Chapter 1: Brat
The unthinkable has finally happened: something has driven Sherlock beyond speech.
The sound coming from the back of his throat is a feral growl guaranteed to make any lesser creature bare its throat in submission or flee in terror. The tiny hairs on the back of John's neck are prickling, but he's no lesser creature. The prospective client whose footsteps are still echoing on the stairs was another matter. Her departure may just have broken a land speed record.
"I warned her, but did she listen?" John says to no one in particular as he carries the empty mugs to the sink. "Serves her right."
Sherlock paces the perimeter of the sitting room, nudging an object into place here, rearranging a stack of papers there. Suddenly, he roars with such fury that John rushes back from the kitchen expecting blood.
"Five days, John!"
Sherlock is waving a fat three-ring binder in one hand and crumpling a fistful of sticky notes in the other. "I spent five days annotating these records, and when I looked away for five minutes, he pulled out my notes. Every. Single. One."
He slaps down the binder, tosses the sticky notes in the air like confetti. "If a client ever lets a child anywhere near my desk again," he snarls, "I swear I will strangle the brat."
Chapter 2: Break
"Next time —" John gasps. His breath billows in vast white puffs. "Next time, you're giving me a leg up."
Sherlock leans down, extends his long arms, and signals for him to try again. John backs up and takes another running leap. This time, he gets far enough off the ground for their hands to meet and their fingers to lock around each other's wrists. Sherlock tugs sharply, giving John enough momentum to scramble the rest of the way onto the fire escape.
From there, it's a simple matter of scaling a ladder and slithering through the window they'd left open earlier in the day while posing as an estate agent and his excessively finicky client. It takes Sherlock all of ten minutes to reconstruct the crime using the reflections cast by the headlamps of passing cars. As soon as their feet hit the gravel of the alleyway with a syncopated crunch, he pulls out his phone to send the necessary, gloating text and accompanying photographs to Lestrade and company.
"Right," says John, "now that's over with, let's go home and pack."
"Don't tell me you forgot."
John groans and rubs his eyes. "Flight. To Majorca. In five hours. It was your idea, you git. You're the one who insisted we were well overdue for a break."
Chapter 3: Beloved
"The woman in the big orange hat, two rows behind us."
Sherlock glances over his shoulder. "Retired interior designer. The man next to her is her son. He'll spend the evening trying to keep her away from the bar."
"He's already too late, from the looks of things. What about the bloke passing us right now?"
"Arrived late last night from Amsterdam. And those aren't his trousers."
"Of course they aren't. They're rented."
"No, I mean they don't match his jacket — " Sherlock's eyes narrow as he scans the room, then fly wide in amusement. He leans toward John and murmurs a quick sentence under his breath.
John ducks his head to hide his grin. "You're kidding," he replies.
"I assure you I'm not."
A jubilant chord swells. They stand with the rest of the congregation, turning to watch the bride take her first steps down the aisle. John pitches his voice just loud enough to reach Sherlock's ear over the organist's enthusiastic rendering of the Bridal Chorus.
"Sherlock, if he's wearing the best man's trousers, does that mean the rings are in his pocket?"
"We'll find out in a minute, won't we?"
They sit, one smirking, the other biting his lip. "Don't you dare giggle," John whispers in the sudden silence, just before the vicar's voice rings out: "Dearly beloved…"
Chapter 4: Branch
"Are they as good as you remember?"
They had been looking for a gun discarded in a fallow field. They've found a plum tree, drooping low over a stone wall. The plums are small and oblong and golden, and they split between John's teeth to let him tongue the stones free. At the first bite, he closes his eyes to wallow in the taste of summer weekends in his grandmother's garden. When he opens them again, his companion has lifted an amused eyebrow. What can he do but pluck another and press it against that smirk?
Someone sighs — maybe at the soft warmth of fruit and mouth yielding beneath his fingers, maybe at the sweet tang of plum breaching his lips. Or perhaps it's just the sough of a July breeze in a rural Yorkshire hedgerow.
"They're delicious," Sherlock says, sounding faintly surprised.
"Do you want more?"
John's tongue darts out to catch a drop of juice on his lower lip just as Sherlock reaches over to thumb it away. They stop, eyes wide, fingertips at each other's mouths, and forget the missing gun.
"Oh," someone says. It doesn't matter who.
The field is empty, the stone wall warm, the fruit hanging lush and ripe at arm's length. They reach out in unison for the nearest branch.
Chapter 5: Beer
"Jesus, Sherlock, it smells like a brewery in here," John exclaims as soon as he reaches the top of the stairs. It sounds like a brewery, too, with bottles clinking against a faint backdrop of carbonated fizz and the sticky plip-plip of John's shoes on the kitchen floor. On the table are fifty juice glasses, arrayed like a small liquid army and half full of what John presumes is ale and porter and lager.
The glasses start in the far left corner of the table with the palest of pilsners and gradually shade to nearly opaque stouts at the near right. It's actually rather lovely, John thinks as he watches Sherlock lift one glass to shine a pocket torch into it, sniff, and sip.
"John!" Sherlock looks up and beams, a broad grin the likes of which he's only previously bestowed on John twice in their long acquaintance. "Why did you never tell me fermented barley could be as complex and fascinating as fermented grapes?"
And then he — belches. Incongruously. Inelegantly. Incontrovertibly.
"Did you taste all of these already?" John asks through his giggles.
"Of course," Sherlock says with slightly inebriated dignity. John is unsurprised. After all, a man who catalogued 243 kinds of tobacco ash, probably by smoking them all, would be just as exacting in his research of beer.
Chapter 6: Bastard
The afternoon sun is molten gold. Dust billows under their feet in bronze clouds, muting the coppery tang of blood (one split lip, one battered if not broken nose) in their mouths. They careen out of a narrow pedestrian way and into the piazza in front of the Pantheon. Sherlock is already dodging and swerving, exhorting John to keep up. At worst, the crowd will slow their pursuers; at best, they can hide in plain sight, two bodies among hundreds.
The heaving sea of tourists casts them up on the shore of a famous caffé. The espresso machine is polished to a high gloss and angled perfectly to reflect the passing foot traffic. They face it and wait. John winces at his image and wipes away a trickle of blood from his left nostril.
"Most people would be thrilled about a seven-figure inheritance," he grumbles, less to complain than to pass the time.
"True," Sherlock concedes. "But remember, Wilkes-Clibborn's will specifies only legitimate offspring can inherit."
"The documents I photographed prove, incontrovertibly, that the object of our investigation was not born to Wilkes-Clibborn's legal wife."
Sherlock grins, sharklike, and nods toward the reflected door, where their pursuers are elbowing by. As they slip back into the crowd, John says, "No wonder he punched me when I called him a bastard."
Chapter 7: Bereft
Alone is what he has.
Alone is all he has.
It used to be all he wanted. Now he knows better. He understands what he's given up.
He's copying files onto a tiny flash drive in a cubicle lit only by a laptop's glow. He should still have 15 minutes before the security guard passes again, and yet — footsteps. What he wouldn't give right now to be half of a team again instead of a lone operative.
Alone is not having the reassurance of a second pair of eyes and a steady gun hand.
And no admiring presence at his elbow, no willing ear on his left side, no mirror to reflect and double his brilliance. No irritant speeding up the process of turning the raw grit of facts into pearls of deduction, inference, conclusion.
And no grumbled complaints about the state of the shower curtain. No exasperated sighs over body parts in the fridge. No second mug of tea waiting, steaming, in the morning. No fond grumbling over greasy takeaway at night.
I want to go home.
The thought is desperate and merciless; his eyes burn with it, his throat clenches, his breath stutters. He records the sensations for later consideration, tucks them on a mental shelf, and labels them with a word he's never needed to use before: bereft.
Chapter 8: Boulevard
"This place used to be absolutely infamous," John says. "All the rock stars stayed here. They called it the Riot House."
He looks around, hoping to spot a guitar or groupie, but the hotel lobby is too tasteful for such shenanigans now. There won't be any brawls here today — or so he hopes, though you can't be sure when you're traveling with Sherlock Holmes. At the moment, his friend is visibly tempted to vault over the front desk to retrieve their room keys himself. John puts a restraining hand on the other man's shoulder and tries a distraction.
"The Rolling Stones chucked a telly out a tenth floor window."
Keys now in hand, Sherlock strides toward the lift.
"These days I hear it's all — "
The doors slide open to reveal two men, three studio lights, a large video camera, and a woman who has clearly spent a small fortune on plastic surgery. Sherlock raises both eyebrows and finishes John's sentence: "Porn stars?"
The woman flashes unnaturally white teeth and pneumatic cleavage as she passes. Sherlock gives John a sidelong grin and murmurs, "I think I recognize her from those DVDs you swear aren't yours."
John snorts in shock — Sherlock would, wouldn't he? "Welcome to Los Angeles," he manages as the lift shuts and, riots averted, they rise over Sunset Boulevard.
Chapter 9: Book
Where are we going?
He thinks it all the time, but he never bothers to ask. If he asked, he wouldn't get an answer anyhow, only an impatient stop dawdling, John, there's no time to lose.
To the morgue, to the Yard, to the Chinese restaurant at the end of Baker Street.
To Shoreditch, to Soho, to Southwark.
To a village in Cornwall. To a mansion in Wiltshire. To the silt-scented banks of the sodding Nile, and how he missed that even with his ticket and passport in hand, he'll never know.
He grumbles sometimes, but it isn't actually a problem. The answer always reveals itself in time, even if he only figures it out once they get there, wherever "there" happens to be.
He suspects it will be a long time from now, a long way from here, and he'll be chasing along after Sherlock as usual when he finally realizes where they've been headed all along.
To whatever happens next. To the ends of the earth. To the end of time, maybe.
Some people want to know the ending before they begin, but John has always loved a mystery. The best part is the big reveal, the part where all the disconnected bits make sense, the part that only comes when you reach the very end of the book.
Chapter 10: Bureaucrat
This one is a couple of days late. It's been a busy week.
Last month, Sherlock was crouched in a retired chemist's storage shed in Estonia, testing soil samples at 2am with a flickering penlight held between his teeth. Given the results, he intends to be in Seoul next month for the International Congress of Toxicology.
This month, though, he's Timothy Berkland of the Health and Safety Executive. He wears his hair floppy, his suits slightly rumpled, and his glasses just oversized enough to slip half an inch down his nose whenever he leans forward. His entire persona is calibrated to make the least impression possible. And he's careful to make accurate reports about the data he's evaluating, even as he tries to focus on his real reasons for spending his days in an office in Liverpool.
He's so bored, he can barely remember his name.
That won't do, he knows. Someone's bound to notice if he doesn't react to a voice saying "Mr Berkland?" from just a few feet away.
He looks up at the intern hovering in the doorway, vibrating like a hummingbird with impatient eagerness. "Yes?" he says, remembering to pitch his voice half an octave higher. She waves an envelope: the report he's been waiting for.
Tomorrow Timothy Berkland will call in sick, and he won't be back. Today, Sherlock squashes his smile behind the bland mask of the bureaucrat.
Chapter 11: Beat
John is sleeping.
Simple sentence. Three words. Subject, verb, object.
A short blond man in an armchair, legs stretched out, head lolling to one side. What can be deduced about him? That he's tired. That he's relaxed. That he's home and safe.
An hour ago, none of those things were true. An hour ago, John was a compact, adrenaline-fueled rocket about to launch himself off a second floor balcony in Bethnal Green. Then he was in flight. Then he was landing on the woman whose shaking hands were holding a gun on Sherlock. The impact broke her arm in two places, gun skittering across the pavement. Of course, John had apologized even as he held her down and waited for Lestrade to arrive.
But now, John is sleeping. He untied his shoes, took two sips of his tea, leaned back with a sigh, and he's been asleep for the last hour.
Sherlock folds himself down to the floor to ease the brown boots from John's feet, then rises again to tuck a blanket around his shoulders. He pulls his own chair closer and angles the reading lamp to block the light from John's eyes.
Sherlock had planned to read the rest of the night away. Instead, he watches John sleeping.
Three bells and all's well, says the watchman on his beat.
Chapter 12: Button
Finally, an update. I won't let real life intervene again before I reach the end.
It's a mystery, really, how he can run in those slippery-soled dress shoes, launch himself over fences without garrotting himself on that dangling scarf, tear through the streets of London without a droplet of sweat soaking through his silk shirt. And yet somehow he does. On most days, the man is -- there's no other word for it -- impeccable.
In the most sultry days of midsummer, though, Sherlock melts. Wool gives way to cotton, ironed folds to an artful rumpling. Even his sharp temper loses its crispness; instead of snapping an insult, he simply rolls his eyes and sighs.
Tonight, he leans half out the sitting room window, torso covered by nothing but a sheen of sweat, linen-clad legs straddling the sill. John rounds the corner and holds up a plastic bag, droplets of moisture visibly condensing on it. "Hurry up, John," Sherlock calls down.
He snatches the bag from John's hands before the other man can finish stepping into the flat. "A man's life depends on this ice," he says as he whisks it into the kitchen and empties it into a large metal bowl.
"Yeah -- yours," John replies. "If you don't save me some, I may have to kill you."
Sherlock grins, scoops up a fistful of ice, and reaches out his other hand for John's top button.
Chapter 13: Battle
Violence and adrenaline. Loud noises and overtaxed muscles. Cries for mercy followed by an explosion that leaves John limp and aching. He bites his lip until it bleeds and wills himself not to let the tears come.
"Fucking hell, Sherlock," he gasps, rolling sideways and flinging one arm over his eyes. "What was that?"
Sherlock has to inhale and exhale twice before he can say, "I thought this was your area of expertise."
"Congratulations," John says. "For once, you're as clueless as I am."
Sherlock turns his head just far enough to take in the way John's hair is standing up in sweaty spikes. John peers back from beneath his arm before sitting up and rubbing his face with both hands.
"Are you all right?"
John shakes his head. "Two hours ago, I thought you were dead, you bastard. I don't actually know how I am."
They smile cautiously at each other and look over the damage. The upended coffee table, the shattered mug. The ragged hoodie Sherlock would never have worn again even if John hadn't destroyed the zipper ripping it off him. The bite mark on Sherlock's collarbone. The bruises fingerprinted on John's hips.
It's just like war, and he would know, John thinks, as they give in to the raucous laughter of soldiers home from battle.