“I’ll write you a script for Amoxicillin – you’re not penicillin sensitive, are you?”
John simultaneously reached for his computer keyboard and a handful of tissues, sneezing into the latter as he typed erratically on the former with one hand.
The elderly lady’s faded blue eyes twinkled at him. “Looks like you’re the one as needs the pills, if you don’t mind me sayin’, doctor,” she told him kindly.
“Yes, I think you’re right, Mrs Robson,” John allowed, sniffing slightly as he binned the soggy paper. “This has just hit me; I felt perfectly healthy when I got up this morning.” He smiled apologetically and fed a green form into the printer. He scribbled a signature, hardly able to see over a fresh wad of tissues, and held it out to his patient.
Mrs Robson rose to her feet, settling her handbag firmly over the crook of her elbow as she reached for her script. “You look after that cold, doctor,” she said firmly, “We don’t want you endin’ up in hospital like all these flu victims we’ve got this year.” She made her deliberate way out of his office.
“Thank you, I’ll try,” John replied with a smile. He sat down, ran his hands through his hair and reached for the tissue box again; it was empty. John cursed under his breath and swiped his fingers under his nose.
Almost immediately, the door opened and John sprang to attention, guiltily thrusting his hands behind his back, wondering how in the world he had accidentally managed to buzz for the next patient already.
“I’m so sorry, I was…oh, Sarah, come in!” John gestured to the chair in front of him with one hand, mopping frantically at his nose with the other.
Sarah reached into her pocket and proffered a large handkerchief. She shook her head at him as he accepted it gratefully, her face half-stern, half-fond.
“John, go home,” she said flatly, “Right this minute; your patients are complaining to the Receptionists.”
“What?” John exclaimed in horror. “Look, Sarah, I swear this only came on a couple of hours ago at the most. I’ve not sneezed over anybody and until now, I haven’t had any kind of problem at all…”
“No, no,” Sarah interrupted, laughing. “Not about your treatment, silly! They’re giving the Practice Management hell for apparently forcing you to work when you’re ill. We can’t cope with all this abuse from your fan club, John; go home and sleep it off!”
She smiled at him and opened the door.
“Oh, and make sure you do sleep it off,” she said turning back for a moment. “No chasing around London after mad private detectives tonight, okay?”
John gave a sour grimace. “No chance of that,” he said wryly. “The git’s been away for more than a fortnight – not a word.”
Sarah frowned. “A fortnight?” she echoed. “Is that usual?”
“Well,” John rubbed the back of his neck, “put it this way – it’s not un-usual. He gives me chapter and verse once he gets back, though; it’s mostly pretty entertaining.”
Sarah’s frown morphed into an amused grin; she shook her head wonderingly. “You know,” she remarked “if it were anyone other than Sherlock Holmes, I’d be suspecting some kind of clandestine affaire!” Her eyes twinkled.
John raised his eyebrows. “Sherlock?” he shook his head, “Not likely. Believe me; he’s been got at by experts. No dice at all.”
“Really?” Sarah’s eyebrows disappeared into her hairline, “You must tell me about it sometime.”
John coughed lightly, wondering if he had said too much.
Sarah laughed at his discomfiture. “I can see it’ll take positively lakes of alcohol to get this one out of you,” she said smiling, “Don’t worry – I’ll wait till you’re well before I try it.”
She put her hand to the doorknob. “Go home, get into bed and stay there,” she admonished.
“Will you come and tuck me in?” He couldn’t resist it.
Sarah’s response floated back from the corridor without missing a beat. John allowed himself a fleeting regret; they really were just good friends now.
He logged off his computer and cleared his desk. Grabbing his jacket, he switched on his phone and started to scroll through his texts and missed calls. His face broke into a grin as, right on cue, he found a text from Sherlock:
Purchase cyanide capsules and baseball bat on way home this evening. If cyanide not available, anything lethal and quick-acting from surgery dispensary will do. SH
John snorted in amusement and mopped at his nose with Sarah’s hankerchief; evidently Sherlock had hoped to sneak his way back into the Baker Street flat without alerting his brother as to his presence. A forlorn hope in John’s opinion, and Sherlock was clearly attesting to the truth of that. John checked the send time; only ten minutes or so previously, so Mycroft was probably still actually there. John elected to treat his flatmate’s text as an expression of discontent rather than as a direct order and went straight home on the tube. Even Mycroft couldn’t predict a cold; John's unexpected arrival at Baker Street would likely be in time to defuse a major family row.
John’s journey was rather more uncomfortable than he had anticipated. The tube was unusually crowded for the time of day and John was forced into the centre of the carriage, sandwiched between a very overweight teenager and a disapproving matron who favoured him with periodic glares every time the swaying of the carriage flung him briefly into her personal space. Hanging helplessly from a polished steel pole, leaning his aching forehead against the cool metal and feeling the sweat start to trickle down the back of his neck, John began to wonder if this was a bit more than a simple cold.
Well, thought his uncharitable, undoctorly side, at least the old bat’ll probably go down with it too.
Baker Street tube station was packed and by the time he had struggled his way to the surface, John sincerely hated every single human being in sight, in London and possibly even on the planet. He gazed out at the driving rain and abruptly all the fight went out of him; he sagged against the wall and tried to catch his breath.
“Hey!” said a sudden voice, “John Watson!”
John looked blearily around to see an arm waving out of a car window. A head followed it and cocked to one side, indicating the back seat; the door obligingly opened.
Abruptly, John’s faith in a beneficent God underwent a sudden upsurge. “Thank you, thank you!” he muttered as he turned up his collar, dashed out into the road and was quickly swallowed up into the back of Lestrade’s warm police sedan.
“Oh cheers mate!” John breathed, shaking the water droplets out of his hair.
“Hey!” protested a voice next to him.
“Sorry,” John grinned, adjusting his collar. PC Brownlee merely rolled his eyes.
“Seriously, though,” John continued, aiming his words to where Lestrade was sitting in the front passenger seat, “You’re a lifesaver – going anywhere near 221?” He coughed into his handkerchief.
“We weren’t,” said Lestrade, grinning over his shoulder, “but I suppose we can drop you. You look a bit done in, Doctor Watson.”
“You could say that,” John returned, wiping his mouth and spiriting the handkerchief away, resisting the temptation to examine its contents in company. “Sarah’s sent me home – says I’m doing more harm than good.”
“Looking at you, she’s probably right,” Lestrade agreed as his driver pulled in. “Here’s your stop. Remember me to the master now he’s got back, won’t you? He texted me earlier just to make sure I knew he was home. Oh, and tell him I’ll be on his case later tomorrow. We’ve got a dodgy one; routine post mortem turned up very iffy. Could be interesting.”
John nodded. “I’ll tell him. Cheers!” He vaulted from the back seat, slammed the door and ran for number 221 flapping an arm briefly in farewell.
As the front door closed behind him, John sagged against it, dripping copiously all over Mrs Hudson’s immaculate doormat. His energy reserves seemed to drain out of him all at once, leaving him looking wearily at a staircase that floated prettily in and out of focus.
Just a few moments. John sank down on the second stair and leaned his throbbing head against the newel post.
Voices; raised voices, clearly angry, coming from upstairs. Mrs Hudson must be out or she’d be in the hall by now earwigging. John listened for a moment then nodded to himself; as he had thought, Mycroft was still here.
Much later, John would remind himself that he had never intended to eavesdrop. He would tell himself that the bout of seasonal flu that flattened him over the following fortnight was answerable for his lamentable lack of common politeness in making his presence known. A simple cough would have done it and Lord knows he had been doing enough of that for most of the afternoon. Instead, he leaned against the wall and tried to breathe quietly even though discretion was clearly unnecessary; the two were arguing loudly enough to raise Cain, and they had left the living room door open to boot.
“It is no longer a sustainable situation, Sherlock; surely you can see that,” Mycroft’s smooth, oily tenor was missing its placatory edge although his tone was still deceptively reassuring. “As your brother, I have to appeal to you for your assistance and co-operation in this matter, you must see that.”
“All I can see is that your interference is, once again, totally unjustified,” Sherlock’s more rounded baritone responded in a low, rapid monotone. “As the vernacular has it – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It translates out, for your benefit, as Mind Your Own Business.”
“Something has to be done…”
“The status quo has served us all perfectly well for more than fifteen years, Mycroft,” Sherlock raised his voice to drown his brother out. “I fail to see the urgency.”
“That may be the case,” Mycroft conceded, apparently reluctantly, “but things are not as they were, as you well know. Another variable has entered the equation; an important one.”
“If you are speaking of Moriarty, allow me to reassure you,” Sherlock responded icily. “There is no possible way he could find out; I have made very sure of that.”
Mycroft’s laugh was bitter and without humour. “A fair deflection, Sherlock,” he said, his tone tight, “but not quite good enough, I’m afraid. I am your older brother by seven years, not the hired help. Kindly give my intelligence the respect it deserves. For the record, Moriarty is not the only threat to the present state of affairs.”
John saw in his mind’s eye the reluctant acknowledgement in Sherlock’s face.
“However, if I may emulate your descent into colloquialism,” Mycroft continued, “there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip. And it is not as though you have never in your life made an error through sheer hubris, hmm?”
John stiffened and straightened his spine in sympathy with his unseen flatmate; The Woman was still a taboo subject. He had to strain to hear Sherlock’s response.
“Pride comes before a fall, brother mine,” was the murmured response, “As to who will fall furthest - well, that remains to be seen.”
There was a creak as someone rose from the sofa and the thud of footfalls; Sherlock was pacing the rug.
“You may be confident that the Holmes family is safe,” Sherlock told his brother, “Moriarty is a danger only to me.”
“You would do well to reassess that last comment, Sherlock,” Mycroft replied; his words were clipped and carefully enunciated, “Trust me; James Moriarty is far less sane than either you or I ever imagined in our wildest dreams. I assure you that after several days spent interrogating him, there can be no further doubt as to the state of his mind; his obsession knows no bounds. Everyone and everything associated with you is in jeopardy; we cannot risk even the vaguest suggestion that the particular, shall we say, ah, vulnerability we have been discussing might exist.”
“And I tell you that nothing has changed; the situation is still tenable,” Sherlock replied; his pacing increased in speed.
“And what of the locals?” Mycroft demanded; John blinked and frowned in incomprehension.
Sherlock made a rude, derisive noise. “The locals are idiots!” he responded pithily.
“Nevertheless,” Mycroft persisted, “they know enough to be problematic. Sherlock, we have to face facts. It’s time to resolve this once and for all; you must come to terms.”
“I don’t have to listen to you,” Sherlock ground out between clenched teeth. John heard the sound of a violin bow gouging over strings in a riot of dissonance.
Despite himself, John cringed, frowned and continued to listen.
“There has to be some kind of closure on this,” Mycroft’s tone was as urgent as John had ever heard it, raising the volume to be heard over the flurry of double-stopping. “Forgiveness isn’t impossible you know, even at this late stage. You’ve always been adamant in your refusal of assistance in the past, but if we were to keep it in the family, if I were to…”
Sherlock abruptly stopped playing on a ghastly discord. “Mycroft,” The tone was strangulated; he was clearly grinding his teeth, “I seem to recall asking you to leave five, possibly even ten, minutes ago. Kindly accede to my wishes.”
“Returning to home ground could help, Sherlock,” Mycroft continued, as though his brother had not spoken, “Come down to Orlington with me at the weekend. Once you’re there, it might be possible for you to allow…”
“Mycroft!” Sherlock’s voice suddenly cut through all other sound; John held his breath.
“Leave now,” Sherlock said quietly enough, but there was no mistaking the edge. There was a short pause before a different set of footsteps tracked heavily over to the door.
John leaped to his feet, so rattled that he failed to even approximate the deception of having just that moment arrived home. His shifting eyes and awkward body language were an open book to someone of Mycroft’s skills. However, the latter’s fleeting expression of actual surprise on encountering John on the staircase ratcheted John’s vague scratch of unease into a sharp prickle of worry.
Face to face with John’s dumbfounded expression, Mycroft gave a watery smile. “Ah, Doctor Watson,” he said, a weak echo of his usual bonhomie, “How pleasant to see you! Unfortunately, I was just leaving. Another time? Tea at my club, perhaps? I’ll have my secretary call you.”
Gripping his umbrella, Mycroft manoeuvred smoothly around John and disappeared down the hallway without another word. John frowned after him then shrugged, exhaled gustily and began the long ascent to the first floor.
“Sherlock?” John coughed; he was actually wheezing. He peered into the kitchen then winced as a resounding slam shook the entire house to its foundations.
John sighed helplessly and went to close the living room door. Mrs Hudson stood on the threshold wearing her outdoor coat and rain hat, umbrella dripping over the carpet, her face set in a kind of sympathetic pout.
“Oh, what’s he getting up to now, Doctor Watson?” she grumbled in a long-suffering manner.
John scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. “I’m bugg... ah, darned if I know, Mrs Hudson,” he replied, “I’ve only just got here myself.”
“And that brother of his!” Mrs Hudson continued crossly, “Nearly ran me down on my own doorstep, he did! I ask you, what is the world coming to when gentlemen of his type can't even look where they’re going? How are the rest of us supposed to cope?”
John didn’t know. In fact, the number of things that John didn’t know could fill a universe, and most of them concerned Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock’s absence this time had not been unusually long. He had left the flat at a run, hand luggage in tow, muttering vaguely about a jewellery theft in Reykjavík and telling John not to wait up. That had been two and a half weeks ago with narry an email or Skype call to touch base. None of this was a problem per se – John had grown accustomed to arranging his life around Sherlock’s presence or absence, depending on what was happening.
It really didn’t bother him, he told himself; after all, he had his own work at the surgery and in Sherlock's absence the flat was blessedly peaceful and tidy; no noise, no fuss, no sudden surprises. John could even bring his dates home without fear.
But John had missed his flatmate; he always did when Sherlock was away, if he was being honest with himself. Now Sherlock was home, John's quietly envisaged Friday evening of dinner at Angelo’s (or any one of a number of other small restaurants that had reasons, good or bad, for giving Sherlock Holmes a freebie) followed by Baker Street’s coal fire and indifferent telly in the warm had buoyed him up through his nightmare journey home. Maybe even a beer or two – Sherlock was even more amusing when alcohol had mellowed him out a bit – followed by a good night’s sleep and a Saturday lie-in for John. He sighed; fat chance of that now. Thanks, Mycroft.
For the next twenty-four hours, Sherlock remained in his bedroom, the only indication of his presence being the collection of used coffee mugs that accumulated in the kitchen overnight. Finally, to John’s everlasting relief, Lestrade texted with details about the surprising post-mortem and Sherlock emerged, fully dressed in his trademark coat, pulling on his gloves and shouting for John. As he scrambled off his sickbed to comply, John assumed that things were now back to normal.
But who knew with Sherlock Holmes?