I'm trying my best with all this but if I know you're out there with murders I don't know that I can just sit at home and not do something."
Sherlock left his space and the laptop as he paced towards Mary, hands on his hips. He tended to look quite a bit more intimidating in his coat. Without it, he was a tad too delicate to be fearsome. He had stature on them both, at least, and he looked down at Mary with an unfavorable air. "Alerting the police will send Moran into hiding," he said.
"It will also keep John alive. What's more important?"
The detective said nothing. Mary held her ground in his stare, chest slightly heaving with the effort she made to keep herself from taking their argument further. Neither of them was a push over and both were quite set in their ways. John felt his presence was needed.
He took hold of Mary's arm, giving her a brief squeeze as his eyes searched one face and then the other. "Look, it's early. I'm starving. Let's eat and we can talk about all this later. Card game isn't until tonight, right?"
Sherlock nodded. "Nine-thirty."
"Plenty of time then to discuss this after I've had breakfast." John smiled, considering his own position as having won as Mary breathed out at last and turned back to the plate of kitchen roll and bacon. John raised a brow towards Sherlock. "You going to be having any?"
"No, better review the rules of poker," was his unsurprising reply.
John pinched a slice of bacon between forefinger and thumb and held it out towards him. "Just one. Look, it's not even good for you. And it's really hot and burning my fingers already so please take it. I'm serious; it's burning. Take the bacon."
Sherlock frowned but snatched it from him, looking at it disdainfully as he turned away. He held it between his teeth as he took up the laptop and proceeded to the sitting room, leaving John and Mary once again alone in the kitchen. It was a small victory but John would forever take what he could get when it came to forcing the detective to take care of himself. He put his fingers in his mouth, the grease burns annoyingly sharp but unsurprisingly delicious.
John looked at Mary, giving her a tired smile. "Please. I meant it for both of you. We'll discuss it all later. I want our kind of normal this morning."
Mary's eyes caught a bit more sparkle in them as she kissed him once more, grabbing the pot of heated beans to scoop out onto their plates.
It was doable. As John sat with his girlfriend having a quiet breakfast, knowing Sherlock was off in another room doing his own thing, there was certainly a small vein of hope running through the atmosphere. He could make it work. He had a feeling he and Mary both could make it work in a world yet again divided into Sherlock and everything else. The only other option was... There was no other option as far as John was concerned.
He cleared his throat, sweeping a slice of toast across the juice from his beans. "So, how're the kids? That Tim still trying to sneak a touch of your bum?"
Mary smiled over the rim of her tea cup. "Are you jealous of a eight year old?" she asked.
"Jealous? No, me? When I was his age, I loved getting hugs from ladies like yourself too. It's the only time in life when you can go face first into a woman's lap, grab her around the backside and it be considered sweet."
She chuckled, putting a hand on his thigh. "I don't see you as the type at all. I bet you were the teacher's pet or the moral police of the playground."
She had him there. He nommed his toast. "And what about you? Ace student and know-it-all? Perfectly pink princess?"
"Actually, I was a tomboy."
John smirked, shaking his head just slightly. "You? Overalls and trainers?"
"And shotguns and slingshots." She sat up with a bit of importance. "My father was in the military. I was the son he always wanted but never had. Hunts at ten, safari at thirteen. Posh tomboy, mind you, but the only skirt I owned was part of my school's uniform."
John couldn't keep his face from cracking into a wide smile. The mental image of a young Mary following hounds on horseback was more archaic a scene than he'd intended to find in her past. She spoke often about her well-missed father but rarely on herself during the years when he lived. Her childhood was the story of a man, not of the girl she was at the time. John understood the feeling and the compulsion. He'd spent eighteen months being part of Sherlock's life rather than having a life that just happened to include Sherlock.
He found his mind, just for a second, wondering what his friend had been like when he was a young school boy. He found he couldn't imagine it. Sherlock was only capable of existing in his mind as the man he'd first met at Barts. Any other incarnation was simply fantasy, as though the man had been made in the ether and simply put down on earth just as he was. He was denying parts of Sherlock's humanity, he knew, but as the previous night's thoughts had proven, it was better not to linger on the past of a man who had never before had a friend.
John pushed the renegade thoughts aside. This was his time with Mary. Thoughts and concerns about Sherlock could and most certainly wound wait. He took her hand from his thigh and brought it to his lips to kiss her knuckles. "You'll have to tell me all about it sometime. You. As a young girl."
She smiled and nodded, drinking again from her tea. A normal conversation, a normal morning in. John told himself he wasn't looking forward to anything other than just this. It really didn't take all that much convincing; love was stronger than a desire for danger.
He spent most of the afternoon with Mary. They laid on the couch, her in his arms, watching a DVD while Sherlock paced from one room to another, walking back and forth from upstairs or the kitchen depending on where in the house Mrs. Hudson could be heard. John tried not to feel sorry for him. He could join them if he wanted to put his disguise back on, or if he decided to trust their landlady with the secret he'd intrusted them. He could go through his boxes if he was bored or find something of his own to do on the laptop he had confiscated. Sherlock's pacing were like a toddler's screams and John knew if he didn't make Sherlock come to some other conclusion than that being obvious would gain him John's attention, he'd learn to expect it. He was impressed with his patience to some extent at least. For all his visual cues that he was wanting of John's time, Sherlock did not say a word to disturb them. No, the interruption came from the trill of his John's phone's text alert.
Mary pulled herself away from him and stood, walking across to the table where the phone sat. She picked it up and brought it to him, opening his screen as she walked. Her face took on a curious pinch. "John, who's arse is this?"
John turned red and cast a scowl across the room. Sherlock seemed to have chosen that time to make his trip out of John's immediate line of sight. The devil. "Nobody's. It's nothing. Just... a bad joke. Message from Harry?"
She gave him a bull-shit look but handed him the phone without making it an issue. "Not unless Harry spells her name 'Mycroft' now."
John let out an exasperated sigh and took the phone from her.
If you value your life, tell him goodbye. -Mycroft Holmes
"Did you read this?"
John took in her worried stare and cursed the interfering man. He really didn't need any help in alarming his girlfriend. What he often did need help in was far too often not up for bids.
If you're so worried, help us.
"John... maybe you should listen to him." Mary settled back on the couch facing him, the palms of her hands running from his stomach to his chest over the maroon cardigan. "It's his own brother, right? If even his own brother thinks he should go, it must be for the best."
"Mycroft thinks I'm as much a danger to Sherlock as Sherlock is to me. This isn't about this Moran guy Sherlock was talking about. Not entirely." John put his free hand to her waist, dancing his fingers against her back.
Mary shifted closer to him. "How could you be a danger to anyone?"
He wasn't sure if answering her honestly would sound more like boasting or a confession. It was one of the few things he currently agreed with Mycroft on: John had made Sherlock vulnerable. The machine didn't exist as simply a conduit of logic and brilliance anymore--not solely. For every new emotion he learned to savor came an unwillingness to lose it. A man who sacrificed his own health for his work knew of only one way to fight back against the loss of his new-found humanity. Sherlock was an all or nothing sort of man with no boundaries. It was both endlessly infuriating and breathlessly touching.
"Well, I was a soldier. That makes me a very dangerous man." John smiled at her, keeping to half truths and non-answers. He pulled her closer, her chest resting against his as she laid down against him with her cheek to his chin. Her hands were possessive in their strength as she wrapped them around him.
His phone chimed again.
This is your second warning. -Mycroft Holmes
John felt like asking him not to bother in the future but put the phone down instead. Mycroft wasn't worth his time. He wrapped his arms around Mary, holding her while she held her worry inside. He kissed her head and stroked her back. The DVD was nearly over.
"You're going out with him tonight, aren't you."
John nodded. She sighed. There was an uncomfortable silence that gave no impression it was caused by interest in the end of their movie.
"It's important," John said finally. "For our future. For a lot of things." He looked towards the skull again. He'd come so close to asking her that morning. Why not now?
Mary tucked her head under his chin. "John.. if you had to chose between him and me..."
John's blood froze in his veins. If she were Sherlock she'd notice the skip of his heartbeat, the change in his breathing pattern, the tremble in his hands. He was glad that he wasn't nearly so transparent to her. He swallowed and took a deep breath, eyes drifting from the skull to the ceiling. "Are you asking me to?" he asked.
"No, I just-"
The strictness of his voice made her flinch. John did not move to comfort her with a stroke of her back or a kiss to her head. He laid still, as still as possible, letting his own body deal with its short burst of panic.
"Don't.. ever ask that. Not hypothetically, not for real, just... don't."
She paused, hands smoothing out over his shirt. "Will I not like the answer?" she asked in a whisper.
His tone dipped in warning. "Mary."
She sat up, pulling away slowly. She kissed his lips to which he responded minimally, his face drawn in deep lines of discontent. "I'm sorry, Love." She ran her fingers over his hair, cupping his cheek for one last kiss before rising from the couch. "I know you and Sherlock have a lot to plan for tonight. Will you text me? Let me know everything is going okay?"
John nodded, sitting up once her weight had left him. He swung his legs round he right way and leaned forward, breathing into the shadows of his palms as he hid his face behind his hands. He didn't want to be mad at her. "Yeah, I'll text you when I get a chance. Just please don't call the cops if I don't. Leave this to us."
Her fingers brushed through his hair, scratching lightly at his scalp. "Okay. I trust you, John. I love you."
"I love you too." He put his hands down and offered her a smile as she stepped away and left though the open doorway.
The skull on the mantle with his wide toothy grin seemed to mock him from across the room as the door downstairs closed shut.
John was often thankful for Mrs. Hudson's assistance. Her fussy nature saw to the house cleaning and occasional fridge stocking despite her assurance she was no one's house keeper. With Mary about there hadn't been much need to be looking out for him but the year before Mary had come into his life had been one of shameful dependence. Mrs. Hudson has been the face at the other end of the table, the voice that said 'hello' and 'good night' from the stairs every morning and evening. Mycroft had tried to be among those allowed entry into the Baker Street address at the start but had soon moved on from speaking to John to relaying his information to or through Mrs. Hudson to avoid the tiffs and tantrums of a rage filled man in mourning. Mrs. Hudson had never harmed Sherlock or aided those who would try to. She was unique from Lestrade and Mycroft and not so dissimilar from himself. It was why, John presumed, he never really snapped at her too often when she became nosy and bothersome. It was a small price to pay on top of the sum of his lodging for someone who not only gave a damn but who in many ways understood.
It didn't mean in the slightest that the sound of her coming up to his flat didn't invoke a worn out groan or set his wits close to their ends.
"You there, dear? Was that Mary I heard leaving?"
John sighed, rubbing his face with his palms. It seemed an unwritten rule there should be an audience for everything, blog or no blog. "Yeah, she came over for breakfast," he said, not bothering to move more than the muscles it took to look up.
"Haven't seen much of her this weekend. Everything alright with you two?" Mrs. Hudson stood in his sitting room, hands clasped in front of her paisley printed blouse as she gave him the look of a worried mother. "You look worn out," she noted with a frown.
She would receive no argument from him there. John sighed and let his head fall. "Yeah, been busy with... work."
She gave his shoulder a pat. "You just stay sat right there, then. I'll fix you up a nice cuppa." There was no room for argument. She left him sitting there a second later as she walked to the kitchen to set about the making of tea. Her tutting at the sight of Sherlock's new mess was somewhat nostalgic. "You're developing more and more of his habits, I see. Usually such a tidy man."
John leaned forward to see if he could spy her in the other room. "What do you mean 'more' of his habits?" he asked.
"Oh, you know. Working yourself to death, forgetting to eat."
"That's not me taking after him, that's... shared stupidity." He wasn't going to point out the eating issue had been more related to depression at the time than any compulsory denial of food based on digestive superstition. He was still waiting for Sherlock to scientifically prove to him that starving himself was in any way beneficial to thought.
"Still, the mess in here." Mrs. Hudson turned on the tap, filling up the kettle. She sighed. "Been a while since I thought of him. Odd the things that remind you of someone. Raw beef used to remind me of my husband. You'll know all about that sort of thing, though."
He did. For the first of many months after the suicide, everything had reminded John of Sherlock. Every piece of classical music, every cab, every child he diagnosed with behavioral issues, every man in a belstaf coat, every police siren, every stupid show on telly, every single time he felt bored. John cleared his throat. Thinking about Sherlock being dead, even when knowing it was a lie, still made him feel vaguely ill. Keeping his return a secret from their friends didn't help either. Mrs. Hudson deserved to know he was alive and well and probably quietly sitting upstairs in the guest room calculating the odds between a full house and two pair. He hated not telling her, especially with Mary in on the secret as well. Sherlock was a dick.
Mrs. Husdon peeked her head in, her frown becoming more set as she took him in, silent and introverted. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't bring him up."
John knew what it must look like and forced a small smile. "No, it's.. fine, Mrs. H. It's fine."
"It's really sort of a beautiful thing, though: you still being in love with him after all this time." She waved her hand at her face as though the thought of it was a threat to her mascara. "Least you've got a new love to spend your life with now."
"I know. I know." She popped back into the kitchen, taking to the tea pot and serving tray while the water boiled on the stove. "You don't have to be together to be in love. I fell in love with plenty of young men in my day that I never got to be with. Worse that. They all ended up being the greatest relationship I never had. I've mourned a few of their marriages harder than I have some deaths. For what it's worth, I think he would have driven you up the wall with all his madness eventually." She took the milk from the fridge, sniffing the carton for freshness. "People like him are always escaping from something. Bossy, demanding, eccentric. It's people like us, John, who end up having to stick around and pick up the pieces. No reward in that. Just a loaded dustbin and a few broken hearts."
John was sure at some point in her train of thought the conversation had stopped being about him and Sherlock. The connotation that he was romantically invested in him, however, was still very much present. It never stopped. It did not seem even one person who knew them cared to listen to his protests. He wondered just how much of an asshole he must have seemed to everyone if they honestly thought all his girlfriend were just some front for his gay romance. His protests were always dismissed; Dr. John Watson had to deny it, had to pretend, bless his heart and isn't he sweet the sad, sorry poofter. If he was gay--a strong, purely hypothetical if--surely he could do better than a self-obsessed, autistic asexual who, between bouts of mania, spent his time destroying everything around him.
It was always best to remember the man's faults when claiming not to love the most amazing human being in existence.
Mrs. Hudson brought in the tray sat with him for over half an hour. She poured her heart out as she poured the tea, going on about a butcher down the corner who apparently had been sharing meaningful looks with her but was suddenly more interested in a Mrs. Davies. He drank and nodded, being polite but bored out of his mind. There was a lack in the English language for words that made it politely clear that a reading of the dictionary carried the same level of interest for the listening party. He waited for her to finish without trying to hurry her along too much. Whichever way he looked at it, he and Mrs. Hudson were certainly friends. There just wasn't much for him to say on the subject of pensioners hooking up over sirloin cuts and mince. He wondered if mundane and boring conversations like this were what every day was like for Sherlock in a world of normal people.
When she finally left, tea cleaned up and kitchen wiped down, John fell again into the comfort of the couch feeling utterly exhausted. He felt a bit like texting Mary but without the inclination to deal with any replies. He knew he should probably see that Sherlock received an all clear but didn't care much if he came down or not. It was quiet again for the first time in what felt like a long time. John crossed his arms over his face, hiding his eyes behind his elbows. With his night booked and a full week of work waiting beyond, it was nice to just lay in thoughtless quiet with nothing but the sound of traffic in his ears. It was doomed but for the moment it was pleasant.
Sherlock came into the room and closed the door behind him for the sake of secrecy. A short lived reprieve indeed.
"Mrs. Hudson sends her love to the long departed," John said, not bothering to remove his arms from his face. It was nice in the dark.
Sherlock's footsteps carried him across to a chair set along the far side of the coffee table into which he sat. "Her butcher is playing hard to get. Her current strategy will likely result in success."
John sighed. "You were listening?"
"Hardly anything else to do."
"Mastered poker already, have you?"
"In theory." Sherlock put his feet up on the table. Sherlock 2, Furniture 0. "Deducing a man's tell will be simple enough and I have an assuredly blank enough expression for the game. As far as the elements I can control are concerned, I'm well prepared."
"I'm pretty sure the way you deduce would be considered cheating. Planning to count cards as well?"
John shook his head, trying not be amused by his friend's poor sportsmanship. "You're going to be thrown out," he predicted. He could already see in his minds eye, the flail of too-long limbs as he was tossed by bald bouncers onto the pavement, palms scratched and hair tousled permanently from its floppy do. John peeked through his arms at him, expecting to see his haughty countenance or smug, satisfied smile. Neither was there. Despite the matter-of-fact tone in his voice, Sherlock's face showed an emotion more often reserved for his pantomime performance of normal people: dejection. His eyes were scanning John, lingering on his chest--no, shoulder--and leg; lingering on the broken parts of him. It wasn't just sadness, it was worry, concern. John got the distinct impression Sherlock didn't know he could see him from behind his crossed arms. This cheerlessness was no meager means of manipulation but something far more rare and genuine. It was sort of beautiful in the way it softened the hard lines of his strongly contoured face. Sherlock trusted him to be by his side but still troubled over the consequences. It was this face, this part of the man, which made him take that three year fall.
Something John must have done, his breath, his posture, the length of his silence, alerted Sherlock to his nakedness. He switched over slowly and flawlessly, no jolt to signal the exchange but a simple swipe from bare to masked as he sat back in his chair, steepled fingers at his chin. Somehow John could still see the painted smile on the crying clown and let his eyes fall shut again in the dark cavern of his arms.
Sherlock cleared his throat, legs recrossing to switch out the weight bearing ankle. "Mary seemed a little.. vexed."
The dropper of many eaves indeed. "Well, she would be. Two days ago everything was normal. Now nothing is. For her, I mean." John lifted his arms, admitting a gaze in his direction. "This is just like the first time, you know? We're here, barely have enough time to get a grasp on what we're doing, and then we're swept up in some investigation."
Sherlock nodded, ash grey eyes searching the ceiling.
John breathed in deeply. The silence was nice but surprisingly awkward. "Your brother texted me."
"Oh? And what did he want?"
"To warn me."
Sherlock's eyes clouded over, his lips drawing thin above the tops of his fingertips. "What exactly did he say?"
"Read it yourself if you like." John nodded to his mobile sitting by his friend's feet. "This is the second time he's done something like this. I don't mean the part where it's my second warning, I mean that it sounds like he knows something that he's not telling us and I damn well don't want another Richard Brook surprise."
Sherlock nodded, his eyes set on the messages on John's phone. "I can assure you he is in possession of a great deal of knowledge in regards to our case against Sebastian Moran."
"For fuck's sake, what's he playing at then?"
"Don't worry about it." Sherlock pocketed John's mobile as he leaned forward, feet to the floor and elbows resting against his knees. "We can be assured when the time comes, Mycroft will not disappoint."
"And in the mean time we've got snipers tailing us. Brilliant. I'm absolutely boiling over with confidence." John sat up, too annoyed to recline in idleness. Whatever lies he shared with Mary, Mycroft's concern put a chill in John's blood. He was a man of absurd power and not one for exaggeration. Warning him once was good manners, warning him twice was reason to reconsider.
So why didn't he?
John exhaled loudly, pulling his cardigan straight where Mary's body had tugged it over. "What is it about you that makes me act like a bloody fool?" he asked, more to himself than to anyone present or God.
Sherlock shrugged, passive and contemplative. "I often consider those very words." He leaned back in his chair, a small smirk parting his face. "On the subject of foolishness, however, let us return to tonight's goal. Best to keep to the lower end tables and get a feel for the place before making our way to the high stakes games. We'll need to be good to earn our stay. I know my capabilities in cards; what are yours?"
"Me? Oh, I'm rubbish," John lied for humility's sake, face exaggeratedly grave. "Worse than. Absolutely abysmal at poker and don't even get me started on pontoon."
Sherlock's brow piqued with his curiosity. "That good, are you?"
"Plenty of long nights in Afghanistan spent with a pack of fifty-two," John admitted as he pointed a steady finger at his friend. "But I am never playing against you. So you're just going to have to take my word for it."
"I'll take your earnings for it."
John laughed. "I'm sure you would take them." He leaned forward, hands clasped together at his knees, feeling a bit like a twenty-something again setting up a stag night rather than a grown man plotting espionage. "Actually, how do you feel about making a little bet? Your deductive skills verses my years of experience and well-crafted techniques."
He definitely had Sherlock's interest with that. The man's surprised half smirk lit his face momentarily before he seemed to realize how childlike and slightly dim the expression made him look. "Based on number of hands won or monetary gain?"
"Money, of course."
"Very well. But I have no interest in the income." His eyes were predatory as he leaned forward as well, meeting John's posture. "If I win our bet, you have to accompany me to the symphony, in a tux, plus dinner and drinks, no mobiles."
John shook his head. "You can't make your reward something I'd do anyway--have done even. Not that you're going to win, mind you, but you have to pick something else."
Sherlock's face fell just slightly. He tapped his fingers and pursed his lips before trying again, his tone richer as he carefully worded his thoughts. "I don't come first anymore, John," he admitted, not as blind to the fact as some of his actions seemed to indicate. "Things come up, girlfriends or wives make requests. Schedules aren't as flexible. I'm asking you to save a date for me. I want, when this is over, one more day where I am the most important thing you have planned for that evening."
John leaned away, swallowing around an awkward chuckle as his eyes found the wood-grain on the coffee table. "What did I just tell you about asking for things I'd do regardless?" He felt nervous as he rubbed the back of his neck, thoughts pulled towards Mary's growing unease in Sherlock's presence, the world's insistence they were more than just friends, and the sad face from a secret view intended for no one. A night of culture in the best clothes someone else had ever rented for him and dining in some of the classiest locations he'd ever been treated to had looked like a date three years ago and was surely going to look like one now. Unremarkably, because it was Sherlock, it didn't really matter.
He looked up to test the air to find Sherlock regarding him with a mostly amused expression. John rolled his eyes. "So am I supposed to try and win you as the Best Man at my wedding too since we're betting for stupid stuff? I'd honestly rather not waste the opportunity to win some cash."
"You don't want me as your Best Man, John. Could ruin the ceremony. I'm sure Mary has other plans as far as the attendance of the man who most people would be whispering about on her special day." Sherlock stood up, hands on his hips as he eyed the clock. "Don't worry, Mycroft will send me the surveillance footage. Cash it is then?"
John's jaw dropped. "Wait a minute; just hold on! You mean you're not only turning down the offer of being my Best Man but you won't even be there?"
"You haven't even proposed yet," Sherlock needless reminded him. He started walking towards the kitchen. "Don't get mad at me over a hypothetical scenario. You can get mad at me when you're actually in a position for me to decline."
John stared after him, speechless save for the many colorful expletives which came to mind.
He was going to win that bet no matter what now. There was no way in hell he was going to find himself indebted to that pompous ass over anything other than his own good graces.
Low lights, smoke in the air, green felt tables and pints of lager resting next to stacks of multicolored chips; the card hall was more or less exactly what John had been expecting. It was cleaner than his worst conceptions of it but the air was still just as poisonous. Ignorance to the smoking ban was the least of the proprietor's ills, however, if Sherlock was right about the patronage. It was certainly why he kept his pistol tucked in the back waist of his jeans. John scanned the tables from his stance at the bar, taking in the faces of the men who sat with downcast eyes. Somewhere in the room there was a murderer just waiting for the excuse to put a bullet in the doctor's head. He breathed in deep and thanked the barman for his pint. He was going to need a good bitter to keep from looking as nervous as he felt. The disguise Sherlock had fitted him with had hardly taken much effort. A floppy knit hat and a pair of wire rimmed glasses were apparently all Sherlock assumed it would take to turn ex-soldier John Watson into mild-mannered John Mitchel. John got the distinct impression they had changed only his surname not because John was so common but because Sherlock couldn't be bothered to remember an alias other than his own.
Sherlock stood beside him, ginger and bespectacled and calling himself James once more. His posture was all wrong for a middle class man looking to double his fortunes, the scotch in his hand less predicable than an ale, but there was always some flaw to his deceptions. He seemed unimpressed and bored already. That, John mused, or the fake beard was already starting to make his chin itch. He hoped for the latter. The bastard deserved to be as irritated as he was irritating.
Sherlock nodded towards a table of players sitting in on a quickly declining game. "Same table?" he asked.
John shook his head. "I told you, I'm not playing against you. You find your own table and with any luck we'll meet back up later with Moran." He took a drink of his bitter, feeling the bite as it welcomed him to the second dumbest thing he'd ever done.
Sherlock shrugged, offering from his wallet a few hundred quid which he held out in his gloved hands. The game was on. "May the best man win."
"Well, guess that's not going to be you then." John snatched the money from him, no qualms whatsoever about betting with his best friend's money after their discussion that afternoon. Besides which, they shared everything anyway; what was a few hundred quid between mates?
John found a table willing to deal him in and set about reacquainting himself with the game. After three abysmal hands and a loss of twenty-five, he started to feel the rhythm of it again and made back fifty. There was a man who bit the inside of his bottom lip when he had a good hand, one who had an unfortunate vein in his forehead that pumped with excitement, and another who seemed to switch what side of his mouth he chewed his gum on depending on his cards. These weren't deductions, they were just tells and simple things that all players tried to observe and look for. He was certain at his own table Sherlock was doing deductive wheelies trying to take home the pot, discerning more from a man's home life and profession about when he might bluff rather than look for a normal sign.
It wouldn't make him better at cards than him. It would give Sherlock a different edge, surely, but for the first time in a long time, John was quite sure he was engaged in a competition against his friend in which he was the better. John would win, he would take all their money, and he would spend it all on gaffer tape and a utility dolly. Sherlock was going to be at his wedding if he had to hire someone to wheel him in.
Hours went by far too quickly. John wasn't the best player at the table but he put a great many of the others to shame as his pile of blue and red chips stood to testify. He cast a glance over at Sherlock's last known location, sorry to see a similar stack gracing the space between his elbows. He was falling out of character, letting his disguise do all the work. His fingers were steepled at his lips, his chin held high, his keen eyes flashing. Every mannerism screamed Sherlock Holmes louder than any deerstalker ever could. Sherlock was lucky most people weren't so versed in what the true genius looked like. Most people, to their own benefit, were not John.
John looked away, attention required as he was served another hand: ten, eight, Jack, Ace, ten; three hearts, a diamond and a spade. He pulled the corners back then laid them flat, putting his ante in with a flippant toss and setting two cards aside to exchange on his turn. He caught movement out the corner of his eye and followed it back towards Sherlock's table as a man stood hovering behind him. He leaned in over his shoulder, hand clasping down over Sherlock's right bicep as he seemed to whisper into his ear. Whatever he said got Sherlock's attention. He stood from the table, cashing out with the dealer. He caught John's eye and shook his head minutely: 'stay there'.
John narrowed his eyes at him, brown wrinkled and hairline pulled forward.
Sherlock walked with the man over towards the bar area, his posture stiff but confident. So long as he was still in John's sight, the soldier would take the understood request. They seemed to order drinks, the stranger all smiles and hand gestures as he leaned against the bar in his expensive looking suit, regaling James with whatever stories or information he had. One didn't buy a drink for someone caught counting cards and reading a man's bluff in his life's story through the collar of his shirt. James shouldn't have had any connections in London, though, and the man's air seemed too familiar to be random. John wished Sherlock was there to explain to him what he was missing. Who the hell was that man and why did he make Sherlock nervous?
"You gonna bet or just sit there making eyes at that fella at the bar?"
John turned back to his table, looking at the pile of chips in the middle and finding himself at a sudden disadvantage. "Right, sorry." He looked at his cards again, now two pair, Aces high, then threw in two blue chips to up the stakes. "Raise you twenty-five," he announced, trying to get his head back in the game while his eyes continued to catch furtive glimpses at the bar.
The suited man was still smiling but his eyes were harsh as it seemed Sherlock's time to speak. For his part, Sherlock looked anything but pleased himself. Stoic masque or genuine disinterest, he seemed stuck in something tedious but necessary. His fingers were tight around the glass of scotch in his hand, though. Something was definitely wrong.
It was down to him and one other man as the other players folded. John needed this game to end. He'd cash out, go buy another drink at the bar, and loiter there within earshot until it was time to move on. For all he knew, the man at the bar with Sherlock was the very man they were there to see and nothing was worse than the idea that perhaps he was on to them.
John pushed his stack of coins forward. "All in," he said.
The other player grimaced, the white-shocked hair of his mustache shifting with irritation over his lip. He checked his cards then pushed forward his chips as well. "Alright, you little bastard. I'll take that."
John flipped his cards just as he heard a loud bang and jumped up immediately from his chair. It wasn't a gunshot but a thick 'thunk' and a crash, punctuated by a laugh as John's eyes raced to the bar. Sherlock wasn't there anymore. The stranger was having a good chuckle, eyes cast to the floor in the spot where Sherlock had been. John quickly weaved his way through the tables over as a second stranger bent down and heaved Sherlock off the ground by his arms, his body limp and head bleeding from the hairline.
"Well, guess someone can't hold his liquor," the first man joked to the exasperated barman.
John pushed past the curious onlookers, eyes wide at the stream of blood. "I'm a doctor," he said, trying to direct the man handling the unconscious weight of his friend. "Put him down in a chair, I'll-" John froze mid-sentence. This time it was a gun, the muzzle pressed against his ribs. His breath was suddenly stolen from his lungs.
"Hello, Dr. Watson." The first stranger was behind him, the gun in his hand. "It's been ages since I last had you in my sights."
John swallowed hard, feeling his knees lock and his heart race. The assassin. "What did you do to him?"
"Nothing I wouldn't rather make permanent." The gun pushed in hard, John's ribs aching under the assault. "Nice and quiet now. We're going to help this poor fellow outside to sober up and being such a good doctor, you're coming with us."
"And if I refuse? Going to execute me right here in public?"
The stranger hummed with amusement. "I won't have to. You'll come. Because I've got something of yours you're going to want back."
The man holding Sherlock began to haul him off as the gun shoved John to follow. He hated proving them right. John took his first step on anxious legs, trying to act natural and praying someone was paying attention to more than just a fake drunkard and his good Samaritans. Head wounds bled alarmingly but even knowing it was normal, the sight of the red streams against the pale of Sherlock's face made John's stomach knot. He'd seen that face before once with silver eyes open to the abyss. He tried to keep his breath normal and his walk strong. They were going to get out of this. Tomorrow morning he was going to go to work and call Mary at lunch to ask which kid was driving her the most crazy on a Monday, he was going to be sneezed on and bitten at least once and Sherlock was going to be bored and texting him all day as he slowly tore the flat to pieces. He was not going to die tonight.
They walked towards an employee entrance, a door leading to a back alleyway, probably a skip. It wasn't exactly his first choice for a location to be alone with a gunman. John's own gun was still tucked in the waist band of his jeans, a hard, comforting weight against his spine. He yearned to pull it before someone thought to search him. It was already two against one, and with Sherlock's unconscious state working against him, it put the odds even more in the strangers' favor. John pushed the bar to unlatch he door at the gun's insistence and carefully scanned the alley for anyone who could be of assistance as he stepped out into the urine scented back road. The lamp on the brick wall was hazy and cast a piss-yellow light which spread only two feet under the fixture's spray. A sign requesting no loiterers hung above the overflowing puke-green skip.
The man hauling Sherlock held him none too gently against the echoing metal of the trash container as he ripped the beard from his face and shoved off the ginger wig. Both flew into the skip. Sherlock did not so much as wince though John did in sympathy at the sound of spirit gum ripping past its bond to the flesh.
The door to the card hall closed, leaving them in quiet but without peace.
"There you are, Sherlock," The assassin said with a large grin. He moved his gun from John's ribs to his head, no longer concerned about an audience. "Such a silly, vain man, don't you agree, Dr. Watson?"
John breathed deep, concentrating on a single flow of motion: wait for an opportunity, grab the gun, shoot the man; wait, grab, shoot. He turned his head, seeing nothing but the hollow throat of the pistol. "Are you Moran?" If he was going to survive this, he needed to at least know the name of the man he was about to kill.
"Me? Hardly." The assassin sounded flattered. "He's got bigger things to deal with than a couple loose threads like you two. No, I'm more than enough to see that you and he get exactly what you deserve."
"You realize this is ridiculous, don't you. It's been nearly three years. Who the hell even cares anymore?"
"Sebastian cares." The assassin cocked his gun, the sharp edges of the barrel finding and digging in to John's temple. "I'm sure Moriarty would too. The wrong man came down off that roof that day, Dr. Watson."
John clenched his jaw, looking at Sherlock's unhelpful repose against the arms of the silent accomplice. Not a sound, not a stir, not a sign at all that he was okay though the blood seemed to clot and cease its staining of his brow.
"Against the wall, Dr. Watson." The assassin ordered, a cheerfulness in the sound. "I like to play Rorschach with the detritus. Let's see what pictures your funny little brain can paint."
John closed his eyes. No opening, no opportunity. There was no way in hell he was going down without a fight. "You're making a huge mistake," he cautioned as he took small, tentative steps towards the brick.
"Sebastian will forgive me, I'm sure."
The muzzle moved from his temple to the back of his head, rolling flush against his hair. John breathed in deep. If this worked, he was going to have to donate heavily to some charity to balance out his fortune. John glanced over at Sherlock, still limp and useless. He didn't have to force the panic as he shouted, "Sherlock, don't!"
The assassin looked. Even the man supporting the consulting detective's body spared a glance to see that there was no change in his condition. He was Sherlock Holmes, though; one learned to expect the unexpected from him. A suspension of disbelief was part of the whole Sherlock experience and certainly, demonstrably, these men had known that. One second's doubt was all John had afforded himself and one second's distraction was all he needed.
John spun to face his attacker, rolling along the gun arm to avoid its fire as he pulled his own weapon. One shot to the stomach and the eyes of the assassin grew large; a second shot and they became heavy. The man sunk to his knees then fell to his face in a puddle of unspeakable filth. John turned his weapon on the second man, hesitating to avoid further injury to Sherlock.
To his credit the second man was quick. He threw Sherlock at him before running down the alley, faster than he looked but stumbling in fear. Unarmed, John figured, as he rushed to catch Sherlock before he fell. A very angry part of him wanted to shoot the man in the back as he ran. It was no less the kind of thing he could expect from the likes of them had he tried.
But he wasn't like them. Never wanted to be. Never would be.
John carefully reset the safety on his gun as he shoved it into Sherlock's coat pocket. Using both arms he heaved Sherlock against the brick wall, hands searching for a pulse even as he could still hear his own pounding in his ears. Sherlock's was much steadier, normal, completely healthy. His breathing was even and unlabored. John exhaled, damp with sweat and trembling from nerves. He let Sherlock sit on the ground as John removed his own coat and jumper, both spotted in blood-spray, and threw them in the skip. He didn't bother moving the body. It wasn't about covering up a murder in self-defense but rather avoiding arrest or questioning for now. Kneeling on the ground between Sherlock's legs, he heaved him up onto his back, using the wall to help him as he sorted limbs and balance. He took one last look at the would-be assassin then hurried down the alley way towards the streets and hopefully for a cab.
He had warned him.
Short chapter, I know, sorry. I figured the details of the card games would be tedious so I didn't want to bore with that but... that's the chapter XD Should have 11 done this weekend as well.
John sat in the cab with his arm around his best friend, holding him to his side as the dead weight of the man rested exactly as he bade him. The smell of smoke had permeated everything on their persons and the fog of it still clung to his eyes. John held his hand, finger against Sherlock's wrist, monitoring his pulse, and titled his friend's head to his shoulder, letting the unconscious man's breath fall against his neck. There was a bit of drool but it didn't bother John. He counted his pulse in even intervals, keeping track of the breaths in the tempo. He caught the cabby looking back at them and offered him a small, wincing smile. No questions were asked. John doubted any needed to be. For once he didn't mind.
He was proud that he managed to keep the panic from his face. He'd had a gun pointed at it not long before but the sweat from that encounter had dried. His thoughts were focused on the man beside him who still had not regained consciousness and who could not be taken to a hospital with a criminal syndicate now aware of his return. John tapped his foot on the cab floor, willing it to go faster. He considered calling Mycroft but thought better of it immediately. He wasn't interested in hearing how Sherlock had gotten hurt because of John or how this surely proved that they could not handle the dangers involved in Sherlock's return. They would and they could because they had to. The sooner John got Sherlock in bed and could properly examine him the better.
Carrying Sherlock was as hard as it was easy. His weight was hardly the problem, though for a thin man he was still heavy enough to be inconvenient. It was the length of him, trying to sort out the arms and whether to go for the fireman, drunk pull, army shrug or honeymoon carry that was the troubling part. John settled for the fireman as he dragged him from the cab and made it the short distance to the door with his hands holding firm to his thighs. He was glad to have prepared the key before leaving the cab for their stoop. He opened the door quickly and quietly, closing it much the same. Mrs. Hudson was tucked away in her own room, necessitating quiet as John creeped up the stairs under the weight of his burden. Sherlock's arms bounced against his backside as he shuffled with the wall to counter up the two flights to their home. A groan, a moan, some evidence of stirring would have made him feel much better than the absolute quiet from his possibly concussed friend. It made him worry as his own heart drummed hard against the warmth of his legs. He took the corners carefully so as not to swing Sherlock's head or hands into walls as he finally found the sanctuary of the bedroom.
John dropped him on the bed with as much care as he could manage, kneeling there himself as he tipped forward, trying to catch Sherlock's head as he rolled him from his shoulder onto the made mattress. He released him gently, watching as his head rolled to the side, eyes closed to the world as his chest bowed with each breath. John checked his pulse one last time, finding it still to be even and strong, then left him for a moment to grab a medical kit and assorted supplies, carrying it all back to the room. He locked the door once inside. This required no audience.
John sat on the bed, detaching himself as best he could before moving forward with his exam. He checked the cut on his head first, examining the severity of it and finding it to be mostly superficial; not a stitch required and well scabbed. The quick clean up job he'd done on the street corner with spit and fingers had done a fine job of erasing most evidence that there had ever been an injury save for the clumps of hair stuck with blood. Cosmetic, unimportant, John remained happy with the cut and continued. He pulled open his eyelids, watching the jerking motions of his iris as his eyes darted sightlessly; REM, normal. He patted him on the cheeks, trying not to jostle him too much.
"Sherlock? Wake up, okay? For me. I need you to wake up."
Sherlock stayed still and silent. John bit his bottom lip, looking for his friend's hand to grab his wrist and pull it towards him. He held on to Sherlock's index finger and dug the fingernail of his own thumb into the nail bed. Sherlock did not flinch.
John cursed and let his hand fall. He gently pulled him to sit, removing from him his coat which John tossed to the opposite corner of the bed. He returned him to the mattress to deal with the shirt, occupying himself now with the buttons as he undid them one by one, tugging the cloth up from under Sherlock's trousers and belt to pull it open and fully expose his chest and abdomen. No abnormal discolorations. The skin was smooth and pale, incapable of hiding injury. Each contour of shadow defined his naked ribs, accentuating the dip from his diaphragm to the hollow of his belly. John winced, detachment failing, as he let his fingertips trail over the exposed skin, not trusting the light to tell him what touch could prove. Far too thin, unhealthy, possible signs of Axis II comorbidity with anorexia nervosa. Not his current concern; John made himself ignore the unrelated symptoms as he pressed the cold flat of his stethoscope to his chest and listened for a healthy heart beat. Fine, all fine, no arrhythmia present were it there before. He let the tool hang from his neck as he pushed the shirt off Sherlock's shoulders and pulled it down and off his arms to expose his back.
Before John could even turn him on his side to listen to his lungs, his eyes had found a new place to linger, a new distraction to catch his breath. The inside elbow of his left arm was pricked in track marks. John knew the scars, had seen them before, had engaged in long conversations about recreational drug use and the dangers to his friend's body and mind. He knew the scars very well, their color and pattern, from casual glances and meaningful stares he'd graced them with as both a reminder of the man's imperfection and warning of the limitless destructive power of his boredom. These were not all old scars. A relapse. He ran his fingers against the thin skin, feeling the pits and bumps. Not exactly recent but clearly not a lost habit. John squeezed his arm tight, hoping he could feel the pain and would open his eyes on his own.
"You... damn fool. The hell am I-" John stopped himself, his insides freezing over.
No, not him. Not this time.
Everything felt much more mechanical with that final realization. He rolled Sherlock over, lungs sounding fine, and repositioned him on his back. It was the last of what he could think to do. He put the stethoscope down on the bed, no other tools or tests prepared for an unconscious man. It was his limit. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number he'd only saved so he knew which calls to ignore. His hands were shaking--why were they shaking?--as he held the phone to his ear.
It didn't ring for long despite the hour. "John?"
"Mycroft." John heard a weakness in his voice he despised. He didn't want to sound choked. "I need you to come get Sherlock."
John sat on the bed, one knee up which he rested his body against, head heavy and hanging. "Can't trust a hospital right now but he's a 3 on the GSE. His vitals are fine, though. He went from standing still to laying on the floor and hitting his head so I'm thinking this is drug induced but I'm not sure what they gave him. Probably concussed but I can't wake him up. Someone needs to keep an eye on him." John took a deep breath, hating the way it trembled against his tongue. "I...I have to go to work in the morning. I can't stay up all night and I can't... I can't be here tomorrow to make sure he wakes up and eats and doesn't hurt himself. He needs someone. He's a damn idiot and he needs someone and I just... can't."
The other line was silent for longer than was comfortable. So many times in the past Mycroft's answer had been for John to simply throw everything else away and devote himself to Sherlock; nothing was more important than his brother and he could make John accept that it was true for his best friend. He didn't want to fight that now, whether or not he had to.
"I'll be right there." The line went dead.
John put his phone down like a lead ingot heavy in his hand. He ran his fingers through his hair, pulling, loving the pain that made the tears in his eyes mean something else entirely. He breathed in deep, forcing a mirthless chuckle as he shook his head. "You... damn fool." It didn't matter that Sherlock couldn't hear him. This wasn't about him. "This isn't even primary-- Everyone knows they have to eat and sleep, Sherlock. Everyone. It's hardwired; how the hell do you just delete that?! You're not only hurting yourself you... fucking... prick, you... bastard, you really have no concept of what it's like watching you destroy your own brilliance. You are going to kill yourself, you are going to fucking kill yourself."
He turned his head, looking at his unobservant audience who's mind was so resplendent all tucked away in the shadows of mental illness. Not a sociopath, never a psychopath, almost certain autistic, possible NPD; a psychoanalyst's dream to profile and dissect but never understand. Flawed, human and often trying his best to not be everything that's wrong with him. John looked away, falling on his back beside him with his eyes fixed solely on the ceiling.
"This isn't my fault. I told you it couldn't be like before. I told you I have obligations. It's not my fault you can't eat so much as a slice of bacon unless I force it on you. It's not my fault you can't just shut down and sleep. I want you back, I want you back so much but this... Fuck, Sherlock. Fuck. I can't. I'm not giving up but I have to draw a line and I can't handle this. Not anymore." He felt Sherlock's hand resting motionless on the bed beside his and slid his own against it, palm to palm, his fingers and thumb clasping around the limp, warm hand. He bent his elbow, bringing both hands to his chest. He squeezed hard. "It's not my fault, Sherlock. But I'm so sorry." His voice caught. He squeezed his eyes tight. He was not going to cry, he wasn't; he didn't do that sort of thing anymore.
He brought the hand to his lips and kissed it, feeling grateful no one had seen him with no reason available for why he did it. "I am so, so sorry." He left the warm hand to rest against his lips, his breath rushing from his nose over his knuckles. Everything about his hand was the story of Sherlock from his callouses to his smell to his pulse to his warmth. Holding his hand to his lips was like seeing him with his eyes closed. He didn't say another word. He had already said and was still in his own way saying everything he needed to.
Mycroft had his own key to the flat having rented the room upstairs. His knock on the bedroom door was expected but still jarring as John bolted up, hand forgotten, and rose to let him in.
Mycroft didn't bother with smiles or other needless pleasantries. He entered and looked down at Sherlock, somewhat repulsed but generally despondent. "I'm sorry for my brother's... well. For my brother." He took a seat on the bed and very gently began redressing him, pulling the shirt back in its proper order as he carefully lined the buttons up once more.
John swallowed, leaning against the door. "I'm thinking it may have been Flunitrazepam. Easy enough to come by; would explain any dizziness or sudden loss of consciousness which would have precluded the head wound. Would mean his continued state was drug induced and unrelated to the concussion so... It's the most plausible. If you can find a hospital that's safe for him I'd recommend it. Otherwise it should be out of his system tomorrow evening."
"What happened, John?" Mycroft didn't look at him as he addressed him. He was still occupied with the buttons.
John breathed in deep, his mind stuck on autopilot for so long that he'd nearly forgotten how they'd come to be back at their flat. "We went looking for Sebastian Moran at a card hall. Some assassin pulled Sherlock aside and that's when it happened. I went over, he lead me out at gun point, I managed to shoot him instead and we got away." John rubbed his face, feeling old. "Someone saw, though. Saw Sherlock. Moran's going to know he's back and Sherlock said you'd be there to help when the time came so please. Help us."
Mycroft nodded slowly, the last of the buttons fastened as he stood up, hands in his pockets. "I can assure you, John, that the only danger you are in is from Sherlock himself. You have no reason to fear Moran otherwise. You will be perfectly safe tomorrow and every day after so long as Sherlock is away. I promise you and swear it to you."
"This isn't- I'm not- I mean, he can come back. I just-"
"I know." Mycroft sighed, looking down at the bed with hardly a hint of sympathy. "However, I advise you to reconsider."
John worried his bottom lip, brow pinched and eyes searching. "Why? What is so bloody awful about him being back? Why do you keep saying that?"
There was another long minute's hesitation. In his suit, with all his stature, Mycroft seemed otherworldly in the ordinary bedroom in Everyone Elseville. He smiled, knowing and hateful, and shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not at liberty to say."
"Sherlock has sworn me to secrecy."
John didn't bother hiding his confusion, not from a Holmes. He looked back to the bed, his patient unchanged. "What are you talking about?"
Mycroft shrugged again, bending down at last to scoop Sherlock up into his arms, his head falling against his shoulder while Mycroft's arms supported his knees and shoulders. "Evening tomorrow he'll be awake, was it? Call tomorrow. I think it's about time Sherlock explains this little game of his."
Mycroft's words made John shiver, suddenly cold from the tips of his toes to his fingertips. "What game?" he asked, knowing there would be no answer but sickened by his choice of words.
"Tomorrow, John." Mycroft walked past him, tender of step as he made his way carefully back out into the night with his life-long burden curled against his chest.
John stood back and watched, not sure what to think or feel anymore. The only thing that seemed certain was that he was certainly not going to be getting much rest.
Another short chapter but yay for two in one weekend?
Would love to hear some hypothesis of what people think has actually been going on this entire time~
The text alert sent John's face falling off the bowl of his palm towards the table below, the awkward angle and jolt to his senses keeping him far from attaining that painful blow as he sat eyes wide and pulse suddenly racing in the office at the surgery, alone and on the clock. This was achingly familiar and not at all alright. He felt exhausted, sleep having evaded him through most of the night. Guilt was a much less agreeable bedside companion than a best friend who needed him. John fished his phone out, biting his lip in hope as he looked to the sender.
Not Mycroft; not Sherlock. Probably still asleep, laid out on Rohypnol and scotch, dreaming of triple homicides and clever villains.
John had never been so disappointed to see Mary's name. He sighed, stretching out his arms over head before sinking back into his chair, phone in front of his face. If anyone could make him feel better, aside from someone bringing him a magical energy drink that didn't taste like shit, it was Mary. He read and smiled, his face relaxing with the well remembered expression which seemed far removed from his lips.
Thomas's mother warned me that her son has written a song about his penis. I still feel unprepared for this performance.
He chuckled, fingers deftly typing against the screen of his phone. He'd already slacked off enough; it was hardly going to make a different if he jumped to his work related tasks right that instant. A few texts to his girlfriend were hardly going to get him fired when there was a whole hours long nap on his daily fails chart.
Children were put on earth to make grown men feel sane.
Do you have a penis song, John?
I have whatever you think is the least awkward and most endearing.
Is there a dance that goes with that?
I can show you if you like. Tonight?
Can't. Teacher meeting :(
John sighed, frustrated. Some needs were easy to forget when ones life was on the line. It was Monday, though; the most normal day of them all. The only thing he could think about was how Friday, Saturday and Sunday had had a distinctive something lacking outside a few cuddles--not all of them from her.
Doesn't have to be the whole song and dance. Maybe just find some time to hum a few bars?
Feels like we hardly saw each other this weekend.
Sorry for being a bitch.
He smiled, shaking his head slightly though more than aware she could not see.
I love you~ <3
Love you too XXOO
He put the phone in his pocket and forced himself to rise. There were still hours left in his day, and even more left before he could expect Sherlock to be awake. Work would occupy his body and with any luck his mind. The last thing he needed to do was find himself bored enough to sleep, or worse, to think about what game Mycroft had been speaking of.
Sherlock scared him. John wasn't sure what it was about his mannerisms or mood, mostly unchanged but somehow more exposed like a drunk man feigning sobriety, but it made him anxious and concerned. Sherlock's secrets and lies were never the good kind. The lie that told of returning missile plans to Mycroft lead to a poolside encounter complete with Semtex and sniper rifles. The lie that said 'I made you coffee' hid the underlying intention to drug and experiment under the pretense of apologetic kindness. The lie that told he didn't care about other people, that being alone protected him protected others and left an empty grave. Sherlock's secrets and lies always hurt someone and that someone, in one way or another, tended to be John.
A game. A game; one Mycroft disapproved of and had been warning him about from the very beginning. Something Sherlock was involved in but hadn't thought to tell him himself--had even requested Mycroft hide it as well. No, whatever it was, it was not good, and John was getting very tired of being deceived.
He tried not to think too much about it as he took temperatures and blood pressure, wrote prescriptions and sent cold sufferers home with their remedies. He texted Mary several more times between patients and sent a few unanswered ones to Sherlock just to check. Texting Mycroft would have given some answers, perhaps, but he had already explained the limits of his ability to respond. John needed Sherlock if he was ever going to understand.
A car, black and polished, was waiting outside the surgery at half-past five. John approached it without hesitation, finding Anthea's cute face still mesmerized by her phone as she waited for him. Her smile was brief when she spared him a look, retreating back to her palm sized digital world the instant after.
"I'm to take you somewhere special today."
John grimaced, not in the mood for Holmes theatrics when his mind had been running in circles all day. "Where this time? Abandoned bottle making plant? Sprawling field in the middle of nowhere? A private jet?"
Anthea shook her head as they both took their seat inside, tinted windows sealing them off from the rest of the world. "No. We're to take you to the home of Mycroft Holmes. He sends his regards. He's too busy at the moment to be there himself."
John sat a little taller, his memory searching for a time when such a precedent had been set before. He'd met Mycroft in many places, some public, some private, and quite often found him in the Baker Street flat long ago when it had been a place of business as well. He'd never been in his home. It made perfect sense that it would be where Mycroft would have taken Sherlock but it was somewhat hard to imagine that there was any one set place where Mycroft belonged. A palace, surely. Something pristine and elegant and fashionable and over the top. Something Mycroft with that old world charm.
He watched out the window. The fact that he wasn't being blindfolded and abducted there in secret was an additional blessing. "So... I take it Sherlock's up?" he asked. One never knew if the beautiful woman was free to discuss things. Or even listening.
Anthea smiled. "He's in the parlor with his breakfast."
"Sherlock's eating even? Good."
She looked up from her phone for a second, giving him a sideways look that judged his level of perception.
John wasn't exactly sure what he'd missed until he saw for himself.
Sherlock sat in the parlor of the elegant home before a small table set with every food John could think of. Fresh fruit, pastries, beans, toast, jam, blood pudding, sausage, eggs--boiled and fried--rolls, biscuits, tea, juice, milk, porridge--John was taken aback at the mass array on the table sitting in front of one man and his empty, spotless plate. Nothing had been touched. Sherlock was, as Anthea had said, in the company of his breakfast and there was hardly another verb left to describe it.
He looked well rested, the shadows under his eyes lessened into a mild rosy hue rather than a violet one. The suit he wore was most certainly his and not something on loan from his brother. This was Sherlock's base of operations, then; where his bags had come when he'd arrived and his potential residence had things not gone well. It was sweet in some mildly disturbing way. It took a fake suicide and three years of lies and joint deception to bring the Holmes brothers together. All Mycroft had needed was for Sherlock to really need his help. He couldn't help but bitterly wonder if the man was happy now that his concern could be acted upon rather than left to secret observation. From Mycroft's less than cryptic disapproval, it seemed he cared less for his involvement than he may have thought he would.
Sherlock looked over at the door, a small smile on his face. "I hope you're hungry. My dear brother seems to have grossly overestimated the amount of food one man can eat. No wonder he's on a diet."
John shook his head, trying not to smile. "So are you just staring at it to prove a point? To spite him?" He took a seat opposite him, finding another plate setting waiting. It felt bad to let so much food go to waste but somehow the sight of it took away any appetite he may have had. "Snubbing his food is sort of childish, don't you think?"
"Well, this is just stage two. Before that I rearranged his medicine cabinet in order of dosage rather than alphabetically."
John swallowed a chuckle, half snorting as he tried to tame his innate reactions. It was very hard to stay mad at him even as his tolerance for his attitude and behavior were nearing their limit. He cupped his hand over his lips, pulling the corners of his mouth into order as he masked the small fail on his part. "Oh, he'll love that," he said. He set his teeth together, jaw tight to keep sarcasm from becoming too playful.
Sherlock shrugged. "Well, he expects it in a way. I'd be a terrible guest if I didn't fully meet my brother's expectations of me."
"So, on drugs, anorexic, completely irresponsible, and requiring the constant attention of a caretaker? Yeah, wouldn't want to disappoint him." And there was the anger. John kept his hand close to his mouth, not trusting his words any further than he trusted his lips.
Sherlock seemed to pale, a magnificent feat in itself with his nearly ashen complexion. He eyed the table of food before him, subconsciously, habitually, nervously putting his hands in his lap, arms no longer visibly below the elbow as the table cut off their view. His voice was hushed, lips pursed in a pout, the scowl hardly worth the effort his eyebrows were giving it. "I haven't used anything recreational in over five months, I've been taking care of myself just fine and I do not have an eating disorder." The last bit was raspy, pulled through his teeth. He appeared to take great offense to the diagnosis.
John had unfortunately left all his fucks in the car and had none in his pockets to give. "Five months, hm? Know when the last time I poisoned my body with something other than alcohol was?"
"Shut up, John, it's different."
"You are so much smarter than this." John hit the table with the flesh of his fist, the grapes bouncing and one or two making a run for it off the cluster. "You know what I don't get? You can... deny yourself food for as long as you feel you can and still give in so easily to something as dangerous as cocaine and you know better. How can you even look me in the face and say you don't have an eating disorder when you'd shoot up on a whim but you have to be forced to eat so much as a half sandwich?"
"I ate Saturday."
"Well, it's Monday!"
Sherlock took a deep breath, eyes again scanning the spread upon the table. Mycroft had outdone himself in the verity of different foods from sweet to savery, toasted to cool, breaded to fresh. What had been an overzealous move now seemed to be a sign of desperation. Mycroft had provided an answer to every excuse for his brother not to eat. He had to be hungry. There had to be something there he liked--there were several items John knew for a fact were among Sherlock's favorites. Sherlock's hands raised again to the table's top, fingertips drumming in perceivable agitation. The longer it took him to select something the more irritated his movements became.
John was having none of it. He picked up a sausage roll and placed it heavily on Sherlock's plate. "Eat it or I'll deduce you. I'm sure you'd love to hear my theories on why you do this to yourself."
Sherlock's disgusted snarl said anything but. He pushed away from the table. "I'm not finished, John. It'll be over tonight; I'll gorge myself on whatever you want tomorrow but for now I need to think."
"What will be over tonight? What is going on, Sherlock?" John held back the desire to throw a muffin at him. They looked like such spectacular projectiles and he was so tired of feeling as though on the edge of something terrific and terrible. Sherlock always put him there. "I'm getting more and more the distinct impression that I'm being lead blindly through whatever it is that's going on. Your brother said it was a game, what the hell kind of game are we playing?"
Sherlock startled then went still, ash grey eyes clouding over like turbulent storms. His lips were pursed thin. "He spoke out of turn."
"Well someone better start talking."
Slowly, with hesitation and several shallow breaths, Sherlock nodded his head. He paced rather than returning to his chair, more alike a caged animal than John had ever seen before. Sherlock hated this; hated everything about it. It wasn't fun anymore and John had to wonder if he had ever enjoyed whatever game they were involved in. The masque was gone; things weren't okay.
Perhaps he had been better off not knowing.
"There is no Ronald Adair," Sherlock said, eyes cast to the floor. "I... made him up."
"I made him up. The whole case, the connection to Sebastian Moran, everything. I had Mycroft set things up, make it believable, take care of the details so I could participate in solving it as much as I was responsible for its inception." Sherlock wrapped his long fingers around the back of the chair, leaning into it as he spoke, face showing no great pleasure in his master reveal. "Not everything, of course, went as planned. I hear you killed that man from last night. Well done. Thank you. I always know I can count on you to be there when I need you most."
Compliments would get him nowhere. John stared, mouth as unable to form words and his tongue was to articulate them. It was utterly ridiculous and yet quite plainly true. He'd never for a moment believed he'd invented Moriarty, no matter what he confessed on the roof, and yet this, this he knew was different. John sat trying to remember the English language as his eyes searched for clues as to a lie, a joke, some ill-conceived attempt at diverting his attention away from the ills of his friend to his crimes but knew even as he stared that it was a fruitless search. "You planned.... Why? Why would you do that?"
"Return to London and spend my time with you sitting in the flat watching telly all day? That's not us, John. This was." Sherlock punctuated his statement with a jab into the table with his index finger, trailing it as he started to pace away from the plates of abandoned nourishment. He walked with his back to John, hands eventually clasping behind, fingers wrapped around the wrist of the other. "If I only had one weekend here, I wanted it to be something we both had looked forward to in the past. You, me, and an interesting case; just two people who like each other going out and having fun."
John ignored the strange tightening in his gut at those words, too lost and angry to care about things like sentiment. "I don't understand, I don't understand any of this! Just what are you trying to tell me? That you and Mycroft are the new consulting criminals of London?"
"No, not Mycroft," Sherlock said, standing still for a moment without so much as a glance behind him. "I, however, have been asked to fill the vacancy."
John paled, tremors running through his hands. "Jesus, Sherlock, have you completely lost your mind?!"
He shrugged, continuing his pacing at profile, eyes ahead and only daring to falter towards the floor, never towards John. "If you can't beat them.... John, I understand. A larger part of the reason I orchestrated this was to test to see if you could accept that course of action. Would you be willing to be my friend if I became exactly what Moriarty said I was?"
"You mean kidnapping children, strapping bombs to people, general murder, deceit, jovial carnage for sport and for monetary gain? Does your brother know about all this?"
"Of course not. He'd admit me."
"I'm tempted to as well, Sherlock; do you hear what you're saying?!" John wanted to stand, walk over to him, and shake him until he stopped being stupid. His knee refused to bear weight.
"This wasn't a hastily planned decision." Sherlock took some pity on John as he crossed closer to him but still well out of reach. His face was blank but his eyes were pleading. "I discovered the code word to call off the assassins maybe three months back. I got in touch with Moran and he accepted my victory and not only sent out word but further extended to me this offer. I immediately refused, of course, but circumstances have put it well within my best interest to consider it a possibility. Moran is currently waiting for my final response. However, there is one particular informant I am meeting with tonight who more or less holds my future in their hands. I suspected you would disapprove but asking a hypothetical question and posing a very real scenario are two different things."
John breathed; it was the only thing that kept him from shouting. He swallowed the figurative bile in his throat at the thoughts that fueled his speech, a sort of disillusionment making his blood sluggish in his veins, bleeding black on the inside. "The man I killed last night... One of your pawns in this? Did you... set that up?"
"Do you think I could?"
".. I don't know right now."
"Would you be my friend if I had?"
".... No." John wasn't surprised to find his love for his friend was conditional. It still felt like breaking, though.
Sherlock nodded as though he'd expected as much. Surely he had. "That man was Jacob Wallace. Generally in the business of selling drugs, he is also a part-time hit-man for Moriarty's home base operations here in London, part of what you might consider to be Moriarty's version of the Homeless Network and Scotland Yard all rolled into one. Street informants, hired help, generally not well educated but incredibly loyal to the man with the money. Apparently he didn't like the idea of me being his new boss. He tried to kill me that first night at the crime scene. Failing that, he tried again last night. He was never trying to kill you, not until he saw you there with me and decided Moriarty's last order should have been carried out whether or not I managed to find the code. Thank you for dispatching him. The world is a better place for it."
John looked away, unable to stay locked in a new world of bigger problems. Sherlock always did this. No matter how high one set their expectations, Sherlock always managed to outdo himself. Fake crime but a real syndicate job offer, real assassination attempts with almost unrelated motives--real danger wrapped in a false package. John wasn't mad, he was furious. It was Sherlock trying to drug his coffee all over again, using him as his guinea pig, testing things on John like his surrogate existence, a spare body and mind. It was Barts. It was being dragged around the streets of London without a clue as to the real problem and wanting so much to help only to be kept in the dark, ignored, and left to bear scars for wounds he'd never suffered. Sherlock Holmes was a psychosomatic pain in his chest.
John hated it, hated this and whatever made it have to be this way. "So what now, Sherlock? What... what happens now?"
Sherlock shrugged slightly, returning to stand behind his chair though he made no move to sit. He was wearing out John's neck. "You've more than adequately proven that your moral compass will not permit me to be your friend and also the world's next consulting criminal. My choice is simple: I chose you."
The corners of John's mouth rose on their own accord. His brows, pinched tight with worry and fatigue, were the more genuine expressions. "And Moran's going to let you do that? Just walk away from the table, hands clean, no hard feelings?"
"I speak with his informant tonight. It won't be a long wait before he knows my answer and I know his."
"And when are we doing this?" John asked, not even aware for a moment that he'd counted himself alongside him; habit.
Sherlock shook his head. "We're not meeting anyone. This I do alone."
Because it was dangerous. Because he was uncertain. Because he was scared. "Because you're probably going to get killed the minute you let them know Sherlock Holmes will never be James Moriarty?"
Sherlock said nothing.
John put his face in his hands. His skin was hot and clammy. "Why did you even think for one second that this could work? You care, Sherlock. Not about a person, maybe, but about people you do genuinely care. That's why every case is important until it's solved, that's why you'd rather spend your time solving the mysteries of the things people do to each other rather than contemplate the universe or why we exist or any of what are generally considered life's great mysteries. You couldn't do what Moriarty did. If someone were innocent you couldn't take even the slightest bit of pleasure in causing them pain like that. If even I know that, how is it you don't? How could you ever be him?"
"It was the only compromise which would permit me to return."
John shook his head hard, sitting forward on the edge of his seat. "You said you found the code."
"The code that makes you safe in the absence of my death. There is no code for my own safety. And because I am a target, by being with me you are too once again." Sherlock steadied himself on the chair, head hanging with his bangs falling over his face. Again he failed to raise his eyes to meet his friend's face as he spoke. "John... Mycroft believed this to be... extremely cruel of me. He felt I should have dealt with this on my own and not involved you at all until the outcome was certain. But I couldn't. It wasn't even worth trying to. Maybe you will hate me for rising from the dead for only a handful of days but for me it's been worth it."
"Shut up, Sherlock. Just shut-... Run away. Leave. Run away, go find yourself a nice place to settle down--I don't know, keep bees if you need some excitement, and just... don't give up."
Sherlock smiled sadly, fingers tracing the lace pattern on the table cloth. "If I ran, would you run with me?"
John's jaw locked, his throat too tight to swallow. "... I can't do that, Sherlock. You.. know I can't."
"Then neither can I."
"Dammit, Sherlock, don't.. Don't put yourself at someone else's mercy. These men don't have any!" John was standing. Suddenly the blood was pumping again through his arms and legs, his hands shaking with intention rather than nerves and his feet heavy, ready to stand firm. This was worse than his note. This felt responsible; caked in guilt like mud on boot soles.
Sherlock rolled his shoulders back, standing tall. "Drug addict, anorexic; wasting, was it, Doctor? While I disagree with your diagnosis I am not ignorant to my symptoms. I am killing myself as it were. This transport serves no purpose if my mind is left to rot." He pointed to his head for emphasis, as though John could somehow forget what his friend valued most. Some words were said too often to forget. Some were simply left unsaid. "There are two things in life I value: my work and you, John. If I can have neither then I don't care what else happens."
John's fist hit the table again, this time purposefully knocking over the satsumas. Ignorant admissions, thoughtless words. "Mycroft was right. You should have just stayed dead."
"I won't disappoint you this time, then."
No. "Jesus... Sherlock, What can I do? What do you need? You wouldn't do this to me if there wasn't something I could do to help so what is it?"
Sherlock smiled slightly, the rare look of being impressed flashing over his dark features. "Well thought." The smile fell flat and cool as his lips laid flat like tired peaks. "You've done all you could have done at this point though, John. Thank you. Really all that's left is for you to decide whether or not you want to leave things unsaid this time just in case when you leave here, this is our last conversation."
"I hate you."
Sherlock blinked, his grey eyes caught on John's icy glare under the flutter of panicked lashes. His lips parted not for speech but to release a stutter of surprise. He flinched, startled and childlike and forever searching for retraction.
"I hate you." John stood with fists trembling at his sides and moments from flying. He wanted to hit him, wanted to strike his terrified face, wanting to make sense of the hurt he felt and make Sherlock hurt for putting it there. "I h- I don't want to be this important to anyone!"
Sherlock closed his eyes, invisible to no one. "I was once that important to you."
John raised his hand and grabbed him by the neck, pulling his head down to embrace his lips with his own in a rough press. He could feel his teeth press back from a jaw closed shut and the definite line of the bow of his lips, broader and softer than his own. He didn't linger. He created a seal, he sucked, he formed a kiss as any other human being had done before but never to these spiteful gates. He released him, hand falling from his neck as he ended the brief encounter and took a step back, ignoring the sizzle of sensation now pulsing at his mouth from even so short a touch.
Sherlock's eyes were wide, lips finally parting as his fingers rose to touch them, betraying the existence of similar sparkles of chemical interest playing on his flesh.
John cleared his throat, stepping past him towards the door. "Don't.. don't read into that. That was a lifetime ago. Two of them now." More than most people got and too much for him. John licked his lips, pursed them, tried to dispel the memory that now lingered on them. At least he now knew. Maybe it could have been but it certainly never was.
He wasn't sure what he expected. Whatever it had been, it wasn't Sherlock standing still in perfect silence where he'd left him, uncharacteristically speechless and paralyzed. More effective than a punch and just as painful to deliver. John reached for the door handle, steeling himself for goodbye.
"Love is like the stars, John."
John paused, turning to look back.
Sherlock had not moved save to bow his head. "I may not find it important or care to know all that much about it, but I can still appreciate it."
"I would have needed you to have done a lot more than just appreciate it."
"Goodbye, Sherlock. Really, just... goodbye." John turned the handle and let himself out, leaning against the door once he pulled it closed behind him. Sherlock wouldn't follow. There was closure now. Somehow. It felt as much like denial as it ever had.
Hope this left everyone a bit ambivalent and no one too terribly angry. Thank you so much for sticking with this story. Full reveal next chapter.
"Hello, you've reached the mobile of Dr. John Watson. I'm busy at the moment but please leave your name, number, and reason for calling. If it is a medical emergency, please do not wait for a call back to seek immediate help. I will try and answer back as quickly as possible in all cases. Thank you."
"..John..... Well, I suppose this is as good a way as any. He's going to die, John. The world has been unkind to him but my brother has been unkind to us all in turn. He was not, however, completely forthcoming when you spoke this evening. There remains one secret not yet shared. He is willing to die for what he knows, John. Willing to die for you again. And it is assisted suicide, surely; there is no reason he has to face this tonight instead of return to hiding but.. well, you know Sherlock. He loves to be dramatic. The information will not die with him, though. I won't speak a word of it but that does not mean that some day, years from now, you won't come to know it as we do. And as I have wrestled with my part in this... I remain unsure as to what is truly the kinder option. And so I leave it to you, John, with this final warning: if you learn this secret, your entire life will change once more and Sherlock may still die either way. The only thing you stand to gain is knowledge and the ability to make an informed decision; everything else is forfeit.
Sherlock leaves at ten. I will send a car for you at that time. If you get in the car, you will learn everything. If you do not, my lips are forever sealed.
This is his fault. We must not forget that. Do not pity him, do not do anything for his sake solely. This is about you, John. It has been from the start. I will blame you for nothing either way."
Sherlock stood with his coat collar up, scarf pulled around his neck, no disguise, no weapons, no pretenses, nothing but a lonely frown reserved for the moonlight rolling in through the rickety ventilation ducts in the ceiling of the abandoned warehouse. Cold concrete floors, trash and scraps against the walls, a few hanging chains from days of working machinery, a wrap around loft from the open floor above; spacious, a great deal of emptiness all reserved now for transients of all kinds. Sherlock could see the stars above through the large broken panes of ancient windows. The lights of London often dulled the intensity of their brilliance but further out, where the streets were less traveled and the lanterns not often lit, he could see they were not only brighter but in greater magnitude. Sometimes it was not the light which revealed the true nature of things. Sometimes, as with stars, it was the darkness.
Then again, if one wanted to go star gazing, one had only to wait for the morning when the biggest and brightest star in the sky rose in the east. Odd that. People seemed to forget to count the sun among the celestial stars, preferring the temporary pin points on the black velvet of night to the blinding brilliance of the day. The night stars and their constellations were lovely but ornamental. Idiots who pointed up at the brightest of them were often fooled by the Mars and Venus--not stars at all but yet another trick of the sun to remind the world it was still there, still waiting, not afraid of the dark in the slightest. Sherlock's favorite star had always been the sun.
And that was life; one analogy as simple as starlight which explained everything he was, everything he wanted and the basic mechanics of his entire life's work. The way he looked at the world was as different from ordinary people as night and day.
The warehouse whistled with air through her empty halls, chains chattering with rusty groans. Sherlock kept his gloved hands fisted deep in his pockets from the cold night breeze. He was early but that meant nothing to the people he was involved with. If he arrived at ten, they'd been there since eight setting up. As personal as he felt the case was, the situation was hardly being conducted as such. One person connected to a web was always part of something much greater. The spider was surely watching. He breathed out, wishing for a cigarette and feeling rather stupid for not having taken any with him. Not the first of his regrets but his current one. His breath looked like smoke but failed to please him.
"You're early," a voice called, its timbre alluding to mild amusement as it bounced through the emptiness of the room.
Sherlock faced her, offering a forced smile. "Will Teacher be giving me a gold star for attendance?"
Mary hummed an appreciative note as she walked towards him, the heals of her shoes louder than the wind could ever hope to be. "It can be arranged. It would make for an interesting decoration on that tombstone of yours." She stopped ten feet in front of him, her breath in wisps through her pink, parted lips. Her smile turned sour as she paused, finally fading to a look of tired indifference. "This all could have been avoided had you just stayed away. Do you think I enjoy this?"
"No. Neither do I think this was in any way unavoidable." Sherlock eyed her stance, the shape of her hands in her pockets, the position of her feet. "You will at least be happy to know what you will not be having to call me your boss. I decline. And therein lies our dilemma; yours and mine."
Sherlock nodded, eyes never leaving hers as she stared back uncomfortably. "He chooses you, Mary. He loves you. But he also chooses the side of good, which you are clearly not on. If I stay in London, if I go back to work, if I become a nuisance, can you promise me on your life that never will an order come down to put John in harms way to target me?"
"No. You know there's not." Mary looked away, her left hand pulling from her pocket to push her blonde hair over her shoulder, the pearl bracelet spinning on her wrist. "As long as you're alive and in business, John will always be a potential target."
"In which case for me, you are the greatest threat to his life, and for you, I am. There is no possible way for us to both be a part of John's life."
"I told you as much."
Sherlock smiled just slightly, remembering their conversation in the sitting room, Mycroft distracting John perfectly for just enough time to come to an understanding. "Oh, I never doubted it. I needed to test you, though. See how far you'd go. Were you aware that Jacob nearly murdered John last night? He nearly took a bullet for me the night before. Your attempts to get me out of the way have nearly killed him twice now."
"He never said-"
"No. John wouldn't wish to worry you. He will lie and hold a lie to his grave if it means sparing pain to someone he loves."
Mary's shoulders hitched closer to her ears, her face drawing closed with disapproval. "Don't talk about John like you know him better than I do."
"I will because I do. The only reason we're even discussing this is because of chromosomal favoritism. On an equal playing field, I would win hands down." He held his smile, that tiniest bit of truth the only thing he had left to hold over her. It hid the bite of disappointment, the maddening acceptance of defeat and yet again for the gift of his design and through no fault. "I concede to the fact that if I stay, I will be the death of him and so no matter Sebastian's reply, I will leave London and John forever. But not before I know one more thing. Your bracelet, Mrs. Morstan. Particular kind of pearls found in the Indian ocean. That smuggler father of yours sent you back plenty of nice things but Moriarty kept that one especially, didn't he?
Yes, I know your story. Military father turned smuggler when the right sort of men offered him the right sort of incentive. Young girl, seventeen, just trying to help Daddy and playing the perfect little look out, unsuspecting and invisible--Moriarty's little eyes. You sold your soul to the devil for a shot at revenge when the other smugglers turned on him. And the devil made you a promise, didn't he? One pearl returned for ever deed done; a contract void once the bracelet was complete. So tell me, Mary, is there a pearl there that came with an order to get close to John?"
Mary was silent, mouth held tightly closed as the tendrils of breath blew out from her nose like dragon smoke. She averted her eyes for a moment, breasts heaving with a long, deep breath. "...No matter how things started, it doesn't change the fact that I love him now."
"Surely." Sherlock took no pleasure in being right this time. He smiled all the same. "And the pearl that was returned to you on Saturday. What order did it come with?"
Mary returned the empty smile, her right hand drawing up from the pocket of her brown coat with a small black gun in its grasp. "Kill Sherlock Holmes," she said. She clicked the safety off.
"Moran never intended for me to accept let alone decline and walk away."
"You're the reason Moriarty is dead; did you really think he was going to just forgive that?"
Sherlock breathed a laugh. There was always something; he was never quite one-hundred percent correct. "Of course. It wasn't Jacob Saturday night; it was you. You texted John right after to make sure he was okay having seen him throw us both out of the line of fire. You had to see that you hadn't hit him on accident. Yesterday you couldn't risk being identified in the card hall, however, and sent Moriarty's cheap labor in. You wanted to do it yourself, though, which is why I was drugged with a heavy sedative and not poisoned instead. You weren't aware Jacob had his own ideas about ignoring Moriarty's last order. No time to do research, I'd only given you half a day's notice to come up with something."
"You weren't playing fair."
"I'd say that makes two of us." Sherlock took a step back, spreading his arms out wide, his coat falling open where he hadn't bothered with the buttons. "Well, what are you waiting for then? Under orders, abandoned building, John's safety on the line. I'm tired of being a dead man. Go ahead and make me a corpse."
"I will. I need to know what you told him, though. About me. You're clever, you knew what this was coming down to. Is there a secret note somewhere, a tape, an e-mail, some message that in a few days, or months, or years is going to show up and tell him what's been going on?" She was breathing harder, hand shaking: scared. She was scared to lose him, for him to know. She was almost done with this contract, two more favors to complete. Sherlock wondered if she really believed it would end after that. Surely not.
"Nothing so cruel. He can't have us both but I'm certainly not going to be the reason he can have neither of us. As I said; he loves you. I have said nothing and I have ordered my brother to do the same. And I think, this time, John really will hate me. You'll no longer have to live in the shadow of Sherlock Holmes. I'm sure you'll both be happier for it. No promises he won't still try and name your first born after me but on a personal note I sort of like the idea of this weighing on your conscious forever."
Mary nodded, her aim steady, her mind at ease. "Anything I have to do that will save John is worth it. I'm never going to regret this."
The click of a safety flicked off and the cock of a chamber echoed again--impossible, safety already off, wrong kind of gun--a second gun. Why? The echo made it hard to pinpoint the location of the second gunman but Mary had not missed it either, her own eyes scanning and at once growing large as footsteps scrapped across the concrete floor.
"Safety on, Mary. Gun down. Nice and slow."
Sherlock froze under the eruption of goose pimples across his body at the sound of that voice. He looked to Mary, her angry, scared eyes demanding an answer that Sherlock did not have. He shook his head; it wasn't him. John being there helped nothing and he had played no part in it.
Mary stammered, her left hand wrapping around the right and the gun to help keep at the ready as nerves hampered her steady hands. "John... I.."
"Don't. I heard... everything." John walked to join them in a triangle, his body choosing no sides as he refrained from standing too near either. His gun was aimed and ready to fire, pointed with full confidence at his girlfriend. "Just put the gun away so we can talk like civilized people."
"I'm sorry, John... I have orders..."
"Mary... I don't want to shoot you. But if you don't put that gun away, I'm not certain how else you expect me to disarm you." His voice cracked, his tone pleading. Steady as a rock. He didn't dare look away, hardly seemed willing to blink. This was the man who had risen to the rank of Captain, a man who could put everything behind him in order to do his duty, even if that duty was shooting the woman he loved to stop the murder of a friend.
Sherlock watched him with morbid interest. John wasn't the brightest man in the world but there was no possible way in which he could have believed this would end well. He was throwing his life away; not the physical state of breathing and bleeding but the part that made it life and not simple survival. John's optimism and love were killing him in the face of immovable obstacles.
John had already seen him die once already. He did not relish a repeat performance. "John, turn around and walk away."
"Not this time, Sherlock."
"John, honey, listen to both of us!" Mary's panic was escalating. Her eyes were wet. "You know these people. I can't disobey an order. I don't want to do this in front of you, please, baby, please go!"
John shook his head, taking a step back from her, his instance that he'd shoot made all the more believable as he increased his range for her safety. "No one is dying here. We can work this out. We can think of something, now put the gun down!"
Mary saw it first: the light. A spec of red, a hint of intention, a light that said 'go' and not 'stop' as it fell heavy on the black of John's jacket over the plane of his heart. Not alone--these things were never left to chance. No matter what they both wanted separately, on this they had never argued. Mary saw and looked with terror towards Sherlock as he nodded once. No time to spare. Shoot.
He counted three gunshots as he fell backwards towards the floor: one muffled one--Mary's, one booming one--John's, and one silent one made audible only by the sound of impact. He heard two bodies fall to the ground besides his own.
Being shot hurt. He wondered if it hurt more in the deserts of Afghanistan than it did the in a cold, abandoned warehouse near London. He imagined it did not. People in Afghanistan wanted you dead and hated what you stood for, nothing personal. In the war for John, he most certainly had not wanted to die beside him.
Sherlock opened his eyes, watching the chains swing overhead. He tried not to groan as he rolled onto his side, curling in around a bleeding hole in his side. A terrible job. Between surprise, fear, and John's own bullet, Sherlock supposed he couldn't blame her too much for giving him the opportunity to bleed out slowly rather than just simply die and have it done with. Nothing in his life had ever been done easily, why should death be different?
He looked at John, on his back and sprawling with his gun no longer in his grasp. Night light caught the wetness on his face as the cold made sure he was breathing. Sherlock smiled, resting his head on the ground, watching the glitter and smoke.
Mary groaned on the floor, small sobs echoing as she tried to move. Sherlock looked down where several feet away he could see her crawling towards John, one arm limp and leaving a trail of blood. She choked on his name as she dragged her knees across the gravel and smooth poured flooring. John remained unmoved but still breathing, a sight Sherlock hoped she'd soon realize and at least have the decency to shut up.
He wasn't at all surprised to see the red light return, sliding across the concrete. A professional never left anything to chance--a target wasn't left bleeding, it was left dead. Sherlock could see the light out of the corner of his eye as it fell to his temple. A quick shot. A more merciful death. He supposed he should thank Moran for not taking the opportunity to shatter his knee caps, blow off his fingers, his feet, or generally make this worse than needs be. The light seemed to say 'this is business, nothing personal". Oh, how little lights lied.
Sherlock closed his eyes, facing the sun, as the fourth and final shot fired.
John woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with a headache, a couple very sore ribs, and a feeling of despair. It was only the handcuffs that were hard to justify and even then it only took a moment to think it through with a mind foggy on pain medication. Of course he was cuffed. That's what people did to criminals who murdered their girlfriends. He smiled, unable to keep the laugh from his lips. At some point in his life he must have really pissed God off. He opened his eyes at his own hysterics, trying to bite his lips closed as he wished not only to stop laughing but not to cry.
"Ay, there we go. John?"
John sobered quickly at the familiar voice, his hand jumping in its metal tie. It'd been years. "God, you got old," he muttered, trying to cover for his behavior via the least effective means possible.
Lestrade laughed, crossing over to his bed past a pulled curtain that separated John's side from his neighbor's. "Good to see you too." He stood at his side, that weary smile of hard days gone by more inflected with the worry of others on their way. "You know, Kevlar's only good at stopping bullets. It can't do much for you if you smash your noggin on the floor when you're knocked back. Oh and, uh... sorry about the... well. You know. Mycroft said you might need to be restrained so you can blame him for this, not me. Just... following orders."
"Restrained? You tell him John says go fuck yourself." John winced, speaking faster than his mind could keep up, saying stupid things. "No.. sorry. Don't... tell him that."
"Well, I might do anyway. I'll just tell him it's from me." Lestrade smiled as he pulled up a chair, taking a seat on the arm to keep on even level. "So... you want a friend to visit or you want to get talking to the Detective Inspector out of the way first?"
John swallowed, his mouth dry beyond belief. He closed his eyes, still feeling tears far too close to the surface to be okay with. He took a few breaths, thinking of his training. Soldiers don't cry on the battle field. "I killed her. I.. shot her. It wasn't self defense but she was going to shoot someone else--oh God, she did." He tried to pull his hand to his mouth but clanged against the bed's rack. He used the other hand.
Lestrade grabbed a large, plastic cup of water sitting to the side and handed it to him. "You didn't kill her. And that part of the story's already been explained. You don't have to answer any questions, really. I just... This isn't the interrogation part of the job, John. This is the breaking it to the family part."
Sherlock. John took a long sip from the straw of the cup, pleased with the cool water and the way it shocked his senses. He had hesitated too long. Mary got her shot off. He'd failed to save him. Again.
It hurt like dying. Again. Worse because he'd been right there. Had he not hit his head, he might even have been able to hold him, apologize, tell him thank you for trying.
"It wasn't you who did the shooting but.... it is Mary, John. Don't even need ballistics to determine who done it. Completely different model from yours, matched the smashed up slug that dented up that vest of yours. I'm.. real sorry, John."
John stared at him, the jug of water feeling heavier in his hand. "Sh-... Sherlock?"
Lestrade shook his head, standing from his perch to walk across the room. "Now this I can't believe you managed to hide from us. I mean.... how?" He pulled the cloth divider down its track, revealing not all but most of the other occupant, his pale skin against the white bedding, dark curls across the pillow, machines showing good readings and plenty of morphine pumping into his veins.
"Guess that's the good news. It was him who called me. Swear to you, I thought he was speaking from the other side till we pulled up and.. well, Christ, John. Never been so scared to have a dead man die before. He'll be asleep a while. Just out of surgery. Going to be just fine, though. Impossible bastard."
John slumped against his pillow, eyes glued to the peacefully resting face in the other bed.
And he fainted.
Thus concludes Pantomime. Thank you very much for reading, kisses for the kudos, and all my love for those who have commented—many hearts for all <3. I intend to write more in this timeline but do not have any solid ideas as of yet. I hope you're not too terribly confused or upset but, of course, Mary Morstan dies before Sherlock's return in the short stories so for me, she had to be gone for him to really come home.
Please let me know what you thought in the comments. It helps me get an idea if there's any desire for more in this series.