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Il Traviato

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"I'm so pleased to be doing business with you, Mr Spencer," Sherlock purred, raising his glass in toast to his companion, "and to finally put a face to the voice. I do hope you're as good as you claim to be."

The expensively-groomed, fair-haired man leaning against one of the cocktail lounge's carved interior columns favoured him with a smug grin. He smoothed his red silk tie, an unnecessary gesture designed to draw Sherlock's attention down his body. A Savile Row wool suit enhanced the lines of his well-muscled physique. If nothing else, Sherlock admired the cut of the suit.

"Call me Philip, please. We are going to be…in bed together, after all, Mr March." His hazel eyes sparkled behind gold wire-rimmed glasses. "And I am…that good."

Sherlock lowered his gaze and chuckled appreciatively at the innuendo. Flattered, but not submissive. He supplied the expected next line, letting his gaze drift upward again to linger on Spencer's handsome—almost pretty—features. "Then you must call me Gabriel."

Philip Spencer showed no signs of authentic sexual attraction to Sherlock, but it was one of the strategies for control he had been testing over the course of their acquaintance. He trotted out the none-too-subtle flirtation whenever Sherlock tried to gain the upper hand in their interactions. In response, Sherlock gave the appropriate signals—energy in his hands, frequent blinking, a forced edge to his laughter—to suggest he was thrown properly off balance and much more invested in the acquisition of the offered information than he was trying to let on. Spencer's previous clients may have been men and women accustomed to getting what they wanted, but in the end they had been easily manipulated by a man who knew how to fuel their desires.

Spencer knocked back the remainder of his drink. "Like the angel," he breathed with a little laugh.

Sherlock's stomach turned as he caught the exhaled scent of expensive Scotch, but he hid his reaction and cooled the back of his suddenly tight throat with a swallow of his own heavily-iced vodka tonic.

"Another?" Spencer nodded at Sherlock's still mostly full glass.

"Please," Sherlock smiled his gratitude, letting his host play the attentive provider.

As Spencer moved away with glasses in hand, Sherlock pinched the bridge of his nose in an effort to forestall the headache forming behind his eyes. The lounge was a favourite meeting spot for City boys crowing over their day's triumphs, drowning their sorrows in the most conveniently accessible beverage or young woman, or plotting the vanquish of their corporate foes. Sometimes all three simultaneously. Although the ambience was one of soft, low-key elegance, to Sherlock's senses it was proving insufficient to its task tonight; there were too many people in the room, too much noise, too many smells, too much movement. The perfumes were too loud, the laughter was off-key, even the clink of ice against glass was too sharp.

He was well past ready to return to his hotel suite and strip off the accursed, smothering tie and self-entitled leer he wore as Gabriel March. But the costume was part of the game. It wasn't supposed to feel good. It was just supposed to work. Philip Spencer would arrange for Gabriel March to be provided the details of Morse Industries' rumoured breakthrough in the production of a new aramid synthetic fibre. Gabriel March would pay handsomely for the information. Philip Spencer would try to kill Gabriel March.

So far, everything was going according to plan. Sort of.

"Here we are!" Spencer was at his elbow again, pressing a freshly-iced vodka tonic into his hand.

"Thank you, Philip."

"All good things from my hand." Spencer winked and leaned in to speak more quietly into Sherlock's ear. "I'll put your gesture of good faith," he patted the thick envelope he had placed in the inner pocket of his suit jacket, "to use right away, Gabriel. Drink up and relax. Things will move forward quickly from here. You'll be a happy man very soon."

Sherlock smirked and lifted his glass once again and clinked it against Spencer's. "I'm looking forward to it," he countered and let something he knew Spencer would appreciate, something predatory, filter into his expression.

Spencer's eyes lit with a dark, anticipatory glint. "Oh, so am I, angel. This is my favourite part."

That, Sherlock believed, was utter truth. Spencer clearly loved the hunt.

"I'll be in touch very soon." Spencer gave Sherlock's shoulder a last, lingering squeeze before he slid easily away into the flow of the lounge crowd.

Sherlock's sly smile slid from his face as soon as Spencer's back was turned. The next step was to follow him. He doubted Spencer would go running straight back to his employer for a cuppa and a giggle over the evening's work, but, well…sometimes one got lucky. He needed more information on the man. Should have gathered it already.

Damn it.

He was off his game. He leaned against the carved column Spencer had abandoned and pinched the bridge of his nose again. He should be able to push through this fatigue that had begun to plague him. There was no excuse for giving in to it. If he had not been sleeping or eating for the past couple months…well, he should be used to that. Nothing should be affecting his usual ability to manage his mental and physical condition.

With a sigh of disappointment in his body's expression of weakness, he set his drink on the nearest table and made his way toward the loo. He could see the shiny blond of Spencer's hair as he made his way toward the exit. A splash of cool water on his face and he would be ready to go.

He was fine. He would manage this and he was fine.

When he opened the door to the toilets there was no avoiding the young man slouched on the red Chesterfield immediately within. His suit jacket was crumpled on the floor. He held a needle in his right hand, the tip poised over a bulging vein on the inside of his left elbow, just under his rolled-up shirt sleeve. Sherlock froze, riveted by the silvery glint of the needle.

All the previously distracting sounds faded, overwhelmed by the pounding of his pulse in his ears.

Need. I need it.

"What the fuck are you looking at?" snapped the man on the sofa, his red-rimmed eyes flashing.

Sherlock made a choking noise in the back of his throat.

No. The work. You promised.

Suddenly it was all too much and memories he did not want but had not yet managed to delete stole their chance to rush into his mind. The sickeningly bright fluorescent light and antiseptic smell of hospital corridors. The taste of copper in his mouth. Careless laughter from the room next door.

Sherlock reeled out of the men's room as a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him and pushed his way blindly through the lounge. He felt beads of cold sweat breaking out on his forehead and upper lip as he bolted out the door. He bent over on the pavement, hands braced against his upper thighs, taking in gulps of the cool night air.

"All right, then, sir?" the valet asked with almost aggressive indifference.

"Just get the car," Sherlock snapped, and paced back and forth, digging his fingers through his hair, rubbing at his scalp, as he waited. When the black Mercedes pulled up to the kerb, Sherlock practically pulled the startled valet out of the seat in his haste to get in and away. He jerked the wheel, floored the accelerator, and sped away into the London night.

 

+++

 

John Watson limped up the stairs to his second-storey flat, thumping his cane much harder than necessary on each step, his lips pressed into a grim line. He unlocked the door, slammed it shut behind him, and addressed the blanket-wrapped, snoring form on the sofa.

"What the hell is this?"

The lump snorted and stirred at his shout, and his sister's head emerged from beneath the blanket. "Whzat? John?"

John checked his watch. Just past nine. He'd left the flat around half three. She'd apparently come in since then to sleep off the effects of another binge. The flat smelled like rubbing alcohol, so it was probably vodka again. At least he didn't smell vomit this time. Or piss. "This." He crumpled a small slip of white paper and threw it at her. "Harry. What. Is. This?"

Harry wriggled herself into a partially upright position and pulled her arm from underneath the blanket to pick up the paper wad. She smoothed it out and squinted at it blearily. Her cropped blonde hair was standing out in all directions and she had a dark smear of mascara down one cheek. Her face was blotchy and her eyes were red-rimmed. "S'a bank slip," she muttered. "So?"

"And what does it say?"

Harry blinked at it several more times, grunted, and re-crumpled the paper. She rolled back over so her face was turned into the back of the sofa, away from John. "It says fuck off, I need to sleep."

"It says my bank account is empty. That's what it says. Harry, again? The rent is already late."

"John…I had to party," she groaned, pulling the blankets back over her head. "Weren't hardly nothing in there anyway."

"Shit, Harry, just…shit." John rubbed his hand over his forehead. "I'm really trying here, you know."

There was a pause so long that John thought Harry had gone back to sleep before the lump mumbled, "Sorry," in a small, shaky voice.

Somewhere under that blanket, under the layers of stink and anger and defensiveness and shame, was his sister. His real sister. And he couldn't help her. Some healer. He just wasn't trying hard enough, was he?

John squeezed his left hand into a fist to stop it from twitching. "You're all right?"

The lump sniffled. "Just need to sleep."

With a sigh, just in case, John fetched the bucket from the bathroom cupboard and put it next to the sofa. He carried a mug of cold tea and an empty crisps bag from the sofa table to the kitchen. Kneading distractedly at the pain in his right thigh, he explored the contents of the fridge. He thought that blue cheese had been cheddar when he bought it. He wasn't certain that raisins were sold in bunches. He was fairly certain milk was not supposed to ooze when poured.

John checked his pockets. Almost four pounds. Milk and a couple tins of beans? "Harry, I'm going back out."

The sofa snored.

He would have to try harder. That was all.

If they could hold on until his next paycheque came in, pay the rent, and eat they'd be doing well. If not, then his drab little flat might not be his drab little flat for much longer. And it would be a hell of a lot easier if Harry didn't keep "borrowing" his card. He'd have to change the PIN again tomorrow. And find a way to bring in a more cash. His army pension and the work he'd found proofreading medical journals did not quite make ends meet in London's economy, especially now that he had Harry, divorced, drunk, and homeless, to support. He would try again at another clinic.

There. It was all sorted now. They'd be fine.

John hobbled down the stairs and back out into the night, leaning heavily on his cane. He pulled the zip on his jacket all the way up and took a deep breath of the chilly autumn air. Their street was fairly quiet at night, even though it was not too far from the shops and there was a pub on the corner. In fact, he'd stop in there on the way to Tesco…they might still have some peanuts out.

He was just crossing the street when a dark sedan careened around the corner with a screech of tyres, side-swiped a lamppost, and skidded to a halt with one tyre on the kerb. A group of girls dressed for clubbing jeered as they swerved around the car's bonnet.

"Jesus," muttered John, immediately changing direction to check on the driver and any passengers.

A tall, angular man in a business suit flung himself out of the driver's side onto the pavement, cursing at full volume. He was clutching his right wrist with his left hand, but whatever injury he had sustained apparently was not severe enough to inhibit his temper or his theatrics.

"Are you all right?" John called.

"What?" The man glared at him. After a final stomp of his foot, like a frustrated child denied his way, he answered through clenched teeth. "Fine. Yes, I'm fine."

John jogged across the street to him. He was sharp-featured and striking. His eyes were pale and almost eerie in their intensity under the unnatural yellow light of the street lamp. Quite slim. His dark hair looked like it had started the day styled and slicked back, but had since been dishevelled into a wilder, more natural state. "Anybody in there with you?"

"I'm alone, so, no."

"Let me see that wrist."

The man stared at him with obvious suspicion.

"I'm a doctor."

"Are you?" the man drawled, his eyes narrowing. Slowly he extended his arm for inspection, watching John curiously.

John gently tested the wrist, rotated it until the man winced at the pain. It was already starting to swell, warm, and a little red. John also took the opportunity of their proximity to surreptitiously smell the man's breath for the scent of alcohol and check his eyes. Apart from a slightly elevated pulse, understandable under the circumstances, he didn't appear impaired. Agitated, perhaps, but probably sober. That was a pleasant surprise.

"Sprained," John told him, "probably. You might want to have it X-rayed at hospital to make sure it's not broken." John gave him a smile and a light squeeze to his upper arm, just above the elbow—the little reassuring touches that he automatically incorporated into his interaction with his patients. "But it's not."

The man nodded, sliding his wrist from John's fingers. His expression as well as the tension in his body had both relaxed a bit. When not clenched in a snarl, his face was really…quite handsome. Arrestingly handsome. His cool gaze ranged over John's face. "Thank you."

John cleared his throat. "Is there, um, someone who can collect you?"

The man frowned at the car. "What for? It looks driveable."

John looked at the car, too. "Yeah…but…I don't think you should drive it."

John was favoured with a scowl and an offended look. "Why not? I'm perfectly fine."

"You aren't. You need to rest that wrist. And, frankly, you look a bit…wired."

The man's full lips compressed into a thin line of annoyance. He raised his right hand to his head, winced, and lowered it with a sigh. He glared at John again, as if his current situation was now John's fault. "Fine," he grated. "I'll get a cab." He peered down the street as though a taxi would materialize for him on demand.

John snickered. "This isn't your neighbourhood, is it?"

The man looked down his nose at John. "I know my way around London. You'd be surprised how well."

"Yes, I'm impressed already. So what are you doing here?"

The man gave John the look of someone who was not often mocked and wasn't quite certain he was hearing correctly. "Just…driving."

"I see." John nodded and pursed his lips, looking at the scraped and dented car wing and door. "You know your way around a car as well as you do around London, then?" John thought for a moment he might have pushed too far, but instead of the verbal abuse John was expecting the man's haughty glare dissolved into a surprised chuckle--a warm, rumbling sound that John could have sworn he felt in his own solar plexus.

John found himself grinning in response.

"The closest Tube station is Brixton," the man sighed. He tried again to run a hand through his hair, remembering just in time to use his left instead of his right. "I'll just go there."

"If you like…I could drive you," John heard himself offer. He squeezed the handle of his cane.

The suspicious look returned immediately. "Why would you do that?"

I've no idea. John swallowed, taking in the man's thousand-pound suit, hundred-thousand-pound car. He lifted his chin. "If you could just…give me the cab fare back." That would work. Then he could walk or take the Tube and get something for dinner for himself and Harry, too.

The man's gaze swept John once again like some kind of human security scanner, assessing John's threat level. John held his stance and his face steady. He did not look away, even though he was feeling suddenly remarkably transparent and more than a little ashamed at having to ask for what amounted to a handout.

"All right."

"All right?" John's eyebrows lifted. Apparently his threat level was minimal. "Good, then. Good."

The man stood looking at him.

"Well…if you're…all done here…shall we?" John nodded toward the car.

The man sniffed, opened the door, and slid gracefully into the passenger seat of the car. John climbed in the driver's side, stowing his cane in the seat well and adjusting the seat position to accommodate his shorter legs. "So…where are we going?"

"The Rivers."

John's eyebrows lifted. "Of course we are." Only one of the best hotels in London. "They'll have ice, I suppose," he mused as he familiarized himself with the dash of the Mercedes.

"Ice?"

"For your wrist. We can stop at the chemist's for a bandage."

The man flicked a bemused look at John.

"I'm John, by the way. John Watson."

The man's eyes narrowed. "Gabriel March."

John offered his left hand to shake. Gabriel March stared at it for a moment before he clasped it in greeting. His hand virtually dwarfed John's and the pads of his fingers were just a little rough against John's palm.

When John pulled his hand back, it was tingling. Sometimes the tremor in his hand caused that. Once in a while.

John took a deep breath. "Well, then…let's see if this thing will start."