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Awake, My Soul

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John sighed and shifted the plastic bags into one hand to fumble for his keys. “Thank you for going to the shops, John,” he said, loud and pointed, to the street door of 221 Baker Street. “We were nearly out of tea and getting dangerously low on loo paper. I don’t know what I’d do without — ”

The door opened abruptly, a stone-faced man in a black suit holding it ajar with one shiny shoe to let John and his groceries into the foyer. John’s irritated grimace melted into amused curiosity. He nodded at the bodyguard, who leaned out the doorway to scan the pavement before nodding back and letting the door swing shut.

“Hello, Mycroft,” John called up the staircase to the open door of his flat. “I take it this is a business call?”

Sherlock appeared in the doorway, rolling his eyes at John as he climbed. “Only if you define ‘business’ very loosely indeed. He insults me by suggesting this is a suitable use for my skills.” He spun away again, ignoring the bag John held out, and stalked back across the sitting room to where Mycroft sat, stiff-backed and proper, in John’s armchair.  

Mycroft spared a moment to acknowledge John’s presence with a nod and a murmured “Dr. Watson” before addressing his brother again. “If this weren’t a suitable use for your skills, I wouldn’t dream of bothering you.”

Sherlock groaned. “You’re asking me to track down a con man. An exceptionally talented one, to be sure, but still, I can’t imagine why it would be your purview. Has he persuaded the Prime Minister to sink his life savings into real estate in the former colonies?”

Mycroft’s exasperated sigh carried into the kitchen. Opting to deal with the groceries later, John tucked them into the refrigerator, bags and all, and returned to the sitting room. Sherlock had folded himself into his own armchair and was leaning forward, elbows on knees. Mycroft, sitting in the chair opposite, mirrored his pose. “‘Con man’ is a woefully inadequate and inaccurate description. I promise you, Sherlock, this is not like any other case you’ve taken on for me. I would go so far as to say it’s entirely unique in your experience.”

John pulled over a desk chair and swung it around to lean his elbows on the back. “Now there’s a phrase I never expected to hear,” he said, ignoring Sherlock’s warning glare. “Go on then, tell us about it.”

It was impossible to translate the expression on Mycroft’s face as anything other than smug satisfaction. “I’m glad to see that one of you, at least, has some sense as well as some curiosity,” he said. Dipping two fingers into a pocket of his waistcoat, he extracted a tiny USB drive and held it up. His lips twitched in amusement as Sherlock visibly restrained himself from reaching for it. “Background files. Dr. Watson, if you would?”

Mycroft dropped the memory stick into John’s offered palm, then reached into the leather case at his feet and pulled out a file folder. This he handed to Sherlock, who hesitated only long enough for show before accepting it and flipping it open to reveal half a dozen photographs.

“So that’s what he looks like,” he murmured, handing two of the photos to John.  

In the first photo, a clean-shaven man with a boyish face stood on the pavement with his hands on his hips, tawny hair slicked back, grin and nose both slightly crooked, shoulders and biceps straining the seams and buttons of a shirt in an eye-searing pumpkin and gold stripe that still flattered him somehow. The second photo caught the same man climbing out of a car, a black knit cap pulled down almost to his eyebrows, full mouth now half-hidden by an overgrown beard, brown corduroy trousers pulling tight across his thighs. He could have passed for the kind of man who makes his living leveraging his sheer bulk, but something canny in his eyes suggested there was far more to him than muscle.

“He’s well fit, isn’t he,” John said, eyebrows climbing. “Looks like he’s more than able to take care of himself. But you say he’s missing?”

“He was last seen a week ago. Given his —  ahem — special talents, he’s experienced at dropping off the radar, but the circumstances of this particular disappearance have struck his colleagues as unusual. One of them contacted me this morning.”

John glanced at his watch. It was barely past noon; Mycroft had wasted no time asking for his brother’s help. “And these special talents are…?”

“Please, I’ve heard of this Eames before,” Sherlock huffed. “As I said, he’s a con man. Long con, mostly, and specializing in the art world. Separating the wealthy and credulous from their pounds, dollars, and yen by playing on their desire to think of themselves as patrons of culture. Apparently he’s also a forger of no small talent. The Diebenkorn that went up for auction two years ago was supposedly his work, though no one’s been able to prove it. I’ve also heard rumors that at least one of the Hockneys currently on the market is his, too.” He closed the file folder with a slap. “Still, that’s not a matter for you, Mycroft, and neither is a missing persons case.”

“It is possible that Mr. Eames has simply fallen afoul of one of his criminal colleagues,” Mycroft acknowledged. “However, there are alternative explanations for his disappearance that could have national or even international significance.”

Sherlock sprang from his chair and paced the length of the room. “Mycroft, get to the point before you bore me into a coma. Why didn’t his colleagues call Scotland Yard? Why did they call you? Why should I give even the slightest of damns about your Mr. Eames?”

“Because of what he can do with one of these,” said a voice from the hallway.

Two of the three men in the sitting room froze and stared at the slim young man standing just within the flat. Straight-backed and sharp-eyed, he was holding a case of brushed steel slightly larger than a briefcase. John began to reach for the gun in his desk drawer before spotting Mycroft’s nod of welcome, followed by the flick of Sherlock’s hand that meant “stand down.” A moment later, he had assessed the situation with a soldier’s eye and concurred with Sherlock's unspoken evaluation: known to Mycroft, bodyguard in the front hallway let him pass, hands are both visible, waistcoat too snug to conceal a gun — not a threat, in fact, expected to be here. Still, John stood up and settled into parade rest as Sherlock took one slow step forward.

“And what is that?”

“That, Sherlock, is the reason this case is nothing you’ve ever seen before.” Mycroft smiled without amusement as the newcomer twisted his wrist slightly to show that the briefcase was handcuffed to it. “And this is Arthur.”

“Arthur who?”

“Just Arthur,” the man said in a generic American accent, offering up a flash of teeth that was no more a smile than Mycroft’s had been. He fiddled with the handcuff, detached it, and stepped into the room to set the silver case carefully on the coffee table. Only then did he turn, tug his waistcoat to straighten it, and extend a hand to Mycroft. “Thank you, sir,” he murmured. He repeated the gesture for Sherlock with a respectful “Mr. Holmes,” which Sherlock answered with “Sherlock, please.” When he turned to John, though, he threw a sloppy salute and broke into an unfeigned grin. “What’s up, Doc?”

“I’m sorry, have we met?”

“Never.” Arthur dimpled further as John blinked in confusion. “But you stitched up Eames’s leg once, and he’s never forgotten you.”

John frowned. “It’s not like I remember everyone I ever worked on, but you’d think I’d remember someone built like a Humvee.”

“He’s bulked up a lot since then, and besides, you probably never saw his face, since — well, technically, he was shot in the ass.” Somewhere just beyond John’s peripheral vision, Sherlock made an amused sound. “But you must have made one hell of an impression, because I’d recognize you anywhere. You show up in his dreams whenever he needs a doctor.”

“In his dreams?” Sherlock had stepped closer, face intent and curious. “What do you mean?”

Mycroft stood and gestured to the sofa. “Have a seat, Arthur. I was just about to start explaining your, ah, line of business, but I think you can probably do it more justice than I.”



Arthur called it “dreamsharing.” It sounded like science fiction — slipping into people’s subconscious minds in their sleep — but it was real. Military scientists in the US and UK had worked together in the early 2000s to develop a drug to allow trained dreamers to create lucid dreamscapes. Next they had invented the Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous Device, or PASIV — a machine that controlled the delivery of the drug and let multiple dreamers share a single dream, as long as they were all connected to the same PASIV. Then, naturally, they had recruited a group of British and American soldiers to test the technology.

The military’s goals for dreamsharing initially involved brute force, Arthur said. (“What a surprise,” Sherlock said under his breath.) With five minutes of dreamtime roughly equivalent to an hour awake, soldiers could complete an entire week’s worth of combat training in a single session with the PASIV. More to the point, they could learn from their mistakes in a way never before possible. They could be killed in a dream, analyze what they did wrong, then return to the dream to kill or be killed again — all without manifesting so much as a bruise in the waking world.

“Unfortunately, it’s long been known that the human mind is unable to distinguish between the real and the vividly imagined,” Mycroft interjected. “The vast majority of the test subjects were profoundly traumatized by the experience of dying over and over, even though it was all only in their dreams. Some of them became unable to tell whether or not they were dreaming.”

“What happened?” Sherlock’s expression was a combination of fascination and distaste.

“You wake up automatically when the Somnacin wears off, but other than that, there are only two ways to abort a shared dream.” Arthur held up a finger. “One is to have someone outside the dream wake you up with what’s called a ‘kick,’ either a physical shock like falling out of a chair, or something more subtle like a familiar song being played near your ear. The other — “ He stuck out his thumb, transforming his finger into the barrel of an imaginary gun and pressing it to the underside of his chin. “Bang. If you die in a dream, the dream ends.”

“Oh god.” John clapped his hand to his mouth. “So they tried to kill themselves, thinking it would just wake them up.”

Arthur nodded, a single terse lift of his chin. “Four of the soldiers in the test cohort attempted suicide, one successfully. Another dozen developed at least some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, five of them severely enough that they had to be hospitalized for some period of time. And the rest — ”

“ — included you and Eames,” Sherlock interrupted. “The special ones who didn’t mind dying over and over.”

“It was more than that. We could do things. Build dreams so they behaved the way we wanted. Get into the dreams of other people who were hooked up to a PASIV with us. Manipulate their dreams so they would reveal things to us in their sleep that they would never give away while they were alert and aware. You can imagine how excited this made the top brass.”

Sherlock dropped onto the coffee table, as awestruck as John had ever seen him. “All the world’s geopolitical intelligence at their fingertips, if they could just get one of you and a PASIV in a room with a sleeping target. It makes current intelligence activities look like a Christmas panto by comparison. And yet you're clearly a civilian now. I'm surprised the military let you go.”

“Well.” For the first time since he arrived, Arthur looked uncomfortable. He frowned at Mycroft as he said, “Let’s just say the word got out, and those of us who were good at dreamsharing found ourselves getting — job offers. So we basically went independent. A lot of people who have a lot of money are willing to pay well to find out what secrets are being kept from them. ”

“Ahhhh. Is my lover planning to leave me? Is my business partner planning to sell me out? What’s my competitor’s new product? That sort of thing?” Arthur's chin jerked upward again in agreement. Sherlock stroked the brushed steel case with one fingertip. “And how did you acquire a PASIV?”

Mycroft cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows.

Sherlock hummed with interest. "Possession being nine-tenths of the law and so forth. I see. And I can't imagine the wealthy and powerful are happy about finding out their mental pockets have been picked. Your Mr. Eames seems to be no stranger to criminal activity of various kinds. Are you sure he hasn't just decided to lie low for a while?"

Arthur bristled. "I may not be as brilliant as you, but I'm not an idiot. It's my job to keep track of my team, and Eames isn't just any team member. I always know where he is."

"Except that you don't," Sherlock said smoothly.

"Which is exactly how I know there's a problem." Arthur glared, narrow-eyed. "Assume I know my job and I'll assume you know yours."

"Fine. If you don't know where he is, tell me what you do know."

Arthur reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small black notebook, not unlike the one Sherlock habitually carried. Sherlock held out a hand for it, but Arthur frowned and shook his head. "The dreamsharing community is still small enough that everyone knows almost everyone else in it," he said as he flipped through the pages, "but everyone is looking out for number one, you know what I mean? The only way to survive is to know who gets along and who doesn't, who's reliable and who isn't, who can be trusted and who's likely to take a payoff to sabotage the job. Eames is a hot property. People either want him on their team or they want to keep him busy so he can’t be on someone else’s.”

"Why?" John asked.

"He's the best forger in the business." Arthur looked up at the silence that greeted this announcement and realized his audience was waiting for an explanation. "He can make anything in a dream seem so real you'd think you were awake. Landscapes, buildings, people. He could imitate your own mother so well your subconscious wouldn't know the difference."

"What's the point of that?" John asked.

"Okay, let me give you a really simple example. Say someone wants to read your case notes — the raw material, not the stuff that actually ends up on your blog. We find an opportunity to put you under with a sedative and some Somnacin, and then you dream that as you're sitting here in your own home writing up the notes, Sherlock walks in and asks you to give him the password to your laptop. You scribble it on a piece of paper and hand it to him. Just a dream, and not even an interesting one, right? You and Sherlock are partners, and you trust him. Even in your dreams, you’re inclined to do what he asks. Except that it’s not Sherlock, it’s Eames, forging him, and doing it so well that your mind accepts it.”

John pursed his lips and shook his head. "I'm sorry, that's impossible,” he finally said. “Sherlock would never ask me for my password. He’d just crack it himself. I would know it wasn’t really him immediately.”

"You'll have to trust me on this, but no, you wouldn't. And once Eames had your password, he’d kick himself out of the dream, shovel all your files onto a USB drive, and be gone long before you woke up. The whole thing would take maybe five minutes topside. If we caught you in a situation where you’d ordinarily zone out for a few minutes, you might never suspect it even happened."

 “I’m starting to understand why Mr. Eames might be in such high demand," Sherlock interrupted. “But let’s cover the basics first. When did you last see him? Or, since you say you keep track of him when you aren't working together, when were you last aware of his whereabouts?"

Arthur referred to his notebook. “I last saw him three weeks ago in Buenos Aires. He was headed to Mombasa to check in with Yusuf.”

“And Yusuf is…”

“Our chemist. You didn’t think we could just order up a supply of Somnacin from the military, did you?”

“Hmm. We’ll get back to that.” Sherlock made a note in his own notebook. “Mycroft,” he drawled, “I’m assuming the British government is aware that this technology is being used for corporate espionage, and that you have an excellent reason for not trying to stop it.”

Mycroft gave an elegant shrug. “We’ve tacitly agreed to overlook it,” he said. “How would one prove that one’s thoughts had been stolen? Theoretically, victims could use the evidence of an IV puncture to claim they had been assaulted — but by whom, someone they dreamed about? The legal system is scarcely equipped to prosecute that.”

“Why get involved in this at all, then?” Sherlock asked. “Wait, don’t tell me. You’re afraid Mr. Eames has been snatched by someone whose interests lie more in power than in money. Terrorists? Some fringe political party? The specifics are irrelevant, I suppose. You can’t reclaim him for the British military, but you at least want to keep him out of the hands of anyone whose interests are inimical to the country’s.”

Mycroft’s hands clenched perceptibly on the arms of his chair.

“No need for confirmation,” Sherlock said, smirking. “I know all your tells.”

“Boys,” John sighed.

Arthur’s eyes flicked to John gratefully, then settled on Sherlock again. “According to Yusuf, Eames took delivery of a fresh batch of Somnacin as planned. I spoke to him just after that as he was on his way to Toronto for a simple gig with an extractor named Foluke. When that was done, he was supposed to meet me for another job here in London.” He blew out a sharp breath and continued, “Eames has never missed a rendezvous by more than 30 minutes without letting me know he’d be late. Two hours after he failed to show, I called Foluke. She said Eames had already left by the time the rest of her team woke up.”

“That’s standard procedure?”

Arthur nodded. “A team disperses as soon as the job is done. It wasn’t the kind of job that needed a debriefing, so nobody would have expected him to wait around.” He was riffling the pages of his notebook with his thumb, a tiny leak of nervous energy from his otherwise controlled facade. “By the time I talked to Foluke, Eames had already been off the radar for more than 75 hours.” He slouched into the sofa, tipped his head back, and told the ceiling bleakly, “It’s been almost a week since anyone has seen or heard from him, and I haven’t spotted any activity from any of his aliases, not even the kind of activity we’ve set up to signal trouble. By now, he could be dead.”

“Oh, I rather doubt that,” Sherlock said.

“What?” Arthur snapped upright again, anger and hope warring in his voice. “Why not?”

“You said that you work in a tiny community with complicated interpersonal dynamics. If one of your colleagues had revenge in mind, it would almost certainly be public. Why make someone disappear without a trace if you could turn him into an instructive example to cow the rest of your colleagues?” Sherlock gave the PASIV an emphatic open-handed thump. “Let’s stipulate that you know your partner well enough to be sure he isn’t, in fact, sipping a drink with a little paper umbrella on a tropical beach somewhere. That means he’s been snatched by someone who has a reason worth keeping under wraps. Presumably a reason having something to do with Mr. Eames’s unique skill set. Ergo, you need to look for people who have a persuasive reason not to simply hire him.”

Chapter Text


As Sherlock reached for the PASIV again, Arthur jolted forward to press down on the lid with two possessive hands.

"Don't."

Sherlock raised his eyebrows. “I can’t take this case unless I understand how dreamsharing works. I need to try it for myself.”

“I couldn’t agree more, but this isn’t something you can learn to use by trial and error,” Arthur snapped. “If you damage something, I can’t just order up a replacement from Amazon. We don’t have the kind of time it would take to repair or recalibrate it. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, you could break your brain.”

Sherlock snatched his hands away. “Point taken,” he said. “Do proceed.”

Arthur scowled and unbuttoned his cuffs. “Okay, here’s how this is going to work,” he said as he began to roll up his sleeves to expose wiry, muscled forearms. “I’ll use a dreamscape I’ve mocked up specifically for these kinds of demonstrations. Sherlock, you’ll basically be a visitor in my mind. As long as you don’t do anything my subconscious perceives as a threat, you should be safe.”

“From what?”

“Projections. Physical manifestations of my thoughts,” Arthur said. “People, usually, although Eames produced this panther once — “ He broke off and took a deep breath. “Anyway, if you do something that makes it too obvious that you’re in my dream, they’ll try to kill you to get you out of my mind, and let me tell you, there are lots of ways to die in your dreams, some of them much less pleasant than others. If I tell you to do something or stop doing something, you need to follow my orders immediately and to the letter.”

He unclasped the metal case and removed a coiled length of surgical tubing in a sealed packet. John craned his neck with interest to examine what lay beneath. The PASIV was a bundle of wires and tubing that bore little resemblance to the infusion devices John was used to using to administer IV medication. Where the standard equipment had a single port, the PASIV had six long tubes, tidily spooled. Several shotglass-sized ampules of a viscous liquid the rich golden hue of cognac sat in the center of the device, with more slotted into a purpose-designed space to one side. John noted with approval that the case also contained an ample supply of needles in sterile packaging as well as a stack of antiseptic wipes. Dreamsharing might be illicit, he realized, but its practitioners seemed to be following established protocols for safety, at least where injectables were involved. That thought led abruptly and inevitably to another —

“Arthur,” John said, “Somnacin isn’t addictive, is it?”

He glanced at Sherlock, expecting impatience and insult, but all he saw was surprise. Apparently, the world’s most brilliant idiot hadn’t considered the possibility. Neither had his brother, whose brows were furrowed at this unanticipated potential hazard.

“Mmm, no,” Arthur said. “A handful of people have developed insomnia after using it repeatedly over several years, but that seems to go away if they take a break for a few months. You aren’t going to go down often enough to need to worry about that. The experience, on the other hand — there are underground places people can go to dream if they’re willing to pay handsomely for the privilege, but if you want to find out more about dream dens, you’ll have to ask someone other than me.”

“What about the sedatives you mentioned?” Sherlock said. “Let’s just say I have a bit of a medical history.”

“We use those on marks to keep them from realizing they’re in a dream. If you’re curious, I can get you the chemical formula, but they’re not your problem.”

John nodded. “And how long does the Somnacin last?”

“As long as we tell the PASIV to make it last. It varies a bit depending on the particular Somnacin blend, but I was thinking I’d give you five minutes. That would be about an hour of dream time.”

Sherlock nodded. “Fine.”

 Arthur pulled an iPod out of the PASIV case and attached it to an audio cable. “Do you have any particular song you want to use for the kick?” he asked, scrolling through a playlist.

“Wait,” John interrupted. “We’re going to do this right now?”

“Five minutes,” Arthur repeated. “I can take Sherlock and Mr. Holmes down while you and that bodyguard keep an eye on things topside.”

“No.” Sherlock said it with such force that Arthur actually flinched. “I’m not doing this without John. And I’m surprised at you, Arthur. You’re really going to let my brother into your subconscious mind? He may be willing to help you, but don’t forget, you are a criminal, and if anyone is capable of dodging your guided tour to go wandering around bits of your awareness you’d rather keep under wraps, Mycroft is.”

“Sherlock,” Mycroft began, but Sherlock held up his hand.

“I’m sorry, brother dear, but you’ll have to try this on your own time. Right now you had best be getting back to Whitehall before Parliament notices you’re gone. Arthur, I know the clock is ticking, but give us two hours. I wouldn’t trust John in your head before he’s had a cuppa.”

 


Once Mycroft escorted Arthur out with the PASIV cuffed to his wrist again, Sherlock and John sank into their chairs in front of the fireplace and stared at each other.

“So.” Sherlock broke the silence first. “Shared dreaming. And to think some people believe there’s nothing new under the sun.”

“What are you always saying about eliminating the impossible?” John mused. “I thought Mycroft was having us on, but he wouldn’t come up with an elaborate prank that requires you to inject yourself with an unknown drug.”

“No, it’s quite real. That memory stick he gave you? I expect it includes documents explaining the science fairly thoroughly. Not the history — I have a feeling even Mycroft doesn’t know all there is to know about that, which makes this even more intriguing.” The side of his mouth curled up in the half-smile that meant he was impressed. “I’m looking forward to trying it for myself.”

“You would.” John rubbed a forefinger across his mouth. “Okay, to be honest, I am, too. Thank you for insisting on including me. But I have to say, this case makes me uncomfortable." He frowned in a worried way. "The implications. The ramifications.”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

“I keep thinking of the phrase ‘slippery slope’.”

“Oh, we’re well down it,” Sherlock said. “Even if someone hunted down and destroyed every PASIV and every dose of Somnacin, the knowledge that the technology exists is still out there, and the number of people who are aware of it keeps growing. Just think, two more people learned about it today alone." He pulled his feet onto the seat of his armchair and wrapped his arms around his shins. “I predict dreamsharing will be mainstream in a decade. It’ll start as something expensive and exclusive, a way for captains of industry to confer with the memories of their dead mentors or squeeze romantic ‘getaways’ with their paramours into a few hours in a hotel room. But mark my words, a few years after that, we’ll be seeing storefronts on the high street where uni students can stretch out their study breaks and bored suburbanites can play at being celebrities — all for 25 quid per ten-minute session.”

John snorted. “Okay, yeah, I’d pay that to dream I was James Bond for a night.”

“But while it’s still a closely held secret, oh, John! It could absolutely revolutionize detective work.” Sherlock unfolded himself to lean forward, hands clasping each other in enthusiasm. “The things I could do with it. Evaluating people’s motives from within! Observing and deducing clues that victims didn’t even realize they saw!”

“I don’t think so,” John scoffed. “Half of Scotland Yard thinks what you do is just this side of magic as it is. What do you think they’d do if you showed up saying that you know the suspect strangled his mother with an alligator belt because you infiltrated his subconscious and deduced his snake phobia? No, seriously, Sherlock,” he sighed. “Mycroft was right: you might be able to get information from someone’s dreams, but it wouldn’t be admissible in any court. I can’t think of a situation in which it’s justifiable to invade someone’s mind without their knowledge or cooperation.”

“That’s why the criminals got to it first. Breaking and entering combined with theft. Refined, purified, and nearly impossible to prove, at least for the moment.” Sherlock stood and paced from the hearth to the window and back. “I wonder if anyone has started to develop a way to defend against it? They must have.”

“Imaginary watchdogs in your brain? Dream police? Something in the dream that makes you show your ID so the dreamer knows whether or not you’re authorized to be there?”

Sherlock shrugged. The rain outside picked up its tempo, pattering at the windows and sending drops down the chimney to spit as they hit the fire.  

“I wonder about the observer effect,” Sherlock mused. John raised his eyebrows in a query. “It’s been proven that observation affects the observed even when the observed isn’t consciously aware of it. The watched pot knows, on some level, that it’s being watched, so it refuses to boil.”

The mention of boiling reminded John that he’d left a mug of tea sitting on the kitchen counter. He retrieved it, realized it was stewed beyond drinkability, and pulled out another teabag. “If I put the kettle on and refuse to watch it, then, will it boil faster?” he called over his shoulder.

“No, your deliberate lack of attention will only provoke it.” Sherlock appeared with his own empty mug in hand, placing it next to John’s.

“So I should neither watch nor not watch it. Got it.” That earned him a smile. “So what about the observer effect?”

“How does having someone conscious present in your subconscious alter your dream, even if the conscious person does nothing deliberate to affect it?” Sherlock leaned a hip against the kitchen table and fiddled with a pipette while he spoke. “Could someone sharing your dream alter your perceptions in the waking world, accidentally or deliberately? Could you manipulate someone not to reveal information, but to change his thoughts and actions once he wakes?”

“Meaning what?”

Sherlock retrieved his replenished mug and carried it back to the fireside, talking all the while. “There’s enormous commercial potential for anything marketers can use to reach potential customers. Just look at how quickly Internet advertising exploded. If no one is already looking into whether it’s possible to advertise in dreams, it’s only a matter of time.” He took a quick sip and continued speaking as if to himself. “I could even test it for myself. I could tell you in our demo dream that I’ve been having trouble reaching your mobile reliably, then see if it made you more inclined later to change carriers. No, no, stupid. Now that I’ve mentioned it to you, I can’t do it, because you’d be expecting it. I’d have to come up with something else.”

John huffed in irritation as he returned to his chair. “Bad enough I have to endure adverts at the cinema, but now you want to put them in my dreams? Is nothing sacred?”

“No, John, and that’s exactly what I’m suggesting: if you can get into people’s very minds, nothing is sacred. Which is fascinating.”

“No, it is not fascinating,” John protested. “What if you accidentally manipulated me to the point that I lost touch with reality? You heard Arthur — there were soldiers who died so often in dreams, they tried to kill themselves to figure out whether they were awake or asleep.” He shook his head, then jumped out of his chair, as if the idea were clinging to him and he needed to dislodge it. “That’s hardly worth the effort of getting me to switch from Vodafone to Three or what have you. But if you could do that — if you could deliberately change someone’s perceptions to that extent — you could make me think or do almost anything. Trust a liar. Jump in front of a bus. Commit murder. Theft would be the least of it.”

Sherlock’s lips twitched into a smile. “Oh, John,” he said. “Who would think of doing a thing like that? Because that would be an exquisite motive for kidnapping someone who’s an expert in forging anything a dreamer’s mind might accept.”

John blinked. “Wait, what? You’ve solved it already? That’s amazing — ”

“No, no,” Sherlock said, holding up a dismissive hand. “It’s only one possible motive, with nothing more than guesswork behind it. Even if it were true, it wouldn’t tell us who’s holding Mr. Eames, nor would it lead us to his location. It would be wrong to speculate in advance of the facts.”

“It would narrow things down considerably, though.”

Sherlock pressed his palms together beneath his chin and closed his eyes. “It might, at that. Then again, it might not.”

Chapter Text

“No need to roll up your sleeves,” Arthur said as he unwound three transparent plastic tubes from the depths of the PASIV. “A smaller vein will do fine. Doc, would you care to do the honors?"

John took two of the IV lines, swabbing the back of his own right hand with an antiseptic wipe before slipping one needle deftly into the vein. Sherlock, already stretched across the couch in his habitual thinking pose, extended his left arm for the second line. They exchanged a rueful smile: Hello, doctor. Hello, addict.

Sherlock’s fingers twitched reflexively at the needle's pinch. “Sorry, didn’t mean to hurt you,” John murmured with an apologetic pat. “Should have let you do it yourself.”

Sherlock shook his head. “No, I couldn’t have done it better,” he replied, reaching up to give John’s shoulder a quick squeeze in return.

John slouched back in the armchair he’d dragged across the room and watched Arthur settle into his desk chair. “Are you going to be comfortable?” he asked.

“In my line of work, you learn to drop off just about anywhere,” Arthur said with a shrug. "Gentlemen?” He paused until both Sherlock and John were looking at him. “Once I push the button, the Somnacin will take effect pretty much instantly. Please be a good guest in my mind, and I’ll do my best to be a good host.”

“How will we know when the dream is ending?” Sherlock asked.

“My iPod is jacked into the PASIV’s timer,” Arthur said. “You’ll hear music start up at the same time the Somnacin tapers off. That’s your 15-second warning that the dream is about to dissolve. When you open your eyes, you'll remember everything, but otherwise, it's just like waking up the ordinary way.”

“Absolutely nothing about this is ordinary.” Sherlock rolled his head to one side to give John a half-smile. “Ready?”

“Right with you,” John replied. He rested his hands on his thighs, tipped back his head, and closed his eyes.

“On three then,” Arthur said. He slipped off his loafers, propped his stocking feet on the coffee table next to the PASIV, and slid his own IV home with barely a glance. “One. Two. Three.”

 

They were standing outside Neal’s Yard Dairy, Arthur holding a cheese-topped cracker in front of his tolerant smirk as Sherlock turned slowly in a circle. “Are you sure we’re asleep?” Sherlock asked. “It looks exactly like the real thing.”

John squinted at the blue sky. “Sherlock, five seconds ago we were in our flat and it was pissing rain.”

Sherlock stopped abruptly in his rotation. "And he was wearing tweed trousers and a waistcoat," he said. Arthur was now immaculate in a dove grey three-piece suit so precisely tailored that he might have been stitched into its component parts. “Tell me that isn't Vivienne Westwood."

Arthur cocked a puzzled eyebrow. "Dolce & Gabbana, if it matters."

"It really, really doesn't," John said. He rubbed his hand across his face. “I don't even know what to say. This is just -- astonishing.”

"Right," Sherlock said, then stepped off the kerb into the path of an oncoming taxi. Instead of slamming on the brakes or shouting an obscenity, the cabbie swerved sharply, tipping the taxi up onto its right wheels. It brushed close enough to Sherlock to ruffle his coat but continued rolling. Sherlock stared after it as it rounded the corner, still on two wheels, and vanished from sight. When he looked back at John, he looked remarkably like a small child who had just received a long-promised pony.

“John! Did you see that?”

"I'll be damned," John said.

"Come on," Arthur said. "I'll show you around.”

The geography of Arthur’s dream placed Neal’s Yard directly adjacent to the Millennium Bridge. As they crossed the bridge, Arthur demonstrated how he could shift and build on their surroundings, sending a sailboat beneath them on the dream-Thames and shrinking the bridge itself so it seemed only half as long as it should be. At the midway point, he bought a bag of roasted peanuts from a street vendor. “Help yourself,” Arthur said, tipping a few peanuts into his palm and popping them into his mouth, but when John stepped up to the cart, the vendor’s eyes skittered over him as if he wasn’t there. Arthur took a second bag and handed it to John as they walked on.

When they reached the opposite shore, Arthur gestured back across the river at St. Paul’s Cathedral. “This is one of Eames’s latest tricks,” he said, “although I’m not as good at it as he is.” As they watched, the dome gradually became translucent, glowing from within with the rose-gold of a late autumn afternoon, and just as gradually faded back to its customary white and grey.

“Bloody hell,” John breathed, reaching for Sherlock’s shoulder to support himself.

“Show me more,” Sherlock demanded.

They walked the streets of an imaginary London with unusually light traffic and a sky that remained clear but for the occasional fluffy white cloud. Arthur remained several steps ahead of them, eyeing the passing pedestrians who ignored Sherlock and John as thoroughly as the peanut vendor had. Eventually, Sherlock leaned in to say quietly in John’s ear, "Notice anything interesting about the shops?"

"Other than an unrealistic shortage of Prets and a few too many places to buy designer suits?” John replied. "All the storefronts and signs seem to blur unless you're looking right at them, if that's what you mean."

“That’s part of it, but notice what happens when you do look at them." Sherlock tilted his head to their left. The awning over the shop advertised a popular coffee chain, but with “Eames” in the logo where it should have said “Espresso.” A few doors further down, a handful of generic office workers clustered beneath a pub sign with a picture of a muscular arm, flexed and brandishing a semi-automatic weapon. The glass in the door was etched with the phrase "Eames's Arms."

"Well, we already knew what’s preoccupying him,” John began, but Sherlock held up a cautionary finger, shook his head, and pointed at the newsstand they were approaching. Every magazine cover bore the same face -- grimacing on OK!, winking on the Radio Times, lax with sleep on Empire, but all recognizably the man they'd been hired to find. Every newspaper's main headline was a variation on "Eames Missing." The signboard for the Evening Standard announced, "Six Days and Counting."

John's incipient smile dissolved into grim, thin-lipped understanding. "He's even more worried than he's let on," he murmured.

“Mr. Eames is obviously tremendously important,” Sherlock replied. Lengthening his stride, he caught up to their client just past the newsstand and tapped him on the shoulder. "That woman crossing the street at the next corner," he said. "I've seen her three times now, I’m certain of it. Is that relevant?"

As he spoke, the woman -- petite, young, hair rucked up in a messy bun -- marched down the pavement and stopped less than an arm’s length in front of Arthur. “The clock is ticking,” she pronounced. “You need more information.”

“Yes, Ariadne," Arthur said flatly. ”I’m eminently aware of that."

The young woman scowled at Sherlock and scanned John from head to toe and back again with a dissatisfied sniff before turning on her heel and marching off.

John turned and stared after her. “Who was that?”

“Ariadne,” Arthur sighed. “An architect we work with sometimes. She thinks I’m the most organized human being on the face of the earth. When I let something slip, her projection is the one that likes to remind me.”

“So she’s not real?”

“That? No, that’s my subconscious mind’s version of her. If she were actually in the dream, she’d -- " He paused for what in any other circumstance would be a laugh. "She'd be telling me to stop fucking around and get on with looking for Eames.”

“She noticed us, though,” Sherlock said. “That’s new.”

Arthur looked up and down the street before replying. “No one else has, though. I think we’re still okay for now.” He glanced at his watch. “We have a few minutes yet. Do you want me to show you how to build something?”

“Oh, no, we couldn’t possibly,” John said, smirking when Sherlock rounded on him with a petulant glare. “Are you kidding? Yes!”

Arthur pointed at the corner opposite them and narrowed his eyes. As John and Sherlock watched, the air congealed into rough shapes and colors that solidified in a moment, taking on an unmistakeable form. Arthur nipped his lower lip between his teeth and nodded in satisfaction.

“Oh!” Sherlock darted through traffic to examine the half-dozen sturdy blue bicycles in their docking stations. When a credit card manifested itself in his hand, he did a shocked double-take before swiping it at the kiosk to release a bike from its mooring. “Come on, John, let’s go for a ride!”

Arthur swore under his breath and ran across the street with John at his heels. “Sherlock,” he yelled as he trotted up to the kiosk, “where did that credit card come from?”

Sherlock shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said with astonished glee. “I thought, ‘I wonder if I have my wallet,’ and the next thing I knew, it was in my hand. I must have literally dreamed it up.”

“Oh shit,” Arthur groaned. “I should have known that Mr. Supergenius would figure out how to dream by accident. Now we’re fucked.”

He waved a hand to indicate their surroundings. The pedestrians who had previously been oblivious to their presence were suddenly turning distinctly hostile glares on them. A few started to walk toward them, muttering insults and threats.

"Arthur," John said, "What's happening?" He took two swift steps toward Sherlock as a tiny old woman emerged from the newsstand brandishing a mop like a spear.

"Projections," Arthur said, yanking his arm away from a little boy who had rolled up on a kick scooter and was now trying to tug him down the pavement by the cuff of his jacket.

"What now?" Sherlock said as he sidestepped a man lunging at him with a broken pint glass from the pub. John yanked the bicycle from Sherlock’s hands and swung it into the attacker’s legs, bowling him over, but more projections were coming from every direction, spilling out of storefronts and striding around corners until the trio of dreamers was surrounded.

“Sorry about this,” Arthur said as he pulled out a gun.

“Not to worry,” Sherlock said, rolling his eyes in the moment before Arthur shot him between them. John had just enough time to blurt, “What the fuck?” before Arthur turned the gun on him, too.

 

John bolted upright in his armchair and slapped a hand to his forehead, searching for the gunshot wound that wasn’t there. “What the fuck!” he bellowed. Arthur reached across the coffee table and plucked the IV line from the back of John’s other hand, pulling away before John could grab him by the wrist and pull him in for a punch.

“John,” Sherlock said firmly. “You’re all right. You’re in our flat and you’re perfectly safe." He stood up, a bit wobbly, and put his hands on his hips. "Look at me. I'm fine as well. It was just a dream, remember?"

“What the goddamn buggering fuck just happened?" John repeated, in no mood yet to be reassured.

 "Arthur’s brain started attacking us and he had to wake us up. Isn’t that right, Arthur?”

The man in question nodded and continued to pack up the PASIV. Only when he had stowed everything away and latched the case did he look up. "Sherlock somehow figured out how to manifest an object, which he shouldn't have been able to do," he said. "That tipped off my subconscious mind that I was in a dream and someone else was affecting it. The projections showed up to protect me."

John sank back into his chair and scrubbed his face with his hands until his breathing slowed. “That was… really fucking disturbing,” he finally said. “And I say that as someone who has, in actual fact, been shot before. You do that all the time?”

Arthur nodded again.

“What would have happened if you hadn’t?” Sherlock asked. “I thought we were nearly out of time anyhow.”

“The projections would have torn you apart before the kick." Arthur handcuffed the PASIV to his wrist and headed toward the hallway. When he reached the door, he turned and added, "Trust me. If you’ve got to die in a dream, fast is better than slow.”

John shuddered with his entire body. “Christ. All that because Sherlock thought of a credit card. Good thing he didn’t think of a pink elephant.”

 

Chapter Text

 

John dug into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out the tiny memory stick Mycroft had given him that morning. “I assume you’ll be needing this.” He opened his laptop, clicked the drive into its USB port, and slid it to the other side of their shared desk. Sherlock pulled the laptop toward him and muttered, “Let’s see what the British government knows about the mysterious Mr. Eames."

A series of documents and images unfurled on the screen. Sherlock flipped through them, bouncing from one to the next with huffs and grunts of interest. “More photos — mm, he seems to be a tattoo aficionado. I'll never understand why a criminal would want so many identifying marks. A personnel list from the original military project that developed dreamsharing? And an actual chemical formula for the drug itself, or at least one variation on it — well done, Mycroft! ” He looked up, eyes shining with excitement. “I’ll have to send him a box of pastries to show my gratitude.”

“You are not mixing up a batch of drugs for lucid dreaming in our kitchen,” John said.

“No, no, of course not,” Sherlock said, just dismissively enough to be obvious about avoiding the question. He clicked on another icon. “Oh, here’s something interesting: a list of known aliases — some of them, at any rate. I have no doubt this is just a selection, and not all of them current. We’ll have to ask Arthur to corroborate.”

John stood with a grunt and walked around to the opposite side of the desk.“Oliver Eames. Richard Henry Eames. Eames J. Malloy,” he read aloud over Sherlock’s shoulder. “Bet none of those are his real name. Mickey Gost, Bill K. Parry…Lance Pettifer?” He snorted. “Sir Gilbert Walliker-Symes? Really? It’s like he just picked up an old phone directory and pointed at names at random. These can’t possibly fool anyone.”

Sherlock was already logging into several databases on his own laptop and entering each of the names in turn. “They must have done at some point, because they all seem to be perfectly respectable citizens of various nations. No, wait, here’s a Troy Charles Coleman, purportedly of Gislingham, who’s no longer allowed to enter Canada because of various criminal offenses in other countries. We won’t be looking for him under that name, then, I suppose.”

Hours later, Sherlock slouched in his chair, laptop propped on the arm, violin in his lap. He plucked at the strings in an imitation of Big Ben chiming midnight and said, “John, if you sit up half the night, you’ll be useless tomorrow.”

John peered over the edge of his own screen. “I’ll be fine. I’m not tired.”

“You have valises under your eyes, and not the carry-on type.”

“Ta for that, you silver-tongued devil,” John said, but he shut his computer and set it aside.

The violin plunked out the opening notes of Brahms’s Lullaby. “Would it help if I played for you?”

“No. I don't know, maybe.” John sighed. “Bit of a strange day, yeah?”

Sherlock shrugged. “We went for a walk in someone else’s dream, got attacked by random bits of his mind, and got shot in the face in order to wake up. I’m not sure ‘strange’ is an adequate description.”

John got up and poured himself a finger of whisky. One long, thoughtful sip later, he said, “I’m wondering about what it might be like to go into my own dreams. What do you think? See what the inside of your own mind looks like?"

“I can already visualize it clearly, thanks. Mind palace. A place for everything and everything in its place.”

“Yeah, no. That’s your conscious system for keeping track of things. I’m talking about your subconscious.” John smirked. “I bet it’s a mess. I bet it’s like a giant warehouse with books and bodies stacked up in all the corners and a string quartet performing in the nude under a mirror ball in the center.”

Sherlock tucked his violin beneath his chin and improvised something with a distinct disco feel. “Speaking of strange,” he said over the sound, "your sense of humour continues to elude me. Perhaps because it’s so small, it gets lost in the vast storage spaces of my mind, compared to which yours is doubtless a tiny room. A tiny, dark room. With nothing in it except a small stack of porn DVDs and a picture of the Queen.”

“Bastard! You wound me!” John said, grinning. “Seriously, Sherlock, if you designed a dream, what would you want it to look like? I think I'd like a replica of London, like Arthur has -- except mine would be like a museum of the things we’ve done. Baker Street, the Yard, all the places we've been to in the course of your cases."

"The morgue."

"That Chinese restaurant you like so much, the one with the spicy fried tofu.”

“The parking structure where Mycroft so likes to have words with you,” Sherlock sneered.

“Well, if you’re going to be that way, the Diogenes Club,” John riposted.

They caught each other’s eye and said at the same time, “Buckingham Palace!"

“And you,” John giggled, “wandering ‘round it in nothing but a sheet.”

“In your dreams.”

“I couldn’t dream that up. Things that ridiculous only happen in our real lives.”

When their laughter died away, John said quietly, “Poor Arthur. I can’t stop thinking about it — I know how I’d feel if you went missing.”

Sherlock hummed affirmatively. “If it helps, I was serious when I said I was certain Eames is alive. Maybe not all that well, but alive. We can and will find him.”

“How?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “We’ll start with the known facts and deduce what we can from them.” He played a few bars of what was recognizably the chorus to “Loser” by Beck. "As we would with any other missing persons case."

 

The next morning, John cinched his dressing gown a bit tighter against the early chill as he shuffled down the stairs. The stairwell smelled of coffee and bacon from the morning rush at Speedy's — or, no, it was his own kitchen, where Arthur was devouring one of Speedy's breakfast sandwiches like a preternaturally tidy and well-dressed wolf as Sherlock dumped used grounds from the French press down the sink.

"You made coffee?" John marveled. "You? And didn't save any for me?"

"I wouldn't dare deprive you." Sherlock handed him a full mug with an expression that dared John to challenge him. John accepted the coffee and eyed it with exaggerated suspicion. "I only drugged your coffee once, John, and that was years ago," Sherlock sighed. "I had hoped you'd have got over it by now."

John gulped a mouthful of coffee (perfectly ordinary, as far as he could tell) and nodded a greeting at their guest. Arthur raised a hand to signal that he intended to say something, gulped down his mouthful of bacon and bread, and began to speak.

"I think we can — "

John displayed his palm in the universal "stop" signal. "I'm going to shower," he interrupted. "Then I'm going to dress. And then, and only then, will I be ready to hear about our plan for the day."

In due course, Arthur held up his phone to show a picture of a slender, elegant woman with a cool smile beneath a metallic brocade headwrap. “Foluke is one of the newer extractors in the business,” he said. “Someone recruited her out of Auchi Polytechnic in Nigeria a couple of years ago and she's been an absolute powerhouse. She'd already brought Eames in on three or four jobs before this last one.”

“Where is she based?” Sherlock asked.

“Some tiny village in Greece, nominally, but no one in the business is really based anywhere. We go where the job is -- and given the nature of the work, we move around a lot, make ourselves hard to find. I've been after Eames for ages to ditch his place in Mombasa… “ Arthur’s voice cracked. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath before continuing. “As far as I can tell, Foluke has nothing against Eames, but I’d like you to talk to her anyway. You might catch something I’ve overlooked."

“When you say ‘talk’,” John said, letting the sentence trail off into a question. Sherlock nodded.

“Arthur wants me to go into her subconscious and get her to relive the day of the Toronto job,” he said.

“Sherlock tells me he has a background in chemistry, so he's going to pretend that I just recruited him into the business. I’ve told Foluke that he's developed a new Somnacin derivative intended to make dreams more vivid without triggering the dreamer’s sense that it isn’t real. I said that while he's tested it extensively in his lab, he wants to join us in a shared dream so he can observe its effects and determine whether it works as well on other people as it does on himself.”

John glowered from the depths of his armchair. “Where does that leave me?”

“Topside with a gun, watching our backs while we dream,” Arthur said.

“I wanted to bring you down with us,” Sherlock interjected, “but he insisted it wouldn’t be safe.”

“I trust Foluke as much as I trust anyone in the business who isn’t my own team, but as a general rule, I don’t dream unattended.” Arthur pulled out his phone. “Let me get in touch with her to set this up, and then I’ll go over the details.”

As Arthur wandered out the door and down the stairs with his phone to his ear, John looked wordlessly at Sherlock until the other man noticed.

“What?”

“What aren’t you telling me?”

“What makes you think there’s something I’m not telling you?” Sherlock protested.

“Sherlock, there’s always something you’re not telling me. By the time I woke up, Arthur had already been here long enough to get most of the way through a bacon butty and two cups of coffee. You had plenty of time to conspire with him even before I left you alone with him again while I showered. You already have the beginnings of a plan. So I say to you again: what aren’t you telling me?”

“It isn’t of major importance,” Sherlock huffed in annoyance. John glared at him, eyebrows high. “Fine. This Foluke we’re going to question — regardless of what Arthur says, they aren’t on the best of terms. It’s true that he respects her abilities, but he strongly suspects she’s trying to monopolize Eames’s time and talent, and he resents her for it. It also bothers him that Eames doesn’t see it that way.”

“He told you this?”

“Please, John. I observed.”

John's brow furrowed in consternation. “Is that going to mean trouble?”

“I don’t have enough data to tell,” Sherlock admitted. “Arthur doesn’t strike me as the type to antagonize a colleague needlessly, but you saw for yourself yesterday how significant Eames is to him, at least on a subconscious level. His feelings about Foluke may not just be simple professional rivalry.”

“You’re saying you think he’s jealous?”

“I think ‘proprietary’ may be more precise, but — ” Sherlock stopped speaking and held up a hand. Below them, the street door clicked shut. “That’s enough to be going on with for the moment,” he said, too quietly to be overheard from the stairwell. “We’ll find out soon enough where things stand with Foluke."

Arthur walked into the sitting room looking more pleased than he had since he’d first come to them. “We’re meeting her tomorrow morning in Swindon, just the three of us, her, and her point man,” he announced. “That gives us less than 24 hours for me to give you a crash course in being on a dreamsharing team.”

 

 

“Are you always this detail-oriented?” Sherlock sniped from his seat at the desk, where he was repeatedly loading and reloading the PASIV.

Arthur sighed. "We won't have a chance to sedate Foluke before we go under, and even afterwards, her point man will be watching too closely for John to risk adding the sedative to her line. It has to be in the Somnacin, and we have to be absolutely certain that she gets it and you and I don't. We don't have any margin for error here."

John stood up and stretched. "Give us a minute, yeah? We've been at this for three hours and I, for one, could use a break." He dug out his wallet, extracted a £20 note, and offered it to Arthur. "Here, you go downstairs and get some sandwiches and I'll make us a cuppa while Sherlock practices his sleight of hand."

"Fine." He plucked the banknote from John’s fingers and headed for the stairs. "But after that, I want us to keep running through it until we get the timeline down to two minutes, max."

"We can pare it down below that," Sherlock said confidently. His long fingers repeatedly slotted three ampules of Somnacin into the PASIV, palming one of them to substitute an adulterated vial. John watched him go through the entire sequence three times, each slightly faster and smoother than the last, before heading into the kitchen.

"I still don't understand why any of this is necessary," he said when he emerged with the tea. "Wouldn't it be easier just to sit down with her and have her walk us step by step through the last time she saw Eames?”

Sherlock's attention remained on his own hands as he replied. “Arthur seems fairly certain she’s already told him everything she can remember about the job. What we want to know are the details she noticed but doesn’t consciously recall.”

"Yes, but -- " John broke off to watch, fascinated, as Sherlock swapped one ampule for another too fast for him to spot the moment of the switch. He shook his head. “Your hands should be registered as weapons,” he marveled. “But what I meant was, why do we have to give her a whole song and dance in the first place? Why can't we simply tell her what we need and ask her to let us into her subconscious?"

"Because even though I trust her as much as anyone who isn't on my team, that just means I trust her not to sell me out deliberately," Arthur said as he walked through the door. He dropped a bag of sandwiches on the desk. “Besides, we don't know for sure that she hasn't already been compromised without her knowledge. I want as much of an edge in this as I can get."

John tossed Sherlock a sandwich. "Eat," he ordered. Sherlock grumbled mutinously, but set aside the Somnacin and unwrapped his lunch.

A few minutes later, Arthur pulled out his phone. "All right, let's get back to work. On my mark." John hurriedly cleared away the remains of their meal and stood, latching and lifting the PASIV to hold it like he’d just carried it into the room. Arthur started the timer on his phone. "And...go."

"I walk into the room first, carrying this, and stand by while you and Sherlock set up," John began. He handed the brushed steel case to Sherlock, who opened it to reel out three lines. "Everyone who's dreaming will be within two metres of the machine," John continued, waving an arm to indicate the rough diameter of the circle. "I need to keep Foluke's point man far enough outside that perimeter during the set-up for Sherlock to have the opportunity to make the swap."

Sherlock picked up the narrative smoothly where John left off: “If John can’t distract her point man, my best opportunity will probably be as Arthur is running Foluke's line. The point man is more likely to watch his boss having a needle put in her arm than a chemist doing a routine setup. Arthur, I’ll need approximately 90 seconds, unless she notices the caps, in which case extend that to two minutes.”

Arthur hesitated. “I already said I could give you two minutes, but if you can work any faster -- "

Sherlock had already started the process of snapping the vials of Somnacin out of their storage space. "The doctored vial is the orange one," he said, lifting three vials as one to show their caps. One was blue, two green. "If she notices that the caps are different colors, I'll explain that I recycle used vials to minimize any chance the authorities might be tracking me through my equipment orders." His hands moved with assurance as he ran through the loading protocol. "And...time," he announced, leaning back and steepling his palms beneath his chin with a triumphant smirk.

Arthur stopped the timer on his phone and peered into the recesses of the PASIV, lifting the vials just enough to see that one of them now had an orange cap. When he glanced back at his timer, he raised an eyebrow. "Ninety-six seconds," he said, grudgingly impressed. "I think that's well within our parameters."

Sherlock inclined his head with all the grace of a performer accepting a standing ovation.

“What about the vial you swapped out?”

“At the moment, it’s in the pocket of my trousers. Tomorrow I’ll drop it into the pocket of my coat.” Seeing Arthur’s baffled frown, he said, “John, show him.”

John retrieved Sherlock’s Belstaff overcoat and flipped the lining of the left pocket inside-out. The bottom seam had been carefully slit open by about two inches and resealed with an almost invisible snap. “Sherlock can pop this open with his thumbnail by touch and let the vial drop down inside the lining of his coat,” he explained. “There’s another opening down by the hem to pull things back out later.”

“Well, would you look at that,” Arthur marveled. “There’s a trick I’ll be borrowing.”

“Just make sure you don’t drop too many things in there at once,” John said as he returned the coat to its hook on the wall. “It makes the coat hang funny, and people start to notice if you clank when you walk.”

 

 

The address in Swindon to which their GPS directed them was a three-storey building, the ground-floor windows boarded up where otherwise they would have overlooked a parking lot overgrown with weeds poking up through cracks in the tarmac. If they’d had any doubt that it was a vacant warehouse, the sign hanging from the roof advertising “200,000 square feet for sale or let” made matters clear.

Arthur hummed in frustration as he scanned the surroundings. “If we park here, we might as well just wear t-shirts saying ‘trespassers’ in giant red letters,” he said under his breath. He swung their rental car down a service road running between the warehouse and the neighboring building and pulled up against the fence behind a battered rubbish skip.

A small, deeply sun-browned man with a tiny beard that stuck out from his chin like a goat’s greeted Arthur at the back door of the warehouse with a fist-bump. Then he led them down a long hallway, up a flight of stairs, and across a large room that still bore marks on the carpet where cubicle walls had once been. At the far end, a wide double door opened onto a corner room that still contained a U-shaped conference table. A semicircle of upholstered recliners sat inside the arms of the U. In one of them reclined a woman with a sleek pomaded cap of curls, her legs crossed at the ankles, the red soles of her stiletto-heeled pumps a precise match for her lipstick. When she stood, she towered over Sherlock by half a head.

“Arthur,” she said, stooping to greet him with a kiss on each cheek.

Arthur introduced John and Sherlock by the aliases they’d agreed on in the car. Foluke’s hand was cool when she shook theirs. “Forgive me for insisting on bringing Tomas,” she told Arthur, inclining her head toward the goat-bearded man. “It isn’t that I don’t trust you, I’m just not comfortable using a new compound for the first time without someone else on my team present to observe.” She turned to Sherlock and gave him a polite but cautious smile. “Dr. Bevan, I am looking forward to trying it. Will my usual test dream be enough?”

“I am sure it will be adequate,” he said with a slight French accent, looking up at her and holding her gaze just a fraction longer than appropriate. He waited a beat, then switched on his most charming smile, the one proven to melt all but the most hostile female witnesses at crime scenes. It took only a moment for Foluke to amp her own smile up to match before she waved him toward one of the other recliners.

John strolled over to one of the conference room’s two exterior walls to rap on the floor-to-ceiling window with one knuckle. Behind him, Arthur and Sherlock were setting up the PASIV while talking about Sherlock’s supposed advance in dreamsharing drug technology. “Can anyone spot us from outside?” John asked.

“Reflective glass,” Foluke’s point man replied, still idly watching the group at the conference table.

Sherlock caught John’s eye and nodded to signal that he and Arthur were ready to begin. John turned toward the window, paused as if something had captured his attention, and frowned. “What’s that?” he said.

“What’s what?” Tomas turned his back on the dreamers to join John at the window. John pointed to a random spot slightly to the left.

“That building over there, there’s something on the roof. Are you sure no one can see in?”

“Looks like the shadow from a satellite dish to me,” Tomas said laconically. “I wouldn’t worry about it. I’ve checked the building out thoroughly, and it’s under contract anyhow, so we won’t be able to use it again. Besides, we’ll be out of here in fifteen minutes.”

“I like a business with short meetings,” John said with a knowing nod.

“Indeed,” Tomas replied, nodding back and tapping his nose with one stubby forefinger.

When they turned back to face the room again, Sherlock and Foluke were already asleep, composed and comfortable in their recliners. Sherlock’s coat was draped over the back of his chair, the agreed-on sign that he’d successfully swapped the unadulterated ampule of Somnacin intended for Foluke for one including a dose of sedative that would give Arthur control of their shared dream. Arthur lifted a hand, said, “Back in five,” and closed his eyes as he inserted his own IV.

Tomas walked over to Foluke’s chair and checked that her IV was properly seated. “I hate it when I’m the only one on the team left topside, don’t you?” he said. “Feels like I’m missing out on the fun.”

John eyed the pulse in Sherlock’s throat, then bent down and thumbed open one eye. Sherlock’s pupillary response and heart rate were both normal. John examined Arthur in the same way for the sake of appearances and found nothing amiss. They were both relaxed, breathing slow and steady, eyes flicking back and forth beneath their lids as they dreamed.

“God, what I wouldn’t give to sleep like that all the time,” John mused aloud, then froze. People who worked in dreamsharing did sleep like this all the time — had he just given away that he was a ringer? When he looked up, though, Tomas was perched on the edge of the conference table, leaning back on his hands.

“I know, right?” Foluke’s point man sighed and tugged absently at his beard. “Lucky me, I’m one of the people who builds up a tolerance and starts having trouble sleeping at all without the Somnacin. Wish one of the chemists would get to work on that.”

John gave a noncommittal grunt. “How long does it take you to get back to normal?”

“Dunno, it never happened to me before. I haven’t gone more than two weeks topside without a job in the last three years, though, so I’m going to take a month off dreamwork and see what happens.”

They lapsed into silence, occasionally glancing at their watches and the dreamers. Just as John was preparing to check Sherlock’s pulse and pupils again, the PASIV clicked loudly. Arthur’s iPod began to play, the hum of a stringed instrument being strummed repeatedly giving way to a raw-edged voice that gradually grew louder as the PASIV tapered down the Somnacin dosage to nothing.

How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show

Arthur opened his eyes and threw out a hand to switch off the music. “You sarcastic bastard,” John said under his breath. Arthur flashed a sliver of a grin in response as he sat up and cracked his neck.

Sherlock’s eyes popped open a moment later. “Notebook,” he demanded, then repeated, “Notebook!” John reached into Sherlock’s left coat pocket, feeling that the hidden snap was open and huffing a relieved breath before pulling out Sherlock’s notebook. Sherlock snatched it from his hand and began scribbling as fast as his hand could move.

Arthur stood and offered his hand to Foluke. She took it and let him help her to her feet.

“I’m so sorry about that,” he said. “Please forgive me for taking us out of the test dream.”

Foluke waved her hand dismissively. “An understandable accident. I’ve been thinking about Eames as well, and I can’t help wondering if there’s something I missed. But you could see it was a perfectly routine job.”

Sherlock handed his notebook back to John, the pen stuck between the pages. “Hold on to this, would you?” he said. John tucked it inside his jacket and followed Sherlock as he made his way to the door, shrugging into his coat as he went. Arthur finished packing up the PASIV and joined them.

“Dr. Bevan,” Foluke called after them as they reached the stairwell. “Will you send me a copy of your report, please? And I’d be happy to help with further testing.”

Sherlock was already halfway to the ground floor. “I’ll see what I can do,” Arthur called back as the door to the stairwell swung shut behind them.

Chapter Text

As soon as the car pulled out of the industrial park, Sherlock demanded his notebook. “It’s in my breast pocket,” John said. “Give me a minute to get us back on the M4 and — hey, watch it!” He swatted at Sherlock’s hand, which had snaked over his shoulder from the back seat and burrowed into the pocket in question. Notebook retrieved, Sherlock smacked it lightly against the top of John’s head before sliding back into his seat.

“Arthur, if it’s at all reassuring, Foluke is telling the truth when she says she has no idea what happened to Eames,” he said. “I can also guarantee you that some of the things she noticed and dismissed as unimportant are actually quite relevant and will give us a few more threads to unravel.”

Arthur half-turned in his seat. “Tell me,” he said.

Sherlock flipped open his notebook and scanned his notes. “First of all, are there protocols for the use of Somnacin during pregnancy?”

“Wait, what?” John yelped. “Are you telling me we just — “

“Your concern is admirable,” Sherlock interrupted, “but no, not Foluke. The woman with the Dutch accent." Anticipating John’s next outburst, he continued, “In Foluke’s dream, John. Do keep up.”
 
“Huh.” Arthur shook his head in surprise. “Hannalore. She sent around an email two days ago saying she was going to be unavailable for the next year. She didn’t say why, but I guess now I know. I’m not even going to ask how you figured that out.”

“Obvious. But she didn’t know during the job, or she would have remained awake, and therefore would have seen Eames’s departure. Unless she’s investigating the effect of Somnacin on fetal development, which I suppose is possible, but then she wouldn’t be refusing jobs for the duration of her pregnancy, would she?” Sherlock scrawled a few words in his notebook and flipped the page. “Who were the other team members?”
 
“The architect was Hannalore,” Arthur said, ticking the names off on his fingers as he said them. “The chemist was Bowler. Yamanaka — the guy with the nose — was point.”

“Where was Tomas, then?” John asked as they merged onto the M4.

“Tomas was on a job in Barcelona,” Arthur said. “I was surprised to see him today, actually. Being a watchdog, even for Foluke, is a little bit below his pay grade.”

“He’s taking some time off dreaming, too, apparently,” John said, then flinched as both Sherlock and Arthur yelped their surprise. “I don’t know, he said he was having terrible insomnia and was advised to avoid Somnacin until he could sleep naturally again.”

Sherlock hummed doubtfully. “Two people working on this job giving up Somnacin immediately afterwards? I won’t call it a coincidence quite yet. Is there any significance to the fact that Foluke and Tomas didn’t work together on this job?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Eames and I are as close as you get to a standing team in dreamsharing, and even we work separately more often than not. It’s a small enough community that you end up working with everyone at some point, and there are always some people who will be your first choice when you’re putting together a team, but on a purely practical level, it’s all about who has the skills and availability for each individual job.”

“So what’s the difference between a point man and an extractor?” John slipped into the passing lane and accelerated. “The point man is the muscle?”

Arthur laughed out loud. “Oh, hell, no! The point man keeps all the balls in the air. Here’s a really clumsy analogy: a shared dream is like the movie business. The extractor is the director who has a vision and makes sure every scene comes out right. The point man is more like a producer, the person who makes sure the extractor has all the people and equipment necessary to get a good result.”

“Can someone do both?” Sherlock asked, taking rapid notes.

“Absolutely,” Arthur replied. “Sometimes even at the same time.”

“So an architect would be the set designer, and a forger would be an actor,” Sherlock said. “Or several actors. And the chemist would be in charge of running the cinema.” He tapped his pen against his notebook. “Let’s stretch this analogy a bit more and go through today’s show scene by scene.”



When they descended into Foluke’s dream, Arthur and Sherlock had opened their eyes in a hotel room with two beds. The target, a South Asian man in a mint-green shirt unbuttoned over a rucked-up vest, was already asleep on one. Next to him reclined Yamanaka, the point man, whose nose was taped as if freshly broken. Foluke and Hannalore lay on the other bed. Bowler, the chemist, was on the floor, her back to the side of the first bed, knees pulled up to make room for the PASIV between her feet. Next to her sat Eames.

“Eames was closest to the door,” Sherlock recalled. “An easy place from which to grab him, but also a reasonable spot for him to sit if he expected to finish and be able to leave before his teammates woke up. And that’s an important point: everyone in the room was asleep. No one stayed awake to guard the rest of the team.”

“It was the safest kind of job,” Arthur said. “The target is the one who hired them.  They had no reason to think they needed defenses — all they were doing was helping him hack his own memory.”

Sherlock and Arthur had listened as Foluke and her team discussed the plan over the sound of the target’s snores. He had hired them to help him remember where he had misplaced documents critical to the sale of the family business. The plan they had drawn up involved building a dream of the shop his father owned when he was a child, with Eames forging the target’s father teaching him how to open the till. The location of the documents would be written on a deposit slip inside the till, which the target would read to Foluke.

When Bowler pressed the button to start the PASIV, Foluke’s dream had stuttered. From Arthur’s and Sherlock’s perspective, the room burst into a bright white light, which flickered again a moment later and collapsed back into the same hotel room as Foluke awoke.

“Foluke told you that she realized Eames was gone before anyone else in the room was even awake, but that isn’t what I observed,” Sherlock said. “Her point man and the client were rubbing their eyes and yawning. Her architect, right next to her, was propping herself up on her elbows. The chemist’s eyes were closed, but she was already pulling out her IV by touch, and she was the only one speaking — she was asking if everyone was all right. Everyone on the team was already at some early stage of consciousness. I’m not accusing Foluke of lying. I’m saying that her conscious mind classified all of this as ‘still asleep’ rather than ‘awake’.”

“You got all that in five minutes?” John looked away from the motorway long enough to catch Sherlock’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. They flashed silver-green as a passing truck reflected light into the car.

“The fact that this was a routine job was the entire point," Sherlock continued. "Someone on that team needed a plausible excuse to be asleep during this job, so he or she wouldn’t be suspected of failing to protect the team. That person must have argued that it was safe for everyone to go down, knowing that if everyone was asleep, it would leave the entire team — including Eames — defenseless. So Arthur, tell us, who on a team would ordinarily stay awake on a job where it wasn’t safe for everyone to sleep?”

"The chemist. And there was no reason for a job this routine to have a chemist, so Bowler was just riding along for some reason." Arthur shook his head. "I don't understand, though. She and Eames only worked together one other time. And yes, I heard he was an irritating fuck on that job, but this is Eames we're talking about. His teasing and his obscene self-confidence and that hideous rust-colored corduroy blazer he clings to like a toddler with a security blanket…“ He trailed off, rubbing his eyes. “Still, arranging for him to be kidnapped seems like an overreaction. So there’s got to be another motive.”

“Follow the money?” John asked.

“Follow the money,” Sherlock confirmed. “Arthur, how do you feel about a spot of hacking?”

Arthur's eyes were stony, his mouth set in a rictus that could only be called a smile by bare technicality. “That sounds absolutely fantastic,” he said. “Let’s start by figuring out who Bowler really is. Or at least which names she uses to do her banking.” He extended his arm into the back seat, palm up. “Sherlock, if you’d give me access to your phone, I’m going to let you into some databases I think you’ll find intriguing.”

Sherlock dropped his phone into Arthur’s hand. “When we get back to Baker Street, I’ll return the favor.”

Chapter Text

Bowler apparently believed in financial diversification. Arthur and Sherlock spent the better part of the day uncovering more than three dozen different identities, each of them with at least two bank accounts. John tacked a giant sheet of newsprint to the wall over the sofa, on which he scrawled aliases and banking information as the other two men called them out. After a few hours, though, they found themselves standing in front of the resulting mural, staring at it as though it might rearrange itself into something that made sense.

“Account transfers,” Arthur mused. “If she was paid off, there has to be some pattern of deposits and withdrawals between accounts to indicate when and how, and from there we can figure out who made the payments.”

John rubbed his eyes and groaned. “Can't I leave this to those of you who know your way around databases and spreadsheets?"

"I'm sure we can figure out how to make a cup of tea without you.”

"Actually, that might be harder than you think, as we're almost out of tea again."

"Well then, as long as you're popping out,” Sherlock said with a nod toward the door. "And some of those banoffee Jammy Dodgers, if you think of it."

 

 

Arthur, at one end of the sofa, squinted at his laptop and scrolled slowly down a page of tiny numbers. “Deposit on September 17 to Michelle Kemp’s checking account in the same amount as a withdrawal from one of Bowler's savings accounts four days earlier,” he said. Perched at the other end of the sofa with his elbows on his knees and his laptop on the coffee table, Sherlock waved his hand to confirm he’d heard.

“Alodia Mathey took a cash advance on a credit card a week before the Toronto job but repaid it the following day,” Sherlock said a few minutes later. “No, wait, she overpaid it, and by a significant amount that matches a withdrawal from Chloe Pahisa’s brokerage fund. That’s interesting. Why is it interesting?”

“How much was the overpayment?” Arthur leaned sideways to examine Sherlock’s screen, then turned his own laptop so Sherlock could see it. “Look," he said, "the same amount landed in Bowler’s primary account the following day. That can’t be a coincidence.”

They glanced at each other expectantly. “Do we have something?” Arthur asked.

"Hmm." Sherlock stood up and crossed the room to rummage through a box on the floor near the kitchen. "And John thinks this flat is disorganized," he said with satisfaction, holding up two balls of yarn. "A place for everything and everything in its place."

Arthur watched as Sherlock retrieved a box of thumbtacks from the desk and began pressing them into the newsprint hanging on the wall. His puzzled frown gave way to a vigorous nod of understanding when Sherlock began to cut lengths of yarn and attach them with tacks to create lines between bank accounts under Bowler's aliases. At one end of each line, he placed a fluorescent pink sticky note inscribed with a month and day. It didn’t take long before a web of yarn had stretched most of the way across the wall, a visual map of Bowler's financial habits.

The black yarn shows transactions between accounts in the same name," Sherlock explained. "The yellow shows transactions between accounts in different names. The notes indicate the destination account and the date of the transaction."

Arthur jumped up and grabbed a second book of sticky notes, these in bright blue, in order to add his own set of dates. "This one...and this one...and this one are transactions that originated from external accounts, although they might be accounts Bowler holds under aliases we aren't aware of." He referred to his screen and added two more, then stared at them with arms folded. "Five deposits into accounts we know are hers, over the course of the two weeks before the Toronto job. I would say that's significant, except the total is $49,751.39, which is completely random.”

Sherlock stepped away from the wall and looked it over, hands on his hips. "In dollars, at any rate," he mused. His eyes suddenly widened. “Oh. Oh! That’s it! Currency conversions!”

“That can’t be right,” Arthur said, but he was already scrabbling in his pocket for his phone and pulling up a currency calculator. “Let’s test it. What’s the date and amount of the first transaction?”

“October 4, $4,976.15.”

Arthur tapped in the figures and scrolled through the results. “On October 4, that was the equivalent of 3700 Euro even,” he reported. “It doesn’t round in any other major currency.”

“The next one is October 7, $9,686.57.”

“Nothing meaningful in Euro or pounds… I'll be damned. It's precisely 59,000 Chinese yuan.”

The other three payments followed the same pattern: a seemingly random amount in dollars, but a round figure in another major currency — pounds, yen, and Canadian dollars, in that order.

“Now that’s clever,” Sherlock said. “They used a different currency for each payment, so the amounts wouldn’t look suspicious in any one of them. The final total is a significant sum, but irregular enough not to draw attention from anyone not deliberately looking for a pattern.”

“Time to find out where those transactions originated,” Arthur said. He dropped back onto the couch as if his strings had been cut and pulled a laptop back onto his thighs. “Hang on just a little longer, Eames,” he murmured. “We’re coming for you.”

Sherlock gave him a long speculative look before disappearing into the kitchen. He emerged a few minutes later with a steaming teapot, using it to fill the mugs they had used earlier. When he nudged one across the coffee table, Arthur reached for it without looking.

Sherlock opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it and blew across the surface of his own tea. He took a sip, swallowed, and made as if to speak again before frowning into the mug. Arthur continued typing, reading, squinting at his screen, typing again. Finally, he glanced up. “What?”

“You and Eames.”

“What about us?”

“You’re far more worried about him than you would be if he were only a colleague — even a close colleague with whom you work regularly. The two of you have established procedures for alerting each other to your safety and whereabouts. You know where his primary residence is, in a business where no one seems to have one. Talking about him has nearly made you lose your composure more than once. Even if he hadn’t been on every storefront and magazine cover in your dream yesterday, it’s obvious he’s of enormous significance to you, someone you would kill for. Someone I imagine you have killed for. So: brothers in arms? Or something more?”

“We’re partners.” Arthur returned his focus to his laptop.

Sherlock remained silent, watching him over the edge of his mug. Arthur finally looked up again.

“I couldn’t stand him when we first met," he said quietly. "Cocky bastard, all puffed up over getting picked for Project Night Watch. He thought it was going to make him the next James Bond. Okay, nobody who gets recruited to the SAS is a total idiot, but I thought he was more biceps than brains. He kept calling me a stick-in-the-mud, said that I could do so much more with my life. The first time we dreamed together, I shot him mostly because he wouldn’t shut up about how awesome it was.” He shook his head with a pained smile. “But he figured out how to forge, and that was unbelievable. He forged me, and I thought I was looking in a mirror until I realized he’d parted my hair on the wrong side. He’s the one who hooked me up with…” Arthur sighed. “Well, it doesn’t matter. He still bugged the crap out of me, and every time he did his little ‘darling, dream bigger’ routine, I wanted to punch him, but we learned we were pretty good at working together.”

“Grudging respect is still a long way from partners,” Sherlock said.

“Well, there was this job — it pushed all the technical boundaries of dreamsharing, like nothing we'd ever done before. I ended up having to improvise some really outlandish shit just to get the whole team out safely. We all scattered at the end of it, but two days later, Eames was waiting for me in the lobby of a hotel in Vienna. He insisted on buying me a drink and telling me I’d impressed him by growing an imagination. Then he recruited me for another gig.” The soft sound that came from the back of Arthur’s throat could have been a laugh, but his eyes had grown glassy. "You know how sometimes you work with someone and it goes so well that even the parts you make up as you go work like you spent hours planning them?"

Sherlock nodded, glancing toward the staircase leading to John's bedroom.

“That next gig was like that. It was like we were reading each other's minds. I barely had to think of something before Eames did it. Every idea he had made my ideas work twice as well. And when it was over — ” He swiped at his eyes with one hand and glared at the moisture on his fingertips as if it were an insult. “Everything else just sort of fell into place after that.”

"Everything?" Sherlock asked carefully.

Arthur had been fidgeting with something in his pocket while he spoke. Now he seemed to reach a decision. “Look,” he said, holding up his thumb and forefinger with something round and gold pinched between them. “One way to determine whether or not you’re dreaming is to carry a totem — some kind of small personal object that you don’t let anyone else handle. You’re the only one who knows whether or not it feels and acts right, and if it doesn’t, you know you’re in someone else’s dream.”

“What’s yours?”

“I used to have a trick die that was weighted so it always rolled a three — if I rolled anything else, I knew I was under. A few months ago, I lost it on a job. It was Eames’s fault, so he got me this to replace it.”

He slipped the ring onto his left hand and held the hand up, palm toward himself, so Sherlock could see it. It was substantial, vintage, a thick Deco-style shank cradling a dark green stone with red flecks.

“Bloodstone,” Sherlock said, lips quirking upward. “How appropriate.” He reached out reflexively, but stopped himself. Arthur made an approving sound.

“Yeah, Eames has never touched it, even though he's the one who picked it out and bought it. And I’ve never touched his totem, either.”

“What is his totem?”

Arthur looked down at his ring, twisting it slowly this way and that on his finger. “He had a casino chip that duplicated itself in his dreams. Very handy for a gambling man. I had it copied in sterling silver with his initials engraved on one side. He says if he flips it in a dream, it always lands with the engraved side up.”

“When — “

“A while ago,” Arthur cut him off, tight-lipped. “That has nothing to do with the job at hand, and it’s personal. Don’t you dare try to deduce the details.”

“No offense intended,” Sherlock said.

Arthur rested his elbows on his knees and dropped his face into his hands. He was silent for the space of several breaths, shoulders quivering just enough to be visible. “None taken,” he eventually said, voice muffled. “I’m sorry. I can’t help imagining that he’s out there somewhere, knowing I’m looking for him and waiting for me to show up and kick the door down. I just want to get on with this.”

“I would feel the same if John were missing.”

Arthur raised his head to stare at Sherlock, questioning. “I didn't think you and John...”

Sherlock sank down onto the sofa and shook his head, looking anywhere except at the man sitting next to him. “We aren't. And yet I suspect that if you built London in my dreams, there wouldn't be a street or storefront without a reference to John Watson.”

“Does he know?”

“No!” Sherlock shot to his feet again and paced to the window. Twitching the curtain aside, he scowled down at the street. “He knows enough. He knows he’s my friend. I refuse to make him uncomfortable by harping away on how frustratingly essential he is.”

“Sherlock, he deserves to know. He’ll figure it out eventually anyhow. He’s not stupid.”

“No, but fortunately for all of us, he’s better at helping me observe than he is at observing for himself.” He threw himself back onto the sofa and snatched up the second laptop. "This isn't getting us any closer to finding your Mr. Eames," he said firmly. "Let's take a closer look at those five deposits."

After a while, Sherlock began to glower at his screen. Arthur looked over curiously. "Dead end?"

"Just the opposite," Sherlock snarled, slamming the laptop shut. "This is leading in a definite direction, and it's someplace I was sincerely hoping to avoid." He stood and tugged on his overcoat. "When John gets back, tell him to meet me at the Diogenes."

"The what?"

"The Di-o-gen-es," Sherlock said, exaggerating each syllable. "He'll understand. As for you, stay here. Keep away from the windows, don't answer the phone, and don't leave the flat, not even to go downstairs to Speedy's. And for god's sake, don't contact my brother."

He clattered down the stairs to the street, leaving Arthur frowning at the door as it slammed in his wake.

Chapter Text

Sherlock's voice was a sledgehammer shattering the plate-glass silence of the Diogenes Club. "Mycroft!" he shouted. "Brother dearest!”

An elderly man leaned out of his wing chair to glare at the intrusion, but shrank back into its depths as Sherlock swept past, a thundercloud wrapped in a long dark coat. Two club employees in soft slippers appeared at the far end of the main room and marched toward Sherlock and John, visibly intent on carrying them bodily into the one room in the club where speech was allowed.

"Oh, no, you don't," John said, squaring his shoulders and stepping in front of Sherlock. "You are going to inform Mr. Mycroft Holmes that Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are here to have a word with him, and you are going to do it right now."

The door to the visitors' room swung open. Mycroft stood there, narrow-eyed and narrow-lipped, gesturing impatiently. Sherlock stomped down the hallway, John on his heels, and shouldered past Mycroft. As soon as they had crossed the threshold, Mycroft shut the door behind them and snapped, "Sherlock, what on earth -- "

Sherlock stepped up to his brother until they were nearly nose to nose. "Project Night Watch was shut down, Mycroft," he said through clenched teeth. "Obsolete. Defunct. Personnel dispersed, records sealed."

"Ye-e-es," Mycroft replied, eyebrows rising in an impatient query.

"I need to see those records."

"You have them."

"Not the financial records. The financial records stop approximately three months after the project was officially shut down. But Mycroft, in the two weeks before Eames's last job, someone else working on that job received roughly £40,000 to do nothing but look the other way as someone snatched him — or rather, to arrange not to be looking at all. The money was transferred to her in installments, in multiple currencies. But whomever paid her off made one critical error: all the payments came from a single account. And guess what that account was?"

Mycroft's eyebrows rose a further notch. “Impossible. The entire unit was dissolved years ago.”

“Project Night Watch may have officially ceased to exist, but its disbursement account is still active," Sherlock continued, relentless. "Unless the Ministry of Defence is in the habit of recycling account numbers, which I would find rather surprising. No, don’t ask me how I determined that, Mycroft, I shan’t tell you. Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

Mycroft took a step back, visibly shocked. “I have no idea.”

“I’m sorry, Mycroft, you’ll have to do better than that,” John growled. “If you knew the British military was trying to reclaim its own, or whatever they’re doing, why didn’t you tell Arthur so in the first place? Why bring him to us?"

“I assure you, Sherlock -- ”

Sherlock’s voice dropped to a furious hiss. "Are we going to have to hold you down and break into your subconscious to find out the truth of the matter?”

"Sherlock!" Mycroft drew himself up, bristling with indignation. "Your mind is too valuable for me to waste it asking you to solve a problem to which I already know the answer. If the government has something to do with Mr. Eames's disappearance, you have my word as both your brother and as a civil servant that this is the first I've heard about it."

Sherlock stalked away and threw himself into a leather armchair. "Make it up to me. Give me your access code for the Defence databases."

Mycroft shook his head. "God only knows what you'd do with it," he said. "You might decide to bomb the Middle East. Or the Midlands."

"Then take us back to your office and sign us in under your supervision," Sherlock said.

Mycroft pressed his lips together for a long moment, then gave a sharp nasal exhale. “I suppose it would be counterproductive of me to ask you to look into something and then refuse you the information necessary to pursue the investigation. Very well, let’s go.”

 

 

John's head swiveled back and forth as he followed Sherlock and Mycroft through a blandly tasteful upper floor of a nondescript office building near the Houses of Parliament.

"She isn't here," Mycroft said dryly.

"Who -- what?" John stammered.

"Anthea? Yes, I think that's what she called herself when you met. Anthea no longer works in this office. I'd be happy to give her your regards when next we speak, though."

Sherlock looked back over his shoulder with a smirk and a wink. “I’m sure she remembers you fondly, John," he said. "Assuming she remembers you at all."

Mycroft led them to a windowless room deep within the building, a walled office with only one door and a complicated electronic lock that opened only after Mycroft swiped an ID badge and keyed in a long numerical sequence. Inside was a deep, wide desk bearing two monitors and a wireless keyboard. Two upholstered leather swivel chairs sat behind the desk, a third pushed up against the nearest wall. Mycroft sat in one, adjusting his waistcoat, and gestured to the other two.

Sherlock glanced at his phone as he took the seat next to Mycroft. "No signal," he grumbled.

Mycroft radiated a combination of disapproval and disbelief. "You're in a highly secure room, Sherlock. I’m about to give you access to some of the most sensitive information the government of the United Kingdom has at its disposal. Technically, I shouldn't even have allowed you to keep your phone on your person."

He typed his way through a series of sign-in screens, eventually arriving at a complex search form. He slid the keyboard across the desktop to Sherlock's outstretched hands, then pushed his chair away from the desk and stood.

"You're not staying?" John tilted his head in puzzlement.

"I trust Sherlock to find the information he needs without my help," Mycroft said. "I also trust him to share it with me in the event he learns something which, in his best judgment, he considers important for me to know."

Sherlock sat, fingers poised motionless over the keyboard. "Don't go," he said to the screen before glancing up at his brother. "Either the person using that bank account is involved in dreamsharing in a way the government wouldn't approve of, or the government's involvement in dreamsharing hasn’t been terminated as the official records indicate it is. Either way, Mycroft, it's something you of all people should be apprised of.”

“Is this your way of apologizing?” Mycroft smirked as he settled back into his chair.

“I’m fairly certain he hasn’t done anything that demands an apology,” John said. “He was just doing his job. A job which, I should point out, you asked him to do.”

“Thank you, John,” Sherlock said absently. “Mycroft, you gave me a list of the personnel who originally worked on Project Night Watch. Show me where they are now.”

Text began to roll up the monitors: names and dates, titles and locations. Sherlock paused every few lines to scribble in his notebook. Without warning, John leaned over his shoulder, jabbing a forefinger at one screen. “Sherlock,” he said insistently.

“Baskerville.” Sherlock turned to Mycroft, expressionless. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see that word in relation to this case.”

“Good god,” Mycroft replied. He yanked the keyboard from beneath Sherlock’s hands.

An hour later, Mycroft was slumped in front of the desk, waistcoat unbuttoned, chin resting on the heels of his hands. John was leaning on the back of Sherlock’s chair, arms crossed, looking over Sherlock’s shoulder at the monitors as Sherlock ruffled his own hair with such frustrated vigor that he looked like he’d been caught in a high wind.

“So you’re telling me that none of these people were actually reassigned?” John said.

“Evidently not,” Mycroft said. “Someone seems to have gone to great lengths to prevent the people in charge of dreamsharing research from being separated. The official records show that they were dispersed to different units all over the UK. But this second set of records — “ He flicked his eyes toward one of the monitors. “It looks as if they all ended up at Baskerville over the course of roughly four months. And six months after that — ”

“Six months after they get to Baskerville, on one presumably very busy day, they vanish from the personnel records entirely.” Sherlock snarled in frustration. “Mycroft, what are the chances that they were all discharged simultaneously?”

Mycroft held up a hand curled into a circle. “None whatsoever.”

“They must still be working on something related, and trying to keep it so far under the radar that even their own people don’t know they’re doing it.” Sherlock spun around in his chair to point at John. “But what are they doing, and where?”

“And why Eames?” John asked. “He isn’t the only former soldier the researchers worked with. Some of the test subjects are still enlisted — couldn’t they have just used one of them?”

“Oh, John,” Sherlock said, eyes gleaming. “Why Eames, indeed.” He jumped to his feet, one corner of his mouth curling up. “That sounds like a question for our friend Arthur. Come on, it’s time for us to head back to Baker Street.”

 

 

“What is Eames known for?” Arthur shook his head uncomprehendingly. “I already told you: he’s the best forger in the business.”

“But is he the only forger in the business?” Sherlock said sharply.

Arthur shook his head again, this time in clear refusal.

“Are any of them former Project Night Watch troops?”

Arthur frowned. “No. One other guy on the project learned to forge, but he didn’t get into the business. I don’t even think anyone would have bothered trying to recruit him — he was a real straight-arrow career military type. Last I heard, he was pushing paper on a base in Germany.”

John and Sherlock looked at each other with eyebrows raised. “So there’s at least one known forger who would have followed orders without question,” John said.

“I told you at the start that if this were a personal vendetta of some kind, you would have heard something about Eames by now from whomever is holding him,” Sherlock said. “Since you haven’t, I think it’s safe to conclude that he was taken for a reason. I’m coming to believe that the reason is his ability to do something no one else can.” He loomed over the sofa, pointing down at Arthur. “What is that something?”

Arthur's cool facade finally cracked. “I don’t KNOW!” he roared. “I don’t fucking know! You’re the fucking genius. You tell me.”

John put up a placating hand. “Ease up, Sherlock,” he said. “Let’s come at this from another direction. What would someone researching dreamsharing want to figure out how to do?”

Sherlock grabbed John by the upper arms. “John!” he exclaimed. “As always, you have accidentally put your finger on something!” Spinning away, he plucked his phone from the desk and placed a call. “Mycroft. What precisely was Project Night Watch working on when it was shut down?” He rocked from foot to foot as he waited for an answer. When it came, his expression shifted from surprise to scorn. “You’re joking. That’s not possible. How is that possible?”

John made a questioning gesture. Sherlock waved him off, cupping the phone to his ear and listening intently. “Yes, yes, I can see how it would be the next logical step, but the step itself is…” He fell silent again. “Mycroft, I commend you. I have never heard anything like this before in my life.”

When he set the phone down again, he exhaled a snort of pure disbelief. “Unlikely as it sounds, the next stage of evolution for dreamsharing seems to be remote dreaming.”

Arthur’s gaze locked on Sherlock, dark and intent. “People connected to separate PASIVs but sharing the same dream.”

“That sounds like science fiction,” John said.

“Just a few days ago, the entire idea of dreamsharing sounded like science fiction,” Sherlock said. “But Mycroft found an indication that at the very end of Project Night Watch, one of the researchers may have managed to place two dreamers in adjacent rooms into the same dream.”

“Impossible,” John breathed, but Arthur was shaking his head.

“No,” he said. “Eames and I tried it a few times, just for the hell of it. We actually managed to link our dreams once, but only for a few moments. The linked dreams were so unstable that they collapsed almost instantly.”

“Who knows about it?” Sherlock asked.

“We agreed not to tell anyone we’d done it, but it’s no secret that Eames is fascinated by the idea. Hell, half the people in the business are fascinated about it. The theory alone is good for a couple of hours over a beer. What would you have to do to stabilize a remote dream? Could you end up in the wrong dream, like a crossed phone call? How many remote dreamers could a shared dream support, and would that increase if you had more dreamers physically connected to each PASIV? It’s only impossible until someone does it, and everyone wants to be the first to do it. Like inception.”

“Inception?” John asked.

“Putting an idea into someone’s mind instead of extracting information from it.”

“Bloody hell,” John breathed. “Here I thought I was just speculating madly about the terrifying possibilities of dreamsharing. Now I’m going to spend the rest of my life wondering if someone is scrambling my brains like eggs while I sleep, without my ever knowing anything about it.”

Sherlock sniffed. “As if your brain was worth the trouble.”

“Fine, I’m going to remind you of that the next time you tell me how accidentally useful I am. And until then, I’m going to wake up every morning checking myself for hypodermic punctures. Arthur, why did — why does Eames want to pursue remote dreaming?”

“Why does Eames do anything?” Arthur said. “Because it’s there, mostly. And sometimes because there’s money to be made, but I don’t think either of us would be willing to take on a job where we couldn’t have physical contact with the mark. It adds too many variables.”

“You aren’t the only people in dreamsharing, though,” Sherlock said. “I’m sure a few of your colleagues would be more than happy to take a paycheck for a job with that extra level of plausible deniability. ‘No, I wasn’t involved in stealing the election strategy from the campaign manager. How could I be? She was in Devon at the time, and I was in Shrewsbury.’ Or, to place it on a bigger stage, ‘I didn’t give away the military secrets.’ Or ‘I had nothing to do with that bombing.’”

Silence fell. Sherlock paced from the sofa to the kitchen and back, lips moving but making no sound. John watched, brows crumpled in a combination of discomfort and curiosity. Arthur leaned forward and nudged the PASIV out from beneath the coffee table with the tip of one immaculate loafer.

“The thing is,” he began, as if he’d been speaking all along. “Eames and I did manage it. Not for long, and not very well, but we did it once. Maybe we can do it again.”

Sherlock whirled around and stared.

“Aren’t you being a little hasty to assume he’s being held by people with a PASIV?” John asked.

“He is,” Sherlock replied, practically vibrating with enthusiasm. “He has to be. No ransom, no body, the payoffs to a chemist — a chemist, John — the continuing existence of a research project officially considered defunct. Everything points in that direction. I would go so far as to suggest that whomever has him is using him as a test subject for remote dreaming, trying to take dreamsharing to the so-called next level.”

John pinched the bridge of his nose. “Un-fucking-believable,” he said.

Chapter Text

"What's he doing?" John asked as he hung up his jacket and tossed Sherlock the morning paper. Sherlock caught it before it hit the sofa, where Arthur lay with hands folded on his stomach and his ankles crossed where they were propped up on one armrest. Arthur's shirtsleeves were rolled up above his elbows, his waistcoat held shut by only one button, the hems of his trousers riding up his ankles to show the rumpled tops of his socks. Even deep in sleep, his face retained a slight frown of concentration, lips quivering as though he were about to speak.

"Building, apparently," Sherlock said with a glance at the sheaf of loose papers spread across the coffee table, a line snaking out from beneath them to tether Arthur to the PASIV. Sherlock's resentment over losing access to his favorite lounging spot had ebbed at the prospect of unlimited access to both the machine and the man in charge of it. "It's surprisingly interesting for something so sedentary."

As if in reaction, the PASIV gave a sharp click. Arthur's eyes slid open as he removed his earbuds. "Amsterdam," he mumbled as he swung himself upright and reached for a pencil. "Fucking canals never look right."

In the last two days, John had said more than once — if only to make Sherlock cringe — that he was starting to think of Arthur as a much younger, much more foul-mouthed and short-tempered version of Mycroft: well-dressed, quietly competent, relentless in his focus, and impossible to avoid. From the moment Arthur had decided that he was more likely to find Eames by pursuing Sherlock's remote dreaming theory than by continuing to hunt for him in the waking world, he had essentially moved into Baker Street. Though he slept at a hotel around the corner, he arrived on their doorstep every morning in yet another perfectly tailored waistcoat, bacon butty in one hand and brushed steel case chained to the other, ready to spend the next 12 hours or more alternating between planning a dream on paper and building it in his mind.

The dream, Arthur had explained, was going to be a careful balancing act. On the one hand, it had to be unremarkable, at least to anyone who wasn't Eames. Any unknown person who managed to invade Arthur's dreamscape as a remote dreamer needed to perceive nothing more than a test dream, the kind used to provide a demo to a new client or break in a new PASIV before using it on a job. On the other hand, Eames needed to recognize it immediately — to understand in an instant that only Arthur could have built the dream, and that Arthur had done it for him and him alone. Otherwise, his natural suspicion would make him kick himself out of the dream before Arthur could manage to find and communicate with him.

"The trick is using bits and pieces of places that mean something to each of us without building something either of us could mistake for a memory rather than a dream," Arthur had said on his first day of planning. He had been sitting at John's side of the double desk, a spiral-bound sketchbook open on his lap to a drawing of a room with a high ceiling crossed by dark beams. One wall of the room was covered with cross-hatched squiggles that suggested shelves of bottles behind a bar; a rustic chandelier hung from the center beam over rows of trestle tables and mismatched chairs. It was so lovingly rendered that John, looking over his shoulder, had asked if he was drawing from memory.

"God, yes," Arthur had answered, with an inflection that suggested he could say far more about it than he was choosing to do. "It's one of my favorite bars. They make the best gin martinis I’ve ever had, and when Eames walks into it in real life, the first thing he does after finding a table is walk up to the bar and order one for each of us. But in the dream, if you walk up to the bar, it’ll turn into a blackjack table at the Sahara in Las Vegas."

“Oh.” Sherlock’s eyes had widened. “That's rather clever, isn't it."

"I like to think so," Arthur had said, dry as his remembered martini. "If a shape-shifting bar doesn't make Eames realize that he’s dreaming, finding himself in a casino that got torn down years ago certainly will."

"Why does it matter whether Eames thinks it's a dream or a memory?" John had asked, puzzled. "I dream all the time about things I remember, but when I wake up, I know what was and wasn't real."

"Realizing it was a dream after you wake up isn't a problem," Arthur had replied. "The problem is confusing the dream with reality while you're dreaming it. Building dreams out of your own memories is the surest way to lose your grip on the difference.” He held up the sketch, to which he had begun to add details -- a plate with a half-eaten hamburger on one table, a coffee mug on another, neither the kind of thing likely to be found in a cocktail bar in the real world. "So you have to make sure they're only just realistic enough."

Less than 48 hours later, Arthur had covered the coffee table with dozens of pages torn from the sketchbook. Some of the drawings were rough and sloppy, others almost photographically precise. The one Arthur was currently working on was immediately obvious as Amsterdam: a bridge with bicycles chained to the railings, a houseboat on the canal beneath it, a narrow brick house with steep eaves. He shaded the corner of the house and added the suggestion of a neighboring storefront with a Heineken sign hanging over a mullioned door.

“What happened here?” Sherlock asked.

Arthur continued to draw as he spoke. “A conversation that changed the way Eames and I worked together.”

Sherlock plucked up one of the other sheets of paper, a floor plan that suggested a hotel room: a bed, two nightstands, a dresser with a television on it, and on the floor, a stick figure linked by a wiggly line to a rectangle. “What about this one?”

“That?” Arthur held out his hand for the drawing; when Sherlock slipped it between his fingers, he smiled down at it fondly. “Another significant milestone in our working relationship. It was the first time I realized that Eames cared whether or not I got out of a job alive.” He put his pencil to the drawing and added the words “Just be back before the kick” over the stick figure’s head in precise architect's lettering, then enclosed them with care in a comic book speech bubble. “There,” he said, setting the drawing on top of all the others, “I’ll do that bit next.”

He retrieved his earbuds and swiveled to lie back on the couch again, stretching out one arm to switch on the PASIV. “Three minutes,” he said, and he was out.

John lifted the collection of papers and pulled out a sheet at random from the center of the stack. It wasn’t a sketch, but a sloppy list of jotted words, most of them checked off or scratched out. John read them aloud in an undertone: “‘Thanksgiving at Cobb’s house. Smuggler’s Cove. 1986 Honda Accord. Ariadne’s graduation.’” He looked across the room to where Sherlock was settling into his armchair with a laptop and said, “Well, he’s right about one thing, no one else will understand these references except Eames.”

“Every relationship has its secret language, John,” Sherlock said.

John considered him, lips pursed in thought, then breathed out a quick chuckle. “Vatican cameos," he said.

“Red leech,” Sherlock said, eyes on his screen but lips beginning to curl upward.

“Norbury.”

That made Sherlock’s head snap up as he gave a small snort. “Just like mummy used to make,” he managed to respond.

That earned him a two-fingered salute from John, whose shoulders were shaking with suppressed laughter. Their eyes met. Sherlock snorted louder. They were moments away from an uncontrollable shared guffaw when three things happened in rapid succession: the PASIV gave its loud shut-off click, Arthur’s phone started to vibrate across the coffee table, and Arthur 's eyes snapped open as he shoved himself upright in a single violent lurch. John and Sherlock froze mid-chortle.

Arthur ripped out his earbuds and snatched up his phone to bark “What?” in lieu of a greeting. Whatever he heard on the other end relaxed his impatient grimace fractionally. "Thanks, I know it wasn’t the — " he told the caller. "I'm on my way." He was already standing, buttoning his waistcoat and shoving his feet into his shoes as he balanced the phone between his ear and his shoulder. "No, no," he insisted, "I can be there in ten — no, five minutes."

Arthur managed a brisk but measured pace down the stairs and out the door, but as John moved to the window, he could see Arthur break into a trot that accelerated to a full-out run as he headed south toward the Baker Street tube station.

The playful mood of a moment earlier had vanished. Sherlock refocused silently on his laptop as John flipped through Arthur’s sketches once more, looking progressively more worried with each page he turned. “Sherlock,” he said, “what are we doing? We don’t know Eames, we don’t know what anything in this dream means, we don’t have more than an extremely basic notion of how dreamsharing works. What’s our job here?”

“I’m gathering data. You’re bait.”

“So what else is new. No, seriously — shouldn’t I stay awake while the two of you sleep? Arthur said he preferred not to sleep unguarded.”

“We’ll be fine. This will be the safest place for Arthur in all of England.”

“Mycroft?”

“Mycroft,” Sherlock confirmed with a wince. He waved John over. “Here, this might be helpful.”

Sherlock had drawn a simple chart of the relationships among individuals in a dream. John studied it, rubbing his forehead as his frown slowly deepened. “All right,” he eventually said, “I think I get it. Arthur builds the dream. He needs the two of us to support it by providing a distraction for his projections — “

“No, he needs our projections to populate it.”

“So who are we distracting?”

“Anyone else who might fall into the dream. Including Eames’s projections, if they show up, I suppose.”

“What about Arthur’s own projections? Where do they come in?“

“"If I'm understanding it correctly, he needs us to populate the dream with our projections so he doesn't create any of his own. Otherwise, he could accidentally create a projection of Eames out of pure wishful thinking and waste time interacting with it. I don't know how he switches it off for himself and on for us, but obviously, never having met Eames, we couldn't create a convincing projection of him, accidentally or otherwise.”

John shook his head. "But I thought projections were the dreamer's way of protecting his subconscious. If you and I are both creating projections, what's to stop yours from attacking me and vice versa, and then all of them ganging up on Arthur?”

“I…” Sherlock sounded peevish. “I’m not sure. It makes more sense to me in theory than in practice. Theoretically, at least, if you can have more than one dreamer for each target, you should also be able to have more than one target for each dreamer.” He closed the laptop and pressed his fingertips together beneath his chin. “The relevant point is that our presence apparently helps maintain the dream so that Arthur can focus on drawing Eames into it.”

“And so we can lure away else who wanders through,” John said with a knowing smile.

“Well, yes.” Sherlock's returning smile was wide and boyish. “And won’t that be fun? We can run up walls! We can fly! We can drop anvils on people, like they do in those old American cartoons you like to watch after you come back from the pub!”

“It’ll be like our very own version of ‘Who Killed Roger Rabbit?’”

“Who?”

John shook his head in disbelief. “Never mind. I’ll show you after all this is over.”

When Arthur returned not long after, he had a harried expression on his face and a plastic bag from Boots rolled up under his arm. Inside were two vials of what appeared to be Somnacin and a third, much smaller vial of transparent liquid tinted a pale blue. He lined up the vials on the coffee table and stared at them with a fierce scowl until Sherlock cleared his throat.

“Problem?”

Arthur looked up, distracted. “Not any more, no,” he said. “Well, yes. Sort of.”

“What’s that, then?” John asked.

“That’s the extremely powerful and not thoroughly tested additive my most trusted and creative chemist thinks will help me enter and maintain a dream state conducive to the possibility that Eames will notice it and decide to join in,” he said. “Which is a long way of saying that if I dose myself with it, I might be able to create a remotely shared dream.”

“Is it safe?” John asked.

“Yusuf says it should be, and he hasn’t killed me yet, but I’m no chemist.”

Sherlock picked up the small vial and turned it between his fingers, watching a bubble float from one end to the other. “How does it work?”

“It's supposed to make my dream more stable and more permeable at the same time. On the one hand, I’ll be able to wake up several times without ending the dream for everyone else who’s in it, as long as I go right down again. On the other, the dream will have — gaps? Doorways?” He raked his fingers from forehead to crown where his hair had begun to work its way loose to flop down into his eyes, slicking it back into place. “I’m not sure I understand, exactly, but it somehow makes the dream easier for a remote dreamer to find and enter from his own dream.”

“Your chemist invented this?”

“Invented, adapted, stole the formula for — I don’t ask, I just say thank you.”

Sherlock raised his eyebrows appreciatively. “I need to meet this Yusuf at some point.”

 “Even if it works exactly the way it’s meant to, Eames doesn’t have any idea I’m going to try this,” Arthur went on. “I have no idea how to signal him that my dream exists, never mind invite him into it. But — “ he clenched his fists and inhaled slowly. “— it’s easier than trying to figure out where he might be in any of 80 different countries with a British military presence.”

Chapter Text

Mid-morning the following day, the black town car stopped in front of the building just long enough to discharge one of Mycroft’s interchangeable black-suited bodyguards. After letting the man into the foyer, John returned to 221B shaking his head. “I'm starting to think they're grown in vats,” he said to no one in particular. “This one has biceps the size of Christmas hams.”

Arthur snickered from his spot on the sofa. “I’m using that one on Eames,” he said. “First chance I get.”

“Which with any luck will be very soon,” Sherlock said. He had pulled his armchair across the room to be within easy reach of the coffee table and was wriggling himself deep into the cushions as if preparing to spend hours there.

John shoved his own armchair over to the coffee table as well, arranging it so he could see Sherlock, Arthur, and the door of the flat without so much as turning his head. He accepted a line Arthur unreeled from the PASIV and snapped in a fresh needle.

“John, while you’re up, would you make me a cup of tea?” Sherlock demanded with a sliver of a smile.

“Christ, Sherlock, you can wait ten minutes.” John grabbed Sherlock’s hand and turned it palm-side down with a rough shake, but his eyes crinkled with amusement, and he inserted the cannula so smoothly that Sherlock didn’t even glance at it until he was done. Taking a second line from Arthur, John dropped into his own seat and clenched his right fist until the vein in the side of his wrist stood out, ready for the IV.

Arthur tethered himself to the PASIV with two tubes, one for the Somnacin and the other for the tiny vial of blue liquid, and stretched himself full-length on the sofa. “Ready?”

John leaned forward and scanned the room, eyes sharp, before settling back into his chair and nodding.

“Good luck,” Sherlock said in an undertone.

“I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen,” Arthur said matter-of-factly. He reached for the button on the PASIV. “Ten minutes topside, two hours down. And...I’ll see you in my dreams.”

 

 

The sun beat down on their heads in a decidedly un-English way. John looked down at himself in surprise: he was wearing cargo shorts, a camouflage t-shirt, and trainers of a kind he hadn’t owned since university. Sherlock held out his arms and eyed himself in a nearby window, frowning at his loose linen trousers and shirt. “These aren’t my clothes,” he said, irritated. He turned to John and looked him over, from the sweat beading at his hairline to his bare shins and back. “Those aren’t John’s clothes, either.”

“Feel free to dream yourself into your own wardrobe at any time,” Arthur said from a nearby bench. He tipped his straw hat forward to shade his eyes and stood up, brushing off the front of his seersucker jacket. “I just thought you’d be more comfortable in Manila in the summer wearing something other than an ankle-length wool coat.”

The street they stood on practically defined the word “bustling,” pedestrians and bicycles battling cars and psychedelic-hued jeepneys for space, lines of yellow banners strung overhead from one side of the street to the other. Arthur began elbowing his way through the crowd toward a tall, crumbling pink stucco building with broken windows, a metal roof collapsing in on two sides, and an alarm box flashing red next to the boarded-up doors.

“Who are all these people?” Sherlock asked as he scanned the crowd. “I’ve never been to the Philippines — have you, John?” John hummed a negative.

“These aren’t projections,” Arthur said. “They’re just scenery that moves.”

He stopped when they reached the vacant building. "Watch this," he said. He blew a quick breath out through his nostrils and squinted. The building creaked and shuddered, then folded in on itself like two doors opening away from them. Through them, they could see another city entirely, one with glass and steel skyscrapers under broken grey clouds spitting snow flurries. John gaped. Sherlock stared at the origami of the building, breath quick with amazement.

“That’s one of your transitions,” he said. “Between parts of the dream.”

Arthur nodded. “It’s easier to demonstrate than to explain.” He ducked into a tiny storefront a few doors down. Just inside the doorway sat a plastic cooler, bottles of cola summiting the mountain of ice inside. He pulled three bottles free, handed two across the threshold, and twisted open the third with the tail of his shirt wrapped around his palm. Lifting the bottle in a salute, he said, “Cheers,” and chugged half of it down in a single gulp as he stepped back onto the pavement.

“So where are we?” John asked. The bottle sweated cool drops over his fingers as he glanced back over his shoulder at the winter city tucked into the heart of the tropical one.

“This is where Eames and I did our first dreamsharing job together,” Arthur said. “In fact, we rendezvoused at this very shop and set up operations in that rusting mess across the way. It felt like the right place to start.”

They stood in a scrap of shade beneath an awning, turning their heads languidly to follow the crowds. Now and then, an incongruous figure appeared: a woman in the uniform of the Metropolitan Police, someone wearing hospital scrubs and a surgical mask, a ragged older man in too many layers for the heat. Arthur pointed each one out as a projection cobbled together from Sherlock's subconscious or John's.

“What about him?”

Sherlock inclined his head toward the open-air market at the next corner, where a man with broad shoulders and tawny hair was holding a mango in one sunburnt hand and flipping a coin to the vendor with the other. Arthur glanced over, began to make a dismissive gesture, and stopped with a shocked “oh!” Then he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Eames!”

The man ignored Arthur in favor of strolling farther into the market. Arthur made a soft dismayed sound in the back of his throat and began weaving through the crowd. Sherlock and John exchanged a purposeful glance and followed.

“Eames!” Arthur shouted again, whipping off his hat and waving it over his head, but the figure had disappeared into the market. Arthur dropped his hand to his side and swung it to and fro in what looked from behind like despondency. When John and Sherlock reached him, though, he turned around with an elated shout.

“It works!” he exulted. “That was definitely Eames! He just didn’t know we were in the same dream.” He propped the hat atop a nearby bunch of bananas and turned toward the abandoned building with its impossible door. “Come on,” he said, “you’re going to want your coat for this next one.”

"How -- " John began.

"Imagine what you want to be wearing and just sort of...I don't know, step into it," Arthur said. He shut his eyes on a long, slow blink and shifted his weight slightly on the balls of his feet. By the end of the nearly imperceptible motion, he was wearing yet another waistcoat and matching trousers, this time charcoal tweed with paler grey flecks, and a black overcoat with peaked velvet lapels. Sherlock examined it appreciatively before shutting his eyes. He stood motionless for a moment, took a single step forward, and grinned as the sudden weight of his Belstaff replaced the light linen shirt.

"Oh, John, anything but that," he said when he opened his eyes.

John raised his eyebrows. "What?" He gestured at his jeans and oatmeal-colored cable knit, then pointed at the snowy pavement a few steps away and said, "It looks cold in there, and this is my warmest jumper," but when Sherlock wrinkled his nose in dismay, he sighed and screwed his eyes shut again with an expression of deep concentration. The jumper suddenly darkened to black, a wool jacket popping into existence over it.

"It's just a matter of what feels familiar," Arthur said with an approving nod.

John pursed his lips in surprise and slid his hand under the hem of his jumper to draw a gun from the small of his back. He turned it from side to side, examining it. "Huh, I suppose I'm ready for anything now."

"Well done," Sherlock said. "Can we go now? I'm getting a bit warm."

"After you," John said, tucking his gun away again and gesturing to the passage into the next part of Arthur's dream. They stepped into the crumbling building and Manila dissolved around them.

 

 

"Now this I recognize," Sherlock said, looking around with delight. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the cacophony of car horns. "New York at rush hour."

Arthur spread his arms like a master of ceremonies introducing an opening act. "Welcome to the city that never sleeps," he said, "or something like it."

"I fucking love New York," John said. "If someone told me I had to leave London, this is where I'd go, like a shot."

"I think you mean 'in a New York minute'," Sherlock said.

They were standing in what looked like Madison Square Park, but like Arthur's London, his New York conformed to no actual map. The Flatiron Building was a mere block from the Empire State Building, which in turn loomed directly over Times Square. It took them less than ten minutes to stroll into the famous heart of the theater district.

Unlike both real life and the rest of the dream metropolis, Times Square itself was almost completely empty and quiet. They followed Arthur, feet crunching on filthy snow, to the corner of 7th Avenue and 48th Street, where he pointed up at a plastic bubble mounted on the wall beneath a shop awning. "This webcam broadcasts live online 24 hours a day," Arthur said. "On one job, Eames stood in front of it for two hours of dreamtime, forging a cop, to scare the mark into doing a deal someplace other than this corner."

"He forged someone in a dream to stop someone from doing something in real life?" John asked.

"The mark thought he was awake. It was our first two-level dream."

Sherlock's eyes lit with interest. "Two levels?"

"In the first level, we convinced the mark someone had kidnapped him and tied him up in a warehouse in New Jersey."

"So you can dream up a PASIV that works in a dream the way it does in real life?"

Arthur nodded. "It all relies on the right strength and dosage of -- " He stopped and sucked in a startled gulp of air. "Wait, do you see that guy trying to flag a cab over at 47th?"

John craned his neck and squinted, then yelped in shock as he abruptly found himself sitting next to Sherlock in the back seat of a New York taxi. He had just enough time to meet Arthur’s eyes in the rear view mirror before Arthur pulled into the street with a lurch and a squeal of brakes. Traffic parted before them like the Red Sea as they crossed three lanes and shot through the intersection, pulling up in front of a hop-on-hop-off tourist bus.

“Eames!” Arthur bellowed out the window of the taxi. “Over here, you idiot!”

Eames — and this time there was no doubt it was Eames, wearing a fur-collared vintage overcoat and the same striped shirt he’d been wearing in the photo Sherlock and John first saw of him — crossed the street directly in front of them and climbed into a town car with tinted windows. Arthur stared after him, lips moving but no sound coming out, before slamming both hands on the steering wheel and groaning, “Dammit, Eames, why can’t you hear me?”

The black sedan merged into the flow of traffic and began to accelerate. “Follow him,” Sherlock suggested from the back seat, leaning forward to look through the windscreen. Arthur stamped hard on the accelerator, flinging Sherlock back into John with a grunt of surprise and discomfort.

“You all right?” John asked. “Bit like home, yeah?”

The sedan slid down 7th Avenue, faster with each passing block. Arthur remained close behind, muttering “come on, come on” under his breath. He was about to pull up next to it at the stoplight on the corner of 42nd Street when the town car popped like a soap bubble and evaporated.

“What the hell?” Arthur slammed on the brakes and leaped out of the driver’s seat, leaving the door swinging open as he stood in the center of the empty intersection. Sherlock and John clambered out of the taxi to join him, staring at the spot where the car containing Eames had just been. Behind them, traffic began to line up, horns honking and voices shouting obvious obscenities in several languages.

“Fuck,” Arthur spat. “Come on.” He marched across the street and down the stairs of the nearest subway entrance. Five of the turnstiles were flashing green arrows. He headed straight for the sixth, with its red do-not-enter symbol, and vaulted it like a juvenile delinquent. Sherlock imitated him effortlessly. John hesitated, looking around in an instinctive attempt to avoid being spotted, then shrugged and followed.

 

 

They landed not on the subway platform, but on a foggy city street at night in front of a black door with a red nautical lantern hanging next to it. A woman with a penlight was sitting on a stool just inside the door, checking identification, but she waved them past without so much as looking at their faces.

“Is Eames avoiding us?” Sherlock asked.

Arthur shook his head with a frustrated grunt. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I know his tells when he’s deliberately ignoring me. I don’t think he registers that we’re there. I just don’t know why.”

They stepped past a black velvet curtain and into a small, high-ceilinged room that was mostly bar, with a flight of stairs leading up to a bamboo-fenced balcony and another flight of stairs heading down next to a waterfall. They blinked, and without warning they were up on the balcony, sitting in high-backed wicker seats around a table with three tiki mugs, each garnished with a tiny paper umbrella.

“Smuggler’s Cove,” Arthur said to Sherlock’s questioning eyebrow. “No actual smugglers involved, just an amazing selection of rum drinks. Some magazine made a list of the best cocktail bars in the world, and Eames and I decided to work our way down it. This was the most recent one we got to.”

John picked up a menu and shone the light from his phone on it. “San Francisco, huh? Are we going to recreate the chase scene from ‘Bullitt’?”

“That’s not actually possible,” Sherlock said between slurps of his drink. “That chase scene is stitched together from bits of the city that aren’t anywhere near each other.” John shot him a sidelong glance. “What? I’m not completely ignorant of popular culture.”

“We could recreate it in another dream if we wanted to,” Arthur said. “But not in this one. I didn’t build the rest of San Francisco, only the bit in and around this bar.”

They stood to overlook the crowded main bar from their vantage point in the balcony. “There he is!” he exclaimed, pointing down at a tawny head of slicked-back hair and wide shoulders in a conspicuously yellow paisley print shirt. Eames was scanning the room, clearly in search of someone. The ambient noise in the packed space was too loud for shouting. Arthur wriggled his way down from the balcony, but by the time he reached the floor, Eames was walking out the door. Arthur looked up at them, signaling that he couldn’t see his quarry through the crush of customers. John pointed toward the exit as he and Sherlock worked their own way down the stairs, but the crowd seemed intent on blocking their path. By the time they made it back out to the foggy night, Eames was nowhere to be seen.

John twirled the small blue umbrella from his drink between his fingers. “Are you sure he’s not avoiding us?” he asked.

“No, I think he’s coming to these places looking for me, for the same reasons I’m coming here looking for him.” Arthur’s shoulders slumped. “He has to be — it’s the only explanation.”

“Where to next, then?” Sherlock said.

“Once is random, twice is coincidence, but three times is a pattern. I don’t think our luck is going to improve in this dream.” He glanced at his left wrist, on which a watch had appeared. “At least we aren’t going to have to wait around.”

An ambulance went by, siren wailing. As it faded into the distance, it turned into a drone of strings that seemed to arise from the very pavement. A rough voice swelled out of nowhere.

How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies

The San Francisco night dissolved around them; they opened their eyes to the mid-morning sunlight streaming in the sitting room windows at 221B.

Chapter Text

 

“Okay.” Arthur drummed his fingers on the cover of the PASIV. “I’m doing something right, obviously, because Eames and I are dreaming the same things, but it seems like we’re having two overlapping dreams instead of combining them. I want to try Yusuf’s theory that briefly popping out of the dream makes it easier for someone else to find a way in. If I’m awake for just a few seconds topside, it won’t seem like more than a minute or two to you.”

Sherlock drew his feet up onto the seat of his chair and wrapped his arms around his shins. “When you pop out of the dream, do we wake up as well?”

“Theoretically, no, but if you do — ” Arthur pointed at the button that started the PASIV. “I just hit this and send you down again.”

“And if we wake up while you’re still dreaming?”

“Again, that shouldn’t happen unless you have to kick yourselves out, but if it does, just remove your IV. I’ll be up as soon as the timer runs out.”

“What if we need to wake you up?”

Arthur looked at John with resignation. “Is he always like this?”

“It’s his job,” John said with a shrug.

“The only reason you should need to wake me up is if we need to run like hell, and that’s what the Incredible Bulk in your front hallway is here to prevent, right?” Arthur gulped the rest of his tea, making a face as he realized it had gone tepid. “I’ve been choosing locations in a particular order and it seems to be working, so let’s just pick up where we left off.”

“What do you mean, a particular order?” John asked. “I was assuming you had lined all your locations up, like beads on a string.”

“No, nothing that linear," Arthur said. "It's more like a closed three-dimensional maze.”

“So you can start at any point and circle back to any other,” Sherlock said. "Elegant."

“Yes, essentially, although no one point connects to more than two others."

“Is there some particular reason to build a dream that way?” John asked.

"Two reasons, really. The first is standard practice in dreamsharing -- when you structure the dream as a closed maze, it slows down the mark's projections so you can dodge them longer."

"Oh, of course," Sherlock said. "Because the mark isn't aware of the dream's design. And I assume the other reason is to help you guess where Eames might be, since you and he are the only ones who know how the different locations and events relate to each other."

"Chronologically or otherwise," Arthur said. "Got it in one."

"I'm confused," John said. "We don't know the dream's design, either. If our job is to distract someone else's projections and lose them in the maze, don't we need to know how to move through it?"

“I was waiting for you to ask, but I thought you might figure it out for yourself,” Arthur said with a smirk. "Every link between two zones of the dream is clearly marked. In fact, you've already seen it, although you probably haven't noticed it. I designed the signal to be easy to overlook if you don't know about it, but impossible to miss once you do." He gave Sherlock an expectant nod. "So tell me what it was, genius."

Sherlock's gaze went distant and inward as he considered the parts of the dream they had already visited. "The people?" he muttered. "Something on a street corner? What was near each... Ohhhh." His voice dropped to a rumble of appreciation as his eyes snapped back to sharpness. "The red lights. The alarm box on the apartment building in Manila, the subway turnstile in Times Square, the lamp next to the door to Smuggler’s Cove."

"Amazing," John said when Arthur nodded. "But now that we know that, our projections will, too."

“Your projections aren't what I'm worried about," Arthur said. "But just in case, I also built in several trap doors that let me move between all the locations, even the ones that aren't directly connected within the maze. And those, no one's going to know about but me."

 

 

They closed their eyes in Baker Street and opened them in what was obviously a university auditorium on graduation day. They were sitting high in the bleachers, looking down on a line of students in caps and gowns waiting to process across a dais.

“Ariadne’s graduation from her masters program,” Arthur said. “Eames and I had a fairly, ah, memorable conversation with her that day about the relative merits of a job at an architecture firm versus a career in dreamsharing. We won.”

“Meaning what?” John said.

“Let’s just say Ariadne enjoys not being beholden to the laws of physics.” Arthur’s dimple put in a brief appearance. “Not to mention the undeniable appeal of being able to pay off her student loans in less than two years.”

They made their way down to floor level and out to a paved courtyard surrounded on three sides by a low wall with a flowering hedge behind it. Arthur tipped his head toward the wall. "Have a seat while I test Yusuf's latest innovation," he said, slowing to let them pass. As they did, he darted his hand up beneath the hem of John's jacket and slipped the gun from John’s waistband.

"What -- " John began to say as he turned.

“Quality metal you’ve got here,” Arthur said as he pressed the muzzle against his temple. John lunged forward, but it was too late. Arthur turned away, said, "Be right back," and fired.

John and Sherlock exchanged a wide-eyed glance as the ground trembled beneath their feet. When they looked back at where Arthur's body had dropped, it was gone, leaving only a faint impression on the grass.

John sank onto the nearest bench, clenching his left hand repetitively. Sherlock sat next to him. “Are you all right?”

“Yes."

Sherlock eyed John’s flexing hand. “It’s not real.”

“Thank you, Sherlock, I’m aware of that.” John sucked in a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. “I’m fine.”

They sat side by side, scanning the empty courtyard and listening to the sounds of the graduation ceremony taking place inside the auditorium building.

“I’m beginning to reconsider my initial interest in dreamsharing," Sherlock finally said, deadpan.

“Hope I didn’t leave you waiting too long.” Arthur’s voice carried across the courtyard from where he’d stepped out of an innocuous fire door on the side of the auditorium. “It turns out you don’t necessarily come back into the dream where you left it,” he continued as he strode toward them. “I wound up back in Times Square and had to take a shortcut through the maze. Everything okay?”

“Oh, fine,” John growled, “except for the bit where I had to watch you blow your brains out with my gun. Even knowing it isn’t real, that’s a bit not good.”

“I’ll warn you next time so you can look away,” Arthur said matter-of-factly. He held out the gun. John took it with a scowl and returned it to its spot at the small of his back.

They strolled back toward the auditorium as Arthur quizzed them on what had happened in the dream in his absence. He was excited to hear that the worst disruption was a tremor no stronger than the kind caused by a city bus passing nearby. “So Yusuf is at least half-right,” he marveled. “The dream held together even though I left it. Now let’s see if Eames got the invitation to join us.”

He stepped up to the heavy double doors and swung them both open to step through, then stopped abruptly on the threshold. “It worked,” he said, staring amazed across the room. A broad-shouldered figure was standing to one side of the stage, offering a gentlemanly hand to a capped, gowned woman in stilettos who was teetering toward the stairs to return to her seat.

Arthur strode up the center aisle of the hall, Sherlock and John just a few steps behind on either side. When he was only a few rows away from the front of the room, he bellowed, “Eames!”

For the first time, Eames seemed to hear Arthur’s voice. He looked up, brows knitting in confusion as he turned this way and that, trying to spot who was calling his name. When Arthur yelled it again, Eames turned directly toward him, a grin exploding onto his face. He took a step forward, clearly prepared to leap off the edge of the stage and plow toward them through the crowd, when the man handing out diplomas from the lectern at center stage pulled out a semiautomatic weapon.

“Vatican cameos!” Sherlock roared. He and John dropped to the floor, tackling Arthur down with them as bullets flew overhead and shrieks of dismay erupted from every corner. When they looked up again, Eames was nowhere to be seen, but three university security guards were heading their way with drawn nightsticks and an obvious intent to use them.

Arthur yanked Sherlock up by the shoulders and pointed toward the only red light in sight, an emergency exit sign at the far side of the stage. Sherlock looked around frantically for John and spotted him heading for a weeping woman with blood spattered across her face. Grabbing the collar of John’s jacket, he shouted, “John, she’s a projection, not a patient!" and shoved him toward the emergency exit. They raced through the door just steps ahead of the security guards and let it slam shut behind them, instantly cutting off the uproar in the auditorium as if someone had muted a microphone.

They were standing in front of a bank of elevators in the middle of a long corridor, with doors set at regular intervals on either side. The corridor was hushed and empty, tastefully but not brightly lit. Sherlock drew himself up and popped the collar of his coat, then toed at the carpet and peered at the wallpaper. “The decor says Intercontinental Hotel,” he said. “Please tell me we’re not about to walk in on you having an assignation with your partner’s doppelgänger.”

Somewhere below, a lift chimed softly, the sound carrying up the shaft to their floor. “Doc,” Arthur said, “you might want to get your gun out.”

He started down the hallway, trying door handles as he went and waving Sherlock in the opposite direction to do the same. John pressed himself to the wall between lifts as the chime sounded again. When the doors slid open, he pivoted to face them, pointing his gun into what turned out to be an empty car. “Fifth floor,” said a disembodied voice. “Going up.”

“Hold that elevator,” Arthur yelled from down the hallway. John shoved his foot in front of the door to keep it from closing and waited until Arthur and Sherlock were both inside, then backed in with his gun pointing out into the hall. The door slid shut just as another lift chimed to signal it was about to stop.

“How the hell did we end up on the fifth floor?” Arthur muttered, jabbing at the button labeled with a glowing 18.

“Oh, you know,” John said, a little breathlessly. “They all look the same.”

“What’s going on?” Sherlock demanded. “I thought you said we didn’t have to worry about our projections.”

“These aren’t your projections,” Arthur said. “And I don’t think they belong to Eames, because his would have caught up to us by now — he knows how I build. All I can think is that someone else used him to piggyback into my dream.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” John said.

“It’s not.” Arthur glanced at his watch and scowled. “And we still have a good half-hour before the kick. Best to be prepared.” A gun appeared in Arthur’s hand. From the low startled sound Sherlock made, another had manifested itself in his. “You do know how to shoot, don’t you, Sherlock?”

Sherlock’s only reply was a scornful snort as he checked the magazine and switched off the safety.

“When the doors open, turn left and go to the fifth door on the right,” Arthur said. “It should be unlocked. Doc, I’m going to need you to have my back, because I don’t know if something’s coming up in that other elevator.”

“You can stop calling me Doc any time now,” John said. “‘John’ will do just fine.”

Arthur exhaled a laugh. “There’s no way I’m going to remember to call you John.”

The elevator chimed and announced their arrival on the 18th floor as the doors opened on another quiet, empty corridor. They slipped into the unlocked room and shut the door by all but a sliver, listening for any sounds of pursuit before letting it latch with a muffled snick. Sherlock looked around the room with a considering expression; when his eyes fell on the brushed silver case peeking out from beneath one of the two beds, he dropped to his knees and pulled it out. “A PASIV!” he exclaimed. “What’s this doing here?”

“I wanted to stash one somewhere in the dream in case we needed it,” Arthur said. “This was the most logical place.”

“There’s a second layer?” Sherlock asked, hope sparking in his eyes.

“I designed one, yes,” Arthur said. “But I’m the only one going down into it, if it comes to that. If we need another layer, it’ll be because we’re in trouble on this one, and I’ll need you and John to cover me.” Sherlock looked crestfallen at this, but John simply nodded. “For right now,” Arthur continued, “we need to get out of this zone of the dream. If Eames were here, he’d already be in this room.”

“Right,” John said, reaching for the handle of the door, but Arthur shot out a hand to hold it closed. John’s forehead furrowed in puzzlement. “That’s the only door, and I’m not going out a window 18 floors up,” he said.

Arthur gestured toward the bathroom. “In there,” he said.

Sherlock stepped into the bathroom, looked around, and stepped back out. “You must be joking,” he said. “How is that even going to work?” He pointed at the only red light in sight, glowing from the switch on the shaver socket.

Arthur reached out, flipped the switch, and stepped back to rest his hands on his hips. "Voila," he said as the floor-to-ceiling wall mirror changed from a reflective surface to a transparent one. On the other side was a kaleidoscope of color and movement that could only be the floor of a casino. When Arthur pressed his palm to the glass, his hand sank through the surface, rippling it as if he were dipping into a vertical pool. “Come on,” he started to say, then stopped as someone pounded on the door to the hotel room and shouted something unintelligible.

“Shit,” John said, pulling out his gun.

“No point wasting time on that,” Sherlock said. He shouldered past Arthur and stepped into and through the glass. Arthur followed suit. John tucked his gun away again and pursed his lips in thought, then left the bathroom just long enough to wedge the chair from the hotel room’s desk under the door handle. As the pounding on the door intensified, he hit the mirror at a jog.

 

 

The ping and whir of the casino floor was almost deafening after the plush silence of the hotel. An electronic crowd chanting “Wheel! Of! Fortune!” from a bank of slot machines drowned out John’s first attempt at a question. Sherlock mouthed, “What?” and inclined his head just enough for John to speak directly into Sherlock’s ear.

“How the hell are we supposed to find the exit?” John repeated. Sherlock raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and pointed at Arthur.

“What?” Arthur mouthed in turn, then rolled his eyes in frustration and moved just far enough away from the overenthusiastic slot machines to save John from having to yell.

“The exit,” John said. “How are we supposed to spot it among all this?” He waved his hand around at the domed crystal chandeliers hanging from a ceiling painted to resemble a slightly clouded sky, the golden pillars topped with pointed arches painted in intricate geometric patterns, the ranks of card tables and the battalions of video poker games watched over by a mural of a disturbingly self-satisfied camel. “It’s all lights.”

“Yes, but none of them are red.” Arthur gripped both of John’s shoulders and spun him forcibly 90 degrees to the right. “Except those.”

John let out a bark of laughter when he found himself facing a NASCAR-themed restaurant, its entire interior a riot of crimson neon. Sherlock turned at the sound, following the direction of John’s gaze. “You’re absolutely right, John,” he chuckled. “We could never have spotted that if Arthur hadn’t pointed it out.”

John reached up and smacked him gently on the back of the head with an open palm. “How are you annoying even in my dreams?” he asked.

“I’m sure in your dreams I’m just as meek and mild as you please,” Sherlock responded, still chuckling. “But this is Arthur’s dream, so you’d best take what you get.”

Arthur looked over from his careful scan of the room. “If you’re done with the sweet talk, gentlemen, we need to get moving. You may recall that someone is trying to run us down.”

They walked slowly across the casino floor, pausing periodically to check the faces of the projections all around. No one looked familiar; no one looked back with anything but blank receptivity. Even the servers shimmying past with their trays of drinks and their melodious call of “Cocktails? Cocktails?” seemed uninterested in their presence. “So far, so good,” Arthur said, just loud enough to be heard over the surrounding chaos. “But where’s Eames?”

Sherlock squinted at the nearest array of card tables. “What’s his game of choice?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On how much he feels like winning that evening.”

Just then, a cheer arose from the far side of a row of video slot machines. Sherlock stepped up onto one of the tall upholstered bar stools in front of the slots to see over them, then looked back at John and Arthur and jerked his head in the direction of the hubbub. “That looks like something worth investigating,” he said as he sprang down.

Eames was standing at the business end of the craps table, flipping a brightly polished coin back and forth between his fingers. As they approached, he flicked it into the air with his thumb. Arthur stopped, eyes fixed hungrily on the spinning circle of metal and the man snatching it out of the air mid-tumble. He waited until Eames had tucked it into his pocket and reached for the dice before moving forward again.

“Let’s see if we can get his attention without attracting anyone else’s,” Sherlock said. “If someone else is watching, they won’t think twice when John and I walk up to Eames and start talking to him. But Arthur, everyone in dreamsharing knows what you look like — go stand next to that pillar, out of his direct line of sight.”

Arthur narrowed his eyes skeptically but stepped away. Sherlock and John approached the craps table, keeping their hands visible to indicate that they were no threat.

“Mr. Eames?” Sherlock pressed his way through the throng around the craps table with John at his back. They ended up at the side of the table, bookended by a rotund elderly man in a “Viva Las Vegas” t-shirt and a young woman wearing a tight dress with an open back that displayed the four card suits tattooed in a vertical line between her shoulder blades.

Eames looked up from his contemplation of the dice in his palm and offered Sherlock a lopsided smile that stopped just shy of his eyes. “Have we met, darling?” he began. Then he noticed John at Sherlock’s side, and the smile amped up a notch until the corners of his eyes crinkled. “Bloody hell, it’s Doc Watson! Haven’t seen you in a donkey’s!” Abruptly, he dropped both the smile and the dice, shoving one hand in his pocket to retrieve his totem. “Shit. I don't usually dream about you until after I’ve been hurt.”

“We aren’t projections,” John said hurriedly. “This is Sherlock Holmes.”

Eames’s focus sharpened on Sherlock. “You don’t say. What are you doing in my dream?”

“We’ve been hired by someone who’s trying to find you using remote dreaming,” Sherlock said. “I don’t think we need to use a name.”

Eames immediately began turning his head from side to side. “Where is he?” he said tightly. “I don’t see him.”

Sherlock opened his mouth to speak, but the woman in the tight dress shoved him to one side. “If you aren’t going to play, get out of the way and let someone else have a turn,” she snarled. Sherlock sucked in a startled breath and winced, then grabbed for John’s shoulder.

“Problem,” he murmured, and twitched the edge of his jacket aside. A rent had appeared in his pale grey shirt, a red stain spreading slowly but inexorably away from it. Eames gaped at the woman as someone behind him pinioned his arms behind his back. She gave him a sickly sweet smile and raised her hand to display a small knife. Sherlock swayed and leaned a bit harder on John’s shoulder.

“Doc,” Eames said, “you need to get him out of here now.”

“Shit,” John breathed. The NASCAR-themed cafe was on the far side of the very large room, and no other red light was in sight.

“Arthur!” Eames shouted as the woman kicked his legs out from under him. “Run!”

“Eames?” Arthur’s head popped out from behind the pillar. “Eames! Where the hell are you!” Eames was only visible as one flailing figure in a rugby scrum of projections. Arthur pointed his gun at the center of the knot of bodies and began to walk closer, shooting as he went. “You had better come back and tell me where you are,” he yelled, voice fraying at the edges.

Sherlock grabbed John by the forearms and yanked him down to the hideous carpet, rolling them both under the craps table. John fumbled away Sherlock’s jacket and tore open his shirt. “Shit, shit,” he muttered. “Pressure, need to put pressure on it.” He tugged his jumper over his head and wadded it into a ball, pressing on the wound still bleeding just below the curve of Sherlock’s lowest rib.

“John.”

“I need to slow the bleeding.”

“John,” Sherlock repeated. “This is a dream. It isn’t real. I am safe and well in my chair in Baker Street.”

John’s hands shook as he increased pressure on the stab wound and watched his jumper slowly soaking up Sherlock’s blood. “Shut up, Sherlock. I’m trying to save your life here.”

Sherlock hissed in a shallow breath. “My life isn’t in any danger. We’re dreaming, and when we wake up, I’m going to prove it by asking you to make me a cup of tea.”

“How can you be going on about cups of tea right now?” John gritted out, jaw working.

“Oh, for — “ Sherlock reached up, whining with the pain of it, and yanked John’s gun out of his waistband. He met John’s eyes as he held it up. “We need to get out of this dream before the projections get to us,” he said. “Now, are you going to shoot me out, or do I have to do it myself?”

John screwed his eyes shut, shaking his head and gasping for air. “Shut up, shut up, shut up,” he panted.

“John,” Sherlock said thickly. “Look.”

John opened his eyes to see Sherlock pointing at the nearest bank of slot machines. Arthur was crouched against the base of one, cupping his gun in both hands and picking off projections before they could get too close to the craps table that sheltered them. When he caught John’s eye, he mouthed the word “go” and brought his own gun up under his jaw.

John flinched and turned back to Sherlock. “Fine. Fine,” he said hoarsely, and took his gun from Sherlock’s hand.

Chapter Text

“It wasn’t real,” Sherlock called through the bathroom door. Behind it, John was being audibly, profanely, repeatedly sick. “We’re both fine. There’s no need to react this way.”

Arthur padded into the kitchen in his socks. “How is he?”

Sherlock leaned his forehead against the bathroom door and tugged at his own hair in frustration. “I didn’t expect this,” he said. From the other side of the door, John growled something that sounded like “fucking wanker.”

Sherlock followed Arthur back through the kitchen and into the sitting room, talking all the while. “He’s no stranger to violent deaths, first in the military and then working with me. He just accepts them as a given — no, he loves them. I thought it would be the same in the dream. In fact, I thought it would be even easier in the dream, since no actual lives were at stake. But — " he waved his arm in the general direction of the bathroom, where John’s curses had just given way to the sound of water running in the shower.

“He forgot he was dreaming,” Arthur said.

“Obviously.”

“He needs a totem.”

“So it seems.”

“And you need to relieve him of the responsibility of getting you out of the dream, unless there’s no way to avoid it.”

Sherlock frowned. “What?”

Bent over the PASIV to check its inner workings, Arthur spoke almost casually, but his voice was threaded with steel, and he flicked his eyes up as he finished to catch Sherlock’s. “You had his gun, why didn’t you just give yourself the kick instead of asking him to do it?”

Sherlock shook his head, not comprehending. "It was his gun."

Arthur sighed. "This is my fault. You’re amateurs, and it’s my job to think of all the eventualities, but I didn’t, so I’m telling you now. If I can’t shoot you out, be prepared to do it yourself, because otherwise, you’re playing with fire.”

“What do you mean?”

Arthur stood and folded his arms. “It’s bad enough that he’s already had one experience of watching you die,” he said.

“That was ages ago — “

“Yeah, yeah, I remember the headlines,” Arthur interrupted. “And he knows now that it wasn’t real. But he didn’t when it happened, and he’s taking those feelings into the dream with him — and you want to force him to watch you die again, and worse, at his own hand?”

Sherlock’s eyes widened. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said, half to himself.

“Setting aside how it’s just wrong to give your so-called best friend a panic attack,” Arthur went on, “you could blow this entire job. If something threatens you in the dream, he might subconsciously decide that the best way to protect you is to have his projections kill you to kick you out of the dream. Or how would you feel about ending up in a coma, trapped in your own brain, because he can’t bear to do what has to be done to wake you up — would you enjoy that?”

Sherlock ran his hands through his hair until the curls stuck out in every direction. “What can I do?” he said harshly.

“You could start by apologizing.”

Sherlock’s gaze flicked around the room, not landing on anything in particular. He gave a tight nod, then walked purposefully back to the bathroom and knocked.

“John?” he called. "Are you all right?"

The pipes clanked as the shower shut off, but John was silent.

“John.” Sherlock grasped the doorknob and jiggled it, but it was locked. “John, if you don’t answer me, I’m going to take the door off its hinges.”

In the pause that followed, the click of the latch sounded like another gunshot. John opened the door, still flushed and damp from the shower, a towel wrapped around his waist. “Of course I’m not all right, you berk, I’ve been puking my guts out,” he said. The words were harsh, but he blunted them with a slight smile.

Sherlock reached for John’s arms, grabbing them tightly enough that his fingers dented the firm flesh of the biceps. “I’m sorry,” he said, defensive and contrite at once. “I didn’t realize — I’m sorry.”

John’s jaw worked as if he were biting back anger, but then he exhaled heavily. “I’m sorry, too,” he said. “I forgot we were dreaming. All I could see was you dying in front of me again, and me being close enough this time to prevent it.” He looked down, hair spattering droplets of water on Sherlock’s shirt, his shoes, the floor between their feet. “You’ll just have to keep hunting for Eames without me.”

“Absolutely not,” Sherlock declared.

"I'm endangering the job."

"I won't continue without you. Don't argue."

He shoved John in the general direction of the stairs to his bedroom and followed him up, crowding close behind as if to prevent him from turning around.

"Sherlock — "

"Just get dressed," Sherlock said. "Unless you'd prefer to do your dreaming in nothing but a towel."

John shot him a dirty look, but proceeded to his wardrobe to pull out a change of clothes. When he unwound the damp towel and slung it over the doorknob, Sherlock turned his head to look out the window, mouth twitching in a half-smile.

"So," John said as he buttoned and zipped, "how do we keep that from happening again?"

“For one thing, the next time we have to leave a dream before it ends, I’ll be the one doing the shooting. I won’t make you do it, and I won’t make you watch me do it. Arthur insists.”

“But — “

“No arguments, John. And you also need a totem.”

“A what?”

“An object to help you remember that you’re dreaming. You keep it with you and don't let anyone else touch it, and when you aren't sure whether or not you're dreaming, you check it. If it feels wrong or behaves oddly, you know you’re not awake.”

“That’s…brilliant,” John said.

“I didn’t come up with it. Apparently it's standard practice for dreamsharing."

"Does it have to be anything in particular?"

“Only that it apparently needs to have some kind of heft. Arthur mentioned a weighted die and a poker chip.”

"I suppose I’ll have to go out and buy something for the purpose, since you seem to consider everything from my gun to my favourite jumper yours for the borrowing." John scanned the room, hands on his hips. "Wait, I have an idea."

He knelt next to his bed and reached beneath it, pulling out a cardboard box sealed with packing tape. "I know you haven't seen anything in here, because it's been sealed since the day I moved back in," he said as he tugged at the tape until it tore away. He removed a stack of newspapers and set them aside, then pulled out a small plastic bag that clinked and rattled when he opened it and reached in. Knotting the bag shut again and dropping it onto his bed, he closed his fist around whatever was in his hand and stood up.

"Am I allowed to show it to you, or are you not meant to know anything about it?"

"No, it's fine if I know what it is, I just can't hold it."

"All right, then," John said, and held out his hand to let Sherlock see what was resting on his palm. It was a round, metal pinback badge, the pin slightly bent at the center, a dent in the edge as if someone had smashed it against a hard surface. When John was sure Sherlock's full attention was on it, he turned it over so he could see the front of the badge: a black background with bright yellow letters that read, "I believe in Sherlock Holmes."

Sherlock's fingers stretched involuntarily for the badge before he stopped himself. "What — “

"People left things," John said. "When you were — On your — “ He cleared his throat. "I took some of them, sometimes. It made me feel better, knowing you were being remembered."

“That will — yes,” Sherlock said gruffly. “That should do nicely.”

John ran a thumb over the surface of the badge. “So I just carry it around, do I?”

“Make sure you’re familiar with the way it feels in your hand.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” John said, eyes sliding away, smile a bit sheepish. “I carried it around with me for months.”

Sherlock stared at the bit of metal in John’s palm until John folded his hand shut around it again and dropped it in his pocket. “John,” he began, but John interrupted with a determined shake of his head.

“Not a word, Sherlock,” he said. “I forgot I had it until this very moment, that’s all. I’d have shown it to you eventually. If you want to see some of the other things people left for you, you’re welcome to them.”

“I think I’d like that,” Sherlock said, picking up the small plastic bag. He cupped it in the palm of one hand and stirred the contents around with one long finger.

“Maybe you can use something in there as your own totem,” John said as he pulled a jumper over his head.

“Oh, I have one already."

“What is it, then? Something squidgy from the morgue? Please tell me you aren’t toting around a kidney stone or something.”

Sherlock smiled. “That would be impractical."

 

“So what’s your plan?” John said, leaning across the table at the Chinese restaurant just long enough to drop several shrimp dumplings on Sherlock’s plate and order him to eat.

“I’m not sure,” Arthur admitted. “I only have enough additive left for 90 minutes of dreaming. Yusuf says he needs another week to synthesize more and get it to me, and if I’m going to connect with Eames long enough to find out where he is, I’d rather not leave him waiting around that long.”

“We don’t have a week,” Sherlock said grimly. “If those projections were neither mine nor John’s, they belonged to someone who knows Eames is managing to share a dream remotely. At best, they’ll think he’s stumbling into someone else’s dreams accidentally. But at worst, they’ll figure out it’s a rescue attempt, and if that happens, they might not let him dream any more.”

Arthur’s throat worked as he swallowed hard. “That’s what I’m afraid of. If he’s no longer valuable to them as a test subject…”

“So we need to go back down as soon as we can,” John said.

“Believe me, I hate to wait even another hour,” Arthur said, “but if I take you back down now, while you’re still shaken up, I don’t think things will go well for any of us. And things need to go well.”

“I’m fine,” John insisted. “Sherlock, tell him I’m fine. I’ll use my — token?”

“Totem."

“Right. My totem. To remind me that I’m dreaming. And since Sherlock swears he won’t let me shoot him again, we shouldn’t run into the same problem anyhow.”

Arthur put his elbows on the table and sank his face into his hands with a sigh. “I shouldn’t,” he said, almost inaudible over the kitchen sounds and conversations that surrounded them. “It’s about as far from best practices as it gets. But — “

 

Chapter Text

A swan in the canal arched its neck up at the bridge and honked in a demanding way. Arthur tossed a bit of bread over the railing and dusted off his hands. “Sorry, buddy, that’s all I’ve got,” he said as he turned and leaned against the handrail. John looked around in surprise as he spotted Sherlock on the far side of the bridge, perched on a bicycle that had seen better days at least a decade ago.

“Come on, John,” Sherlock said. “Arthur’s in a hurry.”

John glanced down and blew out an amused breath to discover he, too, was on a bike. “Where are we going, then?” he asked Arthur.

“I am going in there,” Arthur replied, pointing at a houseboat that looked like a little blue shack on a black hull, a wisp of smoke drifting from the stovepipe poking out of the roof. “You and Sherlock — " He pointed toward the brick building he had sketched just a few days earlier, a Heineken sign in the front window of the neighboring storefront. "You're going over there."

“And what are we going to do there?”

“Just ride around a bit. Draw off any projections that might be headed my way.” Arthur strolled down to the riverside and swung himself lightly onto the houseboat. “Go on, shoo!” John tipped him a loose salute and pedaled off to join Sherlock.

It felt like an early morning, the light grey and diffuse, the streets of the dream Amsterdam empty but for the occasional bicyclist spotted going through a distant intersection. They rode along the side of the canal, past the brick house and its neighboring storefront, down and over the next bridge, and back up the other side of the canal.

“This is remarkably realistic,” Sherlock said when they drew to a stop next to the houseboat. “Although I think that little shop with the beer sign is now a restaurant, and there should be a coffeehouse over there on the corner.”

John slid forward on the bike until he was straddling the frame with both feet firmly on the ground. “When were you last in Amsterdam?” he asked.

“Last month.”

“Oh, the cult leader and the diamonds?”

“The same,” Sherlock said, but he was distracted by the blue houseboat. It was swaying as if caught by the wake of a passing boat, although there was no traffic on the canal. “What do you think of that?” he said, pointing at it.

“Seems odd,” John confirmed.

“Let’s take a closer look.”

They coasted down the gentle slope of the bridge and around the corner to the edge of the canal, leaning their bicycles against the railing there to creep up to the houseboat. John set one foot on the prow, which gave a soft creak and rocked gently beneath him. The door swung, unlatched, on its hinges.

“That doesn't seem right,” John said in an undertone. “I’m going to — “

The door slammed open and Arthur careened through it. “Booby trap,” he yelled as he dove long and low off the side of the boat into the canal.

Sherlock grabbed for the back of John’s jacket and yanked him off the boat, the two of them sprawling backward onto the bricks with twin grunts of discomfort as a low “whump” sounded from inside the cabin. They scrambled back on their hands as a gout of flame licked out the door and spread up to the roof of the houseboat.

Arthur surfaced in the middle of the canal, treading water. “Go!” he shouted when he saw them staring at him from the pavement. “I’ll meet you in the next location!”

People began to emerge from houses. John leaped to his feet and pulled Sherlock up after him; they grabbed their bicycles and started riding.

“Where are we going?” John called to Sherlock’s back, a few feet ahead of him. Sherlock simply waved and pointed. John rolled his eyes and shifted his bike up a gear.

The streets began to fill with pedestrians, cars, and bicyclists that at first were only in their way, but soon were obviously trying to hinder their progress. Office workers swung briefcases and umbrellas at them, trying to knock them off balance. Other bicyclists swerved into their paths or braked suddenly to block their passage. They turned down a narrow alley and only narrowly avoided a head-on collision with an oncoming motorcycle. Eventually, the city itself turned on them; they pedaled over a bridge which broke away from the shore at both ends as they reached the center, rotating so that it dumped them onto the same street they’d just left. When they tried to double back, the bridge curled up at the far end, heading up into the sky at a 90-degree angle. They abandoned the bicycles and ran straight up the bridge in defiance of gravity and the laws of physics.

“Come on, John,” Sherlock cried, gleeful, as he slid down the far side of the bridge to the street on the far side.

“Right with you,” John shouted back with a laugh. “No need to worry about me forgetting that I’m dreaming.”

They ran deeper into the heart of dream Amsterdam, Sherlock leading the way with a certainty that suggested he had a definite destination in mind. One last bridge over one last canal — this time filled with swans honking and flapping their wings in agitated unison — and Sherlock staggered to a halt.

“Where the hell are we — oh!” John stopped, gasping for breath, and stared at the row of what looked like houses, each with several glass doors where the windows would ordinarily be. Every door had a square red light at the top.

“Amsterdam’s infamous red light district,” Sherlock said, mouth twitching with amusement. “Where else would Arthur have built in an exit?”

“But which red light?” John licked his lips nervously as he looked from one window to the next. “He said it would be obvious.”

Sherlock scanned the street. “Give me a moment.”

John looked back in the direction from which they had just come. At the end of the block, two bicyclists were riding toward them, yelling. Behind them was a loud throng of people on foot. “Sherlock,” he said, voice rising in warning.

“Obvious, he said it would be obvious…”

“Christ, just pick one,” John said, hand creeping up as he prepared to pull his gun from the small of his back.

“No,” Sherlock said, his own hand slapping at John’s. He reached into his pocket and drew out a small pistol. “I already told you. If we have to shoot ourselves out, I’m doing the shooting.”

“I didn’t say anything about shooting ourselves,” John said tightly. “Come on, come on!”

Sherlock paced in a tight circle, muttering as if he were casting a spell to reveal the location of the exit. When he stopped, his smile was sharp and calculating. “They’re all one exit,” he said. “Arthur said each part of the dream was only connected to two other parts. So whichever red light we choose, we can only end up in one of two possible places, and he already knows what they are. All we need to do is open one of the doors.”

John had turned to keep his back to Sherlock, pointing his gun toward the oncoming projections. “So bloody do it already,” he growled. In answer, Sherlock grabbed his wrist and yanked him toward the nearest glass door. With his free hand, Sherlock reached for the flat square latch on the door. The door swung open; Sherlock slipped inside and tugged John after him.

The room they stepped into should have been lit by daylight shining through the glass door, but was actually dim and cozy. The door clicked shut behind them and instantly transformed into a brick wall with a red lightbulb mounted high overhead. They were far to the rear of a long room filled with trestle tables and mismatched chairs, a rustic chandelier overhead, a wall of bottles behind a bar to their left. On the bar was a vintage candlestick lamp with another red lightbulb, this one flickering beneath a pleated shade. John sagged against the wall and sucked in a long, relieved breath.

“I recognize this place from Arthur’s sketch,” he said. “It’s the place with the fantastic martinis.”

“The one that connects to the casino through the bar,” Sherlock said, nodding toward the candlestick lamp. “Let’s just have a quick look around.”

They wove through the tables, peering into the booths along both walls. The room was empty and quiet, lacking even the quiet behind-the-scenes sounds of a working bar. “I wonder if Arthur’s having any luck without us,” John said.

As if summoned by the mention of his name, Arthur strode through the front door, as immaculate as if he hadn’t been treading water in an Amsterdam canal just a short while earlier. “Sorry about that,” he said, adjusting his lapels.

"You did warn us that our projections might get violent," Sherlock said.

"Remember what I said earlier about someone tailing Eames into the dream? Whoever it was knows what they're doing. They didn't just send projections after us. They were able to start turning my own architecture on us."

“So Eames was in the dream?” John asked.

Arthur’s face sagged with frustration. “He was in that houseboat,” he said. “Except that he was locked in a closet, and the whole thing was about to blow up. I couldn’t get him out and I didn’t want to risk getting injured enough to destabilize the dream but not get kicked out of it. So I got out to give myself time to give myself a kick.”

"But he was on the boat when it blew?" John's voice was pinched with distaste.

"Not real," Arthur reminded him. "It would have been a fast kick, and he would just have awakened topside, wherever he is. And if the people keeping tabs on him intended that as a trap for me -- "

"I don't think that's an 'if' at this point," Sherlock interjected.

" -- they would have sent him right back down with another batch of bloodthirsty projections."

“So that's why we got chased into the red light district,” Sherlock said. “Which, by the way, was a clever bit of work on your part. I assume another set of doors would have landed us elsewhere?”

Arthur tipped his head to acknowledge the compliment. “Yes, if you’d gone around the corner, the entrance to the nearest sex shop would have sent you back to Smuggler's Cove.”

"The tiki bar? Pity, I’d have liked that.”

"Another time, maybe," Arthur said. "Right now we need to get moving. The longer we stay in one place, the more likely it is that the bastards trying to keep Eames away from us will figure out that we're in a maze and start working out how to move between locations. For the moment, though, we have an advantage, because Eames knows something they don't."

Sherlock raised an inquisitive brow. "Which is?"

"I didn't have time before the boat blew to ask him where we can find him," Arthur replied with a narrow smile. "But I had enough time to tell him where to find us. So we need to get back to the Tokyo Intercontinental."

Even though Arthur had built "back doors" into the dream so he could move directly from any location of the dream to any other, he was adamant about not allowing John or Sherlock to know where they were. "If you know where they are, your projections can follow us through," he said. "And if they can, someone else's might, too. We're just going to have to take the long way as quickly as we can."

He led them up to the bar with the wall of bottles gleaming behind it in the low light. As they approached it, the red bulb in the candlestick lamp flickered beneath its old-fashioned shade. When Arthur put both hands on the top of the bar, it seemed to unroll away from them; they followed it and emerged a few feet from the craps table where they'd had to shoot themselves out of the dream earlier in the day.

John turned to check that Sherlock was still beside him. "I'm fine, John," Sherlock said.

They marched around the blackjack pit toward the NASCAR cafe, scanning the room as they went. They were halfway across the casino floor when John spotted a clutch of security guards moving their way. He nudged Arthur's elbow and tipped his head in the guards' direction. “Let me know if you need me to hold them off," he said quietly.

Arthur shook his head. “No, I need you both in the hotel room with me. Keep moving."

John nodded his agreement but fell back a few steps, keeping Arthur and Sherlock in his direct line of sight while tracking the guards in his peripheral vision. The three of them picked up their pace, dodging around banks of clamoring slot machines, cocktail waitresses who grew steadily more aggressive about walking up to them, and a gaggle of grey-haired women intent on tripping them up with walkers and rolling oxygen tanks. They had nearly reached the cafe when one of the security guards shouted, “You there! Stop!” and raised a behemoth of a weapon that would have been more appropriate in a military training exercise.

“Let’s go,” Arthur barked. In one smooth movement, he turned just long enough to pull a gun and snap off a shot that dropped the overarmed security guard, then spin around again and disappear into the neon glow of the cafe doorway.

Sherlock, two steps behind him, stopped and waited for John to pull even. “Go,” John ordered him, but Sherlock stood firm until they were shoulder to shoulder, then backed into the cafe at his side. Everything flared crimson. They turned and blinked, and the world dimmed again into the hotel room they’d visited earlier, curtains open to reveal the nighttime lights of Tokyo stretching off in all directions. The bathroom door was shut, a shower running on the other side.

“If someone’s in there,” John whispered, waving his hand at the bathroom door, “how did we end up in here?”

Arthur pointed at the alarm clock on the nightstand, its numbers glowing red. “Fallback, just in case the bathroom’s occupied by another active dreamer.”

“Interesting,” Sherlock murmured. “But who’s occupying it?”

Chapter Text

Arthur had taken just two steps toward the bathroom door when it burst open and a billow of steam rolled out. A fully clothed Eames stepped through the steam, face shining with sweat, gun braced in both hands in front of him.

“Arthur!” Eames lowered the gun and clicked on the safety. “Thank the fucking lord.” He flung his arms around Arthur’s shoulders, lifting him an inch or two off the ground. "It's been so long," he muttered into Arthur's neck. "So fucking long. I didn't think it would take you this long."

Arthur grunted under the pressure of those solid arms, then sighed gustily when his feet touched the floor again. He and Eames stared at each other as if they were trying to remind themselves of each other's faces.

"Darling!" Eames suddenly exclaimed. "We did it! We’re remote dreaming — we've made dreamsharing history!”

“Yeah, I know," Arthur said, letting a tiny smile inch across his mouth. "But someone's onto us. Eames, you've got to tell me before they find us -- who's got you, and where?"

Eames put up a hand and stared at the door to the hallway. Footsteps ran past, fast and heavy enough to be audible despite the plush carpeting.

"It sounds like they've already found us," John said. He and Sherlock both pulled out their guns and stood bracketing the door.

"We need time," Eames rasped. "Can you two manage to hold them off for 15 minutes?"

Arthur knelt between the beds and reached under one of them. "I think we can do better than that," he said as he slid out the dream PASIV and hoisted it onto the mattress.

"Arthur," Eames said, his grin impossibly wide, "you are a prince among men."

"Don't thank me until it works," Arthur said. He snapped open the case and unwound two IV lines. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he slipped a needle into the vein along the back of his hand before waving his other hand toward the opposite side of the bed. "Chicago all right?"

"Chicago is perfect," Eames was nearly laughing as he clambered up the bed to settle himself against the headboard and take the second IV line from Arthur's hand. "Don't let me tell you that you lack imagination ever again."

"You say that now," Arthur replied, expression serious but eyes warm. "Two hours?" Eames nodded and closed his eyes. Arthur swung his legs onto the mattress and leaned back on his elbows. "Eames and I are going to have a little chat someplace where we won't be interrupted," he told Sherlock and John. "I need you to distract our friends out there for ten minutes. Get out of here and draw them into another part of the dream if you can."

John and Sherlock exchanged a quick glance and a nod.

"Don't worry about getting back here. I'll shoot myself out. Just keep going until the kick if you can."

"And if we can't?" Sherlock asked.

Arthur looked pointedly at the gun in his hand. John grimaced at Sherlock's nod, but said nothing.

"Back to the casino, then?" Sherlock asked.

Arthur shook his head. "They already know to look for you there. Get into any elevator, wait until it's between floors, and hit the emergency stop. When the red light comes on, pry the doors open, and you'll be back in Manila."

Far down the corridor, someone was knocking and calling out "Housekeeping!" John's eyes narrowed; he turned his back to the bed and edged closer to the door as Arthur slid a pillow behind his head and lay back.

"See you back in London, gentlemen," Arthur said. He pushed the PASIV's start button, letting his fingers slip off the case to brush against Eames's as he closed his eyes. Eames's smile flashed again as they dropped into sleep. Sherlock watched them for a moment, expressionless, before dropping his own hand to the door handle and turning to John.

"Ready?" he said. John drew a long breath and nodded minutely, stepping back far enough to let Sherlock ease the door open a sliver and peer into the hallway.

"Nothing between us and the lifts," Sherlock murmured. Nudging the door a bit farther ajar, he frowned in concentration and reached into his pocket. When he drew out a pocket mirror John had never seen before, he gave a quiet gasp of excitement and held it up, breathing, "I did it again."

"Fantastic, I think,” John replied, eyebrows high.

Sherlock slipped the mirror through the doorway and tilted it until he could see the rest of the corridor. John pressed in beside him to check the reflection, which showed a housekeeping cart in front of an open door most of the way to the far end of the hallway.

"Go," John muttered, nudging him with an elbow. They stepped into the hallway, pulling the door silently shut behind them. They had nearly reached the bank of lifts when the up arrow illuminated, a chime sounded, and the lift farthest from them opened. “Eighteenth floor,” the digital voice announced. “Going down.”

Sherlock picked up his pace, arm outstretched to catch the door before it could slide shut again. John turned instinctively to check the empty hall behind them only to realize it was no longer empty: a woman in a housekeeping uniform had run out of the open room and leaped onto her cart, riding it down the corridor under the force of her momentum as she shouldered what looked like a hoover but soon revealed itself as a shotgun.

"Fucking hell," John growled through clenched teeth. He dove for the lift, grabbing Sherlock's coat as he hurtled through the door and punching the "close door" button. They stared, breath held, as a shell clanked against the edge of the closing door and ricocheted harmlessly away. When the doors sealed and the lift began to move, they slumped against the wall and grinned at each other.

"That could have gone better," Sherlock said.

"Maybe, but it also could have gone a lot worse," John replied. "Seriously, Sherlock, if your giant brain is going to manifest things you need, can't you just, I don't know, dream us up an invisibility cloak or something?" At Sherlock's incredulous snort, he sighed and rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me you deleted Harry Potter."

Sherlock frowned up at the floor numbers that flicked on and off over the door of the lift, counting under his breath. "We should be between floors right... now," he said, and pressed the emergency stop signal. The car lurched to a halt. An alarm bell began to shrill somewhere outside, while inside, a red light on the control panel flashed to blinking life.

“Let's get moving." John began grappling at the seam of the lift doors.

"Wait," Sherlock said. "Apparently, my subconscious mind won't let me dream up something that couldn't actually exist -- but it doesn't seem to have any problem with things that do exist." He drew his hand from behind his back and, with a flourish, presented John with a tyre lever.

John frowned, shook his head in disbelief, then wrapped his hand around the metal bar. "Only you would insist on scientific plausibility in a dream," he laughed. "Come on, then, I'll pry and you pull."

The doors opened not to the inside wall of the hotel, but an intersection redolent of exhaust fumes and flowers. They stepped out of the lift and turned to watch the door slide shut behind them and shift into a glass door propped open by a white plastic bucket full of tall green stalks topped by red and orange blossoms. Sherlock stepped back, looked up, and gestured at the sign above the bucket with a smirk: it read “Arthur’s Flower Shop.”

“Right,” John said, screwing his eyes shut in concentration. His jacket and jumper winked out of existence, replaced by a black t-shirt just snug enough to show the outline of the gun tucked into his jeans at the small of his back. “That’s better,” he sighed. He opened his eyes and eyed Sherlock’s coat dubiously. “You’d best do the same if you don’t want to risk heatstroke on our way to New York.”

Sherlock acquiesced with a nod, closing his eyes and stepping forward. His dark coat and suit faded to khaki trousers, a lightweight shirt hanging loosely over them to conceal his own gun. “Maybe we won’t need to make it to New York,” he said. “One minute thirty down already.”

John turned in a semicircle to take in the five streets radiating off from a central point. “Which way?”

“Arthur can’t have built the entire metro Manila area for the sake of a dream.” Sherlock stepped away from the flower shop, almost strolling. “This has to be a closed loop that places us near the other exit regardless of which way we go. In fact — “ He pointed down the street leading off to their right. There stood the pink stucco building, only a few blocks away, the ridges of its tin roof flashing beneath the midday sun. “Voila. Care to try to attract some attention along the way?”

“After you, Mr. Holmes,” John said, sweeping a hand in the direction of their destination.

“Thank you, Dr. Watson,” Sherlock replied, touching his fingers to his forehead with an elaborate flourish.

They pulled their guns and headed toward the pink building at a fast walk, heads turning from one side to the other to check for potential threats in the crowds surrounding them. Manila slipped past on either side, vibrant and gritty but not yet threatening.

“Anything yet?” Sherlock asked as they crossed the next intersection.

“No, I — “ John began, then did a swift double-take as a small, squat bus painted in fluorescent rainbow stripes appeared in the middle of the street, already in motion. It barreled down on them, passengers hanging out the windows and leaning over the safety rails lining the roof to yell and make threatening gestures. John lurched forward to shove Sherlock out of the way, the front bumper of the jeepney barely missing his own leg.

“Now that's more like it,” Sherlock said with deep satisfaction. “Come on, John!”

They were trotting now, weaving through pedicabs and pedestrians, dodging dogs and small children. Another jeepney, this one red and orange with metallic gold flames licking up from the undercarriage, veered through oncoming traffic and rumbled to a halt across the pavement. John vaulted onto the hood and scrambled across it; Sherlock launched himself up the ladder to the roof, several passengers clutching unsuccessfully at his ankles before he leaped off the other side. John risked a glance back over his shoulder to see two of the passengers jump from the jeepney in Sherlock’s wake as a third figure, features obscured by a helmet, swerved around the bus on a motor scooter.

“Sherlock,” John huffed. Sherlock looked back, nodded, and broke into a full run. John slowed to level his gun one-handed and fired. The scooter's driver slumped sideways, tipping the scooter over in a short skid directly into the path of their other pursuers. John picked up his pace and followed the bobbing target of Sherlock’s curls.

They were only a few dozen steps from the pink building when John heard a whining sound overhead. Sherlock careened into the storefront where Arthur had bought cola before. John flinched, throwing his arms up to shield his head, and ducked into an empty pedicab on the opposite side of the street. They stared at each other across the pavement as another bullet whizzed by.

John tapped one forefinger on his opposite wrist in an exaggerated motion and raised his eyebrows in question. Sherlock held up his hand and flashed five fingers followed by two fingers: seven minutes. John nodded and held his hand parallel to the ground, patting downward emphatically; Sherlock took a step deeper into the storefront and knelt, weight down on one knee, his other leg bracing him. "Ready," he mouthed.

John poked his head out of the pedicab to see if he could determine where the shooter was, but jerked back abruptly to the plink of a bullet glancing off the metal canopy. “Too close,” he grumbled. He tucked his gun back into his jeans, gathered himself, and held up three fingers.

Sherlock echoed the gesture, then folded his fingers down, one at a time, in a visible countdown. On the final count, he pointed at John, who rolled forward out of the pedicab and sprinted toward the shop. Sherlock braced himself to take the impact of John’s headlong rush, but in his final steps, John staggered and lost momentum. He stumbled forward, arms windmilling, and crashed onto the floor with a harsh grunt.

“John!” Sherlock grabbed his wrists and yanked him the rest of the way into the shop. “What happened? Are you all right?”

John rolled over and sat up. “I think I’m hit,” he said, squinting at his left ankle. Blood was trickling down it from beneath the hem of his jeans.

“How bad is it?” Sherlock stood at the door, watching the street with his gun at the ready, while John rolled up his cuff.

“Not bad enough to wake me up, obviously.” He prodded at the wound and hissed in pain. “Not even that serious. Just a graze. Pretty deep, though.”

“Can you still walk?”

John had pulled a fistful of ice from the open cooler full of colas to press it against his ankle. “Give me a minute,” he grimaced.

“We don’t have a minute.”

“Help me up, then,” John said. He held up a hand and blew out a sharp breath as Sherlock clasped it and tugged him upright. “I’m going to slow you down,” he said. “Sure you don’t want me to stay here and cover you while you run for it?”

Sherlock looked down at him and rolled his eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“This isn’t real,” John said. “I get shot here, I wake up in my chair at home. No consequences.”

Sherlock continued gripping John’s hand as he found his balance on his uninjured leg. “Would you leave me behind?” he asked sharply. “Even knowing it was a dream?”

John shook his head, tight-lipped.

“Exactly. And we need to keep attention on ourselves for another — “ Sherlock checked his watch. “ — five minutes. If you stay here, you won’t last that long.” He released John's hand to wrap an arm around his shoulders. “Just lean on me.”

“I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on?”

“What?”

“Oh, never mind." John pressed his lips together, jaw set, and gripped the back of Sherlock’s sweat-clammy shirt with his left hand, keeping his right free to hold his gun. “Let’s go.”

They slipped through the doorway, pressing close to the wall, and inched toward the pink stucco building with its red-lit alarm box. “Come on, come on,” John said under his breath as they got nearer.

“Five minutes,” Sherlock muttered.

They reached the front of the building. It showed no signs of folding itself into a portal to the next section of the dream.

“What the — "

“Every other doorway opened as we approached it,” Sherlock said. “We must not be close enough.”

John craned his neck to look around them; they were almost entirely exposed, their only protection the slight overhang above the entrance. “Four minutes to either figure it out or hold them off. Whoever they are.” He pulled away from Sherlock to lean against the boarded up doorway and raised his gun. “I swear, if Arthur set this up so we have to solve a riddle in another language to get through the door...”

Sherlock smirked and pointed at the fruit stalls down the street. "Banana? Or maybe — melon?" he asked, letting the smirk grow as he watched John's face shift in seconds from pinched watchfulness to bafflement to delighted disbelief.

"You wanker!" John laughed. "All the grief you give me for making pop culture references, and then you drop that on me like you were just reading Tolkien yesterday?" He shook his head appreciatively as Sherlock turned back to the door, still grinning. "Next time you try on that blank 'I don't know what you dull normals are going on about' look, I'm going to know you're just taking the piss out of me."

They were still chuckling when a loud grinding noise made them both jerk around. At the far end of the block, a phalanx of jeepneys had lined up, motors revving. John groaned. “Bloody hell. Sherlock?”

Sherlock stared at the red light on the alarm box on the opposite side of the door as if he could trigger the connection to the next zone of the dream by will alone. “I don’t know how to open it,” he said, voice tight. “All the other exits just worked without our having to do anything but step closer. This one doesn’t seem to know we’re here.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Three minutes.”

The jeepneys headed slowly up the street, a rolling wedge in psychedelic colors. John glanced down at his still-bleeding ankle, licked his lips, and said, “If you can’t either get us through that door or dream us up a grenade launcher, we’re going to have to shoot ourselves awake or wait until these guys do it for us.”

Sherlock turned his head slowly, eyes narrowing as they met John’s. “Oh, John. That’s brilliant.”

“It is? What is?” Sherlock’s gaze flicked to the gun in John’s hand. “No,” John protested, then stammered, “Oh,” as the gun suddenly expanded in all directions. “Well, all right then,” he said breathlessly, hefting the grenade launcher. "Just another of the many things you're good at, I guess."

“Ready?” said Sherlock, swinging up an identical weapon as gracefully as if he had fired one every day of his adult life.

“When you are.”

They braced their backs against the wall, aimed at the approaching vehicles, and fired in unison, the recoil dragging a pained grunt from Sherlock's lungs. The lead jeepney reared up on its back wheels like an angry horse before sprouting fiery wings and toppling backwards. “Again!” John ordered, and sent another projectile flying down the street to send up a cloud of dust and flame. Sherlock sprinted out from the overhang and turned to aim a grenade in an elegant arc to the roof of the building.

“Sherlock! What the fuck are you doing?”

Sherlock dropped his weapon in the street and ran back toward the overhang just as the grenade on the roof went off. The building shuddered, bits of tin and stucco pattering down all around. A klaxon began to blare. The lights on the alarm box flickered once, twice, and then started blinking on and off in time with the horn. “It knows we’re here now,” Sherlock shouted, darting toward the alarm box.

"Wait!" John hobbled after him.

With a deafening crunch, the boarded-up entrance folded open, not vertically like a set of double doors, but horizontally like a ramp dropping down into the interior of the building. A blast of damp, chilly air curled out toward them: it was a rainy winter evening in New York.

"Come on!" The victorious expression on Sherlock's face as he turned to John shattered into wide-eyed shock as something over John's shoulder caught his attention. John spun around to find a projection standing in the middle of the street, Sherlock's discarded grenade launcher in his hands. More projections were climbing out of the line of jeepneys, each one carrying a gun.

Sherlock twisted his wrist to glimpse his watch, then stepped to John’s side. "Less than a minute," he said in an undertone. Turning his head just enough to catch John's eye, he let one side of his mouth twitch upward in a challenge. "Remember that movie you were watching last week? Butch and Sundance?"

John's laugh was pure elation. "You're a right twat, you know that?"

“Drop your weapon and put your hands up," a voice snarled from behind the barrel of the grenade launcher.

"Fine, fine," Sherlock said in the same world-weary inflection he used with particularly hidebound members of Scotland Yard. “John.”

John bumped shoulders with him. “Sherlock.”

They took a step forward in unison, John wobbling on his injured ankle. Then another step. And suddenly they burst into a run with an exhilarated wordless yell, John blasting another grenade at the projections, Sherlock snapping off shot after shot with the gun he’d jerked from his waistband at their first step. They hurtled into the crowd as the grenade found its target and the jeepneys began to explode in slow motion. The shockwave of the explosion hit them first, bowling them backwards. The flames rolled toward them, over them, around them as the world turned white —

Chapter Text

“Sherlock!” John’s voice rang off the walls of the sitting room as he sat bolt upright in his chair, eyes flying open. “You bloody lunatic," he laughed, "that was the most unbelievable — like a goddamn — Butch and Sundance, what the sodding hell!”

Sherlock lay face-up on the sofa, breathing fast as if he'd been running and grinning as though he'd just been handed all the original documentation of the Jack the Ripper murders. He rolled onto his side and propped his head up on one hand. “Would you rather I’d said Thelma and Louise?”

John stood up to detach the IV lines carefully from both of their hands before snatching up a magazine from the floor, rolling it into a tube, and swatting Sherlock on the crown of his head. “That’s for letting me believe for years that you pay no attention whatsoever to the movies I watch. Wanker.”

Sherlock sat up, squirming away from the attack. They giggled at each other like little boys caught opening their presents before Christmas Eve. As they finally caught their breath and retrieved their calm, they realized the third person in the room was still asleep — slouched in Sherlock's chair, eyes shut, breath slow and deep. A moment later, though, the PASIV clicked and music began to play. Arthur drew in a loud breath, held out his hand, and without even opening his eyes, demanded, “Pen and paper. Now.”

John swallowed the tail end of his laughter and handed Arthur's sketchbook to him. Sherlock produced a pen. Arthur opened his eyes and said, “Don’t talk,” as he hunched over his lap and began writing as fast as his hand could move. John caught Sherlock’s gaze and raised his eyebrows.

They watched in silence as Arthur filled an entire page with precise, tidy handwriting. He ripped it out, handed it to Sherlock, and continued on the next page. Sherlock began to read, a thoughtful frown drawing his eyebrows together as he mused aloud. “Starbucks cups…dormitory or cheap hotel…soundproofed windows?”

“Quiet,” Arthur said. “I need to get this all down while I still remember it.”

Sherlock stood, Arthur’s notes still in his hand, and retrieved his laptop from his desk. “John,” he said quietly, then tipped his head in the direction of his bedroom. John followed him into his room, shutting the door behind them and leaning on it, arms folded, as Sherlock settled onto the edge of the mattress with the laptop on his knees.

“So, what have we got?”

“Eames is actually quite observant,” Sherlock said. “It looks like he's described what he could about the facility where he’s being held, but more than that, he's given us some of the other details that might help us pinpoint where the facility might be. We know it's designed for housing, since there are rooms where people are intended to sleep. The building is soundproofed, so it’s probably near something loud — possibly an airfield, if it’s a military installation, although it could also be a motorway or industrial site. The ubiquity of Starbucks might make that detail irrelevant, but…” The laptop wobbled as his fingers hammered the keyboard. “Here’s something odd. He claims he left Toronto without incident, went directly to the airport, and took an overnight flight to Reykjavik with the intention of continuing on to London the next morning. He says the last thing he remembers is leaving the Blue Lagoon after a soak and heading for the locker room to take a shower before checking into his hotel.”

“What’s so odd about that?” John pushed off the door and joined Sherlock on the edge of his bed. “I mean, in the context of a kidnapping, that sounds downright ordinary.”

Sherlock flashed him a scornful glare. “It’s complete rubbish. We already know Eames never boarded a plane in Toronto.”

“So he was either lying to Arthur about flying to Reykjavik, which seems unlikely, or he used an alias Arthur isn’t aware of, which seems even more unlikely, or…”

“Or someone’s altered his memory to make him forget being snatched on Foluke’s job.”

John pursed his lips. “I’m not liking the sound of that.”

“Nor am I. Nor is Arthur, judging by the way his handwriting changes at that point in his notes. Speaking of which — ” Someone tapped on the bedroom door. “It’s open,” Sherlock said. The knob turned and Arthur stood on the threshold, another page of notes in hand.

 

 

"It's a good guess, Sherlock, but you're wrong," Arthur said with a scowl. "It isn't possible to use dreamsharing to change someone's memory. You can put an idea in someone's mind, but you can't alter what was already present. The most you can do is drop them into a dream that seems real at the time."

Sherlock frowned and pressed his fingertips together in front of his mouth. "Is it possible that someone simply made Eames dream about going to Iceland?"

"Maybe, " Arthur said, then scowled. "If they put him under when they took him in Toronto, then did a second level convincing him he was actually grabbed in Reykjavik…"

"Would that mean he was already on the second level of his dream when he found us?" John asked.

"If that's what happened. And my second level would have been his third level, which shouldn't even be possible, it's contrary to all the theories — but I don't always understand how it works, I'm just happy when it does. For all I know, being on different levels made it easier for us to share the dream remotely." Arthur pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. When he dropped them again, his eyes were bloodshot, dark circles beginning to blossom beneath them. "I don't know," he groaned. "Maybe I'm just talking shit. I feel like I haven't slept in days."

"Let's get back to potential locations," Sherlock said. "Iceland is almost certainly out, and not just because they went to the trouble of convincing Eames he'd been there. Neither the UK nor the US have had military personnel stationed there in years. I've ruled out Brunei because nothing near the military bases there matches the landscape he described to you. Kenya is a — "

"Oh, shit," Arthur interrupted with wild-eyed dismay. "Haven't slept in days? Oh, fuck, it's just the opposite." He leaped to his feet. "If they put him under in Toronto and dropped him to the second level right away to convince him he'd managed to leave town — even if they kicked him back up to the first level as soon as they did that, he has to have been under ever since if he still believes he went to Iceland. That means he's been asleep for more than two weeks, topside. No wonder he was going on about how long it had been. From his perspective, he's been waiting for me to find him for more than six months."

He sank back down on the sofa. "You're right, they're keeping him alive for something, because they have to be giving him IV fluids, at least — no one can survive two weeks without hydration. But we've got to get him out of there before he accidentally drops into limbo."

"What's limbo?"

"Remember when I warned you about getting trapped in your own brain, unable to wake up?"

Sherlock nodded.

"Limbo is basically the collective subconscious, the deepest level of dreaming. Time is different there. You can live what seems like an entire lifetime in just minutes, and not be able to leave because you're convinced it's real. You can end up in a coma. You can die."

"But Eames has his totem to tell him he's not awake, right?" John said.

"A totem is no good if it doesn't occur to you to check it."

John discreetly pulled his "I Believe in Sherlock Holmes" badge from his pocket, running his thumbnail along the dented edge with a click before tucking it away again. Sherlock slipped a hand into his own pocket, too, though he didn't remove whatever was there.

"All right, so we're under more time pressure than we thought," John said. "Sherlock, you were saying something about Kenya?"

Sherlock cleared his throat. "I was only saying that Kenya was unlikely. Given the information Eames relayed to Arthur, assuming Arthur remembered it accurately, I think we can narrow it down to three potential locations."

"This is what I do," Arthur snapped. "It's accurate."

"What are the three locations?"

"In increasing order of likelihood, the army's training grounds in Alberta, the Rhine garrison in Germany, and Bulford Camp right here in Wiltshire."

"What, over by Stonehenge?" John shook his head. "Why wouldn't they whisk him off to someplace more remote?"

"I can think of two reasons without even trying." Sherlock straightened himself as if about to lecture to a packed classroom. "First, a battalion of the Army's Intelligence Corps is based there, which I think you'll agree is suggestive. And second, unlike Canada and Germany, Bulford is just over two hours by car from Baskerville." He pulled out his phone and tossed it in the air, watching it flip end over end and land in his palm with a soft smack. "John, do you remember the name of that scientist there?"

"Which one, the one who tried to kill us or the one who tried to get us thrown out on our arses?"

"The woman in the lab. You know, with the glowing rabbit."

"Jean? Jennie? It started with a J."

"Her surname, John."

"Hold on, it'll come to me in a minute." John stared at the ceiling, tongue darting across his lips. "Stapleton," he said triumphantly. "Jacqui Stapleton. She emailed me after you came back. Said if we ever needed anything…"

"We do," Sherlock said. "Which is why I'd like for you to contact her and ask her for any information she can dig up on projects at Baskerville that require personnel to commute to Bulford from time to time, especially any of the names on our list of former members of Project Night Watch." John nodded and reached for his laptop. "As for you, Arthur — " Sherlock paused, then looked over toward his armchair when he got no response. Arthur was slumped sideways in the chair, head resting on one clenched fist, snoring softly in a way he hadn't while under the influence of Somnacin. Sherlock shrugged, flipped his phone into the air once more, and placed a call.

"Mycroft," he said, "let's have a little chat about who has ultimate authority over Defence Ministry research, shall we?"

 

 

Although he'd argued blearily against it, Arthur eventually agreed to go upstairs to John's bedroom to nap for an hour. Sherlock and John remained in the sitting room, poring over a map of the military base at Bulford, trying to identify buildings that might plausibly conceal a PASIV with at least one sleeper tethered to it.

"He's not likely to be in the barracks proper, if only because there's no privacy," John said. "What about an office? Storage space, maybe?"

"The entire base looks like nothing but storage space," Sherlock grumbled at his laptop, which was displaying satellite images from Google Earth. "Hasn't Dr. Stapleton replied yet?"

"It's only been an hour," John replied. "And it's the middle of the day on a weekend. She's probably spending time with her family or running errands, not checking her work email."

Sherlock huffed out a frustrated breath. "Boring."

"How would you know?" John rolled his eyes and elbowed Sherlock gently. "It's not like you need to make time on the weekend to go to the shops. You have me to do that for you."

They lapsed back into silent study, but Sherlock's attention had drifted. He set his laptop aside to lean over the PASIV, studying the timer, the delivery assembly, the extra needles tucked away with the antiseptic wipes. Unspooling one of the IV lines with a thoughtful hum, he traced it back to the machine and identified which vial of Somnacin fed it.

"Hey now," John said quietly. "What are you doing?"

Sherlock reached for a needle in its sealed pack and held it between thumb and forefinger, twisting it back and forth. "I want to try dreaming on my own. Without Arthur." He glanced toward John, who was watching him with raised eyebrows. "Don't you want to know what else we could do if we tried?"

"Of course I do. But we haven't had any training."

"We know the basics." Sherlock picked up a second needle and held it out toward John. "Come on, John. The PASIV is already calibrated for us. I've watched Arthur set the timer. We know that just five minutes feels like an hour in a dream. He's asleep -- he'll never even know."

"I don't know," John said, although he was already plucking the needle from Sherlock's fingers. "If you're the dreamer, that means you have to deal with my projections, and we already know my projections are going to be a little overzealous. It could be dangerous."

"You love dangerous." Sherlock began to open the sterile pack, peeling the plastic away from its paper backing. "Besides, I'm not interested in visiting your tiny subconscious. I'm sure mine is much more interesting."

"Wait, wait, what are you doing?" John said. He reached for an antiseptic wipe, ripped open the package, and handed it to Sherlock. "Sterilize first."

Sherlock smiled triumphantly as he accepted it. "Yes, doctor."

"This is probably a terrible idea." John handed Sherlock a prepared IV line. "We really shouldn't be doing this."

Sherlock clenched his hand into a fist until the vein on the back of his hand popped up and slid the needle home without a flinch. "Feel free not to join me."

John scowled and shook his head.

They settled side by side on the couch, the PASIV between them. Sherlock double-checked the timer and poised his finger over the button. "Last chance to have second thoughts," he announced with a defiant glare.

"Nope." John held up his hand to show the cannula in the back of his hand and the thin tube coiling away from it. "Both or neither. Get on with it."

Chapter Text

"Nothing happened. Why didn't anything happen? I know I pushed the button -- I heard it click."

John opened his eyes and smirked at the hangdog expression that greeted him. "So you're saying you didn't actually know what you were doing after all? Because that never happens." He rubbed his hands over his face. "Probably for the best."

Sherlock looked around the sitting room with the dejected sigh he usually reserved for the swift conclusion of an unsatisfyingly simple case. "No, wait." He stared at John's right hand, then held out his own left hand and waved it in front of them. "Notice anything strange?"

"No -- yes. Where's your IV? Or mine?" John's eyes traced the invisible line where his IV should have been. "Come to think of it, where's the PASIV?"

"Check your totem," Sherlock said, eyes wide with excitement.

John fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the metal badge. The dent on one side was missing; the pin on the back was straight. "Well," he said, "that's not right."

"Exactly." Sherlock bounced to his feet and made a wide circuit of the room. "It looks like home, but we're clearly dreaming. See?" He waved a hand at the fireplace, where the fire burning was ordinary in every respect, but for being green and violet. "This must be your dream. My subconscious would almost certainly come up with something more imaginative than our own flat. But we might as well have a look around anyhow."

John ran a thumb around the edge of the badge and tucked it away again. "Are you implying my mind is boring?" he said lightly.

"I'm sure almost everyone's is." Sherlock flung open the door and galloped down the stairs. "Come on, John," he called up from the front hallway. "Let's see what your pedestrian mind has in store for us!"

"Shut it or I'll dream up a rainy day with no crime and no cabs."

The London they stepped into was preternaturally vivid, all sharp edges, supersaturated colors, and clear sounds that refused to melt into an indistinguishable roar. When they turned onto Oxford Street and found a line of vacant cabs waiting, John pulled out his "I Believe in Sherlock Holmes" badge again and flipped it in the air like a coin. It chimed like a tiny, tinny bell as it spun.

"Sherlock," John said, "I'm pretty certain this dream must be yours." He nodded toward the people walking around them, all surrounded by shimmering clouds of semitransparent words and images that flickered into existence and then disappeared again. "This is exactly what I imagine the inside of your head is like. Besides, didn't Arthur say my totem would only behave strangely if I were in someone else's dream?"

Sherlock stopped in the middle of the pavement to dig into his trouser pocket. He pulled out an irregular lump of metal and jiggled it around in his palm. "And my totem seems perfectly ordinary. As does this dream. It's just London! How could this be my dream? My mind would never come up with something so — " He waved his other hand around at their surroundings with a snort of disdain.

John leaned in to squint at the lump of metal without touching it. "You're using a bullet as your totem," he said, amused. "Of course you are. And a used one, to boot. Did you dig it out of the wall?"

Sherlock smiled faintly. "Remember the cabbie?"

John jerked back in surprise. "You removed that from his body? Sherlock, that's tampering with evidence."

"No, no, it went right through him. I stole it from the Yard later as a souvenir of the occasion."

"As if that's any better. You wanted a memento of a serial killer?"

"Don't be ridiculous." Sherlock looked away, a slight smile still on his lips, and dropped the bullet back into his pocket. "Of our first case."

"Oh." John opened and shut his mouth several times before continuing. "And you chose that for your totem why?"

"Because I knew what it felt like in my pocket and my hand. After all, I'd been carrying it around for years already."

"You'd been — "

Sherlock gave an exaggerated shrug and turned his back on John's astonished sputter. "It's not important," he said. "Come on!"

John stood speechless on the pavement for a long moment before following as Sherlock marched toward what in waking London would be Hyde Park. In the dream, it was a rolling expanse of deep rose carpet. Rococo chairs in gilt wood and cream velvet sat in regularly spaced groups around matching glass-topped tables. John stopped at the edge of the carpet to stare as the nearest table sprouted a full tea service and four-tiered tray of scones. An elderly waiter stood next to one of the chairs, his prodigious mutton-chop sideburns as white as his shirt and the tea towel draped over one forearm. He bowed and said, "Doctor Watson, your table is ready."

"Sherlock?" John called, bewildered, but his friend forged on without as much as turning around, waving an arm in the air in an imperious "follow me" gesture. John shook his head apologetically and trotted in his wake down a line of silver and copper trees whose leaves clinked and clattered in the breeze.

"This is hardly what I'd call boring," he said when he caught up to Sherlock, who was standing on the shore of what would have been the Serpentine had it not been the turbid green-grey of the Atlantic in a winter storm. "And that's not a pedal boat," he exclaimed as what to all appearances was a three-masted galley ship rose from the waves and hoisted the Jolly Roger. As he watched, one of the ship's cannons fired on Kensington Palace, landing a ball squarely on the Orangery. Sherlock put his hands on his hips, tipped his head back, and laughed.

John gaped at the water, the ship, and finally the damaged building, which seemed to be built of sugar cubes. A crowd of angry figures in chef's whites was spilling out of a hole with jagged caramelized edges to shout at the pirate ship. John sank his front teeth into his lower lip, shoulders shaking, but succumbed at last to a howl of laughter that left him gripping Sherlock's arm just to keep himself upright.

"Firing on a tea shop that belongs to the crown!" he gasped when he could speak again. "What I wouldn't give to see Mycroft's face right now. There's nothing symbolic about that, not at all."

Sherlock's eyes glinted with delight as he watched John catch his breath. "I suppose it must be my dream after all," he said. "Shall we move on?"

John giggled a moment longer, then took a deep breath and visibly mastered himself. "Lead the way."

A few steps and their surroundings melted into one of the side streets between New Scotland Yard and Buckingham Palace. "Look at that," John said, nudging Sherlock and cocking his head toward a cafe where, in real life, they regularly stopped for coffee and pastries after a long night of filling out post-case paperwork. Instead of its actual name, the shop's awning now read "Cream, No Sugar, Bakewell Tart."

"What about it?"

"Bit literal for you to name it after my usual order, that's all."

"It's just scenery," Sherlock said dismissively. "If we were in your dream, it would be named after mine, I suppose."

"'Two Sugars' wouldn't be a half-bad name for a coffee shop, actually."

A smiling woman pulled open the door to the cafe and crooked a finger to beckon them in. Sherlock ignored her, but John winked and waved back, then turned to grin up at Sherlock with gleeful curiosity. "Are you coming up with this as we go? I mean, are you consciously thinking about creating our surroundings?"

Sherlock shook his head. "No, most of this is as much a surprise to me as it is to you. Other than the pirate ship. I think my brain must just be tossing things out at random to fill in the gaps between familiar places," he said, pointing at a cashpoint.

John hummed an acknowledgement. "For all the times I've needed cash when we leave the Yard, I'd have noticed that if it were really there." He flashed a quick smile. "Pity you can't mold the actual London more to my liking."

"Enjoy it while you can, then."

A newspaper circular blew down the street and plastered itself against John's legs. He peeled it away and began to crumple it up, then took a second look. "You mad bastard, you can't even switch it off when you're sleeping," he said through fresh giggles. Sherlock snatched the paper from his hands and shook it out. Instead of the usual range of products, the entire page was pictures of milk -- cardboard cartons and plastic containers, pints and litres, some in isolation and others with images of John holding up the container over the price with an exasperated grimace. Across the top of the page, in a large, dark sans serif font, were the words "WE'RE OUT OF MILK."

Sherlock crushed it into a ball between his hands and tossed it aside, saying, "Well, I'll remember that when we wake up, at any rate."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," John said. "It's really bothering you not to have a dream worthy of Salvador Dali at his weirdest, isn't it." He gave Sherlock a companionable pat on the arm. "So you can't disconnect from everyday life right now — so what? It's fine, we're on a case. I understand."

"I don't think you do," Sherlock said. He smiled, but it was a tight smile, almost embarrassed, and his eyes were troubled.

"Relax, Sherlock, it doesn't mean you're becoming ordinary or boring." John pointed up the street toward the familiar blue enamel of the St. James's Park Underground station. "Come on, let's find out how your subconscious genius would improve the Tube."

"The Tube is beyond improvement in even my wildest dreams."

When they reached the station entrance, the sign clearly read "St. John's" where it should have read "St. James." John snorted as he pointed up at it. "Now you're having me on," he said. "You can't tell me that isn't deliberate."

A frown flickered across Sherlock's face before he slid a practiced expression of tolerant enjoyment over it. "You're right, I can't," he said smoothly. "You are, as everyone keeps telling you, a saint for tolerating me. I can't put up a suitable monument to your infinite patience in the real world, but I saw my chance here and I took it."

"Just what I've always wanted, a Tube station of my very own. Is this the best you can do?"

"Of course not." Sherlock turned his back on the station entryway and began to walk again. "Do keep up."

John fell into step at his side as they headed up Victoria Street toward Parliament Square, the London Eye looming over the horizon. Sherlock narrowed his eyes and waved a hand at it. "There you go," he said as the giant wheel began to shoot a rainbow of sparks like an enormous, slow-moving Catherine wheel.

"Impressive," John said.

They stepped into the plaza in front of Westminster Abbey's west door. Sherlock pointed at the Westminster Column. "And in three…two…one…" On his mark, the four lions at the base of the column began to roar.

"Amazing!" John exclaimed. He held out a hand for one of the stone lions to sniff. It nuzzled his fingers, then licked at them and leaned in for a chin scratch.

A bead of sweat ran down Sherlock's temple. "Deliberately making things happen seems to take a certain amount of concentration," he said, a hint of exertion in his voice. "Give it a try."

"All right," John said. "I'll surprise you, then, shall I?" He shut his eyes and furrowed his brow in concentration. The next instant, his eyes flew open again as Arthur appeared an arm's length away, fists clenched, yelling obscenities at the top of his lungs.

"Of all the fucking stupid things to do! Four short dreams and he thinks he's an expert! Jesus fucking Christ on a pogo stick!" Arthur stepped up to Sherlock and delivered a sharp open-handed shove to the center of his chest.

John took a short step back, scrabbling at the small of his back for a gun that wasn't there. "Oi!" he exclaimed as he reached instead for Arthur, but Arthur turned on him first, stiff-arming him with a snarl.

"And you're just as bad, Doc! Why didn't you fucking stop him?" He spun back to Sherlock and shoved him again, forcing him backwards with each word. "You — could — end — up — in — limbo!"

"I double-checked the timer," Sherlock protested.

"Not fucking relevant," Arthur spat. "Did you think if you ran into trouble I would stop to rescue you before getting on with finding Eames? Because I wouldn't. I would let you drop into limbo and live out a mindbendingly dull eternity first. You have no goddamn right to take a risk like this until your part of the job is done."

Sherlock drew himself up with a defensive sneer, but Arthur pressed in. He twisted the front of Sherlock's shirt in one fist and drew a gun from a shoulder holster with his other hand. "I warned you not to force him to give you the kick," he growled. "But I don't have any problems forcing you to watch me give one to him." He turned his head, met John's eyes, and leveled his gun at them.

"John!" Sherlock's voice shook. The lions on Westminster Column roared frantically.

"No, he's right, this was a bad idea," John said. He held his hands up to show he wasn't going to fight and stepped forward until the muzzle of Arthur's gun touched the bridge of his nose. "Go on, let's get it over with. You can yell at us just as well once we're awake."

"Damn straight I can," Arthur said. As music began to play softly from nowhere and everywhere at once, he lowered his gun and let go of Sherlock's shirt. "And believe me, I will."



Chapter Text

Sherlock didn't wait for Arthur to rebuke him further. As soon as he was awake enough to move, he pulled himself to his feet, plucked out his IV, and stalked out of the room. John woke up to the familiar thud and click of Sherlock closing and locking his bedroom door. A closer, sharper thud followed: the front legs of a desk chair hitting the floor of the sitting room as Arthur rocked it out of a precarious balance on its back legs. He let the momentum carry him forward out of the chair until he was standing in front of John, glaring down at him.

"What the hell were you thinking, Doc? Didn't you even try to stop him?"

"Yeah, right. Once Sherlock's made up his mind to do something, there's no stopping him, so I don't waste time trying. When there's no point arguing with him, all I can do is get out of the way or follow to make sure someone has his back."

Arthur grabbed the PASIV and hefted it onto the desk, checking it over with a careful touch even as he continued his lecture. "You went to medical school," he said sharply. "That suggests you've got a certain amount of brains. And yet you thought letting an amateur take you down into dreamspace was a good idea? I can't even begin to tell you how very wrong that could have gone."

John pursed his lips and nodded. "I know. I'm sorry." Arthur gave him the kind of weary head-shake John recognized as one he'd directed at Sherlock many times before. "I'll make sure he doesn't do it again," he added.

Arthur slapped down the lid of the case so hard that one of the latches flipped itself shut. After a long silence, he blew out a gusty sigh. "Fine," he said. "I knew he wouldn't be able to resist giving it a try -- that was obvious as soon as he knew what the PASIV was. I just thought he'd wait until we'd got Eames back." At John's incredulous snort, he shook his head again, this time with a rueful twist to his mouth. "These geniuses, right? They'd rather ask for forgiveness than permission."

"Eames is -- "

"The smartest asshole you'll ever meet."

"Pretty sure you're wrong about that," John said, "but I'm not going to volunteer to judge the competition." He and Arthur shared a sympathetic nod before Arthur waved a hand in the general direction of Sherlock's bedroom.

"Did he seriously slink off to sulk just because he got caught?"

"Jesus, if people yelling at him for doing something he shouldn't made him sulky, he'd never leave the flat," John laughed. "No, he was already well on his way to a strop. He was expecting some kind of blockbuster production of a dream, and he got London and couldn't blame it on my boring little mind."

"The whole thing was London?"

"Well, it was obviously a dream. Hyde Park was pink. There were pirates on the Serpentine."

"And he thinks that's disappointing?" Arthur exclaimed. "That's definitely not beginner-level dreaming."

"He's not very good at being a beginner. To be fair, a lot of it was pretty unremarkable. Streets we've walked through a thousand times, changed just enough to be obvious it wasn't real."

"Like what?"

John described the cafe, the bank, the line of empty cabs just waiting for them to hop in. "If I hadn't known I was dreaming, I'm not sure I would even have noticed. Even the Tube stations were in the right place. Although -- " He smirked. "The St. James's Park Tube Station was named St. John's instead."

Arthur looked up. "Really?" he asked, voice rising with surprised interest.

"He said he did that on purpose because I'm a saint to put up with him, but he looked as surprised to see it as I was."

I suppose you could have done that, but it sounds like this was his dream."

"Definitely. I thought at the start that maybe -- but when I checked my thingummy, my totem, it wasn't right." He paused, tongue flicking out nervously, and frowned. "Unless it was someone else's dream entirely. You don't think..."

"No, no." Arthur shook his head vehemently. "Even a genius couldn't do that without a lot more experience in dreamsharing and a bit of Yusuf's special sauce."

John sighed in relief. "So he didn't break his brain, then."

"No, he just didn't have as much control over his own subconscious as he thought he did."

"There's a shock."

They exchanged another knowing look before Arthur said thoughtfully, "On the other hand, he did have a pretty good idea what to expect. He said you -- " He stopped, frowned, began again. "I asked Sherlock what he thought his own dreams might be like."

"And he said London?" John exhaled a low chuckle. "Pretentious prat, trying to tell me only a mediocre mind would dream of home."

Arthur stood and twisted from side to side until his lower back gave a soft crack. "He predicted you'd find it familiar."

"What did he mean?"

"What do you think he meant?"

John looked sidelong at their client. "I really hate it when people answer a question with another question."

Arthur rolled his head until his neck, too, popped, then grunted with relief. "Or maybe he said there would be a lot of you in it. Something along those lines." He stood and shrugged on his jacket. "I need to get back to my hotel and make a few calls. When Sherlock decides to come out — " He raised his voice and cupped his hands around his mouth to make himself audible from the other side of the kitchen and a closed door. " — ask him if he's willing to email or text me a way to contact his brother without having to go through four layers of screening first. I'm going to need some official help."

A moment later, he pulled his phone from his pocket. A text message was already glowing on the screen. Arthur nodded with surprised approval. "I'll be in touch," he said to John as he handcuffed the PASIV to his wrist. Then he was gone.

 

 

"Sherlock, Dr. Stapleton answered my email." From the far side of the locked door came the rustle and thud of what was almost certainly a heavy book being hurled at the wall. "Oh, for -- " John jiggled the handle of the door. "You enormous tit. Come on."

"Busy," said a muffled voice. "Forward it to me."

"I already did. Are you seriously going to pout for the rest of the day?"

Bare feet slapped toward the door. The deadbolt turned. Sherlock threw the door open and stood leaning on the jamb, dressing gown sagging off one shoulder, a pencil speared through the minor uprising of hair above one ear. "I am not pouting," he protested.

"Don't you think I know what your sulks look like by now?" John said. "We did something we shouldn't have, we got caught, you hate it when that happens. It's fine. Arthur seems to have accepted that this was inevitable."

"That what was inevitable?"

"You nicking the PASIV and taking it for a drive without him."

"Of course it was." Sherlock shouldered past John and swept into the kitchen. "Do we have any more of those caramel biscuits left? I've been thinking about them since Amsterdam." He started digging through the cupboards, a slow rustle and clatter that crescendoed in a triumphant, "Ooh, yes, here they are." Sherlock shoved an entire biscuit into his mouth and hummed quietly in pleasure as he chewed.

"Look," John said, "I told Arthur about the dream and he didn't seem to think we did any harm, but I wouldn't ask him to let you do it again."

Sherlock coughed out a cloud of crumbs. "You told him about the dream," he finally managed to force out.

"Some of it, yes. I wanted to be sure we hadn't done any lasting damage -- to the job or your brain."

Sherlock swallowed the rest of his biscuit in one convulsive effort. "Yes, well, it was my dream," he said, face flushed. "That's rather personal."

"Walking to Scotland Yard is personal?"

"It's the inside of my mind. I didn't invite him into it."

John reached for the packet of biscuits as Sherlock snatched them out of his reach. "Seriously, Sherlock, I don't understand what's got you so fussed. It's not like you dreamed about walking naked through Trafalgar Square, singing Christmas carols through a loudhailer. All you did was, I dunno, custom-tailor London a bit."

"Is that what you think?"

"Well, you did name a Tube station after me," John said. "Which might actually be the nicest gift you've ever given me."

"Fine," Sherlock grunted disdainfully. He stuffed another biscuit into his mouth as he stomped back into his bedroom. When he emerged again, he was wearing shoes and balancing his open laptop on his left forearm. He was already typing with his right hand as he headed for his armchair and sank into the chair without taking his eyes from the screen. "John, text my dear brother and tell him I'm about to forward him some information he's sure to find very interesting."

"But Dr. Stapleton didn't send you any information."

"She most certainly did," Sherlock said with a flash of teeth.

"I'm not following." John stationed himself behind Sherlock's chair and bent to read over his shoulder. "I read her email thoroughly before I forwarded it to you, and it didn't take long. All she said was that she can't help us because she doesn't have any connections within the lab facilities at Bulford."

"Exactly," Sherlock said. "Isn't that clever of her?"

"Maybe you had best walk me through it. Slowly. Using short words."

Sherlock sighed. "She just informed us, in a surprisingly subtle way, that there are in fact lab facilities at Bulford. A fact of which we were previously unaware."

"Oh," John said, his eyebrows drawing together. Then they smoothed again and rose as he repeated, "Oh!" He gripped Sherlock's shoulders and gave them an excited shake. "Do you think — "

"Of course I do," Sherlock said. "It's just a matter of determining which building." He leaned into John's hands and tilted his head backwards until they looked at each other upside down, then sighed again and shut his eyes in apparent frustration. "Honestly, John, you're not unintelligent, you just have an extraordinary ability to see things and yet not interpret them properly."

John pulled back his hands as if Sherlock's dressing gown were on fire. "Sod off!"

"You see? That's exactly what I mean. You took that as an insult."

"How is telling me I'm incapable of interpreting what I'm seeing not an insult?"

"You're capable of it, even if you don't always do it." Sherlock turned his head toward John without opening his eyes. "And when it happens, it's at least partly my fault for assuming I've already articulated my thought process when I've only thought about how to take you through it."

John stared down at Sherlock's expressionless, shuttered face. "That was an apology," he said slowly, a smile gathering in the creases around his mouth. "You just apologized for expecting me to read your mind."

"For wishing you could," Sherlock corrected him, eyes sliding open and fixing on something beyond John's left ear. "Impossible, I know, but think how convenient that would be."

"Not in dreams," John said. He reached out to pluck the pencil from Sherlock's hair, then ruffled the rebellious tuft of curls that had held it in place before stepping away. "It should be a simple thing for the man who vanquished the chefs at the Orangery with a single well-aimed cannonball."

Chapter Text

John steered the aggressively generic rental car west on the M3 with Arthur's foot kicking the back of the driver's seat every few minutes. Each time, he glanced in the rear view mirror to see Arthur's mouthed apology. Each time, John nodded an acknowledgment before returning his eyes to the road.

Arthur slid forward until he could brace himself between the front seats. "How much longer?" he asked.

Sherlock held his phone away from his ear for a moment to glance at the display. "One hour and five minutes given our current route and speed, but that won't do. Mycroft's team says the car from Baskerville will reach the Amesbury exit on the A303 at about the same time we do, and we don't want to be spotted."

John frowned at the motorway. "So how -- "

Sherlock held up a hand to indicate he was listening. After a pause, he began speaking in a halting way that suggested he was repeating what he heard on the other end of the line. "Once we pass Andover -- jog north on — yes, and then curve south again toward — oh, never mind." He ended the call with an impatient stab of his finger. "Let's just beat them to Bulford, wait for them inside the camp, and follow them to the right building. Shouldn't be a problem as long as we drive faster than they do."

John grinned and accelerated.

"I thought you said you'd narrowed it down," Arthur said.

"I have." Sherlock tilted his phone to give Arthur a better view of the screen and zoomed in on a map of their destination. "Only two buildings on the grounds -- here and here -- have the infrastructure necessary to support a proper laboratory. But we have to get it right on the first try. We can't just hit one and move on to the next if we've guessed wrong. Or do you want to take on an entire military base that's been alerted to intruders?"

"Oh, I wouldn't mind," Arthur said darkly. He ran his palm over hair that had, until just a few hours earlier, been gelled into submission. Now it was cropped nearly to military specifications to complement a uniform delivered earlier in the day by one of Mycroft's silent, dark-suited assistants. "It's been a while, but I think I could probably hold my own."

John sniggered audibly. "That's what she said."

Arthur's response was another kick to the back of John's seat, this one sharp and deliberate, and a mild "Oh, fuck off."

The corner of Sherlock's mouth twitched upward in amusement as he answered his vibrating phone. "Mycroft, tell your team our ETA is now 53 -- no, 48 minutes. We'll be ready when they are."

When the car passed the first outlying building of the camp, Arthur was stretched on the floor behind the front seats, concealed by a stack of official-looking boxes. Sherlock and John flashed matching counterfeit ID badges declaring them to be contractors with top-level security clearance. As the guard waved them through, Sherlock added an ingratiating smile that evaporated the moment he turned his attention back to his phone.

John pulled the car up alongside the first building past the guard post. "Two minutes," Sherlock announced. He swung open the passenger door of the car to let Arthur slither out from beneath the pile of boxes, then climbed out and stood for an ostentatious stretch. Without looking down at where Arthur crouched behind the still-open door, he said quietly, "If they turn left, the lab is in the building just beyond the parking lot, the one with the yellow trim. Otherwise, it's — "

" — yeah, yeah, got it."

"Sherlock," John interrupted from behind the wheel. "Someone's turning in at the gate."

Arthur's nervous energy transmuted immediately into an intent stillness. Sherlock folded himself back into the passenger seat and slammed the door. In the last moment before a military drab van crunched slowly past the guard, Arthur pulled on his cap and sprang to his feet. He leaned toward Sherlock's open window to block the detective's face from view and said in a no-longer-American accent, "I'll call ahead and let the general know you're on your way." Then, stepping back and turning on his heel, he headed through the nearest doorway.

The rental car rolled slowly away, maintaining an inconspicuous distance from the van. Arthur stood just inside the doorway and waited for the sound of its wheels to fade. Then he re-emerged, head up and spine straight, to march toward the main road as if he belonged there. The van was already out of sight, but the rental car was still visible, continuing straight out the main road but left turn signal flashing. Arthur ducked left into a narrow passageway between buildings, tugged the visor of his cap down almost to his eyes, and started to run.

 

 

John pulled into the parking lot adjacent to the yellow-trimmed building and switched off the engine. As Sherlock began to climb out of the car, he leaned over to grab at a flapping coattail and give it a sharp tug. "We're supposed to wait for Mycroft's team."

Sherlock turned to face him with a contemptuous snort. "We don't need them yet."

"Sherlock, this isn't a dream."

"Obviously."

"You're not listening to me, arsehole. If we get caught, we can't just shoot ourselves out. And if someone else shoots us, we'll have actual bullet holes in us. Have I mentioned how little I want to have that experience again?"

"Let go."

"Not until you give me your word that we'll stick to the plan."

"Fine, fine. Here they come now." Sherlock's gaze shifted past John's shoulder. As John turned, Sherlock tugged his coat free and slid out of the car before John could register that Mycroft's team was actually nowhere to be seen.

"Oh, for — " John growled as he kicked the car door shut and followed Sherlock across the parking lot.

Sherlock strode up a low ramp and into the building without pausing. When John caught up, glaring, he found Sherlock looming over a desk that had probably been moved from one military office to another since the Cold War.

"…at the highest levels of Defence," Sherlock was saying as he displayed his ID badge to an older woman in civilian clothing. "My colleague and I are terribly excited about it, as you can imagine, since it dovetails so neatly with our own work. Oh, and here he is now." He turned with a terrifyingly toothy smile and waved John over to the desk, where he delivered a backslap so hearty that John couldn't help emitting a stifled cough before presenting his own forged badge.

"I'm terribly sorry, I'm afraid there's been some miscommunication," the receptionist said. "Your meeting can't possibly be on the third floor. The conference rooms there have been closed for the last six months."

"Closed?" John raised his eyebrows with the expectant patience he generally used on clinic patients who offered him only the vaguest descriptions of their symptoms. Like his patients, the receptionist responded eagerly.

"Oh, yes, ever since that big storm. It was a terrible mess, water inside the walls and everything. The roof was well overdue for repairs, but you know how it is, nobody thinks about these things until — "

"I'll just step outside and make a call to find out where we're meant to be," Sherlock interrupted. "But first, it was a long drive, if you wouldn't mind telling me where..." He let his voice trail off expectantly.

"Oh, of course. Up one floor, first door on the left."

Sherlock vanished into the stairwell. Once the door had snicked shut behind him, John leaned on the desk and said, "At least if people are scheduling meetings upstairs again, the repairs must be nearly done."

"You'd think so, but there's not been any work done up there for months. It was a madhouse in here for a few days right after it happened, heavy equipment being trundled up and down the stairs all the livelong day, but then it just stopped."

"Fixed the immediate problem and then faffed off, did they?"

"Why spend money on repairs when there are perfectly good conference rooms in the next building over?" She shook her head. "I shouldn't complain. At least I'm not trying to work in a construction zone."

John's phone buzzed in his pocket. He made a show of pulling it out and grimacing with annoyance before announcing, "Well, we're apparently expected in Building 27, wherever that is."

"Oh dear, that's on the other side of the camp. Whatever were they thinking?" She pulled out a map of the surrounding buildings and traced a route across it with one fingertip. "You could drive, but it would actually be faster to walk. Just cross the street, cut across this yard, walk between these two buildings, and it'll be right across the way."

"Thanks for your help," John said. "I'll just..." He waved a hand upward and contrived to look sheepish.

After taking his leave, he climbed heavily to the next floor and opened the door from the landing, letting it swing shut with a solid thunk. Then he continued upward as silently as he could. When he reached the top floor, Sherlock was leaning against the wall, fiddling with his phone.

"Waited in the stairwell to listen to you flirting with the receptionist," Sherlock whispered. "Well done, though isn't she a bit older than your usual?"

John smirked as he considered the steel door next to them, its wire-reinforced window blocked by a piece of plywood wedged into the frame from the inside. "This has to be the place," he whispered back. "She's convinced no one's been up here for months."

Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Of course she is. But Arthur should have found the other entrance by now." A moment later, something overhead gave a sharp rattle. Sherlock held up a finger. The rattle repeated once, twice, then swelled into a metallic clatter that seemed to sweep from one side of the building to the other. Before the noise faded, Sherlock had edged open the door and slipped through with John just behind.

At first glance, the third floor looked exactly like the neglected construction zone it was intended to resemble. The area closest to the door seemed to be a storage space for dusty stacks of drywall and coils of extension cords. Heavy sheets of dark opaque plastic blocked all the windows; most of the fluorescent light fixtures overhead were dark, suspended in a bare framework that was obviously intended to hold a drop ceiling. A long, dim canyon of modular walls on wheels led away from where they stood, bisecting the room with cubicles opening to either side.

John and Sherlock pressed themselves against the sides of the passageway and inched down it toward the more brightly lit area at the far end. The low buzz of electronic equipment grew as they crept closer, punctuated by a woman's voice speaking emphatically but not urgently.

"It's the winch," she said. "Yes, again." She paused at another loud clank overhead, then continued in a more resigned tone. "I know, but where else can they go for a smoke break? ... Believe me, I'd love to get it off the roof, too, but it's not going to happen until… I don't know, how much can a big blue tarpaulin cost? Just bill it to — oh!"

The unseen woman's yelp of surprise cut off abruptly, followed by the crack of something small and solid hitting the linoleum floor. Sherlock grabbed for John's wrist to tug him to his side. "Wait," he mouthed. A moment later, something heavier thudded to the ground.

"Arthur?" John whispered.

A door creaked at the far end of the hallway.

"Arthur," Sherlock confirmed.

The woman was sprawled on the ground like a starfish, a phone with a shattered screen squawking an arm's length away. As John pulled the collar of her uniform away from her neck for a cursory pulse check, Sherlock stepped past to retrieve the phone and hold it to his ear. After a silent moment, he ended the call. "We need to speed things up," he said. "Arthur?"

"In here," came Arthur's strangled reply from behind a nearby door standing ajar. John looked up with a frown, then picked up the unconscious soldier's gun to hand it to Sherlock. When Sherlock waved him forward, he pulled his own gun from his waistband and stepped carefully toward the doorway.

John nudged the door open just wide enough to edge gun-first into a room that was half medical clinic, half plush hotel suite. One side was brightly lit and humming with computers and monitors showing ever-shifting readouts. The other side held two hospital-style beds, a PASIV on the nightstand between them. A grizzled, bespectacled man in fatigues was sitting on the side of one bed, tube from the PASIV attached to one hand, the other pointing a handgun at the slack-faced sleeper in the second bed.

"Put down your weapon or Corporal Eames won't be waking up," he said.

"Do it," said Arthur from the end of Eames's bed, where he sat ramrod straight, hands in fists on his thighs.

John clicked on the safety of his gun and set it down.

"Kick it over here," said the grizzled man. John did. "I heard you talking out in the hallway -- is anyone else with you?"

"No," Arthur said before John could speak. John shook his head, lips pressed thin.

The man nodded toward the other bed. "Go sit down by the corporal."

"Why do you keep calling him a corporal?" Arthur asked as John joined him. "He's not military any more."

"He walked away halfway through the job he agreed to do. As far as I'm concerned, that means he's still Corporal Eames." The man lifted his free hand and pulled out the IV with his teeth, hissing softly as the needle slipped free. "He could be in military prison for desertion. Instead, we're letting him sleep off what he owes us in a comfortable bed."

"Just tell me what you're dosing Eames with and how long he's been under."

"That's not your business."

"With all due respect, sir, that is our business, Eames's and mine, literally. He's the best in our business, and I'm concerned about his well-being."

"You're concerned about his ability to commit crimes. I'm concerned with his ability to fight them and protect the security of the Commonwealth. So let me make this perfectly clear: Corporal Eames is no longer your concern." Arthur inhaled audibly, knuckles whitening, as the man continued: "You will not be allowed to contact him again, and I'm going to make sure you end up someplace you won't have the opportunity."

Sherlock edged away from the doorway and backed down the dim passage between cubicles. Slipping into one of them, he pulled away the draped plastic covering the nearest window to reveal three figures dangling from lines on the other side. Two continued to shimmy up the lines to the roof of the building. He slid the window open as quietly as possible and reached for the third.

"So good of you to join us, Mycroft," he murmured as he helped his brother out of the climbing harness. "Especially considering how much you detest fieldwork."

"It seemed prudent to oversee this operation directly." Mycroft straightened the cuffs of his suit jacket and lifted an eyebrow pointedly at the weapon in Sherlock's hand. "Certain resources seem to have been misappropriated."

"You have the proof?"

Mycroft nodded.

"Let's keep this from escalating any farther, then, shall we?"

"By all means." Mycroft tipped his head toward the brighter side of the floor as two figures in black clothing and snug knit caps emerged silently from an open stairwell and positioned themselves on either side of the doorway to the dream laboratory. "After you, little brother."

"No, no, Mycroft," Sherlock replied. He shrugged out of his coat and draped it over the back of a dusty desk chair. "After you."

 

 

Arthur's voice, tight with outrage, carried down the passageway from behind the half-open door. "Every three days? At least tell me you've been giving him IV hydration."

"Of course we have. We wouldn't waste such a valuable asset."

"You put someone under for weeks at a stretch, bring him up once every 72 hours, and keep him so sedated that even when he's awake he can barely eat or move, and you don't think that's a waste?"

"Sit back down and keep your hands where I can see them. I don't want to hurt Corporal Eames, but I won't hesitate to shoot you both and call it self-defense."

Mycroft nodded to his team. The guard nearest the door nudged it open with one foot, weapon at the ready, and stepped into the room. Mycroft followed him, two more guards swinging into place behind him. "Stand down, Major Farringdon," he said, waving one of his guards toward Eames's bedside.

As the guard rounded the end of the bed, he jostled John's knees. John glanced up just long enough to catch a wink from one unmistakable grey eye. Then the guard continued to the far side of the bed. John and Arthur exchanged a careful sidelong glance in the brief moment when Mycroft stood between them and the bed opposite.

"Who the hell are you?" said Farringdon. What he read on Mycroft's proffered ID card made him set the gun aside and rise to his stockinged feet to stand at attention. "Sir!"

"At ease," Mycroft said. "Defence is sufficiently interested in your work to justify this personal intervention into its interruption."

"Thank you, sir. After all the effort we've put in to keep the project under the radar, I'm sure you'll understand how critical it is not to expose it just as we're about to reach our next benchmark."

"And that is?"

Farringdon frowned at the bed where Arthur and John still sat next to the sleeping Eames. "They aren't cleared for this information."

Mycroft's smile was flat and cold. "I assure you, they won't repeat it to anyone outside this room."

"I presume you're aware of Project Night Watch and its research into collective lucid dreaming?" At Mycroft's curt nod, the major settled into parade rest and cleared his throat. "In that case, you're aware that the technology has spread beyond its military origins to encompass a global web of, ah, entrepreneurial types," he said with a sneer. "This in turn has brought it to the attention of governments and organizations whose interests do not coincide with our own. Where these groups have been unable to develop their own expertise, we believe they've been hiring it from among the less established members of the private dreamsharing community. We've been aware for some time that a handful of participants in Project Night Watch had discovered a way to extend lucid dreaming beyond the individuals connected to a single PASIV device. We considered this an opportunity to intercept and influence the dreams of our enemies while simultaneously preventing them from interfering with our own dreamers."

"You're militarizing dreamspace," Mycroft said thoughtfully.

"Well, militarization is a term of art in dreamsharing. It means teaching dreamers how to defend their subconscious minds. What we're doing might more accurately be called the pacification of dreamspace."

"No," Arthur interjected, "what you're doing is called kidnapping."

"And what you're doing is breaking and entering." Mycroft's voice was flat. Arthur rocked back as if he'd been slapped, mouth dropping open in horrified shock.

"Not a word," a voice rumbled from behind them. Arthur snapped his head around and sucked in a quick breath as Sherlock offered him a minute nod.

"Thank you, soldier." Mycroft returned his attention to Farringdon. "Major," he said, "would you mind explaining your current work to me in more detail?"

Farringdon drew himself up a bit higher and moved to usher Mycroft to the row of monitors. The instant their backs were turned, Mycroft's two guards shifted to stand shoulder to shoulder. Behind them, Sherlock reached for the switch to mute the equipment monitoring Eames's vital signs. Arthur relieved Sherlock of his semi-automatic weapon with one hand and shut down the PASIV with the other as John turned to ease the IV out of the port in the crook of Eames's elbow.

"Eames," Arthur bent to whisper into the sleeping man's ear. "Naptime's over."

Eames's eyes drifted open, glazed and vacant. On the other side of the room, an alarm began to blare. Farringdon spat an expletive as he turned and found Mycroft's guards blocking his path. "Move, you morons," he demanded, "my dreamer is waking up!" He tried to push by, but the guards refused to let him pass. "Mr. Holmes, don't let -- "

"I'm sorry, Major," Mycroft said. "I regret to inform you that the British government has rescinded the funding for your project."

Chapter Text

Arthur perched on the edge of the bed and delivered a slap that made Eames inhale sharply and grunt an incoherent protest. "Come on, asshole," he muttered. "I'm your kick."

"His pulse is good," John said as he pressed two fingers to the slack wrist. Arthur tipped Eames's face back and forth, watching his eyes trying to track the voices around him, and swept his thumb across the plush expanse of Eames's lower lip. John's eyes widened, but he said only, "How are his pupils?"

"Dilated but responding."

Sherlock dropped his discarded balaclava onto the bed and ruffled his hair with both hands until the curls sprang free again. "What's wrong? Why is it taking him so long to wake up?"

Arthur replied without lifting his eyes from Eames's. "He's been two levels down for days at a time for most of the last two weeks, with barely enough food or hydration — " He inhaled on a long hiss, blowing the air out slowly between pursed lips before continuing. "I'm not sure anyone's ever had that much Somnacin in his system for that long. He should be fine once it wears off, but I don't know how long that's going to take."

On the other side of the room, Major Farringdon was yelling something about the Official Secrets Act. John looked over to see Mycroft staring the major down as if he were one of Sherlock's especially pungent experiments. Arthur glanced up, following his gaze, and shifted to block Eames from Farringdon's line of sight as if Mycroft's well-armed guards weren't enough to protect them.

Sherlock caught Arthur's eye and nodded toward the source of the uproar. "He knew Eames before," he stated. "From Project Night Watch."

Arthur made an affirmative sound.

"And you, too, obviously."

"He's the one who assigned us to work together," Arthur said tartly. "And from then on, not a day went by that he didn't insist Eames owed it to all of western fucking civilization to re-enlist. He said he would do anything to convince Eames not to take his discharge. Bastard. I should have thought of him a lot sooner."

"Eames didn't desert?"

"Hell no." He traced an absent-minded circle on Eames's stubbled jaw with his thumb. "Soldier boy here served out his enlistment fair and square before walking away."

At that, Eames mumbled something. Arthur squinted down at him. "What's that?"

Eames took a deep breath and made a visible effort to focus. "Where," he slurred.

"Bulford Camp in Wiltshire," John said reassuringly. "You're safe now."

"No." Never taking his eyes off Arthur, Eames slid his hand up his chest to scrabble at the breast pocket of his shirt. "Where?" he repeated.

"Oh, shit. Did you lose it when they grabbed you? I'll get you a new one, Eames, I promise." Arthur dipped into his own pocket, then held up his hand to slip his ring onto a finger while Eames watched hungrily. "I swear to you, you're awake."

Eames reached up and wrapped his fingers around Arthur's. "What's inside?"

"Inside what?"

"Your ring," he demanded, voice clearer with every word.

Arthur bent and put his lips to Eames's ear. Whatever he whispered made Eames close his eyes and sigh his name.

"That's me," Arthur replied. "Hope you weren't expecting someone else."

"I'd send anyone else away."

"I know you would."

"Wasn't some good little soldier boy who just followed orders."

Arthur grinned and pushed his fingers through Eames's lank, disheveled hair until it stood on end. "It's true, you did talk me into deserting."

"Best gift I ever gave you." Eames fumbled for the controls of the bed and winced as it slowly raised him to a more upright position. "Bloody hell, my head."

"Yeah, you're going to have the worst Somnacin hangover ever recorded. And I regret to inform you that I can't just flush you clean with saline, because Yusuf wants samples of all your bodily fluids."

"All of them?" Eames looked up through his eyelashes and twisted the ring around Arthur's finger. Arthur ducked his head and drew his lower lip between his teeth, fighting back a smile but unable to prevent a blush. "Tell me, pet, what do I have to do to get you to defend my honor against that hirstute shut-in?"

Arthur's smile broke free.

Sherlock tapped John's shoulder and nodded toward the door.

By the time they reached the cubicle where Sherlock had left his coat draped over the back of a chair, they could barely make out Farringdon's ongoing rant about scientific progress in the name of fighting terrorism. John said nothing to break the silence as Sherlock exchanged the black military gear of Mycroft's team for his own clothes. Finally, as he buttoned his suit jacket, Sherlock gave John a sidelong glance and said, "So."

"So," John replied. He leaned a hip against the desk and folded his arms. "Arthur and Eames."

"Yes."

"Huh. Did you know?"

"Will you be upset if I say yes?"

John shrugged. "As you keep reminding me, I'm not the genius here. But to be fair, that's a fairly large thing to miss, even for someone as slow as I am."

"To be fair," Sherlock echoed, "you noticed it first." John's questioning eyebrow earned an impatient huff. "Eames's pervasive presence in our demo dream. The newsstand, the pub -- remember? You just didn't take it to its logical conclusion. Besides, it was irrelevant."

"Sherlock." John's voice was annoyed, but his eyes telegraphed amusement. "Relationships aren't irrelevant."

"That isn't -- I didn't -- " Sherlock stopped and took a deep breath. "I meant that the nature of their partnership didn't affect the way I pursued the case." He slipped into his overcoat and offered a conciliatory smile over the turned-up collar. "Not in any significant way."

John bumped their shoulders together in silent acceptance as they threaded through the darkened cubicles toward the brightly lit threshold of the sleep lab.

Major Farringdon's face was a furious puce as the burlier of Mycroft's guards frog-marched him out of the room. Inside, Mycroft was supervising as the remaining guard moved around the equipment with a laptop and cables, connecting and disconnecting various instruments in turn as the laptop's screen flashed and flickered. On the other side of the room, Eames sat, eyes drooping as though he hadn't spent most of the last two weeks asleep, but listening intently. Arthur was speaking rapidly, one hand steady on Eames's shoulder, the other chopping the air for emphasis.

"...on his own, with no training, and it actually held together -- "

Eames interrupted the flow of words as John and Sherlock approached. "Doc Watson! In the flesh, for a change!"

John squinted at him, then shook his head. "Nope, still don't remember you. Maybe if you roll over and show me the scar." Eames barked a surprised laugh and shook John's extended hand.

"And the famous Sherlock Holmes," Arthur said, gesturing in Sherlock's general direction.

"Oh, Sherlock Holmes!" Eames beamed. "I've heard a lot about you. In fact, I get the impression Arthur here is a bit smitten." He ignored John's snort and Arthur's muttered insult and patted an empty spot on the bed. "Sit. Tell me everything I missed."

Sherlock held forth for the better part of an hour with only the occasional interruption. When he finally wound down, Eames eyed him silently for a long moment, then gave a slow nod. "I see what you mean," he said to Arthur, as if they'd been speaking to each other all along.

"You think?"

"Do you hear me arguing?"

Arthur squeezed Eames's shoulder, a quick flex of fingers, and stood to follow Mycroft across the room.

"We'll let Arthur work out the little matter of your fee," Eames said, "but there's something else we'd like to offer you as a token of our appreciation."

"No tie pins or cufflinks, please," Sherlock interrupted. John rolled his eyes.

Something knowing flickered behind Eames's smile. "I hear you taught yourself how to use a PASIV."

Sherlock's attention focused on Eames with almost tangible intensity.

"No, Sherlock." John turned to Eames with his hands on his hips. "You're not giving him a PASIV. You can't. I will take a hammer to it myself if you do."

Eames shook his head and pulled an exaggeratedly woeful face. "You're right, I couldn't possibly." John and Sherlock sighed simultaneously -- one in disappointment, the other in relief. "You're lucky, you know. Darling Arthur could have killed you for using his baby without him. But he takes too much pride in his work to murder someone with so much innate talent."

"Are you offering me a job?"

"A detective, working in dreamsharing? What could possibly go wrong? Oh, no, Sherlock, I think it's in everyone's best interests if your access to a PASIV is extremely limited from here on out." Sherlock's face froze, then slumped into a pout. Eames threw back his head and laughed, an incongruously hearty sound from someone who looked like his immediate future included several more days in a hospital bed.

"That wasn't very nice of you, Eames," Arthur said from the doorway. "Aren't you going to tell them the good part?"

"I was getting to it, but they're such fun to tease."

"What's the good part?" John asked.

"Sherlock picked up the basics of dreaming faster than anyone else Arthur's ever seen -- not including me, of course, but you must realize how unusual that is."

"Meaning?"

Eames grinned. "We're willing to let you use the PASIV. Very occasionally. Under close supervision."

Sherlock took an eager breath, mouth opening to speak. "And by close supervision, he means 'one of us with you at all times'," Arthur interjected.

Sherlock's eyes flicked down and away for a moment. "In the dream with me, or just in the room?"

"Well," Eames drawled, "if you have even half the potential Arthur seems to think you do, I'm going to insist on observing you at least once. But I get the impression you'd like to do a bit more exploring on your own."

"Nope. Not on his own. He has to take me with him or he doesn't get to go." John pointed at Sherlock with a frown. "Don't even start. We made an agreement and I'm holding you to it, come what may."

"I was actually going to insist on your being allowed to use the PASIV with me."

"Oh."

Sherlock's smirk twitched in and out of existence just long enough to spot. "Oh, indeed."

"If we've reached consensus, I think it's time to adjourn this meeting." Eames flipped down his blanket and swung his legs carefully off the edge of the bed, then paused to tug at the hospital gown that had crept high on his thighs. Arthur folded his arms and looked him over impassively.

"Arthur?" Eames said with a cough.

"Yes?"

"I seem to be a bit underdressed for the occasion."

"You certainly do, Mr. Eames."

"Be a love and scare me up some trousers, would you?"

"I'll see what I can arrange."

As if on cue, Mycroft's remaining guard approached with a small stack of folded clothing. Arthur accepted the bundle, set it on the foot of the bed, and held out both hands to Eames. "If you can stand up, I'll help you get dressed. Or do you want me to find you a wheelchair?"

"You'll do nothing of the kind," Eames snorted. He hooked a pair of jeans over his feet and worked them up to his knees, grabbing the waistband in one hand and shoving himself onto his feet with the other. His triumphant grunt turned to a startled yelp as he wobbled and sat abruptly again, the jeans puddling at his ankles. Arthur waggled his outstretched fingers and cocked his head expectantly until Eames grabbed them and let himself be tugged upright.

"We'll just be going, then," John said, tugging at Sherlock's sleeve.

Sherlock turned back as they reached the door. "Wait," he said. "The PASIV. Where is it?"

"It's in a safe place," Arthur said without looking up.

"Don't you dare touch it before we get there," Eames added. He was standing shakily, hands braced on Arthur's shoulders, as Arthur worked his jeans up his legs. Suddenly, he seemed to lose his balance, pitching forward until his chin rested on Arthur's shoulder. In the moment before Arthur manhandled him upright again, he caught John's eye and winked.

Chapter Text

"A safe place." John sneezed violently, sniffled, and sneezed again. "How on earth did you deduce that this was what he meant?"

Sherlock knelt shirtless on the hearth, one arm scrabbling awkwardly up the chimney as bits of ash sifted down around him. "I didn't. He asked me where he could hide the PASIV if he had to leave the flat without it. This was my suggestion, which I admit I'm now regretting." He leaned back on his heels and tugged the metal case free from where it was wedged inside the flue. It slid into his lap, leaving a grimy stripe down his chest. With a resigned grumble, he used his discarded shirt to wipe down the PASIV, then popped open the case and began to unreel two lines.

"Wait just one minute," John said. "Arthur and Eames specifically told us not to do anything without them. But since I know bloody well that you aren't going to pay the slightest attention to that, at least go wash up before you run an IV. Or do you imagine sepsis is something you'd actually enjoy?"

Sherlock returned from the kitchen sink holding up his hands like a surgeon preparing to glove for surgery. His bare torso was still speckled and splotched from the elbows up, but his forearms were spotless. John looked up from his chair and stared, a long wordless pause, before pinching the bridge of his nose and shaking his head. "Fine," he sighed.

"Oh, come on, John, it's good enough. Mycroft will descend on us any minute now for some kind of tedious exercise in debriefing." He sank into his own chair and nudged the metal case toward John with one outstretched leg. "And it's your turn to be the dreamer."

"Me? I don't have the faintest idea how — "

"Indulge me."

John pursed his lips. "You'll be bored."

"You underestimate yourself, as always." Sherlock fiddled with the PASIV's controls and slipped its audio cable into his own phone. "You may be ordinary, John, but you're hardly ever boring."

"Oh, ta very much, but other than my nightmares, my dreams are so dull, even I don't remember them."

"All the more reason for me to be interested. What mysteries lurk behind your seemingly undistinguished facade?"

"None at all, I'm sure," John said as he snapped open a fresh needle.

 

 

The valley was lush and green, jagged mountains visible in the distance through a faintly golden haze. John twitched with discomfort as his civilian clothes flickered into dusty fatigues and back. "Should have known I'd start out here," he muttered.

Sherlock looked around with interest, squinting under the shadowless sun. "It seems peaceful."

"It always does, at first."

John pulled his totem out of his pocket, flicking his thumb across the dented edge and bent pin before holding it up to Sherlock's view. Sherlock responded by opening his palm to show what should have been a dull, dented slug but was instead a whole bullet, unmarred and shining as if it had left the munitions factory that morning. "Definitely your dream, then," Sherlock said.

A narrow road with cracking pavement welled up at their feet like water rising through dusty grasses. John held out an arm to keep Sherlock half a step behind him and began to walk, each step as cautious as if the ground might fracture and swallow him.

"John, we're perfectly safe."

"This is Afghanistan," John said through clenched teeth. "By definition, we are anything but safe."

"It's your dream," Sherlock said patiently. "Your lucid dream. Nothing bad will happen unless you make it happen."

"Damn." John turned with a sheepish expression. "You're right. I just assumed that since we landed here, I didn't have any control."

"You didn't want to dream about Afghanistan?"

"Do I look happy and relaxed?"

"Well, dream us somewhere else, then."

"You say that as if I know what I'm doing."

"Think yourself into it."

"Think myself into it, he says, like it was easy." John screwed his eyes shut and grunted as though he was trying to lift something heavy. The plains of Afghanistan shivered into the false fronts of houses concealing a railway line in Leinster Gardens. "Okay," he said, "not my first choice, but -- hey!" He yelped in surprise as Sherlock crowded him into the shelter of a doorway.

"Just stay there for a minute, would you?"

"What the hell?" John tried to push past him. "Don't tell me we're in danger in my own dream."

Sherlock pushed back, his eyes flicking up and down the empty street. "Just tell me this: do you ever dream of Mary?"

"You cock." John glared up at Sherlock's chin, inches from his nose, and shoved him until he took a step out of the doorway. "I'm not thrilled that my brain dumped me here, either. It's not like I think fondly of the day I found out my wife shot my best friend."

"Just answer the question, John."

"Sometimes. Not often."

"Do you still feel guilty about -- "

"Guilty?" John's laugh was disbelieving. "What the fuck, Sherlock? Haven't we talked this to death already?"

"Good. Fine." Sherlock whirled out of the doorway and began to stride down the street. John darted after him and grabbed his arm.

"Oi, it's my dream and I'm still trying to figure out how to drive it. What's the rush?"

"When I was reading Mycroft's file on dreamsharing, I learned that there's something called a shade. It's a projection driven by the dreamer's guilt. It sabotages the dream." Sherlock bit at his lower lip until it turned white under the pressure of his teeth. "So if you see anyone who looks like -- "

"Oh." John dropped Sherlock's arm as if it burned him. "Oh god, no. No, I do not feel guilty. Not about the marriage ending, not about anything. And trust me, I won't give her a chance to shoot you again."

He grimaced with effort and the dream blew apart, reassembling itself into the warm, loud interior of a busy restaurant. Blurry figures surrounded them, mere sketches of human presence, but Angelo himself was as burly and effusive in John's dream as he was in life. He greeted them, clapping beefy hands on both their shoulders, and lit the tea light on the table before bustling off to the kitchen.

Sherlock cocked his head, eyes glittering in the candlelight. "You didn't tell him to take the candle away."

"I don't actually mind it," John said with a shrug. "Every time we come in, I tell him we don't need a candle, but the next time we come in, he brings one anyway. At some point, it stopped being annoying and started being funny. Now I expect it, the same way I expect him to give us this table and refuse to let us pay."

"All the infinite possibilities of your subconscious mind, and that's what you want to dream about?"

"It's less what I want to dream about and more what I can figure out how to dream about. This isn't coming nearly as easily to me as it did to you." John waved his hand over the candle. It flared gold beneath his fingers and spat a perfectly round corona of sparks, then subsided. "Look! Just being able to do that is exciting, you know?"

Dream Angelo materialized to slip a menu between them. Sherlock scanned the page and looked away, hand over his mouth in a poor attempt to hide a smile.

"What? Is it all variations on brains or something?" John slid the menu toward himself and began to read. "'The antipasto platter big enough for two.' 'The chickpea fritters Sherlock always steals off my plate.' Oh, and did you see this one? 'That disgusting tripe sandwich' -- it's like they're reading my mind." He grinned. "Well, technically, I guess I'm reading my own mind."

"Disgusting? I've seen you order it more than once."

"But have you ever seen him eat it?" Angelo beamed at Sherlock as he plucked the menu from beneath John's fingers. "He gets it because you like it."

The tips of John's ears went pink under Sherlock's interrogatory gaze. "It's just that when you're focused on a case, I have to actually put food in front of you to get you to eat, and for some incomprehensible reason you seem to like tripe, so..."

"Oh." Sherlock's frown gradually shaded into something more tentative and pleased. "That's -- "

"Yes, well. Let's talk about this some time when we're awake." John pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. The hubbub surrounding them shifted abruptly to the echoing stillness of a large space with high ceilings. "I'll be damned," he said, dropping his hands and staring around in wonder. "It's getting easier."

"Where -- no, wait, this looks familiar," Sherlock said. "These are the stables where we found that missing boy, the one who -- "

" -- ran away from boarding school because his father had threatened to sell his pony. You liked it here, I could tell. I bet you had a pony, too."

Sherlock smiled as he looked up at the small birds darting in and out of the rafters with bits of old hay in their beaks, then around at the wall hooks holding saddles and bridles, and finally down at the random pattern of overlapping hoof prints on the hard dirt floor. "It feels real," he said thoughtfully as he pushed open the door of the nearest stall. His eyes widened and he started to snicker. "On the other hand…"

John shouldered him aside to find the stall taken up by the fireplace from 221B, crackling merrily between two mounds of hay shaped vaguely like their armchairs. The mound on the left was draped with a plaid saddle blanket.

"Seriously, Sherlock?"

Sherlock pulled the intact, shiny bullet from his pocket and waggled it ostentatiously between two fingers. "Not my dream, remember?"

"Fine, let's see what's out here, then," John said. He marched toward the wide wooden doors that in waking life led to a paddock. When he hit them with outstretched arms and they swung wide, he grinned with surprised delight. Behind him, Sherlock made a small startled noise.

"Is that — "

"It most certainly is." John grinned wider as his jumper turned a brilliant yellow with gold braid at neck and cuffs. He gave the hem a quick tug and stepped onto the bridge of the USS Enterprise, circa 1966. "Come on, First Officer Holmes, let's go seek out new worlds and new civilizations."

Sherlock looked down at the blue Starfleet uniform that had suddenly replaced his suit, then regarded John in outright disbelief. "And you thought you weren't any good at this."

"I guess I'm a fast learner." John laughed. "Do you want the pointy ears, too?"

Sherlock's hands shot to his ears. "You wouldn't dare."

"Oh, try me, Spock." John stared at Sherlock with narrowed eyes, a thin sheen of sweat beginning to gather on his forehead, but Sherlock's ears retained their ordinary curve. Sherlock glared right back until John lost his focus. "Bugger it, I can picture exactly how you'd look as a Vulcan, I just can't seem to make it happen."

"I'm sure that's for the best," Sherlock said. After a long beat, he winked and added a crisp, "Captain."

A woman with green hair and a thigh-skimming red tunic approached them, holding out an electronic tablet and standing at attention. "Sir," she said, "we're being hailed."

"On screen," John responded as if he'd been captaining a starship all his life.

"I need Sherlock," said a familiar voice. "There's a dead man tied to a bed in a locked apartment that's been ransacked without triggering the security alarm. Can he come?"

"On our way," John replied briskly. "Transporter, two to beam down."

The Enterprise dissolved in a burst of static. They were standing on a nondescript residential street, just outside a taped-off perimeter, as shocked-looking bystanders milled about all around them. A panda car pulled up, the siren and squealing brakes fading under a swelling violin. "Is that our kick?" John asked, crestfallen. Sherlock had just enough time to nod before they awoke in their armchairs with the PASIV on the floor between them.

 

 

John was already smiling as he opened his eyes. "I know I wasn't as good as you were, but I wasn't half bad at the end, there, was I?"

Sherlock began to coil the tubing of his IV with sharp snaps of his wrist, careless of the needle still in the back of his hand.

"Hey, careful, you're going to hurt yourself." John leaned forward, reaching for Sherlock's arm, but Sherlock simply lifted his hand out of reach and continued to wind the tubing around it. as he slid the needle free with his free hand and pressed down on the tiny spot of blood that welled up in its wake.

"It doesn't matter."

John held his gaze as he twisted his own line into a tidy circle and set it firmly in Sherlock's palm. "Of course it matters. What's got into you?"

"Nothing at all."

John snorted. "I know better than that. Everything was fine until we woke up. What about my dream bothered you so much?"

Sherlock said nothing as he fussed over the PASIV, removing the empty packets of antiseptic wipes and the used needles before looping the IV lines together and settling them into place.

"Christ, I thought I had actually done all right."

"You were fine," Sherlock bit out. "You didn't need me there at all."

John leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees. "Sherlock." When he got no response, he said it again a bit louder. "Sherlock. What are you on about?"

Sherlock closed the lid of the PASIV and nudged it under John's chair with his toes. "It is a bit humiliating," he said without meeting John's eyes. "Your subconscious wants to have adventures in space. Mine apparently wants to name Tube stations after you and remember how you take your coffee."

"And you think that means -- what, that I'm better at dreaming than you are? You -- " John sputtered to a halt and shook his head. "You have to know I was wrong."

Sherlock finally looked up. "About what?" he asked cautiously.

"I said I understood how worried Arthur was about Eames. I had no idea. I just assumed -- ."

"You said you weren't angry about that."

"I'm not angry! I'm trying to -- look. Did you happen to notice that I couldn't manage to be captain of a starship without bringing real life into it? If you hadn't already been there with me, I know I would have dreamed you there."

Sherlock shook his head. "Really, John, you -- "

"No, listen. Maybe you're right and I have no imagination. Or maybe it means -- " John cleared his throat and looked away. "Maybe I can't dream up any adventures better than the ones we already have."

"The stables," Sherlock murmured.

"Yeah," John said to a spot somewhere on the far wall. "Whenever I thought of where I'd most like to be, the first place that came to mind was always Baker Street." He nodded once to himself and looked up, meeting Sherlock's eyes with a determined smile. "So I understand now how Arthur felt. Awake or asleep, nothing feels quite right any more unless you're there."

Sherlock opened his mouth, but nothing came out. When John looked at him expectantly, he shut his mouth, then opened it again, then pressed his lips together with a frown. "Are you drawing an analogy?" he finally asked.

John leaned forward in his chair to rest a clumsy hand on Sherlock's outstretched shin. "Yeah, I think I am," he said.

They both looked down at John's hand rumpling the fine wool of Sherlock's trousers just below his knee.

"Good," Sherlock said. He leaned forward to wrap his fingers around John's wrist and give it a sharp tug.

John tipped forward out of his chair. He caught himself with one arm on the back of Sherlock's chair, one knee braced on the edge of the seat between Sherlock's thighs, and said, "Are you -- "

"Oh, shut up," Sherlock grumbled, craning his head up. Their mouths met in an awkward click of teeth before their lips parted, dragging slowly against each other. Then Sherlock wrapped long fingers around the back of John's head and pulled him even closer with a low, greedy sound.

Long moments later, John dragged himself reluctantly back from his precarious position balanced on the edge of Sherlock's chair, running a covetous hand across Sherlock's bare shoulder as he went. "Jesus," he breathed, shaking his head. "I think maybe I've dreamed of that."

Sherlock drew a startled breath and leaped to his feet. "You don't think -- " he blurted, digging in the pocket of his trousers.

"No! No, it isn't," John insisted, but he was already scrabbling for his own totem.

Sherlock opened his clenched fist and let the dull, dented slug that had killed Jefferson Hope roll around on his palm. John held up his battered "I Believe in Sherlock Holmes" badge, then flipped it to show the bent pinback. They smiled.

The sharp buzz of the doorbell cracked the silence. "Three seconds," John said automatically.

"Probably not someone coming after the PASIV."

"And definitely not Mycroft."

They looked back at each other and said simultaneously, "Client."

"I'll get it," John said. When he reached the door, he turned back and rolled his eyes, waving a hand up and down over his torso. "You might want to -- "

Sherlock looked down at his ash-flecked chest. "Oh," he said with an air of surprise.

By the time John came back upstairs with a ponytailed young woman at his heels, the PASIV had vanished from sight and Sherlock was standing next to his desk in an immaculately pressed shirt and jacket. "Now then, Miss..." Sherlock began as John ushered the girl to a chair.

"Soames," she said, fiddling with the hem of her University of Westminster t-shirt. "Hilly Soames." She looked John over warily as she continued, "If they find out I've talked to you, I'm going to be in a lot of trouble, Mr. Holmes. I could be expelled."

"Don't worry," Sherlock said as he sank into his armchair. "If Dr. Watson weren't entirely trustworthy, he wouldn't be my colleague."

"Partner," John said from the other side of the room, quiet but firm.

For a fraction of a second, Sherlock favored John with his most brilliant smile. "Of course. Partner." Then, turning back to Hilly Soames, he pressed his fingertips together beneath his chin and said, "You can start by telling me who 'they' are."

 

-end-