The image on the screen was nothing short of chilling.
Greg Lestrade shivered and ran a hand over his stubbled face. Around him Mycroft Holmes and the SAS team hummed with precise, ordered activity as they readied for the final act in this desperate play.
No one paid Lestrade any heed as he blinked grainy lids over burning eyes, struggling to persuade his gut to share with his brain why this felt so bloody wrong.
The footage from the basement represented a real-time view, but the portrait it captured hadn't changed since they'd forced their way into this room over the wounded and dead bodies of its guards. Exactly who those criminals were and what they'd wanted were questions for a later, less frantic hour.
The darker of the two grey smudges on the screen, Sherlock, lay unmoving at the back of the bare cell in a loose foetal position facing the wall. Only the tip of his ear, his pale brow, and his lank, lifeless curls were visible against the pillow of John's jumper. Both Sherlock's coat and John's jacket were tucked over and around him, sheltering his still form from the camera's scrutiny.
A lone hand escaped the covers, curled inward above Sherlock's hidden face, slender fingers drawn toward the palm. A stained swatch of plaid at the wrist suggested a makeshift bandage fashioned from a torn strip of John's shirt.
Try as Lestrade might – the poor quality of the picture certainly didn't help – he couldn't distinguish any motion at all, any evidence that the consulting detective still breathed.
The second grey smudge on the black-and-white film presented an equally disturbing sight.
John had planted himself between Sherlock and the single entrance to the cell. He hunched, not quite crouching and not quite sitting, rocking forward and back, forward and back without ceasing. Lestrade didn't know if the repetitive motion was intentional or involuntary, an effort to keep himself awake or comfort himself, or merely a helpless physical response to unimaginable trauma.
Clues to the two men's ordeal were written on John's body. His vest and jeans, his only clothing, were torn and soiled. His right arm pressed tightly against his side over a particularly dark-blotched patch of fabric. Dried blood appeared at his knuckles, wrists, and ankles, bruises on his arms and neck. His face, too, might've been marked, but the beard he'd grown over these days of imprisonment shadowed his cheeks and jawline.
John looked wounded and exhausted and utterly terrifying. His nostrils flared. His battered, rocking body coiled like a spring. His wide eyes rarely blinked and never left the door.
One thing was clear: whatever the bastards had done to Sherlock, John wasn't going to give them a chance to repeat it.
Lestrade didn't doubt that John had every intention and capability of killing with his bare hands the next person who walked into that room.
So Mycroft's plan made sense, didn't it?
"… long precisely from the release of the gas until your team can enter the cell?" Mycroft's words waded into Lestrade's consciousness.
"Masked, four minutes, sir. We can have them to the ambulances within another four. Done in eight."
"Excellent, Major. Have your men…"
The whine of hurryhurryhurry, the current soundtrack to Lestrade's lumbering thoughts, wound itself up to a shrieking pitch.
Never mind that Lestrade was running on the fumes of coffee and cigarette smoke and stubbornness, that he couldn't remember the last bite of food he'd eaten or the last uninterrupted half-hour of sleep he'd had.
Never mind that this was Mycroft Holmes's show, his brother they were here to rescue, his genius driving the mission, and Lestrade was present only as a courtesy, only because he might get underfoot and make a mess of things if, as he'd threatened, he launched a separate search for the missing Sherlock and John.
Never mind that at the moment he had nothing but blunt instinct to offer against Mycroft's razor-edged intellect.
"Mr Holmes," Lestrade said softly, mindful of his position here (or lack thereof), as deferential as the situation's urgency and his own nature would allow.
"Not now, Detective Inspector," Mycroft answered, without a glance in Lestrade's direction.
Lestrade considered his shoes and swallowed.
The elder Holmes was nodding to the officer. Giving the go ahead. Releasing the proverbial hounds.
Lestrade stepped forward and put his hand on Mycroft's arm, forcefully turning him.
The room went silent.
Mycroft brought the full weight of his gaze to bear on Lestrade, and then he narrowed his eyes.
It was oddly humbling to realise that the strain was wearing on this man, as well.
The elder Holmes appeared to be his composed, immaculate self – when had he found time to shave, to change his shirt? – whereas Lestrade knew that he himself looked like the wrong end of a week-long pub crawl. But Lestrade could see them now, the miniscule chinks in Mycroft's armour. Threatening to widen, to split apart at their welded seams.
They made this moment all the more dangerous.
"Unhand me," Mycroft murmured. All around the room, well armed members of the Special Forces shifted their weight.
Lestrade licked his dry lips. He knew he had only one chance at this. "You're thinking like Sherlock, not like John, and it could get your brother killed."
If, Lestrade didn't say, he's not dead already, and John is guarding a corpse.
Mycroft blinked. Lestrade released him.
"Give me a minute to explain," Lestrade said. "Two. Please."
Mycroft studied him.
A wave of an imperious hand marked Mycroft's decision. "Major, please have you team stand by."
Crossing his arms, Mycroft drew himself up and peered down his nose, making the most of the meagre two inches between their heights. He fired the word like a weapon: "Explain."
Undeterred, Lestrade gestured toward the monitor. "John's hurt. He's traumatised. He's not in his right mind. The only thing keeping him upright is his single-minded determination to protect Sherlock at all costs."
Something flickered behind Mycroft's eyes.
Oh, God, it was impatience.
Lestrade pressed on, raking his fingers through the bedlam of his hair. "I know you think the gas is the safest way to subdue him, but this is John Watson we're talking about. If the soldier in him doesn't identify the sound or smell of the gas, then the doctor will identify its symptoms."
Shaking his head, Lestrade said, "He's waiting for the enemies' next move, and he'll interpret the gas as their attempt to eliminate the only obstacle keeping them from Sherlock: John himself. He'll have, what, fifteen seconds before he's incapacitated? Thirty? Plenty of time to act."
Turning his head on one side, Mycroft asked, "To do what, exactly?"
"In his current state, he might well choose to end Sherlock's life rather than leave him to more torture."
Mycroft's eyes widened fractionally.
Trust a genius Holmes to miss the all-too-human variable in his haste, to overlook an impulse born of the heart (or gut or balls) rather than the mind.
The thought that he'd spotted a possibility that had escaped Mycroft gave Lestrade no satisfaction. On the contrary, he only felt wearier. If that were possible.
With a grimace, Lestrade added, "John could break Sherlock's neck in less than five seconds and then surrender to the gas, believing he'd given your brother a painless death instead of abandoning him to whatever hell the bastards had planned for him."
"You think John would do this." A statement and a question both, scarcely a whisper. Mycroft cast off his pose and leaned forward to catch the response.
"Yeah, I think he might." Lestrade slumped and rubbed his eyes, grateful that the pissing-contest portion of this nightmare was concluded. "I reckon he'd do almost anything to keep his comrade from falling back into enemy hands."
Lestrade sensed that his wartime metaphor had made its point.
After a pause, Mycroft cleared his throat and asked, "What do you propose that we do?"
"There's no speaker in the room; we can't talk to him from here. Might not've helped anyway."
Lestrade thrust his hands into his pockets. "Someone has to go down and open that door. Not a soldier. Not a stranger with a uniform and weapons. Someone familiar. Someone non-threatening. Someone unwilling to hurt John in the process of helping him." He shrugged. "And then we all pray to God that John doesn't rip him limb from limb."
He forced a deep breath and then released it into the deafening silence that answered him.
"Look, I didn't say it was a good plan."
"Time is of the essence," Mycroft reminded him.
Lestrade filled in the blanks: Sherlock might be dying. Right now.
"I know," Lestrade said. "I know."
"Are you volunteering, Detective Inspector?"
Mycroft might be familiar, but no one could call him non-threatening. Lestrade pursed his lips and stared at the image of John, rocking and waiting.
What else could he do? Lestrade was desperate. They all were.
"Yeah, God help me," he mumbled. "Guess I am."
"What's the point of a stab vest? He's got nothing to stab me with!" Lestrade fretted.
"Humour us, sir," said one of the soldiers. Lestrade ground his teeth and obeyed.
"Do you know how to use one of these?" Another SAS officer offered his Sig P228.
"I do, but shooting either John or Sherlock rather misses the point, don't you think?"
The man shook his head and forced the gun into Lestrade's hand. "This is for your protection, sir. If you want to go in alone—"
"—then take this."
Lestrade grimaced and tucked the sidearm under the stab vest and into the waist of his trousers. "I thought you said you were certain the building was clear of hostiles."
"We are, sir. And we have all access points covered." The man didn't smile. "But sometimes even we can be wrong."
"Jesus," Lestrade sighed.
The SAS team parted as Mycroft stepped forward, holding out an earpiece attached by a cord to a transmitter/receiver. "We'll be in contact at all times."
As Lestrade adjusted the communications device, Mycroft fixed him with a penetrating stare. "We'll try your way first, Detective Inspector. If it doesn't yield rapid results, we'll try mine. One way or another, we need those two out of there and in the ambulances sooner rather than later."
"Just give me time, yeah?" Lestrade said. "Give John a chance." He raised his hands in a placating gesture. "I understand. I do. We want the same thing, you and I."
Tension pulled Mycroft's features taut. Lestrade knew better than to take it personally.
"The key card for the door." A red-brown smudge marred one corner, no doubt a souvenir from its most recent owner. Mycroft withdrew a pristine handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the card clean before handing it to Lestrade.
The detective inspector accepted it with a nod.
A final glance at the screen showed no changes in the cell downstairs. "Right, then," Lestrade said.
"Good luck, Greg," Mycroft said, sotto voce.
Halfway to the door a familiar sound caught Lestrade's attention. He turned to see Mycroft's personal assistant unlatching the lid from a thermos flask. He knew the thermoses by sight now, the one that carried Mycroft's blend of tea and the one that carried Anthea's own preferred roast of coffee.
More than once over the recent days, when Lestrade had been swaying with fatigue, she'd wordlessly shared a cup of that coffee with him. He thought of the bite of the dark brew, the rich fragrance from those expensive beans…
An idea fired between tired synapses.
Sensing Lestrade's regard, Anthea looked up. Her wilting curls had disappeared into a French twist, and there were lines between her brows and around her mouth that hadn't been there at the beginning of this search.
"One for the road?" she asked, gesturing with the thermos. It was the first time she'd spoken directly to him.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "I could use it all. If you'd be so kind?"
She neither hid her bemusement nor asked any questions. "Of course." As he took the thermos from her, she added, "Do try not to get killed."
"Thanks. I'll do my best." Thermos tucked under his arm, he headed for the stairs.
Even awash in adrenaline, Lestrade felt that his sleep-deprived mind shuffled and shambled at old-school zombie speed, struggling to catch up to events. And, God, if ever he needed his wits about him, it was now.
Nothing in his training had prepared him for this. It was hardly a proper hostage situation, was it? He didn't seek to subdue or neutralise John; John was the hostage, the one Lestrade needed to protect.
Pausing at the door, card at its slot, Lestrade prayed he'd do more good than harm, for all three of their sakes.
"John," he called out. "John Watson. It's Greg Lestrade. From Scotland Yard. I'm here with Mycroft Holmes. Everything's all right. You're safe." A deep breath. "I'm going to open the door now."
After settling the thermos on the floor, he slid the key card through the lock and then carefully eased the door open. When he was certain it would remain that way, he folded to his knees in the doorway, putting himself at John's level.
The competing odours of blood and sweat, vomit and waste assailed him. From the corner of his eye, Lestrade made out a pile of sodden rags at the far end of the cell where John apparently had improvised a toilet of sorts and tried to contain its mess.
"John," he repeated, spreading his empty hands. "John, it's over. It's all right."
The rocking stopped.
John was alarmingly pale beneath the beard and blood and bruises. His breathing hitched, and then he began to pant in short, sharp bursts through his nose, an engine kicking into high gear. His left hand flexed and knotted, and Lestrade saw fresh blood well up and drip from a damaged knuckle.
The camera hadn't done justice to the fearsome intensity of the man.
The hair stood up at the back of Lestrade's neck, even as his heart swelled in sympathy for John's suffering and admiration for his valour.
"You know me, John." Lestrade summoned the voice he always used when speaking with child witnesses: low and gentle, as rumblingly reassuring as he could make it. "I'm Greg. Greg Lestrade from the Yard. I'm here to help you and Sherlock. We need to get you both to hospital."
John's eyes were wide and bloodshot. They saw Lestrade, to be sure, but they reflected no glimmer of warmth or relief, no spark of recognition.
"Don't look much like myself in this getup, do I?" Lestrade continued evenly. "I'll just shed some of this gear, yeah?"
When the stab vest's Velcro fastening parted with a rip, John flinched. Lestrade cursed himself for a fool and then continued removing the garment, drowning the sound under a persistent flow of calm words. "Don't need this now. We're safe. Mycroft's team has swept the site. No one will hurt you again, and no one will hurt Sherlock."
With the vest gone, Lestrade knew the gun would be visible at his waist.
"Don't need this either, do I?" Moving in slow motion, Lestrade withdrew the weapon and placed it on the far side of the vest, out of easy reach.
The rasp of John's panting seemed magnified in the confined space.
Given the state of John's disassociation, Lestrade appreciated how woefully inadequate his brainwave had been. But it wasn't as if he had a Plan B.
"What I do need, John, is for you to be here, now." He reached out and claimed the waiting thermos. "Some of my colleagues swear by the senses in times like these. They say an unexpected scent or taste is the best thing to wake a man up and remind him of when and where he is."
He poured a splash of coffee into the lid-turned-cup. "Don't know if you'll fancy this, or if you'd rather I drink some first. But just smell it, John. It may be the best coffee I've ever had."
Settling back onto his knees, Lestrade told himself to be patient as the dark brew did its job, filling up the dismal cell with its bold, bitter scent.
It was possible that a few of the clouds began to clear from John's eyes. It was possible that Lestrade only imagined it.
"Just outside there are ambulances waiting, John," Lestrade continued after several seconds. "Anything you could tell us now would help the paramedics be better prepared." He wetted his lips. "What should they know about your injuries? What should they know about Sherlock's?"
John's blank expression hardened into a closed fist.
Mycroft's cultured accent sounded in Lestrade's ear, soft and urgent. Lestrade ignored it.
"No, that's fine, John. You don't need to say a word. They're professionals. Mycroft would bring only the best. They'll know what to do, won't they?" He gestured toward the coffee and shifted. "Fancy a—"
"Move. Back." The rusty croak sounded nothing like John's voice. "No one. Touches. Him."
"I understand." Lestrade held very still. "No one touches Sherlock. I won't do anything, not without your say."
He shook his head, blinking back his emotion. "You shouldn't've had to protect him by yourself, John. We've been looking for both of you for days. I'm sorry we took so long to find you."
"Back." With a thrust of his chin, John indicated the hall beyond the door. "Against the wall."
"All right." Lestrade rose and retreated, one backward step at a time. When his shoulders touched the far wall, he sank to his haunches. "I need you to look at me, John. You know me. And you know we need to get you and Sherlock to hospital."
A moment before everything unravelled, Lestrade understood what was going to happen. What he'd allowed to happen.
His mistakes. So obvious now, a heartbeat too late. So stupid.
Instincts refined by millions of years demanded that Lestrade either flee now or fight John, but he shoved them aside, unwilling to do either. Instead he just hunched there, sick with regret as John surged forward in a blur.
Mycroft's voice was white noise in his brain.
John landed on his belly and slid into the open doorway. He scooped up the pistol in a two-handed grip, released the safety, and aimed it unerringly at a point between Lestrade's eyes.
For a second that seemed to last aeons, all was silent. Then John groaned in pain, a throttled, raw sound like falling timber, and he curled slightly toward his right side. Sweat beaded on his brow, but his rigid mask of cold determination never slipped.
"Jesus, John," Lestrade breathed. He raised his hands. He wondered if they were trembling. John's weren't.
"It's him, isn't it?" John frowned at Lestrade's… what? His temple? Lestrade floundered, trying to imagine.
Then, with something almost like pity in his hoarse rasp, John said, "He got you, too."
Comprehension dawned. "No. No, it's not Moriarty."
Moving at an unhurried pace, keeping his fingers well in view, Lestrade unclipped the earpiece and withdrew the transmitter/receiver from where it rested at the base of his neck.
"It's Mycroft," Lestrade said with a sigh. "Telling me I'm a bloody idiot, I expect." He placed the device on the floor beside him with care, microphone pointing upward so Mycroft could hear them as clearly as possible. "But that's Sherlock's job, isn't it?"
"We're all idiots to Sherlock." John rose on his elbows, then pushed himself up to his knees. "But he also thinks you're the best of Scotland Yard."
Lestrade blinked. "Does he?"
"Actually, no." John straightened with unexpected speed, squaring his shoulders and shifting the pistol to his right hand. The left clenched as though he planned to follow the bullet with his fist. "He says that of Greg Lestrade. I don't know who the hell you are."
Chest heaving, John glared at him like the wrath of God incarnate.
A bead of sweat trickled down Lestrade's spine.
He cleared his throat and willed his voice to be steady. "Idiot to idiot then," he said, "tell me how I can prove it to you. Because that's who I am. And this" – he gestured vaguely between them – "believe it or not, was a rescue attempt."
"It's a bit rubbish, isn’t it?"
"Yeah, well. I'd say it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn't. It was the best we had, though."
"Right." John snorted. "I'm meant to believe Mycroft has the SAS at his command" – his breathing came too fast, too short – "and yet he sent you in here single-handed to save us?"
"Ah, no. No, that was my doing, actually." Lestrade pressed his palms to his eyes. His head pounded, demanding caffeine and nicotine and blessed slumber, and this really wasn't the time. "And, for the record, he didn't 'send me in'; I volunteered." He let his hands fall to his thighs. "Mycroft wanted to gas the room and bring you out unconscious."
John shook his head, swaying a bit on his knees. His response was a toneless whisper, cold and blade-sharp: "I'd've killed Sherlock myself before I let that happen."
Lestrade sagged against the wall, suddenly boneless with a relief as poignant as pain. Whatever else had gone awry, whatever else happened next, that at least had been right. Thank God.
After a beat, Lestrade asked, "He's still alive, then? Can you tell me that, at least?"
"He's hurt. He… What they…" Pressing his lips to a thin white line, John lifted his chin. "But we were talking about you."
"You expect me to think" – he coughed shallowly, a grating sound – "Mycroft would stand by and let me shoot you?"
A laugh welled up before Lestrade could contain it, not quite as hysterical as it might've been. "Yeah, I do, as a matter of fact." He shrugged, pulling at the knots of tension in his shoulders and neck. "He's here for his brother, John, and he'll get him. Losing you in the process would be… well, a significant calamity for him. Losing me would be more like a temporary inconvenience."
He threw a meaningful glance at the still form at the back of the cell, and then returned his attention to John. "I can live with that. Or not, as the case may be. Wouldn't be here otherwise."
He let his head fall back against the wall with a dull thump. "Honestly, I hope it won't come to that. But none of this is your fault, John, and I know it."
As gently as he could, he added, "You're not thinking straight, John."
"Of course I'm not!" John staggered to his feet and moved to crouch at Sherlock's side. The Sig trained on Lestrade never wavered as John's left hand searched out Sherlock's brow, neck, and wrist before resting protectively on a coat-draped shoulder.
"John, he should be in hos—"
"No one knows that better than I do."
Lestrade nodded. He was certain that was true.
"I have to be sure," John said, and it sounded as though the words had been dredged up from a dark and horrifying place. "I can't trust anything, and I have to be absolutely sure. You understand?"
"I do." And he did. There was so much at stake here.
John fixed a searching gaze on him.
Then, out of nowhere, John asked, "Is it as good as it smells? The coffee?"
"Yeah, it is."
John appeared steadier on his feet this time as crossed the room, although he moved with the conscious effort of a wounded man constantly negotiating with his injuries.
One-handed, John emptied the cup into the thermos, resealed the flask, and tossed it to Lestrade. "Have some, then."
The encounter was taking on an increasingly surrealistic flavour. Lestrade wondered if he were being offered a last meal of sorts. The brew tasted as bitter and brilliant as he remembered, and its warmth felt like comfort as it flooded his throat, even if it burned like acid once it hit his vacant stomach.
He drained the cup, begging the caffeine to kick in as soon as possible.
When he rolled the closed thermos over to John's bare feet, John surprised him by drinking straight from the flask, gulping several swallows as though he was dying of thirst – which, Lestrade realised, might not have been that far from the truth.
With a visible effort at self-control, John set the thermos aside. "So where's Mycroft, then?" he asked, peering at Lestrade with a somewhat sharper gaze. "Now that things have gone pear-shaped?"
"Good question, that," Lestrade said. "I'd've thought his team would've charged in by now. Maybe…" Maybe Mycroft trusted him to make this work somehow. Maybe he thought this was acceptable progress.
"Don't know," he admitted.
His ankles were beginning to complain, so he stretched his legs out and sat down properly, back to the hallway wall. "Putting together another plan, I s'pose. The gas won't work, now the door's open." He opted for complete honesty. "This is a tough one, John. You're enough to scare us shitless, you know."
"You don't seem scared." Another cough.
"Years of experience, mate. To be perfectly honest, I'm terrified."
John's eyes narrowed, but Lestrade soldiered on. "You're traumatised, and I'm afraid of sending you 'round the twist. And I'm afraid for Sherlock – and for you – every minute we spend chatting here instead of getting you the medical treatment you need."
"Not for yourself?"
"That, too. I don't want to die, John. 'Course I don't."
"But you will if I pull the trigger."
"If you aim to kill, I'll die." He held John's eyes with his own. "Is that what it'll take, to prove to you we're not the bad guys? My not defending myself?" He spread his hands. "Because I'm no expert and I'm no genius, John. And I don't know what else to do."
A battle played out across John's haggard features. It pained Lestrade to watch, and he dropped his head into his palm.
This didn't shut out the sound of John's ragged breathing.
Enough, Lestrade thought.
"For pity's sake, John, sit down before you fall down. You can shoot at me from your arse as easily as from your feet."
The plea put John in motion.
He nodded to himself abruptly, raised and extended his gun arm, and took one, two, three deliberate strides directly toward the detective inspector.
Lestrade flinched and closed his eyes.
"I'm sorry," John wheezed.
Lestrade pressed his back to the wall and his palms to the floor.
"I had to be sure. The Greg Lestrade we know is" – John's voice broke, and he cleared his throat – "a very patient man, as well as a good one."
Lestrade opened his eyes. Blinked hard. Released the breath he was holding in an explosive gust.
After Lestrade accepted the offered Sig, John turned and slid down the wall beside him with a choked moan. Then he bent forward, hand to his side and head toward his knees, breathing in stuttering gasps.
"Christ, Greg. That. My God."
"'S all right, John. Everything's all right. We're fine." He wiped his brow with shaking fingers.
"Six days, give or take."
When he thought he could trust his legs again, Lestrade rose and reclaimed the transmitter/receiver.
John wasn't fine, not by anyone's standards, but when Lestrade raised a brow and gestured with the device, asking his mute question, John nodded before scrubbing his hands across his face.
"Are you there?" Lestrade asked, holding the earpiece to his ear.
Mycroft's answer came immediately. "What's the best way to proceed?"
That was not the response he'd anticipated.
Even so, he didn't hesitate. "Send in the paramedics. No SAS. John's hurt, but he can make it to the ambulance under his own power. He goes with Sherlock. They're not to be separated."
"At once," Mycroft said.
"Thank you," John whispered.
Lestrade pressed the half-full coffee thermos into John's hand, and then he indicated the room with a jerk of his chin. "May I?" Asking permission.
John sat straighter, a gesture like a salute. "Please do." Two simple, hoarse words.
As approaching footsteps echoed in the hallway, Lestrade sank to the floor at Sherlock's side.