John was behaving oddly.
At first, he had seemed nearly as keen for a new case as Sherlock. John had leapt from his seat when the bell rang once, with maximum pressure just under the half second, signalling a client. He’d eagerly hustled the rumpled, exhausted young man up the stairs and into the flat.
But Henry Knight’s 'case' proved a bitter disappointment. A twenty-year old murder by a giant, supernatural dog? Really, the man’s therapist should have him sectioned. Sherlock preferred to avoid the insane, unless their madness drove them to some particularly interesting or brutal crime. Sherlock judged Henry to be at least a month from that extreme. It hardly seemed worth waiting around for, even with the bonus of his second-hand smoke.
John’s initial enthusiasm transformed into a gentle but implacable scepticism as Henry described the monster he believed had killed his father, and had then returned to threaten him last night in Dewer’s Hollow. John signalled his disbelief so clearly that Henry began shifting awkwardly in his chair, looking to Sherlock for a more sympathetic audience. That was a first, and quite an achievement on John’s part. Sherlock took a moment to admire John’s masterful use of facial expression and body language, storing the details in case he should need to replicate John’s performance at some later date.
Performance … yes, it was a performance. Convincing, but not in keeping with John’s usual empathetic response to a client or witness as they recounted some emotional trauma.
Interesting. John’s atypical reaction moved the case from a two to a potential six. Still not interesting enough to leave London, however.
Sherlock announced that he wouldn’t be taking the case. As he turned away, Sherlock automatically kept an eye on the room via the mirror. Very useful, observing people when they thought he couldn’t see them. For just a moment, as Henry blathered on about the prints of a gigantic hound, John’s shoulders slumped in clear relief.
Sherlock spun around to find John looking at him in polite inquiry. Sherlock demanded that Henry repeat his last statement, watching John out the corner of his eye. Nothing. Experimentally, Sherlock said that he already had a case, but would put his best man onto the matter. John seemed quite pleased with the decision, going so far as to offer Sherlock a packet of long-craved cigarettes.
Really, John? A reward? Operant conditioning? Am I your lab rat?
Sherlock tossed the cigarettes away and declared that they would travel to Dartmoor tomorrow. He didn’t need the nicotine now, not with the rush of a break in his case, in the case – the case of John Watson.
John was an enigma. At first glance he seemed normal, even boring. Army doctor, psychosomatic limp, divorced alcoholic sibling, quite straightforward. Sherlock had adequately modelled John’s behaviour within an hour of meeting him. Nine times out of ten, Sherlock could predict what John would eat for breakfast, which shirt he would wear to work, how often he would agree to make Sherlock tea, which women he would flirt with, and the precise number of kernels of popcorn Sherlock could flick at him during a film before John snapped and retaliated.
But the tenth time. Oh, the tenth time. John would go out when he should enjoy a quiet night in. Stay when he should storm out in a temper. Giggle when he should shout. Dump Sherlock off the couch after a single popcorn projectile. Cheerfully lower the freezer to the exact temperature needed to crystallize the fluids in human eyeballs. Smile when furious, and put a chair between himself and Sherlock as if he couldn’t trust his own temper within arm’s reach. Dash a poisoned cup of tea out of Sherlock’s hands, with no explanation beyond a murmur of, "Had a feeling." Congratulate Donovan on her new boyfriend before even Sherlock could deduce it. Walk onto a crime scene, when lives were at stake, in such a way that the Yard personnel scrambled out of his way. Shoot the cabbie.
Sherlock made careful note of each discrepancy, but hadn't yet found a common factor to explain them. Perhaps John was simply inherently unpredictable. Still, the scientist in him hoped for elegance. Sherlock kept searching for a single missing piece of data that, once understood, would allow him to accurately model John Watson.
That night at the pool, when Sherlock had heard the bomber’s words coming from John’s mouth, he had spent two seconds frantically revising all of his hypotheses about John's behaviour, in fear that this, this was the fatal flaw in his model. Tea and jumpers and hostages. A crack shot - murder not as a good man's impulse to save him, but a pre-meditated bid for Sherlock’s interest and trust.
It wasn’t true. John was a good man. But there was something. Something John had been hiding from him all this time. Not even Mycroft could have successfully lied to Sherlock for months, under close observation. It was maddening and absolutely fantastic. And now, now Sherlock had found a crack in the smooth, impermeable shell John used to keep him out. John didn’t want Sherlock anywhere near Dartmoor and Henry’s giant, imaginary hound. So Sherlock would go. He would find John’s secret, and drag it out into the open, and then, finally, he would know the truth.
Apparently John couldn’t drive. It was something of a surprise – even though it wasn’t a necessary skill in London, Sherlock would have thought it was one of those useful, everyday tasks at which John would excel.
John sat in the passenger seat of the rented Land Rover, watching the scenery go by with a growing stillness. Not still in the relaxed, shoes-off way John exhibited at Baker Street on a lazy morning or over a late-night takeaway. He was still like a soldier; still like a predator at a watering hole. Sherlock shivered with delight at seeing John so obviously, nakedly dangerous in absence of any clear threat, and wondered what they had to look forward to in Dartmoor.
Sherlock pulled onto the side of the road and climbed to the high ground. The March sun was high over-head, bright but cool. John followed him wordlessly, map and binoculars in hand, anticipating Sherlock’s demand for a geographical orientation. Sherlock knew the streets, alleys, wharves, and roof-tops of London like his tongue knew the inside of his own mouth. Cases that took him beyond the boundaries of that knowledge always left him a bit off-balance. But he would pursue John’s secret to places far more wild and remote than this.
John calmly pointed out Baskerville, Grimpen Village, Dewer’s Hollow, and the minefield that separated them. Nothing in his voice or posture indicated a preference towards or against any given destination. No clues for Sherlock at all. Well, if the game were easy, anyone could play.
John looked different out here, against the backdrop of the moors. Not more at home than in the streets of London; differently at home, perhaps. He stood with his knees slightly bent on the uneven ground, squinting in the sunlight, head tilted into the breeze. Sherlock found himself marvelling at this John, the one who had served on the arid grasslands of the Kandahar Province.
" – reservations?" John asked.
"Hmm?" Sherlock responded absently, busy cataloguing this slightly askew version of John Watson.
"I said," John repeated, "have we got reservations somewhere in town? It’s lovely countryside, but I’d prefer to sleep under a roof, if it’s all the same to you. Smells like it’ll get cold tonight."
"Yes, of course – the Cross Keys Inn in Grimpen Village. The only lodgings available in this season."
"Best check-in, then," John said. Sherlock nodded and they returned to their vehicle.
As they approached the village, John became even more alert. He nipped out of the Rover as soon as Sherlock put it into park, scanning the surroundings as if insurgents might be hiding behind every rose bush. Sherlock led him towards the inn, popping his collar. John sniffed mockingly.
"I’m cold," Sherlock protested.
John jogged to catch up. He’d removed his scarf and thrust it towards Sherlock. "Wear this."
"Not that cold," Sherlock said.
John swung directly into Sherlock’s path, interrupting their progress towards the inn. "Wear it," he said firmly as if it were essential to survival in this environment, like safety goggles or a flak jacket.
The scarf was striped blue and white, and bore the Chelsea football club crest. It boldly declared John’s class, interests, origin and allegiance, much like a school tie. The scarf was practically a disguise, in and of itself, and Sherlock had to wonder if that was why John frequently chose to wear it for drinks and quiz nights with Stamford or Lestrade, even in parts of London where Chelsea footballers were less than welcome.
Sherlock snatched the scarf. "Fine," he muttered, wrapping it around his neck. The scarf was coarse compared to Sherlock’s usual cashmere, and still warm from John’s skin.
John trotted off to enter the inn and immediately proceeded to the front desk. Sherlock took the opportunity to investigate the pub whilst John checked in with the innkeeper, who was Scottish, homosexual, recently come into some money, and owned a large dog. Sherlock maintained surveillance on his primary subject, of course. No knowing when John might do something interesting.
The Cross Keys was very much a country pub, nearly empty at this time of day. There were two old men drinking pints in the corner and a slip of a teenaged girl sipping an orange squash as she worked on some maths homework. Was the hair on her jumper from another large dog, or the same one? Same shade of dark fur, in any case. She might be the cleaner, or the child of the cleaner. Whoever dusted the inn was under 5’3, judging by the accumulation at the back of the mantle. There was no scent of oxidized myoglobin in the air or clinging to the drapes. Apparently the chef was quite serious about his vegetarianism. From the scratches on the floor, Sherlock could see that the chairs and tables were frequently moved to the sides of the room. A dance night, perhaps, or some other social activity?
John grabbed a paper off the spike by the cash register and stuck it in his pocket before pulling himself up to his full 5’7, glaring at the innkeeper and leaning in for a word. Oh, was John still reacting that way when people assumed they were a couple? Ridiculous to care so much about what other people think.
Sherlock caught sight of a ‘tour guide’ outside the inn, proclaiming the Gospel of the Hound to a group day-tripping from Brighton. Early 20’s, still lived at home, with a mother who was a health care professional of some sort, probably a nurse, a father who’s a heavy drinker, and yet another large dog. The young man enjoyed the occasional flutter, judging by the Racing Post in his pocket. He had completed his spiel and sat down at a table outside to make a call. Perfect.
Sherlock pasted on his best ‘normal people’ smile, snagged a half-empty pint glass off the bar, and stepped outside.
"It’s not true, is it? You haven’t actually seen this … hound thing, have you?" Sherlock asked, sitting down on the bench across from the young man.
"You from the papers?" he asked, ending his call, face heavy with suspicion. Then he leaned forward across the table and sniffed before suddenly relaxing. "Nah, guess you’re not," he said, looking rather amused.
Curious. What about Sherlock’s scent revealed that he wasn’t a reporter? "Have you got any proof?"
The man smirked at him and opened his mouth.
John emerged from the inn. "Hello, who’s this?" he asked pleasantly.
"Fletcher," the young man introduced himself.
"John Watson," John replied.
"I’m about to win our bet," Sherlock prompted John, voice smug enough to set Fletcher off. People always jumped at a chance to prove Sherlock wrong, even when they’d just met him.
"What bet?" Fletcher asked.
"I bet John, here, that you haven’t any proof of the hound’s existence."
The young man’s eyes narrowed. "Well, you’d be –"
"I never should have taken that bet," John interrupted, moving to stand next to Sherlock. His shadow fell over the young man.
Fletcher looked up, and then sat up straight.
"Because I’m sure Fletcher here doesn’t have any actual proof of some monster running around on the moor, do you, Fletcher?" There was steel in John’s voice.
"No sir, no proof. It’s … errr. Oh, look at the time. Got to go!" Fletcher stood up abruptly and dashed away up the street as if being chased by the proverbial Hound.
Sherlock turned to look at John.
John shrugged. "Bit skittish, wasn’t he?"
Sherlock opened his mouth to reply but didn’t get a word out before John continued.
"Anyway, I called Henry. He says we’re welcome at his place as soon as we like. Fancy a quick ploughman’s lunch first? No, of course not, you’re working. I’ll order one for myself, then."
John disappeared back inside. Sherlock let a slow grin take over his face. John was actively interfering with the investigation into Henry’s hound. Oh, this was marvellous. Sherlock must be snapping at the heels of his secret.
Henry lived in a cozy, over-grown country home, recently reopened after many years without residents. John seemed over-whelmed by the size, the artwork, and the hunting trophies. Mummy had a strict rule banning any dead animals that weren’t part of dinner, whether fresh, decayed, or taxidermied, from the dining room, but Sherlock supposed Henry didn’t have a proper trophy room for them.
"Are you, ah, rich?" John asked Henry awkwardly.
Sherlock had considered inviting John along with him next time Mycroft and Mummy forced him to attend some family event at the manor, but there would be no point at all if John were to go all uncomfortable and small there.
Sherlock announced his plan, to take Henry out on the moors as soon as the sun set and see if anything attacked him. John was sceptical, but Sherlock talked him round easily enough. Henry offered to supply them all with hunting rifles.
"Absolutely not," John said, arms crossed. "No offense, but you’re a nervous wreck, Henry, and I’ve seen this one’s idea of gun safety. I’d be more at risk from you two than from a dozen demon hounds."
In the end, Sherlock and Henry were armed only with flashlights. John ‘took point’ with the rifle. He had an oddly casual approach to monster hunting, chatting with Henry loudly enough to drown out most of the quiet bird and animal noises natural to a night on the moors. When John started recounting some of their cases, Sherlock couldn’t help but be drawn into the conversation to correct his over-simplifications. The moon rose soon after sunset, greatly improving visibility as it was only two days past full. After a few hours of tromping to and fro around Dewer’s Hollow, Sherlock reluctantly acknowledged that whatever had attacked Henry apparently wasn’t interested in making another attempt tonight.
They returned Henry to his home and themselves to the inn. Sherlock texted to arrange an interview-slash-date between John and the rather attractive Doctor Louise Mortimer. John couldn’t be relied upon to faithfully report any information gained, not in this case. But Sherlock already knew Henry was mad as a hatter. The interview was unnecessary, except to provide a window of opportunity for Sherlock to search through John’s belongings.
Fifteen minutes later Sherlock had carefully removed, examined, and replaced every item that John had brought with him from London. Nothing of interest. No notebook – John must have it on him. No gun, which was surprising. John refused to take his service weapon with him on dates, so if it wasn’t in John’s luggage, he must have left it at Baker Street. Odd. Of course John didn’t believe there was some monstrous hound out here that might threaten them, but for him to not bring the gun on a case was out of character.
Sherlock stepped downstairs to join John and Doctor Mortimer. They were gone. The question was, had the date gone that badly, or very well indeed? Sherlock sent a text to John: Where are you? –SH
Sherlock then counted to one hundred to allow for John’s abominably slow thumbs. No reply. Well, if John had managed to talk his way into the good doctor’s knickers, he might well not reply, and wouldn’t appreciate a further interruption.
An hour later Sherlock had determined that Doctor Louise Mortimer was currently sleeping, very much alone, in her bed at #12 Pooks Lane. John still hadn’t responded to his text. The pub had closed at midnight, as had every other public space in this ridiculous little village. There was no one on the streets. No women to clutch their purses or offer their wares as he passed by. No men stumbling home clumsy with drink. No one bundled in blankets in the doorways. No chavs in the shadows assessing the risk versus reward of Sherlock's coat, height, and demeanour. It was so very, very boring here.
Sherlock stopped and listened. It was quiet. There was no music or television coming from the houses with their neat, tiny gardens. Their curtains were drawn and doors locked against him. No voices were raised in argument or laughter. Apparently all the good little villagers were asleep in their beds.
Sherlock drove the Land Rover up to the head of the trail they’d walked earlier, the one that led to Dewer’s Hollow. He hopped out of the vehicle and stood, breath a plume of white in the headlights, John’s scarf wrapped warmly round his neck, staring out into the night. There were no distant sirens, no hum of traffic, and no jets passing overhead.
The moon was bright, but now the moonlight reflected off of a low grey fog, hiding more than it revealed. John must be out there, somewhere, busy keeping secrets from Sherlock. And although Sherlock had always enjoyed that secretive, unpredictable side of John, this was … beastly. Positively beastly, to be left with nothing to distract his brain from turning inwards and devouring itself, whilst John was out there on the moor.
And what if John got into trouble? What if he screamed for help, out there with no gun or back-up, in the middle of all that nothing. There was no CCTV to see him or neighbours to call the police. No homeless network to contact Sherlock. He’d arranged that months ago. Dozens of photos of John and hundreds of pounds passed into various grimy hands all across London, so that if anything were to happen to John Watson, Sherlock would be informed immediately. It was all useless out here. If John were hurt, if he needed help, Sherlock would have no way of knowing. John just … wouldn’t come back.
Sherlock returned to the Cross Keys Inn. He made use of the inn’s Wi-Fi to further research Baskerville and Grimpen Village before finally laying down on his bed in the dark. John came in at a little past four.
"Where have you been?" Sherlock asked. He rather resented being made to sound like a wronged housewife.
"Oh, I went out on the moor for a bit. Thought I saw something that might be a lead. Didn’t pan out."
Sherlock tracked the sound of John undressing in the dark. His balance seemed good; no sign of inebriation. John stepped into the loo. Sherlock scrambled off of his bed to inspect John’s shoes and clothing in the light from the crack under the door. They were cold to the touch. No new rips, tears, or stains. No smell of alcohol, cigarettes, perfume, or blood. A hint of wood smoke. There had been a fire lit in the common room downstairs, but John had only been down there for a few minutes, over five hours ago. Mortimer’s home had no chimney. John must have taken refuge with someone else in the village, but who?
There were bits of grass caught in the soles of John’s shoes, consistent with his story of walking the moor, although the trace evidence might be left from their earlier sortie into Dewer’s Hollow. Sherlock heard a spatter, and then a solid rush of water from the bath – John was taking a shower.
"I texted you," Sherlock said, voice pitched to carry through the door and over the sound of the water.
"Did you? Sorry. Must have missed it. The reception’s rubbish out there."
Sherlock turned on the bedside lamp and checked John’s coat pockets. He removed a receipt from Undershaw Meat Supplies, John’s notebook, and his mobile. Sherlock checked the mobile – his text had, in fact, been read. Sherlock skimmed through John’s case notes, finding nothing of interest, and popped back onto his bed.
John emerged with a towel wrapped around his waist. He peered at Sherlock. "Do you always sleep in your clothes?" he asked.
"Not sleeping, John. Thinking." Sherlock steepled his hands under his chin and closed his eyes.
"Right. Of course," John muttered, slipping into his pyjamas. He turned off the lamp and crawled under the duvet of his own bed. Within minutes his breathing indicated that he’d fallen asleep.
Despite John’s late night, he’d set his alarm to go off at 8:30. When he rolled out of bed, sleep-blurred, with his hair up in tufts, Sherlock expressed his surprise that John wouldn’t want a bit of a lie-in.
"Breakfast," John said resolutely. "There’s a cooked breakfast included with the price of the room, but only if we make it downstairs by nine."
Sherlock covered his laugh with a cough. His John, ever thrifty. No matter how odd the circumstances, at least that hadn’t changed.
Henry called part-way through John’s breakfast, absolutely frantic. He said that the hound had tormented him all night long, howling and pacing back and forth outside his window, setting off the motion sensors that controlled the outdoor floodlights again and again.
When Sherlock and John arrived at his home, Henry couldn’t provide any proof, of course. Sherlock inspected the yard, looking for any minute detail that might corroborate or contradict Henry’s story. Nothing. Not a single print, hair, or fiber.
"It was very cold out last night," Sherlock mused out loud from his position up a ladder, carefully examining the motion detector for any sign of tampering. "The ground might have been too hard to take a footprint."
"True," John agreed. "But that assumes the hound was clever enough to avoid Henry’s flowerbeds."
"Hmm, that lets out half the criminals in London," Sherlock commented. He looked down and found John at the base of ladder, smiling wryly up at him. Sherlock decided they’d exceeded the daily required dose of mania from Henry and drove John to Baskerville.
Baskerville was a wash. John seemed to quite enjoy breaking into a top secret military research centre, despite his usual pro forma scolding, so his secret wasn’t to be found within. During their brief ‘surprise inspection’, Sherlock spotted one minor embezzlement scheme, two cases of scientific fraud, and four people trying to hide personal peccadillos. As if he cared that Major Barrymore occasionally wore garters under his uniform. Tedious.
Still, Sherlock solved the Bluebell case, lit up Mycroft’s security alerts like a Christmas tree, and watched Captain John Watson terrify a Corporal into submission, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.
Later that night he replayed the scene in his mind, savouring John’s upright posture, the snap of his voice, the absolute conviction that his orders would be obeyed. There was something familiar about the memory. Why was it familiar? Oh.
"John. John, are you asleep? John!"
John rolled over in his bed and checked the bedside clock with a resounding sigh. "Yes, Sherlock. It is two in the morning, and I was, indeed, asleep."
"You were pulling rank."
John plumped up his pillow and yawned. "Well, I was a Captain. You never really lose the knack." Sherlock heard John’s satisfied little huff of breath.
"At Baskerville, yes. Obvious. But, John, you were pulling rank the other day in Grimpen Village. The innkeeper, that young tour guide – how exactly do you out-rank them?"
After a minute’s silence, John replied flatly, "Sometimes I have no idea what you’re on about."
Sherlock rubbed his hands together, hot on the scent. Was John part of a conspiracy? Not criminal, no, of course not, John was a man of principle. A terrorist cell? Certainly not. Although … Mycroft’s definition of terrorist might well include a wide variety of principled men. Animal rights activists planning a raid on Baskerville, perhaps? Some strike against government secrecy? "You should tell me, John, you know I’ll figure it out soon enough."
John turned away and pulled the duvet up around his ears.
Sherlock hissed, aggravated at himself for resorting to guesswork. He would deduce this. He would. He lay there in the dark, arranging and rearranging the pieces in his mind, trying to get them to fit together into a valid whole. He was close, so close to John’s secret. Sherlock listened for John’s breathing to slow to the relaxed, deep pattern of sleep, but it never did. John slipped out of bed at three. When Sherlock made to follow him, John shook his head whilst pulling on his clothes.
"Nightmare," John said roughly. "Need to walk it off."
Yes, John often walked after a nightmare, but Sherlock had lain not eight feet away from John all night long, and he hadn’t had one. It was a lie, an obvious lie; and when a very good liar doesn’t bother to lie properly, it means they think they’re already caught.
"I’ll go check on Henry," John continued. "He’s had a rough time of it, the past few nights."
Sherlock quivered like a greyhound at the starting gate as John slipped out the door. He considered trying to shadow John, but the streets of Grimpen Village would be deserted at this hour. John was far too observant for that to be feasible.
Sometime later, Sherlock’s text alert went off. He snatched up his mobile, only to find a text from Henry: ITS HERE. Well, apparently he could still manage to find the shift key on his screen, even in his panicked state. Unfortunately, the apostrophe seemed beyond him.
Sherlock was tempted to respond, just for something to do. But he wouldn’t be able to tolerate Henry’s hysteria without John as a buffer. Prioritizing action over brainwork, despite John’s preference for the former, never solved a case. Henry was a distraction, nothing more.
Sherlock lay in bed until first light, when there was a reasonable chance of others being up and about. Data. He needed more data. So Sherlock put on a fresh suit and dressed for the cold, his coat and John’s scarf protecting him against the elements. He walked about the slowly stirring village, observing and interviewing (‘terrorizing,’ commented Sherlock’s internal model of John Watson) any of the local citizenry he came across.
The key was here, he was certain of it. Not in Baskerville, not out on the moor – here in Grimpen Village. Sherlock began to wish he’d brought his skull. He needed to talk this out and John was, once again, stubbornly absent. Sherlock made his way back to the inn, only to encounter a tanned and grinning DI Lestrade.
"Hullo!" Lestrade said. "Fancy meeting you here."
"No," Sherlock said, pouring himself a cup of coffee and sitting in a corner where he could keep an eye on the front door, the kitchen, and the stairs, so that there was no chance of John slipping past him. The pub was crowded with both guests and locals enjoying the evidently popular vegetarian version of a full English breakfast.
"No?" Lestrade asked, relocating to Sherlock’s table.
It was intolerable. Completely intolerable. Mycroft, the fat lazy git, had sent Lestrade here as his agent. His presence was a forfeit for Sherlock using Mycroft’s identification to gain access to Baskerville. It wouldn’t do, not when Sherlock hadn’t quite figured out John’s secret. It might well be illegal, and how was Sherlock meant to dissuade John from his current course, or help him cover-up the evidence, with Lestrade on a ride-along?
Sherlock glowered at all and sundry. The pub seating soon emptied out. The innkeeper tidied up the breakfast bar as a church bell tolled in the distance. Ah yes, Sunday morning services. An excellent time for daylight house-breaking in the homes of the devout, but Sherlock doubted that Henry Knight fit that description.
Lestrade polished off the last of his vegetarian Eggs Benedict and asked, "Where’s John, then?"
Sherlock twitched and checked his watch. 9:02. John had missed breakfast. He pulled out his phone and texted: Where are you? Lestrade is interfering. Respond immediately. – SH
Sherlock began counting to one hundred, but broke and ran for the stairs at twenty. Perhaps John was taking a nap, to make up for his lack of sleep the past two nights? The lock to their room was unexpectedly stubborn. The door finally crashed open to reveal a John-less bed made with hospital-corners. No John in the bath. John’s bag was gone, with all of his things, and when had that happened? Had he taken it with him when he left, or come back this morning while Sherlock was gallivanting uselessly about the village?
Sherlock wasn’t certain. He hadn’t checked the room before leaving this morning, too caught up in the chase. Idiot! Distracted by the hypothetical, he had failed to observe his own surroundings. Sherlock plunged his hands into his hair and tugged, forcing himself to think. Think!
Surely John wasn’t foolish enough to run. Sherlock could find him, no matter how far he ran, no matter how deep a hole he hid in. Sherlock could drag him back. Of that, there was no doubt. But if John ran, it would mean he wouldn’t want to come back, and that was … not good. Not good at all.
Sherlock wanted to uncover John’s secret. Needed to. But not at the cost of John himself.
"Sherlock," Lestrade called from the open doorway.
Sherlock turned on him with a snarled, "Go away," fully intending to slam the door in his face.
Lestrade stepped into the room before he could. "There’s a report of gunfire at the Knight residence," he said tightly.
It was an eight minute car ride. Sherlock let Lestrade drive, his mind roiling with the possibilities. John might be shot; John might be the shooter. The hunt for John’s secret had been a lovely game, but the stakes were real. John’s reputation, his life, his future might hang in the balance. Their friendship, almost certainly. And so, today, Sherlock must be even more brilliant than usual.
There was a police car already parked in front in Henry’s house when Lestrade pulled into the driveway. Sherlock leapt from the car, ran through the conservancy, and pulled open the door.
"I almost shot her," Henry wailed from the dining room.
One step, two, and then Sherlock nearly stumbled with relief as he heard John’s voice, calm and in control. "I wouldn’t have let you hurt anyone, Henry."
And oh. Oh! Of course! Once again, John’s mere presence was enough to facilitate the workings of Sherlock’s mind.
Sherlock entered the room with Lestrade at his back. There was John standing vigilant, speaking to Henry who was perched, hand-cuffed, on edge of the couch. Doctor Mortimer was collapsed in a chair by the television, face in her hands. Two police constables, one male and the other female, rounded out the scene.
"There was one thing that puzzled me about this case," Sherlock declared, unwinding John’s scarf from his neck and gathering everyone’s attention like children’s jacks.
"Only one?" John murmured. Sherlock ignored him.
"Why did Henry’s father, a wealthy and widely-travelled man, decide to move to Grimpen Village, of all places?"
Henry shook his head miserably, flexing his hands against the cuffs.
"It’s perfectly obvious now, isn’t it?" Sherlock gestured to the walls of the room. "The gun cabinet, the hunting trophies – in this room alone we have a grizzly bear from North America, an African lion, and a Bengal tiger. Naughty, that. They were declared endangered in 1969, and I can see from the mounting that this specimen was killed and preserved in the late 80’s."
"I hardly think that’s relevant," Lestrade said, eying Henry with concern. John walked to the outside door and glanced out at the moor.
"There have been dozens of sensationalistic reports and legends of monsters in this area, going back centuries," Sherlock continued, pacing about the room. "‘The Beast of Grimpen.’ ‘Hounds of Hell.’ ‘The Monster of the Moors.’ But Henry and his father were the first ones to ever report being attacked. Because he was the only one fool enough to hunt them."
Henry let out a quiet sob.
"It didn’t make sense, at first. What sort of beast is clever enough to stay completely hidden, and only attacks humans that are a threat? One that isn’t a beast at all, of course! How is it that, although I’ve not seen a single dog in Grimpen Village, half the townsfolk have their clothes covered in hair from some large breed of canine?"
The female constable brushed self-consciously at her uniform.
"And why is it that a vegetarian restaurant has a receipt for 80 pounds of top-quality beef from Undershaw Meat Supplies?"
John checked his coat pocket, but of course Sherlock had the receipt in hand.
"Once one eliminates the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth. And there is only one explanation that fits the facts of this case."
Sherlock paused in his restless, paced circuit of the room to glance at his audience. Lestrade was leaning forwards, intrigued, as was the tear-streaked Henry Knight, Doctor Mortimer, and the local constabulary. John, however, was not in his proper place by Sherlock’s side, hanging eagerly on his words. John stood by the door, pale and balanced to take a blow. In fact, John’s face was startlingly reminiscent of when Shen had a loaded gun pressed to his forehead.
"Go on, then," John said, voice low, bitter and unflinching. His eyes met Sherlock’s across the room. "Say it!" he barked.
Sherlock found himself automatically opening his mouth to follow the order before he stopped, and took a breath. "John?"
"Tell them, Sherlock. You love to be clever, and this mystery, you’ve solved it, right? Very clever indeed."
Henry Knight, tormented the past two nights by a great hound until he snapped under the pressure. John, disappearing from their room at the inn two nights in a row. Why? Because Henry had gone out onto the moor on the night of a full moon with a hunting rifle. And because John Watson would not allow Henry to be a danger to himself or others.
"There’s only one explanation," Sherlock said, thinking very quickly indeed. "The beast is no beast at all. It’s a hoax."
"Wait, a hoax?" Lestrade said. "What about -"
"Yes, a hoax, do keep up. The owners of the Cross Keys Inn clearly have a large dog they’ve been keeping in secret, and feeding on the sly. They’re letting it out to run around the moors at night to drum up tourist business. I’m sure they got the idea from watching Henry’s little documentary."
"And the half of the town covered in dog hair?" Lestrade said doubtfully.
"Well, they’re in on it, of course. Probably laughing up their sleeve at the other half."
The male constable glared at the female. "Uh, sorry, Mark," she said. "It… seemed harmless enough?"
Sherlock waved his hand dismissively. "A prank. Malicious mischief, at worst. It’s only unfortunate that it played so heavily into Henry’s delusions. And that brings us to the potentially criminal part of the case. Isn’t that right, Doctor Louise Mortimer," Sherlock snapped.
Mortimer, who had been sitting and watching as if this were some Shakespearean play put on for her amusement, startled visibly.
"Is it true that you sent your clearly unstable and traumatized client out here to stay all by himself in a house full of guns, to get some closure?"
"But I … he wasn’t…"
"I can’t decide if you intended Henry to come to harm, or if you are simply incompetent. Even if criminal charges are not brought against you, I’m certain your professional credentials will be revoked over this fiasco. And may God have mercy on your soul," Sherlock thundered.
Admittedly, that was a bit over the top. Mortimer burst into tears, prompting Henry to hysterically demand that someone make her tea whilst the female constable tried to cuff her, and in the ensuing chaos John slipped neatly away, so it was well worth Sherlock’s minor dramatic excess being reported to Mycroft.
It wasn’t until the drive back to town that Lestrade thought to ask, "So what actually happened to Henry’s dad, then?"
"Can’t be sure, of course, it was twenty years ago," Sherlock said glibly, ignoring the dozens of older cold cases he had solved for the Yard. "But it may well have been a pack of feral dogs. That would explain why no one in the village keeps any as pets or working animals."
Lestrade nodded. "And what about John? You two have a tiff?"
Sherlock huddled into his coat. He thought … well, he hoped, at least, that John would accept Sherlock’s rather brilliant cover story as a peace offering.
"Try some flowers, maybe a box of chocolates," Lestrade advised. "Always worked with the wife."
Sherlock turned away from the road to glance at him. "Before or after the divorce?"
Lestrade winced. His phone rang. He glanced at the screen and answered immediately, His Master’s Voice apparently taking precedence over the current conversation. Sherlock dropped Lestrade by his rental car as a broad hint that his presence was no longer required, and went looking for John.
John was sitting on a memorial in the churchyard when Sherlock found him. Sherlock rushed into the churchyard and then paused, awkwardly, in front of him. He hadn’t planned this bit out. Had somehow jumped ahead in his mind to when they would be back at Baker Street, everything sorted.
John looked up. His face was calm. There was no sign of his secret on him, but the pouches under his eyes spoke eloquently of his recent sleepless nights. "I do actually have a right to a life of my own, you know," John said.
Sherlock nodded his head to the side, biting his lip. "Privacy. Personal space. Never really mastered the concepts," he admitted.
John sniffed. "Yeah, I’ve noticed. That thing you did though, at Henry’s … that was good."
Sherlock sat down next to John, looking out over the headstones of the churchyard. Less data this way, but John’s face and demeanour weren’t giving anything away, and Sherlock was having trouble meeting his eyes. "Will you tell me?" he asked.
"What, can’t you deduce it?" John said.
"Possibly," Sherlock said. "Probably," he amended. His mind whirred and rioted. Feelings, relationships, very much not his area. Only this ... this was John. "But I thought you might want a chance to tell someone. To tell me."
John sat silently for a very long time. So, perhaps not. That was fine, Sherlock decided. John didn’t have to tell him. Sherlock would even be willing to try not to deduce any more than he already had, so long as John was willing to come back home. Sherlock's eyes tracked the flight of a pair of starlings as they chased each other through the trees. The stone of the memorial leached the heat from Sherlock’s body even through his good coat. He pulled John’s scarf out of his pocket and wound it round his neck. That helped a bit.
"It runs in certain families," John said quietly. "Always has. And between access to the moor and the history of the place, we’re common as gingers in Grimpen Village."
Sherlock settled closer, his thigh pressed up against John’s, closed his eyes, and listened.