“You’ll be wanting what, now?”
John Watson kept his gaze steady as the Firefly captain stared down at him from his cargo ramp, a tall man in a long brown duster, with the low-slung hip holster of an experienced gunslinger around his waist.
“Passage for a while. Couple months,” John said.
“Who’s after you?” he asked immediately.
The captain was no fool, and John gave him some points in the man’s favor. “No one. We have someplace to be in two months, but don’t care to stay around here until then. If you can get us to Krandle Station when we need it, we’ll try to stay out of your way until then.”
“Not needing any more passengers,” the captain said shortly.
“I’ve got coin,” John said, showing a platinum piece just long enough for the captain to be reasonably sure of its value at that distance, and quickly put it away before someone opportunistic saw it.
“He needs your money, John. He’ll do it.” John’s companion, a tall, pale-skinned man with a mess of dark, curly hair, lurked nearby in clothing far more suited to Persephone’s upper crust than the Eavesdown Docks.
“And why would that be?” the captain asked, looking right at Sherlock.
“Your ship is in desperate need of repair, judging by the body language of your engineer, and even a modest fee from two passengers for that period of time would cover any number of engine parts easily. However you don’t care to have terms dictated to you on your ship, not surprising as your cargo is less than legal in some parts of this system and you’d rather we not stumble over it, not to mention the fact that you’re a former Independent and wouldn’t want to get into any Alliance entanglements if your passengers prove to be wanted by the officials.”
John put his head in his hand briefly as the captain stared at Sherlock as if he’d just been sucker punched.
“I do think that purse should cover your fees and your objections, considering we aren’t on any current watch lists. Pay the man, John,” Sherlock said, and returned to his people-watching of the colorful crowds.
“Your friend always like that?” the captain demanded.
“Sometimes more so.” John took a few steps closer and held the money close to his chest. “Generally we’re both quiet. I’m a medic, so I can help your crew if anything should happen. We’re not looking for trouble, just needing to be away from here for a while.”
“Already got a doc, and a good one.” However, the captain reached out and took the money, tossing the bag behind him with a sharp call of, “Kaylee!” The brightly clothed young woman, the engineer Sherlock had spotted earlier talking agitatedly at the captain, caught the bag awkwardly, looked inside, and smiled so that her face lit up. “Get what we need and stop hounding me about it.”
“Aye-aye, cap’n!” she said cheekily and stuffed the pouch in her coveralls. A few minutes later she left with a tough-looking woman and a loudly-dressed man, leaving John and the captain alone except for a few curious looks.
“John,” Sherlock said, and nodded slightly at the captain. “Roscoe Bridges.” John took a second look with Sherlock’s hint in mind, and nodded back.
“You’re a Shadow man, captain, aren’t you?”
“Plenty of people from Shadow about,” he said, not flinching.
“I lived there myself for a while. Baker. Had a Patent Brown horse.”
The captain relaxed the tiniest of margins, and allowed himself a smile.
“If I find you’re lying about the Alliance being after you, I’ll space you myself, got it?”
“I’m Malcolm Reynolds. This is Serenity.”
River clung to the railing of the staircase, watching one of their passengers. Sherlock had been curled up in a chair in the lounge outside medbay for the better part of two days. He’d scarcely spoken, and barely acknowledged the crew. Jayne thought he was spooky. Mal had found him merely unsettling. He wouldn’t even respond to Inara, not even to dismiss or exclaim, ogle or wonder. And everyone responded to Inara, one way or another.
That was very strange, as River was certain Sherlock missed nothing.
The first day out, John, the man who’d come on board with Sherlock, had managed to get him into the galley, though Sherlock had refused to let go of his Cortex comm. Sherlock had spent his entire tenure on Serenity locked in communion with his machine. Except when he decided his talent was needed. That first day in the galley, Zoe had accused Jayne of taking the last bean bun she’d been saving for Wash. Without looking up, Sherlock had unexpectedly spoken up, reeling off two dozen devastatingly accurate observations that proved Book had been sleep-eating.
River let herself down from the railing and curled up in a chair next to Sherlock, both of them oblivious to everything else going on around them.
Simon felt a shard of ice stab his gut when he walked into Serenity’s tiny medbay to see one of the passengers reviewing a brain scan. River’s brain scan.
“What the hell are you doing?” Simon demanded, pouring every ounce of authority he could into his voice.
The passenger turned around; Dr. Watson. No hope for it. Simon couldn’t bluff his way out of this, couldn’t count on layman’s ignorance to explain away the damage visible even from the doorway.
“The captain said it would be all right to use these computers…” Dr. Watson said, holding a hand up. “I needed to examine the scans I brought with me.”
Like hell, Simon thought darkly. The doctor had to be another Alliance spy, hunting for the outlaw Tam siblings. Simon took a cautious half-step closer, ready to scream for help the minute Dr. Watson showed his true colors. “Those are my sister’s scans. You hacked my files.”
Watson started, growing pale. “These are Sherlock’s scans.”
Simon forgot about caution and stepped close, examining the scans minutely. Almost unbelieving, he tapped keys to bring River’s scans up side-by-side. One brain was definitely older, with slightly more remodeling from the same wounds. The same exact kinds of wounds…
“My God,” Watson said softly.
“You use your contradictory nature to diminish thanks for your accomplishments,” River said.
“I don’t need hangers-on. If they can’t observe, too bad,” Sherlock said, keeping his eyes fixed on the tiny screen in front of him.
“You could be more generous, but you won’t.”
“You’re stating the obvious,” Sherlock said, flicking his eyes up.
“I knew who ate the bean bun, but the words often come out in a spiral fashion at inopportune times.”
“Focus on the minutiae and speak out loud. It strengthens linear speech pathways,” Sherlock said, his pale gazing fixing on her.
“The datastream can be overwhelming,” River confessed.
“Reduce input. Limit your interactions to a specific timeframe.”
“I prefer motion to gain focus.”
Sherlock looked her over critically. “They went more physical after I escaped.”
“It was necessary for control and lucidity.” River’s hand shot out to touch Sherlock’s temple. “Consistency helps me.”
Sherlock smiled. “That’s why I have John. If you have at least one thing, as well as your work, it all stays together in a symmetrical whole.”
River pondered that. “I dance.”
“So I wasn’t the first,” Simon said wonderingly.
John shook his head. “I took Sherlock out of the pilot program. They increased security after I left. I’m sorry it took so much to get your sister out.”
“Sherlock is… functional,” Simon said, questions in his eyes.
“Took us fifteen years,” John said, a great weariness in his voice.
“Was it worth it? Is he happy?” Simon asked.
John nodded toward the window, where River was dancing before Sherlock, the man enraptured by the formulas and mathematics of her movements.
“Yes. It was worth every minute.”
Simon watched the two for a long time, trying to add up things in his head.
“Will you tell me about it?”
“It’s hard, I know,” John said.
“I don’t know, not everything, not yet. Things have only been getting stranger the longer we’re out here,” Simon said.
“Your crew, do they know?”
Simon nodded, and John nodded slowly in return.
“All right. But don’t expect it all at once.”
Simon spread his hands in understanding. “We have a lot of time out here in the black.”
“That’s really all we ever have.”
River stepped into the infirmary as Simon was closing her files and looked at him and John in her peculiar way. Simon braced himself emotionally; he knew that look in her eyes.
“It’s not necessary to hold back. Simon will need everything you can give him. He hides it well, but he worries too much about me. A secondary line of treatment would be beneficial for everyone, and despite the similarities, I’m not quite like Sherlock,” River said earnestly. “I dance. I don’t deduce. I know. Ask Jayne, he won’t answer because he fears I’ll kill him with my brain.”
John blinked. “You can do that?”
“Most likely. Your family didn’t approve of what you did, and that saved them from the Alliance. It makes you sad. But you shouldn’t be. Sherlock would do anything to help you. Expressions are difficult, sometimes, but you understand that.”
John blanched when she brought up his family. “How did you-?”
“Sister lost herself in the bottle, angry at everything. You needed to get away, but didn’t expect this. It’s ok. You know it turned out for the best.”
John’s color returned slowly as River silently padded from the room.
“That’s what they were trying to do?” he asked, sounding appalled. Appalled at the academy, not River, a distinction Simon appreciated.
“They stripped her amygdala completely. She feels and sees everything,” Simon said softly. John wondered how they’d managed to learn that; Serenity certainly didn’t have the scanning gear to look that deep into someone brain. The only reason he had Sherlock’s scans was because Sherlock had hacked his own records and smuggled them out with John.
“She’s… a reader.” John paused, reluctant to say the next word, but there was no other explanation for what River had said. “Psychic?”
Simon was silent for a long moment. “Yes. I’ve watched her get information out of people, accidentally, that no one could have guessed. Not even Sherlock.”
John shivered slightly. “Sherlock still has some filtering capacity left. Not much, but a little.”
“The academy must have realized they could get even more out of their students.”
John could see the anger on Simon’s face, buried under Core propriety, physician’s calm, and pure determination. It was sharper than John’s, fed with guilt of family betrayal, that he had not saved his sister sooner. John’s anger had been tempered with a decade and a half of fear and care and careful budgeting his resources, so that his anger not take away anything from his patient. The one who’d shown him real life, who’d brought him back to life after the war.
“Then they made their own problems,” John said. “If she’s even better than Sherlock, they won’t be able to touch her.”
“They’ve already tried,” Simon said tightly. “Twice.”
John gestured at the ship around them. “But you’re still here.”
Simon nodded slowly, and cast his gaze up the steps. “Are you willing to tell the others?”
“Oh, we insist,” Sherlock said from the doorway. Simon jumped, John merely sighed. “I do expect the Captain’s reaction will be highly entertaining.”
“Doc, I told you that if the Feds were after you I’d space you myself,” Mal said, his expression stormy. John looked back at him mildly, unperturbed by the captain’s growing anger.
“They aren’t,” John said, but Mal all but ran over him.
“I already have enough trouble with just these two,” Mal waved his hand at Simon and River, “and they’ve proved themselves halfway useful.”
“Halfway. How generous,” Simon said blandly.
“And I don’t need another half-crazed reader with a price on his head on my boat!” Mal half-shouted.
“They think we’re dead,” John said loudly. “As far as the Feds know, we died during the Unification War. We’re buried a mile down in a collapsed mine.”
“That’s according to both official and unofficial sources as well as all gossip outlets,” Sherlock added, fingers dancing over his Cortex comm. “It’s common knowledge amongst the academy that we can’t survive long outside of custody.” He looked up and peered over at River. “Hence their desire to reclaim River before they’re proven wrong. I’d suggest you fake her death sometime soon.”
Zoe leaned over and murmured something in Mal’s ear. He backed down slightly at her words and looked a bit thoughtful.
“All right. You two got time to convince me,” he said, and lifted a finger to stop John from opening his mouth. “And if you don’t, the airlock is that way. dohn-ma?.”
“Perfectly,” John said. And Sherlock simply nodded in complete confidence.
“Doc.” John looked up and saw Sally Donovan standing in the doorway of his office, her hand around the arm of his favorite problem patient. Sherlock wore his usual expression of boredom, but he was paler than usual. The white headcloth all the students wore only emphasized his pallor.
“Complaining of double vision. Been studying too hard, this one,” she said, maneuvering Sherlock to sit on the exam table. John didn’t miss how her fingers crumpled the fabric of Sherlock’s sleeve and dug into his flesh.
“All right, let me look at him.” John made an abortive gesture to move into her space, sweeping her aside, but she held her ground, not moving from Sherlock’s side.
“Sally, your desire to improve your dreadfully over-inflated sense of self-worth is doomed to disappointment,” Sherlock said icily.
“Do you know what they were trying to do?” Simon asked.
John looked away. “I never saw the mission statement, but… They were all smart, so smart. And they were isolated, given tests, problems to solve, things to observe. The staff didn’t let them interact very often; it was supposed to make them self-sufficient, or something of the sort. Then they started cutting into their brains.”
Simon went pale, not just with perfectly understandable shock at the idea of cutting into a healthy brain, but with heartsick recognition.
“We weren’t supposed to know; the students wore headcloths as part of their uniforms, but Sherlock complained of chronic migraines that distracted him. And the staff couldn’t let one of their subjects be distracted from their work.”
Sally stiffened at the insult as Sherlock straightened in her grasp. “Your excessive grip isn’t needed to show your physical dominance over me. I assure you, I don’t need coercion to see my physician for a problem I specifically complained about.”
Sally glared and loosened her grip with ill grace. “Need him back at two, Doctor,” she said sharply, and left.
Sherlock cradled his head in his hands as the door shut behind her. “It hurts,” he said very softly. “I can’t concentrate.”
John peeled the ubiquitous headcloth away and felt his hands go still as the brain surgery scars were revealed, tracked across Sherlock’s shaved scalp like the scrawls of a disturbed genius. Old ones, new ones, some with the fine lines of a laser, others from a blade. They’d cut into his brain over and over again. Cut into it. That brain, that brilliant, inquisitive mind. What did they put in? Or take out? My God.
“Sherlock?” John asked very gently.
He looked up at John with icy determination in his pale eyes. “It’s a serious problem, John.”
Then his eyes rolled up in his head and he passed out.
“Then what happened?” Kaylee asked, eyes wide.
“He keeled over. Unconscious for two days. I had two hours to get him out of there and disappear.”
“Do tell the truth, John,” Sherlock said, not raising his gaze from the Cortex comm in his hand.
John sighed. “Sherlock left a detailed escape plan on my comm. I followed it.”
Simon tried to repress a grin and mostly succeeded. Mostly. “Then what happened?”
“I smuggled us out with the janitorial staff, then bought passage on the first non-Alliance ship headed off-world. By the time Sally got back, we were on our way out of the system. We made planetfall at Shadow a week later. I kept Sherlock out until then.” John didn’t quite meet anyone’s eyes, and he clenched and unclenched his left hand tightly. Simon knew that must have been the most concentrated dose of fear the man had ever felt in his life. Taking the first gulp of that draught was the hardest.
“And then?” Kaylee asked.
“He woke up.”
Screaming, John would have understood. Having been traumatized and abused to become some kind of superior human computer would have made anyone scream. But perhaps he should have figured that Sherlock, who’d engineered his own escape attempt while his brain was being carved up would not react in any normal fashion. Sherlock didn’t wake up screaming, he woke up thinking.
“John, what is our exact location? Exact location.” Sherlock’s voice broke the sudden silence of John’s cabin, sending his heart rate skyrocketing. Even with having countered the sedatives, John hadn’t expected to hear that.
“First thing he says after being unconscious for a week?” Zoe asked. John nodded.
“I woulda asked for beer,” Jayne proclaimed.
“We’re not in the academy anymore,” John said softly, trying to ease Sherlock into the new situation.
“Obviously.” Sherlock propped himself up on one elbow, took a single good look around, and speared John was an uncannily knowing gaze. “We’re on a Medeel-class freighter, approximately twenty years old, but at least six weeks overdue for retuned synchronizers and currently running with recycled air scrubbers, so the captain is cheap and doesn’t believe in automatic control, judging by the fact there are safety straps installed for bracing during turbulent flight. We’re in our own cabin, with fairly generous proportions for a freighter, which means we’re in senior crew quarters. You don’t have enough money to have gotten this good a berth with no questions asked, considering you were toting around a semi-conscious surgical patient, so you must have paid for the quarters with your medical skills. However, we’re landing today, given that your bags are packed and by the door, and by the engine sounds we must be within an hour of landing, which would be… Shadow, judging by the rancher’s jackets you traded for. The look doesn’t suit you, John.”
Kaylee stared in disbelief before starting to giggle.
“And I was right,” Sherlock said with an undeniable air of superiority.
“Of course you were right, you insufferable prat. I was waiting for you to start foaming at the mouth or screaming and howling or something. Not to rattle off everything I was going to tell you, leaving me quite at a loss for words.”
“It was efficient.”
John shook his head. “You just wanted to prove you were ready to handle Shadow.”
“I couldn’t continue to be a burden, could I?”
John’s expression softened, and right then he looked both far younger and far older than his actual age. He put a hand on Sherlock’s arm and Sherlock stopped texting long enough to smile at the touch. Inara could feel the power of their bond from just that minimal contact, and the priestess in her was in awe.
“So, Shadow?” Kaylee asked after a long minute.
John blinked, coming back to himself, and Sherlock returned to texting. “Right, so we left the Sandy Harper…”
Shadow was sunny and dry. Not desert country, but grassland as far as the eye could see, with the occasional trees marking watercourses and towering over any manmade building. The sun was unkind here, and John wondered what ironic surveyor had named such a sunny and treeless planet Shadow. Probably the same funny man who’d named a desert planet Whitefall.
John sighed and strapped the bag to his back, the sum of his and Sherlock’s worldly possessions. This world was too much for Sherlock’s pallor, but just right for hiding. The Alliance army barely bothered with the Outer Rim planets and didn’t have good infrastructure for surveying the populace. John hadn’t even had to register when coming on-planet, that was how disorganized and desperate the local government was to attract settlers. Too many rules tended to discourage people and Shadow was too poor to afford to frighten off anyone. John could wear his gun openly – it wasn’t illegal here, it was the status quo. Danger and death were much closer to the surface here than in the Core, flaunted on the streets. Fist fights, knife fights, and gun duels seemed to be a daily occurrence on every street, judging by people’s absent-minded ducking and blasé attitudes towards general mayhem.
It was utterly unlike anything John had experienced. It wasn’t like his neatly regimented time in boot camp or on patrol, nor the rigorous precision of his medical training and practice. It was a raw, unruly, heart-pumping, adrenaline-fueled life. To his shock, he discovered he loved it.
“Another Core boy corrupted by the wonders of the Outer Rim,” Wash joked.
“Not far wrong,” John said, smiling.
“John has an addiction to action,” Sherlock said.
“How did you meet, anyway? I mean, how did you end up in the academy in the first place?” Wash asked. “Some people call Zoe and me an odd couple, usually right before picking themselves up off the ground and collecting their broken teeth courtesy of a beat-down from my beautiful blushing bride--.”
“Zoe blushes?” Jayne asked.
“I wanted to be a doctor,” John said, before the rest of the crew could wander down a very entertaining-looking sidetrack. “My family didn’t have the money for med school, so I enlisted.”
“But why sign up? There are other ways: scholarships…”
“Family mostly, but not what you think. Parents had us late in life, never got along with my sister…” John trailed off as he toyed with a cup. “Military was my way out.”
“It never bothered you?”
“Did the Alliance bother you until they took River?” John shot back.
Simon flushed crimson and turned his face away.
“I spent years patching up people during training, being grateful for the opportunity. By the time my enlistment was up, the Alliance thought they knew me. They thought I should be loyal enough for a particular job – one for naïve residents looking for a steady paycheck.”
“But if you were so junior, why did you see their patients? You weren’t part of the experimental team.”
“No, I was supposed to be the doctor to the support staff, the orderlies and aides who were looking after the patients--”
“Subjects,” Sherlock cut in, flatly. “Test subject number twelve, here.”
“I was supposed to be giving booster shots and tending to any little incidental physical problems the orderlies might have.” John paused and his face hardened. “Like shoulder strains and pulled arm muscles from holding people down, human bite marks on their hands from where they’d been bitten by people trying to escape, fingernail scratches from where they’d been clawed at.” He stopped and clenched his jaw for a moment. “I’d had close combat training and been in the odd barfight and patched up plenty of guys from both afterwards. Being a grunt didn’t make me nearly the dunce the Alliance wanted me to be. I knew what was going on, or I thought I did. I was going to resign the day one of the orderlies brought Sherlock to me.”
“Why did they bring him to you?”
John grinned. “Because he’d systematically insulted and alienated every single other doctor in the program to the point where they wouldn’t be in the same room with him unless he was sedated.”
“Idiots,” Sherlock muttered. Kaylee hid a giggle behind her hand.
“The… experiments, it affected your social skills?” Simon asked Sherlock directly.
Sherlock opened his mouth to answer, but John beat him to it.
“No, as far as I know he’s always been an insufferable prat.”
“I’ve never suffered fools,” Sherlock added.
“You’ve never…” John stopped and frowned slowly.
“You were never a fool. Ignorant in some ways, of course. Nearly everyone else is. But never a fool, John.”
Book had been quiet until now, barring the bean bun incident, absorbed in listening to what their newest set of passengers had to tell them. It was more than coincidence that had led them to Serenity, the same way he’d ended up here.
“Perhaps it would be best to leave it there for the night. After all, we have some time to hear this story told,” Book cut in to the growing silence.
John looked startled, and pushed away from the table, shooting Book a look of gratitude. “Tomorrow, then?”
Sherlock returned to his comm, and Mal nodded reluctantly at his most recent complication. “Tomorrow.”
“Why’d you do it?” Zoe asked.
John looked up at her and put his half-assembled gun down. He had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t only she who was curious about some of his story from last night; Mal was quietly getting his own breakfast in the galley and taking his sweet time about it. But Mal wasn’t the kind of man who would ask unless it affected the people around him. Zoe, it seemed, had given herself the leeway of curiosity.
“I had to. They were hurting him.” John looked back down at his hands and put them flat on the table.
Zoe gestured sharply, clearly not going to accept him sidestepping an answer. “Everyone had their own reason for siding one way or another during the Unification War. But this wasn’t a war, there wasn’t back-up for you.” In her expression John could almost see what she was thinking, that he hadn’t even had Simon’s money and connections to pull off a clean escape.
“Sherlock was it. He was all the back-up I needed.”
Zoe waited, staring at him, as John hunted for words.
“He trusted me. Smartest man I know. Most frustrating, but bloody brilliant. And… I remembered what I swore.” John breathed out slowly. “I wanted to be a doctor before I was a soldier. And Sherlock knew he could trust me, like he couldn’t trust the other dozen doctors he’d seen before me.”
“That’s a lot of responsibility to lay on a man,” Zoe said.
“I wanted it,” John said. “If I hadn’t, I could have just ignored that plan he gave me after he passed out on me.”
“Not saying you didn’t do right. What was done to him was cruel,” Zoe said.
“But was it worth giving up my life?” John asked. “I said I’d tell you. And I will. Tonight.”
Sherlock was studying River, pale eyes focused on her form, now staring, now darting over her body. It could have seemed predatory, even sexual, but it was the last thing on either one’s mind. She returned his stare, fixated on his pale eyes. This had been going on for a good hour, far too long for two such as they. Both could have gathered the information they needed in seconds, albeit in very different ways.
“Come,” River said imperiously, holding her hand out to him. “There’s nothing more to be found.”
“I say otherwise. You are astonishing.”
“As are you. You’re loved,” River said.
“And you are not? Your brother deliberately sacrificed everything for you.”
“You don’t believe in your love, not really. Can’t admit it out loud, but he knows.”
“Your focus is improved.”
“Better when we’re moving. I think you’re jealous of me.”
“Of course I am. You have something beyond my ken, an insight into others that I cannot match. You don’t even need clues or observation, you could uncover truth if you were blinded, deafened…”
“They did that sometimes. Temporarily deactivated my optic or auditory nerves so they could be certain their results were pure. Kept us asleep to expand our outer perception. I was frightened.”
Sherlock blinked at her, and then looked at his hand. “How dreadfully petty of me.”
“Don’t apologize. John will collapse in shock.”
Sherlock smiled and reached out to her. She let him touch her head, examine her scars, and figure out what he might have become.
Inara found them a while later, Sherlock’s hands describing some elaborate silent scenario that River narrated perfectly. Charades for geniuses. She wondered what they were saying to each other.
“River?” she called.
River looked up and nodded solemnly. “It’s story time again, Sherlock.”
Sherlock unfolded himself and stood up. “Don’t spoil it for the others.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said, and raced ahead of Inara to the galley.
Sherlock bowed to Inara gracefully as they walked upstairs. “Tell him,” he said abruptly.
“No,” Inara said smoothly. She didn’t ask him to qualify the statement; she’d lived around River too long. “I prefer my own timing, not yours.”
Sherlock smirked as they slipped into the galley, as John slipped back into the past.
Sherlock’s nightmares started their first night on Shadow. Except John couldn’t call them that. Sherlock didn’t wake up screaming, or cry out in bed, or anything like what John might have expected. Instead he avoided going to sleep, choosing to study some seemingly insignificant thing. John had fallen unconscious from sheer nervous exhaustion that first night, and when he’d woke, Sherlock had unwired the entire living room and was using their very limited power allotment to examine the way a steak twitched when stimulated.
“Sherlock…” John said, not sure where to begin.
“Hmm?” There was a scorched smell as the steak took a sudden leap from the table and embraced the wall with a juicy smack!
“Breakfast?” John offered desperately, still trying to wake up properly.
“No, necessary,” John said firmly. Or so he thought, until Sherlock utterly ignored him to write a note on the table. The steak twitched feebly as it slowly slid down the wall.
“So he ran circles around me for a week. The other ranchers figured we were mad and mostly left us alone.”
Simon looked a hair skeptical and John explained.
“At the time I was a line grunt with no combat experience and a junior physician – half-lobotomized geniuses with delusions of grandeur were something new to me.”
“As I was to everyone.”
“Narcissistic prat,” John said with a smile on his face. Sherlock looked tolerantly amused.
“I’m fairly certain neither of us knew what we were doing.”
John looked down at the rope in his hands, then at the cow in front of him. Somehow the rope was to go around the cow and then the cow end up in the paddock behind him. It had seemed simple enough when he’d watched the others do it, but faced with a real live animal, he wasn’t at all certain of his skills. As a matter of fact, he was fairly certain he lacked the skills. Now if someone had asked him to shoot the cow…
“Come on Watson!” Lestrade called. His neighbor was one of the few law officers on Shadow and normally John would have avoided him, except for the fact that Gregory Lestrade didn’t give a rip about the Alliance. He was far more interested in keeping the violence in town to acceptable minimums than enforcing laws that had no relevance here.
John looked up sharply at the sound of his name and focused. He’d used his real name when he’d paid one of the Sandy Harper’s crew for a fake ID. Watson was a common enough name, John even more so, and it was better that he responded promptly when someone called him. Particularly when everything else in his life had changed so drastically. Less than two weeks ago he had been eating a pre-packaged soy protein patty, today he was corralling a cow.
Sucking in a breath, John swung the lasso twice and tossed it towards the cow’s head. It hit the side of her face, and she shook her head until her ears flapped and continued chewing her cud. Lestrade, gratefully, did not laugh in John’s face.
“Come on, go again. I know and your patients know you’re not going to be a proper rancher, but people are going to pay you in cows, Dr. Watson, and you have to be able to handle then.”
John gritted his teeth and reeled the lasso back in. Money sometimes didn’t matter in the remote parts of the ‘verse, he’d learned. You could have a hundred platinum coins in your belt pouch, but if you couldn’t eat them, use them as fuel, or make a tool out of them, they were just useless chunks of rock. Coins didn’t have as much value here. Cows did.
Bloody amazing place, the Outer Rim.
John reeled and cast the lasso again and again, the cow growing less and less impressed each time. After the tenth time, Lestrade wasn’t able to stifle his chuckles in between offering advice. John doggedly kept at it, but kept stealing glances over at his house. He was praying Sherlock would be all right, feeling guilty for leaving him alone, wondering if he was doing the right thing. There were only a few choices on how to live here – John’s money had been nearly used up in the escape. They both needed everything: food, clothing, shelter, and medical supplies. John had some skills to sell, but only his medical knowledge was safe to offer. He couldn’t hire himself out as a mercenary or bodyguard. The fewer people that realized he had military training, the better.
That left him with the option of becoming a country doctor, one who wouldn’t inquire too closely about the origins of bullet wounds or the father of a newborn, one who would accept payment in non-traceable barter and could be counted on to keep his mouth shut about anything said by a delirious or drugged patient. But it wouldn’t let him spend all his time with Sherlock. He couldn’t devote all his resources to studying what he been done and try to make it better. Right now he had to keep them in bread.
“Come on, thirtieth time’s the charm!” Lestrade called, herding the reluctant cow closer. John hurled the loop again, and astonished himself by getting it closed around the cow’s neck. Grasping the rope the rope and checking that the knot tied to the saddle was still good, he slowly coaxed the cow into the paddock and managed to shut the gate without falling off his horse.
“Bloody hell,” John muttered, taking off his hat to fan his face. He turned to look at Lestrade, hoping to share a rueful smile at his own expense, only to see Lestrade looking in the direction of the house, an expression of astonishment on his face.
John followed his gaze, cold dread in his stomach, to see Sherlock in the front yard, examining the beehive that stood on the far side of the garden. Sherlock was, to John’s dismay, entirely sans clothing.
“Friend of yours?” Lestrade asked, expression unreadable.
“Roommate, bit eccentric, excuse me,” John said rapidly and dug his heels in his horse’s side. The even-tempered beast ambled over. John crawled down (his legs almost refused to hold him after hours of riding) and staggered across the rows of vegetable to get within earshot.
The bees buzzed around Sherlock like he was an enticing blossom, and Sherlock was watching them with single-minded intensity.
“Sherlock?” John said softly, not sure if he was going to be amenable to restraint.
“It’s fascinating, John, truly. I haven’t had the opportunity to watch them at close range before.”
“Um… clothes?” John suggested.
Sherlock looked down at himself and shrugged dismissively. “Nothing clean.”
John sighed. “You’ll get sunburnt.”
Sherlock squinted up at Shadow’s relentlessly sunny sky. “A point.”
He returned to the house and emerged again moments later, wearing a brimmed hat and nothing else. John prayed for patience as Sherlock idly eyed Lestrade, who was desperately trying to stay on his horse and not fall to the ground laughing.
“If he’s laughing, John, he’s not arresting us. Tell him his horse is pregnant and he should be more cautious in riding her for long periods.”
“Are you all right?” John asked, torn between wanting to get a handle on Sherlock’s quirks and not circulating any more rumors around town.
“Tell Lestrade,” Sherlock said, and continued his observation of the bees. At least he seemed disinclined to attempt to open the beehive. John gingerly walked back to his horse and pulled himself up with a groan.
“She’s what?” Lestrade said when John relayed Sherlock’s statement of his horse’s condition. John couldn’t tell if Sherlock was right or not; he’d only been riding for a week. Lestrade abruptly dismounted to run his hands over his horse’s side.
“I’ll be damned, he’s right.” Lestrade looked into his horse’s eye sternly. “You’ve been night-walking little lady, haven’t you?” He shook his head. “Your roommate an animal doc?”
“Ah… bit of a jack-of-all-trades, really.”
“We can use those around here.” Lestrade remounted, touched his hand to his hat, and rode off still shaking his head.
“Just like that?” Zoe asked.
“Sort of. Very independent-minded people on Shadow; no one bothering about each other’s oddities. It was such a switch from the Core. But Lestrade started keeping an eye on us. God knew we needed it.”
John had honestly expected Sherlock’s observational mania to die down once he was no longer being pumped full of the program’s stimulants. He’d figured Sherlock would eventually start to sleep, maybe begin to work through his trauma in dreams. He knew little of neuropathy and had only a smattering of psychology, but in general, people who were injured or traumatized did tend to have some sort of crash.
Sherlock, and whatever they had done to him, was the exception to every rule.
John had taken him off the stimulants cold turkey, sobering him up, more or less, during their flight from the academy. But that didn’t stop Sherlock from drinking every caffeinated beverage in the house and staying awake for days on end. He experimented on anything and everything in and out of the house with only marginal regard for his own safety.
It was like he was a starving man set loose at a feast. There was nothing he wouldn’t try to test.
Foremost being John’s patience. The sheer frustration of trying to learn a whole new life while attempting to care for someone who was, in his way, as vulnerable as a child, pushed John to his limits.
Simon had an expression on his face John hadn’t seen before, but immediately recognized – shamed understanding.
“I’d come home after dark, hot and exhausted after helping tend to injuries after a cattle drive, wanting nothing more than some food and sleep, and Sherlock would have every edible thing in the house in use in a mold-growing experiment and had disassembled my bed to use as a drying rack outside.” John sighed deeply. “Some days I just wanted to give up.”
“Why didn’t you?” Simon asked.
“Frankly I don’t know why he stayed. He had no real obligation towards me. You, on the other hand, have that familial guilt connection to deal with your sister,” Sherlock said.
Anger flashed across Simon’s face and was gone again in an instant. “It doesn’t always mean anything. Our parents wouldn’t help her.”
“Because he needed me. He’s my friend.” John reached out and put his hand on Sherlock’s head for a moment, an intimacy Sherlock tolerated.
“No obligation, no price, no debt,” Sherlock said. It had the well-worn sound of a mantra.
“I couldn’t quit. I was a fugitive, I was flat broke, and I was living on a planet where I got paid in cows.” John raised an eyebrow as he grinned widely, and River burst into giggles. “How could I possibly leave that?”
Sherlock looked at the beast with disfavor.
“Come on, it’s all right,” John coaxed, not certain if he were trying to persuade the horse or Sherlock more. After the beehive incident, John wasn’t chancing leaving Sherlock alone during the next crisis. He’d paid one of their neighbors, Molly, to look after the house and garden while they were gone. She was the only one, aside from Lestrade, to find Sherlock’s antics amusing or interesting instead of annoying.
“This is hardly necessary.”
“We don’t have enough for a motor-cart, Sherlock. It’s horses or nothing.”
“I prefer not--”
“Horse, now, or I leave you with Molly,” John said sternly.
“Don’t be tedious, John. She’s nowhere near as interesting as you.”
John struggled with that statement as Sherlock examined horse and saddle minutely. Sherlock praised and insulted him in the same breath, with a kind of graceless eloquence that frequently left John with mental whiplash. Sherlock’s observations had grown sharper, deeper with time, instead of fading. John had hoped that a measure of healing might help quiet Sherlock’s mind, but that had not happened.
He hung onto the bridle as Sherlock continued his study. John wondered how well he really knew the man, how much of him had been untampered-with by the time he had seen him in his examination room. Had he even known him at all? Had he had some expectation that Sherlock would become… what? A business partner, a boss, an adopted family member? John realized how little he knew, how much he had taken on faith. To correct a gross injustice, he had turned himself into a criminal, spent his credit account dry, and left his entire life behind.
It had been utterly mad. But what else could he have done? Left Sherlock to be experimented upon? Confront the academy director and be jailed or executed for his questions and disloyalty?
John knew he had done the right thing. So why did he feel so miserable?
“John, this horse was stolen,” Sherlock said, interrupting John’s reverie.
“Sherlock, just get on-. What?”
“Stolen, John. This breed’s a West River Morgan, with roan coloration unique to the grass stands in the Roscoe Bridges area. That’s over a hundred miles from here, odd breed to buy when you can get a local Patent Brown animal for far less money. Also, look at this saddle blanket. Came with her, right? Home-woven, russet wool, also Roscoe Bridges territory. Finally, the ear.” Sherlock gently ran his hand up the mare’s neck to brush her ear, pointing at the tiny letters just barely visible, tattooed into her skin. “That’s her home ranch designation, and there’s no transfer of ownership mark. Stolen.”
John gaped at him, stared at the mare, and sighed. “She’s worth a month’s treatment. Barry said she was all he had to pay--”
“I do hope we don’t run into Roscoe Bridges locals. They do tend to take horse-thievery very personally.” Sherlock mounted without further ado.
John hesitated, and Sherlock glared at him. “If you insist on attempting to commit suicide, there are far faster and less painful ways than being shot as a horse-thief.”
“Wait, what?” Simon asked.
“We were, of course, going to be riding with Roscoe Bridges locals during the cattle drive John had been hired to ride with as a medic. He would have been killed,” Sherlock said.
“Probably by drawing and quartering. The Roscoe Bridges boys had a sadistic streak,” Mal said meditatively. His hard edge of suspicion had softened slightly as John had described their life on Shadow.
Simon looked back at John, who was smiling. “That was the turning point. I realized that he would be all right. Yes, he would be manic, then depressed, needed some huge problem to solve all the time. He had to have things to do, or he’d become nearly catatonic with boredom. He catalogued everything he saw, figured out everything they meant, and could use that to know everything about you just by looking at you. But that day I realized he’d just saved my life.”
Understanding eased Simon’s confusion immediately. John could practically tell what he was thinking, reliving that moment when he could see past the damage the academy had inflicted, peered through the fog of quirks and unbalanced actions, and could see the fundamental person underneath. For those glimpses, for that knowledge, you would endure anything.
“So, you didn’t get killed?” Simon asked finally.
“No. I had a former patient of mine put an ownership transfer tattoo on the mare’s number and rode off into the sunset,” John said. “I was becoming a proper Outer Rim homesteader at that point.”
“It was rather uncanny. I felt my ability to assume roles was excellent, but John could surprise me at times.”
“Your ‘ability to assume roles’ didn’t really come into its own until you’d stopped running around naked and unwiring the house, to be fair,” John said.
Sherlock looked faintly rebellious, but nodded sharply.
“Elaborate, John. The therapy will do you good.” The two men exchanged a pointed look, and John turned back to the rest of the crew.
“Here’s the thing, Sherlock could figure out anything with the right information. Where someone came from, their habits, friends, what they’d been doing, if they were lying, the lot. But he was horrible at practical things.”
“He knew you would have gotten killed…” Simon said slowly.
“That was one thing. But he couldn’t drive a motor-cart, couldn’t cook, didn’t know rules and laws worth a damn unless it was relevant to a case. Anything he didn’t consider useful for figuring out puzzles he just-- deleted from his brain, full stop. But I didn’t quite figure that out, because I thought a grown man who could deduce a mare was pregnant from a hundred paces would at least be able to figure out a can opener or know to sleep occasionally. Before I knew that, I left him alone for two days and he nearly drove himself into a coma. He didn’t understand limits anymore. It’s why I had to help him.”
Simon looked over at Sherlock, Kaylee following him with a look of apprehension, but Sherlock merely looked calm.
“Very therapeutic, John. And entirely correct.” He looked over at Kaylee. “I am not made of glass.”
“That turned out to be our first case,” John went on.
John nodded. “We figured out the man who’d given us the roan hadn’t known where she came from. We had two days before the cattle drive, and Sherlock was determined to figure out who’d stolen the horse.”
“You were as eager as I to find answers,” Sherlock said.
“Actually, no, I couldn’t have possibly been as straightforwardly excited as you. I was more interested because for once you weren’t trying to take apart our house.”
“I was dreadful, wasn’t I?” Sherlock said proudly.
“Like a kid on Boxing Day. I was seriously considering tranquilizing you.”
“And the horse?” Book asked.
“Stolen as part of a feud. We got her fair and square after helping the family figure out how she was stolen in the first place. Sherlock solved that one with woodchips, hoofprints, and the fact he discovered the herd guard liked to sneak naps while on duty. Quite impressed the lot of them.”
“Not easy to do that on Shadow.”
“Certainly not. That’s when we started on our other job, solving crimes.”
John had to admit to some guilty pleasure at the horror-stricken expressions around the table. “Things like the horse, figuring out things the Alliance lawmen wouldn’t or the local law couldn’t. Once we got off Shadow, we’ve been doing the same ever since, more or less.”
“So… you’re cosmic do-gooders?”
“It pays the bills, and keeps him out of trouble,” John said.
“Say, why did you have to lift from Persephone so fast?”
“Thin skins,” Sherlock said shortly.
John sighed. “Sherlock was… uncompromising in his questioning of a nobleman’s mistress. The nobleman took offense, and neither of us duel.”
Mal and Inara looked at each other. “Was it about the nobleman coercing his mistress? Atherton Wing?”
“How did you-?” Sherlock demanded.
John chuckled and gave the crew points for finding something that Sherlock didn’t know.
“So, that was two years before the war,” Zoe said, before Sherlock could go off on a tangent that was likely going to end up in a shouting match.
John nodded. “By the time we arrived, everything was getting worse. I didn’t really understand for a while. But after that, we couldn’t miss it.”
“Lestrade?” John asked, threading through the crowd to get next to one of his few friends here. Sherlock was right at his elbow, nodding from time to time as he observed the crowd, making mental notes to trot out at some other time. The town meeting hall was crowded to capacity, filled with dust-covered ranchers, a few sweaty farmers, the neater shopkeepers, and a few solitarily splendid business owners.
Lestrade caught John’s eye and moved to make a bit of space. “Almost thought you weren’t going to make it, you two.”
“Had to, didn’t we? All my patients are here,” John said.
“You know what’s going on yet?” Lestrade asked.
“A bit,” John said warily.
Things had been steadily going downhill on Shadow for months. John’s practice had started with treating victims of accidents, illness, or the occasional bar brawl or shootout. But recently there had been far too many “shootouts.” There were too many victims of raids and thefts as desperate men scrambled for resources that were becoming increasingly scarce, or even some people left beaten and broken after crossing some of the few Alliance officials.
There had been four of them this morning alone. He hadn’t asked how the four had managed to get shot, but pulled the bullets and cleaned the wounds without a word. Each of them had come in after the other had left, regular as clockwork, close-mouthed and desperate, making John think all four of them had been together during whatever had happen. And each of them had paid him in food. One in flour, another with fruit, necessities and luxuries for his table, things you simply couldn’t get around here anymore. John had wanted to give them back when he saw the signs of fever and malnourishment on them, but pride on both sides would have refused them. His patients had no other way to pay, and were bound and determined to owe no one.
“More than a bit,” Sherlock proclaimed, though this time he managed to keep his voice down.
Lestrade gave him a sharp glance. “I’d figured.”
“Well, he doesn’t bother telling me half the time, so what are the rumors?” John asked.
“You’ve seen your barter drop,” Lestrade stated.
John nodded. When he’d started on Shadow, he’d gotten paid in cows, which he could trade for meat, leather, other foodstuffs, whatever he needed, and in ample quantities. But recently he’d been lucky to get anything near that value. Or rather, the value of things had gone up so much that only the richest could have afforded to spare anything out of his herd.
“The new taxes,” John said in understanding.
“They’re bloody ruinous. Everything Shadow has is headed straight for the Core, and most here are being left with nothing. You’re doing all right, Doc, but you’ve seen the people that come to you. I see worse. There’s kids that’re going hungry one night in three, and too many desperate people turning outlaw. My office has been swamped.” Lestrade stopped there, clearly biting back words, and John didn’t need Sherlock’s extraordinary perception to hear his unspoken complaint. That maybe Lestrade didn’t want to be the one locking up “outlaws.” That was probably the reason he hadn’t called on Sherlock in a while.
“There will be war, John.”
Lestrade snapped his head around to stare at Sherlock. “Too right, that one,” he muttered.
“You’re serious,” John stated, looking around at the rest of the townsfolk. Unconsciously he brushed his hand against the leather holster in his jacket, and fought a surge of adrenaline and fear. He’d never been blooded in combat; routine patrols scarcely counted, and that’s all he had ever done for the Alliance. He’d never been in a live firefight, never had to fight for his life.
He looked over at Sherlock, and pressed his hand tightly to his gun. He’d never had to fight for another either. How in God’s name would Sherlock react to war? They’d barely gotten to the point of being able to work with Lestrade on keeping the peace, solving the odd crime that fell outside his expertise. It let Sherlock put his mind to good use, focused him, made him feel useful. But the abject chaos and danger of war? The idea of Sherlock in the middle of a shootout, a bombing barrage, a siege, set John’s heart to racing, looking for a way out.
“Of course we’re serious. It’s not just us, Doc,” Lestrade said. He sighed and lowered his voice a little. “Look, you’re off on your own more often than not, and even when you’re dealing with people, you aren’t talking about anything but wound care. Everyone else knows why we’re at this meeting. This isn’t the only town, hell, even the only planet that wants a change. The governors have gotten together. And now they want to make sure we’re with them.”
“Challenging the Alliance,” John said flatly.
“Getting our freedom,” Lestrade said heatedly. “We get last pick of whatever the Alliance doesn’t want, and they squeeze us for all we’re worth just so some puff-headed Core dandy can have a new pair of leather boots. While we have people willing to kill or die just to get enough to feed their families.”
“Christ, Lestrade, the Alliance military outnumbers and outguns us three to one!” John said.
“And what of it? We’ve got more going for us, more spirit, more motivation, than they ever will.” Lestrade’s tanned face was bright with anger, the lines of hardship etched clearly by sun and toil.
“Not saying we don’t, but--”
“What?” Lestrade demanded.
John longed to talk about the past he hadn’t spoken of for two years, that he knew, in excruciating detail exactly what the Alliance military was capable of, but a quick glance at Sherlock stilled his tongue.
“Let’s hear what the mayor has to say,” John said. Lestrade looked at him for a long moment, nodded, and turned his attention to the stage as the mayor stepped forward. She looked like someone’s kindly old aunt, a friendly and personable woman everyone called Mrs. Hudson. But she had the loyalty of everyone in town, a sharp mind, and a determination to have the best for her people.
John knew without a doubt that the little town of Baker was going to vote to enter the war.
They ended up back at the house sometime after midnight, with John delaying their return just long enough to barter a bit of bacon he’d received for a few bottles of beer. There was no way of making this decision without at least a swallow of liquid courage.
“John.” Sherlock preceded him inside the house, turning on the lights and stoking the fire to take the edge off of Shadow’s cool nights. “We won’t be able to stay.” He flung himself down on a chair, limbs sprawling as he stared at the ceiling, thinking.
John didn’t answer, just twisted the top off a bottle, drank half of it in two long swallows, and abruptly collapsed into his own chair. No, they wouldn’t be able to stay. Shadow had the most restless population, and John knew that they would be filling the ranks of the Independent army first. And because of that, Shadow would be the first Outer Rim planet targeted for retaliation. There wouldn’t be any place to hide.
His choices were simple, but none of them were easy. He could try to hide them both; jump out ahead of any conflict, cash in anything they had, pay with his medical skills, and just try to keep them out of the line of fire. It meant having no permanent home, because John didn’t have enough for even the smallest of shuttles. And it meant trusting strangers constantly, and hoping that Sherlock could cope. Maybe he’d do better than John could hope for, but all it would take would be for one paranoid crew member to take offense at one of Sherlock’s antics or observations, and it would all be for naught. With their need to stay off the radar, the two of them could be shoved out an airlock or dumped at any station or port with no recourse.
Or they could join the Independents. John had knowledge of Alliance operations, psychology, and strategy that could help the rebels, at least at first. His medical skills would be sorely needed in a war, and John would be solidly protected as one of the sacred medical corps. Sherlock, too, would be protected, if John demanded it. Perhaps even Sherlock could be of some use, if the chaos of war didn’t unbalance him or trigger something within him. But if they lost, the consequences were worse. Both of them could be killed in the fallout. Or worse, captured, Sherlock sent back to the academy, and John executed publicly.
Or… The last option oozed insidiously through John’s mind, and he winced at it, ashamed at himself for even thinking of it. He could join the Alliance. He could give them the weaknesses of the Independents for his own freedom, and Sherlock’s. He could show them that Sherlock was fine, able to work, and the two of them could be safe on the winning side.
None of the options were ideal. All were risky in some way. And all of them would involve radically changing their lives. Sherlock would be unable to keep on as he was, would be forced away from any of the new normalcy they’d created here, into a dangerous situation that only varied in the kinds of consequences for both of them. He might lose what little ability to interact that he’d regained, withdrawing into his own world so far that even John would be hard-pressed to get him out. The only question was which of the three choices would be the best for him?
“John,” Sherlock said again, rousing him from his gloomy thoughts. “We don’t have time for this.”
“What?” John asked, looking up blearily.
“Brooding. Lestrade and the others will move swiftly, and Mrs. Hudson is going to see Shadow rising as the Independents’ new star. Best we get ourselves entrenched with our new base of operations as soon as possible.”
“New base?” John asked dumbly.
“Yes, yes. Can’t stay here, far too obvious a target. And you’ll be needed, and so will I. This will be fantastic, John.” Sherlock’s eyes flashed with enthusiasm as he paced around the room. “This is by far the best challenge I’ve ever had. As you said, outgunned, outnumbered, far more spirit than sense, but with some strategy, it’s entirely possible for this to not end in complete disaster!”
John sat up and put the beer aside. For a moment, he could see to what purpose Sherlock would have been put, had John not taken him away from the Alliance academy. The thought of all that intellect used for war was disheartening, like seeing a surgery scalpel blade being used to slice up paintings. But what else could they do? Trying to outrun the war would leave Sherlock bereft of his beloved puzzles. Throwing in on the Alliance side would only see Sherlock harnessed in a team with the rest of the test subjects, their minds all pointed in a direction of death.
But to join the Independents would mean using every gift that had been granted or forced upon them, for the purpose of trying to save lives and livelihood rather than see them ground into the dust for the sin of thinking for themselves. John had no illusions of a swift victory, or indeed any victory, but he could help as many as he could, as long as he could, and so would Sherlock. That was something they could both live with.
“All right,” John said, feeling an odd lightness in his chest, with perhaps just a tinge of impending madness. “Let’s go find Lestrade.”
John reported to the recruiting station with a feeling of déjà vu. But unlike years before, his information was not impersonally entered into a computer to be sorted and profiled until they’d found a good recruit officer match. There were no endless questions to figure out his career trajectory. Lestrade found the two of them in the crowd and all but dragged them to the back room of the town hall.
“Look, Watson, you’re the best doctor we have-,” he began, and John interrupted him. War was coming; it was time to put all the cards on the table.
“Lestrade, I was Alliance military before I got my degree,” he stated.
Lestrade was only a little surprised at that, and didn’t even hesitate. “Thought it might have been something of the sort. You shoot too well. All right, that simplifies matters.” He turned away and pointed at Sherlock, and John got a terrible sense of foreboding.
“You’re too bloody smart. Command wants you as an analyst.”
John opened his mouth to object and Lestrade talked right over him.
“Watson, you’ll go with him, keep Command healthy.”
At Lestrade’s declaration, Sherlock had gone pale, with the kind of long stare that usually preceded one of his bad days.
“I won’t do battle maneuvers. This is not a game, Lestrade. I will help extract, retreat, show ways out, plan rescue missions, reconnaissance, but I will not plan out fatal tactics.” Sherlock’s voice was toneless, in the way of veterans speaking of harrowing battle experiences. That was the kind of trauma John had been trained to understand.
“You know what they’re going to do here, right?” Lestrade asked, puzzled in the extreme by Sherlock’s vehement response.
John backed Sherlock, pressing their shoulders together, giving him solid understanding. “We know, Lestrade. I am extremely aware of what the Alliance will do in battle. But the people here are trying to live free, not slaughter others. No battle strategies, or don’t bother with us.”
“Barking mad, the pair of you. Pacifist soldiers.”
“Don’t be absurd. I’m well aware of the consequences of war, and it’s just as likely people will be killed on a rescue missing as an assault. Death is inevitable in this kind of conflict. But I won’t be a direct part of the killing,” Sherlock said.
Lestrade had to think about that for a minute, weighing the pros of having two of his most reliable, oft-consulted settlers taking on their self-appointed task eagerly and the cons of having them only engaged in a support capacity versus what it would take to change either of their minds. It was clear he didn’t think he could convince either of them, and forcing them, well, that was counterproductive to the whole point of the war, wasn’t it? Sherlock mercifully stayed quiet while Lestrade came to that conclusion, rather than indulging in an acid quip.
“Command won’t like it,” he said finally.
“Command will get used to it,” John said sharply. Now that Sherlock had shown his willingness to fight in his own way, John would fight to make certain none of his newly-declared principles were violated.
“That was my purpose, John. I was to analyze clues, look for weaknesses, tell them where to strike for maximum damage.”
John shook his head. “That’s not you. Not ever.”
“Some of the others reveled in it. They amused themselves with the variety of ways people could die, could be controlled. They were so happy…” Sherlock trailed off, and River moved closer and ran one finger through his hair. Right over one of his scars.
“They pared away conscience,” River said.
“And dropped in madness,” Sherlock responded, like it was a poem they were reciting together.
“That’s how the others worked. They enjoyed what was done to them, and what it let them do. The results were all that mattered.”
Sherlock nodded slowly, and turned towards John. “John and I worked as eyes and ears and the brain for Independent maneuvers. A great shortage of brains on either side, really, so they were lucky to have us at Kingstone.”
Zoe sat straight up in her chair as a few nervous chuckles died away at Sherlock’s flippant comment. She regarded John and Sherlock keenly, like a hunting bird searching for prey.
“There’s none too many who know about Kingstone,” she said. Sherlock nodded shortly, his eyes challenging. “Intel,” she said positively. Another nod.
Mal sat straight up as fast as if he’d been shocked. “You? And… both of you were there? That fight was hell on earth. I’m surprised you walked out of that one alive.”
“Many didn’t. I didn’t walk out,” John said.
The air shuddered around them, filling the command center with dust as another bomb collapsed a nearby tunnel.
“North Two and Three closed.”
“West Five is open, but East Three has been taken. We have--”
“Three minutes, yes, I know.” Sherlock’s voice was muffled by the insect-like mask they all wore down here to breathe in the depths of the mines, but his impatience came through clearly. Throughout the whole bloody mess of the war thus far, Sherlock had managed to keep it together, the stimulation of keeping the Independent forces intact along with John’s careful buffering keeping him on a sharply even keel.
“Only one unit left to extract, heading our way.”
“We’re the target of this bombardment! Tell them to divert to South Two, go down one level, and take the emergency shaft east--”
“East is taken!”
“Not on that level, and they won’t be expecting opposition there, relay now!”
“Sherlock?” John asked, as Ellerton relayed Sherlock’s instructions to the last remaining squad. “How do we get out?”
“We don’t. We’re a decoy. As long as the Alliance concentrates on us, the last unit will get out.”
Silence greeted that pronouncement, and John felt a peculiar mingling of fear and pride. Fear for his life, for Sherlock’s and the others here, and pride that Sherlock had unflinchingly made a decision to save as many lives as he could.
“I knew you all would rather see the others live,” Sherlock said, almost too softly to hear. Ellerton broke the stillness with a brief salute and turned back to the radio to keep the remaining soldiers on their path to freedom. Another blast shook the air, closer this time.
“They’re moving faster than I anticipated,” Sherlock said, a note of alarm in his voice.
“Unit six is doubling back,” Ellerton said, voice rising sharply.
“You tell them to get to their evac point now!” John roared. He would be damned if they were all going to die for nothing, not after Sherlock nearly had them home free.
“John, they’re coming,” Sherlock said abruptly, taking his gun and moving against one wall. John did the same, standing slightly in front of Sherlock. They both had their orders, and also their own promises to each other. If it looked like they were about to be captured, John had grenades for both of them. Better dead than in Alliance hands now.
Ellerton shoved away from the radio as the wall next to him caved in. John started shooting immediately, not waiting for the dust to settle. It revealed their position, but gave them half a chance to get out through the back.
“Someone’s there!” Ellerton hissed. Flanked. Damn.
“No, John, it’s-,” Sherlock began.
John didn’t hear the rest, as someone on the Alliance side returned fire. Pain flared as bullets hit his body armor, and crescendoed as one pierced his shoulder. He swayed on his feet, staying in front of Sherlock, and felt his hearing going as bodies poured in behind him. They fired into the Alliance soldiers, everyone’s faces anonymous behind their breathing masks. John’s last sight was of brown-coated soldiers standing in front of them.
Safe as he was going to get, he passed out.
John woke up, rather surprised at doing so. Even with friendlies having arrived at the last second, he hadn’t been sure they would have been able to extract them out of the depths of the compromised mine. The entire left side of his body ached, with bright points at his shoulder and knee. Despite the pain, John knew immediately that things were probably better than he had any right to expect. The slight euphoria from pain-killers meant he was worth saving. Warmth was pressed into his good side, and his ears told him that the soft taps there were from someone on a comm device. They stopped suddenly, and he felt someone stir.
“John?” Sherlock’s voice. He’d survived. The relief was so great that it overwhelmed the pain for a while. John croaked a response, throat sore and dry (he’d been in surgery with a tube down his throat, he realized belatedly). Sherlock interpreted the formless sounds instantly. “You’re at Base Three on Hera, been out for three days, sustained a penetrating bullet wound to the left shoulder that shattered your scapula. Your surgeon was able to reconstruct your bones, and there will be no permanent impairment in muscular or nervous function.”
Sherlock hesitated a long moment, and returned to the comm device. John remained silent, his too-thick tongue scratching his dry mouth, until Sherlock abruptly thrust a straw between his lips. John drank gratefully, but he could see how badly Sherlock’s hands were shaking. John felt guilt settle into his stomach like a ball of lead. He’d went and gotten himself shot, effectively leaving Sherlock alone for days. Sherlock hadn’t been on his own for more than a day since John had rescued him. John tried to roll towards him to apologize properly, and felt something rip in his knee, making him blanch with pain. A strained scream vibrated John’s throat and he passed into oblivion.
The next day they moved him, hauling him along on a transport, Sherlock again at his side. John was just beginning to realize he’d never left. His clothes were still gritty with rock dust from the Kingstone mines, his hair grayed with pulverized granite. John turned his face to the wall to block out the coffins neatly stacked and secured on one side of the cargo bay. Some of them had been Command, fallen one by one because John’s primary concern had been for Sherlock. How many others had died unjustly, bleeding out in the mines because there had been no medic to save them? How useless was he now?
“It was war, I know,” John said, as Mal leaned forward. “It was my first tour, my first losses, my first major wound.”
“That’s never easy, ‘specially when you already had another burden,” Mal said. John wouldn’t say that Mal was looking at him with respect now that he knew a bit more about him, as he was still sore about John’s deception where Sherlock had been concerned, but the near-open hostility was all but gone. That, he could live with. Also he could live with not getting chucked out the airlock before they’d made planetfall.
“Well, I did what most fools do when they’re in that situation,” John said.
“Take the blame?” Zoe asked.
“Take the blame.”
John tested himself gingerly as he got out of bed for the first time, Sherlock hovering anxiously nearby. Pain shot up from his knee and thigh in merry defiance of his actual wounds. The crutch thunked irregularly on the floor, and his shoulder throbbed distantly.
From the minute he’d started on this madcap adventure with Sherlock, John had been on the go. Building a home, riding a horse, roping a cow, shooting a gun, being a human shield… He’d been the protector, able to insert himself between Sherlock and the world, acting as a two-way translator. Now he couldn’t. Sherlock was depending on him, for all the progress he’d made, and John had gotten himself crippled.
“I am the worst sort of person,” Sherlock said softly. “I took your life, John, as surely as if I’d come into your office that first day and shot you dead. You gave up all for me.” Sherlock’s hand came down on John’s shoulder lightly. “I beg your forgiveness.”
Sherlock hadn’t eaten in days, had sniped at everyone, was being hounded by Command via the comm, and he still had enough focus to say something like that to John. John had lain there, semi-conscious on the transport, listening to Sherlock rattling off this or that plan to the higher-ups, and had perversely wondered if he was even needed anymore, if his injury had forced Sherlock into independence.
“I’m sorry,” John said, his voice a croak.
“You threw yourself in front of a bullet for me, John.” Sherlock loomed over him, his hand tight on John’s good shoulder. “It’s enough, John. Please.”
John turned away, unable to walk far, his knee a torment. This was it, then. Sherlock didn’t need him.
“What I’d do if you weren’t there, I’m not sure. There’s only so long I can interact with these idiots. There’s only so much to do here, John.” Sherlock paused, and turned his comm towards John. “The Alliance razed Shadow today.”
The pain at losing their first home was only a strange, distant ache rather than a numbing blow. John had known this was coming, so the pain had already been there, tears already cried. He was surprised at himself for how well he was taking it, until he saw Sherlock with the same resignation in his eyes. He knew. Of course he knew.
“What’s Command want next?” John asked, painfully easing himself back down on the bed.
“Immediately? Retaliation. Long-term goals will see us here, defending Serenity Valley in our next holding position.”
John shut his eyes. “Oh, God.” This wouldn’t end well. Perhaps it was the pain speaking, or the drugs, but John was beginning to see the shape of the war, and it wasn’t ending with an Independent victory. He didn’t count himself a cynic, but living with Sherlock for so long tended to make you learn how to think critically.
“We’ll do the best we can, John.”
Everyone was staring at them as John finally fell silent.
“And after Serenity Valley?” Zoe asked.
“We did what most did, scattered to the winds. I spent some time healing up, and then we found work. Whatever came our way, provided it was odd and mostly impossible to solve, we took it.”
“Sounds like what Mal usually finds for us,” Wash commented, and ducked as Zoe leveled a stare at him.
Mal mostly managed to cover up the twitching that heralded a smile. “Ok Doc, I think I won’t space you and yours.”
“Very generous of you, Captain.”
“You just keep yourself busy for the next few weeks and I think I can be persuaded to forget your little ruse entire.”
Sherlock smiled broadly at Mal’s challenge and John didn’t put his head in his hands.
Sherlock trailed after River with the air of an absentminded older brother, unlike Simon who was keeping a careful watch on both of them. John kept his attention focused outward, a hint of a smile on his lips as they penetrated deeper into the marketplace. It was just a stopover on the way to another of Mal’s jobs, but it was the first time Mal had been willing to let the two out without fear that they might do something particularly foolish. Not that it would have stopped John and Sherlock, but being able to leave Serenity without the fear that they’d get left behind before they’d gotten to Krandle Station was comforting.
It was also the first time since John had come aboard that Simon had been able to get him alone and ask some other pointed questions. Oddly enough, in the crowded market they had even more privacy than they would have on the ship.
“Truly, he’s all right most of the time,” John said, in response to an incident the other day that had involved River and Sherlock in the engine room that had ended up with Simon having to take an hour to calm down Kaylee. “It’s just the long voyages get to him. Waiting doesn’t suit him.”
“How, exactly?” Simon pleaded.
John lost the smile and his eyes grew cold, though no less watchful. “I told you he was given things to solve every waking moment in the academy. Without some kind of stimulation, he practically goes comatose.”
“And that’s where you step in.”
“It’s why we move so much. God knows I’d love to get us our own ship, but we don’t have the scratch. A bit of home and we wouldn’t get thrown out of every other place we’ve been.”
“Don’t tell Mal,” Simon said.
“Are you mad?”
“Couldn’t be sure. You were on the run from the Alliance with one of their most valuable military intelligence projects. Only a crazy man would do that,” Simon said.
“And an idiot,” John agreed.
“Barking mad fool, that’s what that person would be.”
“Quite,” Simon agreed solemnly.
John paused for a second and sighed. Simon echoed him a moment later.
“They’re gone, aren’t they?” he said, not even bothering to look around.
Sherlock had put away his Cortex comm and strolled through the market with the seasoned bob and weave of one used to such crowds. He followed in River’s wake, eyes alert to her movements. She hadn’t meant to leave Simon behind, or rather, she hadn’t wanted him to worry about them while he talked, and Sherlock had given John the slip in much the same fashion. River was focused, dancing, and searching for something with utter dedication. He didn’t dare impede her progress, not when she was stalking the market like a hunting cat alert for the presence of prey.
River drew up short by one stall, arrested, as if she had hit a wall of force and Sherlock paused to peruse the goods. The place carried crafts carved of system planet woods, from simple boxes to elaborate furniture and instruments. It was one of the latter that River was focused on, a sensuously curved violin, its grain glowing a warm amber in the lights. Sherlock came up behind her and leaned towards it, eyes darting to take in the details.
“Do you hear it?” she asked him.
Sherlock continued to stare at the instrument, and the proprietor, a little dumpling of a man with long, bony fingers, seemed to smell a sale.
“Ah, a lovely piece, that. You have excellent taste, sir. My prices are reasonable, very reasonable…” he trailed off, uncertain, when Sherlock picked up the violin and bow like he was cradling a child. “You want to try it out? Please do, you’ll want to buy it on the spot!”
Sherlock didn’t answer, just fitted the violin under his chin and set his bow to the strings. His hand found the neck of the violin and he slowly positioned his fingers like he was rediscovering something he’d lost long ago. River reached up and nudged his hand slightly, and something clicked within Sherlock. He raised the bow and brought it down again, drawing a bright cascade of notes to spill out over his hands.
Simon had been utterly frantic to find River again, traumatic memories of being nearly burned at the stake leaping to the forefront of his mind, when John halted his desperate search.
“Listen,” he whispered.
Simon calmed himself enough to filter through the dull roar of the crowd, fearful to hear a shout of terror or, even worse, the tramp of booted feet or sharp tones of an official voice. Instead an unfamiliar tune played on a stringed instrument was undercutting the chattering voices. Eyebrow raised, John tugged him towards the source, pushing through where the crowd had thickened. As they emerged from the circle of people, Simon stopped dead.
River was dancing, whirling through a wild reel with three or four other girls, all of them smiling and laughing as their feet skipped along the ground as if they were barely constrained by gravity. There was something in her expression, a freedom and ease he hadn’t seen since just before that disastrous incident on Jiangyin, that he hadn’t known she could still feel.
At the seller’s stall, Sherlock held a violin in his hands, his expression serene compared to the rollicking dance music he was playing. He swayed in time with the beat, fingers and hands working in perfect concert, and John froze as he watched his friend.
“Yes,” John whispered, nearly unheard in the clapping of the crowd. “Yes.”
Simon only spared him a single curious look as Sherlock swept into another tune, then another, music pouring from him like a spring that had been stoppered too long. River continued to dance, her hands describing arcs and birds in the air, keeping up with Sherlock’s endless stream of music… or perhaps she was conducting it, signaling him in ways Simon couldn’t understand.
John stood, mesmerized at the scene, and put a restraining hand on Simon when he might have tried to intervene out of pure nervousness. “It’s all right. Trust me.”
Simon turned to look at him, knowing he was right, needing to see River whole for a while, finally knowing that yes, it was all worth it.
It was a long time later when Sherlock finally flourished his music to an end, not even acknowledging the crowd when they cheered him and River and every other girl that had joined in, not even paying any attention to the coins and bills that some enthusiastic patrons showered down upon them for the impromptu entertainment.
John moved first, scooping up the money before it could vanish and paying for the instrument before the stunned proprietor could think to ask for it back. Sherlock just looked down at the violin in his hands, at John’s smile, and River gleefully hugging Simon around the neck in a fit of childish exuberance, and smiled.
Inara answered her shuttle door with alacrity, waving John inside with a graceful gesture.
“Ah…” John hesitated on the threshold, knee throbbing abominably. It was what he got for standing for hours watching Sherlock play, no matter how marvelous it had been. That had been a full day past, and he still wasn’t quite right. They were close enough to Krandle Station that he’d been willing to ask the resident Companion if he could barter for a tiny fraction of her skills, at least enough to soothe his wretched, uncooperative joint so he’d be all right when they finally docked.
“It’s all right,” she said soothingly, and put her hand on his elbow, escorting him inside. “Please, come sit.”
John sat, nervousness fading as Inara knelt to pour the tea, every movement practiced and precise, meant to draw his eye to her arms, her hands, the colorful silks and bright jewels with which they were bedecked.
“I should apologize in advance,” John said, and Inara stretched over to lay a finger over his lips.
“If you’re worried that Sherlock will show up at an inopportune time, he won’t. We talked earlier.”
“You did?” John was faintly stunned, and found himself peering into corners, wondering if Sherlock had hidden himself somewhere to observe his meeting.
Inara smiled. “Yes, for quite some time. You see, I don’t usually serve members of the crew. They’re my family, and it’s hard to remain objective around them. Almost impossible to see what they really need, because I’m so close all the time.”
John took his tea and swallowed the hot, fragrant liquid automatically. Companions were, in their own way, as perceptive as Sherlock at times. But talk of serving… John wouldn’t have said no, but Inara didn’t give away her skill, any more than John did. And he knew he couldn’t afford more than a fraction of her skill or time.
“He wants you to be happy.” She smiled as she poured her own tea. “And he had questions, of course.”
“I hope he didn’t bother--”
“Oh no. It’s… refreshing to find someone for whom my job isn’t some great mystery. I lent him some of our philosophy books.” She sipped her tea carefully, and put it back on the tray, rising to sit beside John. “He was more concerned that you overworked yourself when you were looking for him, and needed some straightening out.” Her hands framed her meaning perfectly, and John didn’t flinch when she laid them on his shoulder.
John smiled, shook his head, and looked at her. “I would damn near kill for a massage,” he confessed with a rueful smile. “But--”
“Well, you don’t have to do that,” she said quickly, cutting off his protest.
“Sherlock covered my fee for you.”
“Oh Lord, Inara, there’s no way we could afford--”
She put a finger on his lips, and John could taste tea and honey on her skin. “It is at my discretion to determine the form of my fee. Sherlock had some rather valuable advice that I would have gladly paid for. So, nothing to break your budget. He wanted you to relax.” She smiled disarmingly, warmly, and John sipped the last of his tea.
Sherlock respected Inara as a fellow student of human nature, and acknowledged her as his superior in carnal matters. There was no way for John to afford the services of a Companion normally, and his and Sherlock’s nomadic lifestyle precluded most other intimate relationships. Well, mostly.
There was the momentary thought to be angry at Sherlock for setting him up like this, beyond what he’d intended. But what purpose would that serve? None. None at all.
John got up at Inara’s gentle tug, and sank into the plush softness of her bed. Warmth surrounded him as he luxuriated in the feel of the silken coverlet. Even back when he’d been living on Core planets he hadn’t had the wherewithal for such luxury. Inara drew aside his shirt and placed her warm, smooth hands, slick with sandalwood oil, on his back, and began to rub. In less than a minute, John was a boneless imitation of a human being, uttering the occasional sigh of satisfaction.
“It sounds like you haven’t rested in quite a while,” Inara said as she sought out every ache and chased them away.
“Not really. Couldn’t,” John said, addressing the coverlet.
“Maybe.” John let Inara’s hands work on him for several minutes more before he spoke again. “Yes, now.”
“Your friend seems to be doing much better.”
John was quiet, and Inara dug deeper with her fingers.
“Who did you leave behind when you left with Sherlock?”
“Sister I had never gotten on with, parents that died while I was on the run. Another half-decent doctor at the academy.”
“You couldn’t trust her though.”
How Inara had known the doctor was a her, John didn’t ask.
“I couldn’t. I didn’t dare. He only trusted me, and there wasn’t time to ask her.”
“And who do you have now?”
Her fingers delved deep, releasing tension John didn’t even know he’d been carrying.
“Him. He’s my everything.”
Inara didn’t comment on that for long moments, but he felt her hair against his back as she leaned closer, and pressed a kiss into his scarred shoulder. John shuddered underneath her lips, body shaking with something like fear, something like ecstasy.
“And Simon and River?” she asked.
“They already knew that a long time ago. It took me a lot longer to figure it out.”
“You told us quite a lot. More than most strangers would.”
“They’re not strangers,” John said fiercely. “They deserved to know everything they could.”
“But we didn’t have to.”
John lost himself in the rhythm of Inara’s hands for long minutes, slow and regular as a heartbeat.
“Sherlock knew this boat was for us the moment he laid eyes on it. He knew it was the right ship. He’s never wrong.” John breathed deeply, in and out. “We lost so many friends. And those that are left, they have no idea.”
“You trust River’s judgment,” Inara said positively.
“And Simon’s. He wouldn’t stay anywhere she could get hurt.”
Behind him, John could tell that Inara was smiling.
Krandle Station loomed on Serenity’s screens, an unlikely collection of mismatched modules set at the juncture of shipping lanes. A smuggler’s paradise. Mal would had approved the stop whole-heartedly, even if it hadn’t been John and Sherlock’s final destination.
“You know Jayne has been complaining most of the day,” Simon said, as he helped John pack up the rest of his supplies.
“Let him. Inara can handle herself,” John said, snapping a case closed. Simon gave him a sideways, speculative glance, and John shook his head. “You know I won’t tell you anything.”
“Ah,” he blushed. “Sorry. I just… wanted to thank you. I think I have a better idea of… well, what’s going to happen with River.”
“I doubt it,” John said, much to Simon’s surprise. “Don’t think. Just be there. Know you aren’t going to know much of anything. And just remember why you’re doing this in the first place. Every time I tried to out-think Sherlock, I might as well have stayed in bed for the day.”
“Did I ever tell you River likes to walk in the rafters?” Simon said, grinning.
John laughed out loud.
Sherlock waited at the air lock, seated on a carryall, the violin case at his feet. River knelt next to him, watching as he finished writing down a long string of numbers across a musical score.
“It’s beautifully complex.”
“You can hear it?” he asked.
“Always. Use a wave; send me your composition when it’s finished.”
“I shall.” Sherlock pressed the paper into her hand and rose, putting the bag over his shoulder as John entered the cargo bay with Simon.
“I’ll send you my choreography,” River said.
“Perfect.” Sherlock moved to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with John as the docking clamps engaged and the cargo bay door finally opened. With a final wave behind them, John and Sherlock left Serenity. River slipped her hand into Simon’s as the two disappeared into the crowd, moving so easily together it was as if they were dancing.