Chapter 1: Pastorale
"You'll get off at New Street Station."
"You'll have to give me some money."
Like every other time he had talked with his brother, this wasn't a human conversation. It was a singlestick match. Even now, glancing down, Sherlock could see how tensely Mycroft held the umbrella, as if he might lash out with the caned portion. They never had come to blows as adults, but Sherlock had never been able to disregard the possibility.
"Of course," Mycroft said flatly. "Money." There was disdain in each of the words, but Sherlock was uncertain why. Was it for the unwanted encumbrance of cash or for the perhaps equally undesired younger brother who was supposed to be dead? At times, the civil servant was a mystery even to him.
His nerves were shot. He was tense, fraying at the edges, ready to snap at everyone who crossed his path, and now Mycroft had just told him to head out of London and lay low for a while. Ridiculous. Birmingham held as little appeal for him as living off his brother's largesse, but he could see few other options.
"You were almost outplayed, you know," Mycroft chided him. "You didn't know that Moriarty had the code. You only guessed it."
Sherlock could hear the starchiness of his own voice. "I deduced it through inductive reasoning."
"You guessed it." Mycroft's mouth formed a silent 'Ah' before he added, "You didn't know about Moriarty's assassins, either. How could you not know?"
Sherlock took a step back, edging uncomfortably against one of the poles that dotted Farringdon Station. That pole would have been bright yellow in the daytime, but now everything was the same dusky, muted coloration. He should have met Moriarty in the dark, where everything from the roof of St. Bart's to the ground would have been shadowed more appropriately for a so-called magic trick. Molly Hooper's work could have been even more compelling. Even now, he couldn't be sure if John had been convinced by the body.
He half-hoped John hadn't been convinced by it, though. It would be nice to think that the doctor had enough faith in him to believe that he was still alive. Still, John was a pragmatist, a realist. He'd likely believe what he had seen, rather than leap to the nearly impossible yet valid conclusion. From the way he'd reacted in St. Bart's when Sherlock had refused to help Mrs. Hudson, John had lost some trust in him, and he doubted that trust could be entirely regained.
"Sherlock, I'm talking to you."
He jerked his head up towards Mycroft, feigning only the slightest interest. "Mm."
"Money's not an issue. You know that. But I will ask that you behave yourself like a civilized member of society. Don't roll your eyes at me."
"I wasn't going to do that."
"And don't lie." Mycroft's voice was strangely fond. It was disturbing.
Even as his older brother's hand stretched out for his arm, Sherlock had to fight an urge to draw away from the moment of physical contact.
Perhaps it was an effort at familial companionship, but it didn't ring entirely true. They never had been true companions; they'd always been rivals. And now, the one person he could think of as a companion believed he was dead. There was something curious in that, perhaps even sad, and the same realization seemed to spur Mycroft to add, "You'll get out of this cleanly, and things will be back to normal soon enough. I'll see to it, if you can't."
Anger boiled in him, forced him into scorching sarcasm. "Thank you, dear brother. I quite appreciate your assistance, and want to say that – "
But whatever he supposedly wanted to say, just like what he really wanted to say, went unspoken. Mycroft turned his back on him and started to walk away, tossing offhandedly over his shoulder, "The train's coming. Didn't you notice?"
It had only been slight, momentary negligence. Insignificant. But, as the subway car pulled in on its way to Euston Station, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was losing his touch. He didn't even discover the cigarettes Mycroft had slipped him until a good few seconds into the voyage. He couldn't smoke in the subway car, though, and so even the cigarettes felt like a taunt from his brother: I'm giving you a gift that I know you won't be able to use for a good hour or two. Enjoy – when you finally can.
When he transferred to the railway line at Euston, he made sure to toss the unopened carton of cigarettes into the closest rubbish bin. In case his brother was watching him on CCTV, Sherlock wasn't about to give Mycroft the satisfaction of knowing that he had won the round.
The ugliness of New Street Station always surprised him. Its boxy Sixties architecture felt antiseptic and far, far too clean. There was no life to the place, and as Sherlock stepped from the train, he felt almost ghostlike amidst the sparseness and coldness of the place. Drawing his long coat closer to him, he ducked his head down, threading through the crowd until he reached the outside.
Birmingham was just as flooded with cheap lighting as London had been; he squinted past the lights into the darkness, leaning against the concrete wall. He knew where he was supposed to go. Mycroft had given him a slip of paper with the address of his lodgings and, infuriatingly, had wrapped it around a good dozen fifty-pound notes. "Enough to get you through a week or two. I'll wire the rest," his brother had said.
The red notes would have looked even better if Sherlock would have set fire to them with his cigarette lighter, but practicality won out over spite. He couldn't use credit cards; he was supposed to be dead, and credit activity would have been a contrary indication. So bills from his brother would have to suffice for the time being. Tucking the bills back into his coat, he unrolled the paper, expecting a housing address. Instead, he found a single number, 67, and three words: "Castle Vale Library."
"I'm supposed to kip in a public library?" he muttered. But there were worse places to be than surrounded by books. Digging up some change from his pockets so the driver of the approaching 67 bus wouldn't look at him strangely for the fifty-quid note, he stepped aboard the bus, fighting the urge to give the driver a once-over. He'd been fooled twice by lunatics at the wheel of public transport; he had no desire to walk right into a third encounter.
Sinking into a seat at the back of the bus, he leaned back, bracing his lanky frame against the rattling back wall. The vehicle lurched away from the curb, heading northeast. Each passing mile put him further away from London – further away from the ignominy of being ridden out on a rail and believed dead – but it did little to relieve the tension that still crawled through his stomach.
The rest of the ride was spent in fitful thoughts, scattered questions that had no answers. Why was he in bloody Birmingham, of all places? Surely if there was still a threat to his life, he would have been sent further away from London to a remote island somewhere, or some farm amidst the chalk hills of Sussex Downs. There couldn't be, then. If that was the case, though, then why had Mycroft insisted he leave London as soon as the con job was complete?
He almost wished he hadn't kept his brother informed of his plans. He should have told John instead. But it was too late now – all too late. John believed him dead, and Sherlock could not bring himself to disabuse the doctor of the notion. It was too important that he wait out the next few months in anonymity.
As the bus turned the corner onto Reed Square, Sherlock studied the public building as they pulled up alongside. More blocky, boxy architecture. Birmingham's city planners must have hated Victoriana with as equal a passion as the city's architects clearly hated naturalistic design principles. A large glass wall of windows fronted the place, which was apparently in keeping with most modern libraries, open-planned and with no easy hiding places.
He descended from the back of the bus, confronting himself with a handful of homeless. But not his homeless. They stared at him with blank unfamiliarity, and he felt oddly stranded and foreign amidst them.
The Brummie accent and traditional greeting came out as fluidly as he could manage. "All right, mate?" Round and twanging on the long I, short and tight on the long A. It was at least convincing enough for one of the stragglers, a giant of a man, to hold out a hand for cash. The nearly flawless state of his clothes had clearly revealed his class. "Ain't got none," he added, his smile less than heartfelt. But even Anderson and Donovan would have registered the homeless man's glare as disbelieving on the second count.
Despite the lights that flooded onto the pavement through the glass windows, no doubt the library was locked up tight. He didn't dare touch the door, lest he set off an alarm, so he paced the length of the modern building. There was no other way in as far as he could tell. Was this a practical joke on Mycroft's behalf? His brother couldn't possibly beat him twice in a row. He wouldn't stand for that.
Sherlock felt anxious, as jumpy as he'd been at Farringdon Station. He could feel himself twiddling the address slip between his fingers, and he willed himself to stop. Think, he commanded himself, and all physical energy converted itself into mental pursuits. He was dimly aware of standing there with unnerving stillness, and could see the homeless man take a step backwards in unease, but his thoughts readily overtook reality.
He was supposed to get in, and he was supposed to do so without attracting attention. The doors weren't an option but the alleyways were. This was a suburban library; there would be one night watchman, if that. He strolled towards the alleyway to investigate. The sturdy metal steps of a relatively new fire escape greeted him, and he sighed in relief. Easy enough, then, to take an alternate route. Heading through the door would set off an alarm; heading in through a lavatory window would not. By now, he was long past caring how something like that would look.
It had rained earlier that day; the steps were treacherous. He climbed up the slick fire escape carefully, stopping at the first landing. He made short work of kicking in the screen of the fortunately open privacy window and landing in the tiled room he hoped was the gents. The scent of cleaning agents hit him; he nearly coughed, but covered it up before any real noise could escape, and headed out into the main area of the library.
He had to stay clear of the lights. If he was going to stretch out on a sofa somewhere in the place, then he had to do so with a minimum of notice. Mycroft would have an eye on the cameras, but there was no telling what the local police might think of his breaking-and-entering before his brother could clue them in. He had no Lestrade here to clear a path for him.
Hiding in a half-darkened library should not have been the next act for the Reichenbach hero, but what greeted him as he headed from the small alcove that housed the public lavatories was even more of a surprise. He drew himself upright as he strolled into the dazzling glare of bright lights. A footlight and a skylight, and two side spotlights, turned up enough that he couldn't have seen beyond them even if he'd tried.
"Requisitioned these from Thatcher's portrait sessions a few years back?" He let himself smile. Mycroft, ever a Tory, would take umbrage at the sharp comment against the former Prime Minister.
Though he expected to hear a displeased scoff, there was no answer.
Was it Mycroft, then? He let his gaze sweep back, studying shadows out of the corner of his eye. Someone at his left shoulder; the shadows had changed. Someone easily as tall as he, perhaps taller. Bulky. As large as the man outside. Was it the same man? Sherlock couldn't be sure. There was a longer shadowy patch to the side – a rifle. He couldn't be sure of the make without further identifying characteristics, but it had the long barrel of a sharpshooter's weapon. Military issue, no doubt. But he hadn't taken even a quasi-military case since Baskerville. So the sharpshooter couldn't possibly be someone with a personal grudge. As much as Mycroft might dislike him at times, too, he'd never have him shot, Sherlock hoped.
A sudden, wild realization came to him, nearly making him laugh. There had to be less ruinous places to have a potential shootout than a library. All of the books that might be damaged… but then self-preservation took over. Sherlock's voice hardened, bolstering his words even as dread thickened them. "I don't take well to being shot at."
The presence behind him remained silent, moving only slightly. The shadow of the barrel stayed still. The rifleman was not the leader, then; he was someone who wasn't supposed to speak quite yet, if at all.
A lilting, recognizable voice came from beyond the spotlights. "And I don't take well to having to shoot myself."
For a moment, Sherlock could only stare into the overly brilliant spotlights, the whirlwind of thoughts and deductions blanking out amidst the dazzling lights and the sudden illumination. "Oh," he forced out carefully, dispassionately, and waited.
Chapter 2: Alte Kamaraden
The summer evening was thick, close, and oppressive, and heading into the gloom of the half-empty flat was starting to feel like a relief. It had been long enough now, even if only a week had passed, that heading into 221B sent only a twinge through John Watson each time, nothing more wracking.
Things were improving, he told Mrs. Hudson, and in a way, he believed that. Normalcy took some readjustment, after the madness of the last eighteen months, but he had adjusted to Afghanistan, so for God's sake, he could readjust to normal London.
Clattering up the stairs, he studied his phone. Sarah had texted him. He'd picked up a relationship with her again, and had even graduated from the lilo last night. Now, she had an offer: Dinner tonight? On me. He would accept. She was pleasant company, and she accepted the long silences and the distracted trains of thought that had peppered his conversation over the past few days.
Mrs. Hudson was dusting when he entered; he gave her a quick nod, but she didn't notice at first. There had been a ferocity to her housekeeping since Sherlock had died, as if she was trying to erase the flat of any vestiges of his former presence. She had thrown out the skull and the hideous deerstalker hat three times over the past week. John had pulled them out of the trash and put them back on the shelves. The landlady hadn't thrown them out today, though. Perhaps she had given up.
"John! I didn't see you there!" She turned around in a flurry, nearly dropping the dust-rag. "How was work?"
He shrugged, feeling taciturn.
"I know." Her voice was cloyingly sympathetic. "But things are getting better, aren't they?" He didn't answer. "You're going to meet with that girl tonight, aren't you? Jeanette?"
"Of course, Sarah! Lovely young woman. If she plans to move in, I wouldn't object." There was something uncharacteristically careful about that phrasing, though, as if Mrs. Hudson didn't want to admit that there was now a vacancy in the flat. He didn't want to admit it, either, but he'd have to, eventually.
"Perhaps. I'll let you know, Mrs. Hudson. Oh – " He reached into his pocket, pulling out a small plastic bag. "Your herbal soothers." A faint smile edged at his lips. At least some things remained the same. "And your two quid back in change." He paused, and then felt compelled to add, "You know, I didn't see Jeanette after last Christmas."
She frowned. "Right. This Christmas will be... different, won't it?"
"I hope not," John said, and he truly did. Even now, he held out hope. But he'd seen his friend's body on the pavement; he knew it was foolish to believe otherwise. So he was a fool, then. It didn't matter.
"I'd better get some of these books packed away. Do you want me to take them to the pawnshop, or... what is that bloody thing there?" The landlady had backed away from a gap in the shelves, and her voice was shrill with panic. John went over to investigate, hardly troubled. It was probably some experiment he hadn't noticed beforehand, neglected, now withered and dying.
"It's a dead frog, Mrs. Hudson." The toxins experiment. The one Sherlock had warned him about, telling him to keep well enough away, and he'd gladly taken the advice. Now the brightly colored but deceased frog was beginning to blacken in its small confines, and he reached in gingerly with a grimace. "I'll take care of it. And the books as well."
And here I am stuck cleaning up your mess, Sherlock. I hope you're happy. Bitterness swarmed him; he felt his fingers tightening on the frog's tank, but wrested it out to set it on the table next to the skull, atop a pile of papers.
Mrs. Hudson turned her back on the tank, and John couldn't blame her. He didn't really want to look at it either, less due to the sight, and more due to what it meant. The experiments were over; the madcap rush that his life had become would settle down into routine. He would go back to work tomorrow and it all would be as if he'd never lived the past year and a half. He forced himself to gaze at the frog, to accept that realization, but it hit with a slightly sickening thud in the pit of his stomach. Reaching out for a small drop cloth, he covered the small tank completely, resisting the shudder that propelled through him.
"A dead frog," Mrs. Hudson complained behind him. "How were you living here with all this, John?"
"Carefully," he replied without looking up from the now-covered tank, and it had been the truth.
"I can only imagine." She was so flustered that she forgot to pick up the soothers and the two pounds he owed her, and he was too absorbed in thought to remind her to shut the door on her way out.
Something didn't add up here. He went back, as ever, through the moments after Sherlock had jumped from the rooftop. He had run for the body, but had collided with a bicyclist on the way, hitting the pavement solidly enough that for a split second, he thought he might have to go back to using a cane. After that moment, his thoughts were solely for his fallen comrade.
Once he managed to peel himself off the pavement and rush over to see Sherlock's body, he could see that it was mangled, blood pooling on the pavement, but there were too many people crowding around. He could hear himself gulping out, "I'm a doctor! Let me through! He's my friend!" But people were swarming around him, somehow holding him back. He managed to snag Sherlock's forearm and try to isolate a pulse, but there was no pulse to be found.
John had no reason to suspect anything other than suicide, but he did. Sherlock wouldn't have killed himself. But the suicide had been showy enough that most people wouldn't have questioned it. Sherlock wouldn't have gone out quietly, so the leap to his death would have been characteristic enough for people who didn't ask many questions to keep from asking any. John knew differently.
Was this just hero worship? It didn't feel like blind loyalty; his military career had taught him the difference. He respected Sherlock, respected him too much to think that he was suicidal, respected his wits enough to know that the consulting detective would have found a way out of the situation. It was a stupid end, and Sherlock Holmes was anything but stupid, with the notable exceptions of astronomy, fine arts, literature, and philosophy.
His phone chirped, distracting him. Sarah had sent him another text, probably. He reached out for the phone, turning it around. It wasn't Sarah, though. It was Lestrade. You're wanted down at Scotland Yard. Bring Sherlock's laptop.
But I thought you'd already had it searched?
The reply came quickly. I did. Bring it, please.
What harm could there be in taking the laptop to the police? It sat on an end table, untouched for the past few days since he'd brought it back from the Yard. It shouldn't have mattered since Sherlock was dead (was he really?) but duty had kept John from infringing on his roommate's privacy. As much as Sherlock hadn't given a damn about his desire for privacy, anyway.
All right, Greg. I'll bring it down ASAP. Why?
"Going out, Mrs. Hudson!" he called out as he grabbed the laptop and headed down the staircase. "You left your herbal soothers and your two quid. Don't forget!"
Lestrade offered no further explanation throughout the cab ride, but when John headed into the Metropolitan station, he saw that the man had buried himself in his work. Much to John's relief, Anderson and Donovan were nowhere to be seen. He couldn't be sure whether it had been Sherlock's merciless antipathy towards them, or their own hostility to Sherlock, that had made him dislike them almost as readily as his flatmate had, but they hadn't even had the decency to make a proper show of mourning.
He raised his free hand to rap on the glass of Lestrade's office. "Detective Inspector?"
"John." Lestrade had been subdued too, over the past week. The look he shot John now seemed almost guilty, his eyes shadowed and his gaze sidelong. "How are you?"
"Bearing up." John thrust the laptop out in front of him. "You asked me to bring this back."
"Ah, yes." Lestrade ran a hand through his gray hair. His gaze stayed well away from John's face. "Turn it on, will you?"
"Sure." For all Sherlock had nagged at him about his password being easily guessable, he'd been surprised when the laptop hadn't been password protected when they'd searched it. At the time, he'd realized that Sherlock must have known he would need other people to look at the computer, but Anderson had suggested it was likely a suicide note of some sort, and John had kept his mouth shut.
Now, even as The Science of Deduction loaded up again on a browser window, John felt his stomach twist.
"You're at his website, right? Is there an E-mail link, a comments page, anything?"
He looked for a moment before turning back to the police inspector. "Just one post. The one from Baskerville, Kirsty Stapleton. It says to come to 221B or to contact him through my blog. The second's probably the better alternative, considering."
Lestrade let out a dry little laugh. "Go to your blog, then."
"You couldn't have done this yourself?"
"Not without the laptop." Lestrade opened a drawer of his desk, pulling out something and holding it out wordlessly.
John recognized the phone. It wasn't the pink one. It was the black one Sherlock had had with him at St. Bart's. It wasn't broken or even scuffed, and it was turned on. For a moment, John wanted desperately to pick it up, hoping Sherlock was on the other end, but knew he wouldn't be.
"Hell, Greg, that's – "
"The phone he spoke from that day. I know. We found it on the rooftop. Well, that and a curious amount of blood. We're testing that at the moment, before you ask."
Was it an exact pint? He resisted asking. Instead, he turned fully, reaching out for the phone, brows raised at Lestrade to ask permission. Lestrade waved him to go ahead, and he turned the phone over in his hands. If he had been Sherlock, he could have spotted twenty characteristics about the phone in the first two seconds, but as it was, the phone was too generic for him to pick up much. None of the buttons were worn. There were two contacts on the phone: His own name and Mycroft's, just as he'd told Sherlock's brother. Phone calls to St. Bart's. That made sense.
The texts made a good deal less sense at first, but they clicked into place instantly:
Come and play. Bart's Hospital rooftop. SH
I'm waiting... JM
"You saw this, right?" He glanced up over the phone at the gray-haired man, who nodded. "Moriarty was up there."
"Not when we went up there."
John couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence. "You think he..."
Lestrade shrugged, spreading his hands in a gesture of mute uncertainty.
"So that's why you want me to use Sherlock's laptop. To track Moriarty down." The sense of purpose was welcome, and he sensed himself relaxing, at parade rest. "What makes you think he'll reply?" He realized the answer to his question before Lestrade could. "Because it's a game."
"One none of us should play," Lestrade agreed, "but..." Trailing off, the officer sank back into his leather office chair with a sigh. "This is between us, though, John. The official report says nothing about this, and I'd like to keep it that way."
"Not a word to the punters. Right." John gestured back towards the laptop. "So what should we put on the blog that will keep anyone else from figuring it out?"
Sherlock would have had an idea. Scratch that; he would have already bellowed the idea at John, regardless of the location. Lestrade was at a loss, though, and just stared at John helplessly. "You're the expert, John. Five whole minutes, like Sherlock said in court."
It had actually been longer than that, since he'd been abducted shortly after leaving Baker Street. But that didn't bear mentioning. John felt his voice edge a bit higher with frustration. "Yes, but he noticed things! That's what he does. I was too busy having a couple kilos of Semtex strapped to me in the meantime."
"Does," he realized he'd said. Not "did." It was a good thing the therapist wasn't in earshot, and, if Lestrade noticed, he chose not to comment, simply tilting forward in the armchair and waiting.
Shoving a hand through his hair, John began to pace. "Right. All right. So, we've got a raving madman here who thinks it's all a game, who somehow, I don't know how, managed to get what he wanted, to kill Sherlock. What would there be left for him after that? And he's broken into the Tower of bloody London and gotten away with it. Where does he go from there?"
Only one answer made sense: Moriarty would probably kill himself after he'd won, like a fanatic for the cause. But, while Moriarty was mad enough for it, he wasn't rational enough for it. He wasn't motivated by money or goods, but there had to be something.
And there was. John snapped his fingers, gazing at Lestrade. "We tell him he's won. We tell him we're on our heels, and he's sure to taunt us, to send a message back. He'll have computer connections, so he'll know it's Sherlock's laptop we've got, of course, and he'll know we're telling the truth." He spun back around to the computer. It was a little easier to gaze at The Science of Deduction now that he had a reason besides wistful hope to study it.
He could feel Lestrade watching him over his shoulder as he leaned over the keys, but it didn't hinder his progress. Scrolling through the monotonously written entries of Sherlock's discoveries, he found a link to his own blog.
"Here goes," he muttered to himself. Congratulations, he wrote. You won. He wished he could glare the words out of existence, make this an impossibility. It had to be. This had to be just an act of some sort. But he hit enter, all the same, and turned back towards Lestrade. "So now, we wait."
That familiar old sense of anticipation was beginning to build in him. He didn't necessarily want to prevent it. But he felt weirdly out of his depth as the point of contact with a lunatic. Madmen understood other madmen, and John knew he wasn't nearly mad enough to comprehend the whole situation. Still, Lestrade was relying on him, and he liked having people rely on him. Being the calm point in the storm was easier than being on the raging fringes, anyway. He was suddenly aware, though, that he was burying himself in thought and becoming distracted, and he jerked himself out of his fugue, offering Lestrade an apologetic little smile.
"You know," Lestrade said, "at first I never understood why you and Sherlock got on. I think I'm beginning to."
"I think I'm beginning to, too," John admitted. It wasn't an unpleasant realization. He nodded briskly at Lestrade, and reached out for the laptop, starting to place it back in its case again. "I'll let you know the moment I hear anything."
The knock on the door would have made him flinch in slight surprise if he hadn't been prepared for it, and steeled his nerves well in advance. Looking towards the door, he spotted not Anderson and Donovan, as he expected to see, but the Chief Superintendent. It made John smile to see that the man still bore the chinning injury on his face, even if it was fading, but he hid that smile quickly behind mild solicitation.
Lestrade rose from his desk. "Chief Superintendent."
The bulky man's attention settled not on Lestrade, but on John. "What's he doing here, Lestrade?" The question was sharply dismissive.
"I called him in. He'll be gone soon."
John could take a hint. Offering a quick but purely polite smile to Lestrade, he steered deliberately clear of the Chief Superintendent as he made his way out of the office, laptop in hand. He didn't bother to repeat their plans to Lestrade. The less the newcomer knew about what was going on, the better, since Lestrade had requested secrecy.
"I hope you're proud of me," John murmured to the nearest wall.
"Sorry?" Sally Donovan's voice, near his elbow.
John blinked, looking at the curly-haired woman. She stood there as if nothing was wrong, arms folded, a paper cup of coffee in her hand and a look of impatient curiosity on her face. He didn't want to rile her up, so he hedged her off with a noncommittal, "Nothing." He'd meant the remark for Sherlock, wherever he was, if he still was.
"Look, John, about the freak. I'm sorry he had to die." She clearly wasn't, and he didn't need heightened powers of deduction to realize that. "I told you he'd end badly, though."
"No, you didn't. You told me he'd get bored enough to kill someone."
Donovan's expression twisted into viciousness. "Well, you can't prove he didn't, can you?"
"I thought you were supposed to be sorry, Sally." Having delivered this brusque reply, John didn't bother looking at Donovan's face as he pressed on, and didn't look at anything else around him until he was outside in dusk, and the rotating sign of New Scotland Yard spun before him.
Chapter 3: Queen of Spades
After they'd spirited the rubbish van away with Sherlock inside it on a fire evacuation mat, Molly had whisked the corpse back inside St. Bart's as quickly as possible, before John could figure out it was made of silicone. Being a doctor, he'd have realized in another moment, if he had touched the skin and not the coat, and Sherlock had asked her to keep the secret. She hadn't known why, and still didn't know, but she had said yes – unhesitatingly, acceptingly.
"Destroy all the materials," Sherlock had said, forgetting 'Please' as usual. So now she stood above the table on which the cast lay for the mask they'd put on the dummy. It really did look like Sherlock: High cheekbones, squinting eyes, turned-up nose, long face. If she hadn't been entirely certain that he was alive, it would have been impossibly eerie. It still made her feel strange.
The man who wore that face made her feel strange too, even now, even when she'd known for months he didn't reciprocate her feelings for him. But he trusted her; she knew that now, and he appreciated what she could do for him, how she could help him. That was worth more to him, at least, than anything else, even if she couldn't quite understand why. But she had to bury her feelings for now, just like the buried casket, loaded with the dummy's body and deadweights. Molly shoved the terrifyingly accurate mask into a drawer, and rested her elbows on the table.
There was always Toby. She'd gotten the kitten last February, and by now he was growing bigger, losing some of his fluff and turning into a real cat, rather like her own transformation. She'd been naïve and sheltered. She was becoming less so now, she knew, with helping a man fake his death, and believing in him despite his being accused of kidnapping children and committing past murders. What if she'd been wrong to do so?
But, no, she couldn't have been. She'd peeled away enough of the outer layer to know he was telling the truth on those counts. She drew in a breath shakily, and pushed the completed paperwork aside. Mycroft had texted her, and had told her to sign the coroner's report for Sherlock. He'd said he'd take care of any inconsistencies that arose, and so she had signed willingly. But that was days in the past, now, and she had other work to get on with.
"Act normally," she'd been told. The best way to do that was to get back to her very abnormal job.
"Molly?" Mike Stamford's voice came to her; he was standing at the door, looking more confused than anything else, brows drawn together above his thick glasses. "John Watson just stopped me in the canteen. He says he'd like to talk to you. He'll be over in a tick."
She wasn't particularly looking forward to talking with John, if she were being honest. She needed some time to sort things out. Still, she couldn't say that, could she? She smiled warmly at Mike. This wasn't his fault. She certainly couldn't be mean to him. "Of course, Mike." She was grateful, though, that she'd already put the mask away, and that Mike couldn't see the certificate of death from here. High-impact fall: Believed suicide was hard enough for her to have written, never mind for her to have shown anyone else.
And, as if on cue once she'd stashed the papers as well, John did show up. He looked careworn, haggard, and she wondered if he even knew it. Commenting on it would have been rude, however, and so she offered him a slight smile, tempered by the events of the past few days. "Hi, John." Her tone was blandly careful.
"Sorry it was such sudden notice, Molly." He sounded awkward, uncomfortable. He hung at the door for a longer time than Mike just had before entering the coroner's lab, shoulders rolling as if to ease some tension out of them. She'd half-expected him to be using the cane again, but something had apparently driven all thoughts of the wartime injury out of his mind. "We should talk, though. I was just having a chat with Lestrade."
"Really?" She felt a growing uneasiness. "I – I don't see what that's got to do with me?" Her hands clenched at her sides.
If he noticed her nervousness, John didn't comment. "Lestrade said that there was blood on the rooftop, Molly. He said he was having it tested. I figured it would've passed through here. Can you get it for me?"
"That's forensics, John. I'm not authorized to..." But she caught a hint of the look he gave her, dark and sober, and she relented, sighing. "All right. I'll see what I can do."
She wanted to tell him everything that she knew. She hated keeping secrets. She didn't think she was very good at it, anyway, but the seriousness of the information she held kept her from telling him anything further. "Anything else?" It was too sharp. She opened her mouth to apologize, but knew in that moment that John had caught the difference in tone.
At least he didn't look angry. Instead, he looked curious, tilting his head at her and blinking a few times. It wasn't the same as Sherlock's stare, of course – it wasn't half as piercing – but it was purposeful, and she fought the urge to quail away from him.
"You signed the death certificate, didn't you?"
"You know I did."
"You saw the body?"
"Of course I did. How else would I – "
"You have his things? Still have his mobile?"
If it would make him go away and stop making her so nervous... "Of course I do, but you'll have to get all of that from the personal effects clerk down the hall."
John took a step forward. She lifted her chin and stared at him. He still wasn't angry, though. He was smiling – suddenly, triumphantly, as if she'd made a mistake. He jabbed a finger at her, shaking his head and holding the tight smile. Then, as if realizing the unpleasantness of the gesture, he dropped his hand. "You're lying. Lestrade has the mobile. It couldn't have been on Sherlock's body. They found it on the roof."
She felt her mouth go dry. "Nobody is to know," Sherlock had said, making her promise. "Not even John." And she had been all right with that. She hardly knew John as well as she did Sherlock, after all, and so her loyalties remained undivided. But she hadn't told him. She hadn't. He'd figured it out. And now he was sure to be mad at her for lying, for keeping the secret. She couldn't look him in the eye.
"You never saw the body, did you?" The question was low; he already knew the answer, and he folded his arms in displeasure, his army jacket creaking.
Her thoughts spun. "Ask Mycroft!"
He stopped short, blinking. "What?"
"Ask Mycroft," she repeated, slightly more calmly. "His brother. Mycroft Holmes. He works for the government. They asked me to sign the death certificate, but I swear, John, there's no way that he could have survived that."
He held up his hands, relenting. "Right. You're right. I know. If Mycroft asked you to do this, it's not your fault. I was being unfair. I... just..." He stopped and swallowed, shaking his head, and lapsed into silence.
"I'm sorry." She placed a hand on his arm, and he didn't flinch away. "We all cared for him. Even Mycroft, even if he didn't want to admit it. But... he's gone. There's nothing any of us can do about it. Are you – are you going to ask Mycroft?"
"I wish I didn't have to." There was regret in his voice, sadness. The roommates shared much the same sadness... She shook the memory away, and focused on him. "He wasn't a fake, Molly. He couldn't have been."
She wanted to tell him how close he was to figuring out the substitution that had happened, but she couldn't possibly tell him that. It was Sherlock's secret to tell, not hers, and she had every confidence that John would know the truth eventually. He wasn't going to hear it from her, though, and so she drew a breath. "Yes, well – "
"I should go."
"Work to do. No rest for the wicked, eh?" It was an attempt at making a joke, but she felt it fall flat. She'd never been good at off-the-cuff humor, after all, especially in tense situations, and so she scraped her ponytail back. "How have things been with Jeanette?"
"Right. You've been seeing her?"
He grimaced, his mouth jerking into a frown. "Twice since – "
She cut him off. There was no sense in dredging the rest of it up. "Bit of advice, then, John?"
The offer seemed to startle him; he stared at her and then shrugged, leaning his sturdy frame against the table. "Fire away."
"Bring her some flowers or chocolates or something. I know you're distracted by this, but show her that you're still thinking about her, that you still care about her, that you're not totally involved in other things besides her. That helps." There speaks the voice of experience, she thought. But she didn't tell him that.
He laughed, but it was an uneasy sound, as if he hadn't expected that type of advice. "Right. Chocolates. I'll remember. Thanks, Molly." He sounded preoccupied, but reasonably grateful. "You've been a good friend."
Now it was her turn to be distracted; she found her thoughts slipping away from John and his date. She had been a good friend, probably more so than Sherlock deserved. But what would happen when he came back? He would come back. The cases were too much of a draw for him simply to go away for the rest of his life. Besides, as much as she knew he'd never admit it, he cared for John, Mrs. Hudson, maybe even her. He liked Lestrade and tolerated his brother. He would never make friends anywhere else. He would be lucky if he didn't make enemies instead.
The picture she had in mind of Sherlock making any possible attempt at friendship made her smile, and she exhaled slowly. "Can't stand here all day, though."
His smile was brief; he nodded, and disappeared out the door. She watched him go for a long moment before pulling out the coroner's report again with a long sigh. She trusted Sherlock, believed in him, but she hoped, rather than trusted, that he was doing the right thing. It wasn't right of him to keep John in the dark like this. It wasn't right of her to keep John in the dark like this.
Molly had a bit of a cry about it when she got home, curled up on the sofa with fluffy pillows and Toby, and watching some light comedies to feel better. They should have helped. If she had been paying attention to them, they probably would have. She liked to laugh. But her thoughts were for today, the meeting with John Watson, and how she was going to keep up this story long enough for things to right themselves.
She wasn't a good liar. John had almost realized that. If he'd pressed her again, he'd have known. She would say something to somebody. It was inevitable. Blurting out the truth might be disastrous in a way that no other gaffe she'd ever made had been. Someone's life lay on the line. So why shouldn't John know? Why wouldn't Sherlock want John to know? What secret was there that he was keeping from John?
She was no detective, either. Besides, Toby had cuddled his head in the crook of her arm and was nosing at her to get her attention. "Sorry," she told the cat, receiving a purr of acceptance. It was all right. Everything was all right. Everything was fine. Things would just have to work themselves out, and if she happened to say the wrong thing, then she would deal with that when she came to it. Worrying about it wouldn't do any of them any good.
Much to Toby's dissatisfaction, she pushed herself off the couch, but ignored the way the young tomcat grumbled at her and extended his claws as if trying to drag her back to the sofa with all his might. There was something she could do. There was a way she could help. And it couldn't possibly cause problems – not if Sherlock trusted her, not if she trusted John.
She fumbled with the cordless receiver, though, pressing the buttons a little more clumsily than she would have liked. Toby didn't care, though, and she nearly laughed at how she'd bobbled the call. She paced for the three rings it took for the person on the other end to pick up, leaning against the lavender wall.
"H'lo?" John was distracted. There was the sound of clinking silverware, the chatter of a restaurant. She suddenly felt like a moron. She'd called him during a date. What an idiotic thing to do!
"John? It's Molly. Molly Hooper. I... I'm sorry." She wanted to tell him all of it. He deserved to know all of it. He hadn't done anything wrong. Neither had she, unless you counted keeping him in the dark. But she broke into a sob despite herself. She wasn't entirely sure why. Why was she blubbering to a man she had no feelings for, who was on a date with another woman? Why didn't she have any idea why she was reacting this way? She choked down the next sob that hovered far too closely.
"Molly? I'm getting tapas. With Sarah," he said pointedly, and then added, with what sounded over the phone like real concern, "Are you still at the lab?"
"No, I'm at home – I just – never mind. I'll – You should come in sometime, John. We should talk. I-just-don't-know-what-to-say-to-you-except-I'm-sorry." It all came out in a rush.
"So am I. But it's not your fault, Molly. I promise you. I'll come in on Monday, all right? Take care of yourself over the weekend. And... thanks for the tip," John added awkwardly, his voice tensing. Apparently he was taking too long on the phone for Sarah's liking, but Molly couldn't blame her. "I've got to go. See you Monday."
With a click on the other end of the line, he hung up before she'd even gotten the first consonant out. She wiped her face, leaned against the wall, staring at the painting across the way, staring at Toby, staring at anything but her face in the mirror. She was turning back into what she had been before: A little mouse, frightened and afraid. That wouldn't do at all. She dealt with dead bodies on a daily basis; she couldn't be this shaky.
Toby mewed encouragement at her, and she forced herself to smile. When she met with John on Monday, she'd tell him everything, and things would be sorted, and it would all be brilliant, because everything would go right from that point forward. It would have to.
Chapter 4: Mozart and Salieri
Like a drug-fueled vision from one of Sherlock's 'danger nights,' Jim Moriarty stood before him, smiling with blissful delight. Everything was dazzlingly illuminated, disorienting, an obvious but effective setup. A good twenty questions sprang to mind, none of which he dared to ask.
Sherlock stayed silent as the other man spoke. "Your brother was right, you know. You should have guessed there was more to the story."
It was good to know Moriarty had been watching the conversation at Farringdon Station. Sherlock made a mental note to tell Mycroft the camera added ten pounds. "I had."
"Only you let feelings get in the way. Sympathy. I thought you were better than that."
"I am." He kept the replies terse. He would give no more information than was strictly necessary.
Moriarty tilted his head, and clicked his tongue. It was a signal as much as an expressive tic, because the lights dimmed to normal in the ensuing few moments. Moriarty waited for Sherlock to regain his bearings before he spoke again. "Only with threats. Not with following through."
Something about those words cut straight through him. Was he really that predictably tentative? He couldn't imagine that Moriarty had actually figured something out about him that he didn't know himself – but the possibility was oddly intriguing, even as he felt himself tense in anger.
Before he could fully consider the consequences, Sherlock lunged forward. For the briefest instant, he thought he saw fear in Moriarty's eyes, widening them, but the fear gave way to mock shock, and the flinch that followed was far too cartoonish to be believable, arms flailing, mouth gaping, but without even an ounce of emotion in the Irishman's eyes. Seeing the lack of fear, Sherlock checked his movements halfway, clasping his hands behind his back as he came to a halt and held himself still.
The other man seemed amused, perhaps slightly too much so. His eyes shone with an excess of satisfied mirth that Sherlock would have only expected from a child at a birthday party. "Do you really think you frighten me, Sherlock? In case you haven't noticed, I have a man with a gun trained on you."
"A rifle, to be more specific. Long barrel as well, probably a sharpshooter's. You'll forgive the uncertainty, but I haven't actually seen the gun, only its shadow."
Moriarty made a magnanimous gesture of permission, but remained silent.
"Your lackey's military, then, or ex-military – not only because of the gun, which he could have gotten on the black market, but also because of the way he listens to you, like a subordinate ought to. Finally found your live-in?" A savage smile crossed Sherlock's face. "What do you want?"
"Now, that is a good question, isn't it? What do I want?" Moriarty began to pace, his slight physique hunched, as if he were being stalked by some invisible specter. "I told you the first time. At the pool. You couldn't have forgotten, could you?" He sighed extravagantly, but his eyes were still deadened. "I will burn you, just as I promised. First, your reputation. Done! So you're still alive. I would say 'disappointingly,' but you and I both know that's a lie. All the same, you can't go back to London without suffering serious consequences to both your reputation and your livelihood, can you?"
"And second?" From the side, the gunman moved the rifle barrel up a little at the crispness of the question, and Sherlock glanced towards Moriarty, who shook his head to wave off the threat.
"You'll see. You'll seeee." The second repetition was high and shrill. "Aren't you the least bit interested in how I survived?"
"No." He wasn't going to feed the other man's ego by letting him preen.
"Oh, but it was worth it." Moriarty's grin was broad and sharklike. He lifted his suited shoulders in a quick, careless shrug. "Remember when I told you I'd give you a surprised look if you shot that bomb? Well, you should have seen the look on your face. Truly a thing to be treasured. Thank you for that. It was almost – " The daydreaming voice broke off, and Moriarty pressed his lips together, inhaling visibly, lapels rising and falling. " – Almost worth dying for."
"Worth staying alive for?"
"For now." That was easily dismissed, so easily that it was unclear if Moriarty had even gotten the joke. Was his ringtone still the same? Whatever it was, it would be a clue. Another clue. There were so many, and yet it was surprisingly difficult to fit them into a coherent whole, given Moriarty's madness. But now the Irishman was talking again: "We've solved our problem. I have no quarrel with you at the moment. We might even try to be friends. I mean, if you'll forgive me Sebastian and his rifle. I think you can understand why I had to bring him here, though. A man in my situation needs to act sensibly."
That was a laugh. Sherlock made no offer of friendship, either. "So why intercept Mycroft's arrangements to put me up at the library?"
His gaze drifted past the lunatic's left shoulder, down to the ground floor portion of the immense glass panes. A gaggle of teenaged girls were strolling by on the ground below, chattering amongst themselves. Likely drunk, from the way they were stumbling, and aware of it, from the way one tossed her head back and laughed. They'd be no use to him. He would have to wait for a better opportunity.
"Because I want you to do something for me, Sherlock." Moriarty took a step forward, eyes glinting, demanding his attention again. "I want you to go back to London, rather than stay in this place. Go back to being the hero. If you can rise from disgrace, that is. But that's your problem – not mine!"
That made no sense, not even using the logic of a madman. Moriarty might be insane, but he was rational enough even amidst that insanity to maintain a vast network of contacts and conspirators. That type of maintenance required social acumen of a sort, and social acumen would tell Moriarty that Sherlock was better off dead or neutralized than alive. There had to be something else, then. There must be some reason Moriarty wanted him alive, rather than just shooting him here in the outskirts of Birmingham. "You won't just let me walk away."
"You'll go back to London, and you'll look into what crimes I tell you to. I suppose you could say I'm hiring you." There was satisfaction in the words. Had Moriarty been anyone else, the request would have been eminently reasonable. The buoyancy in the man's voice was gone for a few moments, replaced by a marked, deliberate seriousness, one that Sherlock hadn't expected. "You're a consulting detective, after all. So I'm consulting you."
Sherlock would really have to tell John to keep a better eye on what people they allowed to enter the flat. At this rate, Bluebell the phosphorescent rabbit would have been an optimal case even before the visit to Dartmoor. As much as it intrigued him, this arrangement disgusted him. He'd taken cases from shady sources before, but Jim Moriarty was a different story indeed. So he staved him off first. "I don't need your money."
"But you are interested." Moriarty slid up to him, head tilted again, arms folded, as if he were assessing a purchase, gazing at him with sudden, sharp intensity, his eyes drifting from above Sherlock's head to the floor, clearly sizing him up.
It was an uncomfortable, inhuman feeling, being inspected like that; Sherlock's skin felt clammy. "And you apparently have a real reason to hire me. Who's after you, Jim?"
"Always so suspicious. Then again, I suppose that's what protects you, that suspicion. Doesn't seem to be working too well, though. Funny." But there was acknowledgment; the slightest nod of the other man's head told Sherlock he was right. Moriarty did have reason to be wary of someone or something. It wasn't Mycroft, though. Mycroft would have told him that Moriarty was still alive, and would have used Crown resources to finish the job.
So who was it? Sherlock found it even harder to believe that, not only was there a bigger threat in the whole of Britain than Jim Moriarty himself, but also that Moriarty likewise knew there was someone out there who could defeat him. The madman's ego wouldn't allow it. Sherlock wondered if Moriarty were only listening to the whims of his own deranged mind, but he stayed silent on that account. There was no more accurate way to put it, and accuracy might merit a bullet. If there were a more pleasant way to express the idea, Sherlock couldn't find that either, but that brand of delicacy was decidedly not his forte.
"And if I say no, I suppose my friends will die, thanks to your assassins. We've been through this before. Isn't there an old saying about repeat performances?"
Moriarty sighed, his shoulders deflating, disappointment twisting his mouth into a hard expression, as if he had just tasted something disagreeable. "I did all this for you, you know. I'm beginning to feel like you don't appreciate me – like you're underestimating me."
"Not at all. It takes a lot to shoot yourself, even with blanks. How much surgery did you have to have to repair your jaw?"
"Too much. When you kill yourself, make sure you aim somewhere nicer, or they'll have to have a closed casket."
Something was still wrong with the explanation. How had Moriarty not been killed nonetheless by the paper wadding and the heat from the pulled cartridge – not to mention how uninjured he appeared? It couldn't have been blanks, then. Even blanks would have done serious damage. "You're lying. You never fired at all. There was a squib, and a packet of blood taped in your hair. A sound effect – through your mobile. Who'd you get the blood from?"
"My brother. He'd do anything for me. D'you think yours would?" Moriarty's eyes half-lidded, the expression halfway between 'pensive' and 'reptilian.' "I wonder if the blood tests have come back yet. Imagine their surprise when they see that it could be me. I wonder if they'll jump to that conclusion."
They would, Sherlock knew. Moriarty's brother wasn't anyone in particular. There would be no reason to think that the professor at East Anglia was involved in the machinations of a criminal mastermind. So when the DNA tests came back an initial match, the police would hardly waste time sequencing it further.
And as for brotherly bonds – it was best not to think about that at this time. It was a weakness. It would prove distracting. He could allow neither of those foibles.
Back to the window. The drunk chavettes had disappeared, replaced with a uniformed policeman doing a mandatory sweep. Almost as bad; almost as unobservant. If one of Mycroft's cameras doesn't signal things… "So we're both off the grid. I'm dead, and you'll be dead soon too, though. Seems a wasted chance, you talking to me here without pulling the trigger."
"But one I'm willing to give up."
"To get what?"
Moriarty's voice sank low. The nearly sane, icily dangerous side glinted through, as hard and sharp as steel. "You, Sherlock."
Sherlock was careful with his voice again. He couldn't give Jim Moriarty anything to go on. Any reaction would tell Moriarty which path to take, and he had no doubt that the criminal already had several contingency plans mapped out. Sherlock did as well. As he himself had once said, they were the same. He replied crisply, "You won't get a better opportunity."
"I will!" And, with the ebullient declaration, instantly bright and spirited again, Moriarty snapped his fingers. Sherlock tensed, letting his field of vision drift off the man before him towards the side again. The gunman no longer had his rifle beside him. Was it up to shoot? Hardly likely. It would be a waste of the conversation and, as Moriarty had said, the death of Sherlock Holmes wasn't slated for today. Already, Moriarty was stepping to the side, his hands in his pockets, uninterested in continuing the conversation. From behind him, Sherlock could hear the clump of heavily booted feet heading to the side. So the gunman was stepping down. The conversation was drawing to a close.
Sherlock waited, glancing up at the cameras. Five minutes' conversation, and there had been no movement from the cameras, no indication that their operators knew anything in the library was amiss. So that was the lead time it took for the people behind the cameras to figure out there was a problem. Whom would Mycroft send? Visions of trying to deal with ordinary policemen, thick as bricks, swarmed his head, already exasperating him. This discussion he was in was much more interesting. If only the police wouldn't show up until Moriarty and he were done, he might even be grateful enough to avoid antagonizing them too much when they did come.
"Oh!" Moriarty seemed to have forgotten something, and only just remembered. The mercurial exclamation propelled him a few steps forward towards Sherlock. "It's not your friends who will die."
"I suppose it's me, then." He couldn't have been more bored by that guess.
Moriarty tapped his finger on his lips for a moment, as if genuinely considering the possibility, and then scrunched up his face, shaking his head in the negative. "Not you either, I'm afraid. See you later! I'll be in touch." Again, the too-broad smile, shoulders shaking minutely with muted laughter, and then the spidery man vanished behind a stack of books.
Sherlock stood there for a long moment, waiting, still. He counted the footsteps – Moriarty's lighter footfalls, and his rifleman companion's heavier ones. An elevator bell dinged, and he listened to the whirring of the machinery as the pair descended to the ground floor. Two minutes later – time enough for the assailants to have exited the library, if they were going to – Sherlock pulled out his mobile.
"Mycroft? I'm here at the library. I had to break in. You can cover the bill for the window repairs, I'm sure. Don't worry; it's only a security window. I wouldn't have bashed in stained glass." Click. He didn't want to give his brother any reason to suspect anything was wrong. Any other word wouldn't get to his brother, anyway. The conversation he'd had with Moriarty had been far too short to attract the attention of the scanners, and there was no telling that Moriarty hadn't paid them off, either.
This was a problem he would solve on his own. He wouldn't let Moriarty call the shots this time, and he'd do more than just threaten him if things went astray. He'd make sure that the madman was well and truly dead, by his own hands.
For now, though, he was safe here at Castle Vale, just as Mycroft had intended. That was dull. He'd have to find some way to liven it up. Extracting one of the fifties Mycroft had donated to the cause, he tore it in half abruptly, concentrating all of his attention thereafter upon ripping it up into smaller and smaller squares. After halves and halves again, though, he was facing more difficulty than was worthwhile. Sixteen words would have to suffice. Yet another reason he had always hated Twitter – but he had to smile at that realization.
He'd leave a message if necessary. By the time he had a sufficient quantity of bookmarks and had placed them in the volumes he'd wanted to, books nobody had checked out since 1997, he was clear not only on what he wanted to say but what he wanted to do next once he returned to London.
Only now did the opportunity he'd been waiting for present itself. It figured. He half-jumped down the helical staircase to the side of the room, descending through the three-dimensional spiral, and let his hand close on the stapler of a nearby desk. When he saw the next homeless citizen pass the window, more alert than either the girls or the patrolman, he signaled to get the bag lady's attention, making sure she got a good look at him, and then darted over towards the fire alarm, stapler in hand to break the glass.
It would have been more fun if Moriarty and his colleague were still here, but this was nearly as good. The alarm that sounded the instant that he broke the glass was loud enough to deafen him for the first couple of moments. He staggered back, retreating to the desk. It would be only a matter of time until the policemen got here, though, and so he pocketed some of the sweets from the dish resting on the desk of the children's department, nicked a few spare pencils from the plastic cup on the counter, and set to arranging books on the counter in order. The least the library could do would be to thank him for his assistance in that department, but he wouldn't hold out so much hope.
The West Midlands police had a surprisingly short distance to travel to the suburbs of Birmingham. They arrived in short order, kicking the door down in less than spectacular fashion, as Sherlock kept on arranging the books. As they closed in on him, he set down the last properly filed book and held up his hands, unresisting. "Tell Mycroft Holmes I've left him a message. I presume he'll do the reading."
The dismissive, "Yeah, all right," that one of the cops gave him simply wouldn't do.
Sherlock thought about punching the man squarely in the jaw to get his message across, but that was more confrontational than he wanted, if only slightly. He had promised himself that he would be nice enough to the policemen, however, because they had done him the decency of letting Moriarty escape before they arrived. Consideration like that was rare, and deserved to be rewarded.
Instead, he let his gaze drift away from the policemen and up to the camera that had taken this all in, with the best view of his face in the place. "If he can figure it out," he said pointedly, before he was marched away to the waiting squad car.
Chapter 5: Sabre Dance
The phone call from Birmingham had come at a rather inopportune moment. Sometimes, it seemed Sherlock planned these events merely to interfere with his calendar. Surely his brother knew the importance of schedules in the royal service. Nevertheless, when the call came from Winson Green that his brother had demanded he figure out a message, he took the first car up from London.
What would Sherlock have done to get himself in such trouble? No. Strike that. How had Sherlock been so stupid as to get himself in trouble? His brother wouldn't have gotten caught if he hadn't wanted to, but when the two had spoken at Farringdon Station, he'd thought Sherlock had seen sense. There were no other options open for the younger Holmes brother, and Mycroft had found it necessary to pull a few strings (if minor ones) to get his brother spirited from the city.
Being sentenced to a genuine prison term was certainly not an option. It was just as likely that Sherlock would meet with violence from the guards as from the other prisoners, and as much as the self-proclaimed consulting detective asked for it from nearly everybody, Mycroft truly didn't want to see his brother grievously injured.
But for God's sake, couldn't the child spend even one night at peace? He had spent a lifetime ensuring that Sherlock was protected, cocooned with his facts and deductions, unaware of the privations that ordinary people suffered, both mental and material. Perhaps that had been the wrong thing to do, though. Sherlock had never quite settled, despite the ample opportunities that he had been given to do so, and Mycroft was absolutely certain his brother had never been happy with his gifts.
Were either of them, though? Once, when they were in another endless argument, he'd told his brother, "You need to learn to appreciate your intellect. Truly appreciate it, not only brag about it."
Sherlock had barely looked up, busy with restringing his violin, paying the A. E. Smith more care and attention than he had ever given Mycroft. Still, the offhandedly cutting words had resonated. "Why? You don't."
In a way, he thought, that was more valid than his brother suspected. The cost of a dizzying intellect was that one was never fully oneself. There was always a demand to think, to perform. He had found a way to mitigate that demand by joining the civil service, and by becoming a bureaucrat. He only had to answer to a very select group of individuals. Sherlock had not been so lucky – but at least he was free.
Metaphorically, at least. It would be interesting to see how his brother responded to confinement. Although Mycroft could not be entirely sure of the details, given how little he knew of Sherlock's present condition, he knew the answer would hover somewhere in the realm of 'Not very well at all.'
HM Birmingham was a forbidding structure, taking up the whole south side of Lodge Road; Mycroft's attention was pulled towards the expanse. He'd sent word to have his brother pulled out of the remand population. He just hoped it would be before Sherlock shut down completely. There was still a chance, however minute, that he could clear up matters again.
"Which way, sir?"
As they headed into the prison, waved on by the guards, Mycroft sighed and leaned back in the Rolls-Royce. The migraine was already starting, and he hadn't even set eyes on his brother, much less said a single word to him.
The conversation had not gone well from the first minute, but now it was getting worse. He had started out as kindly as he could, but the venom he got from his brother had pushed him within minutes to a point of frustration. Now, though, he felt he was truly being honest with his complaints – and at least Sherlock was in a position where he was nearly forced to listen. If he wanted, Mycroft knew, he could make his brother listen, but some trace of fraternal affection kept him from forcing Sherlock's hand.
He was done mincing words, though: "Sherlock, what could have possibly possessed you? I thought we were clear that this was a rare chance I was offering you. And how do you repay me? By getting yourself arrested for vandalizing the very place in which I expected you to not only be safe but content. It was a library, not some bland hotel where I would expect you to pitch a fit."
His brother didn't answer. He was sprawled on the other side of the metal table, eyes shut, head tilted back, making a grand show of ignoring any question Mycroft asked. At least he was uninjured, although it would have been just a matter of time if the cavalry hadn't arrived.
"Even now, I'm helping you. And your ingratitude won't win you any favors in the future. If you want to get out of here, then you're on your own. Head back to London. Get yourself killed by any of a wide number of people who know where you live and what you look like. I'm done intervening."
Sherlock brought his hand down sharply on the table, slamming it so hard that it had to hurt. His eyes flew open, a wild, irate expression in them. "About bloody time."
Mycroft's regrets suddenly reemerged, even as he tried to tamp them down. Sherlock resented him, he knew, and resented everything that Mycroft had ever done for him, but this was a new, sharper anger, rather than the dulled pain that lay under every conversation they had ever had. Mycroft would have to tread carefully, lest he risk igniting some explosion neither of them would survive.
"Since John took up at your place, Sherlock, you have gotten better at dealing with people."
"Don't flatter me."
"Still not skilled, admittedly. But better," Mycroft allowed. It was the truth. Sherlock had never been social if the situation wasn't entirely on his own terms. But John Watson's normalcy had kept the situation on a remarkably even keel for a good few months, before everything had exploded all over again. He tried to smile at his brother, but while he could mime the motions, he knew it would never read as honesty. "Seeing as you have indeed gotten better, though, I have to wonder why you decided to wreck your chances."
"Because I am self-defeating, socially oppositional, and narcissistic."
Mycroft did his best to hide the second smile. This one came much more easily, though, and he didn't even want it. "That's each and every day. I'm talking about last night. Was this just a little tantrum at my expense?"
Sherlock shrugged, shutting his eyes deliberately and exaggeratedly, before turning back up to stare at the ceiling again. Perhaps he'd do better in custody than expected. Underneath all the bile, Sherlock was more resilient than Mycroft gave him credit for – a strange, awkward strength of purpose, as off-putting as everything else about him – but surprisingly tough. Mycroft had no reason to disbelieve John Watson's blog entries and, assuming they were true, then his brother was being the hero he had always dreamed of being. It was enough to make a civil servant extraordinarily jealous.
Mycroft began anew: "If you were doing it because you thought you'd get back at me for some real or imagined slight, it didn't work."
"Is John well?"
That question, and the worry that echoed through each word, came as a surprise. Mycroft felt his fingertips tense on the table. "I would imagine so, but I haven't been in regular contact with him. When we discussed the situation with Jim Moriarty, you'd said that John wasn't to be – "
Concern gave way to impatience. "Yes, yes, I know. And Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson? Molly? Mike Stamford?" The repeated bobs of Mycroft's head for 'Yes' did not need to be voiced. Sherlock looked almost relieved at the news, but Mycroft chose not to comment upon it. Instead, the younger man pushed himself up from the table abruptly, still speaking. "I left you a message at Castle Vale. I won't tell you it now. You should figure it out. Are we leaving now?"
"When we get back to London, I won't open doors for you. You're on your own."
"Cheers for that."
"Nobody will trust you anymore."
"Nobody. Not even John, perhaps." Sherlock's mouth twitched in doubt, and pity stirred within Mycroft – pity his brother hardly deserved, much less demanded. He added, more gently, "You may have to make some apologies."
"I'm done here."
And, with that, Mycroft sat watching as his little brother began banging on the thick door of the interrogation room for release. The elder Holmes looked up at the camera and shrugged, letting his brother exit, but it took every ounce of restraint he had not to order them to slam the door in Sherlock's face as soon as he crossed the threshold.
If he were being honest with himself, Mycroft was surprised his brother even managed to sit in the same car as he did for the entire ride back in to London. The two of them remained at arm's length, just as they always had been, Sherlock winching himself as close to the back driver's side window as he could. To his left, Mycroft gazed over the unoccupied passenger seat, studying the road for a long while before he spoke. "I want to help you, Sherlock. If you'll let me."
Sherlock groaned audibly, knocking his head against the window as if Mycroft were a gnat buzzing around him, one which he couldn't merely wave away. He turned, in a whirl of bad temper, and pointed out sharply, "You just said you wouldn't."
"Because I thought that was what you wanted."
"Well, it still is. You should go find that message – not spring me from jail on some pretext of my being required in the Queen's service."
"As soon as I see you safely home."
"Still looking after me? I'm doing well enough, Mycroft. I don't need you."
He'd been patient. But now, he could almost feel the ping as the last underpinning of his reticence gave way. "Doing well? Sherlock, you're an absolute moron if you think this is doing well! You had to fake your own death to get out of a jam. You won't talk to your best friend, because you're worried that he'll muck something up, never mind that you're the one who makes all the mistakes between the two of you! You cut yourself off from every resource except for me, and you treat me like I'm useless. I've never had to fake my death. Do you know why?"
"Because you're a coward."
"Because people respect me. Because I've done something with my life."
Mycroft sighed, shaking his head. "Not along the normal channels, no."
"I don't want normalcy. Leave me be."
As Sherlock fell into sullen silence, staring at the M6 before them, Mycroft had a sudden realization. This conversation was more than they'd talked in a while, and more honestly too. Sherlock was never honest with him. What had precipitated this change?
Something must have happened at the library. Sherlock had left him a message telling him exactly what had happened but, being Sherlock, he had to couch it in terms of a code. Whatever it was, though, it had to be important – not just for the message, but for the sudden, nearly cruel honesty with which his brother spoke to him, to which he had responded in kind. Something had made his brother want his help, even if the fashion in which he acquired that help was as troublesome and chaotic as ever.
What was the problem? What had happened? The thought nagged at Mycroft, and he rolled the cane of the umbrella between his fingers as he thought. It was a tic of which he'd never been able to rid himself, this fidgeting when anxious. There was a slight scuff of breath next to him, and he glanced up in time to catch Sherlock gazing at the gesture and quirking the corner of his mouth up in a grin, before the expression cleared and the amateur detective scowled and gazed out the window again.
221B was dark when they pulled up, shadowed and unlit beyond the illumination from the street light, but Mycroft saw the reason why before Sherlock did. John was standing further up the street, towards Regent's Park, with a long-haired woman by his side. They were arm in arm, no doubt close to ending the evening. As quick as Sherlock was at recognizing things, Mycroft was a hair quicker, especially when his brother was lost in one of his moods. He had a split-second to act before Sherlock would see this as well, and so he leaned forward to the driver. "Left."
The car turned rapidly onto Melcombe Street, even as Sherlock bellowed, "Wait!" It was a one-way street, though, and so Mycroft leaned back in his seat, sighing with relief, even as his brother spun around to gaze at Baker Street. "That was John! What was he doing?"
"It would appear that he was on a date," Mycroft remarked evenly. It was so obvious that he was surprised Sherlock had even asked the question.
"I know – I mean – "
The sound of his brother at a loss for words was delicious, and the opportunity that this hesitation presented was far too satisfying. Mycroft was unable to resist the explanation that spilled out of him: "Oh, the usual progression of a date, I'd imagine. 'Your place or mine?' Then, presumably, John's place, given how close they are to it. And then, well, I suppose you can imagine the rest."
"Go to hell." Sherlock tried the door, once, and then a second time, more sharply. "Unlock the door, Mycroft."
"No. You're staying with me until the weekend, Sherlock. And you will keep your mouth shut, and you will not be a nuisance to me. I have work that needs to be done – important work." He began to fish the chemical-soaked rag from his pocket. He might have to force the issue, or he'd never hear the end of this argument – and there were scores better things to do than argue with his brother.
"So have I," Sherlock replied, and Mycroft could even believe that he meant it.
"You will not meet with John Watson until I tell you to."
"I'll do what I want."
"I believe you will." And that was all that needed to be said before Mycroft took control of the situation.
Given how closely they were sitting – by force, though not by choice – it was an easy enough process, but drugging his own brother felt strange. And, he realized, it did not get any easier the third time. Still, he noticed that when he exclaimed, "This is for the good of your friends, as well as yourself," there was some hesitation in Sherlock's struggle. As the car sped north along the west side of Regent's, Mycroft dropped the rag, let his brother sprawl carefully along the side of the car, and murmured, "Wilton Crescent," to the driver.
When passed out, Sherlock looked strangely peaceful. Even when still in thought and conscious, he could never be quite so relaxed. Mycroft reached over, brushing a few locks of dark hair out of Sherlock's face, half-fearing he'd stir through some superhuman effort. But his brother did not, and at least it was a quiet ride to circle the park and head back to his house.
Chapter 6: Élégie
The whoosh of a car around the side of the street had spoiled John's mood for the rest of the weekend. He'd thought he'd seen a familiar figure on the driver's side of the Rolls-Royce's back seat, but that was ridiculous. Mere hope. Hardly enough to extract any evidence from, but certainly enough to distract him and make him pull away from Sarah in hopes that he'd seen the impossible. It was too late, though. The car turned left and sped out of sight.
He had apologized, and she'd told him that of course it was all right, of course it was understandable, but he knew the tone of voice well enough. He'd heard it before, months ago, the attempt at acceptance that masked exasperation. Honestly, John thought, he wouldn't have been surprised if Sarah had broken up with him immediately after their date, despite Molly's beneficial advice.
But now, waiting for Mycroft to turn up at the Diogenes Club, he knew that Sarah was the least of his concerns. Molly had told him to go to Mycroft, and so here he was at half past eight in the morning, still feeling wholly insignificant amongst the crowd of silent old men. Still, he had questions – and Mycroft had better have answers. He'd done all he could to readjust over the past week, but knowing what had happened, why Molly hadn't seen Sherlock's body, would finalize matters.
The tea service wheeled through, on a set path that included John's very spot to wait. He jumped out of the way, almost apologizing, but thought better of speaking. As he stepped to the side, he caught Mycroft's approach out of his peripheral vision and jerked his head towards the end of the lushly furnished room. Mycroft looked confused, but said nothing, following.
John spoke only after he'd shut the door to the main clubroom. "What the hell are you up to, Mycroft?"
Embarrassment was not a strand in Holmesian genetics, and Mycroft's attempt at it was just as bad as Sherlock's might have been. The man tilted his head, blinked a few times, and said, "Sorry?" as flatly if he were trying to push his way through a crowd.
"Molly Hooper told me that you'd told her to sign Sherlock's death certificate. She also said to speak to you. So what's the story?" And why did Mycroft look relieved at what he'd asked, for a long moment?
"Ah. Yes. That. Well, I'm sure you can understand, John, that when a man in Sherlock's, let us say, unique situation – "
"Cut the crap, Mycroft. What's the truth?"
The other man stiffened, reddening a little. "I'll remind you that you're a guest here, John, and under my name." He circled around John to the sideboard, opening a decanter of something no doubt more expensive than everything in the Watson name, and pouring two glasses. He took his time, carefully topping up John's glass, and then passed one and kept one. "However, you're right. You deserve to know the truth." For a moment, John could have sworn that he saw an uneasy shadow pass across the politician's face, but it was gone as soon as it appeared, and so he couldn't be sure. "I signed off on the body because we had to keep the situation secret. Sherlock had told me what he would do."
"He told you he'd kill himself? Not me?"
"You had fought about the threat to Mrs. Hudson's life. He didn't think you'd understand."
"He trusted you? Really? You two fight all the time!"
"John, please." Mycroft's voice was less than plaintive, more of a suggestion that he was making a fool of himself with this protest.
"No. To hell with that. He'd have told me, Mycroft. He did. Somehow. I'm sure of it. Somewhere on his mobile or his laptop – there must be something."
Mycroft shrugged, nonchalance reemerging. "Good luck. Let me know if you find anything." The diplomat's mobile phone buzzed. He glanced down at it for a moment and then back up towards John. "I wish things had gone differently for all of us."
"Yeah, well, too late now."
"Maybe not." John felt his head snap up, but Mycroft didn't need to see the look on his face to be prompted to continue. "I understand you made a post on your blog recently. Should there be a reply, see me."
John took a sip of the wine. It was good, as far as he knew wines – which wasn't very far. Still, he rolled a second sip around, tasting it more thoroughly, before he swallowed. If this was quality, then this was also a rare chance to taste it. "Why bother? You can see it whenever you'd like."
"But I want to know what you plan to do." Mycroft's face creased into a smile, wan but not entirely insincere. "And if you're intending to flush out Moriarty, you won't be able to do it on your own. You'll need resources behind you."
"I appreciate the offer, Mycroft. I'll let you know." It was deliberately formal. John knew he'd do nothing of the sort.
The phone buzzed again. This time, Mycroft slid the phone shut without even looking at it. Someone was calling the man, and Mycroft didn't want to speak to the caller. It was enough of an oddity, though, for John to nod Mycroft towards the phone, indicating that the call should be answered.
The balding man seemed uninterested in whatever his contact had said, outright ignoring John's signaling nod. "If there's anything else I can do for you, please keep me posted."
It would have to be a while before he could respond to Mycroft's offer. There was the talk with Molly on Monday, and he had to drive Mrs. Hudson out to the cemetery so they could pay their respects this weekend. Nothing would happen yet. So John simply shrugged in vague agreement and swung the door open again. He'd tell Mycroft what he could, but something about the man's behavior was spooking him. Not that he suspected Mycroft of any real wrongdoing, but he knew for a fact that Mycroft was hiding something, and the bureaucrat's current behavior was enough to be doubly certain. What details had Mycroft been holding back?
He had come here to get them but, he suddenly realized, Mycroft had done a fine job of keeping the details from him. He'd been duped, and now he was about to exit – and there was no way to point out his epiphany without making himself look like an ass. This wasn't the time or the place.
But why were both Mycroft and Molly so intent on keeping details from him, specifically? He had nothing to do with events. This shouldn't be his problem, and yet he couldn't shake the feeling that something was being deliberately kept from him. What could it be, and who would want to keep him in the dark?
He looked up towards inquiringly arched eyebrows, a glass of wine held at the ready, but a half-turned posture, as if John was already to have left the room. So he shook his head and ducked out of the Diogenes Club, moving through the building at a rapid clip. Double-time.
When he got into the cab he'd hailed at street-level, though, he nearly missed seeing Mycroft sprinting from the building in the same direction. For a second, John debated offering to share the ride, but the black car was already pulling away from the curb, and so he directed it northwest to Baker Street, leaving Mycroft to his own hasty devices.
He'd pored through the laptop again, trying to find clues on it. If there were any, however, they were well hidden or locked. Curiously, though, there was little information on the laptop. Perhaps when someone had a "mind palace," they had no need of a computer to store everything. The computer told him nothing new. Sherlock liked violins, liked reading scientific texts, and had recently acquired a genuine interest in talk shows, judging from the tawdry entertainment forum he'd searched a few days before the jump. That, at least, was an entertaining surprise. When Sherlock shows up again, I'll have to give him hell for that.
But Sherlock wouldn't be back. He was dead. Try as he might to assure himself of that finality, though, the story he was meant to believe was still unbelievable. There was no trace of depression, no research on suicide hotlines, none of the usual suspects that all had a weird familiarity to them, from the days when he'd just come back from Afghanistan. He knew all the markers of depression from his own experience – and none were there.
The doorbell rang. He jumped, feeling guilty spying on Sherlock through his laptop, half-expecting an angry inquest to follow from its owner. Nothing so supernatural happened, though. Mrs. Hudson knocked on the door to the upstairs flat before popping her head in, too quickly for him to ask her to wait.
"Sorry, John. You're going through the rest of his things now? What will you do with all this lot?"
Mrs. Hudson's eyes widened. "What's that? Some man called Craig who's buying things from you?"
He shook his head.
"Does he put them on a list?" she pressed.
"It's a website, Mrs. Hudson." He did his level best to practice tolerance.
"Craig's website? Will he post these things for sale? I don't recall a Craig being here."
It would take too long to explain, and she likely still wouldn't understand, despite how readily she had taken to commenting on his blog. She still couldn't figure out the login for her own name half the time, and she'd believe everything she read on Craigslist, the parts that she wouldn't be absolutely scandalized from reading. He couldn't do that to her. "Never mind. Who's here?"
"Your girlfriend." She had to pause for a moment, but remembered the name after a reasonably short interval. "Sarah. She's stopped by. However, she said that if you're busy, she can always call back later. But that's only a thing girls say, you know. They don't actually mean it. I'd talk to her if I were you."
John fought to hide a smile at her advice. "Show her up."
In a few more minutes, Sarah stood at his doorframe, taken aback by the apartment even now. John thought for a moment that she might comment on the mess, but instead Sarah's first words surprised him, as did the awed and almost impressed look on her face, her brows raised as if she'd never seen the apartment in this state before. Indeed she hadn't, he realized as soon as she spoke: "It's so… clean."
"A week's worth of cleaning. It felt more like an archaeological dig." He shrugged, trying not to remember all the work that had gone into making the place look as close to spotless as it would ever get, amidst the bullet holes and scrawled scraps of paper that seemed to multiply each time a new one was discovered. "It feels bloody weird, though. We can go back to your place, if you'd like."
"Actually, John," she said portentously. He slid the laptop from his knees and onto the side table, waiting for the woman to continue. "That's what I've come to see you about."
He knew what she would say before she said it. Was this what it felt like to be Sherlock or Mycroft, always one step ahead of the crowd? It wasn't the most pleasant feeling, especially given the words that followed, and the hesitant yet direct way in which they were spoken. There was no doubt in Sarah's mind about what she was saying, and he didn't necessarily like hearing what she had to say.
"I like you, and I know you like me. And I feel like, if things were different, we might make a go of it. But they're not." Her mouth quirked in a frown, her hands expanding helplessly, and he felt the need to stand for the rest of what she was about to say, pushing himself out of the chair. The judgment was at hand. She shook her head. "I won't stay long. You don't need to give me a beer or anything. I'm sorry, John. But – if things clear up, give me a ring, all right?" Her smile was sad, but it was just as firm as her words. "I'll be around."
"Yeah, all right."
It was far more casual than he had intended, and it wasn't the right thing to say. He knew it as soon as it was out. She stared at him, her mouth pressing together to hold back something sharp she really wanted to say, and he could only shrug apologetically. Without another word, she turned and started for the stairs, careful to keep her face turned away from him so that he couldn't glimpse her expression.
He sighed and leaned back in the chair. "Sarah, I can't – " He wanted to explain it all to her, to tell her he wanted to be with her, but that he couldn't do that until he had figured out the truth of things, but it was too late. The door slammed, and she was gone.
The leafy graveyard felt wrong from the start. It felt wrong even as he had driven Mrs. Hudson past the gates of the cemetery. The huge pine tree dwarfing the grave and the turreted building nearer the entrance both had an eerie, unpleasant feeling, and as Mrs. Hudson departed and he started to speak to Sherlock's grave, the feeling increased, along with a suspicion that he was being watched – but by whom? He would have broken off his words and looked around to see who it was that was nearby, but he could not bring himself to do so. Sherlock deserved his full attention.
He was babbling, and he knew it. He didn't care, however. Nobody was listening, and he was sure that Sherlock would forgive him the stammering, if he knew. "… But please," he finished, "there's just one more thing, one more thing, one more miracle, Sherlock, for me. Don't. Be. Dead." His face contorted into a grimace; he gestured towards the grave as if somehow expecting it to respond. "Would you – just for me, just stop it, stop this."
He sighed, not daring to glance at the tombstone, drawing a deep breath that held back a cry, drawing his hands together to wipe away tears that threatened to come, before placing them at his sides.
Respect. That was one thing he'd always given Sherlock, something that he could give his grave now. A crisp military nod, and then an about-face turn. His feet crunched through the twigs that lay scattered around the grave site. In the distance, back at the car, he could see Mrs. Hudson waiting for him, wiping her face with a tissue, and he walked a little more quickly.
He couldn't spend too long before the stark black grave marker, not without feeling like even the marker was watching him, waiting to see how he reacted. Before him lay the ruined, older stones and the turreted gatehouse, but it felt like it might take an eternity to reach them. Whole lifetimes might pass before he reached the car – perhaps Sherlock might even be alive again by the time he left the cemetery.
Chapter 7: The Firebird
The flat was so sumptuous that, from the moment Sherlock awoke, it hurt his teeth to look at it. But he knew where he was. He hurled himself off the sofa, only to land on the floor, facedown on travertine tile.
But nobody noticed, although Sherlock wouldn't have put it past his brother to have someone stationed behind a surveillance camera or two. Gazing out the window towards the gardens that fronted Wilton Crescent, he trod towards the balcony, still feeling dizzy and stupid. He'd just been about to make contact with John – but Mycroft hadn't wanted him to, and had gotten the better of him. Again.
He'd get the drop this time, though. It would be easy at the moment. Mycroft wasn't here to watch. All he had to do was locate a phone with a pay-tag. There was a bank on the corner, and he could drain Mycroft's accounts in an instant, embarrass him in front of his superiors before getting the money back.
No. As tempting as that was, as much as he would love to see the look on Mycroft's face, he had to get in touch with John before he did anything to make Mycroft pay. And then he had to tell John what was going on, and make sure John didn't hate him forever. A day would be fine. Maybe even a week. But, really, it was all pretty trivial. He had been gone a week, and John had given him the silent treatment before for longer spans than that. So John would surely be glad to see him again. Enough time for him to be dead and buried, and rise like Lazarus. The thought was strangely, darkly appealing. He'd have to head to the cemetery first, check out his grave, see what overblown Rococo disaster of a headstone they'd have thought he might like.
Mycroft's flat was on the first and second stories; any scaling out to ground level would create too much difficulty. Besides, Sherlock knew his depth perception wasn't entirely on the level. He wobbled a bit, extended a hand towards a vase, clung to it and hoped it wasn't Ming, and swung into the drawing room. He hadn't been to Mycroft's nearly enough to know the topography of the apartment down cold. He hadn't been invited more than twice, and had only shown up unannounced a good half-dozen other times. One of those times, he'd barely gotten past the upstairs landing.
He leaned heavily against the wall, trying to regain his senses.
"He'll be out for another hour or two, boss said. Suppose I should check, though. Mr. Holmes said his brother's liable to surprise even him, and he'd be real mad if it turns out he couldn't be watched no more. Bye for now."
There. A chance awaited. He tilted himself out to peer down the hallway, before swinging back. He'd have to count on timing more than strength. He hadn't fully regained the latter. But he did have the advantage of surprise. So when Mycroft's driver made his way down the hall, he lashed out with a single, swift uppercut, aiming for the other man's solar plexus, intending a short muscle spasm and a collapse. Distention of the stomach tissues would lead to referred reflexive hypertonicity of the diaphragm and drop the fortunately skinny driver, if he was lucky. It would possibly lead to a dropped mobile as well.
Couldn't Mycroft have done him the dignity of leaving him with more of a threat than his twig of a Rolls-Royce driver? All the same, as Sherlock wrested the mobile away from the crumpling man, he made sure to add, "Thank you!" in a singsong as he proceeded down the front hall towards the exit to the stairwell.
He was doubly lucky. The door was unlocked – and he knew why. From the agonizingly familiar scent of the driver, he could tell the man had ducked out for a smoke while he was unconscious. He considered, running his tongue against his teeth. He could almost taste the cigarettes. And Mycroft had given him some smokes already, ones he'd thrown away in a Tube station reasonably far away from Mycroft's place. He deserved these, didn't he? But a glance back at the dropped driver told him the man wasn't unconscious, just stunned, and so Sherlock kept moving, pressing through the door and teetering his way down the staircase, one precarious step after another.
Sherlock's fingers flew on the phone, as soon as he found an 'M. Holmes' listing in the driver's contacts. Mycroft – I know you're reading this. And I strongly suspect, from his grammar, that your driver cannot type like this.
He hit 'send' and nearly lurched himself down the last few steps headlong towards the door. Catching himself with a hand flung out to the side wall, he saw Message received, but there was no response. Flinging open the door, he propelled himself into the sunlit street and the greenery of the Wilton Crescent Gardens beyond. A tall iron grate separated him from the grass but did little to disguise how verdant it was. It had rained recently – so he'd been out long enough for a storm to pass through, or at least dazed enough that he didn't remember it coming through. Either one was a possibility.
No answer, even now. He'd have to call Mycroft. So, as he made his way against traffic, southwest towards Motcomb Street, he let the phone ring a few times. Still no answer. He was being ignored, he knew. But he could wait. Mycroft would have to answer sooner or later. The honk of an oncoming cab startled him; he swung to the side quickly, feeling like he could face-plant on the pavement at any moment.
He had to get himself clearer so he could think things through. Reaching the end of the Crescent, green sans-serif type was visible on Motcomb. A Waitrose grocer's. Perfect. He could buy some cigarettes there and clear his head. He plodded westward, realizing in a sudden rush how ridiculous this all was. Here he was in the middle of Belgravia, stumbling through the Georgian-era properties like a drunkard, liable to be picked up by the police at any moment, and yet he was mostly concerned about cigarettes. And what the hell he was going to say to John. But he pushed the latter thought down, buried it. He'd have a smoke first, and then he'd know what to say. It usually worked that way, anyway. Another call to Mycroft; another long wait for no answer whatsoever.
Reaching the supermarket, Sherlock jerked himself inside, heading for the cigarette kiosk near the door. "Embassy Number One."
The girl behind the counter stared at him, ran a hand through her blonde hair – not real blonde, dyed that way and dark at the roots, maybe a week in need of a retouching – and pursed her mouth into a frown.
"Cigarettes," he explained, trying for patience. "Embassy Number One." Then, just for good measure, as awkward as it felt: "Please."
The girl spoke with all the authority that her eighteen years and her name badge of 'Hi, I'm Kelli' could give her. "I'm going to have to see some ID, sir. Store policy."
"Right. Of course. Just one moment." He patted down his coat pocket. He'd had his wallet in there. Somewhere. Where? Then, with dawning horror, he realized that Mycroft had lifted his wallet. "Hold on a tick, Kelli."
Mycroft, you son of a bitch, he texted. I'm going to find John, and I'm going to tell him everything. All of it. And you'll
He would have finished, would have said all that he wanted to for once, but his thumb accidentally hit 'send,' since Kelli kept talking: "I'm sorry; I can't sell you any cigarettes without ID. Are you… all right?" He watched her right arm as it extended downwards, stretching, no doubt hovering near a security button.
He'd have to get further without Mycroft's help than the supermarket around the corner. So he gave Kelli a weak smile, shut the mobile off, and shuffled for the door. It would be a long walk to the outskirts, but it had been a long time since he had jumped the Tube turnstiles, and he doubted he could still do it. Not at six feet tall. He knew where he had to go and wait, though. One stop west on Piccadilly from Knightsbridge to South Kensington, then a long way east on the District line to East Ham.
"Go through, sir."
Sherlock stared in surprise at the Tube guard, the fluorescent yellow jacket slung around the other man's shoulders blinding him for a moment.
"Go through. Get a move on."
Sherlock didn't have to be told a third time. He murmured, "Right," and slipped through the turnstile gates. He'd waste time wondering who was giving him free transport after he spoke with John. John would set things right, be a voice of reason amidst all this wild speculation. If John forgave him his trespasses, that was. He should never have pulled the stunt he had; he should have kept John in the loop, but now, he felt that even he wasn't in the loop, and that felt all too strange.
In that case, it was time to make a new loop. He broke into a run at the sight of the silver-blue poled subway car that approached, claiming a pair of seats at the end of the car for himself. Up the stairs at South Kensington, out into daylight again, and across the platform to catch the half-hour ride to the east. He could wait that long. He had all the time in the world.
The City of London Cemetery lay north of East Ham Tube Station. Sherlock couldn't see it when he left the Tube station, again being puzzlingly waved past the security gates, but he had long ago memorized the larger streets of London, not just the Tube stations, and so he didn't need to glance at the stolen mobile to know where to go. Mycroft hadn't responded, anyway, and so he wouldn't risk turning it back on and letting his brother instantly pinpoint where he was.
It wasn't an overly long walk. About a mile north-northwest, through Manor Park. The cemetery lay on the right of the street, and he ducked in through the gates. Still open. Good. They would close in early evening, even given summer hours, and he wanted to get in before they closed. This wouldn't take long at all. Just a few seconds to take a look at the headstone and have a laugh about it, and then he would be gone. Quick enough. Then, back to Baker Street, and he'd have enough time on the ride back to plan what he was going to say.
He'd need to plan. He wasn't good with situations like this, moments that required tact and diplomacy, and he especially wouldn't be good at explaining why he had needed to pretend to be dead. Yet John was no idiot, as much as Sherlock claimed he was, and the good doctor would not believe any story but the truth. Sherlock would have to explain it all. That would take some time. Some careful consideration. Some way to calculate his words and yet make them not seem calculated.
His feet crunched on twigs as he walked through the dense foliage. For all its pretense of quiet, this place wasn't one for true subtlety. One couldn't hide here for long. Surely there was a register, though, some way to denote where recent burials were located. His brother had paid off the keepers to bury a dummy, no doubt, but Sherlock had no idea where his double had been interred.
He shivered despite himself, lurking amongst the bushes. It was an undeniably bizarre feeling to be seeking out the site where his name and likeness were, and he didn't like it. He ran a hand on the back of his neck, swallowed, steadied himself. This was stupid and superstitious, but he was alone. He could allow himself the indulgence, as awful and affected as he knew it was.
He crossed a small path, catching sight of the turreted gatehouse halfway to his left. Somewhere around here, then, and it was sure to be a fantastic train wreck of a mausoleum, or something equally astoundingly awful. So, rather than look at every individual gravestone, he cast his gaze up towards the line of trees – past the great one in the distance, past the stocky blondish man who stood with an older woman just nearby that one and...
His senses had been doing far too much reeling in the past week or two, but they went spinning again. He stared, reaching out for a gravestone to prop himself up. He knew who they were instantly. It took every ounce of self-control Sherlock Holmes had to not instantly sprint across the lawn of the graveyard, shouting "John! Mrs. Hudson!" like some great alarm-bell of identification.
Still, he could feel his breath growing faint. He narrowed his eyes and tried to focus. John was muttering something to the grave now. Mrs. Hudson had walked away. What in hell was John saying? Why hadn't he planted a wire on John's jacket before he'd shooed him off at St. Bart's? He'd have to do that next time.
No, no, no; there wouldn't be a next time; he'd make sure this time was the last time; he'd trust John and not his brother; he'd figure it all out and everything would be back to normal; he'd be a hero again. Everyone would trust him. He'd be able to solve crimes again and otherwise be left alone to his experiments and his violin. He'd be the resource that Scotland Yard called on when they needed someone; he'd be an icon. He'd even wear that stupid deerstalker hat that people kept on thinking he adored. This would be the only time this would happen. He'd make sure of it.
First, though, there was this problem: How could he possibly announce his presence to the pair, instead of lurking spectrally in the thicket of trees, without giving Mrs. Hudson a heart attack? He didn't half mind her, and seeing her die because of him would be most distressing, no matter what he'd once told John about her insignificance.
An elementary solution presented itself, after a fashion. Sherlock reached down amidst the densely covered treeline and searched until his fingers hit on a small stone. Hard enough to draw attention; not hard enough to draw blood. All the first-form memories flooded back to him, as the recipient of many a similar pebble lobbed at him from some anonymous bully. He grabbed the pebble, picked it up, and cast it flying towards John Watson's head.
"Christ! What the hell?" John's complaint rang out from the short distance.
Jackpot. Sherlock felt himself smile, but stayed mostly still, other than calling over, "You said you were used to snipers in Afghanistan!" Honestly, though, he wouldn't have been half-surprised if John had drawn some stashed service revolver and shot him in shock. So he braced himself on the gravestone he'd clung to before and waited for the return volley.
Chapter 8: Mercury March
Lestrade didn't see the first text until lunchtime. He'd been busy with other work, cases which demanded his attention and were far more pressing than dealing with the trail of chaos a dead man had left in his wake. Besides, the Chief Superintendent had been watching him closely ever since the Holmes fiasco, and he couldn't allow his boss any more ammunition to have him sacked – or give Anderson and Donovan any reason to start considering making a move on his job.
He had waved off Anderson's offer of going out to lunch. Anderson liked to talk, at length, and Lestrade didn't think too highly of his officer's conversational skills. Anderson liked to talk about football, but he had a dilettante's knowledge of the sport and an inexplicable support for the hapless Madron FC, and Lestrade was sure that Anderson only talked about football because it was the thing to do.
So there he was by himself, with a plate of questionable canteen sushi and little desire to eat it, when the mobile blinked and hummed on the table next to him. Two new messages – but when had the first come? He gladly set down the fork which he had been using to pick at the sushi and picked up the mobile, thumbing the option to view the messages.
What does a man need to do to get a little attention around here – jump off a building?
It was unsigned, but the reference was clear. At first, he thought it might be Sherlock, given the lack of tact, but Sherlock was dead. Even if he had been alive, the amateur detective wouldn't have bothered with the formality of texting. He'd have barged into the office demanding he be listened to. If not him, then there was only one other possibility that made sense – of a sort. As much sense as the possibility could make.
He thumbed to the next text, the one that had just arrived: I know you're reading this, Detective Inspector, and I know you know who it is. Let's talk.
How in hell did Jim Moriarty know that he had Sherlock's mobile? He grimaced and turned the phone over, vaguely superstitious. Maybe if he ignored the text, it would disappear. That had never happened when Sherlock had texted him persistently on some theory or another that Lestrade barely cared about, though, and something told him Moriarty was formed from the same mold when it came to following through despite the hindrances.
"You gonna eat that?" Sally Donovan indicated the tray of barely-touched sushi, hovering over it with ravenous anticipation.
"Huh? Oh, no. Go ahead." He pushed the food over to his junior, watching as she sat across from him. "You didn't join Anderson for lunch, Sally?"
She shook her head, tucking in to the sushi. "I can only do a lunch with him a week. Most times, he won't stop talking about football. I'm not a fan."
"Neither is he."
She laughed, offering him an appreciative nod, but forked a bite of the food before speaking again. "You've still got that thing?" She indicated the mobile with the tines of her fork. Lestrade wasn't surprised she'd recognized it. She was bright enough. Her arms folded on the table, and she fixed Lestrade with a serious look. "You've got to stop thinking about that case, Greg. There's no reason for it. Suicide. Easy enough."
But it didn't fit. It didn't work. It was as if it had been staged for everyone to believe, and people who knew less, like Donovan, could believe it. Somehow, though, he couldn't shake the feeling that it was an act. If it were, however, then why would even John Watson be in the dark about it?
Still, he couldn't share those questions with Donovan. So he shrugged. "Fine. I've stopped. Not a word about it. Satisfied?"
Donovan pulled back a bit, staring at him, wide-eyed. Nonetheless, she nodded silently, spending a few moments eating more sushi before she added, "You'll throw that thing away, then?"
"As soon as I get back to my office."
"Why not now?"
It was an obvious question, but it was one that Lestrade didn't feel that he should answer. "Never mind, Sally, all right? It's just a – "
But Donovan wasn't listening anymore. Instead, she was reaching out for the mobile, and he quickly grabbed it away from her, even as a third message blinked into existence. Wide-eyed, stunned at his sudden refusal to let her see the message, she pushed herself back, scraping her chair back, glaring at him with accusation that, however sharp it was, felt deserved nonetheless. Her words were deliberate and precise. "Just a what? You're acting like you've got something to hide. Have you?"
He sighed, flipping the phone up so they both could see it. If Donovan was going to persist, he may as well just show her and save himself the trouble of enduring an interrogation. A third message had come through: Do we have a communication problem? I see JW left a message for me, but I'd rather talk to you.
Donovan studied the message, more puzzled than concerned, her eyebrows drawing together in confusion. "Aren't you going to answer? Who is it?" However, she wasn't nearly perplexed enough to avoid finishing the sushi, and he didn't want to answer. In a way, she hadn't earned it. All she had done was just halfheartedly ask questions by way of making conversation. That wasn't enough to let her in.
But she stared at him long enough and darkly enough that he felt compelled to give her at least a little information, sighing. "I have reason to believe that Jim Moriarty is texting me."
"Oh." She wasn't impressed. "You mean Richard Brook, the one the freak hired?"
Nothing Lestrade could say would convince her – but hopefully the texts themselves would do the deal. He handed the phone to her, watching her expression as she scrolled through the texts. She'd have to realize then, wouldn't she? Even if he hadn't half-believed Sherlock despite the chaos of the post-trial events, hadn't texted him to let him know that the others were suspicious, he would have been convinced by what he had just read.
If he had expected some shared, sudden epiphany, though, some realization that Sherlock had been telling the truth despite her distaste for him, it did not come. Instead, the only reaction she had seemed to be a default, flat suspicion. "You can't prove that Brook – "
"Whatever. You can't prove that he sent these texts. Maybe it's just a prank call, someone winding you up."
"On Sherlock's mobile?"
"Maybe it's John Watson," she insisted doggedly.
He braced himself on the table, leaning forward. "Sally, does John seem at all the sort to do something like that?"
"I'd hope not. But you've got to consider the company he keeps."
Lestrade sighed, tilting his chair back. Donovan wasn't going to admit that she'd been wrong, not when cornered by her superior. He'd have to frame this another way, allow her to still think she was now right despite realizing she'd been wrong. He folded his arms, dropping his voice half an octave to prove that he was quite serious, and her eyes landed on him when he spoke, realizing the tone of voice and body language:
"Think back to training, what they tell you in the first few days: Our whole line of work is evidence. Accuse Sherlock of having been a prick, and I'll be right there with you. Accuse him of having made enemies out of everyone on the beat. He did that. Accuse him of having the social graces of an eight-year-old, and I won't say a word against you. But you can't accuse him of crimes without evidence, just because you didn't like him."
For once, she was quiet, about the issue of Sherlock Holmes, setting down her plastic fork against the tray. She raised her hands in defeat. "Fair cop, Greg. You're right. But answer me this: Did you like him?"
It was a surprisingly difficult question to answer, and he wasn't quite sure how to do so. He considered, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "I wouldn't have shared a pint with him, but I'd have invited him to trivia night long before you." He smiled a bit, and was relieved to see that she appreciated the joke, rather than taking offense at it. "I think Sherlock was… difficult. But he meant well, Sally, whatever you think. And I was willing to put up with him to work with him. In time, he might have even grown up."
"You really think that's Jim Moriarty who's sending you all those texts, then?"
He didn't hesitate anymore. "Positive."
"Then so do I. So what do we do?"
"Nothing. John Watson's searching him out. We keep our heads down and don't get involved unless we're forced to." Donovan didn't like that idea, and he couldn't entirely blame her. It was a difficult position to be in, but all the same, self-pity was worthless when, a few days ago, he'd seen John desperately trying to hide his grief and hardly succeeding. He thought for a moment of sharing the meeting with Donovan, but she'd only changed her mind mere seconds ago. He couldn't be so upfront with her quite yet.
Besides, the mobile phone chirped a new text alert before he could get a word in edgewise. He shrugged at Donovan and checked the text. Moments later, he showed it to her, unable to properly comment upon the message that the text contained:
If you won't answer me, I'll come talk to you. Expect a visit tonight. I'll bring dinner. Any requests? JM
Donovan exhaled slowly. "He's signed it. Or someone's signed it as him. If Sherlock was right," she said, still a little reluctant to admit it, "then we need security on the building. We need a row of uniforms outside the building. We need a crack team ready to take him out."
He grimaced, shaking his head. "He won't come if we do that. He'll know, and he'll stay away, and we'll lose all contact with him. And he hasn't done anything legally wrong. He's been acquitted in court, and we've no proof he's done anything since then that would stand up in court. It wouldn't be a clean kill. We wouldn't be within our rights. He'll come here, and he'll leave here, and," he observed uncertainly but with a bit of gallows humor, "with any luck the dinner he'll bring won't be poisoned."
He couldn't have talked her out of it even if he had wanted to. So, instead, he added, "If it's sushi from as bad a place as our canteen, you can have all you like."
It wasn't canteen sushi. For a split second, Lestrade was relieved, and then he remembered he was facing a maniac. Sally and Anderson both stood in the back of his office, watching Jim Moriarty closely, unmoving, like twin Egyptian statues at the British Museum.
With all the gravity of someone laying out the paraphernalia for a religious ritual, Moriarty pulled out two burgers, sliding one towards Lestrade. "I hope you aren't a vegetarian, Detective Inspector. I figured McDonald's would be all right." He held up a cup, rattling the ice in it. "Soda. And I got some chips as well."
Lestrade wanted desperately to tell Moriarty to stop screwing around, to just say what he needed to and get the hell out, but he didn't dare. So he unwrapped the burger, the Irishman watching him all the while, and took an experimental bite, chewing it carefully, locking his eyes on the suited man who stood watching him. There. He'd taken a bite. He'd proven that he trusted Moriarty had come here on neutral terms and wasn't out to kill him.
If the burger was poisoned, there were enough methods that he wouldn't pick up on, due to the lack of odor or taste, but he had to believe Moriarty hadn't used one of those. That meant trusting him, if only for a moment. Still, the sandwich caught in his throat a bit as he gulped down the first bite, and he saw the slight, subtle nod. Moriarty had noticed his difficulty and, no doubt, had intuited the reason for it.
"Now what good would it do me to have you poisoned?" Moriarty said glibly, picking up on the officer's hesitation. He unwrapped his own burger, seating himself in one of the chairs across from Lestrade's desk, brushing his suit down neatly. "I wanted to have a chat with you. Keep you informed, as it were. Since it seems Sherlock hasn't done so."
The burger suddenly tasted like Styrofoam. Lestrade forced himself to choke it down. "How could he have? Sherlock's dead."
Moriarty's mouth dropped, all too wide. "Really? Since when?"
"Since he pitched himself off a building. You know. You were there." Lestrade tapped the mobile phone, which sat at the ready.
"Interesting!" Moriarty warbled. "So you don't know, then."
The shrug that followed was self-consciously careless; Lestrade knew it was calculated, and was even more certain when Moriarty started his next few words all too hesitantly. "Well... not much. Hardly even worth mentioning." It was even so unimportant that the madman paused for a bite of his hamburger and a handful of chips. "Only that Sherlock's alive and, presumably, in London at the moment."
Lestrade dropped his burger and scraped his chair back discordantly. "The hell you say."
"Quite true, I assure you. You mean he didn't tell you? Why wouldn't he want the police to know? I could have sworn he was working with you. Isn't he?"
Moriarty's next words had the sound of someone trying to figure his way through a thicket of confusion, slow and seemingly uncertain. It was fake, though, confusion oversold. "Then I suppose he hasn't told John Watson either. Watson would have told you if he knew, law-abiding citizen that he is. Strange; I thought they were friends. Flatmates. Not to mention all the rumors about the two of them – hardly dinner conversation." There was a pause, to let the implication sink in, and then Moriarty ended with a rhetorical question, grinning, quite pleased. "It is interesting that he hasn't shared the news of his continued existence with his flatmate, though, isn't it?"
Lestrade was stunned. He didn't want to glance back at Anderson and Donovan, but from the quiet "Detective Inspector" that came from Anderson at his side, he knew the pair were just as shocked as he was. He couldn't afford a look back to confirm that, though. Moriarty was insane, and he had no idea what the man might do in the split second it took him to check with his sergeants.
"You can't make a claim like that without proof," he told Moriarty.
"Check the mobile."
Just as Moriarty said that, the phone signaled again. Still keeping one eye on Moriarty, who sat there nonchalantly making his way through dinner, Lestrade picked up the mobile. A picture message, then. A clear shot, one of a startled-looking Sherlock, wide-eyed and looking a bit ashen, somewhere overly lit by bright lights. Still, the identity was unmistakable, and he grimaced, giving a quick nod meant for his deputies.
"How did you track him?"
"The same way his brother does. Technology is a wonderful thing. You can do so much and barely lift a finger." Moriarty polished off the burger, dusting the crumbs onto the desk. Lestrade resisted the temptation to brush them away. "He's working for me now, Detective Inspector. You can ask him; he'll tell you the same." The man's inky, dead look drifted off Lestrade and to the left, towards Sally Donovan. "You were right to be suspicious of him. Only not how you expected. Have we met?"
Lestrade finally glanced to the side. Donovan was glaring, seething silently at Moriarty, and for once, the detective inspector was proud that his female sergeant was every bit as brusque as she was.
Moriarty's brows raised, and he lowered his voice in mock conspiracy with Lestrade. "Wouldn't like to get her angry. I bet she's a tiger in the sack, though." He looked over to the right, towards Anderson. "I don't think they're an item, though. He's far too dull."
Anderson took a step forward, police boots echoing.
Lestrade felt himself tense, and spoke quickly: "If you're quite finished, Mr. Moriarty..."
Moriarty's voice rang with phony innocence. "Oh. Right! Mustn't trouble the waters. I'd hate to cause conflict here, when I only came with a little message. I did try texting, but you were so obstinate as to not reply. I doubt you'll make the same mistake twice."
Strangely, Lestrade realized, the lunatic was right. He wouldn't avoid answering Moriarty's texts again, especially when the alternative was a personal visit.
The Irishman pushed his portion of chips towards Lestrade, but picked up the soda, sipping it noisily as he rose from the visitor's chair. "Still, I have to apologize for such awkward news, too. I'm afraid I've made rather a mess of it. I'll see myself out." There was a sharpness to the last few words, an unmistakable warning, but just as soon as Lestrade realized it, it was gone. "It's been a pleasure, Gregory." He stuck his hands into the pockets of his suit trousers and sauntered from the office, not bothering to look back.
It was a long few minutes before anyone spoke. All of them were processing the visit, he knew, and they'd have to do so in their own time. Lestrade didn't touch the carton of chips, and neither did either of the others. At length, Anderson circled around to seat in the chair Moriarty had vacated, the first to speak.
"We were wrong, Greg. We were fooled by both of them – and like Moriarty said, they're working together."
Lestrade could only stare and say nothing. He occupied himself with brushing the crumbs from Moriarty's hamburger bun off of his desk, scraping them into the palm of his hand and then dumping them into the bin beneath the desk.
"Do you really think that, Anderson? That's worse than supporting that bloody useless football team!" Donovan exclaimed, her voice full of scorn for the man's guess. "Something's up. I don't know what; I'm as in the dark as you two, and as in the dark as John Watson, if that crazy bastard was telling as much of the truth as I think he was. But he wasn't telling all of the truth. I know that. So do you."
For the moment, Lestrade believed, he could have given Donovan a medal, or at the very least a promotion. He shot her an appreciative look; she grinned back at him as he started to speak. "Then we call John tomorrow, Monday, and we ask him to come in. We have a talk with him. After then, we'll decide how we want to proceed. If Sherlock is in London, John will have a better suspicion than any of us as to where. Get some sleep for now, though, both of you." He waved them both off, sinking back into the chair. "Whatever's going on, nothing will change tonight."
It couldn't possibly, after all. This was an endless grudge match between Sherlock Holmes and Jim Moriarty, and until Sherlock made himself publicly known, there would be no next move.
The two sergeants filed past him, Anderson rapping on the desk to get his attention. "Want some sushi, guv?"
"Shut up," Donovan said briskly. "He doesn't like that stuff. I told you earlier. He barely touched it today."
And then they were gone, and he was left alone with his thoughts, ready to analyze the new twist to the situation. If Sherlock indeed was alive, then given how devastated John had seemed when the doctor had shown up at Scotland Yard, the falling-out between the two would have to be carefully mended, and the burden was on someone who, as he'd told Sally earlier in the day, had alienated everyone around him save the people whom he considered worthwhile knowing. His now apparently faked death, though, would alienate even the man whom he trusted the most. And now Moriarty had come to the police, to try to poison the well here.
Through some miracle, perhaps, the amateur detective had learned a modicum of tact and sincerity, and could rebuild the bridges he'd been so determined to burn from the moment he'd gone up to the rooftop of St. Bart's Hospital. Lestrade would forgive him; he'd have no choice but to do so – but John had a choice and, for once, Lestrade could not predict what the normally steady military veteran might do. No matter John Watson's final decision, any immediate reconciliation would be next to impossible – but if anyone could do the impossible, Sherlock could. Perhaps. All the same, Lestrade wasn't looking forward to John's visit tomorrow. He'd have to tell John about the information, if Moriarty didn't get there first.
He wanted to tell him immediately, but he didn't dare call John's mobile from any phone in his immediate possession, least of all the one Sherlock had left behind. Wiretaps weren't entirely a province of the police, and Moriarty had just said how handy he found technology. He'd have to wait the night out, find a call box on the street near his place in Chalk Farm, and hope in the morning that he could tell John that Sherlock was still alive and had tricked him. He had no idea how he'd possibly go about it, though. Throwing himself wholeheartedly into a plate of canteen sushi was looking like an increasingly better alternative by the minute.
Chapter 9: Ostinato
The pebble still stung, but suddenly, John didn't care about anything as slight as that. A familiar voice came to him from between a stand of trees – deeply theatrical and mocking his time in the war. Annoying – but astonishingly welcome, all the same. Stomach churning, he locked his knees to keep from falling over, raising a hand to his head as he turned around to face the speaker. This was impossible. He'd only just made the wish, and he wasn't stupid enough to believe it had come true. It had to be a trick.
"Sherlock? You've got to be kidding me." There was no way it could be Sherlock; Sherlock had been dead a week. Still, John wished his voice hadn't quavered quite so much – and wished, more than anything else, that he could be proven wrong.
"I'm not, John." A movement at one of the gravestones, and he saw the flash of blackness from Sherlock's coat first. Then, the figure took a quick step forward, then another. If it wasn't Sherlock, it was a reasonably good facsimile at a fairly short distance. Barely sixty feet away stood a taller man, hovering uncertainly, rather than moving forward.
Mrs. Hudson's voice came from behind him, an uncertain "John?" lobbed in his direction. He couldn't answer, though; he wanted to tell her to stay there, and wanted to tell her to help Sherlock, and, unable to decide, stayed silent.
Sherlock deserved the bulk of his attention, however. No, that was the wrong word. He didn't deserve it. What he deserved was to be beaten up within an inch of his life, to be screamed at until John's voice wouldn't work anymore, to be placed in a straitjacket and locked in a padded room so he couldn't do any more damage to himself and others – but at the moment, Sherlock had realized that it was best not to approach him quite so forcefully, and that was at least a little newfound tact.
John took a step forward instead. "Where the hell have you been the past week? And don't give me, 'I've been gone longer than this in one go, John; do you remember the time when I had to go to Rhodesia to track down those diamond thieves?' Because I don't care. You owe me a proper explanation – and that's just the start!"
Sherlock was apparently unable to help himself: "I never went there. And it's called Zimbabwe now. Since 1980, in fact. Primary school for you was around that time. Surely they – "
"I don't give a damn what it's called, you bloody idiot!"
That made the man over by the trees hesitate, wavering a bit despite the stubbornness in his voice. "If you don't want me to talk to you, I'll gladly leave."
"Fine. Go. I couldn't care less."
He wasn't going to be the one to back down this time. He had always relented, always felt guilty or responsible or both. This time, however, Sherlock had outdone himself in tactlessness and thoughtlessness, and John wasn't going to stoop to his level. He stood in place, waiting, watching Sherlock duck into the trees again, burying down any thoughts of running after him. It took a minute or two for Sherlock to think better of his actions and return, swooping back towards the rest of the graveyard again. John almost wished he'd stayed away.
"John, do you mind if I approach you?"
"I don't care. Do whatever you want. You always do anyway."
A dry laugh followed, and Sherlock took a few paces closer, edging forward as if John was a rabid dog liable to bite him. At the moment, it wouldn't have been too far from the truth. Still, John was surprised at the reluctance Sherlock had to come near him. It was almost as if the detective was reluctant to further anger him – but it was far too late for that.
"I'm glad you're not giving me the silent treatment," Sherlock admitted, drawing even closer, but still not reaching John.
"Only children do that," John replied, and he couldn't resist adding a petty, "Like you."
Sherlock opened his mouth, no doubt to point out John's tone of voice, but thought better of it, shaking his head and swallowing. Now that John was close enough to see the expression on Sherlock's face, it wasn't apologetic. John would have been shocked if it was. But what he saw startled him even more – a peculiarly frightened uncertainty. There hadn't been many times Sherlock hadn't known what to do, John suspected, but this was apparently one of them.
He couldn't forgive Sherlock, not yet, but he could at least give him instructions. "You aren't allowed to sleep in the flat. You'll have to find your own lodgings for the time being. Half of your stuff has been given to charity. Nothing crucial or irreplaceable; don't worry. I kept it because of some stupid hope that you'd still be alive, as hard as that is to imagine. If you want it, you'll have to come get it when Mrs. Hudson is the only one there. I don't want to talk to you for a while."
"And if I do this again, I lose you as a friend. I understand." Sherlock's voice was faintly hopeful for some type of agreement.
John shook his head. "No, Sherlock, you don't understand. If you want to be my friend again, you'll have to earn my trust back. You haven't earned it yet. And it won't be as easy as you think. How would you feel if I'd pulled this ridiculous stunt on you?" For a moment, he dreaded that Sherlock might say that he'd be impressed if he were in the opposite position, but he let the question stand nevertheless.
Sherlock stepped closer still. There was a plaintive, desperate note in his voice, almost wheedling. "I had to, John!"
John felt his hands clench into fists in irritation at the other man's immaturity. "I don't care whether you had to or not. I don't care if you did it on a lark, because you were drunk, because you were being blackmailed, or because you had a temporary fit of insanity. You did it, and you didn't tell me."
"I didn't want you – "
"To do what?" John flung back, cutting off the statement.
" – to doubt or distrust me."
John clapped, slow and sarcastic, feeling a sharp crack each time his hands collided, noticing that his flatmate flinched at each one. "Brilliant job, then. Well done. Out of my sight." Sherlock started to protest, but John jerked his chin to indicate the copse of trees the other man had come from. "Go."
Sherlock hesitated. For a moment, John felt himself hesitate too. He'd have liked nothing better than to have given Sherlock a hug of forgiveness, to tell him everything would be all right, to explain to him that all was past and that he could come back to 221B any time he wanted, but he couldn't do that. He wouldn't disrespect himself that much. That honor, at the moment, belonged to Sherlock. Still, as the taller man stared at him, clearly unable to process why he was being banished, John swallowed, feeling his resolve weaken for a good few seconds.
"I can't explain my side of this all that easily," Sherlock pointed out quietly.
"Neither can I. Go," John repeated.
Continuing to waver, Sherlock stared at him, uncomprehending. Then, something seemed to click in the brain that was so used to facts and details, and so new to understanding empathy and emotions. "I'm sorry." And, with that awkward but audibly heartfelt apology, even if it sounded uncertain as to the precise reason it was due, Sherlock turned, heading for the trees to disappear amidst them again.
John thought: I should run after him. But he wouldn't do that. He couldn't. And so he stood there, watching, wheeling around when Sherlock had finally disappeared, each last patch of black coat covered up by trees, and heading back towards Mrs. Hudson who stood, mouth agape, by the car.
"Why did you send him away, John?" she pressed him as soon as he was within earshot. "That was him; I'm sure of it. Aren't you glad he's alive?"
He set a hand against the car to keep himself steady, feeling like otherwise he might very well faint. "I'm thrilled," he said, more flatly than he intended, but he meant it. It was no joke, even if it sounded far too dry. But he couldn't find the words to explain to Mrs. Hudson why Sherlock didn't deserve his immediate forgiveness. So he swallowed and looked past her as he opened her car door, ignoring the accusing look she shot him as she got into the vehicle.
As he revved up the car, putting a little extra punch onto the gas pedal for good measure, he could feel an old, familiar anger bubble up again, oozing its way to the surface like a lava flow. How dare Sherlock treat him like that – after all he'd done for the man! There were so many instances John could have abandoned Sherlock, and he hadn't, and yet Sherlock had been perfectly able – if maybe not perfectly willing – to abandon him if the situation demanded it. All John himself was to Sherlock Holmes was a sounding board, a minor improvement on the bleached skull that sat on the center of the table. People didn't matter to the man. Nothing mattered, except his own deductions and calculations.
Leave him to his reasoning, then. That was all Sherlock had left, and for that, John Watson didn't feel the least bit of pity. Sherlock had done that to himself, had made the decision for himself, however irrational and juvenile it may have been, and he would have to live with the consequences. John was done trying to rescue him from all the pits of social quicksand into which he threw himself.
He half-expected Sherlock to text him, pleading with him to take him back, but no text came, and John, at least, was glad for that. Mrs. Hudson was hanging to the handle above the door with white knuckles by now, and so he eased up on the speed as he hit the motorway, hearing Mrs. Hudson sigh in relief next to him.
"Can Sherlock get all the dead things out of the flat?" Mrs. Hudson asked tentatively beside him. Her voice shook; she was rattled by how he had been driving.
"He can have all the corpses he wants," John replied. He wouldn't begrudge Sherlock something as reviled as that. It would be fitting company, after all. "Don't let him sleep anywhere in my flat or yours, though. I'll call the police if I have to. He's dead as far as Lestrade is concerned. So he's off the lease."
"Off the lease?" Mrs. Hudson repeated his last few words, sounding like she hadn't considered that before. Her eyes widened, but at least her hand ceased its death-grip on the passenger's handle above the door. "Will you let him back in sooner or later, John?"
"I don't know," John admitted. "That depends on him." And it did. If Sherlock grew up enough to realize how he needed to handle the situation, John might consider resettling on the terms. For the moment, though, the very sight of Sherlock had thrown him into a whirlpool of conflict and uncertainty, and he couldn't have that around him for very long.
It was hard to shake the frightened look on Sherlock's face, though. For all John had seen a possible ghost, Sherlock looked the part much more. The man was his usually pale self, but there was a strange tension there, a carefulness that had made his responses more tentative – and for some reason, John couldn't rid himself of the suspicion that not all of that tentativeness had been directed towards him. Sherlock wasn't the best at masking strong emotions, and as he drove back towards Westminster, John became sure that the look he'd seen on Sherlock's face had been fear. Not just fear of being abandoned, either, but of something more immediate.
He couldn't turn back and pick up the detective from wherever he was likely still lurking in the cemetery, however. That would be too weak, and he would never teach the lesson he wanted to if Sherlock sensed his lack of resolve on the matter. Wanted or not, Sherlock would return anyway, but this time, he would have to realize he'd been in the wrong.
Mrs. Hudson spoke up suddenly. "I hope he comes back. He's been better than you on the rent."
"But I don't put bullet holes in your walls." He had to smile, however slightly, at that thought.
The landlady thought for a moment. "There is that. I'd forgotten about those bullet holes, if you can believe it. How much do you suppose he owes me for that?"
John kept his eyes on the road. "Less than he owes us all for what he did by jumping off that building. I still don't know how he survived it." But, he realized suddenly, he might very well knew someone who did. Tomorrow, his chat with Molly would have to center on a very different topic than he had previously anticipated.
Chapter 10: Wanderer Fantasy
Drug use, from the user's POV.
Why hadn't John taken him back? It didn't compute. Though such ire was just as illogical as the refusal to welcome him back to Baker Street, his flatmate had indeed been angry. If it had been anyone else, he would have picked up on the cues, but with John, he knew what they meant. Sherlock could read John now, better than he could even read his own brother. He had seen the way John's hands clenched into fists, and heard the way his voice cracked when he yelled, proving that he wasn't just angry but was stung by what Sherlock had done. He'd noticed how the other man had to square his shoulders again when he turned around and stalked off.
Maybe John had a right to be mad at him. But he wasn't being fair. He hadn't given Sherlock the chance to explain. If John knew what Sherlock knew, it would all make sense, and if it made sense, then John would have to accept it. Circular logic, perhaps, but it worked nonetheless, and he was in no mood to quibble with himself over minor details such as those.
With things as serious as they still were, personal emotions would have to be put aside, and they could rebuild their friendship later. Neither of them had time to hold grudges with each other, particularly when John's grievance was based on unfounded suspicions and false information. Sherlock hadn't jumped off of the rooftop of St. Bart's because he'd wanted to, after all. At the time, Moriarty had left him no choice but that, and he had done it to call off the assassins lurking from St. James' Park to Baker Street. He'd taken that chance for John and the rest of them, not for himself. So, really, John should be thanking him, not ostracizing him. When he saw John again, he'd have to point out that distinct lack of gratitude to him – at length, in depth, and fully detailed.
Still, John hadn't just been angry. There had been that sharp twinge to his voice. He'd felt hurt as well. And when people were hurt or upset with him, they didn't like to hear that they were wrong. He was fairly sure of that. Mycroft had explained that to him enough times. So he could wait and explain John's mistakes later, once John wasn't so upset with him.
He brushed his way past the central Persian arch of the cemetery gate, seeing John's vehicle speed off from the car park. John didn't slow down, and didn't seem to look his way. He was driving far too fast, too. More anger. If Sherlock could only get a chance to explain… He could talk with Mrs. Hudson, maybe, or Greg Lestrade, or Molly, since she hadn't yet let his secret slip, since John had been surprised to see him alive in the graveyard. One of them would be able to tell him what he owed John, because he couldn't think of a thing. He'd already apologized, after all. He couldn't do so again. They'd both know it was overkill.
Sherlock strode southwest down Aldersbrook Road, keeping to one side of the pavement, his coat brushing against the brick wall. There was a bus stop a short distance away, but he didn't want to go back quite yet. He wouldn't find the clarity he needed from New Scotland Yard, St. Bart's, or Baker Street. He needed to do something first, something that would bring capability if not clarity.
One of his homeless network who hung around East Ham Station had given him the tip and so, in short order, Sherlock found himself lurking in a back alley in Canning Town, feeling distinctly criminal and out of his element as he gazed at the docks that lay beyond a metal chainlink fence. He had only taken a chance like this a few times before. Mycroft had usually been good enough to look the other way while he procured his supply through somewhere safer. Now, though, Mycroft would be be angry with him for disappearing, and so Sherlock couldn't rely on higher-class suppliers.
Would Mycroft even be looking for him, though? His brother had said he was on his own. John had told him just about the same thing. So he would have to make his own decisions, like any other adult. 'Getting high' was no doubt a poor decision, but he would just have this one slip-up, and then things would fall into place.
The side door to the garden apartment creaked open. He tried to smile at the anonymous, bulky figure that blocked most of the light coming from the room, but couldn't quite manage it. Drug dealers were good judges of character too, and even if the man facing him wouldn't notice the scar on his wrist from when he'd fallen off a bicycle at seven, or judge his height and weight at a glance, no doubt the stranger would know in an instant that he didn't belong here and only knew halfway what he was doing.
"Paul told me about you."
Was that the name of the teenager in the hipster cap and black-rimmed glasses who had knocked on the door minutes ago, telling him to wait back at the mouth of the alley? There had been a quick conversation, and then the anonymous homeless boy had disappeared. Sherlock thought back. The kid had worn a backpack, cheaply embroidered with his initials. P.T.S. So the first name started with a P: Paul was a sensible name, then, more so than Percy or Pierre. It worked. He nodded.
The bulky man's jaw thrust out. "Says you want three lines."
This isn't going to end well. He ignored the pang of conscience, and nodded. "All right. I should mention that I haven't ever – "
"Shut up. Come in."
Descending the steps, Sherlock had to kick aside a beer can rather than crush it underfoot, and held his breath as he entered the apartment. Flickering lights, a TV with horse races in the corner, and a stove with a cast-iron pan, bubbling with sodium bicarbonate, water, and cocaine. He squinted in the low light. Cardboard boxes full of detritus, a beer can tower in one corner. No musical instruments. No books. Not even a single magazine on horse racing. Pathetic.
Sherlock was clearly out of his depth here, and he knew it. He had only the twenty-pound note which Paul had given him at the Tube station, after Sherlock had promised to give him a fifty in exchange. He exhaled, hesitant to move past the threshold of the apartment. There was cocaine right there, gleaming and white, not yet cooked into the candle-waxy substance of crack. But he let the other man do the talking. He didn't want to antagonize the dealer on his own territory.
"How much you got?" Money, obviously. Even John could have figured that out.
Sherlock spoke as quickly and confidently as he could. "What's your price?"
"I'll cut you a deal. Ten for three."
It wasn't much of a deal, but he was still sold. He studied the man before him. Large, yes, but it wasn't all fat. Scarred knuckles – a fighter of some sort, though it was likely in the past. A boxer? No doubt retired, judging from the faded state of those scars and from the large man's thinned hairline, putting him at least in his mid-thirties. He stepped forward, noticing how the other man moved back instinctively. Some degree of social grace; some hanging around people above his station. Not just a boxer, but one who had won once upon a time. Five years ago? Ten? He wished he'd had his mobile to check boxing statistics. Maybe there was another clue around here. His gaze swung towards the book-free shelves, spotting a trophy. It was too far away to read the date, but it was caked with grime and dust. It hadn't been touched for a few years.
"Was it the habit that made you give up the gloves, or giving up the gloves that made you take up the habit?" he asked.
The large man looked at him, poleaxed, drawing back a second step. "What the – How did you – "
"Magic." He put as much confidence as he could into the word, offering the ex-boxer a smile. It spoke of conspiracy and trustworthiness; it had worked before to flummox people, and it would have to work again. This time, though, the expression was for a purpose he hadn't had before: To make someone like him.
The dealer shook his head bemusedly. "Must be some kind of freak or something."
A sharp laugh issued from Sherlock before he could hold it back. "I've been called that before."
"No wonder. Don't know who you was talking to, mate." The man went back to the stove, picking up a long pin, and drawing the oil out of the pan, rolling it as it solidified. Sherlock breathed a sigh of relief; he seemed to have smoothed the waters a little.
Why couldn't he do that just as easily with John? John was bright enough, but closer in intellect to the dealer than he was to Sherlock himself. So there had to be some easy way to appease him with a trick, to avoid those frustrating conversations about emotions and friendship that made so little sense to talk about. He was John's friend – or had been, according to John's words. There should have been no need to hammer out every little detail. John should have trusted him. Why hadn't he? What had Sherlock done wrong? How had he miscalculated? He couldn't have told John the plan. He could have relied on John to follow through, but there would have been too many questions, too much doubt – and now John distrusted him anyway. So there were few options open now – besides this.
And then, just as soon as he'd buried himself in his thoughts, it was over. A small bag with powder was thrust towards him. He gave the twenty, and got back a ten, though it wasn't legitimate. He could feel the surface of the paper between his fingers. Counterfeit. But he didn't want to mention it. This didn't seem the time or the place. Besides, he had cocaine. But he'd have to find somewhere better to take it than with the boxer. The man could be trusted to an extent, as he'd come to the habit out of necessity and not criminal desires, but at the same time, Sherlock couldn't be sure of the substance, and he wanted to be somewhere safe when he indulged himself.
"You should go back to boxing," he added over his shoulder as he drew near the trophy sitting on the shelf, glancing at its legend. "That match in '06. Knockout in four, if I'm not mistaken." He had to be right. He could make out the smallest leftward bit of a four beneath the grime, too straight to be an eight or a three, and too acute to be a five. "You were good."
Some part of him hoped that even this fellow was staring after him in awe. He deserved a little good press following him back to Westminster. He hadn't even gotten a mausoleum, after all.
The low-slung Victorian station was sure to have surveillance cameras throughout it; Sherlock made no effort to enter the Underground. Instead, he walked past the station, keeping an eye out. More shops on the high street. No prospects there. He held his breath and shrank into his coat as a video surveillance vehicle from the police drove by, studiously ignoring the yellow checker-boarded car as it passed him. Nowhere good to hide.
An idea. He flung out a hand at the passing black cab; it screeched to a halt beside him, and he swung inside its confines, inspecting the driver carefully. Young, overweight, and female. Owned a ferret. Didn't like to do the ironing. A tattoo on the nape of her neck – something with a swirling design. Also, the driver was nobody he knew. Good. "Westminster," he directed.
The car pulled off the side of the street, merging into traffic. The woman looked over her shoulder. "Long way away. You sure you don't want the Tube?"
"Positive," he replied. He'd give the woman the ten at the end of the ride and hope that she didn't make a fuss over how little she was being paid. He'd figure that out when he got there. Mrs. Hudson was sure to have money, or he could always promise to pay Mr. Chatterjee back, so long as Speedy's was still open.
For now, though, he had a singular purpose. He rolled up the ten-pound note carefully in his fingers to form a tube, snatching the woman's badge from the back of her seat before him. It wasn't much of a hard surface, but it would have to do. Pouring a rough third of the cocaine onto the laminated surface, he pushed it into a ragged line with his fingertip. Not neat enough. Why was he concerned with neatness? He never had been about normal things – but this – this was different.
"Where do you want to go in Westminster?"
It was so close. But now this woman was asking questions. He glanced up for the briefest second, and spoke as quickly as he could to forestall any semblance of conversation. "Regent's Park. Baker and Melcombe."
Then, before she could speak again, he inhaled into the straw, feeling the twitchy irritant of powder flying into his nose. He leaned back against the back seat, letting the bill drop carelessly to the floor, pocketing the plastic bag with its remnants, and waited for the half-life to pass.
It took at least fifteen minutes to get high. They were somewhere around Aldgate by then, at least. Maybe even Liverpool Street. But, at that point, wherever in London it actually was, the outside world shrank away, cab and driver and the city surroundings melting around him into a whirl of unnecessary distractions.
Confidence. There. That was what he wanted. It hovered in the air, tangible and crystalline. The car was still moving; he could feel it thrum beneath him. Were they on the road, though? He couldn't be sure. He didn't want to ask. It didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was knowing what to do, and it was right there; it was so easy; he only had to grab it. He lurched forward, grasping, dimly aware of a muttered complaint from his hired driver. But the car kept moving. They were all right. Of course they were all right. They couldn't possibly go wrong now. He'd get back to Baker Street, and he'd know exactly what to say; he'd know exactly what to do.
I'm sorry, John; I should have trusted you; I didn't think you'd understand. That was my mistake. It wasn't yours. I put you into a position I wouldn't have liked to be in, and, for that, I'm sorry. I don't know how to repay you for it, but whatever you feel I should do, tell me, and I'll do it, because I want to regain your trust, more than anything in the world. Please. I betrayed your trust, and I won't ever –
"Jesus! Stop babbling!"
Had he said that aloud? He didn't care. He thunked the passenger seat next to the driver. How dare she yell at him? Did she know who he was? He was important. She didn't matter. "You," he got out, knowing the words he wanted to say but not finding them, "You – shut it."
Close enough. Sherlock glanced at himself in the front mirror, caught a glimpse of himself with a little ring of powder under one nostril, wiped at it, met the driver's eyes in the mirror. Her eyes widened; she shook her head. He laughed at her shock, a sharply barked noise that caused her to swerve a bit. It was all right, though. They couldn't possibly be hit.
"You just took something!" Accusation. Astonishment. What an idiot.
"Perceptive! Would you like some?"
"You're high; I can't – you can't – "
Whatever she couldn't do didn't matter. He could do anything. He was Sherlock Holmes, and he suddenly, for the first time in a long time, felt like he had something to uphold. He'd missed that feeling. He'd missed knowing for sure that he was capable, beneath all the bluster. He'd have to do this again. Soon. Maybe again tonight, after the first high wore off in an hour or three.
Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Something. Time folded in on itself, stretched, divided, multiplied, like some sort of cellular experiment through a microscope. Was that Charterhouse Square off to his side?
They were pulling up. It wasn't Baker Street. They hadn't gone nearly far enough west. He looked outside and laughed. From October 1914 until the 31st January 1918, 5,406 soldiers were passed through the wards. He knew the inscription. He knew where they were, even if everything was blurry and fuzzy and slightly unreal.
"I don't need this. We don't need to be here."
The taxi stalled, idling, waiting for him to get out. The woman was unresponsive. He scowled. She remained impassive.
Fine. If she was going to be that way, Sherlock would react in kind. It was just like dealing with Mycroft, really. He was used to it. "You're not getting ten quid – and you're not sharing a line. So there." Only then did he realize he'd dropped the bill. He couldn't see where it had landed, though.
Maybe she told him to get out. He couldn't be sure. But, feeling like Spring-Heeled Jack as he bounded from the cab, he just about sprinted towards the Baroque detailing and the statue of a monarch. Which one? It didn't matter. He could recognize it when he was clearer, but for now, it didn't matter, just like the taxi driver. He was dimly aware of the taxi speeding off, but he didn't care one bit. It was worth losing the ten quid.
If he had died here once at St. Bart's, he could be reborn as well. He could start again. Everything would restart. He felt himself propelling forward, leaning in towards the door, opening it bodily. Someone was talking loudly to him, but the sound was fuzzy, as if it was amplified through a bad sound system.
" – you taken?"
Sherlock could figure the rest of that out. He raised the plastic bag with cocaine to display it to the man in the funny bottle-green shirt. "Only one. I'm... I'm fine." He was fantastic. But he couldn't share that with the man. Besides, someone was calling his name. He knew that voice. He couldn't place it. It didn't matter, either – and then, suddenly, it did. He laughed aloud, feeling his voice echo in the spaciousness of the great hall, surrounded by donation plaques, even as the orderly's hand closed on his arm.
The figure who approached him couldn't shake him out of the numb euphoria he was in. Nothing would. But he could at least thank her. "Molly. Brilliant to see you. I'm doing wonderful! How are you?" He tried his best to pull himself together, drawing himself upright and taking a deep breath. His heart thudded in his chest, but it wasn't her; it was the cocaine.
Why couldn't she respond to him – or why wouldn't she? And why did she look so upset with him? He hadn't done anything wrong. He couldn't possibly have, not now, and not for the next few hours. She didn't speak to him, though. She spoke to the orderly, something more confident than she'd ever said to him.
Business mode, then, even if he couldn't speak as slowly as he would have liked. "Where's John? Why isn't he here to see me? Why aren't you glad to see me? You didn't tell him; I know; thank you. I know it was hard; I-I-I know you had to... to press your luck to help me; I'll pay you back, Molly. I promise. Find John. Let me see him. Now."
His order would be obeyed. It would have to be. Right now, everyone would have to listen to him. All the same, though, he forced a quick grin onto his face. She'd found that charming before. Disappointingly, this time, Molly Hooper did not smile back.
Chapter 11: The Gadfly Suite
"How is he?"
"Recovering. It's been five hours. He's stopped having hallucinations and locking us out of the hospital room, anyway." Molly's tone was sharp and displeased. John couldn't blame her. He'd talk to her later, though. He'd ask her why Sherlock had trusted her, and why neither of them had trusted him. A pang of resentment ran through him, jealousy that Molly had been able to be a part of Sherlock's survival and he hadn't – but, no, that wasn't fair to her.
"Your phone call," John began. "The one on Friday. You have nothing to apologize for. Whatever's going on, it's his fault."
She shot him an upset look, almost a defensive one. She was still carrying the torch, then, after a fashion. Her words had nothing to do with the look, though. "The doctors gave him some Valium and paracetamol. We're keeping an eye on his blood pressure. He'll be all right, though, John. I promise. He didn't overdose."
That was good, at least. But Sherlock hadn't fallen off the wagon since he'd known him. He'd known about the history in bits and pieces, but it had just been a history, he'd thought. Now, though, past was becoming present, and John didn't like it at all.
"He doesn't have a wallet on him. Or a single quid, for that matter. If you're sending him home tomorrow, you can bill the cab ride here, if you want." It had the sound of a peace offering. She was trying to placate him, and that made his hackles rise. Besides, he'd said Sherlock wasn't allowed in the apartment, and this stupid, childish reaction that Sherlock had indulged in could do nothing to change that.
He spun towards her. "We're going to talk right now, you and me. I know I said tomorrow, but – if he's going to be taking stupid chances like this – I want to know why. All of it. And I'm not going to get it from him or Mycroft. So you have to tell me." Feeling like he was playing the heavy, John took a step into Molly's personal space and watched her shrink back instinctively. He held up his hands to block more anxiety. "Sorry – but, listen, Molly..." He couldn't quite finish the appeal.
"I don't know why!" She seemed about to babble in frustration but, after a moment of blinking, recovered and spoke more sensibly. "Mycroft showed up and asked me to sign off on it. There's – there's a mask in a drawer that Sherlock let me make of his face. The rest of it was a dummy. That's all I know. Sherlock told me to destroy it, but... but I couldn't follow through with all of it. I still have the mask. But he was in on it, whatever it was, John, so... talk to him. Not me."
She pushed open the door to the recovery ward; he followed through after her, keeping time with her surprisingly brisk pace.
"The doctors said that he has to stay in the hospital overnight, John. I mean, to make sure he's all right."
"He won't want to."
"I know that. He's spent the last hour telling me what he doesn't want. In depth." Something shifted in her expression, but he couldn't quite catch it, and didn't feel like asking. Somehow, it didn't seem fair. "You can talk to him," Molly urged again. "He'll talk to you more than he will me."
Even if he trusts you more than he does me? John kept the question to himself, stopping when she did, beside one of a number of anonymous doors in the hallway. "You're sure he's all right, though?"
Molly fixed him with a wide-eyed, solemn look, one he could read without trying: Sherlock was as all right as he could ever be, anyway. Without verbalizing that, she waved a pass-key at the door; it beeped to unlock itself, and he stepped inside the room.
The twitching, nervous-looking figure who sat propped up in the bed, hands wrapped around his knees, was in a state he'd seen only once before, at Baskerville. John couldn't be sure which time was worse, but he knew he didn't like seeing Sherlock like this. It made him twitchy and nervous in return, and he hated that feeling. Still, he had to put on a brave face, although he wasn't sure for whose benefit he was faking it. "Sherlock?"
"John. Excellent. I knew you'd be back. Could you please open a window?" Sherlock's gaze was surprisingly dark – dilated pupils, part of the side effects. He was flushed, and as John crossed by the hospital bed to prop open the window, he could see perspiration tracking from his friend's hairline.
He hitched himself against the window, reluctant to move closer. Sherlock might not be in the best state right now, but John was still angry with the detective, and he couldn't let himself forget it. The danger had passed. Sherlock was sensible enough to remember whatever they spoke about here, if they'd indeed have a genuine conversation.
"I am clear now on what I need to do, John. I was clear in Birmingham. But I'm clear again."
"You were in Birmingham?"
"For a few hours, yes." Sherlock's mouth twitched; his fingers drummed absentmindedly against one another. "There's something I need to tell you about that."
"There's a lot you need to tell me." His voice sounded as antiseptic and hollow as the hospital room felt.
"I know." The other man's attention tracked past John, towards the open window, and then fixed on him again. The dilated gaze was eerie. It didn't look right. It wasn't nearly brilliant and careless enough. "And I will. But we need to get out of here first. You're going to help me." His chin jerked towards the window. "We'll go that way."
John couldn't help but laugh. "We're on the second story. You'd have a long way down." There was no way he was doing that. Not even if Sherlock dared him to do so.
Sherlock's spine straightened; his jaw thrust out, as if John had called his bluff. "I've jumped from the top of this place before. All the way into a rubbish van. Do you think I can't – "
"No!" John raised a hand. "I don't care what you can or can't do. Just... just relax."
"That's difficult to do after a cocaine high. Even hours after."
"Well, try." John turned from the bed to gaze out the window, propping his hands on the sill. It was still offputting to see Sherlock alive; it was like looking at a mirage and wondering if the man really existed. "All I want is a proper apology, Sherlock. One where you not only mean it, but know why you mean it. I don't think you do yet. That's not – not your fault. You can't help it. But it makes it bloody difficult for me to help you then." He turned back, gazing at the patient in the bed.
Sherlock's hands pulled tighter against his knees. "I knew why I needed to apologize for a moment," he admitted, "just before I got here. But – but now it's gone." He shrugged, exhaling, and stretched his legs out, starting to swing himself off the bed. "If I remember, I'll surely tell you, but now we need to go, before they insist that I need to be monitored some more. I don't think Molly is happy that I'm back here. She knew I was alive, did you know? And you didn't."
"Oh, God," John heard himself mutter, his hands thrusting against his face. "Yes. I know now what Molly knew and I didn't. Thanks for that reminder, by the way." He couldn't let himself rise to the bait. They wouldn't get anywhere if things devolved into an argument, and so he would have to be the adult here. Sherlock did that poorly enough even without the effects of detoxing. He made no move to unhitch himself from the wall. "There were articles, Sherlock. About how you were a fake and you killed yourself. If you enter into the spotlight again, they'll really think you're a fake."
"Then they're stupid."
Are we really going through that again? John moved from the window towards the bed. "This was a cry for help. I know that. And I'll help. All right? I'll help." He wasn't sure if he should, but there it was; he'd said it; it was out, and he couldn't take it back. "But I need you to be honest with me, Sherlock. Level with me. I'm not some mad genius like you, but I'm not an idiot, and I don't like being treated like one – especially by someone I consider a friend." He'd meant to say 'considered,' but he realized only too late that he hadn't.
Sherlock realized it too, apparently. A small smile curved onto the other man's arched lips, but it was less triumphant than John would have expected. It was relieved. "Terrific." Sherlock sank back against the pillow with a thump. A few shallow breaths, a hand over the face to wipe sweat, and he murmured, "I know you don't understand any of it, John. But don't worry. I'll explain. I'll illuminate it for you."
"When you're sober again. Not now. I'll wait," John offered. It was a test. He sank into a cheap metal chair at the foot of the bed, folded his arms, and prepared to wait, just in case. He'd done watch duty before for more volatile situations than one paranoid flatmate coming down off of drugs, and he could pull this shift without any trouble. He could stay up all night if by some unlikely event he would need to, despite being worn out by how much Sherlock had consumed his Sunday evening.
Sherlock couldn't stand the wait, though. John knew that already. The explanation wasn't going to be long in coming, and so he stared at the clock by the bed, watching the digital numbers impassively, letting the red LEDs consume his thoughts for a few moments. It was just like staring into the electric lights around the bunkers in Afghanistan, waiting for an artillery attack to come. Anticipation, dampened by the cold, dead feeling of doing the same thing day-in, day-out. He'd rarely felt that way around Sherlock, but now, he had the upper hand and Sherlock was at a disadvantage, and that felt maddeningly useless.
It took seven minutes and fifteen seconds for the consulting detective's patience with the silence to wear thin, and for the chattering to begin again. "I left my phone behind so you could read the messages and know what was going on. I don't suppose you've got it. Lestrade must have it then. Yes, he does? I can tell by the slight nod, John. Micro-expressions. Anyway, Mycroft sent me away, presumably to go to ground, but I can't. It's impossible. The message was intercepted."
There was only one way it could have been intercepted. Weirdly, John noticed, he didn't have the time to feel afraid. "Moriarty?"
"Mm." Sherlock's head bobbed with an assenting nod. "Still out there. Perhaps he's come back from Birmingham. You're not in danger anymore, though; he made that clear to me."
He stared at the edgy figure before him. "Anymore?"
"Snipers. Three of them. You, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade. You didn't know. That's all right. You can't know everything."
John felt himself tense. "Neither can you, apparently."
"I can. Just because I didn't at that point doesn't mean that I can't," Sherlock insisted. "But all three of you are fine now. As am I."
"Great. So we're supposed to just go about our lives, knowing he's still out there?"
Sherlock grimaced, drawing in a breath that whistled through his teeth. "In a manner of speaking. But you see why apologies don't matter now, considering. They won't change the situation one bit. But do you know what will?" John raised his brows, a signal for Sherlock to continue. "Figuring out his plans. Which we can't do from a hospital room."
"So says the man who wouldn't leave his flat for cases he didn't think were worth it."
"This isn't a case, John." The words were gravely serious; Sherlock's voice was low and deep.
John was reluctant to ask what it was, then. He didn't necessarily want to know the answer. Something clutched inside of him, unsettling him. Instead of asking, though, he ignored the sudden tension inside him and drew himself up from his chair. "I'm heading back. If Molly says you can go home tomorrow, then you can come home, though you can't stay there for good until I say so, and you can't come home tonight, either. And if you really are sorry, you won't do anything foolish like climbing out a window or smuggling yourself out of here in a laundry cart."
"That would never work. The cart would be too heavy to use on the special dumbwaiters. They only carry twenty kilos. There was a sign."
"I'm serious, Sherlock. Stay here. Listen to Molly."
As he left the room, he was aware of Sherlock splashing some water over his face from the glass beside his bed and then hitting the bed with a thump of the mattress. That was all right, though. If the detective was coming off a high, he'd feel feverish, but maybe he could get some rest. John wasn't about to stop him from doing that.
"Is he all right?" How long had Molly been standing there before she'd asked the question, anyway?
"He will be. Don't let him talk you into sending him home early or something, Molly. No matter what he says. He's exhausted, and I haven't got the patience." She was staring at him, but she nodded trustingly, mutely. She was as fidgety as Sherlock was, though, and the expression she shot him was guilty, her shoulders slumping and a hangdog look crossing her face. She'd always been easy to read, anyway. "It's all right, Molly. It's not your fault. You were just doing what you were told." He drew a breath. "We both were. I'm sorry I snapped at you on Friday, all right?"
Her voice was quiet and serious. "He'll just pull the same thing again, if he needs to."
"Maybe. But he'll have to explain himself to me before he does it." That felt strangely sufficient for him, in a way. He extended a hand to her for a shake, and she took it. Her side of the shake was surprisingly solid, and he was impressed by that. But he didn't want to dwell on the matter. She would babysit Sherlock well enough without him needing to spell it all out, and for the time being, if what Sherlock had said was true, he was safe here.
He headed down the stairs to the hospital gallery, the donation plaques and the selection of paintings surrounding him. The hospital wasn't nearly as nice as Buckingham, of course, but rich all the same. Not his scene, and he was glad when he headed out into Smithfield beyond, gazing up at what few stars he could see in the sky, outside the glare of London night lighting.
One wish had been granted, far quicker than he'd thought it would be. Sherlock had done the impossible. He was alive. Desperate, drugged, and destitute, but he was alive. Was a second wish even possible? John focused on one small section of the sky, able to make out at least two of three three brilliant points amidst the metropolitan haze, unmoving amidst the light of planes crossing to Heathrow and Gatwick. That was something he knew that Sherlock definitely didn't: The Summer Triangle. Deneb, Altair, Vega. One of them, he couldn't quite make out. It didn't matter which one it was, though. He'd seen enough stars to ask their favor.
He kept his second wish to himself, not even daring to breathe it aloud. Speak it, and it wouldn't come true – an old childhood superstition. Still, he had to hope. He had to trust. He could do both; the rest of it was in Sherlock's hands. If the consulting detective really was as much of a miracle-worker as he thought he was, then he would not only rise from the dead, but he would fulfill the request John had made, however superstitious it might be:
Please trust me this time, Sherlock. That's all I ask. And it was a request he'd never dare to voice in the presence of greatness; despite all his intellect, the request was one whose depth Sherlock would never consciously understand. As he headed for the night buses a block away, he half-hoped for some sign of affirmation from the universe, but none came.
Chapter 12: Connotations
All that effort to protect his brother from harm, and it had gone to waste. Of course it had gone to waste. Mycroft would have felt surprise, otherwise. Instead, annoyed but unsurprised, he'd listened to his driver's protests of how he'd just gone out for a smoke, and when he came back, Sherlock had fled. Out of pride, perhaps, the driver had neglected to mention what Mycroft already knew from the security cameras: Sherlock had gotten him by surprise and dropped him on his way out the unlocked front door, stealing the driver's mobile phone as he went.
Then, Sherlock had headed to a grocer's. Not for food – Sherlock wasn't concerned with human trivialities like that. Perhaps for cigarettes. The driver was a smoker, after all, and given the way Mycroft's little brother had hesitated in the video, that may well have been an issue. Out of the Waitrose's once he realized he had no money, Sherlock had then headed to Knightsbridge Tube Station. He'd been notified of that, had given orders for his sibling to be ushered past the turnstiles wherever he went – but why in God's name had Sherlock gone all the way past the East End and into the suburbs? Nothing was there for him. It was full of poverty and a less refined sort of danger surely his brother knew nothing about. Mycroft knew very little about it himself.
His driver shuffled before him, still looking sheepish. "I thought he'd be out for a little while longer, Mr. Holmes. Imagine my surprise when there he is, and he knocks me out cold."
"Yes. I know. Thank you, George. It wasn't your fault." Nevertheless, the words were mechanical. It had been George's fault, somewhat, though not nearly as much as Sherlock's fault. Dream as he might, though, he couldn't possibly fire his brother.
Unlike the driver's paid assistance, Sherlock had never helped, though; he'd always been a burden, one Mycroft had willingly shouldered as much as possible, one he'd tried to lead down the right path. He'd pushed himself to the limits of assistance for his brother, even recently. He had gotten him out of London, had given him a space to hide, had freed him from jail, and had even kept him away from John Watson despite his brother's insistence, to avoid Sherlock showing his hand too soon and too unpleasantly. What had Sherlock done for him in return?
His brother had left a message. The realization came to Mycroft suddenly; he drew in a breath, considering. There was something at the library for him, something Sherlock had refused to tell him in HM Prison Birmingham. Whatever it was, this message had to be important and private. Sherlock had left a message that hadn't been discovered by any curious library staff or patrons, and had deliberately left it in a manner that wouldn't be officially recorded. It wouldn't be just a simple Piss off, Mycroft. From the moment he'd seen his older brother in the jail, Sherlock had indulged himself thoroughly in pushing away any offer of help, so Mycroft suspected that the insistence on finding this message had been genuine despite it all.
He pushed himself up from the armchair. His driver was still there, a chastened look on his face. It was aggravating, but he buried his irritation under a stiff smile and calm words. "Any plans on for the day?"
The driver shrugged. "Ladbrokes, maybe? They're running the horses at Windsor. Going's good to firm, and it's been a week or two since I put a bet on, and – "
"A hundred pounds. And I'll get you a new mobile, so long as you promise not to let this one get taken."
"Where do you want to go, sir?" Predictable – but welcome, all the same.
Castle Vale Library had no broken glass in the front floor-to-ceiling panes. Sherlock had been telling the truth in the phone message, and Mycroft hoped that boded well for his brother's mental state at the time he'd left the second, secret part. When the police had come, they had only said one security window on the second floor was broken, in the men's lavatory, next to the fire escape. His brother had gotten in that way. Strange, though. Mycroft had arranged for the night watchman to wait for Sherlock, had given him a picture of his brother. Where had the guard gone?
There was no point in dusting for fingerprints. This was a library. Fingerprints, including Sherlock's, would be everywhere. He couldn't possibly isolate his brother's path through detective work. How would he figure out the message, then? He stood in the downstairs half of the glass-fronted main room, considering, watching out of the corner of his eye as the driver kept his distance and looked over the latest Dan Brown novel.
Sherlock had been downstairs; he knew that from the report. The police had entered because of a fire alarm, a false one, which Sherlock had broken the glass to set off. It had been the downstairs alarm, and the police had found Sherlock arranging books that had been left in disarray – uncharacteristically neat. A signal for him: This is the wrong answer. He'd been in his brother's flat too many times, had encountered the massive swarm of experiments and gadgets and cast-offs that littered the place, to think that the amateur detective had added obsessive-compulsive neatness to his already extensive list of troubles.
Sherlock had spent most of the time upstairs, then, but Mycroft didn't head up there yet. Instead, he waved a dismissive hand at the driver, who had moved on from Dan Brown to last Tuesday's Racing and Football Outlook, no doubt reading the racing columns inside. There was no hint of damage on the staircase. Everything was pristine. Nothing explicitly physical, it seemed. Something to do with the books? He let his gaze wander the shelves, leaning on his umbrella. Sherlock surely couldn't expect him to look through all of the volumes here. From the size and number of shelves, Castle Vale held close to twenty-two thousand, four hundred volumes. He couldn't be expected to have the exact number at a glance, but surely even Sherlock would have to realize that searching through this many books would be an impossible task. What pattern would he have chosen?
He turned his attention to the library director. A tweedy fellow in horn-rimmed glasses, the director hovered near him with all the panache of the beige wallpaper that surrounded them, even as he picked at the twice-replaced button on his left shirtsleeve. The man had mentioned something about things possibly being taken. "What was missing?"
"Pencils and sweets."
Both were clues, somehow. "How many of each?"
The director shifted, tugging at the hem of his sports jacket. "A couple. Two or three apiece. We don't really keep count. I mean, people run off with our pencils all the time, and the sweets in the children's department get refilled whenever they run out."
"Where are the pencils?"
A cupful of Mirado Black Warriors sat at the circulation desk. Sherlock had been there, and had taken the rest of the pencils. Mirado. Past tense of mirar, Spanish for "to look," no doubt a pointed comment from his little brother, but also –
"Gilbert and Sullivan. The Mikado. You have a copy?" The pencils had been called "Mikado" until the Second World War, when they'd changed first in America and then in England. Sherlock would immediately recall that.
After a moment's typing, the director nodded from behind one of the outdated circulation computers. "Several. Paperback, hardcover, an audio recording, a DVD. We had a second hardcover, but it was discarded in…" A pause, as the director searched for information Mycroft already knew was unnecessary. "… 2002, in our one-pound sale."
"Bring the books."
Once he knew the message his brother had left him, he could investigate upstairs. He felt a twinge of impatience as the director's chosen assistant, some teenager clearly less than invested in his summer job, took too long to bring the books, but he busied himself with gazing upstairs and seeing what he could make out from the ground floor. There hadn't been a disturbance. There hadn't been a fight. The CCTV operators hadn't noticed anything, but it had been dark, so only a genuine conflict would have drawn their attention. The recordings had been erased by now. If Mycroft hadn't had to race back to Wilton Crescent to try unsuccessfully to intercept his brother, he could have stopped the process, but he'd been too late.
Two copies of The Mikado. At first, Mycroft suspected that Sherlock might have written something in them with one of the pencils he'd stolen, but as the civil servant opened the hardcover copy first, he saw a tiny slip tucked in behind the cover. One of the fifties he'd given his brother, torn up to use for the message when Sherlock could have just as easily used some scrap paper out of the many cardboard boxes throughout the library.
His brother had definitely been himself when he'd written the message, then. The fifty-pound note had been wasted just to annoy him, to send him a message that Mycroft had heard at the jail: I don't need your help.
But the scribbled message was something different. There had been pressure applied to the pencil. His brother had been stressed or agitated when he'd written the message. The pencil lead was too heavy and dark to be ordinary handwriting; it formed pressure ridges on the back of the paper.
A poetic clue, one Sherlock had known he'd recognize instantly. The nineteenth part of Kipling's Rewards and Fairies. He'd read the poem to his brother at four or five, back before the problems had started. It fit Sherlock's present situation uncannily well.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too...
"What's the closest book to Rudyard Kipling's Rewards and Fairies that hasn't been checked out since '97?"
The director headed to a side kiosk. The second note was easily found, although Mycroft couldn't erase the feeling that he could have found it more quickly without the director's help. It was good to have the man around, though, despite his tweediness and nervousness. It made this feel more official, and less like Mycroft was picking up the pieces after another one of his brother's destructive episodes.
The second note had no date – so the pattern had been established: IT.
They looked at Stephen King next, finding the note in the closest book that everyone had avoided for a decade and a half. GOES. A book on beetles, including the goes : BAD. Roger Hargreaves' children series, Mr. Men and Little Miss, included Little Miss Bad. APOLOGY. Plato's Dialogues. MUCH. The earlier Robin Hood stories, before Howard Pyle. DIFFICULTY. John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, with Hill Difficulty. WASTE. The name of a Granville-Barker play from 1906. TIME. Stephen Hawking's brief history thereof. YU. A book about the southern Chinese river. RISK. An Isaac Asimov short story.
It would have been much simpler if Sherlock had just told him this, from what he was learning thus far. Mycroft kept searching. Eleven letters down. From the size of the scraps, there were only five left. They had a pile of hint-laden books nobody had liked, near the titles Sherlock had used from more readily checked out books. His brother had been clever. There was no telling if any of the more popular books would have been checked out long before he could have gotten here, but with the unwanted books, Sherlock could be reasonably sure his message would get across.
The ending five words: QUESTION? Not Asimov again, since there had been no other repeats; Robert Frost's poem. NOTHING. A Henry Green novel. UNKNOWN. Back to the children's section, for Animorphs. CANDY. The sweets dish, thanks to an eponymous Terry Southern softcore novel from the late Fifties. He was impressed his brother could even recognize the reference. IMPORTANT – SH. He'd have gone to the last undesirable book near Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest, but there were no slips left. He had sixteen words, but, putting them together, he had a whole message:
If it goes badly, I apologize. Things will be very difficult to explain, and it would be a waste of time to do so. You're at risk. You shouldn't have questions; there's nothing else to find here, even upstairs, except for the candy – that's important.
Why would candy be important? Sherlock didn't have much of a sweet tooth, as far as he knew. His brother was lucky if he remembered to eat at all, most days. He stood there for a moment, pensive, considering.
"Mr. Holmes?" The nebbish library director was at his side. He turned, wordless, still deep in thought. "Have you found what you came here for, sir? And thank you for the check to cover repairs to the gents', by the way."
He didn't hesitate long enough for the director to notice. "I've gotten the message. Thank you." Pulling out his mobile, he texted – but not to his brother. Sherlock wasn't going to explain anything to him. Someone close to his brother could, though, and so the message to John Watson was brief and terse. Maybe John would even answer.
He wasn't concerned about John finding Sherlock. Sherlock would find John, one way or the other. His brother would turn up, because he couldn't seem to wrest himself from Watson's company in the past year and a half. The doctor was his brother's only friend in the world; he was sure of that. John had been good for Sherlock to be around, as he'd told his brother – but he had no doubt that Sherlock was a poor influence on the army captain and medic.
John, what do you know about sweets? Do they signify anything? Do you recall them being important or tied to a case?
John was angry with him for not answering questions about Sherlock's disappearance, but Mycroft was sure that the doctor's sense of duty would rise to the fore and that an answer would arrive, clarifying the single uncertainty that remained. Done texting, Mycroft stepped into the director's office, shutting the door on the startled bundle of tweed that protested for an instant before realizing he was outranked. There wasn't anywhere else in the library that was off-camera, anyway.
The secure number was one that, despite his rank, Mycroft Holmes hadn't used many times before. He was still somewhat uncomfortable using it, despite his position. So when the Crown Equerry answered, he spoke deliberately if swiftly, not wasting time, not wanting to be a bother. "This is Holmes. I'll want a security detail. I understand it's unusual to request it yourself, but I'll write up a report. I'm in Birmingham now, but I should be back in London tonight. I'll meet you in Pall Mall about half past eight."
The Equerry murmured a willing but confused agreement, and Mycroft hung up. He offered an unfelt smile and a solid handshake to the director as he left the anonymity of the office. "George!"
His driver had still been gazing over the racing form, but was obedient enough to head over to him at the call. Mycroft supposed he could have been a little less terse about it, but he had new information he disliked.
"We're headed back. Bring the car round, if you would?"
"Got what you wanted?"
Not at all, Mycroft thought. He didn't want this message one bit. But he needed it – and Sherlock had known he'd needed it – and, for once, his brother had actually done something kind for him. More than anything else, that made him wonder what had gone on here, and what scheme his brother might already have thrown himself into as a result. He had to stop whatever Sherlock was going to do; he had to anticipate his brother. He could do that easily enough – so long as Sherlock was thinking logically. That didn't always happen, though, and as Mycroft left Castle Vale library, he hoped his brother hadn't lost himself to some childish heroic fantasy again. Neither of them could afford it now.
Chapter 13: Vexations
If John was going to insist that Sherlock hang around St. Bart's uselessly, then somehow, the score would have to be settled. This was even worse than being in the library with Moriarty already gone. To make matters worse, Molly wasn't being her usual fawning self. Sherlock wondered about that, itching at his blood pressure cuff, desperately bored, watching the shadow of her hospital clogs make its squarish way to the gap below the door for the sixth time that night.
"You can leave if you want," he'd told her the last time she'd come by. "I'm not a corpse yet."
She had ignored him, checking his vitals even though the nurse already had done so, four minutes earlier. Unthinkable, Molly's behavior. Nearly insulting. He couldn't imagine why she was being this way. She'd known the score more than anyone except Mycroft, really, and so she should be glad that he'd taken her up on her offer of help. Why wasn't she? Something other than cool professionalism colored the coroner's reactions, and it bothered him that he couldn't figure out what it was.
He grabbed a magazine off the side table, opening it up. Some glossy celebrity magazine, hopelessly dull but at least it wasn't The People's Friend, droning on about its annual craft competition. He'd spent half past one in the morning until at least two o'clock learning about the timely revitalization of macramé as a hobbyist pursuit, and had promptly deleted all he'd learned. Unnecessary, irrelevant, and boring. Feeling a vague disappointment that therefore he couldn't share that newfound knowledge with Molly, who seemed the sort, he flipped a few pages absently, watching over the edge of the page as the coroner entered.
"I didn't know you were interested in Posh and Becks."
"They showed up somewhere well-dressed. It's utterly fascinating."
She laughed slightly at that, warming a little despite herself. Still, as he laid down the magazine and glanced at her, he could see the strained muscles in her arms, the attempt not to clench her fists. She was trying to keep calm. Her voice trembled a little, just to add to the easy read. "I'm glad this is all over. You gave me a fright."
It wasn't over. Not even close. But he checked himself before he told her that, watching the redhead hang by the bed. She reached out to stack his magazines properly, fidgety, and he smiled at that. More so, when she stared at the copy of The People's Friend she held in her hands and then looked at him.
"Mycroft reads that," he told her, and got another smile from her. Good.
"John's going to be upset with you for a while, Sherlock. Whether or not you can tell. Because I know you have problems with things like that – feelings. I mean, what I mean," she stammered, her face coloring as she realized she might have inadvertently offended him – but she pressed on, and he was pleased at her resolve. "What I mean is that he cares for you and you used him."
"No, I didn't. I…" Used you, Molly, he would have said, but for once he stopped himself.
"You did," she insisted. "You used him because you needed even him to believe that you were dead. And you'd have let him go on believing if whatever happened hadn't happened." How did she know something had gone wrong? He stared at her, but she wanted to get her point out. "That's not the way most people treat their friends. Especially not their best friends."
"He's just my flatmate. I don't owe him anything." It was a lie, and a bad one, one that felt wrong to say, not like the usual fibs that peppered his speech at times.
She didn't believe him, staring at him frankly. It was odd the way that she saw straight through him. She likely always had. Still, he could stare down most people, and he'd usually been able to stare her down too, but not anymore. Ever since they'd had that conversation about how sad he looked when John wasn't paying attention, she'd been far stauncher than he had anticipated. "You owe him an apology, Sherlock. As soon as you get back home tomorrow – apologize."
The lecture was becoming repetitive, and cutting far too close for his tastes. He'd have to stop it cold. "With relationship advice like you give, Molly, it's a wonder the only man in your life is a cat."
She stared at him, wounded, wide-eyed, before sighing, disappointed in him. But rather than slumping her shoulders and edging to the door, she flung The People's Friend at his face and stalked out.
She didn't show up again. Sherlock wasn't entirely sure that he didn't deserve being marooned amidst the proper hospital staff. He was definitely sure, however, that once morning glided in through the second-story window of his hospital room, it was time to leave. So he was as polite as he could do, keeping his mouth shut and only rolling his eyes twice: Once when the orderly made a joke about his unselective reading material and once when the medical assistant staffing the exit desk needed to confirm the spelling of his name at least four times.
But he was out into the bright summer sun in surprisingly short order, the cab the hospital had called for him pulling up, on his way to Baker Street. There, see? I've done what you said, John. Half-expecting a rather unwelcome storytelling session to accompany him all the way west, he kept his eyes on the mini screen and didn't even mind the endless attempts to sell him cheap jewelry that was clearly a fake, from the way the camera lighting was reflected in the stones. If the stones had been the proper weight, they would have absorbed more of the light – but what did it matter? Even mild analysis like that didn't interest him at present. He had to concentrate on how he would avoid letting his mouth run away with him when he showed up at Baker Street.
The flat was cleaner. It wasn't clean yet, not in a way that someone fastidious like his brother would have appreciated, but Sherlock didn't have to push aside a box of chemical tubes and step over some discarded samples of tobacco ash as he stepped through the threshold on the upstairs landing. His feet didn't crunch down on anything questionable as he headed for the living room. And – he suddenly realized – the squeaky step halfway up the stairs had been fixed. So much for a warning system.
His violin lay on an armchair that was still dusty. The one thing that John and Mrs. Hudson hadn't touched? He was impressed by that, especially when he saw his conversational skull had remained in one piece – but, no, he realized. There were other dusty places, a windowsill here, and the blind corner next to the bookshelves. It was just a sign of haphazard housekeeping, not of anything more. That was oddly disappointing. Hadn't John cared? Where was the evidence? Molly had said he had, and yet the flat contained far too little evidence of the fact. And John had seemed flatly unimpressed last night when Sherlock had tried to explain.
He settled into the dusty armchair, dangling the violin dangerously by the scroll atop its neck, shutting his eyes, leaning back against the familiar fabric. Back home. He felt his hand begin to tremble – with sentiment? – and brought it down sharply against the chair. No. That wouldn't do at all.
"You can't know everything."
He spun around, adrenaline sharpening his movements. Oh. Just John, seated at the kitchen table, behind the skull, blending into the background as usual. He took a deep breath, opened his mouth to say something – and words failed him.
"You didn't notice me sitting here. See? You're just as human as I am, Sherlock. You can make mistakes. You have made mistakes."
Did they need to have this conversation right now? All he wanted was to be left alone, to gather his thoughts and analyze his next move, and here he was being lectured to as if John were Mycroft, as if either John or anyone else had the right –
"Anyone else would have left you to your own devices. You've got to know that. Don't just nod your head at me like that. Realize it. You're thirty-two years old, not eight." John pushed himself up from the kitchen chair with a discordant scrape, heading into the living room, seating himself on the sofa beneath the bullet-laden smiley face, placing his hands on his knees – open, entreating Sherlock to listen to him. "You just about killed me when you jumped off that building. Didn't you consider that?"
He had, but it hadn't been a major concern. The facts were what mattered, getting everything to go according to plan. Some pang of conscience inside Sherlock told him that John wouldn't appreciate being told that, so the detective stayed silent.
"I suppose you didn't," John remarked heavily. "Right. Well, you're considering it now." He leaned back on the sofa, his eyes half-shutting. He hadn't slept nearly enough, judging from all that fatigue. Why not? There had been no reason to stay awake. But right now John looked like he was tired enough to sleep for weeks, and it made no sense, unless the doctor was deliberately keeping himself awake, or had insomnia. There could be no other sensible reason to stay awake.
Still, John didn't look like he'd enjoyed the past few days. They hadn't been bad for John in the same way they'd been bad for Sherlock himself. John hadn't had to talk to lunatics while unarmed, hadn't spent a night in prison, hadn't been drugged and then high, kept all but prisoner at a hospital when he was perfectly fine… all John had been doing was – was what? Going to work, cleaning the flat, going on a date with Sarah. All very normal. For that, Sherlock pitied his flatmate. That couldn't have been easy, being so bored.
"I'm sorry, John."
John's eyes cracked fully open; he leaned forward, hopefully, clearly expecting more. But what did he expect?
Sherlock stared blankly for a moment. If he could only remember what he had said in the cab before he'd been dumped at St. Bart's. Everything about the driver was clear, even the ferret the woman owned and the disheveled state of her clothes, but he couldn't remember what he'd said. Frustration surged within him. He was careful with how he set his violin on the floor, but not half as wary about bringing a hand down on the arm of the chair, punching it, before hoisting himself further into the seat, tucking his legs beneath himself, bringing his hands up to his chin.
The words were halting; he could hear his own hesitation, and hated it. "You – you said I should have told you what was going on before I jumped. I wish I cou – no, no. I should have. Like I said, I didn't want you to – "
John sighed, shaking his head and starting to stand from the sofa.
"Wait!" Panic shot through him. He was trying to apologize; he was trying to remember why. He needed to concentrate. Focus; think, you idiot! "I lost your trust, because I didn't trust you. I need to… to find a way to get you to trust me again." He waited until John was looking at him, and then added, feeling oddly like a student reporting to a teacher, "I came when you wanted me to. I didn't climb out of a window or take the impossible route via laundry cart."
"That's a start." John didn't sound like he was willing to completely take up the friendship again, but his voice wasn't as tense as Sherlock had expected it to be. John's mouth tilted. He wanted to smile, Sherlock realized, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do so. Instead, the shorter man nodded, muttering, "Getting there."
'Getting there' did not entail being allowed to sleep overnight in the flat. That wasn't a particular surprise. Sherlock wasn't about to ask Mrs. Hudson to take up in her place, and so he headed down to the garden apartment. John had lent him a lilo to sleep on for the night, and so despite the gloom of the empty flat, he went downstairs, armed with his laptop and half a liter of Pimm's, premixed.
Still no word from Mycroft. Strange. If his brother had figured out the hint he'd left, he should have heard something by now. But Mycroft was an adult – older than thirty-two by a long shot, if that was what John considered adult enough, a grown-up. Mycroft made all the decisions of the British government, and he could make all the decisions of his life as well. Sherlock had done his part. The rest was up to his brother.
He shoved the lilo into the corner of the room, setting the Pimm's down nearby. If nothing else, he could sleep off the gloominess of this place. He planted himself up against the wall, flipping his laptop open. It had been days since he'd checked this. He wouldn't have condolences on The Science of Deduction. Nobody had posted there since Kirsty Stapleton, and he was relieved at that. The last thing he wanted was people suddenly deciding they cared about him when he didn't care about them.
John's blog, then. Ignoring the hacking attempt by Moriarty from March, he clicked the last entry. 16th June. He knew the entry John had written after he'd jumped from St. Bart's: He was my best friend and I'll always believe in him. Why did he still feel strange reading that? It made his stomach lurch a bit, John's description of him as his "best friend." He hadn't been a best friend. He hadn't, he supposed, been much of a friend. Wasn't that what Molly had said? She was right, and he hadn't listened to her, either.
Unimportant, though. Not Molly so much; she was mildly important – the worry was what was unimportant. He didn't need to worry about that right now. What he was more worried about was contained in the comments beneath John's entry: Congratulations. You won, from John. For a moment, he wondered if that was directed at him, but it couldn't have been, because there was a reply that he was fairly sure he wouldn't have typed even while high last night:
I know! Sorry, boys, but I'm coming by tonight. In fact, I've been here for a while. You should be more observant! xx
"John!" In retrospect, it was ridiculous for him to yell that, but Sherlock didn't notice then. Nor did he see that he'd knocked the Pimm's over and sent the drink soaking into the floorboards as he sped upstairs.
Chapter 14: Rondo Capriccioso
"What the hell?"
John turned, staring at the tall figure that burst in through the door, gasping for breath. Sherlock wasn't supposed to be here – but the shock on his flatmate's face was enough to make him worry instead of scold. He set down the book he'd been reading, drawing his brows together. "Forget something? Like an apology?"
It was a cutting remark, but Sherlock didn't even seem to hear it, much less acknowledge it. "John, your blog – have you looked? No, no, of course you haven't. You were reading, probably nothing useful anyway, based on the tall and bolded sans-serif font on the cover and the picture of some sort of explosion. Probably a military or paramilitary action novel, maybe Tom Clancy, judging from that silhouette of a tank in the midst of the explosion.
"But why should you check your blog, anyway?" Sherlock continued. "I'm practically the only one who comments on it, besides your sister the drunk, and even if I weren't, it wasn't as if we've had a case or anything else that you could post on in the last few days. Aside from that whole – " He winced, but kept going. " – 'My flatmate is dead, but I don't believe it' thing. But you should look on your blog now, John, because we've got a problem, a real one, not one of those dull emotional ones."
John couldn't resist a dry joke. "I told you last week that I'd do the dishes for the month."
"Sherlock, that's not the way to regain my – " But he stopped at the raised hand, shrugging and pushing himself up off the sofa. He was interested despite himself, and could feel his stance shifting to something more anticipatory, leaning forward. All he needed now was a direction, somewhere to go. "What now?"
"He's here. I know."
John knew whom Sherlock meant. "How?"
"A post in your blog. You haven't checked. But I have." Sherlock strode past him, looking up the stairs, and then into the kitchen from the living room, checking the pantry, the broom cupboard, even the refrigerator. John had to bite down on his lip to avoid laughing at the last part. Still, the search was serious, and Sherlock was clearly wide-eyed and panicked, and so when the detective rounded back on the living room, John reached out a hand to grab his arm.
Sherlock hadn't expected it. John could feel the flinch beneath his fingers; he tightened his grip, forcing the other man to look at him. His voice was as calm as he could make it, the same voice he'd used in Afghanistan with injured soldiers and orphaned children. "There's no one here except Mrs. Hudson and me."
"There must be. There was a post."
"Because nobody ever lies on the Internet."
Sherlock drew back, staring at him. "What?"
The lapse in judgment frightened John. The Sherlock that he knew didn't make mistakes like this. His deduction had always been good enough to hide the errors of common sense that he occasionally – more than occasionally – made. Still, John spoke patiently, trying to explain. "It was a lie. Just meant to wind you up and to put you on edge. I'd have heard anyone who tried to break in."
"You fixed the step on the staircase. That was squeaky for a reason."
"I fixed it because it was three months away from falling through. Unless you'd prefer to send a foot through it and break a leg."
"I'd prefer to be notified, no matter the risks. Otherwise, this." A grand, nearly theatrical sweep of a long-fingered hand accompanied the last word. "Why are we not looking already?"
"Because he's not here. You need to calm down, Sherlock, otherwise you'll wind up making mistakes."
"Because you don't make mistakes?" He couldn't resist the sarcasm.
"No, no, it's impossible that he came inside and neither of us noticed anything."
Thank God, Sherlock believed him. John drew a breath, extending his hands in a gesture of relief. "Thank you for acknowledging that I'm not completely oblivious. So you were tricked." Sherlock shook his head, and John felt at a loss. "Of course you were tricked. If he's not here, then what other options are there?"
"Three. The rooftop, hardly likely as I mentioned repeat performances to him in our last conversation, outside, also unlikely, as there's no personal contact, and it wouldn't be very satisfying to mock someone at a distance from which you couldn't watch them become disoriented. Third – " Sherlock's gaze dropped to the floorboards.
John knew instantly. He retreated to the kitchen, reaching in the top shelf of the broom cupboard. His service revolver was stashed away in the back; he pulled it out, checking to ensure it was loaded. If Mrs. Hudson was in danger, with Sherlock in the state he was in, then they wouldn't be very likely to be able to talk things through.
Sherlock gave him an approving nod upon seeing the gun. "Good."
Not good. But he couldn't say that. The last thing he needed was to have Sherlock distracted right now. He headed for the door, conscious of each step, hearing his footfalls on the floor, in no doubt that they could be heard in the flat downstairs. He had been in Mrs. Hudson's several times before, and tried to remember the layout of the flat. It was smaller than theirs and definitely neater, but had a similar enough floor plan. They could use that. Cut down the angles and escape routes. The best route would be to get Moriarty and Mrs. Hudson into the back room in order to narrow the chances of the criminal escaping. His finger slid to the hammer, cocking the pistol.
As he was just about to head into the stairwell, his mobile chirped. His mobile, not his flatmate's. "Sherlock. My mobile."
"You get it."
"I've got a bloody loaded gun in my hand." He turned, glaring at the detective. "You get it. For once."
Sherlock rolled his eyes, but retrieved the mobile anyway, staring at it. His voice was low, as if he didn't want Moriarty to know they were there. Considering the whisper was coming from a man who'd just shouted his name and run up the stairs, it was needless secrecy, too late, but John didn't bother to point that out. "Mycroft. 'I've asked you twice already, John, and you're not answering your phone. Why are sweets tied to a case?' The kidnapped children, Hansel and Gretel."
"I know that."
"He's figured out the message I left him in Birmingham." And, with that, Sherlock tossed the mobile aside carelessly; John winced as it hit the floor, lifting his finger off the trigger to avoid a reflex shot, thinking, You're going to buy me a new one if that's broken. Now wasn't the time, though. Mrs. Hudson mattered more to him, at least, and hopefully to Sherlock.
They descended the staircase, John first, with the gun held up. It was good that he'd repaired the step, he realized. Moriarty wouldn't hear them coming this way. The last step took him to the first-story landing, and he headed to the closed door without pausing, hoping it wasn't locked.
What if there was an explosive device, a trap on the door? He scanned the door cautiously, looking for wires or triggers, but couldn't see any. Now his voice dropped low, too. "Sherlock. The door to her flat. Is it – "
"Perfectly normal. Nothing attached."
John was vaguely impressed that the other man caught on to his train of thought so quickly. "Don't step anywhere I don't." If he was going to isolate where the pair were inside the flat, he'd have to do so very carefully, and move quickly and with some coordination. Sweeping the place required some degree of calibration, and he hoped that the detective realized that.
Nothing exploded as he entered the flat, but John didn't have time to feel relieved. Hoping that Sherlock mimicked his movements, he brought the revolver up in what passed for a foyer, finding only a pink bathrobe and the day's mail. Nothing unexpected. And Mrs. Hudson often forgot to lock her flat. Maybe Moriarty wasn't even here. Maybe, as he had suspected at first, Sherlock was only being manipulated into this search, and would find nothing at all except another post on his blog to taunt him for being so easily hooked.
The dining room was past its prime, and barely used. Mrs. Hudson took her meals in front of the television most nights; he'd watched enough primetime programs with her to know that, nights when Sherlock had banished him from upstairs on some pretext or another. He glanced into the kitchen. Nothing there. The living room, visible past the dining room table, remained likewise undisturbed. The bedroom and bath lay at the back end of the building, and were the only major options left.
Sherlock had figured out Moriarty's probable location as soon as John had, if not sooner, and was striding past him in an instant. For a brief moment, John wryly considered shooting him to slow him down, but that would be counterproductive. Satisfying, though, he thought, and so he sighed and followed, gun at the ready.
As Sherlock stepped aside in the bedroom, John could finally see past his tall frame. What he saw was just as expected as the state of the landlady's flat had been. The suited man who had propped himself up in the bed was watching Coronation Street, and glanced towards them carelessly. "Took you long enough! What were you doing, discussing whether to save her or not?"
Shooting Moriarty would be even more satisfying, John suddenly realized. He kept the gun trained on the lunatic.
"Where is she?" Sherlock's voice was dark, foreboding. There was a note in it John definitely didn't like.
"Oh. Your housekeeper."
"Whichever!" Moriarty thumbed the remote, and the soap opera disappeared with a flash, the set darkening. "How should I know? She probably went out to fetch some dinner at the sandwich shop next door for the nice gentleman who showed up at her door, offering to go over the insurance claims for the whole property. Did you know you're paying fifty pounds in premiums that you don't need to pay?" He grinned broadly, and then added, "She's all right. Since you care so much about your pets, Sherlock." His gaze settled on John for a moment, before flicking off him dismissively. "Including telling them the truth about everything that's happened over the past few weeks. You have, haven't you?"
Hadn't he? John glanced up towards Sherlock, brows raised.
"Oh, no, no, no! How about now?" Moriarty suggested. He propped himself up, watching the two of them, but for once, John was the focus of attention more than Sherlock was.
What hadn't Sherlock mentioned? The detective had faked his death. Molly and Mycroft had known about it. Rather than telling John, he had fled to Birmingham and would have stayed underground there if the situation hadn't worsened. Now, he was back, and he was as much of a dick as ever, but he was here, and they could end their problems right here if John just – He felt his finger tense on the trigger. "Sherlock, you'd better tell me what this maniac means, or I swear I'm going to put a bullet right between his eyes."
Sherlock wasn't watching him, though. He was watching the man before them. "A minor detail, John. I swear."
Beside them, Moriarty leaned forward, hunching over, planting his chin on his palms as if watching a fascinating movie. John felt disgusted, but brought the revolver down to his side again, not sure which of the two other men in the room incensed him more. He couldn't fire a shot until he was sure that he was angrier with the criminal than with the detective.
"What minor detail?"
"Hardly significant. Just a matter of waiting him out – " Sherlock nodded towards Moriarty. " – and figuring out our next move. Since I suppose this is his."
Moriarty looked more than interested in the conversation, John noticed. He looked positively elated by it, as if somehow this was all going according to his plan. The Irishman reached into the pocket of his suit jacket, extracting a packet of gum and unwrapping a piece, popping it into his mouth, chewing exaggeratedly.
"What minor detail, Sherlock?" John could feel his voice grow harsh. Despite the revolver already being at his side, he placed his finger away from the trigger again. Just in case.
Sherlock didn't look at him, and probably couldn't bring himself to do so. John wondered about that until his flatmate spoke. "In a manner of speaking, Jim Moriarty has hired me."
The temperature seemed to drop in the room. John wanted to shoot both of them now. Moriarty leaned forward, smacking the stick of gum in his mouth. Sherlock stood there unmoving, the brittleness in his voice drifting to his stance. John stared, first at Sherlock and then at the intruder. Neither of them gave him anything more to go on, as far as he could tell. "Hired you?" he echoed.
"Yes, John. I'll explain later." Sherlock winced, and John realized the recurring pattern. He'd promised to explain at St. Bart's, too, and all the rest of it, and hadn't, and no doubt what Moriarty wanted was for John himself to get angry at the repetition and stalk out.
That wouldn't happen. Not right now. Maybe later. John nodded at Sherlock, taking a step forward, leveling the revolver on Moriarty. "Get out before I shoot you."
Moriarty didn't move at first, not even flinching at the weapon. John had to wonder if he'd even seen it. Given how much Moriarty picked up on, as much as Sherlock if not more, there was no way that the man hadn't noticed that John was armed. At the same time, though, it didn't seem to matter to the madman.
"Your pet trusts you, Sherlock. Pity you don't trust him enough to explain this all to him!" Coronation Street appeared on the television again. Moriarty's voice was distracted, punctuated by chomping on the gum, affectedly airy. "He agreed to help me without pay, out of the goodness of his heart."
Sherlock remained silent. For once. But, for once, John wished that Sherlock had said something. Why didn't the detective say that Moriarty wasn't telling the truth, that he couldn't possibly be telling the truth?
John rounded on Sherlock. "You're joking. I mean, not that you should take money from this guy, but… you're helping him for free. Why the hell would you do that? You said we were safe."
Sherlock's voice was quiet, pointing out where the doctor's expectations had gone wrong, but the statement was utterly devoid of the superiority that John would have expected from such a statement. John didn't like that uncharacteristic sound, either. For once, arrogance would have been incredibly welcome. "You asked for specific names. I told you they were safe. I didn't lie."
"Right. All right. So you've agreed to work for him or someone dies, someone whom I haven't been around, or I hope you would have warned…" Mycroft. "… them." So that was what Sherlock had told his brother. He worked his jaw for a moment, considering this, and then added, "What's he want now?"
Before Sherlock could answer the question, Moriarty's voice piped up from beside them. "He didn't ask." He smoothed down his suit, fingers trailing against it as if he was momentarily distracted by the feeling of silk, adding offhandedly, "I gave him a chance to ask, too. But he was too stunned to think properly. Again. Twice in a row, no less." He looked up, swiveling his head to gaze at Sherlock, smiling with sudden, faked warmth. "I might start to think he was slipping."
John shot a hand out for Sherlock's arm, restraining him even before the detective's cocked fist had pulled back for a punch – though he wouldn't have blamed Sherlock if the punch had landed. John repeated his question: "What do you want, Moriarty?"
Moriarty sighed, as if the question bored him. "The two of you keep asking that. It's not like I haven't told you, repeatedly. I mean, I would have expected it from you, Dr. Watson, since you're always a step or two behind the rest of us – but from him? He's disappointed me lately."
It was uncannily like trying to pry an answer out of Sherlock when his flatmate didn't want to offer one. "What do you want now?"
Moriarty's gaze trailed towards him. He chewed deliberately on the gum for a moment, as if to show John how little he thought of the question, an irritating childishness in the gesture that felt uncomfortably familiar. "Nothing yet. I just wanted to let you know what Sherlock and I agreed to. I figured you might want to know!" His voice was a lilt as he sprang from the bed, stepping into the path of John's revolver without hesitation, and then making a big show as if he'd only realized belatedly that the gun was there. His hands wrung in mock-anxiousness, and the stammer in his voice was just as phony. "Y-y-you're not going to shoot me, are you, Dr. Watson? I don't think your friend the Detective Inspector would like that very much, even if your friend the consulting detective probably would."
Once more, Moriarty hadn't – technically – done anything worth killing. It was frustrating. Besides, he couldn't have killed Moriarty anyway. He had promised to help people, not to kill them, and as much as Moriarty's death would improve London as a whole, and their situation in particular – it wasn't in him to simply shoot without more of a justification. He lowered his revolver and stepped aside.
"That's what I thought," Moriarty said smoothly, nodding at the lowered revolver.
Sherlock would have no such compunctions against killing Moriarty. For a moment, John considered handing his friend the gun. But Sherlock stood there, unmoving, a pensive look on his face. John wanted to ask why Sherlock had fallen silent. Had he realized something? If so, what? But he didn't get the chance. The lunatic before them was starting to slip past them, and John didn't relish the idea of simply letting Moriarty get away.
With a little wordless exclamation of victory slipping from him, Moriarty ran a hand through his hair and straightened his suit, chewing one last time on his gum before spitting it towards them. A look of sheer hatred contorted his face, turning it into something ugly and almost inhuman.
He had already decided that he wasn't going to shoot. Not for that. But his friend might –
"Sherlock," he murmured warningly before he could finish the thought.
The taller man didn't move. Relieved but still puzzled by his friend's sudden reticence, John placed another hand on the revolver, two-handing it and gesturing Moriarty towards the main rooms of the flat. "Go. Now. Before I change my mind and decide I'll take the murder charge."
Moriarty's brows raised at him, the distorted, terrifying look disappearing as if it had never been there. For once, it seemed, Moriarty had a measure of respect for him. John wasn't entirely sure he wanted that type of appreciation. "But your landlady will never get the insurance discount I offered. Pity." A halfhearted shrug, and he strode through the flat as if he hadn't a care in the world, shutting the door quietly behind himself.
At the sound of the closing door, John's attention turned instantly towards Sherlock. He couldn't keep the slightly accusatory tone from his voice, as harsh as it sounded even to him. "What did you freeze up for?"
Sherlock wandered from Mrs. Hudson's bedroom absentmindedly, sinking into the dining room chair. John shrugged and followed, keeping the revolver close. He wouldn't have put it past Moriarty to make a sudden return entrance – but none came. Sherlock's voice was quiet. "I'm not slipping, John. I can't be. I know exactly what he's trying to do, and you should as well, if you've been paying attention at all."
John started to object, but thought better of it. The detective was less than tactful at the best of times, but he could save the argument for later. It didn't matter – not presently.
"He's done his best to discredit me; he's probably succeeded. Now he's…" Sherlock trailed off, sinking into the chair, his arms folding, and glared at John, clearly unaware of the intensity of the expression. "I know what he's trying to do. But I can't stop it. If I do…"
The minor details of Moriarty's plan eluded John, but he knew the overview of it, and that was enough. "You're not going to do what he wants, are you?" He pulled out a chair across from Sherlock, settling at the dining room table as well, placing the revolver on the table. "I mean, I believe you when you say that there's more to the story than simply agreeing to do what he wants. He's going after Mycroft." He caught a brief, unfelt, but still approving grin from Sherlock, and a slight nod of the head to tell him he was right. "But you can't. Even Mycroft would tell you that you can't."
Sherlock's expression fell prey to distaste at the mention of his brother. But he nodded, leaning back in the chair, visibly drifting off into his own thoughts for a few long moments. Just when John would have urged him to speak, the door cracked open. His hand went for the revolver instinctively, and Sherlock brought the legs of the dining room chair down with a thump.
"Yoo-hoo!" Mrs. Hudson's warm voice rang through the flat.
John brought his hand away from the revolver, and saw relief flood Sherlock's face.
"I'm back with the fish and chips you asked for, Mr. … oh!" The landlady made her way into the dining room, setting the paper bag on the table and staring at them. "Hello, boys. What happened to that nice insurance man?"
John bit down on his lip, glancing at Sherlock and holding up a hand: Don't speak without thinking. But before he could give the detective any hint of how to reply, Sherlock was on his feet and starting for the door, brushing past Mrs. Hudson, quite brusquely. All John could do was bring himself to his feet as well, whisk the revolver away before the landlady noticed it, smile apologetically at the middle-aged woman, and follow his friend towards the door.
"You really should watch the news more, Mrs. Hudson!" Sherlock declared, as if it were an order rather than a suggestion. "Too much Coronation Street. If he comes back, don't open the door. Don't let him around anywhere. Understand?"
Mrs. Hudson spoke when they had reached the door, but John felt himself draw sharply to a stop on the threshold. "What happened to my spare keys? They were on the kitchen counter when I left."
Sherlock didn't seem half as taken aback by the news as John felt. He didn't even bother to glance back at the landlady. "Change the locks, unless you fancy watching soap operas with a psychopath." His voice was back to how John remembered – careless, sharp, almost weirdly energized by the news of the missing keys. Of all the things to be relieved about… but, John realized, he felt relieved that his flatmate's too-doubtful mood had vanished as well, and he could only offer Mrs. Hudson a helpless shrug, following Sherlock upstairs again.
Chapter 15: Forms of Paper
The boy in the black-rimmed glasses was busy telling them what they already knew. Lestrade had told her to take the statement, but Sally couldn't bring herself to care. She sat there, chin propped up, trying to will herself not to fall asleep as she listened to him drone on.
He didn't know anybody who knew anybody, and even if he did, nobody who was anybody would tell anybody about things which nobody knew about. Her patience was running short. She pressed her fingers to her temples and spoke quickly. "Right. Paul, is it? Thank you."
This would get them nowhere. They had pulled the CCTV, and they knew that Sherlock had been to the East End, and that he'd shown up at St. Bart's, high on cocaine and kicked out of a cab – but there were no clues beyond those.
They were looking in the wrong direction. She knew that. Lestrade knew that, too, and Sally suspected that he had known it from the very start of their search. But, like the Detective Inspector had said, they'd get nothing from Sherlock himself, and so they had to conduct their own investigation.
This kid Paul couldn't take a hint. No wonder Sherlock knew him. The young man sat there messing with his mobile, oblivious to her very presence, and she added, a bit more curtly, "We do have actual interviews to get to, Mr. Stokes."
The dark-rimmed spectacles didn't lift from their focus on the mobile. "Shh. Sudoku."
She rolled her eyes, scraping her chair back and getting up. "Thanks, Mr. Stokes. When you have actual information to tell us, you're always welcome here at the Yard." She couldn't help the sarcasm. Phony obliviousness pushed her buttons, and she sensed that, somehow, this brat had been informed of that by Sherlock. It fit. Even if Sherlock wasn't the serial murderer for which she had been hoping despite herself, he was still an irritant, and she didn't need to deal with it anymore.
The boy didn't even glance her way as he rose from the chair, and she scoffed as she saw him out of the room, catching Lestrade's glance.
"Problems?" He was fairly understanding, even shooting her a quick smile, apologetic but knowing.
"Nothing that a swift kick in that kid's arse couldn't handle." She shrugged, drawing closer to her boss. "No wonder they're friends."
"You should see the one I had in there. Says he knew Sherlock at Eton. Posh fellow, bit of a prat."
"Sounds familiar. Minus the 'bit of' part." Sally paused. She'd seen the floppy hair and smarmy attitude before, from someone other than the freak. "Wait. We've talked to him already. He came in after all that business with the Tong. What was his name? Wilkes, yeah?"
"Sebastian Wilkes. Works at Shad Sanderson. His boss was murdered."
"The one with the yellow paint, right." Sally paused, finding herself unable to resist. "Can you imagine the freak hanging round with that Wilkes guy? I mean, Sherlock's public school all right, but there's no way he made it through a week without getting – "
Lestrade cut her off. "The case, Sally."
She winced. She'd talked too much about her suspicions, and she'd made Lestrade uncomfortable. For some reason she couldn't quite figure out, he liked Sherlock. He couldn't have possibly had the same upbringing as the detective. Like Sally herself, Lestrade was solidly middle class, not part of the upper crust, and he'd even played sports in school, a far cry from… whatever it was that Sherlock had done in school. Still, she knew, he not only respected Sherlock's intellect, but felt sorry for him, as much as Sherlock didn't deserve an ounce of sympathy most times.
As far as she was concerned, Sherlock didn't deserve pity. He asked for whatever he got. She had felt sorry for John Watson at the start, but by this point, her regard for the doctor had also been used up. If he was determined to waste his life and trust someone untrustworthy, then that was his own decision.
"So what did Wilkes know?"
Lestrade shrugged carelessly at her question, and his response was expected from his lack of care for such a reply. "Nothing useful. Just about what you'd expect. Sherlock didn't get on well at school, and he used to show up each day telling everyone his observations about what they'd been doing the night before."
It would have been gratifying to know Sherlock back when he was growing up, Sally realized. It would have been enjoyable to watch him be taken down a peg. She wished she could have been there to see it – but it was at least a decade and a half in the past, and whatever had turned the detective into the picture of arrogance that he was today must have happened before then. What had it been? That was what Lestrade had been trying to find out by asking Sebastian Wilkes about Sherlock's childhood, but it must have been unsuccessful. "Bet that went over well. For him and everyone else."
"Spectacularly," Lestrade agreed. "For both. But it doesn't tell us anything about his supposed survival, though." He fixed her with a solemn, serious look. "You're going to be all right with this, right, Sally?"
She stared at him, and could hear herself gasp. "I'm not an amateur."
"I didn't say you were. But if we're going to tell John Watson, then we need to do so while keeping in mind that the doctor was probably Holmes' only friend in the world. I'm just asking for a little tact."
"Greg!" She would have punched him. But the approaching figure made her stop in her tracks. She could only gape as the black-coated figure stalked towards them, his flatmate at his side, shaking her head disbelievingly. Guess we don't need to tell John, she thought, and stepped back as the pair of amateur investigators approached.
She would have liked Sherlock to at least be punched for all the extra work that Scotland Yard had been put through. But both he and John were unscathed, and looked as if they had come with a purpose other than merely giving her more work. So she stood back and let the DI speak.
"The next time you decide to take a swan dive off a bloody hospital, let your friends know first." She was pleased, at least, that Lestrade didn't seem to have appreciated the detective's antics. Little things like that helped soothe her own anger at the situation. "What the hell was all that for?"
Sherlock's voice was tight. "A trick. Which worked, in some respects. How have you been?"
"Busy. Looking into your death. Or, apparently, your survival." Lestrade folded his arms, looking for the entire world like a disappointed parent. Somehow, Sally suspected, that might not be too far from the truth. "Sherlock, do you have any idea of the amount of resources we've just wasted on you?"
"Yes," Sherlock replied unhesitatingly. "Do you have any idea of the amount of resources I've saved you over the years? I'm sure they'll balance, at the very least. I need to borrow a detective, Lestrade. Greg." It had the sound of someone trying out a word they'd never used before. Sherlock was trying to be friendly, and it wasn't working. Beside him, John winced, clearly realizing the same thing Sally did, but remained silent. She shot him a quick look, eyes wide: Say something.
Lestrade spoke before John could. "Not to mention the time and the lovely visit we had from a friend of yours. I believe Mr. Moriarty's exact words were that he would be informing us, since you hadn't done so, and that your survival was hardly worth mentioning." There was a bit of malice in the Detective Inspector's words, but Sally wouldn't have faulted him for it in any case – even if he hadn't been talking to the most aggravating man in London.
"Lestrade!" Sherlock exclaimed. He sounded strained, desperate. Sally glanced back at John again, but he wasn't looking at her. Instead, he was watching Sherlock. "I couldn't have told you. It was imperative that I be believed."
"Because the more people that believed me, the easier that it would be to ensure that I didn't get discovered."
Lestrade's voice was flat. "You were discovered. Within a week. By the worst person to discover you, no less."
Sherlock's expression curled into an unpleasant scowl. "I'm only explaining why it would have been difficult for me to tell you." He folded his arms, like a petulant child, glaring at Lestrade, but the detective inspector wasn't backing down from the confrontation, and Sally felt herself smile at the lack of respect he was giving Sherlock. At least neither of them had completely gone into the detective's corner.
"What Sherlock means to say," John remarked evenly, clearly uncomfortable with the confrontation from the guilty look on his face and the half-retreat he'd already begun, "is that he'd really like some help here." Sally would never have guessed that from the look on the taller man's face. "And that he's sorry he created such a scene last week," John added.
"Am I?" Sherlock mumbled.
Even John was glaring at the gawky figure now. Sally felt herself smile. When she did, though, Sherlock seemed only then to recognize that she was there. His expression tightened into something he probably thought was a smile, but which wasn't nearly warm enough to achieve it.
"You. Donovan. We're borrowing you."
"What?" She was unable to stop her surprise.
"You're brighter than Anderson. Marginally." Sherlock seemed not to notice the angry look that John shot him now. "You'll do. I need a detective, Lestrade," he appealed to her boss.
Didn't she even get a say in the matter? Sally could feel herself gape as she turned towards Lestrade, shaking her head. No. There was no way she would work with them. John would be all right, a little hero-worshiping but at least tolerable, but Sherlock Holmes? She'd rather sit through one of Anderson's football chats. Hell, she'd sit through a whole week of football chats, and even wear a Madron jersey if it kept her away from the amateurs on Baker Street.
However, Lestrade was not nearly as sympathetic to her plight as she might have expected. He shot her a quick, understanding look, but that was all. The rest of his expression was contemplation, as if Sherlock had presented him with a puzzle by the mere request.
"Why do you need Sally?"
"I don't need Sergeant Donovan in particular. Any detective will do. But I'd rather use her than Anderson, because Anderson doesn't have any brains. She does. She just hates me." He smiled savagely at her. He knew how much she despised and distrusted him. He had to know; he'd just admitted to it. And, apparently, he was going to use that.
She ran a hand through her curls, shaking her head. "Greg, you can't be so serious as to think that I'm going to work with them. They aren't even on the beat, let alone real detectives." Even as she said it, though, she knew where Lestrade's support lay. His protectiveness was for Sherlock, not for her, and not for himself, and so he gave her a quick, questioning look. Would she consider it? "No. Not unless you pay me to put up with this bastard."
Sherlock didn't take offense. If anything, his smile seemed to grow. Next to him, John cast his friend a quick, uncertain look, as if he didn't particularly like the direction that this was taking. She still couldn't blame John for the matter.
"How much?" But it wasn't Lestrade who said that. It was Sherlock. She blinked at him a few times, looked at Lestrade, who shrugged and murmured, "You've got some leave you can take, if you want."
"Two thousand. And no insults for a year."
John had to stifle laughter at her last comment, and she thought she heard Lestrade coughing to cover up a bit of amusement as well.
"Done. You're sure we can't make it a month?" Sherlock tried to negotiate, though he was awkward at it, and played his hand surprisingly quickly: "Two?"
"And," she added pointedly, "you explain it all to us. Right here. Because I don't trust you, and I don't believe you, and I'm not going to work with you unless you tell us exactly what went on, why you suddenly need our help when you've never wanted it before, and how the hell you plan to get yourself out of the latest fix you're in."
It was almost a miracle, and she felt a thrill of elation upon seeing it: Sherlock's arrogant, sour smile faded as if she'd just told him he'd never find out the answer to a mystery. And, suddenly, Sally Donovan felt happy, in a strange way. She leaned forward, pressing the advantage. "Take it or leave it."
Sherlock looked at his friend; John shrugged, making a go-ahead motion. The detective wavered, before sighing and repeating, "Done. What do we have to fill out to get Sally working for us?" His attention wasn't on her anymore, though. She was glad for that.
Instead, Sherlock's awareness had shifted to Lestrade, who was already circling back to his office to extract a sheaf of papers from it. She knew what it was. The extra duty notices that they all had to fill out in triplicate. So when her superior dropped the forms on the table nearby her, she barely needed to glance at them to know what they were.
Lestrade gestured her towards those, but, before she started filling out the leave requests, she looked back towards Sherlock. "If you double-cross us, freak, I'll make sure you wind up in Belmarsh."
Sherlock looked disappointingly unimpressed by the threat of prison. He might have been about to say something, since he opened his mouth to do so, but a well-placed elbow from John cut him short, and Sally could request leave from the job in peace.
Chapter 16: What Price Confidence?
Of course, Sergeant Donovan wanted an explanation. John had told Sherlock that already, and the detective had brushed it off with a halfhearted, "Unsurprising," but now he was beginning to regret that he'd been so dismissive of the idea. He stood in the midst of the Metropolitan Police office, waiting as the officer finished filling out what papers she had to, trying to plan. How would he convince her that she needed to play right into his hands, without letting on that he was using her more than she'd even suspect? He should have let John do the talking, like the doctor had suggested.
But here he was, stuck having to explain and yet not explain. This could be worse than Baker Street. He tried to soften his smile towards Donovan, but it felt awkward, and she and Lestrade were staring at him like they might not move until they received an explanation. He paused, sighing, watching as Donovan crossed her arms, further prompting the explanation from him. He'd have to be honest with her, and he couldn't say that he particularly wanted to do that.
"It's not a difficult plan to understand, Sally." From the side, John cleared his throat warningly, the noise making him turn half-back towards his flatmate, and so Sherlock neglected to add the Even you can grasp it that he'd planned to include. "It's simple. I plan to rely on the fact that you don't like me. I could have used Anderson for the same purpose, but he's an idiot." Donovan's mouth twitched, as if she wanted to smile and agree with him, but she stopped herself before she did so. "I need you to broadcast that fact. Make it clear that you don't like me. Clearer, that is."
"Why?" Her question was short and terse, and he wasn't surprised by either of those qualities.
"Because I need to make Moriarty think that I'm out of options. And he won't believe it unless he has objective evidence." He stabbed a finger at the woman. "You, in other words."
Donovan stared at him, her eyes dark and suspicious. "Because your last plan went so well. Jumping off the roof when you didn't need to, making the Yard think you were dead, being arrested up in Birmingham, coming back down here and getting a fix – yeah, that's some brilliant thinking you've done there, freak."
Exactly, he wanted to say. She was reacting in the very way which he wanted her to react, being spiteful and dismissive of his ideas, but there was a note in her voice that confused him. It was something beyond mere suspicion, but he couldn't figure out what emotion it was. He glanced back towards John, lifting up one shoulder in a shrug. John would know what was fueling this latest tirade.
"Sally, this isn't – this isn't Sherlock acting out," John appealed, although when Sherlock bothered to look John's way, the blond man was gazing more at Lestrade than at Donovan, as if the Detective Inspector was the one whom they needed to initially convince. Curious, that. Lestrade was already on their side. Why did he need any more convincing? He'd have to ask John about it later. The doctor nodded towards Sherlock, a surprisingly offhanded gesture in the circumstances, and added, "If he does anything out of line with what we've planned, it's on him. Not on us. And this is our best chance to ensure that we have things set up the way we want them."
Donovan's scowl drifted from Sherlock to John, and Sherlock instantly felt a measure of irritation at her. John wasn't at fault for any of this. She didn't have any right to scowl like that. Only he had that right. He tensed, but she spoke before he could react:
"And what have you planned?" Scorn for their planning abilities was more than obvious in her voice. "No, no, don't tell me. Let me guess. Something else to put people in danger just so you can be the hero in this whole thing, and come out looking like you're some sort of vigilante for justice? That's over, Sherlock. Done. You don't need to make Moriarty think you're running out of options – you're growing awfully short."
He stared at her for a long moment, unable to process her statements in a way in which she wasn't absolutely correct. That burden sat heavily on his shoulders; he wanted to shake it off, but couldn't.
"Just – act like you're against me. You're not as stupid as Anderson is. You should be able to come up with a variety of colorful insults. All the ones you've ever thought about me – use them. Lestrade will set you up with a platform for it. I need Moriarty thinking that I'm more of a liability than a resource."
"Why would you be a resource for him?" This from Lestrade, who had remained silent for the last few minutes. Unlike Donovan, however, he sounded concerned for Sherlock's sake, as if the plan might not proceed as they wanted. His brow furrowed, and for a moment, Sherlock thought that the gray-haired man might seize him and try to shake some sense into him.
"I'm not," Sherlock replied, hoping that they would believe it from just those two words. It was futile, though. Even Lestrade's gaze remained serious. "He thinks I am, though. He thinks he's hired me. What I need to do is convince him that it wouldn't be to his benefit – that I'm too much of a pariah to be useful to him."
"And why won't he just kill you?" The I would in Donovan's voice didn't need to be stated outright. "If you're no longer any use to him, you're expendable."
Sherlock grimaced, feeling the corner of his mouth jerking up. "I'm not. If I'm not useful, I'm still a challenge, and he won't get rid of a challenge that easily. Not until I'm cornered. Do we have to go over this until one of us – "
He was aware of John coughing beside him to stop him from going too far, and so he cut himself short, squeezing his hands tight to keep himself from reacting further. Lestrade winced, sympathetic for some reason Sherlock didn't feel the need to find out.
"Sally," John said quietly, the voice of reason. "If you do as he asks, you'll enjoy it."
Sherlock didn't even need to look at her to guess Sally's reaction. The quiet chuckle she gave was proof enough.
"Do you think she'll do it, John?" Sherlock could barely stand to ask the question of his flatmate, who sat studying him as if somehow he had the answers that both of them wanted.
They had found themselves at Speedy's for a quick bite before heading up to the flat. Mr. Chatterjee had been shocked to see him – had insisted he have the korma wrap gratis – but Sherlock couldn't bring himself to touch the food. He wasn't hungry. He had to think. Meanwhile, John was digging into his salt beef sandwich as if he hadn't eaten in a week. Strange. What could have kept John from eating?
John chewed his sandwich carefully before speaking. Sherlock didn't see why he had wasted the time to get through the bite. "I think she will. I think she might go too far with it, though. I mean, she'll appreciate the role." His smile was a little crooked. "Really appreciate it."
Donovan was going to be paid to insult him, while he thought she should get paid for the privilege. But it hadn't seemed right to suggest that at Scotland Yard, so he'd let John do the talking for the final few moments. They had left on reasonable terms. If nothing else, he knew Donovan trusted Lestrade. Lestrade could have lost rank easily enough in the past week, and yet he was still a Detective Inspector, so when things had gone badly, Donovan must have stuck up enough for Lestrade to his boss to keep him from being demoted. Loyalty. Utterly useless in most cases, but necessary in a position like that.
"So we're set. Have you answered Mycroft's texts?"
John shook his head, reaching for a napkin to dab his mouth. "I didn't know that I was supposed to. From the way you threw my mobile down on the floor last night…"
As the other man trailed off, Sherlock rolled his eyes. John's expression darkened. Feeling himself tense, the detective sighed, leaning back against the booth. "Please text Mycroft and answer his question. Thank you, John." His voice felt crisp and hard, and he could see John's jaw tighten in anger before he thought better of that.
The other man pulled out the phone without comment, his fingers flying, and then he raised his hands silently at Sherlock, a gesture of finality. Text sent, he turned back to his salt beef, ignoring Sherlock for the moment.
Sherlock watched for another long moment. All this eating really made no sense. Unless: "Were you fasting, John?"
John glanced up at him, midway through a bite of the sandwich, looking confused.
"You're not Muslim. It's not yet Ramadan. Unless you've had a conversion you've forgotten to mention to me, you're not fasting for a religious reason, but you clearly haven't eaten very much this past week."
John let out a shocked little laugh. Sherlock had heard the sound before – it was the type of laugh John reacted with when he was surprised by something Sherlock had said, and like now, it was accompanied by a disbelieving shake of the head. "It's called grieving, you idiot." But the insult was said with a reasonable amount of what Sherlock suspected must be warmth, and so Sherlock kept his mouth shut rather than challenging him to an argument. "I thought you had died. I didn't have an appetite."
Sherlock gestured to the rapidly disappearing remnants of the sandwich. "I see you're making up for it now." Grieving, really? It was a strange idea. John was a friend – as much of one as Sherlock figured he had – but he shouldn't have felt that way. He should have looked further. He should have pressed. He should have discovered that Sherlock was still alive. Moriarty had done so, so John should have as well. The doctor was oddly settled when it came to the idea of death, though. Strange, for a man who had previously made his living saving lives.
He pulled himself out of his thoughts, and offered John what he hoped would be read as a genuine smile. He did mean it, after all. "I'm glad you… you haven't kept hating me, John. I would have been disappointed if you hadn't."
"Disappointed in me?" John's eyes bored into him. It was a test of sorts. Sherlock knew that look from many times earlier.
"No." Sherlock had to be careful how he replied. "Disappointed in myself…" John nodded. "… because…" That was where he had stopped the last time. He couldn't stop there this time, he knew. He had to keep pushing the limits of his thoughts, had to keep figuring out what John wanted. Maybe someday, he would realize what lay at the end of this seemingly eternal road of apologies. "… Because I wouldn't have you as a friend for the rest of this, and it would have been my own fault."
John nearly choked on his sandwich. His eyes gleamed with approval, and Sherlock wanted to shrink away, to hide against the booth, but he couldn't possibly. John's hand shot out for him, and then sprang back, as if the other man suddenly remembered how much Sherlock flinched at emotional crises. Instead, he balled up his hand, thumping the table. "Only took two bloody days!"
Still, Sherlock could feel his voice raise a half-octave. Even to himself, he sounded boyishly eager for the first few words. "So we're – " He dropped his voice back down, controlling himself. " – so we're back to normal?"
John's expression closed off a little. "A step closer. You've done what I asked of you, though. You've figured out why." He sighed, leaning back in his side of the booth, his movements shaky, as if Sherlock's proclamation had been like a lightning strike in the midst of the sandwich shop. "I trust you, Sherlock, and I've always trusted you, despite myself. From the moment that Mike introduced us. But I – I need you to trust me. To rely on me."
"You sound codependent." He was unable to help the moment of detached analysis.
To his credit, John didn't appear to take offense at that. "Maybe I am. When I thought you were dead, Sherlock, I nearly went back to – to before. Seeing my therapist. Sitting at home with a gun." John's eyes widened as he said that; he swallowed hard and shot Sherlock a hasty, angry look. Don't mock that.
He'd known John had been suicidal, though. Only someone without a fear of death would have involved himself in what Sherlock did each day; that lack of fear that John possessed hadn't come from childish bravado, but from an acceptance of death and dissatisfaction with life. From the moment they'd chased down the cab with the serial killer at the wheel and the American tourist as the patron, he'd known that John would be willing to go to the limit with him. But now, he realized, John was willing to go there for him.
It made him uncomfortable, to be honest. He wasn't sure he wanted that. But, as uncertain as he was, he realized, I'd do the same for John. It was his turn to stare now, although from the look on John's face, a puzzled drawing-together of the other man's brows, he knew his own stare wasn't as angry as it was blank, lost in thought. He had never considered the other side of the equation, and it tightened his chest, made it a little hard for him to breathe. Maybe it was good that he hadn't touched the chicken korma yet.
"Sherlock?" John's voice was careful, as if Sherlock might topple over if the doctor said the wrong thing. "Where are you? Because it sure as bloody well isn't Baker Street."
"You're welcome," John replied. "But for what?"
Just as Sherlock would have replied, his mobile buzzed with a text message. He held up a wait-one-second finger to the doctor, extracting his phone and flipping it open. Mycroft apparently had given up hope on conversing with John, and was texting Sherlock himself as a last resort. Back in London. I figured out your message. You need to retrieve your wallet. I hope John hasn't provided you with cigarettes. Meet me at nine. Wilton Crescent.
This time, when he rolled his eyes, John didn't seem to take offense. So he explained quickly: "My brother appears to have pieced things together. We'll need to pay a visit sooner or later."
John's voice was dry, almost sarcastic. "I'd think sooner. I mean, if Moriarty – "
"Not yet," Sherlock interrupted. "Not until he comes calling again. If we alert Mycroft too early, then Moriarty will know something's amiss."
John's voice was quite reasonable, as was the question he asked. Still, Sherlock could feel his hands pressing down hard against the table at the very words. "What would happen then?"
Sherlock glanced down at the table. The chicken korma still sat there, untouched, growing cold. He'd take it upstairs and reheat it on a day he didn't feel like leaving the apartment. It would come – sooner rather than later, he thought dryly. John had made his way mostly through the meal, but now he too seemed to have lost his appetite. He was leaning forward, anxious, and Sherlock thought that he heard John urging him to say something, even though a look at the doctor's face said that he'd remained silent.
"Then he'll kill Mycroft despite our arrangement. For a start."
Sherlock hoped that John wouldn't ask what the finish of that would be. He didn't want to say it. They had been having such a pleasant conversation, and he didn't want to ruin it by discussing the lunatic, like always over the past few days. He'd taken a step forward in this dinner; he'd gotten closer to repairing what he'd broken, but it was still fragile, and any rush of emotion from John could shatter the delicate repairs all over again. His fingers pressed harder against the table, its edge forming grooves against his joints.
John shook his head, starting to rise from the table. "Then we have to make sure that doesn't happen, don't we?"
How could he have already guessed the finish? Impossible. John wasn't half as deductive as he was. How could he be so far ahead of the game already? Had he cheated, somehow? Sherlock could only stare, mute and stunned, as the other man rose from his table.
John seemed amused by his lack of comprehension, smiling at him in a perfectly galling manner. "Mycroft's," the doctor said. "Let's go."
Chapter 17: Eight Songs for a Mad King
The conversation was growing dull. By now, the Crown Equerry was babbling – something about his children, his dogs, and his Welsh mother, all three of which may have been interchangeable – and it was all that Jim could do to keep from laughing in the man's face. Did he really think he had leverage? There was nothing the man could offer except what he'd been asked to do. Just like almost everyone else, he was only useful for limited purposes, but at least he was not yet disposable.
"All I've asked is for you to tell Mr. Holmes something. You're acting like I've asked you to shoot him." All this fuss because of a missing finger. Hadn't he ever read Man from the South? They'd made a deal and, true to his ancestry, the Crown Equerry had welshed on it.
"But I – but I – I know what you want me to tell him. I can't!"
"You won't," Jim corrected. "But you wiiiill." He let the last vowel extend into song. It was practically the only enjoyment he could get at the moment. This idiot was being terribly uncooperative. Maybe he'd have to divest him of another finger. At least it would make for an interesting few moments as the man babbled. More interesting than trying to hold a rational conversation, certainly.
He took a long moment to study, really study, the fellow who sat before him. Weak. Uninteresting. If not for his rank in the government, eminently disposable. People like that were the worst sort – no cleverness, no effort, no real advantages over the rest of the world, and yet in a position of power merely out of circumstance. They were always this dull. And yet they considered themselves better than he merely because of their connections. He had connections too; he just couldn't announce them – and they reached higher than the royal servant before him might ever suspect.
"Listen – Oliver, are you listening?" The Equerry nodded dully. "All I want you to do is to pass on a message. You can even tell Mycroft it's from me. He'll know already. There's no harm in that. Consider yourself an envelope." The other man didn't understand metaphors at all, offering up only a blank stare. Idiot. All but worthless, except for whom he served. Jim sighed. "For the message."
The man was deliberately being thick. Had to be. There was no other explanation. The wince of pain as Oliver brought his injured hand back to cradle it was too distorted for him to believe it was genuine.
"You said you'd help me in exchange. Is it my fault that you decided that you didn't need to hold up your end of the bargain? I got those brats of yours into Eton sixth form, though they didn't deserve to be there." A simple enough matter – merely eliminating a few of the parents of the other children, causing the families to move away. It hadn't been traced. It couldn't be traced. It had been two years and he'd heard no report that any of the murders were solved.
He patted the Crown Equerry on the shoulder, like a friend. The now nine-fingered man flinched; Jim had to hide a smile at that, but enjoyed the shudder nonetheless. "I even let you meet Miss Adler at no charge. It seems like I've done a lot for you, and received very little in return. You can understand why that doesn't work as an arrangement. And all I ask of you is two sentences, without even the trouble of having to hide their origin."
Perhaps he should have shot himself on the roof of St. Bart's. Perhaps he should shoot the man who sat before him. Either of those options were tempting enough that he could feel the weight of the revolver in his suit pocket, and could sense where Sebastian was leaning against the wall, playing a game on his mobile. He envied Sebastian's ability to distract himself when necessary. Dealing with ordinary people was enough to make him want to scream. He'd done enough of that today, though.
He pushed himself up from where he leaned against the table, speaking clearly enough to make sure the man listened, if he cared to save himself from passing out before he got the message to Mycroft. Considering the alternative was death, Jim figured the Equerry should care. He didn't much care himself, however, and couldn't bring himself to feign it.
"Stanch that. You're going to start to feel lightheaded in a few moments if you keep losing blood," Jim said.
The Equerry would have to ruin his suit to keep himself coherent, and that was a shame, but it wasn't Jim's suit, and so it didn't matter. He took a few steps back and away, looking above Oliver to where his henchman was leaning in the corner. Sebastian was not that bright, but he noticed things quickly, and focused on Jim, brows raising.
"Oliver here will be dropped off at the Admiralty Arch. It's a few blocks to Pall Mall. He said he'd meet with Sherlock's brother at half past eight. You'll watch to make sure. If he doesn't meet with Mycroft, or if they go inside a club so you can't see them, eliminate him."
Sebastian nodded, wordless. Days like these, Jim wondered if the man was selectively mute. It was hard to have a proper conversation with a brick wall. How had Sebastian even looked after squaddies? At least the colonel did as he was told. Rolling his shoulders, Jim clasped his hands behind himself, offering Oliver a bright smile as he strolled from the room.
It was all so simple. Once the message was delivered, Mycroft would be sure to contact Sherlock. Sherlock had asked him what sort of help he'd wanted, but now it would be clear and unmistakable. Let the consulting detective think that he had someone after him. He'd given Sherlock a tell at the library, a slight nod of the head – and that alone might have been enough to intrigue the other man. Next step: A scene designed to force a public agreement between the two of them, enough for the tabloids to pay attention. Given the past reports about how they had been working together, it would go smoothly, and Sherlock's investigative skills would be discredited with a single photograph.
Pity he'd disposed of Kitty Riley. She could have been useful, even now. He could still see the redhead's surprised look when he'd explained things to her, laying out quite calmly and dispassionately why she couldn't be allowed to write anything else about him now that she'd snagged the scoop on reporting his supposed death. He'd handled that personally, though, rather than allowing any of his compatriots to do his work for him. He'd had a rule about not dirtying his hands, but Kitty had been a worthwhile exception. She'd screamed her pie-faced head off, even after he'd told her to be quiet about it once the knife had slipped. He'd had to leave through the back of the apartment again, in case someone had called the Yard already.
It had been worth it, though. All of this had. And to watch what he'd set in motion begin to take shape – that would be fascinating.
He headed towards the bow windows at the front of the house, staring down at the traffic coming onto Villiers Street from Embankment station. The people walked uphill, towards Trafalgar and the Strand, or ducked through the long covered walkway of Embankment Place to catch a cab at Northumberland. Nothing to wait here for generally, aside from the Starbucks downstairs or the newspaper and fruit and veg stands that sat to either side of the Tube station entrance. But the Starbucks was in a lull between the evening commute and late night, and the stalls had already closed. Nobody was here that mattered.
A cough. He didn't turn. "Seb?" It was enough that his lieutenant barely spoke; now, he had to intrude upon his thoughts without giving proper notice. Jim felt his voice arc upwards into a shout, anger flooding him. "What do you want?"
The colonel stared at him as if he was mad. Jim smiled. Sebastian Moran's face didn't relax any. "How am I supposed to get him across Trafalgar without him attracting the police? There's a station in the Square, even."
Jim sighed. When he'd hired Sebastian, he had asked the man whether he thought he was bright enough to provide the proper help. The colonel had said yes. Apparently he'd been lying – and for no purpose at all save to waste Jim's time. He took a step forward, quicker than Sebastian could back away towards the door, drawing out his flick-knife as he went.
Sebastian hadn't asked him any more questions about how to get across Trafalgar with a bloodied figure in tow. Of course, now he had practice doing it for himself, too. Jim hadn't taken a finger – he needed the army man able to hold a rifle – but he had nicked the man's face on one side, left him bleeding, and slipped by with a murmured, "Figure it out," as he headed downstairs. So Sebastian with his newly forming scar and the Crown Equerry with his newly missing finger were equally bloodied as they made their way towards Nelson's Column and the lions, and hopefully past the tiny police box nearby. He'd made sure the Equerry understood just how quickly Sebastian would shoot him if he did anything wrong.
Jim could watch to make sure, though – not just that the Crown Equerry did as he was told, but that Sebastian did as well. It was a test for his lieutenant. The man was starting to think for himself, and that couldn't go on for much longer if Jim wanted to make sure that the other man was able to serve him and remain trustworthy. He perched in the windowsill of the glass-fronted building, opening his laptop and watching the pair make their way up along the A4, from Cockspur towards Pall Mall. The Admiralty Arch loomed before them. For a moment, Jim hoped it would topple and crush everyone – including Sebastian. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing except what he wanted. He could make the Arch fall, with just a few well-placed explosives and a remote detonator.
He had to focus on the goings-on, though, and make sure that Sebastian did as he was told. Popping a stick of gum into his mouth, he studied the two figures on the laptop, average and huge, as they crossed past the arch and towards the clubs that lay beyond. The square and buttercup-colored Athenaeum, the sprawling Royal Automobile Club – and between them, the Diogenes, the haunt of the senior Holmes brother. He switched cameras and zoomed in – and saw the umbrella first. Mycroft was there. Back to the Arch, and Sebastian had left Oliver right where Jim had requested. Good. He would have hated to lose such a good shot so early – and one who could be of further help than merely weaponry, too. So Sebastian would be upset with him for an hour or two. Easily dealt with, and easily smoothed over. He snapped his gum, switching back again.
The figure with the umbrella was drawing back in surprise. The finger. Good. He let the CCTV camera steady itself on the pair, reading the Equerry's lips since he had no sound available to him. But what he saw was close enough to the message he'd asked the man to deliver for him to believe it had been done properly. Even better, the way Mycroft drew away from the Equerry told him that things had gone off without a hitch.
Your brother is working for Moriarty now, he'd told the Equerry to say. Ask him if you'd like. He'll tell you the same. And if you try to interfere, both of you will die.
The moron hadn't stemmed the blood from his finger properly. He was staggering now. Mycroft was grabbing him, bearing him up, reluctant to take him into the Diogenes Club, reluctant to even handle him. And then there was a uniformed policeman strolling their way… dull. Readily predictable. Jim closed the connection, hopping off the ledge and leaving the laptop where it was.
So the message was delivered. He was alone for a few moments, until Sebastian returned to the flat. He retrieved his mobile, turning it on.
Let's meet somewhere in daylight.
He had expected an answer from Sherlock. Not this one: Text not received. Mobile disconnected. Please try again later.
His fingers tightened on the phone. A second attempt: I'm bored with waiting. Where shall we meet?
Text not received, the phone told him again.
He allowed himself a scream of frustration, and almost pitched the mobile out the window, but managed to restrain himself. For the second time that night, though, anger swarmed through him, starting that buzzing in his head that was all too familiar. It cleared him, though. It made his thoughts stark, all but visible, and outlined the path he had to take. He was too far from Baker Street to pay a visit, and Sherlock would expect it. And he couldn't go after Mycroft yet; his message had just been delivered, and he had to see how it would play out, without any further influence.
Chewing more deliberately on the gum, he sent a different text to a different number – one he'd had in his mobile since March of last year. Been a while. It would be good to catch up. He would very much like to know what she knew and, with any luck, Molly Hooper would know more than anyone except he and the Holmes brothers suspected.
Molly. Meet me in the St. Bart's canteen. 9 PM. Or you'll have to file a proper death certificate for Sherlock. xx
Chapter 18: The Consul
If Henry Knight's house had contained myriad riches, Mycroft's flat was only countable in comparison. John had known Sherlock came from money, but he hadn't known his flatmate came from this much money – or at least had access to this much money. He couldn't help but shoot the taller man a quick glance, brows raised in surprise, but received only an eye-roll in exchange. The flat didn't impress Sherlock even half as much as it impressed John.
Sherlock's voice was shrapnel. "Quarter to nine, Mycroft. I do hope you don't mind that we're early. John thought it better than turning up late."
Why involve me in your digs at your brother? But he couldn't say that to Sherlock, and he didn't want Mycroft to think for an instant that he'd forgiven either of them for keeping Sherlock's survival a secret. Hands at his sides, carriage straight, he stayed silent, gazing over the diplomat's left shoulder towards a painting. A Stubbs, recognizable even to him from the giant, rampant horse, about to pounce on the right of the frame. An original, most likely, but he'd only recognized it from the National Gallery.
"John thought so, did he?" The balding man's focus drifted from his younger brother, and John felt himself tense. He'd have liked nothing better than to launch into a screaming fit at Mycroft, to dress down the older man for hiding Sherlock's whereabouts from him, but that would be unproductive. Mycroft was already talking, anyway: "And what else does John think?"
Sherlock's voice was sharp, full of reproach for the question. "Ask him. Not me."
Some small part of John was impressed by that. He'd half-expected to be the involuntary target of analysis and deduction again, to be the subject of dissection by both Holmes brothers, but Sherlock, at least, wasn't going to do that.
"No time. His thoughts are unimportant." Mycroft didn't even deign to glance over at John, who was left wondering why the older brother had even bothered to ask in the first place. But Mycroft's current focus was for his younger brother. "I was left a message, but I think it was meant for you as much as for me. It was a signal for me not to intervene in whatever concerns you." The slightest lift of brows, a signal that John couldn't quite parse. "And a spoken message, no less, but I'm more interested in what it didn't say than in what it did."
A nod from Sherlock, who stepped a few paces away from Mycroft to sink into the overly ornate Rococo chair in one corner of the room. There was a strange tension to the position he took in the armchair, primed to leap out of it and already defensive, even though Mycroft had said nothing untoward.
"What – what did the message say?" It was a sensible question, but, the moment that he asked it, John knew that it was distinctly unwelcome. Mycroft turned on him, his gaze blandly impassive but his mouth curling up in disgust; Sherlock sent him a more direct glare. Still, John saw no reason to retract the statement.
"It said that he was working for Moriarty. I knew as much from the message Sherlock sent."
Why did he feel the need to insist that he'd helped Mycroft figure out the message, to some extent? Despite himself, John couldn't resist: "Along with my answer to your text regarding the sweets."
"That as well," Mycroft admitted, although he didn't seem terribly invested in the confirmation. He stayed perched against the wall, umbrella propping himself up as if it would have been a genuine effort to stand otherwise. "Can I get you anything, John?"
"John doesn't want anything to drink," Sherlock replied for him. There had to be a reason the snappishness had cropped up, but at least it wasn't directed at John himself this time. Instead, all of Sherlock's venom seemed to be directed at his brother. John couldn't necessarily blame the detective. After all, Mycroft hadn't helped either of them, from the looks of things. He'd almost reveled in not helping.
Still, from the look on the diplomat's face, ready to launch into a tirade at the younger Holmes brother, John knew he should try to make peace. If matters between Mycroft and Sherlock devolved into an argument, they'd never get anywhere. Some part of him knew that this was what Moriarty wanted, to set everyone at loggerheads, and so he shook his head and tried to temper his tone into something that both of the other men would find reasonable.
"Sherlock – " But he only got the single word out before both sharp-featured faces turned towards him, and John drew in a breath, shaking his head. "Doesn't matter. Forget it. You two have your little confab. I'll be outside." He rolled his shoulders, shaking his head, and spun around.
He couldn't be sure at the moment which of them had requested his presence, but it didn't matter. Whichever one it was could just take a flying leap as far as he was concerned. Why were all of the self-proclaimed geniuses so bloody aggravating? Not smart enough to keep themselves from having slap-fights with one another, then. He shook his head, and stepped towards the door, but didn't make it far enough to exit before Sherlock was up and at his side, pulling on his jacket like a kid cousin at Adventure Island, trying to drag him off to another amusement down Southend Pier.
He sighed, shaking off Sherlock's hand. "Not unless you both talk civilly. First one that says something cross to one another, I'm off." He glanced past Sherlock towards Mycroft. "Agreed?" He almost didn't need to ask for Sherlock's input. Sherlock would do as he asked, or would at least try to do so. Whether Mycroft would also agree was a thornier issue.
Mycroft nodded silently, though he looked displeased at the arbitration, one corner of his lip curling up in disgust. John couldn't be sure whether the disgust was for Sherlock, himself, or both of them, but it didn't matter. He didn't need to ask. Running a hand over his face, he stepped back into the drawing room, wondering if there was a way to avoid stepping in the Oriental carpet. Everything in the flat had a 'look, but don't touch' air that he was more used to in museums than in homes. It was as if Mycroft never actually lived in the place, only kept it up as a showpiece, and yet Sherlock had sworn that Wilton Crescent was his main residence when in London.
"So." John waited until he had both of the others' attention. "You both know the problem. You both know how to avoid it. What's the next step?"
"No chance to properly discuss the issue," Mycroft muttered, shooting Sherlock what John knew instantly was a gaze of endurance. "Doesn't care about details, about intimations – only about the facts as far as he can see them. How do you live with it, Sherlock?"
John felt himself bristle. Mycroft had never liked him, but now he was trying to turn Sherlock against him as well. Some small part of John, buried deep down, knew it was possible to do. Appeal to Sherlock's sense of superiority and the detective would gladly join in.
"So I'm not up to par with you lot. Right, fine. Granted. But that doesn't mean that I'm wrong. We were supposed to have a discussion as to how we were going to proceed."
Mycroft chose to ignore him, but John couldn't say he was surprised by the diplomat's reaction. "Sherlock. Do you remember the Crown Equerry? The one to whom I introduced you when you chose to show up at Buckingham clad only in a sheet?" Disdain colored Mycroft's words; his hand rubbed on his suit a bit as if ridding it of the contagion of such a memory.
"Public school, non-smoker, dog-owner, children." John could almost hear the bullet points in Sherlock's words.
"What about his voice?" It was the tone of a schoolmaster calling on a student, not that of a caring brother speaking to his sibling.
"Accented." Sherlock thought for a moment, his brows drawing together as he blatantly attempted to recall the particulars. "It was at least a year ago." His gaze flicked up at John, doubtfully, and then back towards the suited man. "Not a Londoner. Scottish?"
"Welsh, Sherlock." Mycroft's voice was disapproving. "You could tell from the keening tone in his voice. But that's all right. You can't be expected to notice everything."
John stared hard at Mycroft for that, and Mycroft couldn't meet his eyes. No wonder Sherlock held himself to such an impossibly high standard with his observations, if his brother had always done the same. "What about him, Mycroft?"
"Well, John," Mycroft's voice was ice, "if you must know, he showed up in Pall Mall last night to meet me, as I had asked. Well, mostly as I had asked. He was missing a finger. And I think even you can deduce as to who has possession of the missing appendage. He was supposed to tell me that you were working for me, which means…"
"That he doesn't know Sherlock already alerted you," John replied. Both of them were staring at him in surprise now, before Mycroft's attention drifted to Sherlock, who shrugged wordlessly in reply. "Can we just get to the bloody point already?" The constant back-and-forth between the two brothers had been old the moment that he stepped into the flat, but by now it was positively ancient, and fallow as well. "What do we do next?"
"You? Nothing," Mycroft said pointedly. "You stay out of this. Sherlock got himself into trouble again, and it's his responsibility to solve it before it causes trouble for me – or trouble on a national scale." He picked up a newspaper, leafing through it. It would have been a clear gesture of dismissal even if Mycroft hadn't turned away from him as well, focusing all of his attention on Sherlock.
John would have spoken up, would have told Mycroft that the bureaucrat had no right to turn him away like that, not when he was here with Mycroft's brother, not when Sherlock had saved Mycroft's life – but something stopped him. He wasn't sure what it was, except a vague sense that saying that would sour things even more than they already were. He would be taking sides, and there was little doubt in his mind whose side he would take when the choice was between two Holmes brothers. Instead, he had to find some way to make them agree on something.
"Give me my wallet, Mycroft," Sherlock demanded, holding out a hand peremptorily. "You texted me and said that I could retrieve it."
Mycroft's smile was sharp and somewhat cruel. "Heaven knows why; there's not a pound in it."
"The fifty-pound notes – "
" – Have been reclaimed, since you saw fit to waste one. I see no need to throw money at an ingrate."
John sighed. He knew he shouldn't say what he was about to, but he couldn't hold it back. He'd kept his mouth shut and played along for far too long. He could hear his voice crack from the strain, but that didn't matter a jot at the moment. Besides, this could help. If they could move past their sniping at each other and focus, they'd be in better shape. If it took him being a pain to set them on the right course, then he'd do it. Sherlock owed him that much for putting up with his risen-from-the-dead show, and Mycroft owed him a world of tolerance for all the casual put-downs he'd had to endure for months.
"Both of you are ingrates! Sherlock, you shouldn't waste your brother's resources! Mycroft, your brother put himself in danger to save you! If you can't see that, with all your brilliant perceptions, then you're both idiots. And I am not going to be a party to your petty feuds. Sod off, both of you. Don't stop me this time, or you'll regret it, no matter which of you does."
As he left the flat, two thoughts occurred to him. First, that he wouldn't have been surprised if the Stubbs had crashed upon his head from one or the other of them, given their incensed stares, and secondly, that he hadn't even managed to last a full five minutes in the same room as the two of them.
It wasn't Sherlock who came to him first. That was a surprise. Once he'd exited the flat, he'd crossed the street to the park, to collect his thoughts while the brothers hashed things out, breathing in the lush summery air outside, instead of being stuck in the constricted, inexplicably claustrophobic confines of Mycroft's vast quarters. He didn't want to be around for the heated exchanges at best, and didn't want to imagine what would be worst. So by the time he'd rounded the garden once, he looked up at the quick footsteps heading his way, expecting to see Sherlock. But no, he could see Sherlock heading out of Wilton Crescent, and fought the urge to follow him upon spotting Mycroft heading his way. "John. A moment of your time?"
"What do you want, Mycroft?" He was feeling less than charitable at the moment.
"Sherlock asked me to inform you. I think he thinks that he's gotten one over on me by asking me to lower myself to this." Mycroft shook his head. "It wasn't worth the fight." For a moment, John felt like he could understand why Mycroft reacted to Sherlock the way he did. That feeling of not having the energy to respond to Sherlock's barbs was quite familiar. But before he could express that to the diplomat, the other man continued. "I want you to do something for me."
John scoffed. "Paying me to watch him again? I wasn't interested. I'm still not. Sherlock suggested back then that I should've said yes and taken the money, but…"
"Ethics. I understand." Whether Mycroft agreed, however, was another matter. The balding man's voice was free of any more emotion. It frustrated John, as it usually did, but Mycroft had a message to impart to him, from the way that he was leaning forward on his umbrella and gazing avidly at John. John saw no reason to interrupt merely to point out that Mycroft was cold as usual. "Sherlock has told me that the two of you have decided to take this on by yourselves. I've agreed to that, much against my own better judgment."
Had Sherlock and he actually decided that? John stared past Mycroft at the rich denizens of the Crescent passing them in the street-lit background, but could no longer see Sherlock in their number. He must have already headed away, as eager to be out of his brother's company as Mycroft was to be rid of them both. But here Mycroft was stuck talking to him, and waiting for a reply, so John simply nodded in agreement. If there were details to the matter that he would have to sort out, he'd sort them on his own time, with Sherlock, rather than antagonize Mycroft tonight.
"Oliver – the Crown Equerry – will be taken care of. But I would like you to tell Sherlock that if whatever he has planned places me in a compromised position, I will not hesitate to revoke all of the privileges I give him. He will well and truly be on his own."
John felt his mouth go dry. "You're already compromised, Mycroft. That's why he left you the message."
Mycroft's words were as precise as the ironwork on the park around them. "Only regarding bodily harm." And, with that, Mycroft smiled his best politician's smile. "Do consider what I've said, John. I trust you'll act in my brother's best interest."
More than you might, and definitely more than you have already. But John kept silent, nodding. Mycroft was used to talking to a statue of an army captain by now.
Without another word, Mycroft left John's side, strolling across the finely manicured lawn to reenter his flat. John stood there for a moment, staring, wondering what had prompted Mycroft to suddenly take him into his confidences. He wasn't certain what it had been, but he was entirely certain that Sherlock Holmes could in no way convince his brother to seek assistance from anyone.
He should have asked Mycroft what made him think that things would turn political, but some small part of him said that he already knew. Moriarty had gone after the personal attendant of the Crown in an effort to get a message first to Mycroft, and then of course to Sherlock, and though John had never been much for Royal gossip, he would have to make a special effort to check the tabloids tomorrow.
Chapter 19: Telemusik
"Have you turned on your mobile?"
That was John's voice, and it was currently reminding him of something distinctly unnecessary. Sherlock resisted the temptation to snap at the other man. He could handle his mobile. He could take care of things. And now John was pestering him every bit as much as Mycroft would have, and more aggravatingly at that. He could deal with it from his brother, since Mycroft didn't care a jot about him, but John was different. Friends weren't supposed to patronize each other, were they?
"Of course I have… " Sherlock would prove it to John, would make the other man regret doubting that he was on top of things. Fishing out his mobile, though, he saw the dimmed screen, indicative of a powerless phone. "… not."
John waved a hand. "Do it."
"Because you're waiting for a message from a psychopath."
"Jim can find alternative methods of contacting me, if he wants."
"Sherlock. Keep your mobile on. And don't argue this with me. You know I'm right."
Dull. John's being right was one of the more frustrating things Sherlock had to experience on a routine basis. It wasn't that the doctor gloated over his minor victories. It was the opposite. More than anything, John seemed to lead him by the hand and then to back off when any normal, reasonable person would have taken the chance to crow about the other person's fallacy. John had never made him feel belittled for the mistakes that he made. He should have done so, though, and not been tolerant enough to avoid antagonizing him. Such kindness wasn't interesting.
But what John said next was at least marginally compelling. "When you stomped away from Mycroft's, he came over to talk to me. Said that you told him we were working together on this."
"I did not stomp." It had been a crisp, businesslike walk, meant to show his brother that he was serious. At least, that had been what he had meant. Perhaps he had put a little too much vigor into his gait.
John smiled a little, shaking his head, amused. "I saw you. You were stomping. You looked like a nine-year-old, overgrown with Marfan's syndrome."
"And now you're sounding like a child, too," John pointed out, seeming unable to keep the amusement from coloring his voice. At least he wasn't taking offense now. "If we are working together on this, and you weren't just lying to your brother to keep him from prying further, then you will keep me informed."
"I will." Somehow, he felt as if he shouldn't agree so readily, but he had, and from the satisfaction on John's face, he knew that it wouldn't be an easy task to take back such readily given agreement. Any attempt to backpedal would lead to an argument, and he wasn't in the mood for that at present.
"Including any messages you might receive. From anyone." John's expression was solemn. His sweater was hideous. Those two factors warred for importance, as far as Sherlock was concerned, but he didn't get the chance to comment on either. His mobile was lit up with a pair of incoming messages: Let's meet in daylight. Where shall we meet? Neither was signed, but he knew exactly whom they were from, and could feel the color drain from his face.
John guessed instantly what the issue was. In fact, he sounded a little arch about already having figured out the source of Sherlock's astonishment, folding his arms and letting a superior gaze drift across his face. "I told you to keep your mobile on."
The doctor was right. Sherlock couldn't admit it. He set the phone down on his lap, lacing his fingers before himself, considering how to reply before he did so. "I haven't answered. It's been several hours. He's probably tried to find alternative methods of contact."
"You should call Lestrade. If anything is going to happen – or has already happened – then he'd know more than either of us," John explained. Sherlock could hear the increased tension in his flatmate's voice, but did not need to ask why the doctor was suddenly anxious. They both might well be feeling the same way. Still, he did find it curious that John rose to his feet, placing a mobile in Sherlock's hand. "Do it."
It was an order, not a request, and Sherlock felt himself tense at that. Still, he auto-dialed Lestrade, waiting for the detective inspector to pick up the phone. Every ring seemed like it lasted an hour, and he offered John a helpless shrug, mouthing 'Waste of time' at the blond man, whose expression darkened warningly.
"Greg Lestrade." Judging from the chewing sounds, the officer was halfway through a sandwich. Something with a bit of crunch – lettuce or bacon or both. "… do for you, Sherlock?"
"Stop eating, for one." Sherlock could see John's hands tighten on the armchair, and grimaced. "I just wanted to inform you that I've been contacted by Moriarty. He wants to lure me out into the open again. Is Sergeant Donovan ready?"
"I'm not eating," Lestrade replied, hardly trying for believability, and then added, contradicting his prior statement, "How the hell did you know – no, no, not important. Sally's ready – and willing, I should add. You want her to go to the press about this."
"That woman I gave you contact information for: Kitty Riley, who works for the Sun. Her first. She was the first one to break the story about how I was supposedly a fraud, so she'll love the angle Sally's giving her." John was staring at him, mouthing a word, and Sherlock stared for a moment as John silently pronounced the pair of syllables again. "… thank you, Lestrade," he repeated at John's cue.
Lestrade sounded as awkward about hearing the apology as Sherlock felt about saying it. He almost couldn't get the words out, but Sherlock couldn't tell whether it was due to amusement or genuine shock. "You're – you're welcome, Sherlock."
Sherlock hung up, maybe a bit abruptly, judging from the look John shot him, but that abruptness didn't matter. He had already thanked Lestrade, so nothing more needed to be said. John just shook his head, a bit disappointed about something, but it wasn't important enough for the blond man to comment, and so it wasn't anything to worry him.
A sudden impulse had him up and pacing again. Curious, that. At certain times, he had to remain absolutely still; he could afford no distractions, and even breathing was almost too much trouble. At others, he needed to move, to react, to work out his thoughts physically. There was no middle ground, no way of sitting peacefully and thinking. John could do that. He envied John his normalcy when it came to matters like that. How much easier it must be to react like everyone else, even though John saw more than most normal people that Sherlock knew. He turned, rounding the edge of the living room, but before he made it back to the next set of bookcases, realization seized him by the lapels of his sports coat.
"I'll have to reply, John. I'll have to say something to Jim." He had his phone out and was already starting to reply, typing in the first few letters. He had the destination in mind, if Moriarty really was going to slither out from whatever crack in the pavement he usually came from, and he'd only need to ensure it was reasonably free of interruption.
"Don't." John's voice was a command, and Sherlock felt himself oddly compelled to listen, slipping his texting thumb off the smartphone even as he realized that he was being spoken to in Army tones.
"And why not?"
"Because that's what he wants. He expects a reply. You haven't given him one. Continue to pay no attention to him, and he'll have to bring more to the table when he finally does meet with you and tell you what he wants."
"But effective," John replied evenly, taking no offense at the proclamation. "Make him come begging you, not the other way round. If you start jumping at everything he tells you to jump at, next week you'll be asking him how high." The doctor's smile was sympathetic, and he added, "Don't worry. He can't stand waiting just as much as you can't stand waiting. Things will liven up soon – but you want to be the one on the high ground at that point.'
"Strategy." It made sense that John had a knack at that. The doctor was a military man, after all, and even if John weren't as cagey as Mycroft when it came to the theoretical, he would at least be more realistic about their chances than Mycroft would. That was what was needed now, and John could provide a moderate amount of tactics. With Sherlock's oversight, of course.
Sherlock was suddenly conscious of drumming his fingers against his elbow, of having drifted off into thought. "I need to head to the Yard. I need to see if Sally's situated herself."
John's voice was as even and as moderate as ever, but Sherlock would have had to be deaf to miss the reproach that hovered in it nevertheless. "Just a few moments ago you were ready to text Jim Moriarty and get his attention again. You're headed straight to the Yard?"
"I'm not a child, John. I'm not going to head down a blind alleyway just because someone throws a pebble to distract me."
The other man's smile was compact, hardly even amused, and something of a disappointment to hear, after the genuine attempt at a joke. "That's not an answer."
Sherlock rolled his eyes, and saw John's face darken a little, again. "I will go directly to New Scotland Yard. I will not let my course be diverted. I will not text anyone that you wouldn't vet if you were there. Satisfied?"
"What about buying cocaine?"
Sherlock stared at John for a moment, but the blond man gazed back at him, his expression challenging and unbroken. It was a hard gaze to meet, and Sherlock couldn't bring himself to offer that much of a reply to the other man. In fact, it was all that Sherlock could do to avoid offering a sarcastic remark in return as he turned for the door of 221B, setting out into London beyond.
He had intended to honor the promise when he had spoken it. However, as he made his way through the thicket of parks and streets nearby New Scotland Yard, the mobile phone glared up at him with its harsh LED glow, daring him to reply. It would be simple. John wouldn't have to know. But John's trust was fragile now, easily shattered by even a hint of impropriety, and he couldn't risk endangering it. So, with a sigh, he was about to turn the mobile off when a new text alert came through from Lestrade's number.
Sally's waiting. Where are you?
Almost there, he texted back. See you in five. SH
It was a pleasant walk, really, heading alongside Green Park. He'd gotten off the Jubilee at Green Park, in case Mycroft was watching. The last thing he needed was for his brother to track his movements, especially if he decided to divert his course. Having Lestrade waiting was nearly intolerable enough. Having Mycroft stopping by Baker Street would be torturous.
Over the trees and beyond the motley line of architecture, he could see the sun already setting. It would be dark soon enough, and there would be a wealth of opportunities for him to slip about unnoticed at accomplish what he needed to. This would work brilliantly. He debated texting John Watson and crowing to him about how perfectly everything was falling into place, but something about the idea felt a little too childish. He would have to be precise with everything, including how he dealt with the doctor. The pair of them could never have afforded many mistakes, but now, even a single miscalculation would cost them. Sherlock had no desire to find out what exactly the price would be.
He couldn't get high. He wouldn't. He wanted to do it again, now that he was out of John's notice, now that the doctor was safely back at Baker Street several miles away and without even a clue as to what Sherlock was doing and where he might be going. Still, he shoved the craving down, tried to place it in a metaphorical lockbox. After things were set, then he could indulge, but to do so now would be careless.
A squirrel darted across his path, heading for an old woman who held out food for the creature to nibble. The War Museum lay to his left, under renovations as the sign proclaimed. A parade of police officers didn't compare to the Horse Guards who regularly cantered down the path, but they were a reminder enough that he was in the territory of law and order. The hair on the back of his neck prickled, and he walked a little faster across the Birdcage Walk, heading south-southwest towards the Yard. His gaze drifted across the Walk to see the people beyond.
If he squinted hard enough, he could almost pretend that he could see familiar faces in the crowd. A childish whim crept over him. Maybe I can find Moriarty in the crowd. But that was ridiculous. The consulting criminal would have to know exactly where he was headed and why in order to track him so easily.
A chirp from his mobile: Your shoelace is untied. JM
Sherlock flinched, glancing down. It was untied, but he couldn't stop to tie it. Lestrade was waiting for him at New Scotland Yard, and Moriarty was – where, exactly? He stared at the crowd of people again, trying to spot a slight, suited figure in their midst, but it was a vain endeavor, he realized. This was the center of London, and picking out an unassuming-looking fellow from thousands of others – he could do it, but if Moriarty was wearing something different, there was nothing physically remarkable about him to isolate, and so spotting him at a distance would be hard.
Easier, then, to send a text back: You're here. Should we meet? SH
Sorry, came the reply. Errands to run! It was unsigned, no doubt another signal: Jim Moriarty was obviously too busy to talk to Sherlock. Sherlock debated asking where he was and what he was doing, but that was what Moriarty clearly wanted, and so he snapped the phone shut, crossing the Birdcage without another thought for the other man.
John had warned him not to deviate from the course, and if he couldn't deviate from it to buy some cocaine, then he certainly couldn't deviate from it to speak to his criminal counterpart. Sherlock resented the order on some level. It would have been far more compelling to let himself be sidetracked than to bother speaking with the supreme annoyance that was Sally Donovan, but he couldn't indulge that way, either.
It wasn't fair at all. And, from the text that he sent, Moriarty seemed to agree with that judgment: Sorry. I'd much rather speak to you. But I'm sure we'll have time! JM
Carteret Street wasn't as pleasant as the parks, and Sherlock couldn't be sure whether that was due to the feeling of being watched or the mere discomfort of stepping out of parkland and into the press of people. He hurried towards New Scotland Yard, hoping that wherever Moriarty had been watching him from was far to the north, somewhere by the lake at the park. He wished that he could be sure.
"What do you want me to do?" Sally's voice was crisp; the woman had little patience for him, but at least the tone was unsurprising coming from her. Sherlock could at least ignore it for long enough to give her directions, and had done so. Now, he was watching her gear up for the press conference, fingers to his chin, gaze thoughtful. "You want me to just denounce you, then? Easy enough."
"I want you to denounce me, but I want you to stick to the script that we've laid out. Say specifically that. Moriarty will be watching; I know he will."
Sally smirked. "Why? Did you text him and tell him to tune in?"
It was closer to the truth than Sally knew, but he wasn't going to give her the dignity of a reply. She didn't deserve it. He shook his head at her, but couldn't bring himself to voice his disagreement. However, he did catch Lestrade shooting Sally a disapproving look, and had to fight to hide his smile at that exchange. "You're getting extra pay for the time you're spending on this, Sally, so I trust you'll be professional about it."
"Not an amateur like you, you mean. Untied shoelace and all."
"Sally," Lestrade began warningly, but Sherlock waved him off.
"Exactly. If I held a press conference, no one would believe it for an instant. There'd be releases out in the tabloids, all saying what a scam I'd pulled, and it would garner the exact opposite reaction than that which we hope to receive."
"Which is what?"
"Curiosity. Not from Moriarty, but from the public. Let them do the work for a bit. If they're keeping an eye out with us for the both of us, then New Scotland Yard can easily discard all the tips about me, and I can keep tabs on where Moriarty is and what he's doing." As he said that, though, he was keenly aware of the same feeling he'd felt before on Carteret, the knowledge that someone had to be looking over their shoulder. Impossible, though. Moriarty wasn't here, and Lestrade had personally approved everyone who was in the conference room, as well as the A/V men who were set up to stream the conference, and who had been accommodating Sally with a microphone for the past ten minutes. He shrugged off the feeling, focusing on Donovan.
"You'll get curiosity enough from where we're filming. An interrogation room, honestly?"
"It'll attract people's attention," Lestrade put in. "Sherlock was right about that. Something different to look at than simple whitewashed walls."
"Be precise, Sally. Please. I want a specific reaction, and I can only get that if you're completely set on what you need to do."
Sally shot him a glare, but had no time to reply. Already, the A/V men were settling in with their equipment, and Sherlock shrank back behind the two-way mirror to watch and make sure Sally did her job. He was conscious of Lestrade standing beside him, though, and twitched his arm away when the detective inspector tried to place a reassuring palm upon his shoulder.
The bustling around Sally ceased; the red recording light came on, and Sally shot a glance to the mirror behind which Sherlock and Lestrade had concealed themselves before beginning her speech – word for word, just as he'd written, and he was almost pleased with her delivery before remembering, after all, that this was Donovan, and nobody more worthwhile:
"My name is Detective Sergeant Sally Donovan, and I was one of those investigating the suicide – "
Sherlock grimaced, glaring at Lestrade for the sympathetic look that followed.
" – of Sherlock Holmes. I want it known that Sherlock Holmes is alive, and that our department has focused its attention on someone believed to be working with him, one James Moriarty. The public will recall that Mr. Moriarty was tried at the Central Criminal Court for the theft of the Crown Jewels several months ago, and that he was exonerated for that crime. However, we have reason to believe that – "
Her words ceased; she stared, looking confused. Sherlock had to resist the urge to rush back into the room and demand exactly what had gone wrong, but the look she shot him made the problem obvious enough: "We've lost the feed."
The A/V men were not at fault; they seemed confused as well, looking back towards the concealed Sherlock and Lestrade, helpless, and from the slackness of their faces, Sherlock knew it was genuine. But, as soon as he was assured of that, he wasn't looking at them anymore; he was looking at the camera, studying it. Something was wrong with the lead to the internet, but something was even more wrong with the camera itself. Cameras weren't supposed to spark from their casings like that one was:
It occurred to him only after he'd shouted that that the detective sergeant couldn't possibly see or hear him through the glass. He would have pressed the button for the intercom, but already Sally was diving underneath the table to shield herself from the explosion that was only seconds away. Oddly enough considering his dislike of her, Sherlock was aware of a sudden wash of relief even as he arced involuntarily away from the sudden flash of light inside the interrogation room.