John had had the knack for as long as he could remember.
It wasn’t that he could become invisible, exactly. The laws of physics worked quite well in his vicinity, thank you very much. It was just that people tended … not to see him.
It had taken him a while to piece it together. When he and Harry hid behind the couch after accidentally breaking Mum’s favorite lamp, he just counted himself lucky Mum had seen his sister first. He wasn’t the type of boy who craved being the center of attention, so when his teachers would glance past him in the classroom, it never seemed that unusual. It’s not like he couldn’t make himself known when he needed to.
While it was one thing for a teacher’s gaze to drift past you in a classroom full of other children, though, it was entirely another when you’re sitting in front of an angry principal demanding answers. The man was so furious about the latest student prank (something about letting a goat loose in his office), he insisted on interrogating each one individually. John hadn’t been involved in the prank, but the entire class suspected who was behind it. He didn’t want to tattle, though, and dreaded the confrontation.
To his surprise though, as he sank into his seat, wishing to be anywhere but facing this angry man, Mr. Galdon’s eyes just … skimmed over him. John watched him glance down at the papers on his desk and then buzz his assistant, asking for the next student. John was stunned. He hadn’t done anything more than confirm his name and class, and … that was it? The door opened as Jamie Wilson slinked in and John barely made it through the door as it closed.
It was like they hadn’t seen him at all.
Then there was that aborted attack when he was ten. He’d been heading home after school when he heard a pounding of footsteps behind him. He’d just had time to glimpse a group of older kids heading his way before he ducked into a nearby alley and looked frantically around for somewhere to hide. There was no way he could fight off five of them.
He was completely astonished when, rounding the corner, all of them ran right past him, shouting, “Don’t let him get away!”
After that, he started experimenting. He didn’t quite understand it, but when he needed to, it was as if he could hang a Don’t-Notice-Me sign over his head. Anybody who saw him or passed him on the street just … wouldn’t see him. Oh, they’d steer around him, and he never got sat on by someone thinking his chair was empty. It was just as if he were background, like an extra on a film set—there, but just part of the scenery.
He found that his range was limited to a certain proximity, or line of sight—he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t make someone forget about him during, say, a telephone conversation. His teachers might not call on him in class, but they always remembered to grade his papers, and never actually forgot he existed. (Though he did occasionally have trouble with them marking him absent on days when he was sitting right in front of them.) It wasn’t entirely a conscious thing, often controlled by his moods or the size of the crowd, but he gained a certain amount of control over it as he got older.
By the time he went to Uni, he had mastered his knack of fading into the background unless he wanted to be noticed. It came in handy in the army, too. He managed to avoid being picked for extra push-ups or extra attention from his drill sergeant.. And he made himself so agreeable (and inconspicuous) to his mates, they never seemed to take offense.
His skill definitely came in handy when he was in Afghanistan. Being able to avoid notice in a hostile environment was a decided asset, and he found that, if he concentrated, he was able to stretch the effect to cover fellow soldiers in his vicinity. Not that concentrating was always easy, what with it being a war zone, and all, but John had impressive focus when he needed it.
It was just unfortunate that it failed him when he needed it most. He had been kneeling over a wounded private when a nearby explosion made him duck, swearing—a break in focus just long enough that the sniper on the hill suddenly had a very clear view of one, frantic army medic working over the injured man. And then, of course, the bullet through his shoulder blew away any possibility of John concentrating on anything.
Yet, he somehow managed to drag the two of them back under cover before collapsing. Bill Murray told him later that he had never been so startled in his life because he hadn’t even realized John was there until he saw him bleeding into the dirt in front of him. All things considered, John was just as glad his concentration had wavered at that point.
The recovery process was hard for him. He’d gone from being one of the surgeons in charge to being just another patient, there to be moved around as necessary. He had never minded being overlooked, but being treated like an object bothered him and made him feel more invisible than ever. Not that the nurses and orderlies meant to minimize him. They were hard-working, devoted healthcare workers, but it was sometimes a little too easy to direct their patients where they wanted them to go. The army’s inexorable machinery didn’t help, either. Now that he was no longer capable of being a surgeon, the bureaucracy automatically kicked into the process of sending him home.
Suddenly, he had no choice, no say in anything.
For the first time in his life, he felt truly invisible.
By the time he returned to London, he didn’t even need his gift to be ignored. A drawn, wounded soldier automatically caused people to avert their eyes. He walked the streets of London for hours to strengthen his leg and never drew any attention. Not until he walked past his old school mate Mike Stamford, who somehow saw and recognized him as he limped by.
Everything changed when Mike introduced him to Sherlock Holmes, a man so observant that John felt like, rather than looking past him as everyone else did, he looked at him and saw everything. His life, his history, his injury … everything.
It was unprecedented, and he couldn’t keep the asperity from his voice when he asked, “That’s it? We’ve just met and are going to look at a flat?” It wasn’t that he disliked it—not at all—it was just a shock.
So, yes, when the next night Sherlock bounded out of the flat with barely a second thought for John, apparently invisible again in the chair, John had snapped at Mrs. Hudson. It hadn’t been about his leg at all, more a complaint at being relegated to wallpaper status again. Which might have explained his relief when Sherlock came back to invite him to the crime scene.
Hadn’t that been an experience, too? He’d happily faded into the background and watched in awe as Sherlock shared his deductions about the murder. John had never seen or heard of anybody as observant as this new flatmate of his. It was as if the man saw every detail, every nuance of the world around him.
Which, John admitted, made his abandonment at the site that much harder to bear. He was jostled by the police officers trying to do their jobs as he maneuvered the stairs on his unsteady, plastic-covered feet. He felt almost bereft as he limped past Donovan on his way back to the police tape, but he was philosophical. He’d been overlooked his whole life, after all. It’s not like this was new.
Still, the abandonment hadn’t made him feel any less like a ghost, he thought, as he made his way down the dark street. The feeling was only exacerbated when he began to be haunted by ringing phones as he walked by. This whole evening was unreal, and as an exercise in trying to be visible again, something of a failure.
It was only when the third phone rang as he passed, that he realized they were ringing for him. Somebody could obviously see him. He was almost disappointed when the voice on the phone drew his attention to the CCTV cameras. His knack had always been restricted to real, nearby people and had never worked on film. He wasn’t surprised to hear that surveillance cameras could see him.
When the car pulled up, he got in meekly. The man on the phone knew exactly where he was. Even if he had wanted to befuddle the people in the car and could somehow obscure the CCTV cameras (which he doubted), he didn’t want to become memorable to a person who was obviously powerful.
The rest of the evening was a blur. The conversation with the man with the umbrella—a man who seemed to have the same gift for seeing John that Sherlock had. The chase over roofs and through alleys for the cab. The so-called drugs bust where the police all seemed to completely ignore John, while Sherlock pinned him with that sharp gaze of his and asked piercing questions. And then the mad chase across London to try to find Sherlock before the killer could strike again.
Later, John had never been so grateful for his gift as when he stood behind the police tape, watching Sherlock and Lestrade, and hoping neither of them would realize who had fired the shot. Yet, he knew the exact moment when Sherlock glanced over and saw him. His cool eyes had focused directly on John as Lestrade’s glanced past, trying to see what Sherlock was looking at.
And then, when Sherlock had immediately approached and congratulated him? John was grateful for having been appreciated, but it was the fact that Sherlock had seen him that made him want to bask in the warmth of his gaze.
Really, John barely needed to use his gift at all after that. Not that he consciously used it on a regular basis. His unassuming demeanor and natural modesty did most of the work for him. It was usually when either his mood swung toward actually feeling invisible or when he consciously worked at it that his gift came into play. Most of the time he was only “invisible” because he was standing next to Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock was like a lightning rod for attention—all eyes automatically turned to him when he entered a room. It wasn’t surprising that John’s habit of fading into the woodwork wasn’t noticed—not even by Sherlock. (John sometimes couldn’t help but laugh that the man who prided himself on observing everything completely missed this.)
Tagging after Sherlock, helping him out, suited John. He was involved and busy without having to draw attention to himself. His first attempt to get a job at a local surgery was a disaster. He’d been so tired on his first day (and frankly longing to be left alone to sleep), the receptionist completely forgot he was there and never sent him any patients. (It was a miracle he hadn’t been fired, but luckily the receptionist took some of the blame.) He’d used his gift on purpose to avoid that ASBO, though, when Sherlock’s graffiti-making friend tried to stick him with his bag outside the National Gallery.
Unlike most people, Sherlock never looked through him—though he had an odd tendency to forget him when John wasn’t right in front of him—leaving him out on the sidewalk outside crime scenes or ignoring texts about graffiti. Considering how little Sherlock seemed affected by his gift, John couldn’t decide whether this was an odd reaction to it, or just Sherlock being Sherlock. Judging by his timely rescue when John and Sarah were kidnapped by General Shan, he was inclined to believe it was simply Sherlock’s high-handed, self-centered personality asserting itself.
All in all, they made a good team. John’s natural inclination NOT to be in the spotlight perfectly mirrored Sherlock’s apparent need for it, and John’s self-effacing attitude often let him hear and see things that came in handy for solving a case. People just tended not to see him as a threat—or as anything at all.
There was nothing he could do, though, against the very determined, very focused attention of Jim Moriarty.
Oh, at first, Moriarty ignored him as much as anyone. That day in the Barts lab, he had barely glanced at him—but then, all his attention has been slavishly devoted to Sherlock. John hadn’t had any inkling at all that he’d been noticed until Moriarty’s goons had snatched him off the street and wrapped him in Semtex.
He had cursed to himself when he woke up, frustrated that his gift had failed him, but all he’d been doing was going to Sarah’s. That shouldn’t have been dangerous, right? Except, now he was involved in Sherlock Holmes’s life apparently the simplest of acts qualified as potentially dangerous. It wasn’t like he had been trying to be invisible at the time.
Now he was here, and he couldn’t see any way his gift could be useful. Maybe if he’d woken up before he’d been strapped into the bomb vest, but now? Invisible or not, he could blow up very well, thank you. He just wondered what puzzle Sherlock was supposed to be solving for this one—and hoped he’d figure it out soon. He had the feeling that Moriarty might just make this one a little more challenging than the prior four pips.
He found out how much more challenging when Jim Moriarty himself practically skipped into the pool locker room and told him with glee that he was to go have a little chat with Sherlock, but not to say or do anything he wasn’t told to or they’d detonate the bomb … as if he hadn’t figured that out already.
The knowledge that Sherlock was going to be there froze what few options he had. He couldn’t use his gift to confound the snipers and sneak away with a bomb strapped to his back. Not only didn’t he want to put any more innocent bystanders at risk, but with their neatly-wrapped, blackmail-in-a-vest gone, Moriarty might decide to cut his losses and shoot Sherlock right then. (John didn’t think that was likely, mind you, but it was possible.)
During the confrontation that followed, a part of him was amused at how much the sniper’s laser sight wavered, as if the sniper was having trouble focusing on him—not that Sherlock or Jim ever noticed, they were so intent on each other. John did try to provide Sherlock with an escape but wasn’t entirely surprised when he didn’t take it. Sherlock Holmes run? From such an entertaining adversary? Of course he didn’t run. What had John been thinking?
He fell back, wracking his brain, trying to find a way out, but without a distraction to get Jim’s attention away from them, it was hopeless. If John threw his Don’t-See-Us net over Sherlock right now, he doubted it would hold. Moriarty’s attention was too intense to be broken. He couldn’t divert that kind of focus. He needed a distraction.
To his relief, he got one. As Sherlock and Moriarty had their American Western-style stand-off over the vest, Moriarty’s phone rang. (Were the situation not so deadly serious, John would have found the Bee Gees reference hilarious.) As it was, though, his suspicions were aroused as Moriarty began his conversation and started edging toward the door. Staying Alive, was it? That sounded like a code to a face-saving, get-yourself-out-of-there phone call to him. All Jim needed was to get out of the room and the snipers could shoot Sherlock or set off the bomb.
This was the chance John had been waiting for.
As Moriarty raved into the phone (“If you’re lying to me, I’ll ssssskin you.”) with his back turned, John took his chance. Concentrating, he threw his Don’t-Look net over himself and Sherlock and surged to his feet, grabbing his flatmate’s arm and dragging him to the door. Since he was facing away from the disappearing act, Moriarty would simply think they’d run when his back was turned. The snipers might have seen them “disappear” but would have caught a glimpse of John dragging Sherlock out of the way. They might wonder why they hadn’t fired, wonder how the two targets had moved quite so quickly, but in John’s experience, they wouldn’t suspect anything. People tended not to believe the unbelievable.
Meanwhile, he had to get Sherlock out of here. He wouldn’t put it past Moriarty to blow the entire pool up out of spite. In fact, he could hear his shout of rage now, along with a flurry of footsteps from the gallery as the snipers ran to find them. “Come on!” he whispered to Sherlock as he tugged on his hand, forcing him into a run. Past the locker room, through the lobby, out the door … ignore the pounding footsteps coming up from behind … into the street, around a corner, into an alley, and then pull Sherlock down behind a skip. They’re both breathing hard, but John at least is confident that they won’t be seen. Not by the thugs, at any rate. He’s not so sure about Moriarty himself.
So far, Moriarty hadn’t looked at him as anything other than a slightly more valuable playing piece for their “game,” and John wanted to keep it that way. Twisted psychopath though he may be, there was no question that Moriarty was brilliant on the same level Sherlock was, and John had never been invisible to Sherlock. He just didn’t know if Moriarty was as observant. He found he wanted more than anything to remain invisible to Jim Moriarty.
As they hid, panting, behind the garbage bins, John heard Moriarty’s furious shout of “Find them!” and concentrated extra hard on not being found. There were footsteps down their alley, but they belonged to one of the thug/sniper/minions and he never saw them. As long as Moriarty himself stayed out of view, John felt fairly confident he could keep this up.
It was a relief to hear sirens in the distance, though he wasn’t sure why. There was no real reason to believe they had anything to do with Sherlock and Moriarty, yet their confrontation was looming so large in John’s consciousness right now (I was wearing a bomb), he couldn’t imagine the sirens were connected to anything less.
Of course, when Moriarty detonated the bomb moments later in a fit of pique, John no longer doubted at all where the police cars were headed. He was only grateful they weren’t already there and searching inside the pool when it blew.
It wasn’t until they could see the flashing blue lights reflecting off the alley walls that he let Sherlock stand up.
“That was an incredibly stupid thing to do, John,” Sherlock said, dusting himself off. “Did you somehow forget the snipers?”
“No, Sherlock, but I figured Moriarty’s call put the game on hold and they’d be watching him for a signal, so that was our one chance. You know he wasn’t going to let us out of there.”
“He might have,” Sherlock said, watching the figures scurrying in the light at the end of the alley.
“Yeah, well, it didn’t sound like his phone call was improving his mood any, and we weren’t going to get a better chance.” John straightened, gingerly stretching his back. “There’s no shame in a strategic retreat, you know.”
“No,” his friend said, though the tone of voice wasn’t convinced. “But I don’t see how we avoided being seen by the pursuit after those first five seconds.”
“It’s the first five that count,” John said with a shiver, which he immediately turned to his advantage. “It’s freezing out here, and neither of us with a coat. I suppose yours is under the rubble somewhere?”
A bereft expression crossed Sherlock’s face. “In one of the lockers.”
John heaved a deep breath. “If you’re lucky, it might still be there. I have no idea what Moriarty did with mine. Or my phone.” He started walking toward the street. “It’s probably under the rubble, too.”
“Maybe we should have kept the parka?”
John shuddered, not at all from the cold this time. “No, thank you. I’d rather have a shock blanket.”
Sherlock touched his arm. “Are you all right, John? He didn’t hurt you?”
“Just a headache, Sherlock, from when they knocked me out—though the adrenalin crash that’s coming is going to be big.” John looked out of the alley, seeing Lestrade’s familiar face on the scene. He groaned when he saw the CCTV camera pointed his way but gave it a nod, looking back over his shoulder. “Big Brother’s spotted us. I hope you weren’t planning on keeping this meeting a secret, Sherlock. How did they know, do you suppose?”
“That, er, that would have been from my website,” Sherlock mumbled. “I arranged to meet Moriarty at midnight.”
John was speechless and was still struggling to find the words when Sherlock stepped around him to go talk to Lestrade.
Sherlock stood with a shock blanket around his shoulders, wishing for his coat as he observed the chaos outside the pool. Or what had been a pool. When had he lost control of the evening? He had been so sure, so certain, that he had things under control when he arranged this meeting. It was to be the culmination of days of deductive foreplay. He had been intrigued, excited, even … and then it had spiraled out of control.
Though, it had been out of his control hours before he’d even realized. He had lost control the minute Moriarty abducted John on his way to Sarah’s. He needed to know what had happened to John during those hours. Between leaving 221B and showing up at midnight in a Semtex vest—what had happened to him?
He didn’t like to think about the doubts that had crossed his mind when he first saw John at the pool. He knew that trust was supposed to be a primary foundation to friendship and his had flickered at the first hint of trouble. (If, of course, suspecting your flatmate to be a psychotic consulting criminal could be considered merely a hint of trouble.) The worst part was that he knew John would forgive him that lapse. It wasn’t like Sherlock had ever had a friend before. This was uncharted territory for him.
Not for John, though. He had flung himself at Moriarty in a bid to give Sherlock an escape as if it were nothing. As if he sacrificed himself every day. As if it didn’t matter if he died—and that, Sherlock couldn’t understand at all.
How was it possible that John had no sense of self-importance? It was a mystery to Sherlock. He loved nothing more than being the center of attention (the more awed and mystified, the better). He still couldn’t believe his luck, that he had found a flatmate who was content to fade into the background while Sherlock took center stage. In fact, John seemed to embrace it. Sherlock had seen him become so still, so quiet, that everyone else in the room ignored him as if he had disappeared while Sherlock explained their failings.
He couldn’t understand that at all.
Really, John Watson was a mystery. A doctor and a soldier. A man who could heal or could kill with equal skill. He allowed Sherlock to get away with his usual so-called anti-social behavior, yet was never weak. He might let Sherlock take the lead in their partnership, but it was by choice, not because he was downtrodden. Not because he was a pet. (The memory of Moriarty’s taunt roused Sherlock’s ire again. How dare he refer to John Watson as a pet?)
He looked over at John, sitting on the back of an ambulance, wrapped in his own blanket and clutching a cup of no-doubt dreadful coffee. The man looked exhausted, which wasn’t exactly a surprise. Being held hostage by a criminal mastermind would do that, he supposed, and that was before the several near-death experiences. Even an experienced soldier could be forgiven a little fatigue.
It was curious, though, how the medics and other personnel were largely ignoring John at this point. Once he had been cared for and his statement taken, he had been sat down and then seemingly forgotten. Knowing John, though, he supposed John appreciated the relative peace and quiet at this point.
Sherlock turned back to the (former) pool. The outer walls were still largely intact but the inside gutted—not that they had allowed him inside. He shuddered to think that John had been wearing the bomb that caused this. How had they escaped? He remembered the feel of John’s hand as he took advantage of Moriarty’s distraction to run. (Had the call really been a trick as John suspected? It worried him that the thought hadn’t crossed his mind.) He could remember the sound of their footsteps pounding through the lobby as they raced for the door. But there was something else … The footsteps rang in his memory, echoing.
There had been other footsteps, right behind them. Yet no shots had been fired. No shouts. No exclamatory “There they are” shouts.
If there had been pursuit so close behind them, how had they escaped?
It was hours before they made it back to Baker Street, and John couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so exhausted. “Why couldn’t we have a ground floor flat? Or an elevator?” he groaned as he dragged himself up the stairs by the railing.
He stumbled into the sitting room and collapsed onto the couch, too tired to even consider climbing the second flight to his room. He didn’t even move when Sherlock fell onto the cushion right next to him. “I’ll look into it in the morning,” he said, “It’s been a busy evening.”
“Being kidnapped by a psychopath does usually fill the time, yes, as do exploding pools. I never want to smell chlorine again.”
“John.” Sherlock’s voice was unusually tentative. “I never expected, I never planned that …”
“That Moriarty would use me as his fifth pip? I know. It’s all right, Sherlock.” John tried to give him a reassuring pat, but was too tired and ended up hitting his leg instead. All his motor control was gone, like being drunk without having had the pleasure of a single pint.
“No, it’s not, but I thought you’d be safe. I waited until you left for Sarah’s so you’d be out of the way. I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming. I still don’t understand how we got away.”
John just leaned his head back on the cushion. This was a conversation they needed to have, yes, but did it have to be right now? He couldn’t even filter the question. “Do we have to do this right now, Sherlock? I’m just too tired.”
He felt Sherlock nestling into the cushions as well. “Mmm. Me, too. Should go to bed.”
“Right. Any minute now,” John mumbled, giving up all thought of even attempting the stairs, and just let everything else go.
Thanks for the positive comments on chapter one--it's nice to know the idea was as intriguing as I'd hoped. The big question now--is Moriarty going to be the biggest problem John's got now that Sherlock is asking questions?
When John woke in the morning, his first thought was to wonder where he was, and the second was to groan as his stiff muscles shrieked their displeasure. At some point during the night, he’d fallen sideways (luckily onto his good shoulder), but his legs were still dragging on the floor. The weight on top of him turned out to be Sherlock, slumped over his hips.
He blinked, shivering, suddenly grateful for the shock blanket he’d fallen asleep with. The flat was still freezing because of the blasted-out windows and had that really only happened just a few days ago? It might have been a lifetime.
He moved his head on the cushion, trying to find a position that didn’t aggravate his cricked neck. He wasn’t ready to get up yet, stiff muscles or no, and he was loath to disturb Sherlock. He wondered how much Sherlock had pieced together last night, if he’d noticed anything strange about their too-easy escape. He certainly hoped not.
Tired or not, he had to get up and move around and soon, before all his muscles locked into their current position and refused to function. He wanted a hot shower desperately, anxious to wash off all traces of Semtex and chlorine and whatever Moriarty had drugged him with last night.
He carefully started edging out from under Sherlock’s head, trying not to be noticed. Just sleep, he thought, I’m not bothering you at all. He didn’t know if it would work, but it was worth a try.
He managed to slip off the couch (though “slip” was perhaps too graceful a word for the way he forced his tired body to lumber out of the way), and slid a pillow under Sherlock’s head. He breathed a sigh of relief when Sherlock didn’t wake, and pulling his gift around him, he went into the bathroom.
The face that looked out from the mirror looked much the same as always, he thought, if perhaps more tired than he liked. It didn’t look at all like he’d come close to death several times last night. There was the kidnapping, then the bomb, the snipers, the chase through the streets … definitely more brushes with death than anyone should experience in six hours.
The shower felt so, so good on his tired muscles and he stood with his eyes closed as the water pounded, scrubbing away the memory of the way the bomb vest had felt on his shoulders, washing away the way his knees had given way when it was removed, as if the freedom had been too much of a burden to bear. The citrus scents of his soap and shampoo cleared away the traces of chlorine in his nostrils, chased away the mortar and dust of the exploded pool.
When he was finished, he felt almost human and thankfully wrapped himself in his robe as he stepped into the hallway, cocking his head to listen for signs of Sherlock moving around. Hearing nothing, he quietly climbed the stairs to his room to get dressed.
Before long, he was in the kitchen, making a pot of tea as quietly as he could, and wishing Sherlock had found time to get milk last night before heading off to meet with a psychopath.
It might have been the smell of toast that woke Sherlock, or maybe six hours was his limit, but John was just buttering his piece when Sherlock came in, leaning on the door jamb. “How are you this morning?”
“A little stiff, but fine. You?”
“Fine.” Sherlock waved away the question.
“Are you hungry?”
“Maybe in a bit. I think I’ll go shower first.”
“I hope I left you enough hot water,” John said. Sherlock gave him a short smile and left, while John contentedly sipped his tea. He thought about getting up to make eggs to go with his toast but decided it would take more energy than he could spare. For right now, this was fine. This was perfect.
He should have expected it wouldn’t last long, because just then, there was a knock at the door and Mycroft showed himself in, carrying a dry-cleaning bag.
John couldn’t be surprised, exactly. Mycroft had certainly been watching last night (even if he was too late to be of any help), and it was to be expected that he’d check up on Sherlock this morning. He worried, you know. “Morning, Mycroft,” he said, and gestured toward the teapot “There’s tea if you’d like some.”
“No, thank you, John. I’m just returning Sherlock’s coat which we pulled from the rubble this morning. I’m glad to see you looking so well after your ordeal last night.” John nodded, realizing that of course Mycroft had seen the police reports from last night (this morning) and knew about the fifth pip and the bomb vest.
“Sherlock’s in the shower, but should be out soon,” John told him—though if Sherlock knew Mycroft was here, he wouldn’t put it past him to hide out in the bathroom indefinitely.
Mycroft nodded, as if he were well aware of this. “Of course, though I’m also here to talk to you.”
“Me?” Oh no, this couldn’t be good. “I’m pretty sure I told the police everything this morning.”
“Really?” One elegant eyebrow lifted. “Including how you and my brother managed to evade the snipers?”
Yeah, this was definitely a bit not good. “That was luck. Moriarty turned his back and I figured we had a couple of seconds when the snipers would hesitate while he was on the phone and, well, it was a calculated risk. I didn’t trust that phone call, at all. It sounded too much like a pre-planned, get-out-of-jail-free call to get Moriarty safely away from the bomb before Sherlock set it off, leaving us sitting ducks for the snipers. It was the only chance we were going to have.”
Mycroft gave another nod. “A risk, I agree, but the best decision out of a bad lot. Since the two of you survived unscathed, I certainly can’t find fault, but that doesn’t explain how you got out of the pool.”
John lifted his eyebrows. “We ran really fast and ducked into cover at the earliest possible moment? We had a head start since Moriarty’s men were in the gallery.”
“Not all of them,” Mycroft said, laying a photo on the table.
John looked down at the glossy print. It was a grainy, black-and-white image, clearly from CCTV. It showed John pulling Sherlock as they ran from the building. Mere steps behind them was what was obviously a guard of Moriarty’s, looking right past them with a frantic look on his face as he spoke into a radio.
There was no (logical) way for them not to have been seen, not with the man that close.
“Christ,” John said, trying to keep his voice level. “I had no idea it was that close.”
“Very close.” And Mycroft laid down another photo showing multiple men with guns charging out of the building, Sherlock’s arm just captured in the frame. “Can you explain this, John?”
John picked up the second photo with a hand that didn’t shake at all. “I didn’t know he had so many men on guard. I should have expected it.” It wasn’t a lie. You can’t lie to a Holmes. How had he not realized Moriarty would have had men outside the pool?
Mycroft was still staring at him with that mild-mannered, curious expression—the one that made strong men crumble into messes of confession and self-flagellation. John just picked up his toast and took a bite as he stared at the photos. He and Sherlock were right there in very obvious view, yet … John squinted at the photo. It almost looked like they were slightly blurry, as if looking through the heat waves rising off pavement on a broiling summer day.
He did not allow himself to hope it was a fluke of the camera. And he was sure Mycroft could provide plenty of other shots that showed the same effect.
He swallowed the toast, forcing it down his suddenly dry throat and reached for his tea. “I don’t know what to say, Mycroft.” And that was true, too.
“Say what, John? What are you doing here, Mycroft? Didn’t you get enough breakfast at home?” Sherlock’s voice came from the doorway.
The faintest trace of displeasure crossed Mycroft’s face, and John suspected it wasn’t so much because of Sherlock’s usual insult as at the interruption of his interrogation. Not that this was quite an interrogation … yet.
“I came to check up on you after your … adventures last night.”
Sherlock waved a hand. “Nothing to worry about, no harm done.”
Mycroft’s eyebrows rose. “No harm? You let a criminal mastermind escape—after offering him top secret missile plans, I might add—and contributed to the explosion of a swimming pool. I believe that counts as harm.”
“No one was hurt,” Sherlock said casually as he poured himself some tea. “And I’m devastated that you think that flash drive was anything but a decoy—one which ended up at the bottom of the pool, anyway. Capturing Moriarty became a secondary issue once he decided to use John as his fifth pip.
“Your safety is paramount, of course—both of you,” Mycroft said smoothly as he casually reached for the photos, but Sherlock got to them first. John watched as his eyes widened slightly as he saw how close their pursuers had been, and he didn’t miss the flick of the eyes in his direction. Crap. “I was just asking John how he thought you managed to evade pursuit last night.”
John just shook his head. “I wish I knew what to say, Mycroft.” And God help him, that was true. What could he possibly say to get him out of this, to keep Mycroft—and Sherlock—from chasing after his secret?
He didn’t miss the look the two brothers shared, Sherlock fiercely protective in the face of Mycroft’s oh-so-innocent bland expression. John forced himself to take a sip of tea and tried to keep his face as neutral and mystified as he possibly could.
Except, he could never keep Sherlock from reading whatever expression he had on his face.
He was in trouble, no question. His only hope was that Sherlock would understand—and help keep him from becoming a lab rat in one of Mycroft’s top-secret government labs. (Because, he was quite sure Mycroft had them.)
“John,” Sherlock said, his voice uncertain, “What did you do?”
He tried to brave it out and put an innocent, confused look on his face. “I just ran as fast as I could and prayed that we’d get out of there without anyone seeing us. I hadn’t realized there were guards outside as well. I was only thinking about the snipers.”
“Then how did you and my brother manage to avoid being shot by the man standing 5 feet away from you with a gun?” Mycroft’s voice was colder than John had ever heard it.
John shrugged, letting some of his frustration show. “I can’t explain it, Mycroft. I was just concentrating on getting us out of there.”
“That guard doesn’t look blind to me, John,” Mycroft said smoothly.
“Nor to me,” said John, “But that doesn’t mean I can explain it.” And that was absolutely true, he told himself. He’d never been able to explain how or why his gift worked.
He glanced at Sherlock, uncharacteristically quiet as he stared at the photos Mycroft had brought. John was sure he had noticed the slight haze around their figures and that he had his own questions. There was no question—he was in serious trouble. “Is there a reason you’re badgering my flatmate, Mycroft? The day after he saved my life after being strapped into a bomb on my behalf? Because I believe that kind of timing is considered poor form.”
Mycroft’s expression was bland as he said, “I’m not badgering at all, Sherlock. I’m just trying to determine what happened, and would point out that I’m not the only person with access to these CCTV images. If they were to arouse other questions, it would be easiest if I could deal with them promptly rather than any … doubts … spreading.”
He turned back to John. “Have your prayers of this nature been answered before, John?”
John shook his head. “How would I know, Mycroft? My squad in Afghanistan said I was lucky, but I still got shot.” He took another sip of tea to soothe his dry throat and thought very, very carefully, very gently, about not being noticed, not being cared about in the hopes that it would turn Mycroft’s attention away to something else.
“There, see?” Sherlock’s voice was firm with the usual petulant arrogance he used with Mycroft. “Clearly he would have avoided being shot if he could, Mycroft. It’s hardly John’s fault if Moriarty hires incompetent minions. Now, is there anything else? John was held hostage in a bomb vest by a madman yesterday and really doesn’t deserve the third degree this morning.”
Mycroft rose to his feet. “Of course. Perhaps there is some explanation I’ve missed. Or perhaps John just found some hidden depths last night in his extremity.”
Sherlock scoffed. “Like those stories you hear about mothers lifting cars off their injured children? Please. Adrenalin can only do so much.”
“Exactly, which is why this is so … intriguing,” Mycroft said. “But, of course, you’re right. You must both be tired.” And with a nod, he was gone.
A silence so weighty John could almost feel it descended on the flat. He reached for his tea again. It had gone cold, but he swallowed some anyway. He knew that look in Sherlock’s eye and Mycroft’s departure did not mean the end of this discussion.
John was nothing if not brave, though. No matter how he might want to hide his gift from Mycroft, it was futile trying to keep any secrets from Sherlock. So, he put his cup down and met Sherlock’s eyes. “You have questions?”
A single nod. “How did you do it, John?”
John gave a small shrug. “I honestly don’t know, I just … can.”
“Can what, exactly?”
“Make myself invisible. Not literally, or anything. Just … blend in with the background so people don’t pay attention, like an extra on a film set.”
“I have absolutely no idea, I really don’t. It’s usually not even a conscious thing. I just … feel invisible and then I am invisible. More or less.”
John felt pinned by Sherlock’s gaze, sharp and very much present. “I don’t understand,” he said, and John knew how much he hated having to admit that. “You’re never invisible to me.”
“I know,” John agreed. “That first day when Mike introduced us, I felt like you saw everything. It was very gratifying. I was actually disappointed when you left me at the crime scene until I realized that was just you being you—not me being invisible. It doesn’t seem to work on you for some reason.”
“That’s because I know how to observe, John,” Sherlock told him with a smirk. “Can you control it? No, obviously you can or we wouldn’t have gotten out of the pool—but that was two of us. Can you extend the range?”
John went to refill his cup. “To a degree, if I’m focused enough—and yes, last night I was very focused.” He sipped his tea and concentrated, watching Sherlock carefully, but his flatmate never blinked. For whatever reason, his gift just didn’t work on Sherlock.
Mrs. Hudson tapped on the door just then, carrying a plate of scones and chattering a mile a minute about late nights and had Sherlock heard about the explosion at the pool? Another gas leak, they said on the telly, what was this city coming to?
The whole time, John stood relaxed against the kitchen counter, sipping his tea and thinking don’t-see-me kinds of thoughts while Sherlock frankly stared and Mrs. Hudson bustled around them and John just shrugged. “Sherlock,” she finally asked, “What are you staring at?”
He blinked. “Nothing, apparently. Have you seen John this morning?”
“Of course not. Didn’t he go to spend the night with that girlfriend of his last night? She’s such a nice girl, though of course I wish the two of you…”
“Yes, Mrs. Hudson, thank you for the scones. They look delicious.” Sherlock took her elbow and ushered her toward the door. “I’ll tell John you were asking for him when he comes in.”
Within moments he had her out the door and had turned back to John. “She didn’t see you.”
John sipped his tea. “I told you,” he said, and braced himself for whatever might be coming. Recriminations, accusations … no doubt several dozen scientific experiments, though better Sherlock’s than Mycroft’s. He just dreaded the loss of the friendship that had grown between them. After this, Sherlock would see him as a tool, something useful perhaps, but not as the person he’d never had trouble seeing. John would be relegated to “thing” status, just a notch above “invisible,” and then where would he be?
He met Sherlock’s eyes and waited.
He was taken completely by surprise as a smile spread across Sherlock’s face. “That was amazing.”
“Extraordinary,” Sherlock told him, eyes gleaming. “Quite extraordinary.”
Reminded of their first cab ride and all that followed, John couldn’t help but smile hugely, widely, right back.
Sherlock couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so astounded. John had somehow kept this extraordinary secret from him for months and he’d never suspected.
It denied all logic, this … thing … of John’s. There was no rational explanation and yet he’d just seen the proof with his own eyes. Mrs. Hudson had walked right past him and not seen him at all. “The mug, too? She didn’t see you drinking the tea.”
“I told you—it’s not like I’m invisible, just … background. Like servants in rich houses, or film extras. It’s not so much that people don’t see me as … they don’t observe.”
“I do keep telling you that,” Sherlock said, smiling at this further proof of one of his longtime maxims. “However, most people aren’t quite that unobservant.”
John just shrugged and turned to put his cup in the sink. “Hence the ‘I can’t explain it’ explanation. It just happens.”
Sherlock’s head was filled with questions and he wanted nothing more than to take John’s brain apart to examine it. “How long?”
“You mean, how long have I been able to do this? As long as I can remember, really. I didn’t quite realize at first, just put it down to being unremarkable. Got marked absent a lot by teachers when I was sitting right in front of them—you can imagine what that did for my self-esteem.”
Sherlock smiled. “Indeed. But you eventually could control it?”
“Yes, if I need to. It’s mostly involuntary, really. Unlike some people I could name, I don’t really like being the center of attention. It’s just that this is like an added whammy. I can make sure I’m not the center of attention.”
Fascinating, thought Sherlock, thinking of all the ways that could be useful for surveillance work. He asked more questions about the parameters of John’s talent until he had a grasp on its space-location-proximity restrictions. “Does it work the other way? Can you draw attention?”
John looked thoughtful. Clearly the idea was entirely new. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’ve never tried.” Sherlock watched as he heaved a sigh. “You’re going to want to experiment on this, aren’t you?”
Sherlock could practically feel his eyes light, the anticipation was tingling to his very fingertips. “Oh, yes. It will be fascinating.”
Suddenly, the puzzle of Jim Moriarty wasn’t nearly as interesting.
To John’s surprise, revealing his secret didn’t change much at all. He had to answer dozens of questions and yes, the anticipated experiments definitely made their appearance, but otherwise? Things were much the same. Sherlock and John investigated cases and John stayed out of the way. The only difference was that now Sherlock noticed when John was being evasive.
Naturally, Sherlock wanted to take advantage of John’s new-found gift (new to Sherlock at least), and have him sneak into crime scenes for evidence, but John refused. “I’m not invisible to cameras, you know, and besides, that’s just wrong. Strong moral principle, remember?”
It was almost surprising that it took Mycroft a week before he kidnapped John again.
When the car pulled up outside the surgery, John just heaved a sigh. He’d had a long day and wanted nothing more than to go home and collapse into his chair. He really didn’t have the patience for dealing with Mycroft just now.
While he dithered on the pavement (and hated himself for being so indecisive), his phone chimed and he found a text message. “Please get in the car, John. I’ll have tea waiting for you when you arrive. MH”
By Mycroft’s standards, that was positively urbane, thought John, even if he would have preferred an actual invitation. Still, what choice did he have? The man had actually said please. So John slid into the backseat and tried not to think about how he never wanted to find himself on the wrong side of an experiment in a secret government lab. He also tried not to think of how long this conversation was going to be, if Mycroft felt the need to provide refreshments, but sent Sherlock a text in case it went long.
When they arrived at Mycroft’s office, John went to sit at the conference table across from Mycroft with as good a grace as he could manage. “You know, I would have made you tea at the flat.”
The man smiled and said, “Yes, but then we would have had Sherlock listening to every word, and some conversations are best left private.”
John just looked at him as patiently as he could. “Because keeping secrets from Sherlock always works so well. You know he’ll find out about this. I don’t like keeping secrets, Mycroft.”
“And yet you do remarkably well when you need to, don’t you, John?” Mycroft leaned back, maintaining eye contact as his assistant brought two cups of tea.
“What do you mean?” he asked, and then tried not to react when Mycroft put a folder on the table.
“I’ve noticed,” Mycroft began, his hand on the still-closed file, “That there seems to be an odd effect in many of these photos of you, John. Can you explain that?”
“They’re not my pictures, Mycroft, and I’m not much of a photographer.” John took a cautious sip of his tea, already prepared exactly as he liked it. He tried not to think about how creepy it was that Mycroft knew that.
“Oddly, the distortion is not in all the photos, just ones where you appear to be trying to fade into the background—usually to let Sherlock get all the attention. He’s always been such a show-off. But how do you explain it?”
John gave a tight smile. “Sherlock being a show-off?”
Mycroft gave him a small grimace of a smile of his own. “That’s a mystery for the ages. No, I’m talking about your extraordinarily self-effacing nature, John. You are a modest man, but that doesn’t usually affect photography equipment.”
John took another sip of tea to stall for time. “I don’t know what to tell you, Mycroft. I don’t know anything about cameras. I didn’t even think it worked on them.”
Mycroft’s face relaxed the smallest bit. “That what worked on them?” he asked.
John tilted his head, thinking. “I mean, I thought it was only people because cameras don’t have feelings, do they, they’re just mechanical. I’ve never seen that kind of effect before, though. I wonder if digital is different than film, somehow? Or if it’s because it’s video?”
“It is a different technology,” Mycroft said obligingly, “Anything is possible. But, why do you suppose it works on people?”
John shrugged, feeling tired, too tired. Tired from a long day. Tired from a life of keeping secrets. And really, why bother? What was the point? It would be good to unburden himself, wouldn’t it? It wasn’t like Sherlock didn’t already know his secret. “I’ve never been able to figure it out,” he said. “Just got used to people looking past me. It’s not like I do it on purpose, most of the time, it’s just easier not to be noticed.”
“Why is it easier?”
“Because drawing attention to myself is dangerous. London with Sherlock isn’t exactly safe—look what happened last week. A bloody bomb vest. And Afghanistan before that. And there was … well, sometimes it’s just better to be overlooked, don’t you think? You should know that better than anyone, since you’re secretly the British government, right? That’s not exactly something you want to draw attention to.”
Mycroft gave an encouraging smile. “Yes, certainly, I understand the need for discretion. Most people aren’t as good as it as you are, though. Why do you suppose that is?”
John shrugged, toying with his cup and feeling his long day catch up to him. He was almost groggy with fatigue. “Because I needed to, I suppose, though I really can’t remember not being able to do it. It was safer that way.”
“Safer? Weren’t you safe?”
“No. Because of Da,” John said, swallowing more tea. “It was bad whenever he noticed me, so it was just better if he didn’t. I would try so hard to stay out of his way, but he’d find me anyway, so I just kept trying harder and harder and getting better at it. And then it just became a habit, I suppose. Staying out of the way. Not being seen. Being safe.”
John stared into his cup, remembering his childhood. His father’s drunken rages. The broken arm he’d had when he was four. How he’d had so many bruises his classmates called him clumsy. All he’d wanted to do was hide, and he’d gotten good at it.
Funny, he hadn’t thought about it in years, had almost forgotten entirely….
He blinked, staring at his cup, then looked up at Mycroft. “You drugged me.”
The other man nodded. “A truth-serum, yes. It’s harmless, I assure you.”
John pushed his chair back from the table, and tried to come to his feet, but the movement started his head spinning. “Why? Why would you do that?”
“It’s nothing to worry about, John, I just needed to know the truth.”
John forced himself to his feet, clinging to the back of the chair, breathing hard. He didn’t think that Mycroft would actually harm him, but visions of government labs haunted him and he couldn’t be sure. “And you couldn’t just ask?”
Mycroft just sat and calmly watched him (the prat). “I did ask, John, last week, and you lied to me.”
John shook his head and then clutched the chair. “No, I didn’t. I didn’t lie. I told you I didn’t understand what happened, and it’s true. I don’t know why it works, I don’t know how I do it, I just do it, and I saved your brother’s life. I don’t understand why you did this.”
His knees were shaking now and there was a ringing in his ears that meant he wasn’t going to be upright for much longer. What the hell had Mycroft put in the tea?
“Because I needed to know the truth, John. You live with my brother, and I have to protect him.”
“Protect him?” John’s knees had dropped him to the floor now, but he was still clutching the chair, panting in his effort to stay upright. “I saved his life. Again. Me. And I would do it again. You make such a big show about protecting him, but where were you? I was snatched off the street and forced into a bomb but I still managed to save your brother’s life while you were nowhere in sight. You showed up the next morning with his friggin’ coat as if that were all that mattered, and then you’re surprised that I didn’t trust you with the biggest secret of my life?”
Mycroft hadn’t even bothered to stand up, but just sat there watching him struggle. “And that’s exactly what concerns me, John. That you were keeping secrets. What other secrets do you have?”
“I stole a toy bus when I was seven. I played hooky to make out with a girl when I was sixteen. I accidentally walked off with a pen from work last week.” John said as his fingers lost their grip and he sat heavily on the floor. “And your brother trusts me. I’d never hurt him¬—but that’s not a secret. Neither is the fact that he’s not going to forgive you for this.”
“Should my brother trust you, John?”
“Yes! How can you not know that? You’re supposed. To know. Everything.” His vision was playing tricks on him now, distorting the office as if it were a carnival fun house. “I’d do. Anything.”
He was slumped on the floor now, blinking slowly as he tried to force his eyelids open, tried not to succumb to whatever Mycroft had given him. See if he ever accepted tea from him again, he thought, and then almost giggled because with the way this was going, it seemed highly unlikely that would ever happen again.
Two perfectly polished shoes came into his field of vision, and just as he lost all contact with his consciousness, he heard a smooth voice say, “I may hold you to that.”
Um, yeah, so Mycroft might be a bit of a problem. (I told this took a left-turn I wasn't expecting.) Thoughts?
Sherlock’s phone chimed and he glanced at it.
--Been kidnapped by Mycroft again. He actually said please this time and is promising tea. Might be a while.
Bloody Mycroft, Sherlock thought. Why couldn’t he leave John alone? You’d think Mycroft would be glad he’d not only found a friend (after years of exhortations to that effect), but that his friend was capable of and willing to save his life. After a lifetime spent scolding Sherlock to be more careful, you’d think the man would be grateful.
John had mentioned tea, though. Maybe this was Mycroft being grateful?
Sherlock blinked, then sat up on the couch. Wait. Mycroft had said please for one of his trademark kidnappings? To his knowledge, Mycroft had not said “please” outside of the most superficial, polite usage since he was thirteen. And he was serving tea?
He jumped to his feet and went running to his room.
Half an hour later, he flung open Mycroft’s office door. “Where is he?” he demanded, but his brother just glanced up at him in that superior way of his and asked who he meant.
“John. Where is he? I know he’s here.”
“Yes, about John,” Mycroft said, laying his pen down on the desk. “Why didn’t you tell me about him?”
Mycroft slid a file across the desk and Sherlock picked it up with a sneer. It was full of surveillance photos of John, the air around him shimmering as if with heat. Even in the midst of crowds, he was always alone, never attracting attention. “Poor quality photos, Mycroft. I thought your equipment was better than that. Where. Is. John?”
“The man is dangerous, Sherlock.”
“When he needs to be—that’s how we escaped from Moriarty. It’s no concern of yours.”
“Oh, but it is.” Mycroft leaned back in his chair and Sherlock resisted the urge to push it over backwards. “I repeat, why didn’t you tell me about him?”
“I thought you knew everything you needed to know already, Mycroft?”
“Like that he can avoid the attention of trained assassins at will? No, somehow that didn’t come up on any of my reports.”
Sherlock wanted to wipe that smug look off his brother’s face, but reined in his temper. With Mycroft paying attention to John’s gift, he couldn’t afford a misstep here—not if he wanted to keep John out of Mycroft’s clutches. “It certainly came in handy last week when he saved my life. I’d think you’d be pleased I’ve finally found the perfect flatmate.”
“Oh, Sherlock, so short-sighted,” his brother said with that you’ll-never-understand-people look that Sherlock hated. “Why limit the poor man? With skills like that, he can do so much more. Which is why he’ll be staying here for a while.”
“So you can study him like a lab rat?” Sherlock was furious—and slightly panicked (not that he admitted that). “Absolutely not!”
“It’s really not up to you, Sherlock,” his brother said calmly. “And don’t exaggerate. It’s not like we’re going to lock him in a lab and dissect him. But with his talent for not being seen? Do you know how badly we could use a man with talent like that?”
Sherlock was irate. “You can’t have him. He’s mine! My flatmate. My friend” Sherlock spat the word out almost viciously. “All these years that you groaned about my not having friends and now I have one and you want to take him away? No!”
“Sherlock, I assure you, this is not personal.”
“Of course it’s personal. Everything with you is personal.” Sherlock was pacing the room now. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were jealous.”
“Jealous?” The cool disinterest in his brother’s voice made Sherlock’s blood pressure rise, he could almost feel his blood pressing on his veins as it coursed through his system.
“Yes, because I have a friend who stays because he likes me, not because you paid him.”
A short laugh. “Yes, a ‘friend’ that you’ve consistently belittled and driven away with your lack of concern. How many times has he stormed out of the flat, furious with you, Sherlock? You know quite well that your lack of compassion has a deleterious effect on him. It’s only a matter of time before you drive him away completely. Isn’t it better that he apply his plentiful and unique gifts to his country? It’s not like you care.”
Sherlock had come to a halt. He couldn’t deny that the game with Moriarty had caused a rift between him and John. He knew that Mycroft had been witness to much of that, and he swallowed as he remembered sending John here, alone, to question Mycroft because Sherlock had been too beguiled by Moriarty’s enticing game to bother coming. Friends weren’t supposed to throw each other to the lions, were they?
Yet, when it came down to it—at the pool—John had not only shown his friendship by first trying to give Sherlock an escape, but also making sure they both got out. In his turn, Sherlock had been floored by the realization that he couldn’t leave John behind. “You’re wrong,” he told Mycroft quietly. “John and I are friends, true friends. I may not be an expert, brother, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize it when I see it. I would no more have abandoned him in that pool than he would me. And I won’t abandon him to your good graces, now.”
Mycroft scoffed, “As if his skills are being usefully used now? You’ve turned a skilled—albeit invalided—army doctor into an errand boy who spends far too much time fighting with chip-and-PIN machines when he’s not wiping runny noses at that dreadful surgery or dealing with your worst excesses at home. If you were truly a friend, you’d be happy for him to find a task that would utilize his talents to their fullest potential.”
Sherlock wheeled toward the desk and leaned over it, staring down at his brother. This was his fault. John had come to Mycroft’s attention because of him, and he couldn’t let Mycroft take him. “Except, that’s not what he’s chosen, is it? You’ve insisted for years that all you wanted to do was keep me safe. So why, brother dear, would you want to remove the one man who wants to do so?”
Mycroft had the grace to swallow. “I’m not … I’m not saying that he can’t continue to live with you, Sherlock. I’m saying he’ll be here with me for a time for some … training. His talent can be useful to your country. He’s answered her call once before, he’ll answer it again. That doesn’t mean you can’t still be … friends.”
Sherlock continued to stare at him, trying to make the weight of his displeasure a physical thing. “No. You’ll steal him away and break him like you did with countless other things I’ve had. Why must you always interfere? Why do you insist on ruining every good thing that enters my life?”
“If you’re referring to the cocaine, little brother….”
Sherlock snarled, actually snarled at him. “I am not. But John Watson is good, Mycroft, and I need him.” He paused, panting as the realization swept over him. “I need him. You can’t take him. Please, you can’t.”
Mycroft’s face softened. “Sherlock, I’m not taking him, just … borrowing. Think what he can do for England.”
“Think what he can do for me,” Sherlock said. “I would be dead, Mycroft, if it weren’t for him. More than once.”
“I can increase your security, Sherlock. Or, of course, you could stop putting yourself into such dangerous situations.”
“John’s better,” Sherlock told him. “And your security was too late.”
Mycroft closed his eyes briefly. “Nevertheless. Try not to be so selfish, Sherlock.”
“Selfish? You’re willing to take an injured, ex-army doctor with a bad shoulder and turn him into a spy. He’s finally getting past losing his career, and you’re going to take away the life he’s built? Just as he’s finally starting to get past the nightmares? I’m trying to think about him, Mycroft. I owe him my life. He deserves to live his own as he chooses.”
“And you think he’d choose you over England?”
Sherlock smirked. “My brother is the British Government—it’s still all in the family, isn’t it?”
Mycroft’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll make you a deal, brother. You win, and John can return to Baker Street to continue his exciting life of running your errands for the honor of occasionally saving your life. If I win, he’ll do some training and will work for me, can still live—eventually—at Baker Street with you, but you can no longer be his job. Would that be so dreadful?”
Sherlock raised his eyebrows. “Whatever happened to free will, Mycroft? Doesn’t he deserve some say in this?”
“You don’t think he’d accept your decision?”
“You really don’t know him at all, do you, Mycroft? He’s even more stubborn than I am. The minute he decides to do something, he’s going to see it through or die trying—but you’ll never force him to do anything. You should have learned that the very first night when he refused your money. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that your kidnapping of him today makes him completely resistant to your … well-intentioned offer.”
Sherlock flung himself down in a chair. “I’m certainly not going to make the mistake of bartering away my friend’s life just to make you happy. In this matter, John and I are a team.”
Mycroft sighed and pressed a button on his desk. “Fine. Let’s talk to John, then.”
John opened his eyes and immediately wished he hadn’t. Why was the light so bright? Why did it hurt? He didn’t remember getting drunk last night, so why did he feel hungover?
He covered his eyes with his arm and just lay there, waiting for the room to stop spinning. He could hear angry voices coming from … somewhere. Didn’t they know he had a headache?
His ears finally woke up enough to identify the voices—Sherlock and Mycroft. Wonderful. Just what he needed….
His eyes popped open as he remembered, and then clenched closed again with a groan. Mycroft had kidnapped him—again—and had drugged him. He remembered drinking the bloody tea, remembered passing out on the floor, and now he was here. Wherever here was. He squinted and carefully opened one eye.
Well, on the plus side, it wasn’t some bare, sterile laboratory room, so that was something. He wasn’t strapped to a table, either, which was something even better. He was lying on a remarkably comfortable couch in an unfamiliar room, but one decorated in a similar style to the room he’d passed out in.
He sat up carefully and counted ten to give his head a chance to stop spinning before he lurched to his feet and stumbled toward the door, shielding his eyes from the light. He barely avoided colliding with the door as it was suddenly opened by Mycroft’s usual assistant. “You’re to come with me, Dr. Watson.”
John struggled to catch his balance, still reeling from the drugs in his system. “That didn’t work too well for me the last time,” he told her as he squinted, trying to limit the amount of light glaring in his eyes.
She merely smiled. “We can stop by the loo, if you’d like to rinse your face to reduce that headache. I’d offer you some paracetamol, but I assume you wouldn’t accept.”
John resisted the urge to shake his aching head. “Correct. Probably not for a long, long, time. Where are we going?”
“I told you—the men’s room so you can refresh yourself.”
“And after that?” John really wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer, but it turned out not to matter as she didn’t say anything else. She just smiled and walked out the door, leaving him to follow.
He was comforted that the hallway was the familiar one he’d seen on his last visit to Mycroft’s office, and further comforted by the absence of (overt) guards, though he was quite sure there were cameras trained on him. If this was a test to see if he was going to try to escape … well, not until he was sure he needed to. Not with this headache. Trust Mycroft to give him a drug-cocktail hangover.
So, he followed Anthea meekly down the hall to the men’s room and had to admit it was a relief to splash cold water on his face. It didn’t much help the headache, but it made him feel more human just the same.
When he came out of the men’s room, Anthea gestured him down the hall to Mycroft’s office again—the last place he wanted to be, but hadn’t he heard Sherlock’s voice? Or was that his imagination?
Sighing, he walked through the open door.
Mycroft was sitting behind his desk and Sherlock sprawled in the visitor’s chair until he saw John in the doorway. “John! Are you all … what’s wrong?” His eyes scanned John, and he obviously saw Mycroft’s drugs in the pores of his skin somehow, because he turned on Mycroft. “You drugged him?” His voice positively dripped with malice and the faintest hint of—victory?—as he took John’s arm and led him to the other chair. “You have a headache. Anything else?”
John shook his head (very carefully), feeling inexplicably better now Sherlock was there, but didn’t take his eyes off Mycroft. “Just the headache. Thanks for that, Mycroft.”
“It should subside shortly, John. Did Anthea not offer you pain killers?”
John snorted. “As if I’d take anything else from you right now? What’s this all about?”
“Apparently my brother wants you to be a spy, John,” Sherlock told him with barely-hidden glee. “I believe this was something by way of a job interview.”
John’s eyebrows lifted. “You’re kidding?” He looked at Mycroft, sitting calmly behind his desk without even the grace to look ashamed. “You gave me truth serum because you want to give me a job? Jeez, Mycroft, most high-security paranoid types restrict themselves to lie detector tests on the first date.”
“Don’t be silly, John. You never would have agreed to a lie detector test. The truth serum was faster.”
John just stared, unable to even begin to think how to respond to that. Nobody named Holmes thought like a normal person, he reminded himself. Finally, he just blinked and said, “Luckily, I already have a job.”
“Ah yes,” said Mycroft. “Runny noses and childish behavior.”
“I’m a doctor, Mycroft. It’s part of the job.”
“I was speaking of Sherlock,” the older man replied with a smirk. “And I think you’ll want to hear my offer.”
“After this afternoon, I’d really rather hear nothing from you whatsoever for at least a month, Mycroft,” John said. “Thanks to you, I’ve got a migraine and have lost three hours now of my very precious leisure time. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll be leaving now.”
He started to stand up, but paused when Mycroft said, “It would behoove you to listen, Dr. Watson. Would you really turn your back on Queen and Country?”
“I’ve done my bit, Mycroft, and consider my time well-spent looking after Sherlock. You’ve got dozens of people better fit for covert work than a middle-aged doctor with a bad shoulder and a limp.”
“A psychosomatic limp,” Sherlock put in, breaking his unusually long silence.
“Trust me, it will come back. It may incapacitate me altogether,” John said, voice icy. “I’m not interested in being anything resembling a spy, thank you very much, and don’t have the skill-set, anyway.”
Mycroft leaned forward. “Except for being able to avoid being seen, which you must admit could be useful.”
“Maybe if I was still twenty years old, I’d be interested, but, no. Just, no, Mycroft.”
John glanced over at Sherlock, who was leaning back in his chair with a smirk as he said to Mycroft, “I told you.”
Mycroft gave an elegant nod. “So you did, which means we move to plan B.”
“Plan B?” Why was John so worried to hear there was a plan B?
“Yes, John,” Sherlock told him. “My brother feels his proposal is by way of—what’s the phrase?—an offer that you can’t refuse. Now that he’s become aware of your talents, the only way he’s going to be willing to let you go is if you can outsmart his people.”
John blinked. “I don’t understand. I thought you were happy I was looking after Sherlock, Mycroft. Didn’t I just save his life the other day? What would have happened if I hadn’t been there? Do you want to risk that happening again? Because I don’t.”
“Have you never heard of a pre-emptive strike, Captain Watson? Taking out an enemy before he becomes a threat?”
“Of course, but again—I’m sure you have plenty of people already fully trained who can handle that. Wouldn’t you rather I were in place, defending Sherlock?”
“As a tactician, I’d rather see you where your talents are most useful for the greater good. It is yet to be determined whether that is at Sherlock’s side or at my hand.”
John still couldn’t believe he was having this conversation. “And I remind you, I’ve done my bit. I’m almost 40 years old. I served my country for almost half my life until I got kicked out of the army for having the stupidity to get shot. I’m not ready for another big life change, Mycroft. I’m still adapting to the last one and I’m happy where I am. You should be, too. What was it you said the first day we met? You worry about Sherlock constantly? Then just leave me where I am.”
From his side came a sing-song, “I told you so” from his flatmate. John shot him a sideways glance and saw Sherlock looking far too happy.
“I could convince you,” said Mycroft.
“Last I checked, this was a free country,” John replied.
“Indeed, but the Crown can’t let its best resources lying fallow, and can reward faithful service lavishly.”
John gave a hard, sharp laugh. “Yes, I’ve already experienced that. I was rewarded so ‘lavishly’ for losing my profession and almost dying that I couldn’t even afford a flat on my own. Forgive me if I’m skeptical.”
Mycroft’s expression didn’t change as he added. “We can also make things quite difficult. It’s hard to function without electricity in this day and age, isn’t it? And public transportation can be notoriously difficult. Employers are so fickle, too. There’s no loyalty, anymore.”
John couldn’t believe this. “You’re threatening me? You’re so willing to coerce me away from your brother that you’re threatening me?”
“You really are an excellent candidate, Dr. Watson,” Mycroft said with a nod. “Your ability to get around unseen is too valuable to ignore.”
John couldn’t believe Sherlock hadn’t said anything. “No, Mycroft. I’m done.”
“Are you up to a wager, Dr. Watson?” Mycroft asked smoothly.
There was no reaction from Sherlock, and John couldn’t decide if that was reassuring or terrifying. “What kind of wager?”
“Sherlock alluded to it earlier. If you can avoid my people for 24 hours, I’ll leave you to choose your own way.”
Now John did laugh. “If I can prove I’m better, you’ll drop the whole thing? What happened to using valuable resources?”
“Ah, but then that would mean my brother would be living with the most capable man in the country, which you can imagine would reassure me as to his well-being.”
John cast another look at Sherlock, noting his frozen face. “And if I lost?”
“You will agree to work for me. We’ll provide training and take advantage of your knack for being unseen to help keep the nation safe. You would still be able to share a flat with Sherlock—though I can assure you the salary would make it unnecessary. You wouldn’t need to practice your current brand of medicine, nor would you need to do errands for my brother.”
John looked at Sherlock. “You’ve already agreed to this, haven’t you?”
He shook his head. “No. I talked him into giving you a choice, but whether you take it is up to you.”
“And you would accept that? If I have to start working for your brother?” John couldn’t keep the disbelief from his voice.
“Of course not, John.” Sherlock told him with a tight smile. “I’m quite confident that we will win.”
“Wait, we?” John asked. “I thought we were just talking about me?”
Sherlock gave him a pitying look. “Really, John, we’re a team. Do keep up.”
John looked back and forth between the brothers. “So, if we can stay free for 24 hours, everything stays the same?”
“Yes, though I would still hope you might be available for the occasional freelance chore like chasing down James Moriarty, but it would be entirely your choice.” Mycroft said.
“You know my gift doesn’t work on cameras, though,” John said. “And you’ve got entire government divisions working for you. It hardly seems fair.”
“Don’t be silly, John,” Sherlock told him. “You’ve got me.”
John met his eyes and saw a feral grin spreading across his friend’s face. “You’re sure?”
John turned to Mycroft. “When do we start?”
The other man gave him his own smile, somehow frightening. “Whenever you leave this building. I’ll give you a thirty minute head start from the moment you exit. You can leave now or five hours from now or a day from now. I know you’re not at your best at the moment, John, and am willing to give you the time you need to recover from your … indisposition.”
“That’s sporting of you, Mycroft, considering I wouldn’t have a headache if it weren’t for you,” John said.
“I can have Anthea bring you something to eat,” Mycroft began, but Sherlock cut him off. “No thank you, brother. I don’t think John or I are willing to trust any food you’d serve today.”
“Very well. There’s an empty office down the hall where you can rest and make plans. Take as long as you need. The clock starts when you walk out the door.”
“Twenty-four hours after we leave, yes? That includes the half-hour head-start?”
Mycroft smiled. “Yes. You needn’t even use the front door. Though for security reasons, I’d prefer if you didn’t sneak out of the building. Our security department worries about that kind of thing.”
“Of course. We’ll just be down the hall then,” said Sherlock, rising to his feet and snatching a pad of paper from Mycroft’s desk. Left with no choice, John stood and looked at the older Holmes brother, trying to reconcile the ruthless bureaucrat in front of him with the man he thought he knew, and then he turned and followed his flatmate.
“Most dangerous man in England, right?”
“Exactly,” agreed Sherlock, turning into the empty office and whipping out a pen. “Assume he sees and hears everything.”
John nodded and massaged his temples. “Right. Especially here in his own office. Now, if only I could get rid of this headache, damn it.”
Surprisingly, Sherlock grinned at him and dug into his pockets, tossing him a pack of paracetamol. “Completely unadulterated, I promise. Oh, and here. It’s the best I could manage for dinner.” An energy bar landed on the table.
“You knew?” John fought a sense of betrayal.
“Not until you sent me that text. Mycroft say please? And offer tea? He was obviously up to something, so I came prepared.” Sherlock met his eyes, obviously too pleased with himself, but John was too grateful to complain. And at the flash of warning, too cautious to ask what else Sherlock might have brought with him.
“Do you really think he would drug our food? I mean, twice in one day seems like overkill.”
Sherlock tipped his head. “Perhaps not. I think he’s actually looking forward to this challenge, so he’d want us at our best. But I wouldn’t put it past him to hide a tracking device.”
John just shook his head, eyes closed as he waited for the pain killer to kick in. “You Holmes brothers. Never a dull moment.”
He heard Sherlock snort. “You wouldn’t have it any other way. So, when should we leave?”
He frowned, eyes still shut. “As much as I hate to admit it, I could use a nap. If we’re going to be on the run for 24 hours, I’d like to get rid of this headache before we start.”
“Right,” Sherlock said. “You stretch out over there, and I’ll start making plans.”
John nodded and stood up, pausing to look at his flatmate. “You’re sure about this? You don’t have to do this, you know.”
Sherlock just looked at him. “I told you, John. I’d be lost without my blogger. Get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.”
Sherlock watched John lie down on the couch and cover his eyes with his arm, forehead still lined with pain. A surge of anger flooded through him again. How dare Mycroft drug him? He was irritated that he hadn’t expected that, but how dare he? As if John were one of his usual minions to be used according to Mycroft’s whim.
He hadn’t expected this delay to Mycroft’s challenge, but supposed that time to plan was useful—and it certainly would be best for John to be in top form. It was fortunate they had spent time in the last week exploring the limits of his gift, but there were still so many unknown variables to go with the known facts.
1. John’s gift left traces on the CCTV cameras. So they could not assume they could hide entirely with John’s gift. Luckily, Sherlock knew the camera-free areas and could usually move around London without being tracked, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
2. John’s gift could keep them both from being noticed by people on the street—even people actively searching for them. He knew that John’s gift didn’t work on him, and he suspected it would not work on Mycroft, but it was certain that it worked on almost everybody else—including police and other government agents. Avoiding Mycroft’s agents, then, should be easy.
3. John’s gift worked for both of them, so long as they were in close proximity, and worked best if they were touching. Since he did not plan on them splitting up during this challenge, this was a moot point. Of course they would stay together.
4. John’s gift appeared not to require any particular effort, so it shouldn’t tire him. Though, Sherlock reminded himself, stretching it to cover both of them for 24 hours straight might be more exhausting than he realized. He would have to keep an eye on him, watch his energy levels, to gauge whether it was too much for him. Still—he had covered his army mates (comrades? buddies? whatever they were called) in actual combat conditions, so one friend in the streets of London shouldn’t be taxing. Sherlock would judge as conditions warranted.
In addition, Sherlock knew many tricks for moving covertly and avoiding attention. He was a master of disguise when he needed to be, able to hide in plain sight. Between them, he and John would be a formidable team.
To balance these benefits, he must remember that John required regular food and rest. Damn Mycroft for preventing him from having a proper meal before this started. Also, John’s gift wavered when his concentration was broken. Would he be able to concentrate for so long without a break? (Or was it only necessary to concentrate to include Sherlock, since John’s gift seemed to work for him as naturally as breathing?)
Speaking of, John’s breathing had slowed, and Sherlock rose quietly and draped his coat over his … friend. He was still amazed at that. He had a friend, a real one. He had had the occasional acquaintance who could stand his company for limited lengths of time—Mike Stamford luckily being one of them. If it hadn’t been for him, he might never have met John, after all. But a real friend? The kind who would do anything for you? Sherlock had never imagined such grace could be his. It was almost enough to make him believe in miracles.
How dare Mycroft want to take John from him! He knew he called Mycroft his archenemy but deep down had always believed that his brother had his best interests at heart. Or, at least, Mycroft’s idea of his best interests. Even if they had never agreed on what they actually were, he had trusted that Mycroft meant well, more or less.
So why would he act now to take away the best thing that had ever happened to Sherlock?
It wasn’t like Mycroft didn’t like John—or as much as he liked anybody. The signs for that would have been obvious, and Sherlock knew his brother had a grudging respect for the ex-soldier who had refused to be cowed on their first meeting. Sherlock wasn’t stupid, after all. He’d also seen how John had somehow smoothed his relations with Lestrade and the other MET officers. He didn’t understand how he had done it, but John helped keep Sherlock grounded, calm. He was soothing, and he reminded him of how “normal” people acted without making Sherlock feel like a sociopath.
(Because secretly, he knew he wasn’t really a sociopath.)
Sherlock finally had a friend, one who made his life easier, who actually made him eat and sleep more than he thought was necessary. He kept him occupied and distracted from thoughts of cocaine. He eased his way when dealing with the idiots at Scotland Yard and tried to help him understand sentiment. He had saved his life at least twice, and Sherlock was actually … happy … having him around.
So why would his over-protective-is-too-mild-an-adjective brother want to take him away? It’s not like John’s skills would translate well to government work (barring the occasional job).
Ergo, Mycroft would not.
No matter what he was threatening, he had set up this whole scenario as a test—of both Sherlock and John, if he wasn’t mistaken. He was probably watching them right now and had already noted Sherlock’s protective actions toward his beleaguered flatmate. It was just like him, and didn’t really come as a surprise, but Sherlock found he was insulted, enraged on John’s behalf. He deserved better than to be put through Mycroft’s rat maze like this.
Twenty-four hours. Very well. It would be a piece of cake. And Mycroft did so love cake.
It was close to 6:00 a.m. when John finally woke to the tempting scent of tea. He stretched, surprised to find Sherlock’s coat on top of him. “I thought we weren’t trusting Mycroft’s food?”
Sherlock grinned at him. “We’re not. I went and fetched this myself and am quite sure it’s free of any chemical additives, though I can’t speak for the taste.”
“You fetched … but I thought we couldn’t leave the building?”
Sherlock gave him a pitying look. “They have a kitchen, John, and you need an actual meal before we start.”
John was too hungry to argue, and accepted the tea Sherlock handed him. “You need to eat something, too. Toast, at least, and a cup of tea.” When Sherlock made a face he said, “You didn’t sleep, right? It’s going to be a busy day, you need something in your system. We’re not leaving until you eat, too.”
Sherlock made a face and begrudgingly snatched a piece of toast. “Feel better?”
“Oh yeah,” John said, mouth full of eggs. “You’ve got plans in place?”
Sherlock nodded. “We’ll discuss it later. Though it wouldn’t hurt for you to take some time now to think over our options. You weren’t really up to it last night. It will be easier to blend when the streets aren’t quite so empty, so we have some time.”
In silent accord the two of them ate and got ready to leave. John was surprised to see Sherlock in an ordinary jacket rather than his usual Belstaff, but figured that was too distinctive. Anything that could help them blend in would just make his gift that much more effective.
They started down the hallway, and John asked, “How obvious do we want to be, leaving?”
“No reason to hide it—they need to know when to start the clock, after all.”
“Right,” John agreed. He took out his phone and powered it down, taking a deep breath. “So, 7:24. Shall we?”
“Let’s,” agreed Sherlock, doing the same. Together, they pushed open the outer door and stepped out into the morning.
They turned right toward the nearest Tube station, making no effort to avoid attention. “So, half an hour? What’s the plan?”
Sherlock pointed his chin ahead. “Tube, first. Dozens of untraceable possibilities.”
“Right,” said John. “So, are we sure we’re bug and tracker free? Mycroft didn’t sneak anything into our pockets or anything?”
A quick nod as Sherlock glanced back over his shoulder. “Believe it or not, I think he’s almost looking forward to this. He’ll use everything he can, but planting a tracking device ahead of time would be cheating. Which isn’t to say he wouldn’t have an agent plant one afterward.”
“Pickpockets in reverse? Lovely,” said John. “We know he’s watching right now, yeah?”
“And he won’t expect us to do anything until we get to the Tube and can get lost with the masses?”
“Yes,” Sherlock said, a crease between his brows.
“Well, let’s at least avoid people on the street, then,” said John as Sherlock watched him concentrate. “And yes, I know, he’ll see us on the cameras, but frankly, I’d rather that he know I don’t care.”
They continued on toward the Tube, pausing once at an ATM to withdraw cash to get them through the day. “You know,” John said, “We could almost just head straight back to Mycroft’s office and just sit outside all day.”
“Where would the fun be in that?” Sherlock asked him, eyes alight.
John answered him with a grin. “Exactly. If we’re going down, we’re going down fighting.”
I'm still not entirely happy with this chapter, but--it gets things moving, and that's something, right? The game is on!
John and Sherlock had had no trouble avoiding attention so far. They’d taken the Tube to Bayswater and stopped in a secondhand store to get new jackets and hats—and then promptly swapped the hats next time they were off the street.
Sherlock knew dozens of ways to get around the city without being spotted by the CCTV cameras, and they took advantage of those. At his insistence, John lowered his defenses whenever they were in a crowd or sufficiently out of the way of Mycroft’s prying eyes. He might normally find it as easy as breathing, but continued, constant use for him and Sherlock got tiring.
Which was why they were stopped now, sitting in the back of a coffee shop near Hyde Park for John to get a snack.
“I wish there was a way around the effect on the cameras,” John said. “Not only do we show up, but that damned heat shimmer makes it obvious that we’re there. It’s like a digital arrow pointing right at us.”
Sherlock nodded, eyes on the door. “And you can’t affect the cameras?”
John shrugged, taking a bite of the dry scone, trying not to think longingly of Mrs. Hudson’s baking. “Until a week ago, I had no idea my gift affected cameras at all. I wouldn’t even know how to … I mean, they don’t have brains, do they?”
“And that’s what you’re doing? Affecting people’s brains?”
“Do you have any other explanation? They see us well enough to not walk into us, but their brains just choose not to pay any attention. It’s not like a … a force field or something. It’s directed at the person watching. I could get my teachers to look past me in school, but my classmates all knew I was there. Making the whole class ignore me was harder. By Afghanistan, though, I could hide five to ten of my patrol, depending on how close they were, but not for hours at a time.”
“Hmm,” Sherlock tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling for a moment. “Do you suppose you could direct your gift at the person watching the CCTV footage?”
“What? No, I …” John’s protest was automatic, but it faded as the idea sank in. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried that before. It would probably only work for live viewing, though. I’m pretty sure my brain waves can’t affect the recorded image.”
“And yet, there’s that heat-shimmer effect on the final image,” Sherlock reminded him, smiling at John’s sudden look of introspection.
“I could try it, but … how would I know it was working? And I don’t know if I can focus on people around us and anyone viewing over the camera at the same time.”
“Are you finished?” Sherlock asked him, standing up with a bound. “Because I say we go test this!”
John boggled for a moment and then gamely stood and followed.
Ten minutes later they were standing right in front of a CCTV camera, near a convenient-for-escapes Tube station. “Okay, John,” said Sherlock. “Wave at the camera.”
John laughed. “I can’t draw their attention, Sherlock.”
“No, but if you stand there normally for long enough, somebody’s bound to notice. You don’t actually have to wave if you don’t want to.” He was busy looking up and down the street, watching for signs of Mycroft’s minions.
“What exactly are we doing, Sherlock?” John’s voice was tight with strain.
“Let’s see if we can divert the attention of the person with the camera. We’ll wait until they notice us and then—see if you can stop them.”
Another laugh. “And in the meantime, they’ll dispatch thirty of Mycroft’s fastest assets to take us in?”
“That’s why we’re in front of a Tube station, John.”
Just wonderful, thought John. This couldn’t possibly go badly. Being tracked through London by the most dangerous man in the country wasn’t enough excitement for Sherlock, oh no. He had to escalate things.
Still, he had to admit he was curious, too. He watched the camera, thinking. He admitted he wanted to know if it was possible to avoid being seen by the cameras, but didn’t think it was wise to figuratively thumb his nose at Mycroft. It would be great if it worked, but why give away all his skills?
“Fine, but let’s not show all our cards, shall we? Don’t look at the camera. Let them think we don’t see it.. I know you like teasing your brother, but some of us prefer to be a little more subtle. Even if this works, why let him know that we know?”
Sherlock looked like he was going to protest, but just then, the panning camera pause and turn back until it was facing directly toward him and Sherlock. “Okay, we’re on,” said John. “Just—look like you’re explaining something and keep an eye open while I try to concentrate, okay? And let me know when something like a bus or lorry is coming—something big enough to hide us from the camera for a moment.”
Sherlock started talking while John let his eyes blur as his inner focus reached. He tried to picture the view from the camera, a wall of monitors all being scanned by people in suits. Scary people, perhaps, but still people who could be distracted, or confused. They could easily look at a monitor of two men standing on a street corner and think nothing of it. Just ordinary men, after all. Nothing remarkable at all.
“Now, John,” Sherlock’s voice said, as he touched his arm and John concentrated and thought hard about how they were ordinary, nothing to look at, nothing to notice, nothing there at all.
Holding that thought as firmly as he could, he blinked, bringing the street back in focus. He felt light-headed, as if his feet weren’t quite on the ground. He had to remind himself that he, John Watson, was standing on this corner, not sitting at a desk in some tech center filled with monitors, but not to forget that the people watching those monitors were real.
The bus had passed and he glanced at the camera, trying not to look directly at it. For a long moment, it stayed pointed directly at them and then … it panned. First to the left, then to the right, as if ..
As if it couldn’t see them at all.
He met Sherlock’s eyes as he said, “John, you’re amazing.”
John couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face as Sherlock flagged down a taxi. He had to admit—he was having fun.
This wasn’t fun anymore.
Oh, they were successfully avoiding Mycroft’s attention via his usual means of CCTV cameras and sleek black cars, but Sherlock had made the mistake of turning his phone on for a quick check of text messages, and found several urgent ones from Lestrade.
“We can’t go, John. Mycroft will know.”
“But Sherlock, two men were murdered. We can’t just ignore that because Mycroft is determined to chase us all over the city.”
Sherlock tried not to roll his eyes. He’d never understand this altruistic streak of John’s. It was one thing to work to capture criminals, but there were limits. “People are murdered every day. We can’t afford to walk into the middle of a crime scene today, John. Mycroft could have the entire police force looking for us. This could be a trap. The murder can wait until tomorrow. They are already dead.”
He watched the familiar signs as John was reminded yet again that Sherlock didn’t care about ordinary people. It wasn’t like this couldn’t wait until tomorrow, after all.
Then he glanced at the next message. Oh.
The initials of the two men were SH and JW and … both of them were missing their hearts.
He could feel his face pale, and at John’s look of concern, handed him the phone. “It seems that Moriarty is feeling neglected.”
“Oh, Christ,” said John, staring at the phone in horror. Just then, another text came in. “It’s an invitation.”
Sherlock took the phone from him and looked.
--Lost interest already? I’m devastated. Come to my party to reassure me you still “care.” Don’t make me find you.
Sherlock quickly sent a reply to Lestrade and forwarded the texts to Mycroft (let him make himself useful) and then powered down the phone again, thinking hard.
“We have to go, Sherlock,” John said. “Dealing with Moriarty is more important than beating Mycroft.”
There was that blasted altruism again. “And you’re willing to become his indentured servant? Because I’m not.”
“At least Mycroft isn’t out there killing people to get your attention! I don’t want to lose the bet, either, Sherlock, but I’d rather work for Mycroft than have more deaths on my conscience.”
Sherlock wanted—oh, so badly—to argue with that, but even he had to admit that John had a point. These people were targeted specifically to get his attention, and there was no doubt Moriarty would continue if he didn’t answer his invitation. Even if his own conscience was okay with that, John would never forgive him.
He glanced at the next text. A photo of two more men, tied and bound, wearing paper party hats. The next message merely said, “Can’t wait to SEE you. We have a lot to talk about.”
John looked at Sherlock, face pale. “I think he knows. Now what do we do?”
Well, you knew Moriarty wouldn't take being ignored very well. Suddenly, Mycroft's not the biggest problem.
They’d powered off their phones again and just looked at each other.
“Let me just be very clear, in case it’s not obvious. I’d rather work for Mycroft than Moriarty,” John said, trying for a joke, for anything that would ease the tension.
“Don’t be silly, John, you already have a job. You work at that ridiculous little surgery and—more importantly—help me. Your schedule is much too full to branch out.”
“True. Nice to be wanted, I suppose, even if it’s by a trio of mad geniuses. Mum would be so proud.” John took a long breath, trying to calm his nerves. “So, how much do you suppose Moriarty knows about … about me?”
“He might not know anything—he could just be guessing. Or he might think it’s me. Considering he sent texts only to me, he continues to underestimate you,” Sherlock said, “He’s not used to anybody besting him, ever, but I’m the one he considers most like him. He certainly won’t believe that it was you and not me¬—and he won’t conceive that we could beat him a second time”
“I wouldn’t say we actually bested him last time.” The memory of the weight of the bomb vest, the humid, chlorine-scented heat of the pool, the way his knees buckled in relief when Sherlock tore off the bomb—all these flooded back. He remembered how helpless he’d felt, the despair when he realized there was no way to save Sherlock, but to just hope …
“We made it out alive, didn’t we? He’s not going to rest until he remedies that.”
Another deep breath. “Wonderful. Okay, so … what do we do? Creep up on his not-so-secret location? How does he know we’re not going to forward that address to everyone one at Scotland Yard?”
A faint quirk at the corners of his mouth were all the reaction Sherlock showed. “Because he knows how I love a game—he just doesn’t realize that the rules have changed.”
John just stared, not wanting another fight about caring. “They have?”
Now it was a real smile that flashed across Sherlock’s face. “Of course. Now I have you.”
“You mean, my gift.” That made sense, thought John. Now that Sherlock knew about his hidden talent, it would certainly affect his planning for the upcoming meeting.
“No, John. You. If I’m not going to let my own brother take you away, do you really think I’d allow Moriarty to? It’s really quite different, having someone to fight for, isn’t it?”
And before John could respond, Sherlock had spun on his heel and was striding away before John could gather his wits and scurry after him.
Sherlock’s mind was racing. John was right about one thing—they couldn’t let Moriarty continue, especially not with him targeting innocent bystanders just for their resemblance to John and himself. Not that Sherlock particularly cared about the strangers, but it was obvious that they were the prelude. Using John himself would be the grand finale, and Sherlock could not let it get that far.
So, he would take John to Lestrade’s crime scene. He would be safe there. And while he was distracted, Sherlock would go ahead to Moriarty’s rendezvous.
He pulled out his phone, and when John asked, explained that he was forwarding Moriarty’s texts to Mycroft. He was relieved when John accepted that answer. John occasionally surprised him by his insight and knowing when he was lying, but he apparently was too distraught at the moment.
“We’ll go check out the bodies, see what clues are left behind, and then we can go meet dear Jim,” he said, mind still calculating at light speed.
“Did Mycroft agree to put the bet on hold?”
“Not yet, but as I see it, we’ll get bonus points if we bring in Moriarty and evade his men all at the same time, don’t you?”
John looked skeptical. “Seems like it would be easier with backup. I mean, as a team we may be hell on wheels, but there are just two of us.”
“We can tell Lestrade, if you think it’s best,” Sherlock told him, trying not to sound too conciliatory. John knew him remarkably well after these last three months of living together. He didn’t want him to catch any hints that Sherlock had other plans.
They caught a cab to the crime scene. Instead of breezing in first, Sherlock let John go ahead, feigning the need to send a text. (Because tying a shoelace was just too cliché, even for John.) The minute he saw John was past the crime scene tape and edging his unobtrusive way around Sally, Sherlock turned and headed across the street. He would just catch another cab and be on his way. He would be so far ahead, John wouldn’t catch him. He praised his foresight at keeping the address from John.
He had just gotten into the cab when he heard a squeal of tires behind him. Excellent. Anything that would divert attention from his departure was all to the good. Anything to keep John safe.
John knew Sherlock was up to something. He hadn’t lived with the man for three months without picking up certain signals—and it certainly looked to him like Sherlock was trying to get him out of the way.
To that end, he entered the crime scene warily. He wouldn’t put it past Sherlock to have asked Lestrade to restrain him—for his own good, of course. Unfortunately, that’s when he made his first mistake. He was concentrating so hard on not being noticed, he didn’t realize that Sherlock was no longer behind him. When he finally looked back, Sherlock was nowhere in sight.
Frantic, he rushed back past the constable at the barrier. How had Sherlock disappeared so quickly? He was going to go after Moriarty on his own again and get himself killed, the idiot! Just then, he caught a glimpse of Sherlock hailing a cab across the street, and he dashed after him.
That was when he made his second mistake. He forgot that he couldn’t be seen, and he was too intent on catching Sherlock to watch for traffic.
He had barely stepped into the street when he was sideswiped by a passing car.
He barely had time for his brain to scream “Car!” at him before he was spun around by the fender and flung to the ground, hitting his head on the pavement. He just had time to curse to himself before everything went black.
“John? Are you okay? John?”
There were gentle hands on his chin as a familiar voice called his name. He groaned and opened his eyes, trying to focus on the blurry face of Greg Lestrade above him.
He blinked, trying to take stock, noting the burning pain in his hip that was balanced nicely by the splitting headache. He could hear a frantic voice in the background. (“He came out of nowhere! I didn’t see him!”) That was very likely true, he thought to himself with a giggle as he took in other, authoritative voices talking about ambulances and keeping people back.
He started to sit up, but was held down. “Stay still. You were only out a few minutes, but I want you checked before I let you move.”
Greg’s hands were gentle, and John subsided, letting his head rest on … “Is that your jacket?”
“Yeah, seemed softer than the pavement. How do you feel?”
John clenched his eyes closed. “Like I just got hit by a car.”
“You’d think a grown man would know how to cross the street. You’re lucky you weren’t hurt worse. Sherlock texted you were coming on ahead. Where’s he gone, is he going to be long?”
Sherlock! John started to sit up, but was hit by double-decker pain and fell back. “Christ. No, he tricked me so he could sneak away to go confront Moriarty on his own. I’ve got to go after him.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Greg told him firmly, as he pulled out his phone. As he started scrolling through his contacts, Sally Donovan brought over some ice packs for John which he accepted gratefully, trying not to groan as they made contact with what he was sure were quite elaborate bruises.
John tried to listen as Greg spoke on the phone, but he was too busy trying to remember if Sherlock had told him where he was going. Why hadn’t Moriarty sent him the address, too? It was a two-person invitation, wasn’t it? What was Sherlock thinking? Hadn’t they gone through this just a week ago? About how he was not to leave John behind again?
He tried to let the cold from the ice pack seep into his brain as he waited for everything to stop spinning. Just as soon as the world stayed in one place like it was supposed to, he would get up and go after Sherlock. He just needed a minute. Maybe five.
He heard a bustle as a pair of paramedics arrived. He tried to sit up, but they insisted he lay still and put a neck brace on him before lifting him to a stretcher. He thought this was rather overkill—he wasn’t hurt that badly, was he?—but was still too dizzy to protest. It wasn’t until they started to load him on the ambulance that his brain managed to raise red flags. He couldn’t go to hospital. He had to go after Sherlock.
He tried to sit up, but the strap holding him in place was too firm. “Just lie still, Dr. Watson. I’d hate to sedate you on top of a concussion,” a familiar voice said, and he groaned again as he realized he had just made his third—and worst—mistake of the day.
Sherlock paid off the cab and entered the office building, taking note of the location of CCTV cameras pointed his way. He hated having to involve Mycroft, but he had to admit that John had a point—Moriarty did rather outnumber them. It was only prudent (how he hated that word) to have backup.
He might not have bothered if it weren’t for the events of last week. Not only were they still horrifyingly fresh in his memory, but the meeting in the pool had made clear with a literal explosion that Moriarty had made their game personal. Up until then, it had been fun—and yes, he knew it was ‘wrong’ to take pleasure in events that ended in people dying—but the puzzles had been so delightfully distracting. They’d been directed toward him and it had been so good to be so thoroughly diverted.
Right up until John walked out in the pool, covered in Semtex. Now it really was personal, and Sherlock wasn’t fool enough to think that having backup waiting in the wings wouldn’t be … good.
No matter how much he hated it.
With a nod to the nearest camera, he pulled the door open and went inside.
The ambulance came to a halt and John swallowed, fighting the queasiness that had dogged him since the first bump.
He kept his eyes closed as hands moved to release the straps holding him down and help him to sit up. “You’re letting me walk?” he asked, gripping the side of the gurney as he waited for the dizziness to subside.
“I hope you don’t think I’m going to carry you, Dr. Watson. This way.” And moving lightly, Anthea hopped down out of the vehicle and turned to wait, impatience informing every muscle.
Moving carefully, John followed, feeling positively creaky but eschewing her offered hand as he sat down and tried to gracefully slide off the back of the ambulance. Which, he admitted freely as he clutched at the door as his hip screamed at him, was a stupid thing to do. He clutched his ice packs and started to limp forward until he saw the driver pull out a wheelchair, and stopped in his tracks. He wasn’t helpless, damn it.
“Please, Dr. Watson, we are in a bit of a rush.”
With a sigh, he sat himself in the chair and tried not to clutch the arms as the movement reawoke his lightheadedness. Why hadn’t he seen that bloody car? He couldn’t afford to be concussed and immobilized right now. He had to rescue Sherlock … assuming Mycroft was going to let him out of this building anytime in the next twenty years. He had to admit that he’d been fairly caught, though it seemed like cheating, taking advantage of an accident victim.
He sat patiently as they rode a lift to Mycroft’s floor and restrained himself as the driver pushed his chair down the now-familiar hall to Mycroft’s office. He just held the ice pack to his head and tried not to look too closely at the lights as they passed.
“You’re looking rather the worse for wear this afternoon, Dr. Watson,” Mycroft greeted him.
“Yes, well you can blame your brother for that,” said John. “He decided to give me the slip so he could go after Moriarty himself—again. Please tell me you know where he went.”
“It’s really none of your business, is it? I believe the terms of our agreement state that you would work for me if you were found within 24 hours, and here we are, with some 12 hours to spare.”
“Oh, spare me,” retorted John. “We both know that circumstances have changed.”
“Have they?” Mycroft’s voice was cool and smooth, yielding nothing.
“You know they have. Sherlock’s going after Moriarty on his own and I don’t think either of us is okay with that. This sibling rivalry of yours is going to get him killed.” John tried very hard not to think about that. “Besides, scraping an unconscious man off the street is hardly a satisfying victory, wouldn’t you agree? Almost like cheating.”
He caught a flash of amusement on the other man’s face. “It’s true that you’re not much of a catch at the moment. What use do you think you can be right now? You’ve got a concussion and can barely walk.”
John’s jaw set. “I can walk if I have to, Mycroft, and I’ll do whatever I need to to go after Sherlock.”
“Are you trying to renegotiate our deal, John? Because it hardly seems sporting to bargain with you in this condition. You can’t possibly be thinking clearly.”
John felt the urge to punch that smug smile off Mycroft’s face, but just took a deep breath and said, “That’s very kind of you, Mycroft, but I’m thinking clearly enough to know that we have to go after Sherlock. What else matters?”
The other man looked at him thoughtfully. “I’m beginning to wonder. This is twice in a week your connection with him has almost gotten you killed. Are you really so eager to add a third?”
John just leaned his head into the ice pack and closed his eyes. “It’s not about me, Mycroft. I’m not the one who matters.”
“I think my brother would disagree with you. Certainly he’s gone to great lengths to show that today. He insisted on our original bargain because he said you would accept nothing less than a chance at self-determination, but he did more than that. He insisted on going with you so you would not be alone. Just now, he may well have tricked you, but it was in an attempt to keep you safe. He’s really not going to be happy when he learns you were hit by a car.”
“Yes, well, if he hadn’t been being such a prat, I would have been paying closer attention,” John said. “And yes, Sherlock likes to get his own way, but he doesn’t seem to realize that everyone needs help once in a while. That’s what I do. It makes no sense that he would ditch me the minute things got dangerous.”
Mycroft’s gaze was clear and direct. “Doesn’t it? It seems to me that his motivation is quite clear—to keep you safe.”
John laughed. “From you, yes, but he knows you’re not going to kill me. Or, at least, I hope not. But Moriarty’s a different matter. He’s already killed two people today.”
“And Sherlock evaded you to ensure there would not be a third. Better in a wheelchair than a coffin.”
John just looked at him, confused. Maybe his concussion was worse than he’d realized? “Which is why I need to go after him,” he stated carefully. Wasn’t that obvious?
“Whereas he would prefer you were safe.”
John struggled out of the chair, standing unsteadily on his feet (at least nothing seemed broken), but fueled by his sudden surge of anger. “That may be, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going after him. I don’t pretend to understand this rivalry between the two of you and I certainly don’t know how I became a bone for you to fight over, but this is Moriarty we’re talking about—the man who tried to blow me up last week, killed two men this morning, and is now gunning for Sherlock. If you think I’m going to politely sit here while he’s in danger just because you won our bet, you’re sadly mistaken.”
“And how do you propose to do that, Dr. Watson?”
John just glared at him, trying to ignore the dizziness making him list to the side. His gift had never worked on Sherlock and he wasn’t sure if it would affect Mycroft, but he was so furious. He was tired, he was hurt, and his best friend was heading into danger, damn it, and he wasn’t going to let this … politician … stop him. And so he glared and focused everything he had on disappearing. Mycroft was NOT going to stop him. He was going after Sherlock and would deal with whatever fallout was necessary later, when his friend was safe.
Burning with determination, he ignored the pain and almost smiled when he saw Mycroft’s expression change from smug assurance to confusion … and a touch of wonder. Relishing the flush of accomplishment—he had confounded a Holmes—John turned as quietly as he could and started limping toward the door.
Mycroft’s voice came from behind him. “And you wonder why your country considers you so valuable, Dr. Watson? With gifts like these?”
John didn’t lessen his concentration, but he said, “Yet my gift has nothing to do with why Sherlock is my friend. I’m going after him, Mycroft. Are you going to help me, or not?”
“Dr. Watson, could there be any question? Though I believe you should let my medical staff see you first—you’re dripping blood on my carpet.”
John looked down and, sure enough, he had left a trail. Suddenly tired and unable to hold his focus any longer, he blinked and said, “Not very stealthy of me, is it?”
He crossed back to the wheelchair and sat down. “All right. What do we do next?”
Sherlock ghosted through the lobby and edged open the door to the stairs. Moriarty had set up this rendezvous and he was certain there were booby traps everywhere. He found that he missed John’s solid presence at his back and had the fleeting thought that this might not be a good idea.
But then, self-preservation had never been his strong suit. If coming here today would keep John safe, that’s all that mattered.
He did wonder how much Moriarty might have pieced together about John’s gift. He had sent that suggestive text, after all, referring to wanting to see him. And he wouldn’t put it past him to have set up his own cameras at the pool that night (or to have hacked into the CCTV system). He may well have seen the same heat-shimmer effect that had piqued Mycroft’s curiosity.
He climbed the stairs silently, senses alert, but there was no sound except the scuff of his own shoes against the concrete. Even if Moriarty had seen the shimmer, he reasoned, it was possible he thought it was caused by Sherlock and not John—a misconception Sherlock would be happy to reinforce.
Coming to the second floor door, he stretched a hand to the knob and pulled it open. Standard office suite, empty, dark. Except … down the hall to the left, there was light and … music?
Stepping lightly, he walked down the hallway, past several closed doors until he came to the room with … balloons? Ah, yes, and party streamers. Moriarty’s odd sense of humor. He stepped through the door. “I’m so sorry to come empty-handed to a party,” he announced, “I didn’t have time to shop.”
The remembered voice came from the shadows as Moriarty stepped forward and gestured to the two terrified men tied to chairs. “That’s okay, Sherlock, our other guests didn’t bring anything, either. I must say, it saddens me that nobody has manners anymore. Please, take off your coat and stay awhile—and I do mean please. It’s an eyesore, nothing like your usual. Whatever were you thinking?”
“I’ve had a busy day,” Sherlock told him as he slid out of the battered coat he’d been wearing all day. “And your invitation said nothing about a dress code.”
“My oversight. I usually expect your pet to be the one with the poor fashion sense. Where is he, anyway? Did he not get my invitation?”
“I’m afraid he sent his regrets,” Sherlock said. “Prior engagement, you know.”
Moriarty gave him a smooth, wicked smile. “Now, Sherlock, don’t be coy. I certainly understand why you wanted to come alone—but was it really necessary to send the poor man to hospital just so you could have me to yourself?”
“Hospital?” Sherlock’s voice was sharp.
“Don’t be silly, Sherlock. You orchestrated his being hit by that car. Did you truly expect him to just get up and walk away?” Then Moriarty’s eyes widened. “You didn’t know, did you? Oh, this is priceless.”
He picked up a tablet from a nearby table and tapped a few times before handing it to Sherlock. Video footage spooled on the screen, showing the crime scene from earlier. Sherlock watched himself dart across the street to hail a cab and then … another car screamed to a stop and a distraught driver jumped out, looking around wildly. And … just there, on the side of the road was John, crumpled on the pavement.
He felt the blood drain from his face as the size of his miscalculation made itself known. He had been so pleased with himself, giving John the slip, that he hadn’t thought that of course (of course!) John would follow him. He even remembered hearing the squeal of tires and had smugly thought that it would make a good distraction, giving him more time to get away.
Now, though, he watched the footage as people gathered around his fallen friend. He watched Lestrade come and put his jacket under John’s head. Watched thankfully as John’s eyes blinked open. He just stood there, watching the footage as John was bundled into an ambulance and taken away and tried not to let himself think about how it was his fault. If he hadn’t vanished, John wouldn’t have been so frantic to follow that he forgot to watch where he was going.
Despite his best efforts, John was hurt, helpless.
And Moriarty had known about it before he did.
John was helpless, and Moriarty knew.
There was no way Moriarty wouldn’t use this against him.
He looked up at the psychopath in front of him, ignoring the chill running along his spine. (See, Anderson, this is what a psychopath looks like.) “Where is he? What have you done with him?”
John tried not to slump in the chair as he stared at Mycroft. Was it only 24 hours ago that he’d sat right here drinking tea? He opened his mouth to say as much. “I hope you’re not planning on offering tea again.”
The man across from him sighed. “I’m well aware you wouldn’t accept. However, I am going to insist on your letting yourself be examined by my medical staff—and you will accept whatever medications they prescribe.”
John lifted his eyebrows. “I’ll not deny that I could use a bandage or two—for the sake of the carpet, if nothing else—but I’m a doctor. I’m not taking anything I don’t approve of. I don’t trust you, Mycroft.”
“I’m crushed, John. I thought we’d agreed to a mutual-benefit pact to rescue Sherlock. Why would I jeopardize that?”
“I’ve no idea, Mycroft, but I still don’t trust you. I need to think clearly and the concussion’s making it hard enough. I’m not adding suspect pharmaceuticals to the mix.” He kept his face neutral—calm but unyielding—and finally Mycroft nodded. “Very well. We’ll make plans when we know how bad the damage is.”
Well, it could have been worse, John supposed. Somehow he’d managed to avoid any broken bones, though the bruising on his hip and leg was going to be quite spectacular. His concussion was a mild one (as these things went) and John had to be grateful that he was mobile at all after being hit by the car.
If he was going to be of any use going after Sherlock, though, he needed to be more than just somewhat mobile. He’d accepted an anti-inflammatory and a mild painkiller from Mycroft’s doctor (after examining the original packaging). Afterward, he was given a cane and a pair of fresh ice packs and brought back to the conference room next to Mycroft’s office.
It was almost unrecognizable. The table was covered with maps and surveillance photos and the wall of monitors he hadn’t realized hid behind the paneling were all showing live footage of wherever he imagined Sherlock was. There was also a spread of food along one wall, which he looked at thoughtfully for several minutes before going over and helping himself. He might not trust Mycroft, but the man wanted his brother back and John didn’t think drugging him insensible again would help that goal, so … the food must be safe.
(He tried not to think about the paradox of being paranoid about meds or a cup of tea, but assuming the food was clean. It’s a matter of trust, he told himself. Besides, he was too hungry and too tired to bypass a chance at a meal. He was going to need these calories.)
He felt the man’s eyes on him and looked up to catch his gaze. He couldn’t begin to imagine the calculations going on in his head, but thought he caught a glimpse of approval that he was eating the food. He just hoped it was because Mycroft was proud of John’s analysis and trust and not because he was feeling smugly superior for sneaking something past him.
Carrying his plate, he limped over to the table and took a chair, reaching out to check the nearest photos of Sherlock entering an office building—half an hour ago, judging by the time stamp. He just shook his head. “Idiot,” he muttered. Really, what was Sherlock thinking, going in alone?
“He did have the sense to send me the address, Dr. Watson,” Mycroft’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
“That’s something, I suppose, but still daft. Your men are outside where they can’t be much help, can they?”
Mycroft just did that slow, thoughtful blink of his and said, “Unless we had somebody who had been invited in.”
John just smiled. “See? You do need me.”
Mycroft matched the smile and said, “I thought that was the entire point of the last 24 hours, John. I already told you we needed you.”
“No, Mycroft. I didn’t mean the government. I meant you. You know you’re happy with me looking after your little brother, and this has all just been some weird, twisted test. It’s just that this particular caper is one that benefits all of us.” He looked back at the map. “So, that’s where he is?”
Mycroft’s eyes narrowed as he considered the doctor—apparently finding him more insightful than he’d expected. “And how do I know that, if I tell you the address, you won’t go running off on your own?”
John just lifted his eyebrows. “Mutual-benefit pact? Besides, not running anywhere today.” He gestured with the cane. “Did you find anything about those poor saps Moriarty’s got tied up? Anything from Lestra… damn. I need to tell him I’m okay. Do you know where my phone is?”
“I believe you left your jacket in my office. It’s in the pocket, I presume?” Mycroft nodded at Anthea and moments later she placed John’s phone in his hand.
He powered it up. “You didn’t add any bugs, did you?”
“Oh, please, we did that months ago,” she told him with a smile and then went back to her Blackberry.
Trying not to think about that, John sent a quick text to Lestrade so he wouldn’t worry—well, not about John’s current health, anyway—and then he turned to recent incoming messages. There was a new invite from Moriarty, telling him to come with his ‘master,’ and … the phone chimed with a new message.
“ --Poor pet, did the vet make you all better? Your master is so worried. If you’re loyal, you’ll come join him.”
This was followed by an address, and then a photo of Sherlock sitting in a chair in the middle of a festive room, looking bored.
“Um, Mycroft?” He passed over the phone. “Seems like Moriarty knows about my accident.”
“This could work to our benefit, doctor. He already knows you’ve been hurt—just not how badly.”
Mycroft looked at Anthea and she nodded. “Dummy records were submitted at the nearest hospital.”
“Excellent,” he told her. “So this is what we’ll do.’
Sherlock sat back in his chair and sipped his tea. Except for the handcuff chaining his left wrist to the chair, it was all very civilized, with Moriarty making a point of waiting patiently for John to arrive. (“I understand, I do, that you want me all to yourself, but the invitation was for both of you. Just because the poor pet is sick doesn’t mean he should ignore his manners. How else will the poor boy learn?”)
Sherlock didn’t know whether he should hope John was too badly injured to leave hospital, or if he wanted him well enough to come charging to the rescue as he knew he would be foolish enough to do.
In the meantime, here they sat, drinking tea (which Sherlock was 94.8% certain was undrugged). He tried not to look at Moriarty’s two hostages—possibly even more terrified watching this bizarre tea party than they had been when he arrived. He tried to think kind or considerate thoughts about them because he knew that’s what John would have wanted, but they were so boring and desperate, he couldn’t concentrate on them for more than a few seconds at a time.
No, the topic that absorbed his attention was, surprisingly, John. It was not unusual for him to think about John, of course, but when sharing the same room as Jim Moriarty? A genius like him, the yin to his yang? Shouldn’t that equal-but-opposite comparison be demanding all his attention? Just over a week ago, he could think of little else.
But now, well, there was John. Not brilliant, perhaps, but fascinating, and not just because of his unique and impossible gift. John, who was injured in hospital because Sherlock had tried to leave him behind again—just one week after he had promised he would stop doing that.
How badly was he hurt? It was hard to tell from the video. He had regained consciousness quickly, which was reassuring, but even if he had managed to avoid broken bones or internal injuries, nobody could be struck unconscious by a moving car without suffering some damage. Yet Moriarty expected him to … what? Come rolling up to the door in a wheelchair? It was ludicrous.
Except … Sherlock couldn’t believe his eyes. The surveillance camera filming the street outside clearly showed John being pushed in a wheelchair, right up to the door. The idiot! What could Moriarty possibly have said to him that would have forced John here in that condition?
Oh. He had probably threatened Sherlock and John had lost all sense of reason. How had he gotten out of hospital? Didn’t they frown on patients stealing their wheelchairs?
Moriarty had practically danced into the room. “Isn’t this so delicious! I’m so glad John decided to answer my invitation—though, of course, I didn’t say he could bring a plus-one, but the more the merrier, my mother always said. And, of course,” he added to Sherlock, “This way he can’t be jealous, which will be so much more pleasant, don’t you think?”
Sherlock started to rise to his feet, but paused when Moriarty sent him warning look. Fine. He settled back. “Sadly, it looks like she just brought him to the door,” he said. “He’s alone on the lift.”
Moriarty turned and pouted at the video feed. “And it would have been so much fun with an extra player.” The lift chimed and before long John came in, laboriously wheeling his chair down the hallway, wincing with every turn of the wheels.
Finally, he was in the room. Sherlock ran his eyes over him, cataloguing his injuries. A bandage on the head, one pupil slightly enlarged, so concussion. There was a cast on one leg, and it was obvious there was at least some bruising around the ribs, judging by the difficulty John had had wheeling the chair. His friend was obviously in pain, but there was something about the set, focused look on his face that Sherlock found … interesting. “Well, Mr. Moriarty,” John was saying, “Here I am. Sorry I’m late. I was a bit … indisposed earlier.”
“I’ll let it slide just this once, Dr. Watson. You’re not too badly hurt?”
“So kind of you to ask. Broken leg and a concussion,” John said, staring at Sherlock. “Nothing too serious, but it makes getting around a little difficult. Frankly, I’d rather be in bed, so why am I here, exactly?”
Moriarty pouted. “Well, for my party, of course. You’re my guest of honor. I didn’t plan on you being damaged.”
“Yes, well, that was Sherlock’s fault,” John said with a glare at his friend. “Thanks for abandoning me back there, by the way, and then leaving me unconscious on the pavement. You really stink at this ‘friend’ thing, you know.”
Sherlock caught a ghost of a wink and answered, “I never claimed differently, John. I told you I was a high-functioning sociopath the night we met.”
“Yes, yes you did, but somehow, I thought you were exaggerating. Frankly, I’m surprised you bothered to bring me with you when you escaped from the pool last week.”
Sherlock sniffed. “I never said you weren’t useful. Who else would I get to pay the rent? I’m apparently very bad as a flatmate. Besides, I didn’t want Jim here to think he’d won. It was the logical choice at the time.”
“Oh, right. Logic. How could I forget. Heaven forbid you do anything that isn’t logical,” John said, looking angry—though Sherlock could tell it wasn’t authentic. John obviously had a plan. “So explain to me how taking tea with a psychopathic consulting criminal who wants to kill you is logical?”
“Don’t be silly, John. He’s not going to kill me over tea. That would be very un-British of him. And I knew he wouldn’t do anything final until you got here—though it took you long enough.” He waved his hand over John’s protests and turned to Moriarty. “So, you’ve got a complete complement of guests. When does the entertainment start?”
Moriarty had been standing speechless as the two of them bickered but now, recalled to the task at hand, he practically clapped his hands. “I’m so glad you asked,” he said. “It was thoughtful of Dr. Watson to bring his own chair, but it really wasn’t necessary.” With a grand gesture, he grabbed the curtain behind him and swept it open to reveal a chair out of a sci-fi horror movie—chains, electric cables, leather belts, all topped by a huge, metal hood. It was a monstrosity and Sherlock’s stomach turned at the thought of John anywhere near it.
John seemed to think so, too, because he automatically started moving his chair back, away from it, as Moriarty started to laugh.
John couldn’t help it. He rolled back away from the torture-chair in the middle of the room without even thinking—it was purely instinct.
Moriarty was obviously delighted, because he laughed. “Oh, Johnny boy, if you could see your face! And just think, it’s only going to get better!”
He snapped his fingers, as if expecting a horde of henchmen to come barreling into the room, ready to manhandle John into the monstrosity … but none came. A look of mild displeasure crossed the man’s face as he muttered, “It’s so hard to find good help,” and snapped again.
Still, nothing happened and Moriarty wheeled around to glare at the curtain. “That means NOW, you cretins!” he screamed.
Then, he slapped his hand to his neck and spun, appalled, to stare at Sherlock holding a tranq gun and then dropped to the floor, unconscious.
John breathed a huge sigh of relief and looked behind Sherlock. “About time. I thought you were going to let him actually put me in that bloody thing.”
He looked at Sherlock, who beamed as John relaxed that extra bit of tension to reveal Anthea and several other of Mycroft’s minions who had invisibly spread throughout the room to take down Moriarty’s men.
“John, you’re brilliant,” Sherlock told him. “However did you manage to fool him into thinking you were injured?”
John just glared at him. “That’s because I am, you idiot. Though luckily, my leg’s not actually broken. We just needed the chair to carry the weapons since we were pretty sure he’d have some kind of security. Believe me, the concussion and contusions are entirely real.”
John wiped his hand down his face and grimaced at the hint of blood on his hands. His headache was back and had brought a nosebleed along for good measure. Obviously facing down a madman while hiding a cadre of secret agents on top of a brand-new concussion hadn’t been the best idea.
Anthea had released Sherlock from his handcuffs and was tapping into her Blackberry as the rest of the team released the hostages and took Moriarty and his men into custody. Sherlock’s attention was focused on John. “I didn’t mean for … why didn’t you look for cars before you crossed the street?”
John closed his eyes and rubbed at his temples, trying to will the headache away. “Because I was trying to save my best friend from being an idiot and giving himself up to the madman who tried to kill him a week ago?”
“He wasn’t trying to kill me, John. I was just keeping you safe.”
“Right, so safe I was almost flattened by a car. It seems to me I’m in more danger when you try to keep me out of it, Sherlock, than when you tell me what’s going on.” Sherlock really was an idiot, he thought, but he softened at the stricken look on the man’s face. “Don’t worry, Sherlock. It’s nothing a hot bath and a good night’s sleep won’t mostly fix. I just need to get rid of this headache.”
Sherlock made a humming noise and then asked, “Why did you have me shoot Moriarty?”
“Didn’t you want to?” John kept his hand over his eyes, but his lips curved. “Seriously, we didn’t want him to know about … this. We figured it was best if he thought you’d concealed the gun and his goons had missed it, so we smuggled it in for you. It might not matter, but … why show our cards?”
Another noncommittal noise and then Sherlock stepped closer and said, “You went to Mycroft?”
John opened his eyes, startled when he saw how close Sherlock was, leaning forward and watching him intently. “No, his people were driving the ambulance that scraped me off the street. I didn’t have much of a choice—though we agreed that it was probably best if we worked together to get you back.”
He couldn’t help another smile at the grimace on Sherlock’s face, and added, “He seems to think that he won the bet, though.”
Sherlock’s eyebrows rose. “Indeed? It’s only 10:00. It seems to me we’re more than halfway there.”
John just stared at him. “You’re kidding? Now? I’m in a wheelchair, Sherlock, and have the mother of all headaches. I can’t do this for another nine hours.”
“Funny, I thought the army taught tenacity,” Sherlock said with a sniff. “But, of course, if you want to give up and start working for Mycroft…”
“I didn’t say that, Sherlock. I just pointed out that I’m not at my best right now.”
Sherlock patted him on the shoulder as he walked around the back of the chair. “No worries, John. Just help me get out of sight until we’re safely out of the building and I’ll do the rest.”
Sherlock pushed John’s chair down the hallway and pressed the call button for the lift. “Mycroft has men downstairs, I’m sure?”
John nodded. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to just walk away, Sherlock. And obviously some of them know about my gift—they’ll be suspicious if the lift comes down empty.”
“Of course. You said your leg isn’t broken. Can you walk on it?” Sherlock’s voice was intent.
“Yes, but badly,” said John. “The car grazed my hip so I’m really not very mobile. I had a cane back at the office, it should be on the chair. The cast comes off, though—and I’ve got my other shoe stashed here somewhere.”
Sherlock looked down at the chair. “Ah, excellent. They’re right here, under the seat. Good.” The lift chimed and he pushed John’s chair through the doors. “Okay, John. Now would be a good time.”
John nodded and after a few seconds said, “Okay,” and tried not to wince as Sherlock pushed him back into the hallway just as Anthea came bustling toward them, barely missing the doors as they closed.
They stood there quietly as she punched at the lift button and cursed, punching at her Blackberry. It was a curious sensation, Sherlock thought, knowing she was looking for them when they were right in front of her. Knowing that any break in John’s concentration would give them away.
When the next lift arrived, they silently slid in beside Anthea and rode down to the ground floor to find modified chaos as Mycroft’s people milled about. “According to the GPS on their mobiles, they are still in the building,” she said aloud, eyes on her mobile.
Sherlock and John exchanged glances and Sherlock started pushing John toward the back of the lobby, farther into the building. He maneuvered down the hallway and into an empty office with a sense of relief “Turn your…”
“…Mobile off. Yes, I know,” said John, panting a bit from the strain as Sherlock scanned the room. John was clearly near exhaustion. And was that … traces of blood at his nose. A nosebleed on top of a concussion and whatever effort it took to use his gift? That could not be good. He cursed to himself. “Take a few minutes to catch your breath, then tell me which you think is better—front door or back—while I get this cast off.”
“Oh God, yes, please,” said John. “I’ve got more paracetamol in my pocket, too, though the anti-inflammatory from earlier is obviously wearing off.” He heaved a sigh of relief as Sherlock peeled off the fake cast and slid his shoe on. “I’m clearly not as young as I used to be.”
“Even twenty year-olds lose when they try to fight automobiles, John,” Sherlock said with a quick smile as he tied the laces.
“I’ll try to remember that,” John said. “Just be glad it wasn’t a bus.”
Sherlock couldn’t keep the horror from his face, but John just grinned tiredly at him, rubbing his temples again. “It’s not usually this hard,” John said apologetically.
“You’re not usually concussed and exhausted, working on too little sleep after being drugged unconscious, either,” Sherlock told him. “Have you eaten at all?”
“At Mycroft’s. I figured the food had to be safe if he wanted my help to find you.”
“He’s so predictable,” Sherlock said
John just shook his head. “I swear, this childish one-ups-manship between the two of you is going to be the death of me. So—exit strategy. Won’t a back alley be harder with a wheelchair?”
“It depends on the alley. On the other hand, they seldom have CCTV cameras.”
“Most alleys aren’t behind Jim Moriarty’s hide-out. I would assume there are plenty of cameras,” John pointed out, and Sherlock had to agree.
“Right, front door then. I’m sure dear Jim left lots of security measures, so we’re probably best leaving along with Mycroft’s people. Did Mycroft tumble to your tricking the CCTV cameras?”
John shrugged. “He didn’t say anything, but … it’s Mycroft.”
Sherlock grimaced. If Mycroft was involved in planning this, he probably knew far more about John’s talents than they would like. “Okay, first order of business is to get out of the building and then find transportation.”
“Not a taxi?”
“No, Mycroft knows I like taxis. He’ll suspect that and send one or more with his drivers to cruise the streets.”
John sagged in his chair, face pale. “Christ, it’s been too long a day. All I really want to do is go home and sleep for about twenty hours.”
Sherlock gave him a long, measuring look. The point of this entire day had been to keep John safe, yet he didn’t think he’d ever seen his friend look so drained. John was right, too—between them, he and Mycroft (not to mention Moriarty) had cost John far too much. To hell with Mycroft and his bet. “So, let’s make that happen. It’s the least I can do for my blogger.”
Sherlock looked up as the quiet tap came on the door, smiling to himself as he stood and walked quietly to the door.
“You’re half hour early, Mycroft,” he greeted his brother. “You’re alone, I trust? No men with nets or tranq guns waiting on the pavement?”
Mycroft gave him a measuring look with one eyebrow raised, but only said, “I’m glad to see your latest confrontation with Moriarty led to no lasting harm.”
“None at all,” Sherlock said, gesturing toward the teapot. “My compliments on your raid. It wasn’t nearly as inefficient as they usually are.”
He watched as Mycroft glanced into one of the mugs on the counter and made a face, but poured some tea anyway. Making more of an effort than usual, then. “Please, I believe you’re confusing my men with the Met. My people are very efficient.”
“When you have John’s help, at least,” Sherlock said, sitting in his chair. “And don’t think I’m going to let you wake him up just so you can pretend to win this so-called wager.”
“I did win, brother,” Mycroft told him.
“Because you found him unconscious after being hit by a car? Hardly fair play, Mycroft.”
Mycroft just smiled at him and sipped gingerly at his tea. “No, Sherlock, it just seemed better than letting Moriarty near him. The crime scene was so obviously bait for the two of you—neither of you would have been safe. Nevertheless, you needn’t worry. This morning’s visit is entirely social. I had several opportunities to declare this wager over, after all. Did you really think I would not detect your coming back to 221B last night?”
Sherlock pulled his feet up on his chair, trying not to think of how exhausted John had been as he helped him up the stairs last night, barely clinging to consciousness. “I assumed you would, but John wanted to sleep in his own bed last night and it was the least I could do. He’d suffered enough on our behalf for one day, don’t you think?”
“I agree. He’s indefatigable in your defence, Sherlock. Even barely able to stand yesterday—dripping blood on my Axminster carpet, I might add—he insisted on helping. I was really quite moved.”
A nod. “He has that effect. He’s unassuming, but a force of nature—like an oncoming flood. It might not look dramatic on the surface, but it’s inexorable. He just looks calm and placid.” He glared at his brother. “You’re not getting him, you know.”
“Oh, I know. I never expected I would,” Mycroft said with another hesitant taste of his cup. “This is dreadful, you know.”
“Why do you think I let John make the tea?” Sherlock asked. “So this whole thing was a test?”
Mycroft gave a small shrug. “Well, Moriarty’s interference was unexpected—as was the car that sideswiped Dr. Watson. Do you know, for once when a driver claims the victim ‘came out of nowhere’ and that she didn’t see him, I actually believe her? It wasn’t good of you, Sherlock, to put him in that position.”
“To try to keep him out of Moriarty’s hands again? He barely survived the last time, Mycroft. And did you see what Moriarty had planned for him?”
“I did. Not much for subtlety, is he?”
Sherlock put down his cup with a splash. “That’s all you can say? That man plans to hurt John.”
“But we won’t let that happen, will we? Like you said, Sherlock, this was a test. I needed to know what John was capable of, yes, but I also needed to know how far you would go for each other. Oh, I confess that I would indeed enjoy having him in my employ—his strategy for hiding the team to get you out last night was brilliant—but I’m not fool enough to tear him away from you. I saw his loyalty the night I met him and it’s only grown stronger in the months since.”
Mycroft looked across at his brother. “No, Sherlock, what I needed to see was how loyal you were in return. It’s really quite remarkable, you know—seeing you show real concern for someone. Though, you know that caring is a weakness, brother.”
“So you say, and yet…” Sherlock paused, searching for the right words. “I find that he adds … savor … to life that was missing before. I had never understood the concept of sharing making things … more.”
Another moue. “We’ve never been good at sharing, you and I.”
“No. Nor is that likely to change any time soon.” Sherlock sipped at his tea and grimaced. “This really is terrible. I wonder how much longer he’s going to sleep.”
“Not as long as I’d like, but I thought if my future was being discussed, I should be here,” John said from the doorway. “You didn’t try making tea again, did you, Sherlock? I swear, for a genius, you’d think you could grasp the concept of brewing a cuppa.”
John walked stiffly through the room and into the kitchen without another word. He swallowed two paracetamol and then filled the kettle and rinsed out the teapot, measuring tea leaves before limping back and leaning on the door jamb. “And it might only be 7:20, Mycroft, but don’t get any ideas about taking me with you. Not if you want a decent cup of tea.”
A small smile. “I wouldn’t dream of it, John, and I would very much appreciate a decent cup. How are you feeling this morning?”
“Stiff all over, but my head feels almost normal, so … as good as can be expected after being hit by a car.” He turned back as the kettle clicked off and then asked, “What were you two saying about sharing? Because if you’re talking about me…?”
“Not to worry, John,” Mycroft said. “I was saying I was willing to count our wager as a draw since the three of us work better as a team rather than rivals.”
“So you don’t want me to work for you, then?” John asked with his disbelief clear.
“Only if you want to, Dr. Watson,” Mycroft told him. “Though as I said earlier, I would be grateful if you would consider occasionally lending your talents on a freelance basis. Despite your injuries, you were quite helpful last night. I can only wonder what you could do had you been unharmed.”
John gave a long, slow smile. “And don’t forget—I started yesterday with too little sleep and a hangover from your tea the night before. You haven’t seen me at my best yet.”
Sherlock was delighted to see Mycroft blink, suddenly uncertain, and then practically flinch when John handed him a cup of tea. “Don’t worry, I promise there are no pharmaceuticals in there. Just milk and sugar.”
Mycroft took the cup gingerly. “Yes, yes of course,” he said, gearing himself up for a sip.
Recognizing the mug he liked to mix his chemicals in, Sherlock met John’s eyes across the room, and waited.