Apparently, Americans bounced.
Or rather – Mycroft reproached himself: generalisations were the refuge of sloppy minds – the American that Sherlock had seen fit to toss repeatedly out of the window of his flat had bounced as he met the bins, the pavement, and whatever else was out there. It had been some time since Sherlock had found recourse in brute violence, but Mycroft supposed that it was fitting, really, as it was a response to the violence done to Mrs Hudson, whom Sherlock had cast in the role of Mummy in the fantasy life he led.
Really, this latest 'enemy' of Sherlock's was being more than a bit heavy-handed. Mrs Hudson had been roughed up and John had been threatened with execution by means of a weapon with which he was intimately familiar; the old woman's wails and the unconscious movement of John's hand toward his waistband where his gun had often rested told Mycroft as much. So: a foe with no sense of proportion or, perhaps, no time to escalate. This Irene Adler person needed to be shut down, post-haste.
'My dear,' he called, keeping his gaze on the surveillance monitor. His favourite assistant – 'Belinda' on professional matters – stepped into his office, the dossier on Irene Adler already in her hands. He offered his approbation. 'Excellent. Whatever you think is best.'
'England would fall,' Sherlock had said, and she'd been so pleased by his stout defence that the bruises under her skin had ceased to matter very much. At least until it was time for her nightly cup of chamomile, and then she'd shed her pride and asked John for something that would give her a night of relatively pain-free sleep.
He was a nice man, that Dr Watson, and the making of Sherlock, who'd been a bit silly before, pretending he never cared for anybody. But with John he didn't bother. She found it just a bit thrilling to think that John wouldn't stand for that kind of posturing. Sometimes one needed to lay down the law for Sherlock.
He was still so much a child, Sherlock, with his boundless energy and his sullen fits; it made sense that he'd have to make up his own job, Peter Pan playing detective, skipping out on the paperwork and clapping his hands in glee whenever a particularly ingenious crime was promised him. She never had had a child – a bit of luck, that, given what her late mister got up to – and was quite glad she'd not had the raising of this one, but for all that, she loved Sherlock like he was her own son. Her exasperating child, her selfish, devoted boy.
Vivian laid her fingers on Joe's thickly muscled arm, revelling in the strength to be found there. 'Today's the day,' she said, looking at the apricot jam he'd set before her. 'He'll come downstairs and go straight for the coffeemaker – that's what he really loves – and then he'll see the paperwork.'
'You've done it, then?' Joe asked, hope dawning on his face.
'I signed everything at the solicitors' office on Friday, Joe. I just couldn't do it with Bonnie's kids to mind on top of everything else.' Her frustration showed clearly on her face, her mouth in a tight line.
'Your sister's kids might like this place better anyway, Viv,' he said, trying to cheer her up. 'Greg's a tosser for never spending any time with them in the first place.'
'Is that all?' she asked, warming at his words, a spark settling in her stomach from the way his eyes fixed on her.
'And for preferring to spend his time looking at dead bodies than appreciating this live one,' he continued, one hand sliding up her shirt to cup her breast, taking shameless advantage of her braless state. She found it hard to breathe when his skin was making hers tingle. 'And for having a Frenchman's name.'
She laughed and leaned into his touch, wishing they were back in bed.
He read the thought on her face and grinned, sharp and certain, unbuttoning her trousers and pushing them off. 'There's nothing I could do to you on a bed that I can't do here.'
Her hesitation charmed him. He picked her up, smiling as her legs curled around his waist automatically, and dropped his head to whisper hotly in her ear. 'You're not Auntie Viv just now. You're mine, aren't you? And you're up for it even on the kitchen table.' He didn't shape the words as a question, and was gratified to see the flush that flooded her fair skin. 'Come on, love, let's give that bastard Greg Lestrade a proper send-off.'
She bit at his mouth then, every emotion on her face at once, and he felt her open a tear in his lip.
'That's right,' he growled, pushing her down so her back was flat against the table. Her legs were still wound round him and he peeled one, then the other, free so he could rip her silk pants off. The jam jar fell, and he laughed. 'Say it,' he asked, one hand still clutching her pants and the other working her open with familiar fingers.
She writhed and pushed into his touch. 'Grounds for divorce,' she said, voice breaking as he stroked her knowingly. 'Unreasonable behaviour.'
Greg groaned and scrubbed a weary hand through his hair once more. His eyes were crossing from the length of time he'd been awake, but he was determined to push through his exhaustion and give his brain one more chance to rally. He looked at the crime-scene photos spread over the long table in the conference room as his fingers clutched a now-empty paper cup. He was torn between cursing Sherlock for ranking crime scenes now and cursing himself for becoming so reliant on that lunatic. He'd done this by himself not that long ago, hadn't he? In fact, he'd had one of the better solve rates at the Yard, which was why he'd made Detective Inspector a little earlier than expected.
But it would have been nice to know Sherlock's keen mind was sorting through this one, that Sherlock would pull a thread loose from the tangle and at least set him on the right track. He didn't need to be working these hours, not at this time of year, when he'd got accustomed to soothing Vivi, who got pinched and unhappy at the holiday lights and resented her sister for having the kids she'd always wanted. Nothing he could change now, though, and there was no one else to fight for the woman in the photo, stripped and bloodied.
He set off in search of some coffee; some stimulant was necessary to get him going again. He should have brought the photos along when he'd gone to Sherlock's flat for that bizarre Christmas do. It was an odd proposition, Sherlock hosting a festive gathering, and Greg tipped his hat to John for humanising Sherlock so thoroughly that Sherlock had even seemed to like it.
Of course, that enjoyment probably indicated that John used rather pleasurable methods. Army bloke, so maybe he went in for straight-up discipline? Greg could see Sherlock responding well to that – probably never had anybody say no to him before. And of course, being aware of conditioning didn't make anyone immune to it, so it was possible John had simply drilled obedience into his flatmate.
But Sherlock never bore any signs of punishment, and Greg had seen him naked twice since the day John had walked into his life. It was far more plausible that John had a better method of keeping Sherlock in line; John had the confidence of a man who knew he was a bloody good shag, and everyone knew Sherlock had to have the best of everything. Greg could picture him imperiously demanding satisfaction and John taking him at his word, pushing him onto his back, and making Sherlock all pliant and biddable.
He had to scrub his brain clean before heading over to Baker Street for help; God only knew what would tip Sherlock off, but Greg had no doubt that his disquieting thoughts would be written all over him in that nearly-invisible script that Sherlock was somehow still able to read at fifty paces. It wasn't fair anyway; John pulled the best-looking birds and definitely wasn't the type to play fast and loose with them, even for Sherlock. Right. Time to call it quits and give his brain a break.
Or maybe he should be seeking tips from John; that swagger had to be based on something, after all, and if Vivi really was gone, off with the P.E. teacher Sherlock had deduced, then he'd have to get cracking to find someone warm to curl up with at night. Maybe that Molly – who knew she'd been hiding a figure like that under those white coats?
He fantasised thoroughly but briefly before acknowledging that might be playing a bit too close to home. The last thing he needed was to try to replace Sherlock in anybody's estimation. Vivi had spelled out quite clearly all the ways he'd failed her in the note clipped to the divorce paperwork, and his inadequacy was a theme on which Sherlock never tired of playing, the insufferable berk.
Sally was more than a bit of a looker, and she'd rather drop dead than moon over Sherlock Holmes, so maybe he should be looking her way. Nah, he was being right pathetic. There was nothing wrong with being on your own, was there, and anyway he was her boss.
He thought he'd act like it and question the landlord once more, the one who swore that the girl had had a big bruiser of a boyfriend who liked to rough her up, despite the fact that there hadn't been a mark on her other than what had been inflicted within an hour of her death.
'If you saw him hittin' her, why didn't you phone us up?' he asked the man, Sal looking convincingly righteous as she lingered in the doorway. It was always interesting, seeing how so-called tough guys reacted to a female sergeant; some stripped her with their eyes and some went for over-the-top brutishness. The great thing about Sal was that she could stand her ground with either kind, but get a crier who looked for her to dry his tears and cuddle his head on her breast and she went hard and brittle as iron.
This one went straight letch as he stupidly spilled the beans. Greg grinned at her, said, 'Paperwork's yours, Sal,' and bolted.
John cursed himself for nine kinds of fool. For someone who probably had an Amazonian army at his beck and call, Mycroft had been remarkably consistent about sending the same assistant to fetch John over the long months they had been acquainted, so what had made him follow an unfamiliar beauty to a long dark car and expect that all would be well?
He cursed himself again when that viperous Adler woman came into view, keeping herself out of his reach as if she knew just how much he wanted to wring her neck. Sherlock deserved better than to be caught in whatever game a bored and malicious strumpet wanted to play. He gritted his teeth and appealed to some vestigial sense of decency she might still possess; his fingers clenched into furious fists as she bantered with him, light words tripping off her poisonous tongue. He'd hit Sherlock for this woman, and he could just as easily do it the other way around.
That moan of hers filled the air, and he could have killed her just then, right where she stood, for forcing his hand and presenting him to Sherlock as her accomplice. Before she'd bullied her way into their lives, he'd have thought himself safe, but after The Woman, what Sherlock knew was not necessarily what Sherlock believed.
Because, for all her faults, Irene Adler, whether she was swanning around naked or vulnerably tucked up in his bed, was capable of getting a reaction out of Sherlock. She pushed him off-centre with those staring moonstone eyes and delicately undershot jaw, animal lust animating her and tripping Sherlock up.
John didn't want any part of that, honestly. That much he was sure of. Whether there was some part of him that wanted Sherlock to be as befuddled by him as he evidently was by this jumped-up tart was not the issue; all he knew was that if Sherlock were to come to him, heart in hand, it wouldn't be because John had stripped him of his ability to think. Sherlock would rather reason his way into someone's bed than be driven there by the urges of 'mere transport,' John was sure.
He nodded to himself, alone in the back of a taxi, as if he'd reached an important resolution, when the truth was he was as confused as he'd ever been. Irene Adler was alive and intended to keep playing with Sherlock while she kept a fast hold on the secrets she'd gathered. Sherlock appeared to be surprisingly incapable of resisting the lures she threw out. John determined to shift the problem back to Mycroft, with whom it had begun.
Sherlock was like a sponge, soaking up information indiscriminately, confident that he could expel the unnecessary later by deleting it; it was a good trick, but Mycroft was the only one able to put his finger on the flaw: Sherlock's method for determining the utility of his hard-drive data was hardly foolproof.
Until this case, with a blackmailer bent on exposing herself as such, Sherlock had never seen fit to learn about seduction or sexual games, though there were times when Mycroft believed he would happily be John Watson's apt pupil. It was a pity Miss Adler had thrown her lot in with Moriarty, particularly since she seemed so fascinated with Sherlock and could have taught him so much; Mycroft shammed despair as ably as he could, paging through her list of demands and waiting for Sherlock to corral all of his observations and come up with something useful. If Sherlock could rise above The Woman's provocations and triumph over her, the longer game with Moriarty would veer sharply in their favour.
Mycroft had never found Irene Adler particularly attractive, but when Sherlock unlocked her mobile – her lifeline – and the smugness dropped from her expression and a thin film of sweat covered every inch of her skin, oh, Mycroft's mouth positively watered. He wanted to beat her until her beauty bloomed.
The story of Irene Adler's second death had been less than convincing, and Belinda was rather expecting a new assignment. She'd often wondered, in fact, how far she would be willing to go on Mycroft's say-so, on his assurance that her actions served the greater good as surely as his did. It was not that she was untried; simply by virtue of her sex and her appearance she gained access to information held by men too easily swayed, and she had no compunction for playing them for fools.
Irene Adler was going to be different, an order of magnitude more difficult, because she employed those same tricks to make her living. Belinda thought perhaps the proper approach might be to don no disguise at all, to make it clear what master she served; the seduction would then be of an acknowledged enemy, and all the sweeter for it. 'The Woman' would have to have a will of iron to resist the opportunity to triumph over Mycroft Holmes by way of his favoured assistant.
The only question that remained was whether she was willing to, as the crude phrase went, 'fuck for England.' She was in a position to know who could lay eyes on Mycroft's files; armed with that knowledge, her modesty and privacy were insignificant. She might as well begin.
Belinda began making a list: no changes necessary to her wardrobe, given that she would be playing herself rather than some wide-eyed dimwit or hard-core BDSM enthusiast; even if she constructed an elaborate persona for herself, it was well within the realm of possibility that Adler had seen a photograph of her. Her own surveillance of Sherlock indicated that Adler had been admirably prepared for their encounters, though the provenance of her information was unclear.
She could do no less. The earrings she was wearing were removed and a new pair, fitted with recorders, pushed into place. She cloned her BlackBerry and set several of her email folders to hidden, so that no tell-tale request for a second password would betray their existence.
John Watson had followed Adler's minion, thinking she was one of Mycroft's staff. In fairness to him, 'Alice' did have the same kind of features she saw in the mirror and at the office, and dressed just as impeccably. Perhaps setting John to woo Alice while she laid siege to Adler herself would yield the quickest results, but no one other than Adler seemed to hold her secrets. 'The Woman' claimed to be a lesbian eager to swallow down Sherlock Holmes's prick, but Belinda, observing her work her whip, saw that power was the source of her bliss.
Greg had never known excitement like this. He'd been a bit of an easy lay when he was younger, sure, but he'd been just one of the many lads who'd get his kit off whenever a likely-looking bird or bloke looked his way, nothing special. Now, though, when he had some mileage on him and thought he'd have to settle for what he could get, he could barely keep up with the offers. Whether grey hair was an aphrodisiac around these parts or all of the locals were certifiably insane, he didn't know, but he'd taken his wedding ring off, chucked it into the water, and lain naked on the beach, basking in both sun and attention.
His skin felt too tight from the heat, but the tiles of the shower stall were cool against his back and the hot mouth engulfing his dick made up for any discomfort. He'd forgotten, after years of fidelity to Vivi, how good it could be to have a man on his knees in front of him. This one – Riley, he said his name was – was young and sucked cock like he had no grander ambitions in life. His eyes were knowing and kind and as Riley expertly drained him dry, Greg thunked his head mercilessly against the shower wall and gave thanks for blowjobs.
He was only fooling himself with this delusion that he was beholden to nobody, of course. His mobile kept vibrating, an unwelcome reminder that this paradise was only temporary and not real life. Arse still sore from Riley's eager ministrations, he dragged a chair out to the balcony and sat gingerly down, ready to enjoy both the salty air and his breakfast. He was finishing his second cup of coffee when the phone buzzed; John's name came up on the screen. Knowing Sherlock, it was most likely him, climbing the walls from boredom and unwilling to recognise the sanctity of holiday.
No voicemail, which meant it probably had been Sherlock, making free with John's phone, rather than John himself. He was glad he hadn't picked up, hadn't allowed himself to be dragged into Sherlock's orbit again.
Though he might not mind if that orbit meant he'd be close to John. It was all too easy to replay last night's events with John on his knees, eyes watering as Greg's cock filled his throat, or John folding him in half to pound his arse thoroughly. The bruises on his wrists and hips were too large to have been made by John's hands, but he could fantasise. Better still, he was a free man now and could learn how John felt about buggery.
Sherlock looked at John, feeling all fondness for his flatmate vanish as the man continued to offer trite counsel instead of the necessary cigarettes. John was lying, he had to be; Sherlock would certainly never have agreed to quit smoking again, even if it did diminish his senses of smell and taste. What did it matter if he could not catch the flavour of the food John was continually pestering him to eat, when he had nicotine lighting him up from the inside, making everything warm and comfortable and bright?
John had been a bit of a pill recently, refusing to take notes for the case that boasted a harpoon as the murder weapon and choosing to spend his time chatting with women online. There were so many lies in their profiles that Sherlock's head swam; John's was honest, but even he had to know that the words 'doctor' and 'soldier' were enough to insure that John had his pick of women on the site. Soon he would meet with the next Sarah or Jeanette in person, and she would affect to find it 'thrilling' that he helped to solve murders (if standing by and taking notes counted as help) and Sherlock would be expected to be polite and welcome her in.
Better by far for them both to stay busy.
He needed to get John out of the flat, so he could tear it apart in peace.
'Do you not have a wayward sister over whose downward spiral you should be watching?' he snapped. Damn John for hiding his cigarettes and confiscating his patches, and damn the shopkeepers for declining to sell either to Sherlock.
He'd meant it as a goad, and so was momentarily halted in his frantic progress through the flat by the sight of John's slight blush. 'Ah, she's asked you over and you've turned her down, no doubt citing an entirely fictional case. How terrible of you.'
John looked up, his age paradoxically making his naughty expression more appealing than it would have been on an actual juvenile delinquent. 'I can't listen to any further complaints about how I "wasted" the opportunity to ogle Irene Adler.' The name was apparently like poison on his tongue, given his reluctance to speak it. Though that might have been because John genuinely believed her to be dead, having not an inkling of Sherlock's rescue or Mycroft's machinations. The Woman's files were in Mycroft's hands, but she'd cleverly stayed free; the game had begun anew, and this time, Sherlock hoped, she'd outwit only herself.
Irene Adler soared far above the rabble. How typical that Harry Watson mourned only for her breasts.
'That website of hers makes her look like sex on a stick,' Harry said. It was an honest assessment.
She wasn't expecting John to look her full in the face and say, 'She couldn't hold a candle to you.' Harry made a face – the one she'd perfected whenever she knew someone was slagging her off for being a dyke, for being easy for girls with nerve, for being a little wild. 'I'm serious,' John said, like he was ever anything other than serious around her; 'she was sheer brass with nothing to back it up.'
Irene Adler sounded like heaven on earth. 'Give her my number next time she comes by with her whip, would you?' she asked.
'She's dead, Harry,' John said, standing to go. He hadn't said a word about the fact that she'd confined them both to mineral water or that her hands had been steady for the length of his entire visit.
'Must you go?' she asked, surprised by how wistful she sounded.
One corner of his mouth ticked up. 'No.'
'If I ask for the real story between you and Sherlock, will you storm out of here?'
'No. I like to be unpredictable.'
'No, you don't. You were always mad for discipline and order.'
'He's a friend.'
'But if he made a move?'
'Between the barbs?'
'Yeah,' she said, 'if he was for real.'
John let himself consider the question from this Harry, who appeared both measured and sober, as he wouldn't have before. Hadn't he deplored the way Irene tried to corral Sherlock with assaults on what she believed to be the pleasure-centres of his brain and thought he'd have done a better job just by being himself and allowing Sherlock to do the same? Did those thoughts translate into a willingness to let Sherlock into his bed, to touch his skin, to fuck him or possibly be fucked?
'I'd need to hear the words,' he said finally, and Harry nodded like she understood every unspoken corollary; that alone made him willing to give at least a few of them voice. 'It couldn't be an experiment. I would have to know that I wasn't simply the last port in a storm.'
'But you'd love him,' Harry breathed. 'You do love him.'
'Most of the time,' he agreed.
'That counts,' she said, then surprised him by dropping the matter entirely. 'Weren't you going to buy me dinner?'
'Yes, of course,' he said automatically, groaning when he heard the rumble of thunder, announcing a downpour. 'Or we could stay in?' he asked hopefully.
'You know that means we'll be talking about this,' she warned, and he sighed broodingly.
'Well, let's have a look in your cupboards,' he said. To his surprise, he found no bottles lined up like chess pawns in the kitchen cabinets, empty or full. Maybe Harry had got better at hiding them, but it was hard to believe she'd bother, as he hadn't given her any warning before dropping by – his conscience had gnawed at him for making excuses not to see her.
There wasn't even a bottle of vodka in her freezer, and he smiled, feeling the cold air swirl around his face. There wasn't much food at all in her kitchen, actually. He wasn't going to hold it against her that what she had were mostly odds and ends, the kind of food that could be used to beat back a hangover –he wasn't that much of a hypocrite, he hoped.
'Not exactly spoilt for choice, I know,' she said, already sounding vaguely guilty as she sidled up next to him, peering into the depths of her fridge. 'Maybe we should just –'
'No, I know,' John said, smiling at the memory of the dinners they'd made together long ago, so pleased to be responsible for themselves. 'Here, fetch a pan and a spatula and we'll make our old signature dish.'
Harry beamed at him, beautiful and somehow young. 'I've been wanting eggy bread.'
'He drugged you?' Harry asked, unable to comprehend how John was cutting into his eggy bread and acting like he'd related a rather charming anecdote. She'd have been pissing herself in fear, and she wasn't a soldier shipped home with PTSD. 'That's beyond the pale, John, it really is. How have you not hauled off and popped him one?'
'It wouldn't have done any good,' he demurred, 'and I got to point it out to him that he'd been wrong about the source of the drug. That left a mark, believe me.'
She swallowed the last of her bread and said, 'Never mind what I said earlier about falling into his arms. You've no sense of self-preservation at all, so just listen to your big sister and make it clear to him he can't have you that way on top of everything else you are to him.'
John just laughed; it would have too much to expect him to agree with her at once. 'It's not like that, I promise. I've been online dating anyway.'
She made a face at that; Kendra had been from one of those sites, lovely online and a positive virago in person.
'How about you, Harry?' he asked, and she remembered he'd liked Clara, had hoped Clara would stay and keep the demon drink at bay.
'There's no one now,' Harry said, biting her lip like she thought he'd suggest a minder instead of a lover. He'd failed her completely if she believed he thought so little of her.
'United in our misery, then?' he joked, and she giggled.
'Disasters!' they said together, echoing a long-ago girl who hadn't been able to decide which Watson she wanted and had succeeded only in making all of them equally miserable.
John looked at his sister, who was tucking a long lock of dark hair behind her ear, and wished he knew what to say. He'd thought that Clara had been good for her, but clearly things had changed when he'd checked out of their lives and focused on his own. 'Do you want to fall in love?' he asked; people changed their goals all the time.
'It's unlikely, isn't it?' she asked wryly. 'I've not been going to pubs or clubs – got to avoid temptation – and it's not the best idea to chat up someone at work. They're horrible cows anyway, most of them.'
'Most?' John asked, pricking up his ears. 'Meaning . . .'
'Meaning I haven't met all of them yet,' she said, but she didn't seem to be joking. 'It's worse when you've had someone and lost her. No one measures up and you still feel bound.'
Irene Adler's downfall and 'death' was the opposite of a cautionary tale. Her failed attempt to get under the Holmes brothers' skins was neither common knowledge nor so egregious that Moriarty came after her; that unusual clemency, Belinda felt, was proof that Moriarty had only ever viewed her as a catspaw, a distraction to allow him time to set his real plan in motion. Whatever the reason, Adler returned to London only a few months later, well before her clients could protest at the interruption of her services; well-heeled though they were, very few could afford her time more than twice a year.
Belinda found The Woman's new site, booking a session in the name of Mycroft Holmes.
Adler walked confidently into the restaurant in a demure black skirt suit with a lacy blouse beneath, an outfit that alluded winkingly to a judge's robes. Belinda sat still while Adler ran her eye over her, a touch of irritation showing when Adler saw all her brand-new Louboutin accessories, as yet unavailable even to expensive, well-connected dominatrices. She rose gracefully as Adler approached, as if there had been no doubt in her mind that they would sit together and enjoy a decadent meal together, seven courses of three exquisite bites each. 'Mr Holmes sends his apologies,' she said.
Adler grinned ferociously. 'Nice bag.'
'You're free to inspect it if you like,' she offered.
'Later, perhaps. After I've taken you apart,' Adler said, a deliberate rasp in her voice like a metal chain slithering to the ground, and it was all too easy for Belinda to shudder a bit in response. Irene Adler was very good at what she did. But she could be mastered; the professional name she'd chosen for herself – The Woman – betrayed a supreme arrogance that would be her downfall.
'Is that the service you offer?' Belinda inquired archly as she signalled to the waiter.
'Would you like to honour your master's appointment?' The word on Adler's lips was a deliberate provocation, a reminder that she admitted no one to that title, for all that she was 'Mistress' to anyone with funds and significance. 'I would certainly enjoy that more; from what I've seen of Mr Holmes, he is not my type.'
'Power and wealth have lost their charms for you?' Belinda did not raise her eyes from the amuse-bouche, knowing Adler's reactions would be captured by the devices in her earrings. But Adler's laugh rang out loud and full and Belinda stilled the hand that was visible, holding lacquered chopsticks, so that no tremble would betray her.
'Oh, you are delicious,' Adler purred. 'Quiet little mouse, hoping the cat won't bite.'
Was it possible, that Adler was not aware of the rank to which she had risen? Or was this the first trap, to see if pride would make her protest?
She made her eyes imploring, a touch wider than usual, and Adler smiled rather sweetly. 'You're not one of his Robert Palmer girls,' she said, as softly as her foot was sliding up Belinda's stockinged calf. 'You can't be, lovely as you are.'
She'd never been able to blush on command, but she was well aware that a flutter of breath in her throat could look as involuntary, as significant. Adler nodded appreciatively, though she could not tell if it was for the action or for the strategy.
'Mr Holmes consented to pay you for your time just so he could speak with you, not for any other reason.'
'What Mr Holmes wanted is of very little concern to me just now, little mouse. My question was for you.'
'Would you listen if I spoke to you in his stead?'
'Ah, but you might say more than you ought, and then you would no longer be Mr Holmes' best bargaining chip.' Adler sat back, her plate still untouched. 'He's done quite well to send someone so suited to my tastes.' Belinda raised an eyebrow, and Adler elaborated: 'Brunette, demure, and breakable.'
Belinda looked down; let Adler think it was nerves or calculation, either would do. 'Ah,' Adler said, just enough pity in her voice to be credible, 'did he not tell you of what happens next?'
'You aren't the Big Bad Wolf,' she said pleasantly, looking back up, 'and I'm not a trembling-kneed virgin.'
'Your knee seems reassuringly steady,' Adler agreed, one perfectly pedicured foot journeying from calf to thigh and insinuating itself in Belinda's lap. 'We can discuss the merits of your other claim later.'
'And if I'd prefer to do so in public?' She was improvising now, the exhilaration of it making the food taste richer and the air seem brighter.
'Do you like an audience, then?' Adler asked, head thrown back at an excessively casual angle while her foot slid, syrup-slow, down Belinda's leg.
'If the masks we wear are the same in public and in private, then it makes no difference.'
The diamonds on Adler's fingers flashed as she drank from her glass of wine. 'So how does this game end, my dear?'
'I don't always have to win' – a blatant lie, recognised and not resented; she could actually like Irene Adler – 'but I only play if I know the stakes.'
'A distressingly banal response to a far more interesting question,' Adler chided. 'You know you'll be beaten.'
'Do not test my patience any further, little mouse,' Adler scolded preemptively, and Belinda obediently clicked her mouth shut. 'We both know you are here on your master's behalf' – the word dripping with disdain, as if Adler could afford to forget that Mycroft had all of her files – 'and he wants something that will help his little brother tip the board in the game he's playing with Moriarty.'
Belinda widened her eyes just a fraction, enough to look vaguely pleading. 'Can you help? I – we can pay you for your time.'
'Payment in pounds is overrated,' Irene drawled, which was a bit of a surprise; Belinda had been unsure whether her body or Mycroft's wallet would prove to be the greater lure. 'And it can be so easily taken away these days, all those clever men with their clever computers. A girl needs to know she can enjoy the fruits of her labour.'
She swallowed, mimicking the nerves of the young man Mycroft most often deputised to fetch his lunch. 'So you can help.'
'Certainly, my dear. But will you do so much for the most celebrated virgin in England? Or is it the infamous Iceman who will reward you later?'
She tipped her chin up. 'Can I not do it for myself?'
'Wonderful,' Irene said, chuckling like a rippling brook.
'My dear,' Mycroft said, biting off the endearment savagely, 'you have not found even birdshot, let alone a silver bullet to take down that wretched woman. Your hours in her company have not yielded any useful ores to mine. Tell me, is she so very accomplished at subterfuge, or is it that the role is not to your taste?'
It was not a strength of hers, certainly, to be so very free with her body; she had her reasons for staying aloof and looking positively indifferent to the advances of those eager to win her favours. Even those who promised companionship and not just sweat-inducing exertions were unimportant, and she had always been in control.
Until Irene Adler, whose narrow tongue bestowed tender, kittenish licks to nipples to prime them for clamps and whips. Irene, whose varnished fingernails raised artistic patterns on soft flesh. The Woman, who ignored any cunt but her own, drawing Belinda in with kisses and blows until all she wanted was to feed on Irene's juicy sex.
But it was all for the work, for the good of the country. Irene Adler had manipulated even the untouchable Sherlock Holmes into wrecking the government's secret plans, and she might still be a tool fit for Moriarty's hand.
If she'd been made into currency, then Irene could be bought.
Seeing John at Baskerville was a new kind of torment. Never mind that Sal had taken him aside and said quite seriously that she was there if he needed to talk to someone about what Vivi had done, and had done a lot of emphasising of the word friends, as if it were inconceivable that anyone would want to shag him. He'd clapped her on the arm a bit harder than he meant to and took off, ready to face John for the first time as a free man.
John was looking gorgeous and stern, clearly making Sherlock toe some line he'd drawn in the space between them, but he softened once he realised he didn't have to deal with the prat on his own. 'Greg,' he said, with an approximation of cheer, and Lestrade brandished the casually uttered name as proof that he had a relationship with the man independent of one and all interfering Holmeses. It did his heart no good to race when he heard John say, thoughtfully, 'Actually, you could be just the man we want'; he heard the 'we' but figured that John had had ample time and opportunity to practise diplomacy.
He'd do as John requested, of course, not just for the man himself, but for the case. As long as they weren't storming Baskerville.
Sally saw the boss go a little crazy once his divorce was finalised. He came back from a whirlwind trip somewhere tropical – judging by the colour of his skin, which rivalled her mum's – with a pale strip showing on his finger. That much was fine, though he was walking oddly enough to make her wonder on how many fronts he'd overdone it. But the way he was watching John Watson with longing eyes was too much; Jesus, she knew he'd been trained in covert surveillance, but here he was, his tongue practically hanging out of his mouth every time the doctor showed up, Freak in tow.
She understood where he was coming from, could certainly sympathise. A good friend – and John had been that for him, given the number of pub nights she'd heard them scheduling – was worth his weight in gold. The problem was that the doctor also counted amongst his friends the most unreliable, inhuman bastard she'd ever had the misfortune to come across, and there was no doubt which of them he'd choose if a choice had to be made. It irked her that for all his opacity on the subject of whether he was shagging Sherlock, John never left anyone in doubt that Sherlock always came first for him. The boss would be out on his bum.
How the Freak had earned that kind of devotion was a question that had no answer. Some people were just built for loyalty, and Sherlock had got lucky and found one ready to pledge his allegiance. John was a fine specimen of a man, sort of handsome in the right light and clearly very good with his hands; had he not had a six-foot appendage, she might have given him a proper whirl herself. Couldn't the boss see that there were serious drawbacks to trying it on with Sherlock's pet, no matter how tempting all of those rumours about his prowess – the man was a legend in the armed forces, for fuck's sake! – made him seem? In any case, 'Three Continents Watson' would most likely do nothing for Lestrade; he apparently had an eye for – and a willingness to ensure the pleasure of – the ladies. Tales of him going at it rough and ready, or drawn-out and luxurious, abounded once she started digging. And this from women who readily admitted that they'd not thought him anything special until he was between their sheets. She had to act.
Sally took the boss aside and tried to speak in a friendly code, something no eavesdropper could readily parse but that he would crack in moments. It didn't help; Lestrade was quite simply besotted.
It was charming, it was adorable, really, that Big Brother (who'd convinced both himself and Sherlock that he, the elder, was also the smarter – how had he done that?) was coming for him in person, not leaving anything to chance or lesser operators.
Jim knew it was coming (how could he not know, honestly, given that these Holmes boys were like little chess pieces, so conscripted in their movements?). He'd heard from Molly (sweet Molly, so benignly stupid, so pathetic in yearning after a poofter, so used to speaking her secrets into her cat's soft fur) all about Sherlock's fabled mind palace, of all the stupid conceits, and was willing to bet the worth of that 'Lost Vermeer' that Holmes the Elder had one too. Did they not see how vulnerable they were with such structures embedded in their minds? That a hard enough knock on the head would be all it took to reduce those firmaments to rubble?
Jim took his time preparing, working with a cipher hidden in plain sight to encode all of the information Mycroft Holmes intended to coax from his brain. Once that was done, he took a page from Sherlock's book and reformatted his mental hard drive. He needed plenty of space to store everything he would yank from Mycroft, and didn't require a backup.
Mycroft pinched a frown onto his face, between his brows, just deep enough for Moriarty to see the lines fading when Mycroft walked into his dark cell. He had been visiting Moriarty daily at a quarter to five precisely; let the man think he had so little imagination that he required the comfort of routine. Moriarty smiled that wide smile of his, eyes credibly vacant.
Those dark eyes like pits dug in unforgiving earth ignited only when Mycroft – as if at the end of his tether, seeking even a bad bargain as better than none – offered titbits about Sherlock growing up. They had seen this coming, of course, and had planned for it, but what Mycroft, at least, had failed to foresee was Moriarty's avidity. The man was all but licking his chops at the thought of Sherlock: high at sixteen, fluent in four languages by nineteen, still unrelieved of his virginity.
Was it actually possible that Moriarty had known he was coming and had planned accordingly, deleting his relevant memories? No matter what treatment he was given Moriarty let nothing slip; his mind had masterfully been wiped clean. There was only one possible clue, glimpsed from footage of his ice-cold showers: the letters s i c u r h b a s tattooed in a square on his left bicep.
The font of the tattoo was pedestrian. Mycroft frowned as he seated himself in his dark car and felt it glide away silently. He did not think that he had heard the word before, and was in fact unsure whether it was a word or perhaps a code. Moriarty had apparently read mathematics, judging by the admirably precise workings of his mind and the way in which he organised and read the papers Mycroft had placed in front of him – proof of many of his past crimes in stark black and white – and so sicurhbas might well be a mathematical term, some piece of jargon for a concept close to Moriarty's heart. His past academic work was worth investigating.
He had lost some time in thought, and the car stopped sooner than he had anticipated, in front of number 37. Mycroft sighed inwardly, recognising the edifice, and checked his BlackBerry before stepping out.
He did his best to ignore Mr Tripodi's disapproving clucks as the measuring band stretched tautly round his waist, hips, and thighs. When the clucks turned to mutters about the damage he was doing his health, he had had enough. It ceased to matter that Tripodis had been dressing the Holmes family for generations; all he could think about was James Moriarty and the threat he presented. 'Basta!'
'Woo-hoo, boys,' Emily said as she tapped at their door, post in hand. Though she got no answer, she pushed the door open, unsurprised to find John at the sink, scrubbing out a pan that had most definitely not held food, not if the terrible threats he was muttering under his breath were true. Goodness, that Doctor Watson had quite nice biceps; she could see as much, given the tense way they flexed as he held the pan and sponge.
Sherlock raised a languid hand from where he was reclined on the sofa, which was unfair, really, as he'd been the one to make the mess, but she'd long since learnt when not to poke her nose in. There had been a bit of tension between the boys since they'd come back from that Baskerville place, and she'd heard John shouting something about fairy tales whilst Sherlock attempted to drown him out with his violin, played at absolute maximum volume.
Still, one had only to look at them to see they were happiest when in each other's company, with Sherlock deducing like mad and John looking proud and overwhelmed. That was what they said love was, wasn't it? Two people who each believed that, in finding the other and settling down, they had managed to get the best of the bargain.
'She thinks she has you,' said a voice from the next table, and Belinda looked up – she got a jolt – to meet the eyes of Catherine Wilhelm. 'Don't pretend you don't know who I am,' Kate continued, 'or what I'm talking about; I haven't the time or inclination to play games.'
'Very well.' Belinda rose and took the seat across from Kate and set her espresso down. 'Have you come to warn me off your patch, then?'
'Hardly,' Kate said, eyes radiating scorn. 'And I know I needn't warn you about what she is.'
Kate leaned forward and raked her with a sharp gaze. 'What is your purpose in allowing her to have you at her mercy? What master do you serve?'
Belinda bared her wrists, the better to display where ropes had cut into the tender flesh. 'Does that truly matter to you?'
'No,' Kate admitted. 'I just want to see her pay for what she's done. I stood by her when she was toying with Sherlock Holmes, showing him a woman could best him. But then she left, faked her death, and disappeared without a word even to me.'
There was a viciousness in Kate's eyes incompatible with the narrative of her former lover's crimes. 'She abandoned you,' Belinda said, trying to piece it together. 'A betrayal.'
'Not just that,' Kate said, fury evident in her every word. 'She could have faked a hundred deaths and run off with a thousand women and I'd have stayed true. She didn't owe me allegiance, though I gave her mine.'
Belinda heard the confession and recognised it as the truth. What, then, could have prompted Kate to come forward and plead for her place in Irene Adler's destruction? She searched Kate's clean, pretty face and thought again of the coincidence that she herself was clearly Adler's type – and then she had it.
'That body she passed off as hers,' Belinda said quietly, not letting her voice rise as if it were a question.
It was enough to open the floodgates. 'That body belonged to my friend. Genevieve Colton. I'd introduced her to Irene when Irene wanted a double to give herself an alibi for various encounters with political figures; she claimed it was amusing I'd grown up with a girl so like her but had never lost my head over Genny the way I did with her.'
'And Irene killed her when she needed to escape,' Belinda finished. She'd never needed to submit to Adler; Kate had held enough to damn Irene all this time. She felt raw and used, but Kate needed better than that.
Kate nodded. 'Nail the bitch.'
The recorders in Belinda's earrings worked admirably, the sounds and images sharp and clear. It was a pity that the information with which Catherine Wilhelm had come forward had nothing to do with James Moriarty, who had already turned the titbits Mycroft had fed him to his own ends. Still, there was a slim chance that Moriarty would be willing to barter to get Adler back, as a source of constant current information on the rich and influential. Mycroft raised his fingers in a gesture his staff had learnt well and sank back in his chair, his spine pressing into the soft leather.
One woman might be got rid of, but this second one – this Kitty Riley, who no doubt envisioned herself to be an intrepid reporter and champion of the underdog – had popped up in her place, this time speaking to the masses. Moriarty had taken Mycroft's ploy of utilising the media – forcing Sherlock to listen to the doctor and smile for the cameras and at least pretend to a measure of grace – and twisted it. John Watson had read it and raked him over the coals for it, stubborn and loyal to the last, and Mycroft had barely been able to look him in the eye. Everything was moving so quickly now, and this was no time to blink.
John was invaluable, but his inclination to talk when Sherlock needed him to listen was rapidly undermining his favoured status. If John wanted to discuss the public's willingness to turn on anyone clever, he was free to do so with the skull; Sherlock had work to do.
And then they were on the run together, handcuffed and hand in hand, and Sherlock could feel John's skin, rough from too many hours devoted to washing dishes – the tea-service he'd set in front of Moriarty had to be done by hand – against his, reassuring in its warmth. This was the hand that had held the little gingerbread man, burnt to a crisp in false accusation, and then chinned the Chief Superintendent. John knew better than to believe in Moriarty's traps, and it was strangely reassuring.
John should be protected.
He would have to make it very clear to Mycroft that John was not to be involved with the fall Moriarty had promised him, that the damage would all be direct and not collateral, at least insofar as Moriarty could see. It was all so neatly engineered that he admired it: the story, the fairy tales, the doubles, the duel. But he was going to win, because he could see each step Moriarty would take, and because John had the strength of his beliefs.
It had shaken her, to look at Sherlock Holmes and see emotion so close to the surface as to be absolutely unmistakable. Molly'd felt privileged to witness it, then wrong-footed, as if she'd trod on sacred ground, and she still couldn't help looking across the lab at John: a man in no way out of the ordinary, who nevertheless had inspired something astonishing. It gave her hope even as she crushed it beneath her feet; she might be just as ordinary as John, but she wasn't the one Sherlock was longing for.
She'd helped him plan, with dry-eyed pragmatism, his carefully choreographed 'death.' She was to dawdle in the canteen, drinking her coffee while reading a file, so that it would look like she was on her regular rotation, conveniently at hand when a doctor was needed. She'd protested then: she wasn't an actress, what if she needed the loo, what if something went wrong on the roof, what if a true emergency pulled her away? Sherlock had had no patience for her concerns and had impressed upon her the absolute necessity that she play her part perfectly.
And so she had. Sherlock was rushed inside, blood dripping from his hair, and she'd taken command of the situation. His grim look as he sat up on the trolley made her blanch.
'Not good enough,' he said sharply. 'Too many variables.' He looked at her, and his gaze was enough to set her shivering as if there wasn't already a significant chill in the air. 'John was more badly injured than expected,' he snapped, castigating her like it had been her idea to bring John back to the hospital and have him witness his friend's fall. 'Murtagh knocked him to the ground quite forcefully.'
Oh, God, was there going to be more for her to contend with? If she had to aid a John laid low, she wouldn't be able to do it without blurting out the truth to him; he had the same trick as her mother of making her want to confess everything weighing her conscience down. She'd discovered as much in the few short hours in which she'd become a co-conspirator with Sherlock, feeling like she was working for the ruination of a good man instead of the downfall of an insidious empire.
'Shut up,' she said, pulling at Sherlock's shoulder to hasten his progress off the trolley and out of her office. The door had just closed behind him when her buzzer sounded, making her jump guiltily. Sherlock's carefully completed death forms nearly had coffee spilled all over them.
'Police found another one,' a voice said. 'Another body.'
Molly felt ill. Not John, she prayed, though it was too late for him if they were calling her. All Sherlock had said was that John had been struck harder than planned, but surely it hadn't been a death blow?
The first glimpse she caught was of dark hair, and relief punched her in the gut, forcing a long exhalation from her lungs. But knowledge crowded in as she stepped closer to the body that was wheeled in; she knew the contours of that slim figure. She nearly retched, like a first-year, looking down at the last man to hold her in his arms and kiss sweetly along her neck.
Jim. Moriarty, if Sherlock was to be believed, and she did, didn't she? She'd made up her mind long ago that Sherlock was in the right and Jim had been biding his time, seeking a path to Sherlock through her.
Still, he'd never acted like being with her was a waste of her time, and for that she caressed his arm as he lay completely still on the trolley, the elasticity of his skin feeling both foreign and familiar through the thin gloves she'd forgotten to remove after snapping them on when Sherlock was brought, just as still, to her domain.
Then she saw the hole made by his own bullet.
At the Diogenes, Mycroft eyed the headlines clamouring for attention, all triumphantly, vindictively trumpeting that it was clear to all and sundry that Sherlock Holmes had been a fake, a phony who'd seen that the only decent thing to do was off himself. Reams of paper devoted to effectively hanging his brother in effigy, a few sly lines insinuating that John Watson might be prepared to do the same, to stand by his lover and, presumably, count the world well lost in the trade-off.
Mycroft felt reasonably certain that John would have more sense than that, and would recall his obligations to his sister and whichever disposable girlfriend he had most recently squired about town. John's reaction was much more likely to be a campaign to vindicate Sherlock; he was a Queen-and-country man, and he trusted that justice would eventually be done, though sometimes it needed to be spurred on. John would welcome the task, if only for the opportunity it afforded to quash any musings of what Sherlock would have been like in his bed.
It was clear that Sherlock's thoughts were fixed upon the same track, but he had gone through with it; his leap from Barts set all of the other wheels in motion. Mycroft had been persuasive, and he prided himself on never making a bad bargain.
The problem with being a civilian was that there were no protocols in place, no set of steps to follow that were guaranteed to get you to the next place you needed to go. No, John thought, that wasn't quite true; he'd had the same tenets since he'd become a man: love your family, do right by your friends, do the work you were put on the earth to do. His failures were his own, not the system's. So the problem was with life, with the way it hammered unrelentingly at him until he was too weak to respond.
Sherlock dropped off Barts, and suddenly everyone had always known, apparently, that he was a bad 'un. Some bright spark, when faced with the notion that Sherlock had not accepted money for his services to Scotland Yard, had theorised that he'd just wanted access to whatever had been seized by the drugs squad, and that rumour – unsubstantiated though it was – had become the next round of headlines. And all John had been able to do was keep his phone off as he sat in the flat or paced through it on bare feet.
He had lost friends before, to accidents, to disease, to war, but this was something horribly new. He felt hollowed out as he pleaded for Sherlock to come back.
When she heard about the swan-dive Sherlock Holmes had taken off a building, the first thing that popped into her head was an odd bit of historical trivia: witches floated; only the innocents drowned. Sally shook her head and some odd, disbelieving noise came unbidden out of her throat. Could it be possible that he'd really killed himself, that her very reasonable suspicions had been too much for him to cope with?
Had she really paraded in front of John, gloated that she'd always known that his best friend would come to this?
No. She was a good copper, had a good head on her shoulders, could think through the evidence for herself. She took the evidence box into a private viewing room and went through all of it again. That scream – how blatant it was – tripped her up this time, and she rang the hospital only to hear that the girl screamed whenever a Caucasian man with dark curls approached. It didn't have to be Sherlock. It hadn't been, and she'd cost a man his sanity and his life.
She attended the funeral, lurking outside the gates so that she could hear everything without causing a scene. John marched like a soldier to deliver the eulogy – brief and beautiful – in a voice that carried out to her on the breeze.
'"How do you feel about the violin?" That was the first proper question he asked me, once he was done showing off –' John's voice faltered. He cleared his throat and began again, and Sally positively ached for his grief, undisguised and raw. 'He could play so marvellously,' John continued, and Sally straightened out of her defensive posture in surprise, angry that with so many skills to hand, Sherlock had never bothered to show any of the people he worked with anything but contempt; did it ultimately matter that he'd delighted John Watson with his violin, when he could have unbent for her or for the boss, something that would keep them on his side throughout the long hours that proper investigations demanded?
She'd lost the thread. No, it was just that John had stopped speaking, trying desperately to collect himself as he stared at the closed coffin. His throat worked frantically. 'Sherlock was like light. So bright, he hit like a spotlight, illuminating long-dark corners, things people had tried to hide. He couldn't understand why the truth should ever be hidden, or trampled over, or disregarded. He was fundamentally honest, on the side of truth and good. His love of his work got him up each morning and kept him from succumbing to sleep at night. And god, he was brilliant.'
Sally peered through the gate as John finished speaking and just stood, frozen, looking at his best friend's coffin. He didn't seem to be aware of the few tears that were marching down his cheeks, so the sniffs she heard must have been coming from someone else. After a few moments of silence, a woman – very good-looking, had John met her on one of his dating sites? – went up and put her arm around his shoulders and pressed her lips to the side of his head. Had to be his sister, then, though the woman looked as far from an alcoholic as Sally had ever seen; all of her energy was focused on John, on protecting him, though from what Sally couldn't say –
Loud clicks disrupted the hush, and Sally jerked toward the noise, coming from the gate a few hundred feet away. Bloody paparazzi hadn't wanted the sound of camera shutters interfering with capturing every whisper and pause of John's eulogy, but now that he'd fallen silent, he was apparently fair game.
John deserved better than that – even Sherlock deserved better than that; he might have been an incorrigible show-off in front of John, but he'd never courted wider publicity or even credit where it was due.
The photographers were calling out now, and she wished for her old baton.
Lestrade had had enough of watching John trying to be brave, twisting in his sister's arms. He stood from his seat – he'd thought the graveside funeral would be sparsely attended, but had not counted on so very few of the seats being filled – and drew the jacket of his one proper black suit further down on his shoulders before buttoning it. Sherlock was dead, his mind babbled on a loop, but his legs knew what to do, moving in their accustomed brisk march that made others melt away.
John hardly seemed aware of his surroundings, much less of the tears leaking from his eyes or the prurient shouts of the fucking paparazzi. Lestrade had never seen his face look so blank; the charm of John Watson was the animation of his face, the emotion in his voice. He got round Harry to put a hand on John's arm, intending to draw him in for a hug, just a chance to wrap the man in his arms and share the pain of their loss. Sherlock had been unique.
But John came awake then. Iron jaw clenched, his hand plucked Lestrade's off him like it was so much refuse. 'John?' he asked, confused.
'Do you come to the funerals of all your false arrests?' John hissed; his gaze was unforgiving as a basilisk's.
Mycroft heard John's furious words and nodded approvingly at the sentiment, though he rather deplored the tackiness of all of the reporters and photographers ringing the cemetery with their tongues hanging out, begging for scraps. John had enjoyed his pub nights with Lestrade – that much was clear from the surveillance – but was more than willing to throw the man over in favour of his dead flatmate's honour. Dr Watson cherished illusions of chivalry and gentlemanly behaviour, but there was no denying that his loyalty was quite touching.
His sister, on the other hand, was well on her way to becoming a problem. She'd not been on the wagon for very long, but her sobriety served only to remind her that she'd never been fond of Sherlock or his influence over her brother. At the moment, however, she'd focused on Lestrade as the immediate threat and was wrenching John away from the man – unnecessarily, as Lestrade stood rooted to the spot.
It fell to him to attend to Sherlock's busybody of a landlady, whose posture had grown defeated since the first headlines had blazed days ago, but whose eyes remained inconveniently sharp. Mrs Hudson trembled on his arm even as she raked her gaze over his face. He recalled the lessons he'd given Sherlock on feigning emotions and let his eyes brim.
It was kind of Mr Holmes to have his driver take them home, but Emily Hudson had seen him corner that Detective Inspector who'd tramped up her stairs at all hours of the day and night without so much as a friendly word in passing to her, and Mycroft's eyes had been bone-dry. With his brother in the ground, he'd approached the man who'd arrested him with a calm handshake.
There was something not quite right about Mycroft Holmes.
John, now, he was showing some proper feeling. Despite the tinted glass she could see marks of strain on his face as clearly as if he'd sat in a spotlight. 'John, dear,' she said, and both the Watsons startled at the sound of her voice. 'This is very soon to be speaking of it, but I . . . I don't think I can stay at my flat anymore.' He nodded automatically, nice man that he was, and didn't make her say it. She tried anyway. 'It's not the same, and with all these vultures out there, gloating about his supposed misdeeds like they knew him . . .'
Harry nodded. 'It's ghastly. I've been trying to talk him into staying with me –'
'Oh, yes, dear, you should. Don't torture yourself,' Emily said eagerly, relieved he had somewhere to go, that he wouldn't again be left behind.
Harry's presence in the flat helped tremendously; it gave him someone to make tea for, someone to pack his clothes into suitcases whilst he wandered dazedly round the living room trying to remember which books were his and what he might need in order to piece himself together again.
The light knock at the door surprised him.
Molly, red-eyed and raw-looking, stood there, and a wave of guilt suffused him; he hadn't even looked for her at the service. She shook her head. 'I wasn't there,' she said apologetically. 'I didn't think I . . .'
God, at least he'd got what he'd wanted from Sherlock, a friendship that had changed him, overwhelmed him, bettered him, even if it had been cut brutally short. But Molly would never get what she'd hoped for: Sherlock's love, devotion, and attention. He couldn't bear the thought of her standing there, conscious of being unloved; he dropped the books and enfolded her in his arms. A sob caught in her throat but her body stayed wretchedly stiff and her arms at her sides.
Abashed, he stepped back, giving her space. She studied him, though he was no oil painting at the best of times. 'No, John, I can't –'
Another knock interrupted her. Anthea. 'Mr Holmes knows you're leaving the flat. He'd like to discuss what would be best.'
Harry descended then, and John remembered that while he'd always admired the precise timing needed to pull off French farce, he'd never enjoyed the end result very much. Three women, crisscrossing his flat and all trying to stake a claim on his attention; right, he needed to get out of here. 'Tea?' he offered smoothly; he hadn't made even a dent in packing up the kitchen.
By the time he returned with four cups resting on Mrs Hudson's tray, Harry and Anthea were chatting quietly and Molly was standing silently at the window, eyes fixed on nothing. He approached her first, knowing from plenty of late nights at the morgue that she liked hers white, unsweetened. His hand on her shoulder appeared to jolt her out of her contemplation. She took her cup without a word, turning back to the window immediately.
John headed over to his sister, who took her cuppa without ceremony. 'I didn't know how you liked yours,' he said to Anthea. He could believe she'd be the self-abnegating type, no time for the niceties of milk and sugar when Mycroft beckoned. Or maybe she indulged when she had a chance, with full-fat cream and decadent biscuits rich with chocolate.
She smiled at him, took the untouched cup, and sipped delicately. 'Mmm,' she said, 'that's a nice blend.'
There was something more than appreciation in Anthea's voice, Harry thought, and whatever it was, it sparked something she hadn't felt in years. Arousal, that was it; she'd missed it since the first heady year with Clara and her skin like velvet and her hair like silk. But Clara had been blatant, said going through life with a mass of fire-red curls and breasts the size of small planets had never let her fade into the background; Anthea was subtle. So subtle that Harry had to work to see the interest expressed in the angle of her knees, the delicate fit of one ankle against the other.
But there was time enough for that later, when her brother wasn't looking like he was going to be ground down to a paste by grief. 'Mr Holmes knows where I live, if he wants to talk to John. We'll be clearing out in a few hours,' she said firmly. John had to come first.
'Mr Holmes is downstairs discussing matters with Mrs Hudson, actually,' Anthea said imperturbably. 'Dr Watson, he only requires a few minutes of your time.'
'He's here now?' John asked, sounding confused. He still hadn't taken up the last cup of tea.
'He needs to finalise his plans,' Anthea said, then smiled as Molly gasped and left the flat. 'Bye.'
It was interesting, Mycroft found, picking out his words for John. Faced with eyes that kept going blank and fingers that tightened defensively into a stray cushion, Mycroft weighed each word carefully. 'Mrs Hudson wishes to be elsewhere at least until the uproar dies down, and unfortunately, that might take a significant amount of time, as the press are intent on making Sherlock's demise into the "story of the century."' He waited, but John remained wooden. 'She and I have agreed that I will assume responsibility for the building, including providing personnel who will appear to be the two of you.'
'I can buy you time, the privacy you seek. The press are jackals.' The allusions to money seemed to go entirely over John's head, which was most likely for the best; John was not unintelligent, and would at some point be curious about his reasoning for spending so freely to protect a building his brother had lived in for only a few years.
'But I'm not coming back here,' John said, surprising him.
'It is not advisable to make permanent decisions when newly bereaved,' Mycroft warned.
John's jaw gaped unattractively. 'Is this an act? Or a coping strategy? You lost him too!'
Mycroft deliberately swallowed. 'I am trying to make amends to those who meant most to my brother.'
Dear John was the first thing Mycroft read, and felt his lips tighten automatically in disapproval. The woman clearly had no shame or sense of judgement, if she still felt sauciness was going to work. Harker had done well, then, in guarding her loosely enough that she was brazen enough to try an appeal like this.
It was time to pay Irene a little visit and remind her of her place.
'My dear,' he said chidingly, waving her undelivered missive between his first two fingers. 'What precisely did you hope to accomplish with this trick?' Her unpainted mouth, unsettlingly pallid, opened in shock. 'Oh yes, you may know what your guard likes, but it seems you failed to inquire how he is paid. He's one of mine, and a consummate actor.' Let her stew over that, the realisation that Harker had been bored rather than panting for her.
'You've separated me from Sherlock,' she snarled. 'Am I not to have even the consolation of playing with his little pet? John Watson was most curious about me, you know. And I do love a military man; they're so good at taking orders.' Her tone changed, became caressing. 'Does he know you have me locked up in here? I don't think he'd like that.'
'I see,' Mycroft murmured thoughtfully. 'Hence your little billet-doux?'
'He's got that gentleman's trick of wanting to help every damsel in distress,' Irene said, laughing openly now. 'And he might not exactly like me, but no one can deny the good doctor's insatiable curiosity and rather charming possessiveness; if it matters to Sherlock, it matters to him, and I matter to Sherlock.'
'Really?' Mycroft levelled his tone to one of polite disbelief. 'He fetched you when you called, agreed. But I wouldn't call it saving you, would you? What kind of rescue puts you in a prison cell?'
She snapped her mouth shut on the sharp retort she was evidently burning to make; it seemed it had not occurred to her that Sherlock's rescue was anything but sincere.
'Didn't he know you well enough to recognise that imprisonment would be worse for you than death? Then why do you persist in viewing his intervention as a kindness?'
The rage in her eyes was chilling, but he was the Iceman, so-called, and could endure worse from individuals far more powerful than she.
'Dr Watson will never read a line you write to him,' Mycroft promised, straightening the band that kept his umbrella furled. 'He has quite enough to deal with at present.'
'I don't need an intermediary,' she spat. 'Sherlock –'
'Would not stoop to save a murderer, regardless of your bond.'
No doubt Adler planned to regroup and try again; it was hardly surprising that she hadn't yet heard the news of Sherlock's fall, given that she was under his lock and key, and Mycroft was happy to leave her in ignorance, as it would be only temporary. What he needed to work on were the attitudes both John and Sherlock had regarding that same death.
Sherlock had to be made to understand that he would need to be patient only for as long as it took Mycroft's people to eliminate the three shooters; with the right equipment, Sherlock could spend his entire 'death' happily experimenting and then be given leave to join John once more. John, of course, had done what was expected of him and believed implicitly in his friend's destruction, and had said flat-out that he was done with Baker Street and his life as a detective's sidekick.
Surely John would not be stubborn once Sherlock was triumphantly resurrected; he prided himself on being a fair-minded man, and so he would see that Moriarty had railroaded Sherlock into a state of death, and regard his return to life as a very happy ending. If only Sherlock were as reasonable, but he insisted on raging like a spoilt toddler denied his favourite cuddly toy.
Mycroft sought his refuge in bourbon.
The automated programme to schedule shifts was a lifesaver, Sarah thought, until it wasn't; it knew nothing of compassionate leave for a locum doctor – John was booked for mornings the week that Dr Florea was in Romania for her sister's wedding, doubling as a family reunion. She knew she should have checked the schedule one last time before succumbing to sleep the night before.
She got the shock of her life when she walked in to find John already there, a cup of good coffee in his hand. His eyes were closed and he looked terribly worn. She stepped closer, considering him more closely; contrary to her expectations, he looked not fragile but tough, as if his edges had been ground down to reveal an immutable core of strength. He must have looked just so when he'd been serving in Afghanistan.
Without warning, his eyes snapped open. 'Thank you for not cancelling my hours,' he said, which rather took the wind out of her sails.
'If you need to keep busy, I can do that,' she said eventually. There was no steam rising from his cup. 'How long have you been here?'
A corner of his mouth turned up wryly. 'Misjudged how long it would take to top up my Oyster Card and get here from Harry's. Tomorrow I'll do better.'
The problem was not John. He'd thrown himself into the work with zeal and discipline, and many of the surgery's regular patients expressed their pleasure at seeing him again. The problem was with the reporters, whom John had somehow given the slip, and who were willing to try all sorts of disgusting, underhanded manoeuvres to catch him for a comment when the traps they laid at Baker Street did them no good. Ah, of course – John had said he was staying with his sister, and not at the flat he'd called home for the last few years.
The last reporter had sported a bandaged wrist, but the ones before had tried feigning everything from conjunctivitis to flu to mysterious bruising. John had said nothing, simply moving to another examination room and leaving the bastards to sit in their paper gowns, but the situation was untenable.
She found him in her office, his gaze fixed on her little bonsai tree. 'That last one had a camera inside the sling, if you can believe it,' he said, hands clasped behind his back.
'I'd believe anything of paparazzi,' she answered. 'I heard one stripped down to nothing for her examination?'
'Gorgeous and despicable,' he agreed without a trace of amusement. 'You needn't tell me to go. I'm just sorry to have been a bother.'
It was lovely of Sarah to look so surprised, and to protest with such vehemence, 'It's not you that's the bother, John,' but it wasn't up for debate.
'Dr Florea's back on Monday anyway, isn't she?' he asked. 'I'll go now, then. I would say that it shouldn't take them long to realise I'm not working here and you'll all soon be left in peace, but they're still clustered round the flat like cockroaches.'
From the way she bit her lip, he guessed that she'd already been approached by at least one enterprising reporter for 'the ex-girlfriend's story'; she was proof that he'd had friends other than Sherlock, and they'd done their best to step up for him.
'Thank you, Sarah,' he said, holding out his arms, and she willingly stepped into them.
'A sterling reference is yours, should any employer call,' she said, her words muffled by his shoulder. Then she kissed him, a comradely peck. 'I'll miss you, Dr Watson.'
He carried her words with him as he left, as he paced Harry's flat. He needed to work, to earn his keep, and he was not going to throw away years of training. He called Mike Stamford, hoping to make use of his carefully cultivated network. 'I need to work somewhere with security these damned reporters can't get by.'
'Was this really the best you could do?' Sherlock asked scathingly as Mycroft sighed. 'A private salon? Do these people's careers depend on saving every last strand of your hair?'
'Ah, gratitude is so sweet,' Mycroft returned, equally poisonous, and Sherlock grinned, satisfied. 'It is necessary to disguise you.'
'You were the one to insist on increased publicity; no one would have any idea what I looked like if it weren't for that.'
'Don't be naive.' Mycroft beckoned imperiously to a man with three silver rings through his eyebrow. 'Eyebrow reshaping and hair-dye to start with, Christopher.'
'I'd like to straighten his hair first,' Christopher said, circling him like he was the prize bull at the agricultural fair. 'Look at the caricatures, and they're all a stick-thin figure with a scarf, a stupid hat, and curls.'
'Excellent,' Mycroft said, dismissing them both. Sherlock grit his teeth, sorely tempted to hurl something at his brother; they'd discussed the possibility several times, but he hadn't really believed he'd have to leave John and pretend to be dead. Surely Mycroft's people wouldn't take too long to break down Moriarty's organisation?
'None of this is necessary,' he protested again. 'I've told you that I won't leave your house, not even to see John.'
'There is too much at stake for your word to suffice, brother.'
'Be patient, and all will be well,' Mycroft counselled fatuously, and Sherlock snorted in reply. 'You're to remain in this house at all times. You'll have full internet access but no way to contact John or, incidentally, anyone else of your vast and unsavoury acquaintance.' Before Sherlock could protest, Mycroft held up one fat finger. 'And I will leave you with the thumb drive my people recovered from Moriarty's body as well as Dr Hooper's full autopsy report.'
It was very clear what Mycroft was doing, trying to bribe him with the larger philosophical questions regarding Moriarty while his people took care of the immediate problem of the consulting criminal's top three snipers, and Sherlock was tempted to refuse just on principle. But there was no reason to suffer without even the bribe, so he acquiesced sweetly, knowing Mycroft would lie awake puzzling over his inflections and smiles.
Christopher intervened then, with a lot of foul-smelling potions that would recolour and reshape his hair, so Sherlock sat with his scalp burning as he went through the photographs accompanying Molly's file. James Moriarty had been rather a good-looking man, but what truly mattered was his mind, twisted as a creeping vine and still, extraordinarily, championing logic. The sight of the tattoo took him aback; what could be the meaning of that box?
sicurhbas had no meaning in any language he knew, and Sherlock resolutely dismissed the notion that it was some Hibernian endearment Moriarty recalled with fondness from his early childhood. No, the key had to be the manner in which it had been inked onto the man's lean body. That box – three by three, one letter per square – held significant connotations.
If he started at the top left and read down each column instead of across each row, he got subirachs: a name, possibly, or maybe a mathematical term?
'Laptop,' he beckoned imperiously, not bothering to see which of Mycroft's minions had scurried to comply with the request. He drummed his fingers impatiently as the machine went slowly through all of its security screens. Finally he had access to a search engine, and discovered that Subirachs was the name of a sculptor who designed the Passion Facade of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia; that facade famously included, just next to a sculpted Judas Kiss, where it could hardly be missed, a magic square.
Yes. That meant that the layout of the tattoo – the only clue Moriarty had left for himself after reformatting his hard drive, the better to meet Mycroft with a gaze as pure as the driven snow – was significant.
He pulled up an image of the Subirachs square, a sixteen-square stone billboard.
He could not see how this square would have appealed to a mathematician, with all its inelegant doubles. That clumsiness might, however, make it easier for him to decode the logic of its deeper meaning.
Moriarty had relied solely on this image to recall all of his thousand strings in play, Sherlock mused, abruptly recalling that Mycroft had mentioned a thumb drive. It was a cheap tourist's trinket shaped like a London double-decker with perhaps a hundred photographs divided into two folders. The first folder was devoted exclusively to stock images of famous cities; the images – the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx, the Sydney Opera House, and more – were so lifeless and generic that Sherlock thought it possible that they had been pre-loaded onto the device as samples.
The second folder bore more interesting fruit: a series of snapshots of people smiling for the camera. They were all alone, all at least twenty-five, but there the similarities ended; they were of all races, in various settings. Sherlock peered closely at the first image, a smiling woman of about thirty-four wearing a cheongsam, her hands demurely clasped at one hip just where the material parted slightly.
He read her face, hands, and seated posture repeatedly but kept reaching the same conclusion: impecunious worker in a library, no connection to Moriarty. He scowled, baffled.
Running the picture through a reverse image search only dug him deeper; the picture was from the woman's Facebook account, and further investigation of the account revealed a mind-numbing level of detail about her puppies, crossword-solving skills, and interest in hiking. That could not be a dummy account.
Sherlock ran through the rest of the portraits on the drive, finding that most were from similar social-networking sites, though some, like the city pictures, were stock images. What he did catch the second time through was the large amount of metadata attached to each picture: lines of encrypted data that would take some puzzling out.
Christopher intervened then, pulling him back into the salon proper and exclaiming over the golden hue of his hair and brows, a bright blond that turned his skin from sallow to ruddy and made his eyes look more deeply set. He dismissed his reflection and turned back to the data. Cryptanalysis had never been his strongest suit, and playing against a trained mathematician's code only made the task more daunting.
Wait. He wasn't playing the code, he was playing the man, the unstable genius who'd left himself only a single clue and the contents of one small-capacity drive to reconstruct an empire. That was something he could handle, and he gave thanks that Moriarty was never boring.
Sally kept her eyes off the Chief's nose – still swollen from Watson's fist – and tried not to look at his black eyes whenever she reported in; he was making them go through all of the cases the Fr– that Sherlock had consulted on, spitting disdain but finding answers, to verify that the solutions stood the test of time. If ever there was a waste of time, this assignment was it, because they had turned up nothing.
Sherlock Holmes really had been that good, and now he was dead.
He'd also been a colossal prick, she reminded herself, recalling how he'd casually outed her relationship with Gary; he'd obviously never understood the term 'friends with benefits' or learnt the value of bonding with teammates. And that was gone now for her too, as she couldn't bring herself to talk to Gary about their part in his death.
A nice meal out might take her mind off things, she decided, and headed down to her local. It was more of a pleasant family pub than a grotty hole for serious drinkers, and they did a gorgeous cut of meat. She'd just settled in with a cider in front of her when she heard familiar laughter. Over there, in the corner, sat the boss's ex, her head on the chest of some oversized bloke.
It was a near thing, but she decided not to cancel her order; she wasn't going to be run out of her own local by a woman who hadn't enough sense to see that the boss was a good man, more than likely a better husband than this tart deserved.
Vivian had kept her looks, certainly; the picture Sally'd been used to seeing on Lestrade's desk had to be at least fifteen years old, but the woman looked much the same. Though there was a new ring on her finger, some pink-stoned monstrosity that looked like it had come from the crumby depths of some cereal box.
Sally didn't envy her either the gem or the man, who certainly looked a bit of a tosser. A man that age, wearing a tracksuit like it was haute couture? Arrested development would be her guess, and not even Sherlock Holmes could have argued with her on that score.
She wondered how much the boss knew, if he'd seen the new bloke. Or if, frankly, he even cared, now that he was apparently fathoms deep over John Watson. She hadn't talked to him much, not since they'd heard the news that Sherlock had jumped, and for all she knew he could have been in John's bed since the funeral. It'd be good to believe.
Harry came back with the shopping – heavy on the fruit and veg – and found John catching a moment's sleep on the sofa, one hand splayed over his heart and the other's knuckles brushing the carpet. He'd never said so, but she could tell he liked this flat better than the modern one she'd bought with Clara and had to give up in the divorce. One of Mum's afghans was tangled round his ankles, and he looked like a child again.
She put the shopping away as quietly as she could, postponing her hunger with a couple of ginger nuts, which she'd only bought because they were John's favourite.
She curled up in the easy chair with a book that made no sense – one of those fantasies where the women were all secretly mermaids who'd mated with pigs, it seemed like, and how on earth had this come to be a top seller? John stirred before she could get stuck into it.
'Hello,' she said, smiling as if she hadn't noticed how exhausted he still looked, those bags under his eyes as pronounced as they'd been at Sherlock's funeral. Which reminded her – 'I meant to tell you. When I got back from the store, I saw that copper hanging around, the grey-haired one, from the funeral? Did you want –?'
'After his betrayal?'
'I don't understand,' she said, watching him try to flatten his hair, made rampant by the sofa cushions. It was still a shock to see grey in her baby brother's hair. 'What did he do?'
John's eyes went flat and unforgiving, and it hit her that she'd never seen him quite like this; in the years when she'd been drinking, egged on by Clara's ups and downs, she'd often thought that her brother was the most judgemental person she'd ever had the misfortune to come across, as he stood there with cold eyes and his arms folded across his chest. She hadn't realised at the time that there was some hope lurking inside him as well.
It was conspicuous in its absence now.
'Lestrade was Sherlock's friend,' John said, all in a rush, as if he needed to get quickly past his friend's name. 'His first friend, apparently, the one who gave him cases, gave him work, which was all he ever wanted anyway. And when he was framed for a kidnapping, Lestrade was the one who gave the order to arrest him because he believed his officers when they said there was no way anyone could deduce so many clues without being involved.'
'So he should have known better –' she started, but John howled.
'It's Sherlock he should have believed!'
John kept playing out different scenarios of Sherlock's last moments, as he had in school when working out the logic puzzles. Anderson's belief that Sherlock was a malevolent force never changed and so never affected the outcome in the slightest, but Sally Donovan – her opinion changed things. Had she not thrown her weight behind Anderson's theory, Sherlock might not have been up on the roof and making that call before tossing his phone carelessly aside because he no longer required it as a witness.
Still, John could put them out of his mind, even forgive them somewhat, because he understood that their insistence on Sherlock's evil nature was a logical response to the fragmented information they'd been given. They were stupid and too easily led, but they thought they had evidence.
Lestrade had not.
Lestrade had gone along with them not because he believed them but because it was easier to condemn Sherlock and trust in his forgiveness than it was to stand up to his team and do the work for himself.
Lestrade had chosen expediency, and more than that, he'd thrown out years of friendship for what would only be a hollow triumph: arresting Sherlock and threatening John for trying to intervene.
Sherlock, betrayed by his first friend, jumped, smashing his brain, and London accepted her champion's sacrificial blood.
'But he didn't,' his sister reminded him gently, and John snapped back to the conversation. 'Shall I tell him to go fuck off?' she asked, her fingers tightening on his knee.
'Don't bother,' he said. 'He can do as he likes.' He didn't know whether he wanted Lestrade to defend his actions or grovel for mercy; neither would bring Sherlock back, so it hardly mattered.
'John,' Harry said, and he could tell she'd stopped herself from calling him Johnny like he was just a child again. 'It's a stupid question, but how are you, you know . . . holding up?'
He'd thought, when he was in Afghanistan, that if he had to see one more friend die that he'd just go blank, unresponsive, and empty, but it was the opposite. There was too much roiling inside him and he struggled to find the words. 'It's like... like I lost my reflexes, d'you know what I mean? Like all my underpinnings have been cut and if I take one more step everything will fall apart.' Because it was cumulative, wasn't it, the loss of Sherlock on top of everything he'd seen in war, and there had to be a limit to what he was expected to endure.
'It won't,' Harry said, hugging him; he could feel her tears on his cheek when she blinked.
John let himself sag into her arms; Harry had always been stronger than she looked. 'That next step won't be alone,' she promised, squeezing him as tightly as a swaddled baby. Her face, he saw when he pulled back, made it clear just how much of a burden he'd been already: exhausted, anxious, and afraid.
It wasn't like he was any kind of a prize these days.
It was her stillness that tipped him off to the problem she'd been reluctant to give a voice. Harry'd always, when sober, had an excess of energy, and sitting still for extended periods meant that one of her legs would constantly be jiggling. Both legs were still as a statue now; she'd been using up all of her energy, burning it all away, in regular checks on him. He'd obviously been having nightmares, and by some grace had not recollected them.
'I'm here, you know I am,' Harry said, her hand on his cheek. There was a tension in her touch, and she steeled herself before offering, 'Do you want to talk to Clara?'
'What? No,' he said decisively. He'd always had a terrible temper and never forgave easily. He might have seen Clara's side of things, but when it had come down to her or Harry, he'd chosen and wouldn't ever be budged.
Sherlock blinked. There were crumbs on the pages in front of him, the largest leaving a grease-spot that had rendered the A4 translucent. He blinked again, appreciating only then how the lines of characters, code still stubbornly uncracked, danced before his weary eyes. He rolled his head on his neck and saw some of Mycroft's youngest minions close at hand, bearing glasses of milk and small snacks. It had been custard creams he'd downed, ravenously and without thought, more than six hours earlier. How long had he been looking at Moriarty's code?
'Thirty hours precisely,' Mycroft said, stepping into the room. 'Please do not ever inform me how you trained your body out of eliminating waste in a timely manner.' He smiled, a gesture that did not noticeably ease the tension Sherlock felt. 'Though you would make an excellent prisoner of war.'
'What have you been doing for the past thirty hours?' Sherlock asked; a quick check of the laptop's heat output confirmed the timing.
'Patience, Sherlock,' his brother chided, hatefully. 'You should be thanking me. Not only have we apprehended the gunman assigned to Mrs Hudson –'
'Surely you are not going to claim that that brainless behemoth caused your people any trouble, brother? Or that you did any of the legwork yourself?'
'– but also Lestrade's would-be assassin,' Mycroft finished briskly.
Mycroft had practised a variety of smiles in his mirror, and called up the one that made him look especially artful. Sherlock, of course, reacted like a child. 'Do you honestly believe you deserve credit or applause? Mrs Hudson's was still at the flat, as I recall, and Lestrade's had not even had the sense not to keep his gun on his person.'
'What you do not seem to grasp is that it was not locating these unsavoury individuals that posed a problem, but rather extracting them and disposing of them quietly that was the true challenge. You never have had an eye for undercover work; you drop your assumed identity the moment you have what you want.' That had been the case even in their youth, Sherlock putting on timid eyes to cajole some unsuspecting adult into abetting him, then letting those same eyes turn flinty as soon as his mission was accomplished.
Sherlock opened his mouth to protest, but it was plain to see that he was too exhausted to manufacture any cogent rebuttal. Mycroft quashed whatever incipient sympathy was lurking in his breast; Sherlock would have to learn to serve the greater good without Watson's unfailing aid.
'Meanwhile, it does not appear that you have succeeded with your task,' he said, and Sherlock deflated like a pricked balloon.
'Perhaps you should turn over your findings to my people, as you're hardly an effective cryptanalyst.'
Sherlock shook his head stubbornly, and Mycroft pretended that he did not know Sherlock was too worn out to rise.
'If you wish to find the gunman assigned to shoot John, you will need to cooperate.'
Mycroft watched without sympathy as panic flared in Sherlock's eyes, which looked more opaque and recessed thanks to Christopher's machinations. Sherlock shook his head again, this time vehemently, like a wild animal struggling to free itself from a trap; Sherlock had always had good instincts.
Moriarty had been exceedingly useful, Mycroft reflected. His insanity ignited Sherlock's imagination and gave him a puzzle from which he could keep peeling back layers. But now, Sherlock needed to put his skills to a less selfish use, and he could be persuaded to do so by his concern for John Watson.
He approached Sherlock and gathered the scattered pages, tapping them to rid them of crumbs and stacking them neatly. 'Come, Sherlock. You must rest if you want to be fresh for tomorrow's work. The gunman will not shoot just because you have gone to bed.' And if he did, Mycroft was secure in the knowledge that it would not come to light.
As Sherlock played the violin, so Mycroft played his brother.
Molly was startled by how clearly she could read Sherlock's face; he'd lost all of that alluring mystery and was as transparent as glass. Though perhaps only to her, as she couldn't imagine his brother allowing others access to him when he was stripped so bare. Or maybe the changes to his face and hair were fooling her into thinking of him as someone accessible. She wondered if he'd tried to emulate John's hair colour with his new blond locks.
'Did anyone follow you?' Sherlock asked, a touch of huskiness in his velvet voice.
'No one ever follows me, remember?' she said quietly. 'Not even your brother's people.'
'I'm sure they are; it's just that you lack the skill to spot them,' Sherlock said shortly. 'He's out just now, so you can cease that nervous dancing.'
'I haven't seen John in a few weeks,' she blurted out. 'He's moved in with his sister. I'm sorry, I –' She stopped her babbling with a tremendous force of will when she saw that Sherlock was looking at her in confusion. 'Did you not call me here for that?'
Sherlock hadn't lost his knack of saying something appalling. 'No. I need to know if Moriarty ever mentioned any special words or places or names when he was insinuating himself into your life and your bed.'
Much as she wanted to run, Molly forced herself to stand still and take deep breaths. Sherlock was surely not asking for any prurient reasons, and he'd never been overnice about his phrasing; at least he wasn't manipulating her anymore with sweet, insincere smiles and compliments.
'I don't recall him saying anything that screamed "this is a clue,"' she said. 'There wasn't anything that didn't sound like a seduction.'
'But once he had you,' Sherlock prompted impatiently. 'Surely he didn't simply sit opposite you moonily?'
'No, we talked about his job, my job, hobbies, families.' She saw the question coming. 'He told me he was an orphan and an only child.'
'What about the hobbies?'
'He liked numbers. Sudoku puzzles, that kind of thing.' Ah, she'd said something important there.
'Did he have a lucky number?'
Molly remembered Moriarty – he'd just been Jim then – on her sofa, those delicate hands wrapped around a mug of cocoa, confiding that he'd never thought he'd live past the age of thirty-three.
'Christ's final age,' he'd said, before smiling shyly and confessing he'd been an altar boy.
'Thirty-three,' she told Sherlock, who looked more peeved than ever.
'No, no, I already knew that one; it's what the Subirachs square adds up to. What else?'
'There is nothing else,' she expostulated. 'You clearly need a break.'
Sherlock sneered at her hopeful tone; surely Molly was not still cherishing some fantasy that he would be so overwhelmed by gratitude that he would succumb to her charms, such as they were? 'There isn't any time for a break, don't be dull.'
She absorbed that blow as readily as she had every other one through the years, and suddenly he was aggravated beyond measure by her cowering. No one else behaved so; most simply left, and even John had enough of a temper – not to mention self-respect – to give almost as good as he got. 'Well?' he goaded. 'Are you going to reassure me that you only have my best interests at heart?'
'No,' she said after a pause. 'I'm going to offer you my help again. You shouldn't have to play dead for the rest of your life.'
Molly Hooper was sometimes surprising. He eyed her up and down, clinically, reminding himself that she was intelligent and analytical even if she did harbour a weakness for baby animals. 'Fine,' he said, and offered her his seat.
'Jim's tattoo,' she said as soon as she saw the photograph.
'It's a so-called magic square, sculpted by a man named Subirachs,' Sherlock corrected. 'It adds up to thirty-three.'
'Sherlock,' she said, frowning thoughtfully, 'where is this sculpture?'
'On a cathedral in Barcelona.'
'Oh, then that hardly counts,' Molly said mysteriously, turning her attention to the next item in the pile.
'Molly,' Sherlock said, barely holding on to his patience, 'why does it matter where the square is from?'
She looked up, biting her lip absent-mindedly. 'Jim said a few times that he wanted to see the four corners of the world, but Spain's so close that he couldn't have meant it to count.'
Four corners. Sherlock snatched up the photograph of the tattoo again. If the numbers in the four corners of the square – 1, 4, 13, 15 – corresponded with the same-numbered city photographs on the drive, perhaps he would have the locations of the hubs of Moriarty's empire. 1 was Buckingham Palace: London, already a given, and the reason he'd considered whether that set of photographs was a sample pre-loaded onto the drive. 4 was the Empire State Building: New York. 13 was the Sentech Tower: Johannesburg. 15 was the Tian Tan Buddha: Hong Kong. All Anglophonic locations, which made sense; Moriarty would not have wanted to rely on translators.
At last he was getting somewhere.
Molly was already settling in to work, not waiting for an explanation; she had realised the significance of the phrase as well. 'These are the relevant pictures, correct? Let's work. Codes are made to be broken.'
'Seriously,' Lestrade said, fed up to the back teeth, 'no one can tell me where Pryce is? Detective Sergeant Pryce, who should have been on this case two days ago?' No one wanted to meet his eye, which was just bloody typical. Pariah now, wasn't he? Being Sherlock's DI had lost all of its lustre, and he'd been reduced to handling cold cases while his files from the Sherlock years were scrutinised for the smallest errors.
'Lestrade, phone,' he heard, so he abandoned the search for Pryce and went to his office to pick up the line.
'DI Lestrade,' he said.
'Yeah, h-hi,' he heard. A man, youngish, very vaguely familiar. 'This is Henry Knight? I- you- Sherlock Holmes took my case, down at Baskerville, and Dr Watson helped, and they solved my father's murder.'
'Yes?' Lestrade said brusquely, to keep himself from shouting I was there too!
'So I wanted to- to come forward and show that Mr Holmes couldn't have made up anything to do with my case. Get the papers to stop printing lies about him,' Henry said, then lapsed into an expectant silence.
If only it were that simple, if only he could go back in time and do it over, do it better.
'I'll transfer you to the proper department,' he said, and pushed the button.
Mike picked up the phone and dialled John, but the number was listed as out of service. No doubt John had been inundated by messages from reporters, fans, and disbelievers alike and had been forced to change his number. Hopefully he was still reading his email.
He put his subject line in lowercase, gambling that it would make his message stand out against the all-caps screeds that most likely littered John's inbox: stamford to watson – job interview at george's
John rang him about twenty minutes later, and Mike couldn't tell whether that was a good sign or not.
'Can you come round to Harry's?' John asked. 'It's better if I don't go out for a bit; don't want to bring the vultures down on her.'
It had been a good sign, Mike decided when he finally came face-to-face with John again; John's eyes were red but he wasn't huddled into a miserable ball on the sofa. In fact, John was cooking dinner and asking intelligent questions about Mike's contact at St. George's.
'Graham Nevins, don't suppose you remember him. He was a year after us at Barts. Comes to all the dinners even still.' John's time had been commandeered by the Army and he'd never attended any of the annual dinners. 'He'll give you a fair shake; he won't be biased.'
Mike watched John nod at his words and then stir the vegetables in the wok. 'This is a nice place,' Mike said, looking around properly for the first time.
John exhaled, as if Mike's attention had been a weight on his shoulders. 'Yeah, much cosier than her last flat, which cost the earth.'
'So Harry's doing well, then?' Mike asked, pleased. He'd had a bit of a crush on her all those years ago, the force of nature that popped into John's life every so often to wreak havoc and look stunning.
'Yes,' John said, smiling. 'She's really sorted herself out.' He shook his head wryly and stifled a bit of a laugh.
'What?' Mike asked.
'Harry's still the only person that Sherlock got wrong more than once.'
It alarmed Mike, hearing that name on John's lips, without any special inflection. John was not dealing well with things after all. 'How do you mean?'
'First he was convinced she was my brother. Then he told me last Christmas that she was drinking again, which she hadn't been. He said there was always something he got wrong, and she was it twice.'
'I've not gone round the bend, don't worry. I had a friend and I lost him. It happens. I've done this before,' John said, his voice free of bitterness.
Mike supposed that John must have read the unhappy shock on his face, because he pasted on a smile that was clearly meant to be reassuring; that was exactly the sickly sort of expression John must have worn when telling a soldier with his legs blown clean off that he'd be up and about in no time. No, John had been good, had won medals and been asked after by the troops even after he'd been sent home – Mike had done his research. John would have sweated floods to make sure those under his care got as much of a chance as he could buy them.
A rush of anger coursed through him. How could Sherlock have done this to John?
He struggled to get himself back on track. The steam from the plate John put in front of him clouded up the lenses of his spectacles, breaking the moment effectively. 'Graham said he's happy to do at least an initial interview over Skype, to save you a bit of bother.' He replaced his specs. Fried rice with veg – since when could John cook like this?
'Cheers,' John said, sitting down to his own meal. 'That means I can experiment with Harry's cosmetics, see if I can find something that doesn't make me look like I've been on a massive bender.'
Molly ignored the small voice in her head that was insisting that the last thing she needed was to be caught up in one of Sherlock's obsessions; he'd never see her as anything but an inadequate substitute for John in any case. But she couldn't just leave him without a friend.
It was best to approach all of this logically, as he must have done. 'Tell me what you've tried so far,' she requested.
Sherlock only wore a bit of a sneer when he showed her the printouts, black with solid blocks of text, and she surprised herself by being able to follow along with all of his reasoning, though he was deliberately muddling his explanation. This was the sort of work to which her brain was suited – she'd always enjoyed abstract puzzles.
'Right,' she said when he was finished, still looking aggrieved that he'd had to communicate with someone (did John just read his mind, then?), 'so it can't be an RSA Algorithm, as 33 isn't a prime number.'
It was downright satisfying to see him taken so abruptly aback.
'And a Vigenère cipher doesn't apply, as I see numerals as well as letters in these blocks.'
'Thank you, Molly, for pointing out what it isn't,' Sherlock sniped.
'My pleasure,' she said, raising her eyebrows. 'Let's get back to basics.'
'What does the square itself tell us?' Molly probed, shaking off Sherlock's frostiness. 'We have the four corners – what else?'
'Each corner, obviously, is adjacent to three other numbers,' Sherlock began slowly, at last catching the spirit of her inquiry. 'But if Moriarty meant each number to have three layers of encryption, he'd have to have indicated to himself the order in which they were applied.'
'Yes,' she agreed; that made sense. 'So perhaps each corner should only considered with respect to the number diagonally adjacent? To keep each code singular?'
'Not forgetting the overall code of 33,' Sherlock reminded, his tone warming as he lost himself to the puzzle.
'So what if we went very simply?' she asked. 'Where's the data for the first image, the one of London?'
'The metadata is here,' he said, handing her a sheet of symbols and numbers and letters from several alphabets.
'What if we paid attention only to every thirty-third character?' she asked, counting them off and circling the relevant ones. Put together, they spelled out LXUTLMBTGFHKTG. Not terribly promising, but at least they'd all been English letters. She quickly drew up a chart for a Caesar cipher. 'What's the diagonal?'
'Seven,' he said, so she shifted by seven.
ZLIHZAPHUTVYHU was the result, and she deflated.
'Wrong,' Sherlock said excitedly. 'Try it backwards.'
Sherlock watched a flush turn Molly's neck pink. She really should wear her hair down, if she was so easily embarrassed. As he peered over her shoulder, he could see the letters coming as she reversed her shift: SEBASTIANMORAN.
'Now that,' he said, 'is very useful indeed. Can you work out the rest without me?'
'Yes, of course,' she answered, her chin coming up. So he was not the only one energised by deconstructing puzzles.
'Then do so quietly,' he said, turning to the laptop to find what he could about Sebastian Moran.
But there was nothing on the internet about anyone operating under that name, and he knew that waiting for Mycroft to return to set his own people on the chase was by far the most efficient way to proceed.
'Molly,' he said, frustration making his tone sharp, 'what have you got?'
She was rubbing her eyes as if agitating them would make them fresh. Perhaps this would proceed more quickly if he were to work alone. 'The top right corner came out to "Isadora Klein," but that's as far as I've got.'
'Yes, thank you,' he said, pressing an insistent hand on her back to escort her to the door.
'No,' she said, catching hold of the doorjamb. 'I want coffee, and it's definitely your turn to buy.'
Molly stole a trick from John's book and put on a determined face, as if the possibility of Sherlock disobeying was too remote to be acknowledged. Sherlock looked so different that there could be no harm in taking him out for a coffee, and this was not a neighbourhood where anyone who knew him would expect him in any case.
That the security team Sherlock was sure was there made no move to stop them only strengthened her conviction that such an errand was, if not precisely approved, then at least tolerated.
'There's a Pret on the next corner,' she said. 'I stopped in front of it to check the directions to Mycroft's.'
'Fine,' he said dismissively, probably still working out the names even without the sheets of data in front of him.
When they stepped into the Pret, though, he positively blossomed. 'Large coffee, four sugars,' he told her, dropping into a chair.
Of course he expected her to order and pay. She frowned at him, but he had his hands clasped under his chin and his eyes were remote; he was so deep in thought he didn't even register being bumped by the girl who'd pushed her chair back to head to the loo.
Suddenly he was in motion, out the door and out of sight, leaving her bewildered.
All he had to do was walk from the tube stop to St George's – he'd got the job – and not listen to the questions lobbed his way or see the people taking his picture and shining lights in his face. Bloody paparazzi, though it wasn't just them. It was people who might once have come into the surgery to have him fix them up. Ordinary people, transformed into Moriarty's willing students, believing the worst of Sherlock and pitying him for being a fool. At least George's security kept them outside the hospital.
John was quiet, unmoored, and drifting, trying with all his might not to explode with the rage and grief that were like a Semtex-laden vest he wore underneath his ordinary-man clothes.
Slowly, very slowly, things started to penetrate that deliberate fog. Turning one street earlier gave him an entirely new prospect to consider, and he made the most of it, one foot carefully in front of the other as he studied the florist's shop, the tobacconist, and the sweet shop. There was another small storefront past all of those that promised something more exotic than those fripperies. Lines and colours in pleasing patterns decorated the plate-glass window. A tattoo parlour, tidy and quiet, and one design caught his eye and made him step inside: a long-fingered hand, seductively beckoning.
It was rather like Sarah's surgery inside, faded but neat, and the air tasted faintly medicinal; it was a far cry from the grotty shop where he'd had his arm done so that it proclaimed In Arduis Fidelis and bore a snake smiling in a way he'd always assumed set the standard to which he needed to adhere as far as bedside manner went.
At the wooden desk, tucked away to the side of the shop, sat a woman in a sleeveless dress. She was working, her pencil poised over a thick pad. There were lines, lovely and soft as shadows, on the arm closer to him, and it took him a moment to realise there was no light responsible for those marks; they had been made by the arts of her shop. An odd gleam had settled on her hair, bundled up and away, bearing two polished wooden chopsticks stuck in at right angles, but he couldn't make out what was peculiar.
He cleared his throat, and she looked up with a professional smile. Her teeth were like tiny pearls and her eyes were unusually round. 'Hello,' she said, then stopped. 'Oh, you're John Watson.'
'Yes,' he admitted unwillingly as she came forward into the light. Her hair was a riot of colours, but her lashes and brows were brown.