John pokes half-heartedly at his Air Malta in-flight meal before giving up and staring out of the window at the Mediterranean Sea far below. What soldier worth his salt turns his nose up at food? Well, John apparently, when he’s this keyed up. He’d laugh at himself, if it wasn’t for the butterflies in his stomach. And his chest. All through him, in fact.
Two days and five hours ago he got Sherlock’s garbled message. Since then he’s been incredulous, he’s been worried, he’s been incandescently angry, and all those feelings are still banging around inside him now. He left at least a dozen voicemails and text messages, in moods ranging from ecstatic relief to desperate rage at whoever was playing this shitty trick… until a day and a half later Sherlock called again, from Malta, saying he’d got the messages but only vaguely remembered calling John from Vegas. That must be down to heat exhaustion from the desert, and the shock of killing Graf, he said, but now he’d had a good long sleep and felt much better. He explained everything that had happened since he jumped off the roof of Barts. A rubber ball in the armpit. A lorry full of binbags for a soft landing. Help from Molly.
In rational terms, the story of Sherlock’s flight and wanderings has established itself in John’s head. Emotionally though, John’s in shock, and he knows it. His feelings are lying around the floor of his head, disconnected from his thoughts. There’s even a part of him that’s still grieving, because you can’t just halt a process like that. Nor can he work out what to think about the rambling phone call. One explanation that does occur is drugs, but he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.
There’s one thing John is sure about, and that’s what’s happening in his pants. I love you, Sherlock had said in his first message, and John managed to get in a certain amount of wondering whether the words were meant in some platonic way that made sense only if you were a mad genius with a tobacco ash fixation… until he got a text which said ‘My safeword is “magnesium”. I find it diverting to be used by someone with sufficient imagination. Tie me up. Force me. Fuck me (up).’ John stared at that message and wanked himself to a shouting climax in the 221b living room.
Whatever else he’s going to have to face up to, it feels so good to feel good. He’d forgotten. Christ, he had actually forgotten – again.
His life is in a mess. In fact, his life is the thing he’s just dumped in order to charge off to a foreign country and kill people for the sake of a legally deceased fugitive. But he knows himself well enough not to be very surprised that he doesn’t much care.
The pilot announces their imminent landing and the plane begins its descent. Now the time is coming close, all John can think about is seeing Sherlock again, touching him, making absolutely sure he’s real. He can’t quite think beyond that.
Things between them will have changed, there are gaps and broken edges and John’s half-stunned feelings, but they’ll find out how to fix it somehow. They’ll start again. John will be with Sherlock. Sherlock will be with John.
Sherlock is back in business, striding through the uneven, stone-walled, stone-paved streets of ancient Valletta, cataloguing and deducing in a downpour which has the tourists running for cover and the locals keeping indoors. For him the drenching is irrelevant, except in as far as it makes details harder to spot. The violence of the storms here, and their swift alternation with balmy sunny spells even in November – he is, after all, further south than parts of Africa – even pleases him. He is surrounded by a new world of information to filter and file.
In Vegas he… overstretched himself. All the way to the airport in Salt Lake City, and through the three flights necessary to reach Malta, he was overtired. He recalls speaking at length and indiscreetly to people who pointedly did not speak back. When he arrived here he drugged himself with a calculated mixture of three over-the-counter remedies and slept for 10 hours and woke refreshed.
He is still tense though. This morning, leaning over the kitchen table in the tourist accommodation he has rented in the north of the city, memorizing a large-scale map of the island, the phrase I feel great! and an accompanying meaningless thrill obtruded itself between him and the object of study so often that he grew angry and smashed a dish. Indiscipline.
Most likely he needs sexual contact. Tiresome, but the unmet biological imperative would explain his recent volatility. John will serve as auxiliary firepower – it was wise of Sherlock to summon him – and also in this other capacity. John showed a compatible inclination on the occasion of their previous experiment, which was limited by Sherlock’s then-state of distraction due to the several riddles presented by Miss Adler.
Sherlock experiences a vivid flash of himself, naked and spread-eagled on the double bed back at his rented accommodation. The sheet is smooth beneath him, and leaning over him is John. John. John’s eyes are alight and his hand is on Sherlock’s thigh, and the pleasure-pain…
Sherlock shakes his head violently to dispel the distraction, turning from a tiny alley into Republic Street. Three umbrella-carrying French tourists step back slightly, and eye him as he sweeps past. He is aware of drawing more attention than is commensurate with anonymity and thus safety. There is no reason for this except the idiocy of people who have nothing better to look at. Dull, dull, dull! But his anger is irrational. He catalogues the details of a plumber advertising in English – one of the national languages – on a passing van.
John’s plane arrives this afternoon, and Sherlock will meet it. John has warned him that a public rendezvous is not safe, but then what is safe now? John is flying in on a commercial service because there was simply no other way for matters to be arranged. Mrs Hudson, Mike Stamford and others have been told of a ‘last-minute beach holiday’, which they believe to be the result of their advice.
John, with his military skill, and also his mundane appearance, is a necessity for the task ahead. Heritage Valletta suits Sherlock as a base for his ‘tourist’ persona, but it is demonstrating little in the way of a criminal underworld, at least not that Sherlock can find, and he has a talent for these things. Tonight he and John will visit the rowdy bars of Malta’s nightlife centre, Paceville. Together they will hunt criminals again.
The exercise of Sherlock’s intellect has brought him to this point. Once John is here to do the spadework they will be unstoppable.
No fear can touch him. John is coming soon.
When John walks out of arrivals, clenching the straps of his single, practical, backpack in his fists, he knows Sherlock won’t be there, even though he said he would. John told him it was too risky, and in any case Sherlock will be busy performing acidity tests on the local bird shit or something.
Still, John’s stomach is performing contortions. Worse than his previous doubts, he suddenly knows with a leaden certainty that he must be insane to have come here at all. Sherlock is dead. He saw it happen. The last three days were the product of grief and delusion. What the hell has he done?
There is a man, tall and gaunt, in a flappy white t-shirt, with cropped ginger hair, approaching across the shiny floor. His face is lit up with a smile – and what a smile. Broad and welcoming and sunny and so alive.
John tries to say something – God knows what – and he chokes on his closed-up throat. Sherlock covers the distance with a few more of his long strides and the first contact between them is Sherlock trying, not very successfully, to hold the backpack out of the way and thump John between the shoulderblades.
‘Fuck,’ John coughs out. Then: ‘Hi.’
He’s been through countless mental rehearsals of this moment, and now that’s all he can say.
They’re not stopping there, though. Sherlock takes John in his arms, and actually kisses him on the top of his head, as if he was a child. And John thinks, right then, it’s started, just before Sherlock moves down and kisses him on the mouth. Soft lips, and a taste of oranges.
Every emotion John’s felt in the last four months is currently nuking his heart and brain; he doesn’t know which will win, and there is bile and anger that he needs to vent, but for now he’s kissing back, hard, local comment be damned. Sherlock is warm and responsive and John just enjoys that for a few seconds more before pulling away to hold Sherlock at arm’s length.
Sherlock looks thinner than ever, and his eyes are tired and surrounded by fine lines, and at the same time he’s staring as if it’s Christmas and John’s his new toy. He’s buckling under the stress, John knows it – that incoherent message from the desert – but right now John is just so fucking glad they’re both here and both alive that the feeling burns in his throat, as fiercely as the accompanying urge to punch Sherlock’s lights out in payment for four months of hell.
‘You… bastard,’ John says, sounding mostly bewildered to his own ears.
‘I am so pleased to see you,’ says Sherlock, and he sounds mostly amazed at himself. The glorious smile is still there.
John’s amazed as well, to be honest. Smiles, kisses – what has happened to his friend? The word swims up from the back of his mind again: drugs.
In which case, it’s doubly good that he’s here. Substance abuse plus combat stress? He’s seen that before, all right. It may be the very last thing he wants to see again… except no, it isn’t. He saw the very last thing four months ago. This is easy by comparison. And anyway, he can’t be sure yet. Sherlock was never exactly stable even before all this.
‘Same,’ John says. It’s all he can manage. ‘Let’s go back to wherever we’re staying.’ They can continue this there. Whatever it is.
‘Of course,’ agrees Sherlock. He snaps his fingers for no obvious reason, and laughs. ‘We’re staying in a medieval merchant’s house. You’ll think it’s picturesque.’
Sherlock turns on the ball of one foot and at the same time twists his head around so that their gazes stay locked, a strange movement that would be a contortion in anyone else but is somehow made graceful by Sherlock. John follows him as he starts for the exit; it’s taken barely twenty seconds for that old pattern to be re-established. John doesn’t care.
They sit in the back of a taxi, superficially ignoring each other as it takes them past low buildings of weathered beige stone with recessed balconies in an Arabic style that sparks half-submerged memories in John. He wants to take in the locality but he’s distracted by Sherlock beside him, tapping his foot incessantly and staring out of the window, no doubt mentally photographing the landscape. He’s radiating twitchy vitality, as if some setting that was always on high has been dialled up to maximum. John is scorchingly aware of his presence: the things that have changed (intriguing short ginger hair, a comically slobby t-shirt) and the things that never will (those cheekbones, which John remembers glistening with blood… except he will not think about that now.)
Tie me up. Force me. Fuck me (up).
Oh God, some things are good to think about, and John intends to act on them.
The cab drops them off in a small street in the north of the city, a slope of ancient flagstones between high buildings pocked irregularly with windows, and Sherlock leads the way to a small door, set deep in the stone wall, which he opens with a flourish to reveal steps climbing up into a pleasant living area now dominated by an extremely modern flat screen TV. Open-sided staircases lead up to the next floor and down to a cellar.
‘Nice,’ says John, looking around at the ancient, undressed stone walls with their recesses for lamps and occasional hangings. He dumps his backpack on the floor and flops on to the sofa. He’s done route marches through the desert before now, but air travel still somehow always wears him out. ‘Especially considering you’re dead and I’ve just abandoned my life,’ he adds, and thinks: There. He’s successfully made a casual reference to their lunatic situation. Go him.
Sherlock is fiddling minutely with the fake flowers in the vase by the TV. In anyone else that would be an awkward movement designed to cover up the fact that the two of them just kissed, they’re suddenly alone and they don’t know what to do about it. Maybe it is in Sherlock, too.
‘No sign of Zagami, then,’ John says. ‘I take it you’ve been detecting?’
Sherlock pulls a disgusted expression, but also comes to life. ‘Did you know this island had no murders at all between 2003 and 2006? Were they all asleep?’ He paces to and fro in the small room and flings out his arms, nearly grazing his knuckles on the stone. ‘Even I can’t tap a network that doesn’t exist. Zagami’s probably having a siesta under a rock with his grandmother. I should have gone after Kolyvanov first, he’s the real player, I suspect.’
‘Well we’re in a country that’s smaller than London, so I’m betting the world’s only consulting detective can turn something up,’ says John. This is good, he thinks, they’re talking about practical matters, which is probably safe. Not to mention vitally important. ‘The question is what we do about it. I wasn’t exactly able to come armed. Can you…’ John only hesitates a little: he might be talking to a civilian but hardly to an innocent. ‘Can you synthesize poison, if you get the right kit? That might be better, seeing as this is not exactly a legal kill. The police tend to notice blokes dropping dead of gunshot wounds quite quickly. Poison gives us time to get off the island.’
Sherlock waves a hand. ‘Oh, if need be I can. But that leaves too much to chance. Even with my level of skill there’s a fractional risk he might recover, or identify the substance ahead of time, then he’ll be on his guard. I really think you need to shoot him. If there’s trouble Mycroft can clear your name when it’s all sorted out and we’re back in London. Special forces mission et cetera.’
John massages his brow. Two minutes alone together, and he’s already remembered a good deal of what makes Sherlock so aggravating. Yes, John will shoot people to save Sherlock, they both know that, but he’s risking more than a fucking slapped wrist.
‘Sherlock, I am not 007,’ he says. ‘I’m a washed-up army grunt. You know I kept the damn SIG – not that it’s here, I wasn’t bringing that through customs – mostly because I thought I wanted to off myself. Seems I found something better to do, but I’m not an action hero.’
John leans back on the sofa. Maybe he’s laying it on a bit thick here, but he needs Sherlock to understand how they are going to do this, which, if he’s got anything to do with it, will be quietly and cleanly. From what Sherlock’s told him about tearing up Vegas, it’s a minor miracle that he got away with killing Graf.
But, of course, John might as well have saved his breath, because Sherlock clearly wasn’t listening.
‘Look, John, there’s a gun dealer down in Hal Qormi, and you need a licence in Malta, but I can see just from the website that the front of shop security’s a joke. If we go there late tonight...’
‘Sherlock!’ John interrupts, standing up and raising his voice. ‘I would ask you to tell me you’re not proposing we knock over a gun shop, but fucking hell, you clearly are.’
‘Your alternative suggestion, then?’ Sherlock shoots back, glaring down his nose at John.
The sentence comes out so fast it’s almost a single word and Sherlock’s practically vibrating on the spot, his slender fingers slipping repeatedly off the top of the ridiculous TV and twitching their way back. Half of John’s mind is watching them and thinking: shit. Another part is entranced. The remainder is just fucking angry. This guy is, always has been, just too much.
OK. Time out.
‘I am going for a shower,’ John announces, scooping his washbag out of the top pocket of his backpack. He has to get out of here, just for a while. ‘Where’s the plumbing in this place, all in the cellar? Right. Back in fifteen. We can talk sensibly then.’
John marches off down the stone steps. He certainly does need a shower. He also needs to calm down, think about the question of whether and how to obtain firearms, shut up the part of his mind that’s going ‘Sex! Now! Sex!’ and work out what the hell he’s going to do about his flatmate (co-conspirator? fellow fugitive??) being back on bloody coke.
Sherlock paces around the tiny living area. Everything here is small; the room, Valletta, the island, the trifling challenge of finding one man. Yet he hasn’t done it. This place is more foreign than Vegas, and he doesn’t know its ways. When he finds Zagami, he’ll have to kill again, and he doesn’t want to do that. That’s why he has John. Is John glad to be here? Possibly not. It shouldn’t matter. Apparently it does. John is giving him curious looks.
If there is something wrong, if his mind – his mind! – previously slipped a notch under pressure, then now he is reasserting control. He has felt transcendent, glorious, and that energy is still with him, albeit black and wild now, ever fiercer. Tar-thick, choking, a simultaneous electric intensity beyond the heights of cocaine and still building. It is a joy to see John again. Sherlock kissed him, they remade the world, but still the pressure in his head is winding tighter. He will crack – no. He will think. If for some reason his intellectual self-control failed in Vegas, then he has it back now.
This ancient chamber bears the traces of a hundred lives, so Sherlock scans the walls, putting himself through the trifling exercise of reading the crises and mundanities scarred into the stone. That done, and his point proven, his mind is a little quieter. Whatever is happening to him, be it delayed shock or a petty stress reaction, it is not all-consuming.
He hoists John’s backpack onto the sofa and rifles through it. He needs John, for more than just loaded glances. John will hold him, John will hurt him and distract him and yes, Sherlock wants to be good for John too. The last four months were clearly not enjoyable for his friend. That was partially Sherlock’s doing.
What he finds in the backpack gratifies him beyond expectations: a familiar set of four leather cuffs with their accompanying padlocks. John’s choice to bring Sherlock’s own kit is rather sentimental, but Sherlock is not currently inclined to ridicule. He divests himself of the ridiculous t-shirt and baggy trousers and throws them behind the TV. Stripping entirely would drive the point further but he decides this might be too much for John, who likes to pretend conventionality as a prelude to doing what he wants.
When John comes plodding barefoot up the stairs, wrapped tightly in a towel and staring ahead with a vacuous expression, he finds Sherlock standing in the middle of the living room, the bundle of leather and locks in one outstretched hand.
John freezes. His eyes go from Sherlock to the cuffs and back.
‘OK…’ he says.
Sherlock considers the syllable. Its content was neutral, but the tone not as enthusiastic as he requires.
‘I found them in your bag,’ he says, putting everything he has into sounding reasonable, nice, civil, even fucking flirtatious, damn it. If John doesn’t do this for him, Sherlock will shatter with need. Doesn’t John see?
‘Evidently,’ says John, nodding. ‘Well, I suppose I went through your room to find them in the first place, so technically we’re even. But have you forgotten that we’re on the run from professional killers and we should probably be discussing what we do about it?’ He shakes his head. ‘Magnesium, Sherlock. How much coke are you doing?’