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The Initial Problem

Chapter Text

The smell of flowers in the Master's office was overpowering. The source was only a single vase on a windowsill. John didn't have a clue what species they were, but he didn't like them. Too perfumey and showy. They suited the man who sat across the desk.

Doctor Holmes smiled in that way people do when they want to make concessions but aren't in fact pleased with the situation. Such a stark contrast from the army. John fought the urge to shift around in the hard wooden seat.

"What puzzles me, Mr. Watson," Doctor Holmes said, "is why someone so clearly set on the path to academic success would make the rather abrupt decision to toss it all aside and enlist instead in the military." His voice carried a note of distaste when he said the word military.

"Fi—" John started to say, but his voice failed him, so he cleared his throat and tried again. "Financial reasons."

"Of course. I don't suppose I need tell you again how committed St Benedict's is to the success of every student, regardless of their means."

"No." John cleared his throat again. It hadn't so much been an inability to access grants and loans as it had been the need for someone in the family besides Dad to be working for pay. And no one was going to rely on Harry to be that someone.

"I also needn't reassure you how delighted we are to accept you, again, into the program. A student with aptitude such as yours is a most welcome addition to our institution."

Had he prepared a script ahead of time, or did he spout cliches naturally? John wished he'd just get to the point. "I'm... glad to come, I mean, it really means the world to me, but." John knew he didn't sound excited, but it was Cambridge for Christ's sake, he shouldn't have to explain how much he wanted it. "I thought I'd have to start next year, on account of how late I requested entry."

"That is why I called you here today, Mr. Watson. We've had an... unexpected opening in your course. When considering who could fill it, yours was the first name that came to my mind."

John's breath caught and he tried not to show his surprise. It was a happy one, yes, but somehow he didn't like the idea of sharing emotions with Mycroft Holmes. What sort of name was Mycroft, anyhow? Not one that screamed trustworthy.

The Master continued. "The room we have available is in a double set with a second year student. I hope you don't have an aversion to sharing your study area and bathroom?"

But John's heart sank, or at least it would have if he'd been cheerful in the first place. A second year would have friends already, and more than likely all the other first years had grown acquainted through Freshers' Week events. He already felt like an outsider, and this was likely to make it worse. "Sounds great."

Another smile from Holmes. He looked too young to be a doctor, let alone Master. Thirtyish, John would have said if asked. Must have aged well. "Isn't it? The room was cleaned out almost immediately after the disappearance, so you're free to move in as soon as you'd like. Provided you're accepting the offer, of course."

"Sorry," John said, "did you say disappearance?"

Holmes made a noise which was not quite a chuckle, but an ah-ah-ah vocalisation. "What other word suits such an abrupt exit before the start of term? University life proved too strenuous for him, I imagine."

Not particularly reassuring, but John hadn't planned to do anything else with his life for the coming year. "Yes, then, I accept. Sir."

"Splendid. When you've returned with your things, check in with the Porters' lodge for your key. You must contact your Director of Studies for your schedule, but I of course will let them know to expect you. Congratulations, Mr. Watson, and good luck. Welcome to St Benedict's College."

***

John was back that same evening with a single suitcase of his belongings. Term started in two days and he wanted as much time as possible to acquaint himself with his new home (and flatmate, provided the latter wasn't already too busy).

The porter on duty smirked as he fetched John the room key. "Baker's Court. Victor Trevor's old room. Good luck, mate."

"Do I really need it?" John asked.

The porter gave a harsh laugh. "The lad you're sharing with. You'll see."

An irritating response. John resolved to like his neighbour.

He found room 221 without much trouble. Out of courtesy, he knocked rather than simply letting himself in. No answer. He knocked again and waited only a moment, since his good shoulder ached from carrying the suitcase and he was eager to set it down.

He turned the key in the lock and opened the door. The room that greeted him was cold and dark. "Hello?" John called. He fumbled for a light switch on the wall and flicked it on.

The shared study room was spacious and would be well-lit during the day, for it had three large windows along the wall. The center one contained a cushioned window seat. Two desks were positioned under the far windows, and—John was somewhat miffed to see—both were cluttered. One was covered in books and papers, the other in Petri dishes and what appeared to be a human skull, though a plaster model no doubt. Did that mean the other student was reading medicine, as well? That could be good.

In the center of the room were two armchairs separated by a low table, on which sat more books and papers, as well as a violin out of its case. Music, then? That could also be good, or very bad, depending.

Both bedroom doors were closed, and neither was marked in any way. Trial and error would have to do. John tried the door farthest from the skull, knocking first, then opening it when he got no response.

This was definitely not his room. "Complete disarray" was too mild a phrase. Books, more books, dirty clothing, empty mugs, crumpled crisp packets, ash trays (definitely not good). Curiously the bed was neatly made underneath the squalor. John shut off the light and closed the door.

The other room was empty, as promised. Hastily empty. The wardrobe doors and dresser drawers were all half open. John thought of Mycroft letting slip the word "disappearance" and a twinge of uneasiness crawled down the back of his neck.

He let out a groan when he saw the bare mattress. Of course. Why hadn't he thought to bring his own bed linen?

He dropped his suitcase to the floor and rolled his good shoulder around, then gave his bad shoulder a slight squeeze since it was stiffening up too. He could walk into town and buy some sheets; it wasn't too late and he'd probably find a shop open. But he wasn't up for it. What he needed was painkillers and sleep. Sleep in his clothes with a rolled up towel as a pillow, perhaps, but sleep all the same. He could hardly complain when a few months ago he'd literally slept in a frigid hole in the ground.

Then again, that was before he'd been shot and landed with a bad shoulder.  He was obligated to care more about comfort now. John felt old. 21-year-olds weren't supposed to have aches and pains. They also weren't supposed to be starting their first year at university, with no friends, not even a single familiar face from secondary school at their college.

John lay on the bed and squeezed his eyes shut. They stung, though he couldn't say whether it was from fatigue or something else. He reconsidered going into town. A blanket would make him feel less alone, somehow.

There came the scratching sound of a key in the front door, and then it swung open and was slammed shut. John's heart leapt into his throat and his thoughts went straight to the gun packed between rolls of socks in his suitcase.

Don't be ridiculous; it's the other guy from the set. He heard noisy footsteps that stopped abruptly after their owner was a few paces in. Then silence for several seconds.

The floor was creaky enough that he could tell the other student—what was his name, John didn't even know his name—was stepping towards John's bedroom door. There was a creak just outside, then more silence. John's pulse pounded in his temples. He would pretend to be asleep. Or he would lunge for his gun. Why was this making him anxious?

But his door didn't open. The footsteps, fast and pounding once more, retreated. The other bedroom door opened and John heard what sounded like frantic rummaging around in the mess. The bedroom door slammed shut once more; then came more footsteps, then the front door opening and closing. John was alone again.

 His eyes snapped open. His breath came a little easier now, and he was more alert. John could never deny he enjoyed an adrenaline rush, even one brought on by something so random as an enigmatic neighbour.

John climbed off the mattress, put his shoes back on, and put his wallet back in his pocket. He was bloody well going out to buy a blanket and pillow after all.