John dreams of the lake.
And then a floorboard creaks and he is up and reaching for his wand before he is even truly awake, his brain still running on high alert. Some parts of Auror training, you never lose. The room is dark and quiet, which can mean all is well, or it can mean that someone bigger than you has disabled all your wards.
“John,” Sherlock murmurs from the dark at the foot of the bed.
John blinks his vision clear. The shadows shift into the shape of Sherlock’s face, those strange, pale eyes gleaming out at him. You could always tell a Holmes by his eyes, they used to say.
“John,” Sherlock says again. “What did the Dementors make you see?”
It’s not the kind of question a polite wizard is ever meant to ask another wizard anymore, outside of the Wizengamot; every child who has passed through Hogwarts since the Second Wizarding War knows this. Sometimes John isn’t quite sure how much unspoken etiquette of the Wizarding World truly passed Sherlock by and how much he just chooses to ignore.
In the old days, of course, when the Dark Army was at its peak, Dementor attacks had been nine for a Knut. With Voldemort and the Death Eaters on one side, and Umbridge’s corrupt regime on the other, it had been a good day if you could walk from one street corner to the next without a quick Expecto Patronum. John and his team had all been very young and they had all been trying very hard to fight the Dark Arts as they’d been trained to before Scrimgeour died and the Ministry fell.
But these days, it’s so unusual to see just one Dementor in a populated area, let alone half a dozen of them, that when John and Sherlock had stumbled upon them a pack last night – just wrapping up a simple hexing case and already arguing about whether to go to Angelo’s or the Leaky Cauldron to celebrate – John had faltered for a moment.
He had felt the chill and his breath had caught, and he had been slow reaching for his wand – but only for a moment. By the time an official from the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures had arrived to finish the clean up and take a statement, John was fine.
He is fine.
“Come here, would you?” he says at last. “I’d rather talk to your face than to a sinister shadow.”
The mattress shifts and creaks. Sherlock crawls across the covers towards him, pressing his face into the pillow. His hair falls into his eyes – hair that is always a shade too long, as he doesn’t really trust magic or Muggle technology or anything other than the great Sherlock Holmes that close to his face– and eventually John pushes it away himself so he can meet Sherlock’s gaze.
“Nothing,” he says softly, at last. “I didn’t see anything. They trained us not to be affected by Dementors, you know that.”
Sherlock stares up at him, moonlight picking out the edges of his cheek and jaw line. Then he closes his eyes and turns his head, in a perfect mimicry of sleepy naturalism, until hair and pillow cover his face completely.
“I didn’t see anything either,” he says.
Sometimes Sherlock Holmes is a very bad liar. Sometimes John is a very good one.
In the morning, John packs a bar of regulation chocolate, turns down the offer of a Dementor Incident sick day and heads into St Mungo’s. It’s been a long and busy week while the head of the hospital, Chief Healer Etheldred, is away on his holidays and John has a lot of paper work to catch up on. He’s halfway through the pile when Molly Hooper sidles up to his desk.
“John? Er, Healer Watson?” she says, and then very softly curses as something falls onto the floor.
Wincing, John looks up from his file in time to hear glass shatter.
“Sorry, sorry,” she stammers as she gathers up a broken jar of dried Phoenix feathers and mutters a quick reparo. Molly is still new and nervous. Somewhere beneath it lies the makings of a damn good Healer, John knows, but whenever she speaks to him she drops something.
Everyone knows the stories of the Aurors from the War. Even now, years since John hung up his Auror uniform and took on a job at St. Mungo’s instead, he can see the moment in people’s eyes when they read his name badge and all those stories rise up in their minds. John Watson, the bloke who kept on patching up his team in the middle of a Death Eater battle; John Watson, the Auror who almost lost an arm to the Dementor’s touch.
“It’s all right, Molly,” he says. “What did you need?”
She snaps herself back to attention. “I’ve a little girl in Artefact Accidents who crashed her brother’s broom. Couldn’t fly it at all. Her parents think she might be a...” She pauses, lowering her voice.”A Squib. And I know you’re good with, with –Squibs – so I thought perhaps you could have a chat with them?”
‘Good with Squibs’.
If Sherlock were here right now, John thinks.
Everyone knows the stories of the Holmes family, too. One of the oldest and purest in the country, rumours they had a hand in the founding of Hogwarts, and then whilst the elder son is waltzing through his N.E.W.Ts it comes out that the younger son is a squib. Mycroft is a genius, a powerful wizard, a burgeoning politician, and then the Second Wizarding War breaks out and little Sherlock Holmes is never heard from again.
Molly is still looking at him expectantly. John can already picture this frightened little girl who crashed her brother’s broom and may have changed her life forever.
“Squibs are just people, Molly. You know that, right?”
“Yes, of course.”
Not many people know that, John has learnt. Not many people do.
It’s almost the end of John’s shift when a purple paper aeroplane falls into his in-tray. ‘Come to the Ministry at once,’ it reads. ‘Lestrade says we could be in danger; I say it could be exciting. SH.’ The week he’s had, John reckons he’s earned the right to duck out a few minutes early.
It would be quicker to Floo to Lestrade’s department, but these days he’s used to walking. He wears Muggle boots because they’re better made, and he nibbles on another regulation chocolate bar as he ducks from seething London high streets to tiny, winding, Wizarding shortcuts and back again. It’s easy to forget the Dementor attack and last night’s strange dream when he’s walking in bright autumn sunlight with the solid, Muggle ground beneath his feet. John’s whistling by the time he catches a phone box down to the Ministry, to the Auror Liaison department.
Lestrade’s office is standing room only, filled with faces John doesn’t recognise and the buzz of uneasy chatter. He has to scan the crowd before he spots Donovan, and Anderson, and Lestrade himself stood in front of his desk with his arms grimly crossed over his chest. Something big must be happening.
“Exciting, isn’t it?” Sherlock murmurs into John’s ear, making him jump.
“About as exciting as a kick in the teeth.”
“Right then,” Lestrade exclaims, clapping his hands together and stepping forwards from his desk. A hush falls. Somehow the press of the crowd around John shifts and lessens, people melting back until he and Sherlock are standing in the centre of the room with Lestrade.
“Any news on the Dementors?” John asks.
“Any news on how an undocumented pack of Dementors came to form in the middle of a densely populated area and attempt to suck out mine and my colleague’s brains, he means,” Sherlock says.
He looks exhausted, John can see now there’s room to look at him properly. Neither of them really slept last night, and with that John has to wonder how bad he must look. Bad enough, from the expression on Lestrade’s face.
“No news, as such. Not directly,” Lestrade says slowly. “Look, are you sure you’re up to this? Ministry employees always get a couple of days off after a Dementor attack, and technically – technically, I said-” He shoots Sherlock a glare, Sherlock’s mouth snapping shut on the protest he was about to make, “Ministry employees is sort of what you are, right now. You’re both free to sit this one out.”
“I’ve had plenty of experience with Dementors,” John reminds him.
A couple of the younger recruits shift nervously at his words, obviously reminding themselves of all the overblown tales of John Watson’s courage in the face of the Kiss.
“Yeah, you have,” one of them says quietly from the back, “but what does a Squib know about it?”
“They can’t even see Dementors, I heard,” someone else whispers, even quieter.
John flinches. Sherlock doesn’t react.
“None of that, thank you,” Lestrade says. He steps forward, shooting a look at them both that clearly reads well, don’t blame me if you wind up with a case of the screaming heebie-jeebies. Around them the lights dim, as he raises his wand and draws a rough map of London in the air. The lines shine in a bright gold, shifting and spidering outwards and growing in detail until a beautifully intricate map of the city hangs in the air before them.
With one last jab of his wand, a shower of red sparks flies up into the air to land on the map seemingly at random.
“Last night, twenty-one people died across London,” Lestrade says. “Magic and Muggle alike, absolutely nothing in common except-”
“The time of death?” Sherlock interrupts.
Lestrade rolls his eyes. “Yeah, and-”
“I imagine it was the same time that John and I were fighting off a dozen Dementors.” Sherlock steps up closer to the map as he talks, gazing at John through the cobwebs of light. The gold and the red shines in his eyes like a fire. “Otherwise you would have imposed your boring little days off on us and attempted to stagger blindly through it all by yourself, correct?”
Ignoring Lestrade’s irritable reply, Sherlock tugs his gloves off and reaches up to brush a finger through – through the site of their Dementor attack, John realises, recognising the shape of the street. The golden line curls smoke-like around his finger, the ends joining seamlessly back together once he’s passed through, as if he had never touched it at all.
“But this,” Sherlock murmurs, “this is much more interesting, isn’t it? This is a riddle, and they want me to solve it.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Oh, come on. Twenty-one people? Multiples of seven? That’s the deepest kind of magic - if you believe in such nonsense,” he adds, tone making it clear he for one does not. “Our killer might as well have painted ‘I am a serious, dark wizard’ on the walls in blood or something equally Voldermortian.”
Even now, there’s a quick, collective shudder at the name, which Sherlock ignores.
“But that’s where you’re wrong,” Donovan says. She folds her arms, staring hard at Sherlock until he looks away from the map. “It wasn’t a dark wizard. Far as we can tell, it wasn’t a wizard at all. We checked all the sites with that new charm Granger’s been working on, the one that seeks out magic traces, and there was nothing. Not even from the Wizarding victims.”
“Then the spell is wrong and someone has found a way to circumvent it.”
“Have you met Granger?”
“Don’t need to. It’s like you’re all walking around with one eye closed, the whole lot of you. Creating spells to track a person’s magic when you could simply track the person, and suddenly the magic disappears and you all go blind.”
Sherlock steps away from the map, tugging his gloves back on in sharp little movements. Donovan is glaring at him. Almost everyone in the room, John works out from a quick scan, is glaring at him.
“I’m amazed you all even manage to dress yourselves in the morning,” Sherlock says in something like awe. “We’ll need to see the bodies, we’ll need to see the crime scenes, we’ll need to see all your dull and probably – no, make that certainly incorrect reports.”
“You have a lead then?” Lestrade snaps.
Sherlock smiles. It starts life sarcastically, but as he scans the room the sharper edges melt away beneath the promise of the thrill of the chase. By the time his gaze meets John’s, he’s simply smiling.
“We’re looking for a dark wizard,” he says. “With or without the magic.”
The thing about Squibs is that anywhere they go is a struggle. They can’t belong in either world, not really. If it’s picked up early enough, the kid can be packed off to Muggle relatives and grow up with hardly any connection to the Wizarding World at all; if it’s picked up too late, then the kid gets to grow up on the edge of a whole world they can never quite reach. John isn’t really sure which way is worst.
“My parents’ way was the worst,” Sherlock had said, the one and so far only time the subject had been broached.
Later that same day, as if he had been listening in for keywords in 221B Baker Street conversations, Mycroft had confided in John that Sherlock had made it so far as to be enrolled in Hogwarts and kitted out with a wand before anyone had picked up on what was wrong.
“He got a wand?” John had said. “But how? He can’t even work the entrance to Diagon Alley. How’d he make it that far?”
And Mycroft had looked at John as if it were so utterly obvious, and, “Why, how else? By tricking everyone,” he had said.
Outside of the Ministry and onto the streets, Sherlock is still far too pale, even by his own pallid standards.
“Catch,” John says as they walk, tossing him the last of the regulation chocolate from his pocket. Sherlock glares – John knows he would prefer to pretend the Dementors have no affect on him whatsoever – but he catches the bar regardless.
“Eat it,” John says. “I know you didn’t touch any this morning, so eat it.”
“You can’t actually make me.”
“Well, no,” John concedes. “But I could always have a word with Mycroft.”
With a look of abject disgust, Sherlock stuffs the chocolate into his mouth whole. It makes for an odd sight, Sherlock tall and impeccably dressed and yet with a face like a hamster. John doesn’t even try to pretend not to laugh; he just lets it out.
“So, a dark wizard?” he asks, once Sherlock can speak again.
“Yes. Very. There’s nothing darker than a wizard who wants the world to know he’s dark. Sooner or later the world will ask him to prove it.”
They round the corner onto Baker Street, where the sky is growing dark and the street lights are turning on like a welcome home parade for them alone. Sherlock is smirking.
“He’s putting on a show,” he says with relish.
“Who else could it be for? Anderson?”
“Well, if anyone was going to catch the eye of a dark wizard with something to prove,” John mutters, “it’s you.”
Sherlock beams at that, seemingly taking it as a compliment, and he turns to John with door key in hand and he says-
- a white rowboat drifting by, so light on the water it’s almost flying across the lake. The lake. John, the lake. John –
He blinks. He looks over his shoulder, to where Sherlock is standing by their front door. John had walked right past it, somehow, and now Sherlock is looking at him the same way he looks at a crime scene; very interested, very curious, and prepared to get the answers very right.
“John?” Sherlock says again.
“Sorry,” John says. “Sorry, it’s been a long day.”
He follows Sherlock up the steps and inside, and he doesn’t look over his shoulder. He doesn’t want to know what’s at the end of the street.
That night, John is woken very suddenly by the sound of gunfire. This isn’t in itself particularly alarming, as no witch or wizard worth their salt ever started a fight with Muggle weaponry – a fact for which John has always been very grateful, as Auroring was hard enough without throwing fast chunks of flying metal into the equation. That leaves as an explanation either very foolish Muggle burglars or Sherlock up to something.
John knows which one he’d put his money on.
He pulls on his dressing gown, checks the time – gone four in the morning, brilliant – and tries to remember what he had been dreaming. It itches somewhere at the back of his brain, half-forgotten. Then he goes downstairs to see what precisely Sherlock is up to.
He’s standing in the middle of the living room with a paintbrush in one hand and a Muggle handgun in the other, staring up at the wall. His back is to the door and the windows before him are wide open, silvery moonlight and sulphurous lamplight mixing together like a dream. John has spent far too much of his life wondering if he’s dreaming.
“Ah, you’re awake,” Sherlock says, without moving. “Good. You can help me with this.”
“It’s amazing how I’m coincidentally awake right after you fired a gun in our flat, isn’t it? Coincidentally,” John mutters, but he pads into the room and squints up at Sherlock’s wall. “Is that a map of London up there?”
Sighing, he switches the lights on.
If there’s one thing Muggles got right, it’s electricity. Like most Wizarding homes in central London, 221 Baker Street was originally occupied by Muggles, with light switches and TV aerials and central heating systems. Alfbald Hudson had had the bright idea of converting his properties into half-and-halfs; part magical, part mundane, for Muggleborns or halfbloods.
Or, in retrospect, for people with rather unsettling fetishes. Once Sherlock had caught Alfie in the act of torturing his seventh Muggle girl, it had been – as Mrs Hudson liked it put it, over a cup of tea and a biscuit – “a little bad for business.” But Sherlock had been fifteen, and then the Second Wizarding War had begun, and the House of Holmes had offered her a terrific price for 221B with only a few minor alterations.
When John had first moved in, there had been no windows at all, for starters.
“Of course it’s a map of London,” Sherlock is saying, in the here and now. He’s lost the alien quality in the electric light and there is, John can see now, a smudge of black paint on the end of his nose.
“You painted it on?”
“The quill tore the wallpaper. And then,” Sherlock admits sourly, as if the universe has failed him somehow, “I couldn’t find a contrasting shade of paint for the victims. I experimented with condiments, but it proved too messy.”
Now it’s been brought to his attention, John can smell the lingering aroma of tomato sauce and mayonnaise in the air.
The map, on the other hand, is surprisingly beautiful for something slapped on the wall with old paint and a cheap paintbrush. It looks even more accurate than Lestrade’s, which is not at all surprising given that Sherlock has the whole of the city memorised (underground and overground, streets and rooftops, magic and Muggle alike), and the black lines stand out starkly against the wallpaper.
“If you ever get sick of the detective work, there could be a place for you in avant-garde interior design,” John says.
Sherlock sniffs, as though not quite sure whether to be pleased or offended. Then he lifts his hand towards the wall and he fires the gun.
Up close, it is incredibly loud.
Oh, John thinks. Oh right, the gun.
His ears are ringing. Sherlock’s lips are moving. The sound comes rushing back.
“-needn’t worry,” Sherlock is saying. “I’ve been practicing in my room whilst you’re at work. I’m a very good shot.”
“Please,” John says weakly. “Please, tell me you didn’t break too many laws getting hold of that thing.”
Sherlock pauses, considering. “Only a few minor ones. But look how neat it is. Far more practical than the mayonnaise.”
Life was simpler with Voldemort, John thinks. He tugs his wand out of his dressing gown pocket and steps up to the map to assess the damage. The holes are very neat, he’ll give Sherlock that, but there are only a few of them.
“You can’t shoot the wall twenty-one times. It’s at least twenty times too many. You’ll wake the neighbours.” Before Sherlock can protest, John rolls up his sleeves and raises his wand. “Where does the next one go?”
There’s only a sigh in response, loud and put upon, but John waits with his wand in the air. He listens to the rustling, then the sound of quick footsteps, and then Sherlock is behind him, taking hold of John’s wrist.
“12 Liddell Gardens,” he says lowly, guiding John’s hand across the map. “Which – is – here. Right here. Don’t move, just do magic. Chop chop.”
Rolling his eyes, John taps his wand to the spot of wall. A small, silvery marker blossoms at the tip and then trails outwards as he draws his wand away, leaving the words 12 Liddell Gardens shimmering in the air next to the victim’s marker. Sherlock tuts, but allows it.
They work like that, Sherlock using John’s hand as the paintbrush – or the gun – until the 21st marker is in place and the sun is rising. John’s arm feels alien, flopping uselessly to his side when Sherlock releases his grip on it. The map shines in black and silver and is, to John at least, massaging the life back into his wrist, still incomprehensible.
Sherlock presses his palms together, and tilts his head back, and stares.
“Right,” John says. He can still feel the ghost of Sherlock’s fingers around his wrist; his skin seems colder now, without them. “Well. I was never much good at dot-to-dot. Is it a word?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, John, letters are the most recognisable shapes. I would have spotted it immediately if there were any,” Sherlock murmurs, unmoving, his eyes on the map.
He’s turned alien again in the washed out light of dawn, like a photograph that has forgotten how to move. He doesn’t react when John touches his shoulder or when, later, John waves a hand in front of his face.
John takes one last look at the network of black lines and silver labels, and then he goes back to bed.
One moment it’s still half dark and then the next the room is filled with sunlight and John is staring up into Sherlock’s wide open face. He doesn’t remember going to sleep after the early morning cartography and nor does he remember waking up.
“You were muttering about boats,” Sherlock says, his eyes fever bright. “Are your dreams always so dull?”
“Not really, no.”
John sits up, pushing at Sherlock’s shoulders until he deigns to shift back and up onto his knees.
“Ah yes, the war. It was very stressful. But never mind that, I’ve solved it.”
“What, already?” John says around a yawn. He nudges Sherlock to the side, and Sherlock obligingly flops down onto the mattress, giving John a view of the clock.
“It’s unfinished, John,” Sherlock says, locking his hands together behind his head to bask in the glow of the morning and his intellect alike. There’s a dreamy look in his eyes. “That’s the beauty of it. There’s a message, oh yes, but we’ve only got half of the owl, as it were. We have to wait for more deaths before we can know what it says and we can’t know what it says until those extra deaths.”
“Extra deaths,” John repeats flatly.
“Oh, don’t worry, I expect there’ll only be seven this time. Perhaps fourteen if we’re-” He pauses, his gaze sharpening as it flickers to John’s face. “-unlucky.”
“Nice try.” John groans and pinches the bridge of his nose. “That was almost sincere, even.”
There’s a pause, John rubbing at his face and wishing for more sleep, then the bed shifts as Sherlock rolls onto his side. His knees poke against John’s calves and his head butts against John’s hip almost incidentally.
“My job is to stop criminals, not to save lives,” comes Sherlock’s voice, muffled between John and mattress. His breath gusts warmly against John’s thigh. “I can’t stop people dying before I have answers. That’s your job.”
John, with a sigh, drops his hand onto Sherlock’s shoulder and gives it an awkward pat. He could say: I can’t stop people dying without answers either. He could say: Magic doesn’t work like that. It’s just a tool, it’s not a god. I swear you’re not missing out on much.
In the end, he says, “Not quite.”
Over twenty-four hours since she died, Juniper Lockley looks as if she’s only sleeping, as if she simply lay down on the carpet and drifted off to someplace else. The crime scene preservation charm has done its job, leaving dust motes frozen in the air and the clock hands ticking on the same second over and over again. Juniper’s body is still slightly warm. She’s the sixteenth they’ve visited today. When John lets go of her arm, it slithers back into the position they found it in.
The charm had also frozen the magical entrance to her flat, which was hidden behind a Muggle newsagent’s, rendering the flat apparition-only. Sherlock had taken it as a personal affront and, one irritable side-along apparition later, it had taken him a matter of seconds to deduce that Juniper was twenty-three, worked as an owl trainer for the post office and had recently broken up with her boyfriend. She was, he had added a few seconds later, utterly dull.
Lestrade has given them ten minutes. It takes John five to reach the same conclusion.
“There’s nothing out of the ordinary,” he admits.
He pulls off his salamander skin gloves and rocks back onto his heels, rubbing at his temples. He can feel a headache coming on. Juniper was young and in her photos she smiles and laughs, the preservation charm dragging her back and back to the same moment of laughter.
“It’s just like the others,” he says. “I can’t even find a natural cause of death, let alone a murderous one. It’s as if her life just nipped out to the shops and forgot to come back.”
He glances at Sherlock, who has been staring very hard at the carpet for four of the five minutes.
“She was the first to die,” Sherlock says, more to himself than to John. “Perhaps the last, but that’s less likely. The scuff marks. A man, but not a tall one. She didn’t know him. And, of course, her mouth is shut.”
“Do try to use your ears, John, it’s not difficult. Our killer couldn’t have been everywhere at once – even apparating to all his victims would have taken at least half an hour, but everyone seems to have died at approximately the same time. He came here either to begin the process or to put an end to it.” As he speaks, Sherlock drops down onto his hands and knees and lowers his face till he’s level with Juniper.
“As to her mouth,” he continues, delicately prising her teeth apart. “Fifteen of the sixteen bodies investigated so far had their lips at least slightly parted, and now here we are and hers is shut. Hardly a coincidence.”
“I’ve already checked her throat for blockages and there was nothing there,” John points out. “So if you’re looking for a confession note from the killer lodged in her cavities, you’ll be disappointed.”
“She was first,” Sherlock murmurs. “He wanted us to know. We have to check the contents of her stomach.”
“Muggles do it all the time. They’re forever sticking their hands inside people.”
“Right,” John says. He watches as Sherlock lifts Juniper’s tongue and examines the underside, then runs his finger around her gums. “You’d fit right in then.”
“I doubt it very much.”
Sniffing his fingers, Sherlock climbs back up onto his feet, leaving Juniper’s mouth to slowly shut itself. If anything, John reflects, the preservation charm tends to relax muscles as it holds rigor mortis at bay. Jaws relax and the mouths of the dead fall open, unless their killer conscientiously closed it before they left.
“You think he made her swallow something?” he asks.
“Yes,” Sherlock says, but he’s frowning.
Before John can reply, there’s a rustle and a pop and Lestrade apparates into the room. He’s pointing at his watch and opening his mouth even as he appears, saying, “Come on, then. I haven’t actually got all day, for all I’ve spent the better part of it shepherding you two around London, and we’ve still got five more sites to visit.”
“Not necessary,” Sherlock says. “We’ve found what we’re looking for.”
“Apparently it’s in Juniper Lockley’s stomach,” John adds. “Sherlock wants to take a look inside.”
Lestrade raises his eyebrows, crossing his arms as he looks from one to the other and then, finally, down at the body. John can almost see him weighing up the oddness of wanting to poke around in a corpse’s innards versus Sherlock’s success rate, before he gives a small shrug and pulls out his wand.
“It’s bad enough when someone forgets to remove the preservation charm before moving a body to the morgue at the best of times,” he mutters to John as he makes a series of complex gestures. “Dread to think what would happen with her all cut up as well.”
John can feel it as the charm lifts away, the air becoming freer and his own movements easier somehow in small, imperceptible ways, and then something slithers inside him. It itches at the back of his brain. And then-
And then nothing else.
John blinks and falters, mid-step. He was walking, he realises, although now he’s stopped and someone is holding very tightly onto the crook of his arm. He looks down at those fingers, those white knuckles, and then he looks up that face. It’s Sherlock, of course, his mouth very thin and his jaw very tight.
“You disapparated,” Sherlock says. “I grabbed you before you could disappear fully. That was seven minutes ago. You’ve taken us on quite the little jaunt through the alleys of London.”
John lets out a long, slow breath, running his free hand through his hair. He can feel another headache coming on and he doesn’t have a clue where he’s brought them: some alleyway that is dank and too narrow and smells faintly sulphurous. Ahead of them are shadows, a high brick wall and a sharp right-angled turn. There’s something around the corner.
“This isn’t good,” he says.
Sherlock sniffs. “Quite right. We need to go back to the Ministry and-”
“No, I – I’ve got a feeling...” John shakes his head, trying to clear his thoughts. “We need to go down there. I need to see...”
He needs to see what’s around that corner. His legs are moving, he realises almost belatedly, his traitorous feet carrying him towards the end of the alley, and Sherlock is saying something that John can’t quite make out over the buzzing in his ears.
They turn the corner into shadow and a sudden chill, far too cold and far too dark for this time of day. John can distantly feel all the warmth and happiness in his body slowly seeping away, and even more distantly he can feel Sherlock’s nails dig into his arm. Ah, a quiet little voice says from somewhere deep inside of him, Dementors, and he can almost see them advancing through the shadows and he can almost see his breath condensing in the air, but the rest of him is –
- pretending not to hear his mum and dad arguing again –
- storming out of Harry’s flat after yet another row, slamming the door behind him and half-wishing she would just hurry up and drink herself to death and get it over with –
- alone in the forest, cut off from his team, the Dark Mark shining through the branches overhead, and from somewhere in the shadows there comes a rattling breath –
- pushing the white boat off from the shore, teeth chattering as he wades into the water and behind him someone is saying his name -
“John,” Sherlock snarls, digging his fingers into the scar on John’s shoulder.
It’s the sound of Sherlock’s voice as much as it is the sharp, cold burst of pain that shakes John back into himself, blinking and rubbing at his eyes. The Dementors drift back into focus, floating towards them with out-stretched hands.
“We have to get back to the Ministry,” he says. “Either I’m cursed or I’m going crazy.”
“John, we can speculate on your mental health later, but right now you really need to do some magic,” Sherlock hisses, fingers clenching compulsively on John’s scar again, eliciting a wince. But Sherlock’s face is very pale, and his eyes are very wide, and his hand on John’s shoulder is shaking.
Pulling himself together, John draws his wand on the advancing Dementors and summons up the memory of solving his first case with Sherlock, remembering the triumph and adrenaline and the inappropriate giggling. The familiar, warm swell of the Patronus charm builds inside him, silver light glowing at the end of his wand, and then – nothing comes.
As John stares down at his wand hand, frozen, there’s a burst of silver light from behind them. A familiar German shepherd Patronus charges out at the Dementors, pushing them back and glowing brightly until they turn and melt back into the shadows. Light and warmth return to the alleyway and to their bodies, Sherlock’s grip on his shoulder relaxing at last, but John’s wand hand remains cold and heavy.
“Do you know how hard it is tracking apparitions on a sunny day in London?” Lestrade says as his Patronus fades away. “It’s bloody hard.”
“Yes, you were rather slow, weren’t you?” Sherlock says, his voice tense beneath the flippant words.
“You’re welcome. What’s going on with the two of you and Dementors this week?”
Ignoring their sniping, John eases his wand out of his hand and slips it back into his jacket. He massages his fingers until the life returns to them. His shoulder aches.
“I think I’ve been cursed,” he says. “Could be something new. I don’t recognise it.”
At that Sherlock turns back to him sharply, taking hold of John’s wand hand. He holds him like an experiment, his eyes narrowed, pressing John’s fingers flat between his palms. John can feel the faint tremor still running through Sherlock’s own fingers, can see how pale he still is. Then Sherlock releases him, stepping away.
“Your hand is too cold,” is all he says.
“And I’ve never stalled on a Patronus like that,” John says. “Not since I was in Auror training.”
Lestrade claps his hands together and then, awkwardly, pats John on the shoulder. “Come on, back to my office. I’ll get one of the curse breakers to take a look at you while we’re investigating. Another Dementor attack is going to take a lot of paperwork.”
“No,” Sherlock says.
He turns tail and marches back the way they’d come – or rather, John mentally amends, the way something had led him – his long cloak flapping behind him as he disappears around the corner.
“Dementors make him twitchy. I’d better, er-” John motions towards the end of the alley.
Lestrade sighs, scrubbing a hand across his face.
“Yeah, okay. Look, nobody wants him locked up in that little flat again, but two Dementor attacks in, what - three days? And in the middle of London like this? This work is dangerous at the best of times, but if you both can’t protect yourselves... I’ll put him under house arrest myself if I have to.”
“Right,” John says. “Right. I’ll – let him know.”
“Don’t envy you that task,” Lestrade mutters. He waves his hand in a dismissal.
John jogs back around the corner, chasing after the memory of Sherlock. The alley leads only to more alleyways, labyrinthine, but for all he has no recollection of walking them the first time round, something in John’s gut tells him the way to go.
Sherlock is there waiting for him, when John emerges onto the streets, leaning against a telephone box and looking infinitely bored.
“Oh, there you are,” he says, straightening up as John approaches. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d given up and apparated home.”
“I remembered the way. Somehow.”
“Interesting,” Sherlock settles on. He looks John up and down, as if checking him for some kind of sign, some kind of visible change. If there is something, John can’t feel it. Then, with a sigh, Sherlock pulls open the door to the telephone box and ushers him inside with a hand at the back of John’s neck. His fingers curl into the collar of John’s shirt and hold on.
“This isn’t a Ministry box,” John says, squeezing back against the wall as far as Sherlock’s grip will allow him.
Sherlock drags the door shut behind them and only then releases his hold on John, as if some unseen force might have dragged him back out onto the streets without Sherlock anchoring him in place. Which – John realises with a lurch – could well be the case.
“I know you’re watching,” Sherlock says, loudly. “And probably listening, too. So none of your little games or riddles, if you please.”
There’s a soft, grinding clunk as unseen mechanisms fall into place and the telephone box begins its descent. When they sink beneath street level, they’re thrown into shadow. Sherlock’s eyes are shining too brightly, his expression grim and his gaze on John unwavering.
“No,” Sherlock says again, but softer. “This isn’t the Ministry. It’s someone far worse.”
“Of course, now I am merely a delegator, but I was a curse breaker myself before I decided to settle down in this silly little job, and it always sticks with one, does it not? I shall always have that little bit of curse breaker in me, just as you shall always be an Auror, and Sherlock... Well.” Mycroft pauses, still smiling his infernal little smile as he considers his every word. “He shall of course always be Sherlock. More tea?”
“Um,” says John.
Mycroft refills his cup regardless.
John has been inside Mycroft’s office many times over the years – more times than Sherlock would probably like, judging by his glares – and each time it has been a different room in a different location accessed through different means. He’s pretty sure he once caught a glimpse of jungle through the window. Another time, he had caught a glimpse of absolute darkness, before Mycroft’s assistant had quickly drawn the curtains.
He’s never quite had the courage to ask what, precisely, Mycroft’s silly little job entails, but if one thing is certain it involves a lot of delegation. Within moments of John and Sherlock descending through the telephone box into the middle of the office, Mycroft had whipped up a team of ministry officials to prod and poke at John and take, of all things, a sample of his blood, whilst Mycroft himself sat back and had a cup of tea and a biscuit.
“And speaking of your silly little job,” Sherlock says, “do tell us, Mycroft – does the Minister know you’ve your own telephone boxes now? I’ve spotted at least half a dozen this week. You keep them far too clean to blend in with the Ministry boxes.”
“Well, naturally I let him know, Sherlock. I’m not uncouth.”
They glare at each other. John helps himself to a biscuit.
“And what about Mummy?” Whilst glaring at Mycroft, Sherlock takes the biscuit from John’s hands and puts it back on the plate. “Don’t eat that, you don’t know where it’s been. Does Mummy know about all your new toys?”
Mycroft sniffs and delicately folds his hands in his lap, fingers twitching as if – John has to wonder – he’s suppressing the urge to strangle his brother. “Don’t be ridiculous, I would hardly poison my own biscuits, would I? And you know Mummy doesn’t like it when I talk about my work.”
Behind Mycroft’s desk, a door appears, cutting off the squabbling as it swings open and a dozen owls fly into the office, followed by Anthea. She’s carrying a stack of envelopes, scrolls and strangely shaped packages, but she’s paying more attention to the letter she’s writing. Instead of taking to their perches, the owls swoop around her head as she sorts her deliveries on the desk.
“Six say yes, four say no, Borgin is out of stock, nothing to report from the giants, and I sent Daedalus off with the documents for McGonagall, sir. Oh, and here’s the results from the curse breakers,” she adds as an afterthought, dropping one final scroll of parchment onto the desk whilst still, somehow, focussing on her own writing.
“Thank you, that will be all,” Mycroft says, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the noise of the owls.
“Of course, sir.”
She notes his comment down on yet another piece of parchment, and she takes a biscuit, and then as quickly as she came Anthea disappears back through the door. The owls swoop out after her.
“Marvellous woman,” Mycroft muses while the door behind him sinks, with a whisper, back into the wallpaper. “Very good with owls.”
Sherlock rolls his eyes and flops back in his seat, doing a very good impression of casual.
“She can be good with golden bloody eagles for all I care. The results, if you please?”
Instead of watching Mycroft unroll the parchment, John focuses on Sherlock’s fingers as they drum and drum against the arm of his chair. A very good impression, maybe, but not good enough. More than the strange dreams and the headaches and the moments of lost time, this is perhaps the most unsettling thing; the sheer nervousness that Sherlock is radiating whilst he holds himself not quite still.
“The ever estimable Ms. Granger has been developing the most fascinating techniques,” Mycroft says as he scans the report. “She’s found a way to look very closely at a person’s blood and spot the physical manifestation of magic within. Inspired by Muggles, apparently. What will they think of next?”
“A way to shut you up?” Sherlock says.
Mycroft glances up from the report, eyebrow raised, until Sherlock groans and waves a hand. “Continue speaking, if you please. Then shut up.”
“It would appear,” Mycroft says slowly, as if weighing every word, “that John is under the power of a rather insidious Imperius curse.”
John gapes. Next to him, Sherlock stiffens, all pretence of casualness dropping away.
“Cursed by whom?” Sherlock says.
John shakes his head. “But it can’t be Imperius. I know Imperius. I would recognise it a mile off. I’ve been trained to resist it for years - for half my life, for Merlin’s sake.”
There’s a pause as Mycroft carefully rolls the report back up and, with equal care and a thoughtful look in his eyes, files the scroll away in a drawer. He drums his fingers on the edge of his desk, then stills.
“And you were likewise trained to cast the Patronus charm,” he says. “And yet.”
“What – you – are you implying that I’ve just, what, let myself go?”
“Oh no, I assure you, I am being quite overt. Whilst we can surely all agree that you shall remain, in many ways, an Auror for all eternity, the fact remains it has been a long time since you were an Auror in the ways that count. There is,” Mycroft adds, folding his hands on top of his desk, though this time John is the one with the urge to strangle, “nothing to suggest that your abilities were being subdued or dampened.”
“I can’t believe you of all people-” John begins, his voice growing loud, but then Sherlock is surging up out of his chair and slamming a hand down very hard on Mycroft’s desk.
“Enough,” he hisses. “Cursed – by – whom, or else I promise I will show you how very inspired by Muggles I have been in regards to the murder and disposal of pompous oafs.”
“By one Oliver Hartlopp. Who I believe,” Mycroft adds, as Sherlock pales and John’s indignity is drowned out by the sudden sinking feeling, “is number seven on your little list of victims?”
Sherlock steps back from the desk. From the moment of towering rage, his expression has gone cold and he drags a hand through his hair in sharp, robotic movements.
“Imperius ends when the spell caster dies,” he says. “And even if it didn’t, everyone had no magic left in their body, Hartlopp included. Someone had subdued it. Someone had...”
He trails off, staring intently at John as if the secret might be written in his skin.
“Charming as this little meeting has been, I have more business to attend to than either of you could ever possibly imagine,” Mycroft says.
He uncoils from his seat, straightening his robes as if his flesh and blood hadn’t just threatened to murder him. It was a fairly regular occurrence. Sherlock barely twitches at the sound of his brother’s voice, but John catches Mycroft’s eye and Mycroft offers him a vague approximation of a smile.
“I shall send someone up to remove your curse presently, of course,” he says. “And perhaps someone to reinforce the wards on your flat, until we are certain you have the defensive abilities necessary to protect it yourself.”
That’s enough to snap Sherlock out of his reverie, but Mycroft is already striding towards the wall, a new door appearing before him and swinging invitingly open. John grabs the end of Sherlock’s cloak and pulls him back, shaking his head. Mycroft disappears; the door disappears behind him.
“Perhaps he has a point,” John says.
“Wrong,” Sherlock snaps, but he throws himself back down into his seat. He glares up at the wall, fingers drumming arhythmically, nervously, against the arm of the chair once again.
“I’ve not exactly been on top form this week,” John says.
Sherlock twists to glare at him too. It’s almost touching, in a way, his unwillingness to contemplate that maybe John is off his game. That maybe his brother is correct. It’s an idea that doesn’t sit quite right with John either; John, who has always believed in his skills and his instincts and the feeling of this isn’t quite right. But as they settle in to wait for Mycroft’s subordinates to come remove the curse, the old scar on John’s shoulder coldly aches, and that’s enough to make him wonder.
Two chapters today, because I probably won't have the chance to update again til Sunday.
Back at their flat, with the kettle boiling, John helps himself to another piece of Ministry chocolate, for all he’s getting sick of the stuff – never had much of a sweet tooth, and a lifetime spent watching Harry’s addictive personality has put him right off overindulgence. He hates to admit it, but he can feel the difference since Mycroft’s curse-breaking team got their wands on him: on the one hand, his mind feels lighter and clearer; on the other, the chill of the Dementors and the worry over the case has risen back to the surface as if from the bottom of a deep, dark lake.
The kettle whistles. Over it, he can hear the sound of Sherlock pacing back and forth in the living room, muttering to himself. John dumps an extra spoonful of sugar into Sherlock’s tea, knowing he might complain but he’ll drink it anyway, and then he carries the mugs and the chocolate out into the living room.
And there Sherlock is, staring up at his map on the wall with his hands twisting and tugging at his hair. He barely reacts to John’s entrance, only the barest flicker of his gaze as John comes up behind him. His excitement at Juniper Lockley’s stomach contents feels a million years ago.
“There must be a connection, right?” John says. “Between the deaths, and the Dementors, and the Imperius. That many bad things don’t just happen coincidentally.”
Sherlock shoots him a vicious look from under the mess of his hair. Obviously, it says.
“Dead men don’t cast curses. Magic doesn’t just up and disappear from its users. Dementors don’t swarm around London in the middle of the day.” John pauses, juggling the mugs to rub at his shoulder before he adds, “And I’m meant to be a bloody competent wizard. Am I missing any mysteries?”
“You’re perfectly competent. Certainly far more capable than my brother.”
John has to smile at that, ducking his head down to sip his tea. Then he holds the other mug out to Sherlock, and although Sherlock sniffs and glowers and sighs grudgingly, he unwinds his hands from his hair and takes it. He stares down into the tea as if it’s a Pensieve.
“I can’t think,” he says eventually, his mouth twisting at the admission.
“It’s been a long day.”
With a sigh, John turns his attention to the map and the floating labels he cast there. It’s true he doesn’t use magic as much as he used to, these days, only the healing work at St. Mungo’s and the occasional spell for Sherlock, but his labels at least are still going strong, still shining brightly and bobbing on every movement of the air. He can spot Juniper easily in the midst of it all.
“During the Wars,” he says, scanning for Oliver Hartlopp’s name on the map, “they claimed that Muggleborns were stealing their magic from purebloods.”
Sherlock snorts. “Fake.”
“Well, yeah, I know, I was there. I’m just saying... fifteen years ago it was Umbridge’s propaganda, but things have changed since then. What if someone’s worked out how? Found some way to siphon off a person’s powers and it kills them in the process?”
He glances from Oliver to Sherlock. Sherlock is still staring up at the map, searching for the pattern or the next victims or some hidden, impossible message from the killer. His pale eyes look even paler in the silver light.
“Obviously the same thought had crossed my mind,” he says. “But-” and here he looks away from the map at last, closing his eyes for a quick calculation, “almost a third of the victims are Muggle. Even if we were to entertain the idea that our killer is already making mistakes, that high a percentage is no mistake.”
Sherlock lets out an inarticulate noise of frustration in response, thrusting his tea back into John’s hands before throwing himself down onto the sofa.
“No. For goodness sake, no, no twisting the clues to fit our theories or else we’re little better than law enforcement,” his last words muffled as he pulls a cushion over his face.
John puts the mugs down on the nearest flat surface – the tea is going to be stone cold by the end of this, but Sherlock has never objected to quick heating charms, presumably on the basis that it means he’ll never truly want for tea – before dragging Sherlock’s feet far enough off the sofa that there’s room for him. Sherlock shoves his toes under John’s thigh as soon as he’s sat down.
“I was law enforcement, you know,” John says. He unwraps the rest of the Ministry chocolate and begins to break it into squares. “Technically.”
Sherlock snorts into the cushion. “Don’t be absurd. It was a war. You were a soldier.”
It’s true, really, but they both know it, so John doesn’t have to say it. Instead, he says, “Listen, I don’t know how useful this’ll be, but as well as having me walk into nests of Dementors and all, the Imperius – or whatever it was,” he adds, as he feels Sherlock stiffen, “it made me see things. When the Dementors were close by, I’d see it instead of my own memories.”
“It?” Sherlock says, lifting a corner of his cushion to peer out at John.
“A lake, and a white boat. It seemed familiar, but,” he shrugs helplessly, “I could never picture it clearly. Like trying to look at it through a mirage. It started with the first attack, though. Sorry.”
At this, Sherlock drags the cushion fully away from his face, lets it drop onto the floor as he pushes himself up onto his elbows to stare across at John. “You said you saw nothing that night.”
“Yeah,” John says. “But so did you.”
Sherlock flinches at that, barely perceptible but there, and he drops his gaze and that’s it. Enough, John decides. Enough of this.
“I know you hate that Dementors can get to you,” he says. “That something can scare you, or that it’s magical so you can’t fight it, or whatever it is that bothers you so much. But it’s okay. Honestly, it is. Nobody would think any less of you – Hell, not even Donovan would think any less of you for it, because it’s normal.
“So would you please,” he finishes off, holding out a square of chocolate, “just eat some bloody chocolate and be done with it?”
Sherlock shakes his head. For a second, John is about ready to hold his nose and shove chocolate frogs down his throat until he gets the faintest hint of colour back into his cheeks, but then Sherlock takes the offered piece of chocolate and he keeps shaking his head.
“My first encounter with a Dementor,” he says, slowly, “was just before the start of the Second War. I was almost sixteen, and I... I desperately wanted to see what was under its cloak. I was fascinated, not frightened. I don’t know what it might have done to me, or I to it, had my brother not intervened. The incident was what finally motivated my parents to lock me in here, I believe, fearing I might be dangerous as much as that I might come to harm.”
He glances up at John at last, words coming to an abrupt halt, and then he takes a deliberate bite of the chocolate. He’s holding himself utterly still, but John can feel his toes curling and uncurling against his thigh in giveaway bursts of nervous energy.
“Okay,” John says slowly. “Actually, no – what? Your problem with Dementors is that they don’t bother you?”
Sherlock sighs and inhales sharply, teeth clicking together as he bites back on whatever insult he was about to say. “No. My problem with Dementors is that they never used to affect me and now they do. And it’s you I see, it’s you – it’s –”
He cuts himself off again, another quick click of his teeth, turning his face away. John watches his profile, which has set in angry lines.
“You run around getting yourself cursed without me even noticing,” Sherlock snaps.
“That wasn’t actually on purpose.”
Sherlock glances sidelong at him with a tight little smile. “What good am I in the face of an Unforgiveable? Don’t give me that look, I’m well aware I’m brilliant at everything else that matters, but if someone comes at us with a wand I’m as much use to you as Anderson is at a murder investigation. It’s merely a statement of fact.”
“I know,” John says. “I know.”
“I didn’t need the windows before you,” Sherlock says, his voice almost angry if you didn’t know better. “It didn’t matter. I didn’t really care when Mycroft replaced the front door with one of his disappearing tricks, even, because I knew wherever I was the world would be utterly dull and utterly repellent. I didn’t need to see outside to know there was nothing at all worth looking at.”
There’s a pause. John knows better. He touches Sherlock’s ankle, where his sock has fallen down and his skin is cold.
“I’ll try not to get Imperio’d anymore,” he says.
“I appreciate it.”
They lapse into silence, Sherlock’s arms wrapped firmly around himself and his face turned towards the window, John’s hand at his ankle, the tea going cold.
It’s long gone dark – these autumn days are getting shorter and shorter – when there’s a sharp knock at the window, jerking John out of his reverie to spot a white shape bobbing up and down on the other side of the glass. He curses, getting up to let it in - if the bobbing gets any more frantic, it’s bound to attract the attention of any Muggles out and about – but in the time it takes him to lift a single foot, Sherlock has flung himself off the sofa and yanked the window up so hard the whole room seems to rattle with the force of it.
The white shape zips through the window, flying figures of eight over their heads. It’s a paper aeroplane, John can see now, as he climbs to his feet and follows Sherlock into the centre of the room.
“Ministry paper. Must be Lestrade,” Sherlock says with relish. “Ergo must be a new victim.”
“Perhaps he just wants a chat.”
“Lestrade never just wants a chat. Not with me, anyway.” Sherlock smirks across at him, snatching the aeroplane out of the air. “And as he’s so lamentably fond of his little ministry’s policies, nor would he bring us in on a new case so soon after another Dementor attack - not unless it was something important. Like, for example, a corpse.”
John snorts. “Important like a corpse. Right. I’ll remember that-”
He’s cut off as Sherlock tugs on the wings of the paper plane, unfolding the origami in one smooth motion. Lestrade’s voice drifts free from the centre, his words as thin and papery and oddly transparent as all paper aeroplane correspondence, though beneath it John can hear the more human strain of a man weighed down by important corpses.
“New victim found,” the voice says. “Male, magical, mid-forties. Same condition as all the others, no cause of death to be found. No magic, either. His wand was in his hand but it’s gone completely dry – nobody could get a single spark out of it...”
It pauses, with a whispery sigh.
“Yes,” Sherlock murmurs. “Come on. Get to the interesting bit.”
“He was in the house right next to the alley where I found the pair of you. And, surprise surprise, looks like he died around that time, too. So now you’re the only known link to both incidents and certain members of the team are baying for your blood, and on top of that – if what you said the other day is right – there could be at least six more bodies waiting to be found.
“So if you’ve had any brilliant flashes of genius while you were listening to this, let me know as soon as you bloody can. You know where to find me.”
The voice trails off with one last weary sigh, so tangible John can almost see Lestrade pinching the bridge of his nose, before the paper jerks out of Sherlock’s hands and back up into air where it crumples itself up into a ball and explodes in a shower of ash.
“Typical ministry theatrics,” Sherlock mutters to himself as he picks specks of ash from his sleeves.
John shakes his head, brushing himself down. “So now we’re the only link between victims. Do you reckon that’s what this is? A really elaborate stitch up?”
“Of course not. How utterly predictable that would be. How pedestrian.” He stalks over to his map and stares up at it, fingers pressed to his lips. “Let us take Juniper Lockley as the first, as the starting point. Seven more? Fourteen? Number not as important as the message. The shape. We’ve had the first hemisphere, now here’s the... second...”
He trails off, going still.
Let us, John thinks wryly. And we. As if he and Sherlock thought in tandem, moved in tandem, John’s wand hand a magical extension of Sherlock’s grasping reach. In the silence, he steps closer to the map on the wall, examining it as closely as Sherlock had before he’d sunk down into his thoughts. Let us take Juniper Lockley as the first. It was a reasonable assumption to make. She was at the very edge of the sprawl of deaths, the top left with nothing north or west beyond her, although the dot-the-dot left in her wake seemed to form no comprehensible shape.
But they’d gone north after they’d left Lockley’s flat, now he thought about it, or been taken north at least. John’s brain couldn’t remember the journey but it seemed like his body could. Apparition always left a trace of something.
A trace of direction, perhaps.
Suddenly Sherlock is jerking back into motion, straightening upright as sharply as if a bolt of magic had shot down his spine. He claps his hands together.
“Ah!” he exclaims. “John, magic, now!”
“What, have you solved it?”
“Not yet, not quite, but we’re so close now. I can taste it. Heavenly. Your wand, John!”
Rolling his eyes, John pulls out his wand and lets Sherlock grab his arm and drag him into position, wand tip poised once again over Juniper’s name.
“How simple. How obvious. It’s been staring us in the face the whole time.” He squeezes John’s wrist, shaking their hands together. “The symmetry. The presence and the absence. To put it in obnoxiously trite terms, two halves of a whole.”
“Er,” John says. “You’re starting to make it sound like our dark wizard’s coming onto you.”
Sherlock glances sideways at him, his expression inscrutable. “Perhaps. Now then, do – whatever it is you do to make your silver thread appear and I’ll...”
He lapses into silence as the light spools out from the end of the John’s wand and, with a delicacy he normally reserves for his violin only, Sherlock begins to draw John’s arm through the air in a wide, sweeping circle that – as John sucks in a breath of understanding – begins to spiral inwards.
“Right,” he says. “I see. So it’s a – a trail of the dead, is it? Or half a trail and half a blueprint of future murder?”
Sherlock huffs out a warm breath of laughter, tickling the hairs on the back of John’s neck. “Precisely, albeit dramatically put. Thinking of your column in the Prophet, are you? Notice,” he adds, “although the victims appear to be scattered irregularly, our trail passes directly through the centre of each building rather than merely skimming it. Order from the chaos of London’s geography. It’s impressive, really.”
“You’re impressed? What am I asking – of course you’re impressed.”
“Of course,” Sherlock murmurs.
The inward spiral growing smaller and smaller, he draws John’s wand up through the arch and into the downward curve before, abruptly, he stops, steps back and lets go of John’s hand. He steeples his fingers with an almost imperceptible smile.
John taps the end of his wand against the wall, murmuring a quick incantation as he casts off the silver thread and the spiral floats back into the surface of the wallpaper, sinking into it to become a glowing inlay. The names remain undisturbed, bobbing gently in the air.
“We’re going to need to redecorate by the end of this,” he says,
Sherlock hums, still smiling that faintest trace of a smile as he pays John no attention. “Round and round the garden, certainly, but where do you end? What are you leading me to? Come along, John.”
He turns on his heel. Startled, John shoves his wand back into his pocket and grabs Sherlock by the elbow.
“Hang on, hang on. We can’t just go on a late night stroll to the centre of a serial killer’s maze.”
“Of course we can. It’s hardly late by London’s standards.”
“Not my point,” John says, giving Sherlock’s arm a shake. “What about Lestrade? What about all these poor people on your map who are apparently lying in the path of an extremely thorough mass murderer?”
Sherlock groans and tugs himself out of John’s grip to wave an emphatic hand at the centre of the spiral. “What about this? What’s in there? Houses, shops, a swimming pool, a library, perhaps a church or two. We could investigate the whole lot in half an hour. He could be waiting for us already.”
“Or he could be about to murder more people.”
They pause, Sherlock glaring at John and John glaring right back. Then Sherlock lowers his arm with a put-upon sigh.
“Oh, very well,” he says. “Very well. I suppose Lestrade does tend to take it personally if I fail to inform him of every minute, brain-numbing detail.”
He marches away to the cloak hooks, every movement screaming if I must as he tugs on and fastens his cloak. Snorting, John follows him and begins to shuck on his own jacket.
“And I take it personally when you forget about all the innocent lives at stake.”
“Ah. Well.” Sherlock pauses, lifting his chin to knot his scarf and watch John from the corner of his eye. “Yes, that too.”
Scarf knotted tight, Sherlock sweeps out of the flat and, close behind, John follows.
By three in the morning, there’s an Auror-led evacuation in full swing and John’s eyes are gritty with exhaustion as he watches Lestrade and his team shepherd the latest sleepily bewildered family out of the latest house in the projected path of the killer. It’s beginning to rain.
“I have to go to work in four hours, you know,” he says to Sherlock – to the top of Sherlock’s head, where Sherlock is sat down on the pavement, poring over a Muggle map of London he made one of the Muggleborn new recruits go and buy for him at the start of the night.
Things had flown into the hands of the Ministry and the Wizarding Law Enforcement within minutes of them entering Lestrade’s office, leaving John – technically a civilian – and Sherlock – just no longer bloody interested - sat on the edge of proceedings. Literally now, where the guard of shield casters stand with their wands held high, keeping out Muggles and busybodies alike. Fresh out of Hogwarts, the lot of them, and grimly determined to relish every ounce of work experience when they’d rather be in bed.
John knows the feeling.
“I said I have to be at work in four hours. Less than that, now.”
Sherlock glances up at him at last. His hair has been slowly plastering itself to his forehead in the drizzle, and his eyes look pale yellow in the orange glow of the Muggle lampposts.
“Oh,” he says. “Well, nobody is forcing you to remain. You’re hardly under an Unbreakable Vow, after all.”
“Might as well be, though.”
Sherlock raises an eyebrow.
“Nobody else will apparate with you, you know,” John points out. He crouches down next to Sherlock, peering at the map spread out on the ground before them. Sherlock has already lost interest in the victims and saved lives of the night, focussed instead on what – or who – lies at the centre of the killer’s spiral.
“Yes, really and yes, nobody. For some reason, People seem to think you might get distracted and try to stop them mid-turn.”
“That was years ago.”
“And yet my fingernails have never been the same since.”
Sherlock pauses, then picks up John’s hand and examines the nails closely. “So they aren’t. Though you did an admirable job of pulling yourself back together.”
John laughs too loudly, earning a reproachful look from the shield-caster closest to them. He mouths an apology her way – Merlin knows the last thing they need is for the temporary shield to break and scare the drunken Muggles stumbling home – but Sherlock pays her no mind, John’s fingernails forgotten as he turns back to his map. In a few days he will realise what sitting on a damp pavement has done to his astonishingly expensive robes and he’ll kick up an almighty fuss, but for now he kneels and lets the water soak into his knees as he brushes raindrops from street names.
“Observe,” he says, spreading a pale hand across the span of streets. “It’s such a small area.”
Sherlock shoots him a scandalised look.
Rolling his eyes, John perseveres. “Don’t give me that. I know what you’re angling for, and the answer’s no. We’re in the middle of a laborious, citywide evacuation. No sneaking off to where a murderous dark wizard might be hiding. Or,” he adds darkly, “what might just be a trap.”
“Of course it’s a trap. When is it ever not a trap?”
“Exactly. You’ll get yourself abducted whilst practically ever bloody Auror in the country is busy rescuing the people you told them to rescue, and nobody will have the time to dash around after you.”
“With my intellect and your wand, we could have the whole area searched in half an hour,” Sherlock insists.
Ignoring him, Sherlock rocks back on his heels and smoothes his hands over the map.
“You need at least six hours sleep to feel refreshed in the morning,” he says. “Going to bed at this hour will only make you irritable tomorrow, detrimental to both our lives. Surely you’d prefer to spend your inevitably sleepless night apprehending a dangerous criminal rather than sitting in the damp watching members of your former profession have all the fun?”
John sighs. It is cold, and it is damp, and Sherlock is watching him with an all-too-knowing look. Rubbing his stiff shoulder, John turns from Sherlock’s gaze. He watches Lestrade across the street, talking animatedly to a small, green flame at the end of his wand, whilst the freshly evacuated family, all wrapped up in bright orange Auror-issue robes, are ushered into the arms of the waiting St Mungo’s apparators. They twist and spin and disappear, with sharp cracks that echo up and down the street.
“Keep that down, would you? This is a covert operation,” Lestrade snaps, the green flame winking out. He waves his team over and they begin a hushed conversation.
The seconds tick by. Their killer could be waiting for them right now, John knows. Or for Sherlock, at least. He could be waiting to kill him. Or he could be busy killing someone else.
Next to him, Sherlock makes a soft, dismissive noise.
“Lestrade,” he says, “is also considerably duller than dangerous criminals.”
“What?” John blinks, shakes his head, wiping the drizzle out of his eyes. “No, I know, shut up. I think something’s happening.”
Sure enough, Lestrade’s group splinters and hurries apart, an air of urgency about them as Lestrade turns and makes his way towards Sherlock and John, expression grim.
“Let joy be unconfined,” Sherlock murmurs, but he springs gracefully up onto his feet, smoothing down his robes and shaking his map dry. He must have bullied one of the new recruits into casting a waterproofing charm on it, as the rain bounces right off.
“The dung’s hit the dragon,” Lestrade says as soon as he’s in hearing distance. “Just got off the Floo with Weasley. His team’s found another victim, same M.O. as usual. What a bloody mess.”
“That brings us up to six. There’ll be one more.” Sherlock rustles his map open, holding it up to his face to study the streets. With the map only inches from his nose, he could almost look like a particularly lost tourist, but his eyes are too sharp and his voice too cold as he adds, “Invigorating, but hardly dung worthy, Lestrade. What else?”
Lestrade sighs. He turns to John.
“The story has leaked. We’ve managed to keep everything under wraps for these last few days, but now some genius has gone and let it slip to the Prophet, and the Daily Owl and the Teleport are sure to follow. If we’re lucky, it’s too late to make the morning editions, but come lunchtime we’ll be front page. You know what they’re like.”
From behind his map, Sherlock snorts. “Oh, indeed. It’s all the Ministry’s fault, nobody’s safe in their beds, everything is worse than Voldemort. Sensationalist tripe. What good company you keep, John.”
“It’s nothing to do with me. I just write the odd little column for the Prophet every now and again.” John pauses, glancing at Lestrade. “It really is nothing to do with me. I might be able to find out who leaked it and to which journalist, but that’s about all I can do.”
Lestrade sighs again, but he offers John a tight, faint smile. “It’s okay. Not really your job, is it?”
“Technically, nor is this.”
“No offence, mate, but you’ve got some weird hobbies.”
Suddenly, loudly, Sherlock lets out a laugh. He lowers his map to grin at them both, slightly wild-eyed.
“It wasn’t that funny, was it?” Lestrade asks.
“Merlin, no. But look.” Sherlock waves the map under Lestrade’s nose, still beaming, though with a certain smug quality that John recognises all too well. “Look, the seventh body must be here. Simple mathematics.”
“Simple, eh? God, no, don’t explain. Just let me...”
Lestrade swats Sherlock’s hands away, taking hold of the map himself to squint down at the street Sherlock had pointed out. “That’s in Donovan’s path. If she’s not there already, she must be heading there by now. You’ll have to be on your best behaviour, mind. My team’s got to keep going on this route.”
Sherlock groans and pulls a face, evidently torn between examining the seventh victim versus avoiding Donovan, until in the end John rolls his eyes, grabbing Sherlock’s arm.
“Come on,” he says. “If you’re poking corpses, you’re not dashing off after dark wizards. Even Donovan would appreciate that.”
Sherlock smiles wryly at that, very brief but genuine, and he twists himself to take hold of John’s wrist. It’s the most practiced of movements.
“Very well. I’ll endeavour not to distract you mid-travel.”
“My fingernails appreciate it.”
They pop back into existence on the outside of a freshly cast shield barrier. Past the raised wands and that strange, crackling haze of new magic, John can see Donovan on the street inside the bubble, talking into her wand’s green flame. She glances up to meet John’s gaze, rolling her eyes but not looking the least bit surprised – Lestrade on the other end of the Floo, then.
“There you go, Lestrade’s Flooed ahead to warn Sally,” he says, nudging Sherlock as he disentangles their arms. “You might not even have to talk to her, now.”
Smoothing the apparition creases out of his robe, Sherlock hums noncommittally. His eyes are narrowed, his gaze fixed on a point above John’s head. John follows the direction up to where all the spells of the shield-casters meet at the centre, forming the dome that crackles over the street in sporadic waves of faint, electric blue.
“Sorry,” John says. “I forgot about the shield. What – I’ve never asked, but what can you actually see there?”
Sherlock sniffs, and he shoots John an irritated glance, before he reluctantly admits, “I can make out the casters. The street beyond seems... changed, if I focus. As if I’m looking at it through a mirage. It’s unimportant. It requires rather more concentration than I’m willing to invest in the scenery. Come along.”
Sherlock tugs off his gloves and strides forward towards the nearest shield-caster, who quickly - and with a terrified expression - lowers her portion of the shield enough for him to pass through it. Sherlock winks out of existence and then, as John watches, reappears on the other side of the barrier. He has to pause, theatrically folding his gloves together and slipping them into a pocket, before he minutely readjusts his course to head in Donovan’s direction. He doesn’t look back.
On the outside of the shield still, John pauses too, studying the street. There’s a prickling sensation somewhere at the back of his mind. More importantly, there’s a small group of witches and wizards lingering on the edge of the shield; mostly teenagers jostling each other for a glimpse inside, but a few middle-aged types looking concerned in their pyjamas too, which is never a good sign.
John sighs, advancing.
“Move along, would you? This is a Muggle street. It’s going to attract attention, a whole group of you standing here looking at nothing.”
One of the older witches sniffs disapprovingly, eyeing John as she tugs her dressing gown tighter around herself. “I’m not going anywhere until I know we’re safe in our beds tonight.”
“Yeah,” pipes up a teen wizard. “Look at all them Aurors. This is probably the safest place to stand in London with that lot around.”
There’s a chorus of nods and disgruntled hear-hears, and sniggering from amongst the teens.
“Now, look,” John begins over the complaining, but he’s interrupted by a blindingly bright flash of blue light. He winces, reaching reflexively for his wand for all that they’re out in the Muggle open, before it registers that the people around him are muttering rather than screaming, standing there rather than running away. Not an attack then, he realises, but something much worse.
“Sorry about that, Watson,” pipes up an all too familiar voice. “Didn’t see you there. Didn’t know this was one of yours.”
“Bloody hell,” John groans, shooing witches and wizards out of the way to reveal Dennis Creevey, camera in hand and a fresh bulb at the ready. He grins up at John even as John surges forwards to grab him by the cloak-fastening and drag him out of the crowd.
“How did you get here so quickly?” he hisses. “I know you lot are eager, but the whole bloody thing only leaked, what, half an hour ago?”
“Where there’s a story, there’s a Prophet,” Creevey announces proudly, before visibly deflating. “Can’t lie, Watson, I’d rather be in bed, but Ernie Flooed me twenty minutes ago and told me it was urgent. Don’t suppose you could give me a quote or two? Something juicy?”
“You know I can’t, Creevey. I’m not-” John raises his voice slightly for the crowd still lingering and obviously trying to eavesdrop. “-an appointed Ministry official in any way, shape or form, so I can’t answer anyone’s questions.”
They mutter and grumble, and John can distinctly hear the irritated witch hissing about whether or not they’ll be safe in their beds tonight, but more importantly they pull back, losing interest in John and his conversation. He tugs Creevey a little further away nevertheless and lowers his voice.
“But off the record, Dennis, this whole thing is a mess. You’d really be doing me a favour if you let me know how the Prophet got wind of it all. And in return – Look, I can’t make any promises, but I could see about getting you a proper statement before the Teleport gets its claws in.”
Creevey nods. He looks relieved. Beneath the wide-eyed reporter act, John knows, Creevey fought for Hogwarts when he was barely fourteen years old.
“Honestly, Watson, it’s got everyone at the Prophet a bit rattled. We were sent a letter. By post, mind you, not owl. Ernie was woken up by some poor Muggle postman wandering around outside in his slippers because he couldn’t find a letterbox. So Ernie gave him a cup of tea, read the letter and Flooed everyone in the department to wake up.” Creevey pauses, staring down at his camera. “Obviously the Aurors were all too tied up with this to deal with a confused Muggle postman when I left, and it’s been years since I saw an Imperius, but...”
He trails off.
“Shit,” John says. “That – can’t be – oh, shit. Creevey, I’ll owl you about a statement later, but this can’t be good and I’ve really got to-”
He doesn’t bother finishing his sentence, doesn’t even know what he would say; John just turns and pushes his way through the shield, shuddering slightly at the sharp, prickling sensation of pure magic, like licking the end of a wand.
Donovan looks up at him from the other side of the street as soon as he’s passed through. She beckons him over, with her face pale and her mouth set in a thin line. She hates working with Sherlock as much as Sherlock hates working with her – but as John crosses the road towards where she, Sherlock and a few unfamiliar Aurors are standing, he takes in the tension in the air, the small groups of Aurors rushing in and out of the house, whispering to each other as unhappily as the gossipers still stood outside the shield.
“- should Floo Potter,” he hears someone say in passing.
Not just Sherlock putting that look on Donovan’s face, then.
“What’s happened?” he asks as soon as he’s close enough to be heard.
“You took your time,” Sherlock says, glaring at him.
“No, listen, I spoke to Creevey. This could be important. He says-”
“Keep the Prophet out of this,” Donovan interrupts. “You’re here on Ministry business. And you’re a Healer. You need to take a look at this.”
John glances at Sherlock. “Is someone hurt?”
“Someone’s dead,” Donovan says, before Sherlock can respond.
She crosses her arms and lifts her chin to stare at them both. Her gaze is steady and calm, but around them a very quiet state of contained panic is unfolding. John watches people flit back and forth out of the corner of his eyes.
“It’s messy, Watson. We’ve not seen something this bad in a long time. Even Voldemort kept things tidy. And it’s still warm, you know. Psycho must have done it and left right before we arrived. Almost like he was warned, isn’t it?”
“Sally, we’ve been with Lestrade the whole time, you can’t possibly – Sherlock!”
“Still warm?” Sherlock hisses, jerking forwards sharply, grabbing hold of Donovan’s shoulder and shaking her. He lets go at John’s interjection and Donovan backs away, glaring at him, but he glares back with more than their usual mutual venom; with real anger in his eyes. “Must have? For Merlin’s sake, you didn’t think to mention this sooner? Saving yourself for the dramatic monologue, were we?”
“Must have left or did not leave?”
John stills. Donovan, too, stills. Sherlock turns and stalks away, towards the house. For a second, they both watch him go.
“All right then,” Donovan shouts then, turning away from John too as she snaps back into action. “We need to clear the street, get all civilians out of here! Hewitt, Fletcher, get on it.”
“McElvy, Floo the other teams, alert Potter, we need backup. Suspect may still be at large in the area! Are you listening? Suspect still at large!”
“Donovan!” John snaps. “Talk to Creevey. Dennis Creevey, big camera, from the Prophet, you can’t miss him. I think the killer was the one who leaked the story.”
Donovan’s expression hardens, but she nods once, sharply, and John can see her eyes already scanning the crowd of gawping civilians. Duty done, he spins away and chases after Sherlock.
Even in the bustle of Aurors moving with a fresh sense of purpose – dark wizards are still easier to cope with than a messy death - and new personnel apparating onto the street with every step John takes, Sherlock moves through the crowd like a beacon, easy to follow. John catches him by the elbow as he’s pushing open the gate to the little front garden.
“Ah,” Sherlock says. “There you are.”
“Are you mad? We establish our new best friend could still be hanging around and you dash off to his last known location?”
Sherlock shoots him a dubious look, already halfway up the garden path, and John has to laugh, and has to follow him.
“What am I asking? Of course you do.”
“Of course,” Sherlock murmurs, touching the door handle. “Unlikely he’s still in here, anyway. He’s meticulous, not a risk taker. Not yet, at least. But he knew I knew he’d be here next, so why not stay to watch the show? I would.”
“This could be dangerous,” John says, because he feels he ought to.
“We’re merely investigating a crime scene. It’s our job.”
“Don’t you want to see what he’s left for us?”
Eyebrow raised, Sherlock turns the handle without waiting for a reply. The door opens easily beneath his fingers, releasing the stench of fresh, bright blood. The smell is so strong even Sherlock has to take a step back, letting the front door swing wide open before them. It’s so strong it feels to John like a physical presence, like something is touching his face, like something is –
“My goodness,” says John’s voice, John’s feet walking him backwards down the garden path and through the gate. “Is it stuffy in here or is it just me? No? Just me?”
Sherlock is staring at him. John’s mouth grins and John’s hand lifts his wand up to point at the great dome of magic still crackling electric blue overhead.
“How about,” his voice says, “I let a little air in?”
And the shield shatters.
It breaks with one high note, like a ringing wine glass, fragments of singed magic peeling back overhead, and all around them are yelps of surprise as the magic rebounds back into wands and the shield casters drop them with burning fingers.
There is shouting. There is the sharp, acrid scent of something burning. And the blood.
John’s body’s ears are ringing. John’s body is thrumming with barely contained energy, wand hot in his body’s hands, mouth curling into what someone could call a smile. He spins on his heels and shoots a bolt of scarlet light into the advancing crowd, knocking Aurors off their feet. Another fired off randomly into the houses, windows breaking; someone screams and people run for cover. And then another, fired right up into the air like a Muggle firework, so red light crackles over the street and drifts back down in a shower of sparks that delicately burn the skin.
“Watson!” Donovan yells, from somewhere in the chaos.
“Stand down,” Sherlock shouts, darting forwards and raising a hand at the dozens of Aurors closing in on them. “Lower your wands, you idiots, it isn’t John. Search the houses, clear the streets, do something less incompetent than usual. Leave this to me.”
Donovan darts into view, her wand still drawn despite Sherlock’s interjection, but she’s nodding and barely paying any attention to the two of them as she takes charge. Teams disperse and teams remain, standing guard. Somewhere in the distance an alarm is ringing.
Sherlock ignores it all. He advances, slowly, towards John’s body. John’s eyes are fixed on Sherlock.
“I’m warning you,” Donovan calls to him from the midst of her assembling team. “Watson or not, the second he starts attacking again, every Auror on this street will stop him.”
She leaves. Sherlock ignores that, too.
“I waited for you,” John’s voice says, still smiling. “But you stood me up. Could hurt a person’s feelings.”
“I was busy. Your handiwork.”
“Ah, ah yes, all those little deaths. All those little boring bodies.” He twirls the wand slowly around John’s fingers. “Nice wand, this. I could get used to it. Did you get your present?”
“The blood? Tacky.”
“It was a spur of the moment thing. You know how it is, you get bored, you find something new to stick your hands in. And your elbows. And your teeth.” He turns in a circle, taking in the frontline of Aurors still standing guard over the scene, all wands raised and ready. John’s eyes blink slowly, curiously, at them.
“Show me your real face,” Sherlock says, taking another step closer. “You go to all this effort to be noticed and then you hide?”
John’s body swivels back to face him again. “I’m just so shy and retiring.”
“I’d like to meet you.”
And as John’s teeth grin, the world goes suddenly silent and suddenly cold.
“Dementors!” someone shouts at the end of the street.
Beyond the guards, panicked civilians are running back and forth, some clearly Muggle in their outfits and confusion, and there is screaming and shouting and the constant, steady crack of apparition as back-up appears and civilians disappear. Up and down the street windows are still shattering from the magical aftershock, in fresh bursts of glass and screams.
Sherlock ignores it, but John’s eyes flicker to the side.
“Sherlock-” John begins, and then he’s gone again. “Oh! Oh my, that almost took me by surprise. He’s like a dog with a bone, isn’t he? A little half-breed. Won’t stop yapping away.”
He snaps his teeth together. John’s mouth smiles, but it’s not John’s smile; it’s a shark’s. “Maybe I should take the mongrel walkies.”
“Never mind him, he’s not important,” Sherlock snaps, closing what’s left of the distance between them. “What do you want from me?”
John’s eyes’ slide slowly back onto him. “World peace? Or is it a little less conversation, a little more action? Oh, Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes. The things we could do together, you and I and all my new friends. The places we could go. The dogs we could walk.”
He smiles beatifically, arms spread open, eyes sliding half-shut. “Soon.”
Sherlock smiles back, and then he jerks sharply forwards and head-butts John’s body hard between the eyes, and his right fist rises up as John’s body reels back and he punches John in the jaw.
John staggers. He sits down heavily in the middle of the road.
“Number forty-seven,” he says. “White door, green curtains. He’ll be gone by now. Thank you.”
“Of course,” Sherlock murmurs, reaching down and tugging John back up onto his feet.
A few of the quicker Aurors are already running towards the house John had described, the white door bursting open before them in a shower of sparks. The street is bright with the glow of dozens of Patronuses, and beyond that cold and deeply dark with the press of Dementors. John shivers, and winces, and bends down to retrieve his wand from the tarmac.
“Top left window. Curtain twitched,” says Sherlock. “Most likely Auror or occupant. Unlikely serial killer.”
John looks back up in time to see a dark expression pass across Sherlock’s face. He touches the tender bruise on his jaw.
Sherlock frowns and clears his throat.
“I observed in the alley yesterday afternoon that pinching you seemed to help bring you out of the Imperius. Pain is known to have a grounding effect in certain personality types.”
“It is.” John smiles up at him as much as he can as he works his aching jaw back and forth. “Very effective. Thanks. Again.”
Sherlock nods at him, still frowning. There’s a bright red mark in the centre of his forehead; John can feels its twin throbbing away on his own face.
“All civilians to St Mungo’s,” Donovan says from behind them. “That means you. Now. He’s nowhere to be found and the Dementors are retreating – or losing interest – or whatever it is they do. Clean up is priority, someone will get statements from you in the hospital later. Go.”
She crosses her arms and glares at them, both of them, her wand still in hand. “This is about you two, somehow. This happened because of the pair of you. Do you have any idea how many Oblivations it’s going to take to sort it out?”
“Several dozen.” Sherlock sneers. “At least.”
“Yes,” she says, coolly. “Thank you both so bloody much.”
She stalks away, bright green flame already flickering into existence on the end of her wand while she Floos whatever few people in the department aren’t already on the scene. The Aurors are trooping back out of number forty-seven, shaking their heads, muttering. John spots, amidst the dispersing crowds, the middle-aged witch in the dressing gown shaking while she’s led away.
The Dementors melt back into the shadows, the silver light fading, and the night is just as cold and just as dark in their absence.
“He doesn’t like the Dementors,” John says. “However it is they’re involved in this, it’s not his doing.”
Sherlock hums thoughtfully.
“Not deliberately, at least,” he says.
By the time John finally sits down to wait his turn, in the wake of a dozen calming charms and soothing draughts and treatment for minor burns and bruises, the sun is rising. Pale autumn light leaks through the row of enchanted windows, charmed to slide across the outside of the building to catch every last ray of natural light whilst remaining motionless on the inside. Even after all these years, they still give John a headache.
“Stop that, would you,” he says.
Sherlock, pacing up and down the aisle, halts and glares at him.
Never a great fan of hospitals or the general public, Sherlock had made himself useful chasing away all the fakers from the crowd of evacuated civilians: a rabble of early-rising journalists and bored young witches and wizards back from a night out on Diagon Alley, all equally eager for gossip. And now all equally frightened of the man in the long black cloak who had sneered at their secrets before they even opened their mouths.
“Not you,” John clarifies. “The windows. They’re squabbling over the sunrise.”
Sherlock scoffs. “Voldemort himself could stroll down the street and nobody would know, because all the windows are sharing one square metre on the other side of the building. Absurd.”
“Natural light aids recovery.”
“Voldemort, on the other hand, does not.”
John laughs despite himself, sudden and loud, and then winces when it tugs at the bruises on his face.
Sherlock scowls at it. “If you’d just-”
“I’ve told you before, Healers aren’t supposed to heal themselves, not since-”
“Yes, yes, since Healer Otiwell and his engorgement charm gone awry. I remember the whole sordid affair,” Sherlock says breezily, resuming his pacing. “You heal yourself all the time.”
“Not on duty, at least. Not right in the middle of the bloody hospital. Merlin’s beard, stop moving around. You’re worse than the windows.”
Sherlock flops down onto the seat opposite him. The crowd has long since died down now, and the only other people left in the waiting room are a handful of singed Aurors, playing a quiet game of snap with Muggle cards and studiously ignoring the pair of them; one genuine patient, throwing Sherlock nervous looks and holding his cloak very tightly around himself; and the Assistant Healer behind the desk, staring up at the clock.
The view through the windows shifts once more as they follow the sunrise up the wall.
“I’m fine, anyway,” John says. “There were a lot of very frightened people needing immediate attention. I’ve just got a few bruises.”
Sherlock tuts. John can see it on his face as the words form: bruises are more severe than simply being frightened, surely. Just as visible is Sherlock’s deeply held belief that he and John are superior to the rest of London, Muggle and Magic alike, and are impervious to real harm, with no such thing as a severe bruise even in comparison to the boring little upsets of other people. John watches as Sherlock’s mouth twists in irritation at the internal conflict, and he tries not to laugh.
“John?” Molly calls, sticking her head around the door. She smiles at him nervously, her eyes flicking back and forth between him and Sherlock. “I’m not busy right now, so if you like, I can-”
“Don’t you normally work in the morgue?”
Molly jumps, eyes wide.
“Sherlock-” John says.
“It’s a perfectly civil question. She’s more experienced with corpses. You aren’t a corpse.”
“I, I...” Molly shakes her head, rallying herself as she steps back to let them pass through the door. “I’m still an Assistant Healer, so I do a lot of everything. Wherever I’m needed. It’s quite fun, really.”
Sherlock stares flatly down at her; Molly does an admirable job of staring back.
“I’m sorry,” John mtters. “It’s been a long day, even by our standards. Long enough that he’s apparently forgotten how to even pretend not to be rude,” he adds, shooting Sherlock a glare.
Molly smiles at him again, less nervous now as she ignores Sherlock and carefully takes hold of John’s chin between forefinger and thumb, tilting his head to the side. She clucks her tongue sympathetically.
“You needn’t be so worried, anyway, Sherlock-”
“He’s had worse, haven’t you, John?” she says. “I’m sure you’ve given him worse.”
John grins sideways at her as she raises her wand and murmurs a quick incantation, tapping the edge of his jaw. “Haven’t you heard the hospital gossip? He gave me this, too.”
Molly pulls back, staring at him and then twisting around to look up at Sherlock, until the expression on his face makes her turn back to John again.
“Oh,” she says. “Well. Righto then.”
“It was necessary,” Sherlock snaps.
John nods, Molly’s hand moving up and down with the motion. “It was. For a change.”
Molly offers him another small smile, raising her wand to his forehead. John can feel the swelling die down beneath her touch, the dull throb at the front of his brain disappearing with it, and he sighs in relief.
“Maybe you should take the day off,” she says as she lets him go.
John groans. He rolls his shoulders. The pain – the necessary pain – Sherlock had inflicted is gone, but the usual aches remain. He’d been young once, surely? He’d fought in a war.
He checks his pocket watch. It’s gone six now; no time to catch his breath, barely time for a cup of tea and a sit down before his shift officially begins, with the promise of a busy working day and then, inevitably, back into the warzone with Sherlock in the evening.
“Merlin’s bloody beard,” John murmurs. “I think I’m due a day off.”
“The worst they can do is sack you,” Molly says, before she pales and quickly adds, “I mean, er, you’ve got your column in the Prophet and your work with Sherlock of course, so it wouldn’t really matter if you got in trouble, which you wouldn’t after a night like this, anyway.”
She glances up at Sherlock, who raises an eyebrow.
“Molly,” he says. “You work in the morgue a lot.”
“Yes, but I’m trained to work in almost every department right now,” she says, “and I healed John perfectly well, so would you please just-”
“I was going to ask if you knew the status of one of our victims,” Sherlock says. “As John’s sensibly shirking his duties and you’re presumably more up to date than he is.”
Molly flushes, her mouth snapping shut. Then she takes a deep breath and lets it out in a little laugh.
“Do you know, that was almost polite, for you? Who was it you’re after?”
Sherlock glances at John expectantly. John frowns, shrugs, pauses mid-shrug as his brain begins to whirr back into gear.
“Lockley? Was that it? Juniper Lockley?”
“That rings a bell.” Molly shrugs, starting to gather up her parchment scrolls and her cloak. “They performed a Muggle examination on her, didn’t they? Had to call in a Muggleborn specially for it. You two were behind that, then, were you? I did wonder. It sounded fascinating. Did you know, Muggles sew up their—”
“The status, Molly.”
Glancing across at him as she fiddles with her cloak fastening, the scrolls slide from her grip. She swears softly and ducks her head, gathering them back together. “I’m not sure. I think it’s all finished. I wasn’t involved, but I’m heading down there now if you want to come with me. Or I could owl you, or, er.”
Nodding, Sherlock sweeps out of the office. Molly stares after him.
“Here,” John says, handing her the last of her scrolls. “He’ll be off down to the morgue. He hates owls.”
“Oh. Can he not use them or...?”
“I think he just thinks they’re messy, to be honest.”
John smirks at her ruefully and Molly laughs. She lifts her chin and tugs her cloak on, fastening it with steady fingers. “He’s got a point.”
“Yes, he often has. Unfortunately.”
Still smiling, John follows her out into the waiting room. It’s completely empty now, save for the Assistant Healer still sat at the desk, dozing with her chin propped on her hands. On the wall behind her, a portrait full of eminent Healers are nudging one another like gossiping first years, pointing at Sherlock, but they hastily resume their noble poses when John passes them with a warning look.
Sherlock stands and stares out the window, hands clasped behind his back. Through the window, the view slides back and forth in uncertain inches, the sun still not yet fully risen.
“Come on then,” John says. “Haven’t got all day.”
“I’m facing south-west,” Sherlock says. “With a north-easterly view. The things you people do.”
But he turns and, raising an eyebrow at Molly’s cautious smile, follows them into the lift.
The staff lift shoots along, taking the corners at breakneck speed, with Sherlock muttering the precise compass directions all the while. John feels on the verge of vomiting or just lying down and trying to have a nap when at last the door opens and they step out into the Portkey office.
The morgue’s security has been tight ever since the First War, when Deatheaters attacked St Mungo’s and turned the recently deceased into Inferi. Ever since then it’s been accessible by Portkey only, with only the Chief Healer ever knowing the precise location. John was just a few years old at the time, but he still remembers that attack. The Prophet coverage gave Harry, three years his senior, screaming nightmares for a month. Sometimes it’s little wonder she came out of the Second War an alcoholic.
“Morning, Mike,” Molly says, more cheerful now she’s back down in the familiar chill and the marble tiles and the wavering blue light. “Three to the morgue, please.”
But Healer Stamford is already standing and shaking his head as she speaks. He shoots John and Sherlock an apologetic look over her shoulder. “I can’t.”
“I’m sorry, John – and you, too, Sherlock. Molly’s fine, but – I got this half an hour ago...” He trails off, holding a piece of heavy, official-looking parchment out to them.
Molly and John both reach out for it, but Sherlock snatches it over their heads. He goes silent as he reads, jaw set, and when he lifts his head again there’s a hard look in his eyes. Behind him, Stamford wrings his hands, expression anguished.
“We are – banned,” Sherlock says. “From the morgue, from the investigation – from all investigations. We are to return home immediately. My brother–” His voice drops, his nostrils flare, he forces the words out as if they hurt him. “– will meet us there.”
Molly presses a hand to her mouth, and Stamford is still talking, saying “I’m sorry,” and “My hands are tied,” but John can only stare up at Sherlock. He feels sick again. Sherlock stares back, slowly and deliberately tearing the parchment in half and letting the pieces drop onto the floor.
Apparating straight from the hospital, they crack back into existence in the street outside 221B. John catches hold of Sherlock’s sleeve as he marches past and gives it a tug.
“Just – try to keep cool,” John says. “Okay? We don’t know what this is about yet, but if you charge in shouting and being - you, it’ll only make things worse -”
Sherlock kicks the door open.
“-just like that.”
The door rebounds loudly against the hall wall, almost swinging shut in their faces before Sherlock catches it as he shoves through, and Mrs Hudson sticks her head around her living room door.
“Careful, Sherlock. Mind the paint. Where have you boys been? You have guests. At this hour!”
“Sorry, Mrs Hudson, sorry,” John says, closing the door gently behind him and patting her on the shoulder.
“My brother is no guest-”
“No, dear, of course not, but then there’s your Auror friend, and some chaps from the Ministry, and Harry Potter of all people. Banging on the door at this hour, and me in my dressing gown. It’s indecent.”
Sherlock, pacing back and forth at the bottom of the stairs and glaring up towards their flat, freezes at the mention of Potter. John’s hand tightens on Mrs Hudson’s warm shoulder.
“Saviour of the Wizarding World,” she whispers, “and one of you has finished off the nice biscuits. The Boy Who Lived, eating my broken digestives. I’ll never live it down.”
“He’s – he’s a decent bloke, Potter,” John says. “He won’t mind a few broken biscuits.”
“Do you think so? I put them on a nice plate-”
Her worry is interrupted by Sherlock, exploding.
“Mycroft!” he bellows, launching himself up the stairs two steps at a time, leaving Mrs Hudson gasping and shaking her head.
“Like a herd of elephants,” she says.
John gives her another pat on the shoulder, forcing out a smile. “It’ll be fine, Mrs Hudson. Just go back to bed. I’ll take it from here.”
Clutching at the edges of her dressing gown, Mrs Hudson stares up at him. She takes hold of his hand on her shoulder.
“You boys aren’t in trouble, are you?”
“I don’t -” Up above them, there is the unmistakeable sound of Sherlock kicking another door open, the thud as it too rebounds off the wall, raised voices. John grimaces. “I don’t know. Maybe. It’ll be fine.”
Mrs Hudson nods, giving his fingers a squeeze. Her gaze drifts upwards. “Perhaps you’d better-”
John runs. At the top of the stairs, the door is still swinging on its hinges, and there in the living room is Lestrade, his hands help up in placation, his words coming in snatches over the sound of John’s own heartbeat.
“-warned you – hate this as much as you, but I warned - come on, Sherlock, don’t be-”
The argument halts at John’s appearance, all faces turned towards him. He has to pause in the doorway, steadying himself with one hand, taking in the scene. His shoulder aches. He recognises Lestade, of course, though the dejected expression on his face is less familiar; and Myrcroft; and Chief Auror Potter, looking distinctly uncomfortable with a plate of biscuits in his hands. The others he’s only seen in passing at the Ministry, but their robes look official and their faces grim, and that’s bad enough.
And at the centre of it all stands Sherlock, incandescent in his fury.
“John,” he says.
“What happened to keeping cool?”
“These idiots are-”
“I’m placing you both under house arrest,” says Lestrade loudly over Sherlock’s words. “On Ministry orders.”
“Mycroft, you have no right,” Sherlock begins, ignoring Lestrade’s interruption.
“It’s not just Mycroft’s doing, Sherlock,” Lestrade says. “It’s got to be done. For your own protection, for goodness sake. Tonight was a mess and Mycroft tells me it’s not the first time you’ve been cursed by this maniac, John. I had to inform Potter.”
“Right.” John steps into the room at last, walking to Sherlock’s side.
“I wouldn’t,” Mycroft says.
“Grab my dear brother and disapparate.” Mycroft draws his wand casually. “I’m sure it’s crossed your mind, but I advise against it. Strongly.”
In a flurry of activity, the delegate of officials have their own wands drawn and pointed at John, and Lestrade is stepping forwards with his hands raised, Sherlock with his hands in fists; Mycroft remains motionless, his wand idly swinging in his fingers.
John throws an arm out in front of Sherlock, tugging his own wand out with his other hand. “Bloody hell. Calm. Let’s all try for calm, eh? I’m not going anywhere, so can we just-?”
Mycroft nods his head a fraction of an inch and the delegates’ wands disappear back into the folds of their robes. Sherlock’s fists remain clenched. Potter clears his throat and belatedly notices the plate of biscuits still in his hands, which he quickly puts down on the coffee table.
“Look, let’s be sensible. You too, Mr Holmes,” he adds, with a look in Mycroft’s direction, till Mycroft stows his wand away. “This really is for your own safety. Protective custody. This bloke has clearly made you both his targets, and if what Lestrade tells me is true, it’s affecting your magic, Watson?”
“Something like that,” John admits, lowering his own wand.
“Right. So until we can put a stop to that, neither of you can adequately protect yourselves from the powerful mass murderer that’s after you.” Potter shrugs. “We can’t let you carry on the investigation like that. It’d be sending you both to your deaths.”
“Take us off the case, then. Give us a bodyguard. House arrest seems a little drastic to me.”
Mycroft chuckles at that but Potter remains deadly serious, shaking his head. “Come on, Watson. You’re an ex-Auror and Holmes is, er – an enthusiast. We both know you’d escape a guard and leap right back on the case the second our backs are turned. Especially now it’s personal.”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, John chances a glance at Sherlock. He’s still frozen in place where he stands, hands fisted at his sides, a small and furious smile playing on his lips as he stares at his brother. Mycroft gazes back to him, utterly placid.
“Sherlock,” John murmurs. “I don’t see a way out of this.”
“There’s always a way out,” Sherlock says, and then nothing else.
“Well, great. That’s terrific. Let me know if you feel like sharing.”
“We have all the necessary paperwork,” Mycroft interrupts smoothly, turning away from Sherlock at last. “Signed in triplicate, if you’d care to peruse a copy. There is, I assure you both, no way out. It would be pleasant for all if you cooperate.”
John shoots Sherlock one last glance, but he remains unmoving.
Lestrade clears his throat in the silence and steps forward once more. He looks at John apologetically as he recites, “John Watson, I hereby relinquish you of your wand or alternate magic-casting artefact until such time as the Ministry deems fit to return it to you.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Sorry, mate. Really. But, well.” Lestrade holds his hand out. “Either I take it from you now, quick and easy, or it goes to the Wizengamot, and God knows when they’d get it back to you.”
“Has everyone gone mad?” John protests, holding his wand tighter. “Haven’t we all just agreed that a mass murderer is after Sherlock and me and now you’re taking away the one chance we might have of defending ourselves?”
“It is protocol,” Mycroft says.
“What if he bursts through the door the second you’re gone? Or should I just tell him to come back when the Ministry deems it fit and hope for the bloody best?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry, John,” Sherlock says. “He’d have to get past Mrs Hudson first. And after all,” he adds, with a twist of his lips and a glance at his brother, “protective custody is Mycroft’s specialty.”
Mycroft inclines his head in agreement. John stares at them both, the two of them equally calm, equally inscrutable, and he thinks about disarming Mycroft and then taking on the others – five against two, but he’s a crack shot in a duel and Sherlock packs a mean punch, they could probably come out on top, and then – what? And then what?
“You’re fine with this?” he says to Sherlock. “This is all okay with you?”
“I’ve survived this far without a magic stick. I’m sure you’ll manage.”
“Your safety is assured,” Mycroft says. “We shall be taking extra precautions.”
John sighs. His shoulders slump, aching, and he holds his wand out to Lestrade, who takes it with a relieved sigh. Without a wand to hold, his hand now feels impossibly light and the rest of him feels cold and heavy. It isn’t pleasant.
Mycroft clears his throat, claps his hands together. “Mr Potter, if you would? I understand the Fidelius Charm is something of a specialty of your own.”
“I’ve had experience,” Potter says. He steps forward with a grim expression. “You’ll be Secret Keeper?”
Once the Charm has been cast, Mycroft watches and waits while the others file out of the flat, that small polite smile still lingering on his lips, until at last it’s just him and Sherlock and John left standing in the middle of the room.
“There is,” he says, “one final precaution.”
Taking a deep, steady breath, he closes his eyes and raises his wand over his head. He brings it down again in a slow arc, his hand straining with the effort as if he’s dragging a heavy weight behind it. There is a low rumble that gets steadily louder, and the sound of bricks grinding against each other, and John’s skin tingles with the slow build up of magical energy. The walls seem to warp around them. As he watches, the windows twist in the middle as though they’re being sucked down a drain, sluggish at first, but growing faster and faster with the movement of Mycroft’s wand – until, with a loud pop, they disappear completely. The room shivers. Dust falls from the ceiling. Then, silence.
Mycroft pauses. He lets his breath out slowly.
John has rarely seen Mycroft exert himself magically, for all he must be an extremely powerful wizard. He can’t help but wonder how much power it takes to make a whole flat disappear, not just invisible or relocated but gone from where it was. How easy it would surely be, after that, to disappear a person.
Then Mycroft smiles once more, collecting himself while John’s skin crawls, and he slides his wand back into his robes.
“Contrary to what you no doubt believe, Sherlock, I am not doing this to spite you.” He stares hard at them both. “Now I’ll go let dear Mrs Hudson in on the Secret, shall I? It wouldn’t do for her to wonder where her lodgers have gone.”
He doesn’t wait for a reply, merely nods at John, raises his eyebrows at Sherlock, and lets the door swing shut behind him. It sinks back into the wall just like the door in Mycroft’s office had done, what already feels like a lifetime ago. Wallpaper bleeds out over the top, until there is no sign there ever was a door at all.
John stares at the wallpaper. In the windowless dark, he runs his hands over where the door had been, feeling for cracks or bumps and willing the innate spark inside himself to reach out wandless and pull the door back out of Mycroft’s hiding place.
He never was much good at wandless magic; always needed the grounding presence of a wand in his hand. Groaning, he leans back against the wall.
“Merlin’s balls. Oh, fucking hell.”
His legs give way. He lets them, sliding down the wall until he’s sat on the floor with his head between his knees. “I can’t believe – Why didn’t you - House arrest, Sherlock! Protective bloody custody! You wouldn’t let Mycroft arrest a gerbil any other day of the week. What happened to there’s always a way out?”
“As a rule,” Sherlock says, “I try to abstain from implementing my escape plans until after the jailor has gone.”
John lifts his head. Sherlock is paler than ever in this dim light, his face tense, fists still clenched, still standing in the same spot he froze to ten minutes ago. But his eyes are glittering and as he looks at John he lifts his head and smiles.
“It’s always useful to have a few secrets, isn’t it, John?”
“Sherlock, there’s a time and a place for your enigmatic, mysterious – thing, and the night we’ve just had is definitely not it.”
Sherlock sighs, but he moves at last, spinning away to drop down in front of the fireplace. He sticks a hand up the chimney shaft, murmuring to himself – counting, John realises, just before there’s a crash and a thump and a small explosion of soot. Sherlock emerges from the haze with a soot-encrusted brick in one hand and something small and silvery in the other.
“If your grand plan is climbing up the chimney,” John says, “it might be time for you to go to bed.”
Sherlock ignores him, tossing the brick back into the grate.
“Come along, John.”
He grabs John by the elbow and tugs him back up onto his feet, towing him along through the kitchen to Sherlock’s bedroom. Sherlock pauses in the doorway, then paces forward in six deliberate steps, turns at a right angle and takes another four steps. Drawing to a halt, he stamps firmly on the floor and there’s a faint clicking sound beneath their feet. A crack appears. Then he releases John.
“Fetch me a butter knife,” he says. “There should be several in my bedside cabinet.”
“You – I’m not going to ask,” John says, tugging the drawer open and retrieving a knife, which he tosses to Sherlock. “None of these are ours – and they’re all mismatched – have you been nicking butter knives?”
“Not deliberately,” Sherlock murmurs. He’s crouched down, jimmying the crack in the floorboard with the edge of the knife. “People rarely seem to want them back after I’ve borrowed them. You may want to wash your hands after handling. Ah.”
The floorboard comes away with a clatter. Crouched over the hole in the ground, Sherlock looks up at him.
“I lied to you. I’d apologise, but I doubt you’ll care once I show you.”
“What? What about?”
“Never mention this to Mycroft. He’d be insufferable.”
“What is this, Sherlock?”
But Sherlock only stares up at him, waiting, until John sighs and raises a hand. “Okay, okay, cross my heart, hope to die, look a basilisk in the eye. Your secret’s safe with me.”
“I know,” he says. He reaches down into the hole in the floorboards and draws out a long, thin wooden box, covered in dust, into which he slots the small, silver thing – a key, John realises now, it’s a tiny key.
“I lied. I haven’t survived this far without a magic stick.”
The lock clicks. Sherlock lifts out a wand, with his jaw set and that glittering, defiant look back in his eyes. The wood is pale and delicately carved. Sherlock holds it as if it might explode.
“Silver birch, unicorn hair, thirteen and a half inches. I’ve been informed it’s exceptionally strong, but I wouldn’t know. Forgive me if it’s not up to par, it’s not been touched since I was eleven years old. And of course,” he adds with a cold smirk, “it’s never been used.”
“You kept that?” John hisses.
With a nod, Sherlock tosses the wand down onto his bed, where it bounces and rolls, teetering on the edge of the mattress until John puts a hand out to stop its fall.
“Mycroft once told me you managed to trick Ollivander,” he says, “before anyone knew you were a Squib, but – you kept it?”
“Powerful devices are useful,” Sherlock snaps. “Even ones I can’t personally use.”
“Okay, okay, sorry.”
He picks the wand up cautiously, holding it between his forefingers and at a distance, until nothing untoward happens and Sherlock mutters that it’s not booby-trapped and then John shifts his grip to the handle. He can feel it hum.
“Mycroft,” he says slowly, “never told me how you managed it.”
Sherlock snorts. “Amateur dramatics and simple observation. Ollivander felt I had the makings of a skilled Legilimens. As if a Muggle wouldn’t have noticed the hem of his robes.”
John looks down at the wand in his hand. He draws it through the air experimentally, leaving in its wake a trail of silver smoke that drifts up to the ceiling and lights the room in a pale glow.
“It’s a good wand,” he says.
“I have no sentimental attachment to it.”
“Still, it’s good. Nice carving.”
“My mother’s doing.” Sherlock smirks. “She had it sent away specially. News of my magical deficiencies arrived the day before it came back.”
Stowing the wand away in his back pocket for now, John glances at him. “Well, you were right all the same, it’s come in useful. It’s a bit of a disadvantage, using someone else’s wand, but I suppose this one was never really yours anyway. No offence.”
And it would be rude to anyone else, but Sherlock rolls his eyes, utterly unfazed. He drops the little key into the wand box and shoves the box back into its hole in the floor, and then drags the floorboard into place. He smacks it hard with the heel of his hand and the cracks melt flawlessly back into the wood once more.
“Right, so, what’s the plan?” John says. “Do you know how to undo Mycroft’s enchantment?”
“No. You wouldn’t be capable of it anyway. He’s a far more powerful wizard than you.”
Sherlock shoots him a quizzical look, his palms pressed together, the edges of his fingers against his lips. “You’re welcome. Now, I believe... Secrets, John. Dear old Alfbald specialised in keeping secrets.”
“Mrs Hudson’s creepy husband?”
“Precisely.” Sherlock circles the room, running his hands along the walls and digging his fingers into all the nooks and cracks. “He wasn’t a particularly powerful wizard, but he was an expert at his secrets. Places to hide bodies, places to move bodies. Places to hide himself. Multiple exits and entrances, surely. I’ve suspected it for years.”
“And you’re only looking for them now?”
“Of course.” Sherlock stamps experimentally on a couple of the more prominent knots in the floor, but nothing happens. “A secret uncovered is a secret for Mycroft to find out about. Better saved for when we need them.”
Pressing his knuckles into his eyes, John laughs wearily and sinks down onto the edge of the bed. “You two are unbelievable. How did I get myself mixed in with the bloody Holmses?”
“You were bored, if I recall correctly.”
“You do. I was.”
The mattress shifts and rocks, and John drops his hands away from his eyes to find Sherlock standing on his bed, running his hands over the ceiling.
“Is there anything I can do?” John asks.
“Sleep. Tiredness makes you stupid.”
“Okay. I –” John makes to stand, then pauses, curses. “My bedroom’s upstairs. He’s locked me out of my own bedroom.”
Over his head, Sherlock sighs dramatically. “I realise you lack my skills of observation, but you’re sat in a bedroom. You’re sat on a bed. Lie down. Be quiet. Sleep. I’m busy.”
John looks up at Sherlock, who is very slowly running his fingers along the join where wall meets ceiling.
“You don’t mind?”
“Well.” John toes his shoes and socks off. “Get your feet off the pillows then.”
Sherlock obliges by stepping across onto the bedside cabinet, following the path of the wall. It’s good enough for John, who tugs Sherlock’s wand out of his pocket and shoves it under the vacated pillows. He lies down without bothering to get undressed or get under the covers, suddenly exhausted now sleep is within reach. The sounds of Sherlock knocking experimentally on wall and ceiling lulls him down into sleep, the silver smoke shining overhead like the sky at night.
It’s dim and strange when John opens his eyes. He slips a hand under the pillow for his wand and touches unfamiliar carvings, and remembers.
There’s a muffled scrabbling sound, like rats on the floorboards, and then Sherlock says, “Yes?” from somewhere under John’s knees.
“You under the bed?”
John yawns and turns his face into the pillow. “I was trying to remember. Elvis. Muggle singer. My granddad was Muggle, you know. Liked him.”
Under the bed there’s a thump and a scrape, something hitting the underside of the mattress in the vicinity of John’s ribcage, and then Sherlock’s head appears next to the pillow. He’s just a big, dark shadow with shining eyes in the darkness. “Wake up, John. What do you mean?”
John rubs a hand across his face, forcing his eyes open. “Elvis. A little less conversation, a little more action. It’s an old Muggle song. He said it when he had me – our new friend. I forgot.”
The silence is warm and comfortable.
“That’s interesting,” Sherlock says eventually, his voice soft, his face close.
John reaches out a hand into the shadows, skimming his fingers over Shelock’s hair and down the side of his face. Satisfied, he drops his hand and closes his eyes again. He feels Sherlock’s hand on his shoulder.
“Go back to sleep now.”
When he wakes up again, eyes snapping open, no lingering fogginess, the silver smoke has faded away and the room is dark and empty. It’s disorienting, without windows. The only source of light is through the door, propped open on what looks like John’s own shoes. No sunlight or starlight or muggy, yellow glow of Muggle streetlights, although John can tell, from the internal clock all Aurors develop, that he has been asleep for some time.
He turns the bedside lamp on. There doesn’t appear to be any newly exposed secret passageways in the room, so John retrieves Sherlock’s wand from under the pillows and gets out of bed. It takes a while to find his socks – covered in dust under the bed, so he leaves them there, and he leaves his shoes propped against the door too, padding out into the hall barefoot.
He finds Sherlock sat at the kitchen table, eyes closed, chin resting delicately on the very tips of his fingers.
“Hello,” he says without opening his eyes. “It’s quarter to five. Yes, I believe I have found what might be our way out. Yes, you may borrow a pair of socks. Did I miss anything?”
“Yes. Two sugars.”
“You’re onto something, aren’t you?” John says, as he drops teabags into mugs and spoons out the sugar. He gives the kettle a quick jab with his borrowed wand and then waves the teaspoon vaguely at Sherlock. “You’ve got that look on your face.”
Sherlock doesn’t respond. John pours boiling water into their mugs, conjures up a dash of milk, and places the sugary tea on the table within easy reach of Sherlock. Remaining standing, leaning against the counter, he lets his own tea warm his hands. His bare feet are cold. He had always imagined this other place – the place to where unwanted items are banished, where all the milk in the Wizarding Wold waits to be conjured, if that is the place where Mycroft has hidden them – would be warm with all that magical energy waiting inside. But although the air is close and still, there’s a chill to it.
He’s jerked from his thoughts by the sound of Sherlock dragging his mug across the tabletop towards him.
Sherlock says, “Tell me about your time under the Imperius.”
“Well,” John begins automatically, then pauses. He looks at Sherlock - Sherlock who is calmly sipping his tea, Sherlock who is gazing up at him with an inscrutable expression. “It’s funny, I can’t really – it’s the same as the white boat. I know it’s weird, but I can’t focus on it. Normally if you manage to push through, regain control of yourself, that’s the curse broken.”
“But it was as if every time I thought I’d broken through, a new one rose up around me. I couldn’t concentrate on it all. Oh Merlin, you don’t think it’s more than one person, do you?”
“No.” Sherlock shakes his head placidly. “It’s clearly the work of one individual.”
“Oh, clearly,” John mutters. He straightens up, lowering his mug of tea and narrowing his eyes at Sherlock. “You’re pleased. Don’t try to hide it with that blank expression. I said something you wanted to hear, didn’t I?”
“He’s very proud of himself,” Sherlock says.
John rolls his eyes. “And so are you, clearly.”
“I have a – theory.”
Sherlock trails off, staring at John as if he’d forgotten John was in the room with him, and he rubs a finger across his lips. Standing abruptly, he walks out into the living room, waving a hand for John to follow him.
John carries his tea with him, clutching it all the tighter in his hands once he’s through the kitchen door and, pausing, sighing, takes in the sight of the living room before him.
“What have you done?”
“Moved the furniture,” Sherlock responds, raising an eyebrow. “Obviously.”
Everything has been dragged into the centre of the room in haphazard stacks, bookshelves emptied, ornaments piled up in Sherlock’s favourite chair. Right in the middle of the chaos, like an unlit bonfire or an extravagant dinner party centrepiece, all the tables, desks, side tables have been stacked on top of each other, with a desk lamp teetering on the top of the pile.
“Right,” John says. “Yes. I suppose that was a bit of an obvious question, wasn’t it?”
With a sigh, he downs the rest of his hot tea, wincing at the burn of it, and leaves his mug on the floor in lieu of an available tabletop. Sherlock has already disappeared around the stack, so John follows, picking his way around the little labyrinth of furniture to where Sherlock stands, staring at his map of London over the up-turned sofa.
“Well?” John asks.
“It’s here,” Sherlock says.
“Our way out?”
“And then what?”
“We find him.” Sherlock sighs, almost dreamily, evidently savouring the prospect. “He’s stealing magic, somehow. I don’t know the precise method yet. It’s clearly a means of his own invention. Fatally effective, but imperfect – the Dementors are drawn to it, I don’t think that was part of his plan, and-”
“Wait, stop. The Muggles,” John says. “Why would he have killed those Muggles? I mean, all right, he’s a maniac, that’s why he’d kill Muggles. But we both thought of magic-stealing right at the start of this, and you said-”
Sherlock waves an impatient hand, cutting John off. “No twisting clues to fit our theories, yes, yes, of course, but John. It has to be. It’s staring us in the face, don’t you see? All along. He wants to show me – he wants to – the things we could do together, he said, him and I...”
He drifts into silence, staring up at that strange mix of paint and magic and bullet holes glowing on their wall. He reaches out and touches a finger to one of the holes, movements delicate. The silver thread shifts and flows around his touch. In that pale light and the echoes of his last words, his face seems unreadable, truly unreadable, even whatever emotion the blankness masks quite suddenly out of John’s reach. Sherlock lift his hand away again, rubbing finger and thumb together before he turns and stalks away, and the threads bob back into place.
John stares up at all those names – at the bullet holes, and the paint, and his own shining silver magic, and the mad spiral into which their lives have so suddenly descended, and there, in the middle of their living room wall, the centre of it. He doesn’t know what’s waiting for them there. Him and I, Sherlock had said.
Two halves of a whole, Sherlock had said.
With a sigh, John turns away, in time to see Sherlock stalking back through the kitchen door, tucking something into his robes. In his other hand he holds a pair of black socks, which he tosses towards John. John catches them automatically.
“Well?” he says, once Sherlock’s picked his way back through the pile of furniture to stand beside him again.
“Put them on.”
“And what’s that hiding in your robes?”
Sherlock shoots him a look, part outraged, part irritated, but then, with a quick roll of his eyes, he reaches back into his robes, pulls out the gun and holds it up with a sarcastic flourish.
“I’m not going to meet a murderous maniac unarmed,” he says. “I’m magicless, John, not brainless.”
“How on Earth hasn’t Mycroft confiscated that thing already?”
Smirking, Sherlock secrets the gun away again. “Muggles and their silly little toys. Hardly important, are they, John?”
The curse of the House of Holmes, John thinks; to eternally underestimate everyone and everything, including each other. He looks at Sherlock – who looks thoroughly pleased with himself and utterly readable to John once more – and then back up at the map on the wall.
“We’re really going to do this then, are we?” he says. “Break out of our house arrest to find our murderous maniac?”
“Of course,” Sherlock says. “If you’re with me.”
John stares up at the silver spiral – the path that the man they’re hunting for apparently wants them to take, and so they’re going to take it.
“Obviously,” he says.
“Here,” Sherlock says, tapping his finger to one of the bullet holes. “You must be able to feel it. I can feel it, and I’m little more than a Muggle with a very good education. You’re a reasonably competent wizard.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Frowning, John runs his hand over the bullet hole Sherlock had indicated. He can feel the lingering touch of Mycroft’s enchantments, covering all the walls like a layer of oil.
“It’s here? You’re sure?” John opens his eyes – he doesn’t remember closing them – and he meets Sherlock’s disgruntled gaze. “Okay, okay, you’re sure. Hang on.”
He draws Sherlock’s wand out, taps the edge of the bullet hole and whispers a very soft reducto. Beneath the tip of his wand, cracks form, spreading upwards and outwards and sending fragments of wallpaper drifting down to the floor. John hooks a finger into the small, freshly-formed hole and gives it a tug; a handful of plaster comes away in his grip. The whole wall seems to shiver.
“Will Mycroft be able to tell we’re doing this?” he asks as he tugs another piece of plaster away.
“Probably. He won’t be concerned yet. He’s used to me pulling down walls.”
“Aren’t we all?”
John adds another soft reducto, peeling strips of wallpaper away while the plaster crumbles. The hole is about the size of his head now, and when John pushes his hand inside he can feel, mingled with the heavy press of Mycroft’s enchantment, the tang of unfamiliar magic, slipping through his fingers like a shoal of fish.
“Ah,” he says. “Here he is.”
Sherlock shift impatiently beside him as John tugs away one last piece of plaster, dropping it onto the floor with a guilty thought for Mrs Hudson and all this mess. He closes his eyes again, searching out the places where Mycroft’s magic ends and Mr Hudson’s begins, and he points the wand.
The wall shudders, the floor shakes. The pair of them quickly back away as one long, vertical crack splinters outwards from the hole in the plaster, stretching down to the floor and up to the ceiling until the wall has been split in two. The crack widens as the wall shakes, more and more plaster falling away, and John throws out a hand to steady himself.
With an almighty crash, the wall comes down before them, in a billowing cloud of dust and plaster and crumpled wallpaper.
The white dust settles. The room sinks back into silence. John releases his grip on Sherlock’s robes, coughing. He casts an apprehensive look over his shoulder at the tower of tables, but somehow it’s still standing, and as he turns back to face their new escape route, the debris on the floor stirs. A wind whips through it, quickly breaking the plaster and wood down into a fine dust which trickles away through the cracks in the floorboards like sand in an egg timer.
“Well, that’s a relief,” John murmurs. “I think Mrs Hudson would’ve whipped out the Unforgiveables if she’d seen that mess.”
Humming in thought, Sherlock steps forwards first. There is barely an extra foot of space beyond the collapsed wall, what seems to be just some forgotten crawl space with dusty floorboards and mouldering wallpaper, but in the right-hand corner – Sherlock cautiously picking his way towards it – there is a nook, deep in shadow.
“Hang on,” John says, tapping Sherlock on the shoulder. “Let me - lumos.”
Holding the lit wand high, he slips past Sherlock into the shadows. Around the corner, only half-visible in John’s little pool of light, lies a zigzagging staircase, practically a ladder, very narrow and very steep and rising up – no matter how high John holds the wand – into darkness.
Sherlock presses in behind him, his breath on the back of John’s neck. Shifting forwards to make room for him, John feels something give under the pressure of his feet, as if a floorboard has clicked out of place, followed by the slow, ticking sound of gears under their feet.
“Wait,” he hisses. “Wait.”
But even as Sherlock stills behind him, the whirr of cogs grows louder around them and rises up inside the wall, tiny mechanisms working only inches from John’s ears by the sound of it and then moving over them up into the ceiling. John holds his breath.
With a sudden hiss, white sand pours from the line in the ceiling where the old wall had stood, but when it hits the ground it remains frozen there, growing upwards instead of spilling out across the floor, as if it’s being poured between two sheets of glass. The sand fills its invisible vessel quickly, darkening and hardening and, with a low wooden groan, becoming a wall again. Until, as suddenly as it began, the last chink of light is sealed out – and Sherlock and John are sealed in.
John releases his breath.
“Efficient,” Sherlock murmurs.
“Let’s just hope this really does lead out,” John says. “But still,” he adds, raising his glowing wand up high again, “it could be worse. I was expecting that to be a booby trap.”
“Aurors. Paranoid bunch. Much more likely that this staircase is aged and will break under our combined weight.”
John sighs. He casts one last eye at the darkness around them, and then up at the darkness above them – was that a glimmer of light he saw or just a trick of the eye? – and then back at Sherlock, as pale and determined as ever.
“Only one way to find out,” John says with a shrug. “I’m going to have to put the wand away while we climb.”
Sherlock nods infinitesimally and then John murmurs, “Knox,” and he disappears altogether. Bathed in absolute blackness, John closes his eyes for a second – it makes no difference to the view – and takes a slow breath, fumbling the wand back into his pocket with a quick prayer to any deities listening that it doesn’t fall out mid-climb. When he opens his eyes again and cranes his neck back, there is, he’s almost certain, a speck of light far overhead like a guiding star.
“Okay,” he says, running his hands along the first rung-like step he feels in the dark. “I’m going up. For once, feel free to breathe as loudly and talk as much as you like.”
“I don’t breath loudly anyway,” comes Sherlock’s voice, closer than John had realised, “but for you I shall make an effort.”
Snorting, John feels for the next rung over his head and hunts out a step with his feet; and he climbs, keeping his eyes fixed on that faint gleam of what could be daylight overhead, ears fixed on the sound of Sherlock’s voice, already beginning to mutter about the idiocy of his brother and “what’s the point of being a wizard if you can’t conjure up an escape route more comfortable than this,” and “climbing in the dark is no excuse to kick dust in my eyes, John.”
Step after step, they climb. Logically, John knows that the stairs can only go up a few floors – from the main floor of their flat up to John’s bedroom and then maybe through the attic too – but it seems to take an eternity, the staircase zigzagging back and forth. Sometimes it feels as if they’re travelling horizontally rather than vertically; or climbing downwards; or, for a few excruciating seconds that had John cursing Mr Hudson, dangling from the ceiling over a chasm of absolute darkness. But with every step they climb, the light overhead remains constant and it grows lighter and larger, slowly but discernibly, until at last they reach the top. In the faint light, John rubs his hands over the bricks on all sides, and then he reaches up.
“Well?” Sherlock hisses from below.
“We’re in the chimney. Bloody marvellous. Well, Mr Hudson probably wasn’t planning on climbing out through the chimney pots, so...”
He tugs Sherlock’s wand from his pocket, lighting it up to peer at the brickwork. Under his feet, Sherlock huffs and fidgets and finally starts to squeeze his way up the narrow space alongside John, his back braced against the wall.
“Let me see,” he insists. He cranes around to examine the shaft from all angles, jabbing John with his elbows.
“Get back down, would you? You’re going to knock us both off, if you don’t-”
“Here.” Sherlock taps one of the bricks just above John’s head. “This one. Cement is more recent, brick’s a slightly different shade.”
Sighing, John prods the brick with the tip of his wand and murmurs, “Alohomora.” The brick quivers and disappears with a small pop; the gap it leaves in the wall quickly grows bigger and bigger, full of pale light and fresh air and the sight of the outside world, until it is large enough for a grown man to fit through.
“Don’t even think about it,” John snaps as Sherlock begins to climb up over him.
Shoving Sherlock back down with one hand, he hauls himself up with the other and slithers out onto the roof slates. He hooks his arms over the apex of the roof and lets himself sprawl, sucking in great, grateful lungfuls of air. The sky it still dark blue, but there’s a soft light in the east that grows gently brighter even as he watches, touching the roofs of London with a hint of gold.
John hears Sherlock crawl out next to him, and the soft beats of wings as an owl flies by overhead, and then the sound of stone grinding against stone as the chimney shaft rebuilds itself, the roof shaking beneath him.
“Sunrise,” he says. “We just spent the whole night climbing up a chimney.”
“Magic,” Sherlock sneers.
“For once, I think I agree with you.”
John sits up, stretching, and scans the roofs for a safe route down to the ground without magic. He’s thinking briefly, regretfully, of the old broom tucked away in the back of his wardrobe, when a flicker of movement catches his eye. The owl is wheeling back around towards them, hooting indignantly.
“Hang on, that’s-”
“A St. Mungo’s owl,” Sherlock says. “The purple fastening.”
John rolls his eyes. “Yes, all right. It-”
“It must be Molly’s, of course.”
He springs up onto his feet, balancing as easily on the tiles as a gargoyle, and he holds an arm out for the owl. She lands on him heavily, clicking her beak. Her claws dig into Sherlock’s robes.
“Have you been flying around looking for us all night, love?” John says. Climbing to his feet with much less grace, he carefully unfastens the letter and strokes her feathers. She stares up at him with baleful eyes. “Sorry about that. I owe you an owl treat, okay? We’ve not got any on us right now.”
The owl clicks her beak and ruffles her feathers in disapproval. As soon as the letter is free, she takes off again, and she clips them both with her wings as she swoops away. Sherlock scowls after her, rubbing his arm.
“A communication system utterly dependent on the whims of irritable birds. Unbelievable.”
“Yeah, imagine having to rely on haughty, fickle gits all the time.”
Sherlock turns to stare at him with eyes almost as baleful as the owl’s, but John’s attention is focussed on Molly’s letter. He breaks the wax seal and unfolds the parchment and slowly takes in the words on the page.
“Bloody hell,” he says.
John shakes his head. With a tut, Sherlock reaches around him and snatches the letter out of John’s hands with enough force John wobbles; before he loses his balance completely, before he can even react, Sherlock’s other hand grabs the back of his jacket and steadies him. It’s tight enough to choke, but the grip loosens as quickly as it came, his hand smoothing John’s collar back into place while Sherlock reads. His expression darkens.
“So she’s gone,” John says, rubbing his neck. “Juniper’s body has disappeared. Oh Merlin, is it someone from Mungo’s? He can’t have broken in, not to the Morgue. You know how tightly that secret’s kept.”
“Then he’s stealing secrets, too. She hardly got up and walked out.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?” John mutters darkly.
Sherlock’s gaze flickers towards him. He refolds the letter and taps it against his chin with a distant expression, frowning out at the sunrise.
“Inferi?” he murmurs. “No. Unlikely. Why only take one body with such a powerful spell? It’d be a waste. And anyway, Inferi are boring, aren’t they... Voldemort did them. Dull. What did Molly say they found in the body?”
When John doesn’t immediately respond, he waves the letter in his face.
“Oh, you’re talking to me, are you? Thought you were monologuing.”
“Quickly, please. I’m thinking.”
Rolling his eyes, John grabs the letter and skims through it again. Molly’s message is short and terse and professional, despite the little circles she draws over her ‘i’s; John can feel her worry practically pouring off the parchment.
“Er – black fabric, like a piece torn from a robe? They’d not had a chance to test it yet – it was wrapped around a pebble. That... that’s a bit odd.”
“He’s bored,” Sherlock breathes. “He’s tired of waiting. And he wants to talk to me. Badly, if these little games are any indication. But why? Most wizards would rather I didn’t exist... Squibs make you lot uncomfortable. But he wants to see... me...”
He trails off. For a moment, he is frozen, his fingertips pressed together and his eyes staring out across London, and then he sucks in a sharp breath.
“Oh.” He breathes out. “Of course. Donovan was right all along.”
“What?” Startled, John chuckles despite himself. He shakes his head. “Donovan? Never thought I’d hear you say that.”
“Even a stopped clock will tell the time, John,” Sherlock murmurs. He rubs a finger across his lips, the movement slow and dreamlike, his gaze still fixed on the horizon. “Obviously she doesn’t know she was right, but... Not a Wizard, she said. Of course not. I was suspecting a Muggle – it’s only a matter of time until they catch on, you know, they’re no stupider than your lot, but – how foolish we have been.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“Merlin’s beard, what use to me are you if you can’t use magic or your brain?”
“I don’t know why I put up with you sometimes.”
Sherlock snorts. He shoves Molly’s crumpled letter into his robes and crouches down on the tiles, beginning to inch his way down to the edge of the roof.
“And yet you come along quite willingly,” he calls back over his shoulder.
John sighs. “I do. You git. Go left a bit, we might be able to climb down onto 219’s extension.”
He lowers himself down and shuffles after Sherlock towards the edge. It’s slow going, the slate damp with early morning dew. If they fell, John tells himself as he watches Sherlock grip the guttering and swing his legs over the edge, feeling with his feet for a nearby window ledge – if they fell, if the impact or the railings didn’t kill them right away, Mycroft would probably get there fast enough to heal them.
Though goodness knows what he’d do to them after that.
“Easy,” Sherlock says, letting go of the drain.
He drops out of sight. John’s heart leaps up into his throat for the split second before he hears Sherlock land, and then Sherlock’s voice rises up to taunt him.
“Chop chop. Not afraid of heights, are you?”
“Not bloody likely,” John calls back.
He shuffles the last few feet down the roof, bracing his hands and swinging his legs out over the edge. Down on the flat roof of next door’s extension, Sherlock backs away to watch John ease himself down and let himself drop. He lands in a crouch that jolts through his body, the asphalt roofing biting into his palms. He hisses, wincing.
“We’re getting too old for this.”
Sherlock’s feet enter John’s field of vision, and then his hand fills it. John grabs hold, lets Sherlock pull him back up onto his feet with a nod. It’s an easy climb down from the extension into 219’s little yard.
“It’s probable we’re already alerted Mycroft’s team,” Sherlock is saying, leading the way again, “so we’re going to have to work quickly-”
Nodding, John follows Sherlock through the gate, feeling the last traces of Mycroft’s spellwork drift free from around them once his feet touch the alleyway and his chest loosens –
and something itches, at the back of his mind
a white boat, drifting by
towards the castle.
His feet hit the ground hard. John staggers, releasing his grip on Sherlock’s wrist. He had held on tight enough to leave pink marks on Sherlock’s skin and John stares down at them, and then down at his own fingers, until Sherlock says tightly, uncertainly, “John?”
“Yes. It’s me. I – Did I apparate?”
Looking down at John, Sherlock clenches his jaw. He glares at him and at the buildings around them and then he nods once, sharply, still looking away.
“Yes. You brought us here.”
“And here is...?”
John looks around them. They’re standing in the middle of a junction – a Muggle road, judging by the tarmac and the electric street lamps – and daybreak is still just beginning, just a golden and pink glow around the rooftops. He can’t have lost more than a few minutes of time.
“This is it, isn’t it?” he says. “We’re right where this madman wants us?”
Sherlock turns slowly on the spot, eyes narrowed. He paces forwards a few feet down the road ahead, shakes his head and paces back in the opposite direction. He takes John by the wrist as he passes him by and tows him along, saying, “Nothing down there worth looking at. Keep up, John, there must be a sign...”
John stumbles along after him. His feet are sore from the bad landing and the clumsy apparition, and his ears are ringing faintly, in time with the buzzing at the back of his skull. The buildings around them seem oppressively quiet and still. Every doorway looks too dark.
Halfway down the street, John stops – or John’s feet stop, obeying some other higher command that makes him dig his nails into his palms and breath out slowly through his nose before he can speak. He feels Sherlock’s grip tighten on his arm.
“It’s close,” John says. “I guess.”
He feels Sherlock crowd in close behind him, his shoulder brushing against John’s shoulder, his hand at John’s wrist. He leans in close enough that John can feel his breath on his neck.
“Offices,” Sherlock murmurs. “One, two, three charity shops, swimming baths, cafe – bad business, it’ll close in less than a month. Anything?”
Sherlock nods. He brushes past John to take the lead once more. The pool is in a Victorian red brick building which is glowing an even richer red in the slow-building sunrise. John looks back over his shoulder to the east, where the night sky is drifting into pale turquoise and a bright slash of vivid orange and pink.
“Red sky at morning, dragon’s warning,” he breathes.
Sherlock nudges the front doors and raises an eyebrow at John when they swing easily under his hands, already unlocked. John nods at him and smiles grimly, drawing out Sherlock’s wand with one last, cautious glance up and down the street.
“Red sky at night,” Sherlock murmurs, pushing the doors open. “Dragons will bite.”
They step through together.
The building is dark and empty and silent. As they tread softly down the corridors, Sherlock breathes in deeply. For once, John can smell it too, without being told: beneath the scent of chlorine in the humid air, there hangs the unmistakeable tang of magic. It prickles over his skin like sparks from a wand, like the unbearable sensation that they are being watched.
They find the pool dimly lit, the water shining an ethereal blue. Soft light ripples up the walls and across the tiled floor and over the body that floats, limbs splayed and hair drifting like seaweed, in the middle of the water. John feels Sherlock twitch beside him and he throws out an arm to stop him darting forwards.
He casts Homenum Revelio all around the pool, pacing the tiles with his wand held high. While Sherlock stands and watches, he checks the viewing gallery and peers through every door, into every supply cupboard and changing cubicle. He can feel his body slipping back into the duelling stance as comfortably as slipping on an old glove. The air is thick with magic. The water laps softly against the sides of the pool.
“I can’t see anything, but this has to be a trap.”
“Yes. Do you...” Sherlock waves a hand at him. “Feel anything?”
John shrugs. He looks back through the doors, down the way they came, sending his Lumos out as far as it will go, but he can’t see anything. The skin on the back of his neck is prickling.
“I feel as if we’re being watched,” he says, eventually. “But we should get that poor girl out of the water, trap or no trap.”
The body doesn’t respond to Accio – bodies rarely do – so John kneels down at the edge of the pool and reaches and then reaches again, stretching his arm out as far as he can until he can feel the ache in the deep, cold recesses of his shoulder. He snags hold of her wrist.
“Come on, you lazy sod, you’ve longer arms than me.”
Sherlock crouches down beside him. Together they tow her to the side and heave her up out of the water, lay her dripping on the tiles.
Despite the crime scene preservation charm, and the mortician’s own quiet magic, death has worked its slow fingers into Juniper’s body. Her skin is cold and clammy, strangely spring to the touch while the spells running through her wage war with the natural onset of decay. Her feet and hands and lips are greying. Nobody could mistake her for only sleeping now.
Sherlock, unperturbed by it all, takes hold of her chin and eases her mouth open. He lifts an eyebrow, glances up at John and then reaches inside with finger and thumb. He plucks out the end of a long strip of black fabric, which unwinds as he pulls on it, spooling out from her parted lips like some sick Muggle magician trick. The fabric is coarse, the edges frayed. John feels his fingers go cold.
“That’s from a Dementor’s cloak,” he says.
Sherlock smiles grimly, his eyes on the fabric he’s still slowly unwinding.
“I’d know one of those cloaks anywhere.”
The strip of fabric pulls suddenly taut, as if it has caught on something in Juniper’s mouth. Frowning, Sherlock tilts her mouth open wider and feels around her molars. He gives the fabric another tug and the end springs suddenly loose, wrapped tight but rapidly unravelling, something small and round flying out from the confines of the final coil.
The buzzing at the back of John’s skull grows into a roar.
“The stone,” he says.
“Catch it!” Sherlock shouts, but John doesn’t move.
The stone lands on the tiles and bounces hard across the slick surface, every rattle and strike echoing too loudly around the pool. Sherlock throws himself after it. He bellyflops, sliding on the tiles with his arms outstretched and his fingers grasping, but the stone bounces just outside of his reach. It rolls to a stop under the waiting sole of a polished, leather shoe. Impeccably creased black trousers. The man reaches down and plucks the stone up between finger and thumb.
“I’ll just take that, shall I.”
“You,” Sherlock says.
He stands slowly, brushing his robes down and lifting his chin. The man watches, unmoving, until Sherlock is up on his feet. Then he grins, tosses the stone up into the air and catches it in his fist.
Sherlock looks back over his shoulder at John, who is still kneeling motionless next to the corpse. He’s staring down at the strip of the Dementor’s cloak crumpled on the floor where Sherlock threw it, with a vacant expression on his face.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about him,” the man says. “He won’t disturb us. Obedient, really, once you’ve got the muzzle on him. Look-” He snaps his fingers. “Up. Roll over.”
John’s body climbs up onto its feet at the command. When the man twirls his finger, John’s body turns around slowly on the spot, staring vaguely ahead all the while. His eyes pass over Sherlock as he turns; there is no flicker of recognition.
“Please,” John’s voice says.
The man glances sideways at Sherlock, still grinning. “Go fetch.”
He tosses the stone into the deep end of pool, where it sinks to the bottom. John’s body moves towards the water. It walks straight over the corpse with one foot planted firmly and unfeelingly on her chest. When the man snaps his fingers again, John’s body comes to an abrupt halt at the edge of the pool, one foot still in the air. His eyes stare out, unblinking.
Sherlock’s fingers have barely twitched towards his robes before the man holds up a hand and clucks his tongue in warning. Slowly, Sherlock lifts his empty hands, his fingers spread. He nods and takes a careful step back, away from John.
“You have me at a disadvantage,” he murmurs. “You know my name, but I still don’t know yours.”
“Oh, forgive me, where are my manners? You can call me Jim. I thought it was time you and I, Sherlock - the great Mr Sherlock Holmes - I thought it was time we had a little chat. A little demonstration.”
“Yes, you’ve made that abundantly clear.”
“And you came when I called. The things we could do together, you and I.”
“You needn’t bother with John. He’s an average wizard, to be honest. Thoroughly unremarkable. He just follows me around, really.”
“That must get tiresome.”
Sherlock inclines his head.
Jim purses his lips sympathetically. “Well, then I guess you won’t mind if I –”
He snaps his fingers and John’s body jerks forwards over the water as though tugged by an invisible string. Sherlock jerks too, one foot forwards and his arms reaching up before he can stop himself, before he can pull himself back, and John freezes in place again. His body teeters on the very brink of falling.
“Oh, good.” Chuckling, Jim claps his hands together. The sound rings out around the room like a gunshot.
“Very good. You almost had me going, until you slipped and showed your hand. I’m warning you, I’ll make him drown. One wrong move, Sherlock, and I’ll make him want to drown. I’ll make him hold your head under first, let him out of the kennel just long enough to see what he’s done. He’d throw himself into the water willingly after that, wouldn’t he? I am warning you.”
With exaggerated care, Sherlock steps back again. He turns his head away from John and looks at Jim; Jim, whose lips are curled back and whose teeth are visible in something that the unobservant might mistake for a smile.
“You are a Squib,” Sherlock says. “I had concluded you were a Muggle, which was a foolish error.”
“Oh, don’t beat yourself up.”
“And your ‘Muggle’ victims were also Squibs, I suppose?”
“There are a lot more of us than they know. Forgotten. Ignored. Crammed into our little boxes. It’s enough to give a boy a complex, isn’t it? You’d know.”
Sherlock lifts his chin. “You were raised by Muggles, obviously. The cut of your suit, the product in your hair. John recognised a Muggle song. Anyone in the Wizarding World could spot it – even the Wizarding Law Enforcement.”
Jim groans, full-bodied. He shakes his head and tugs at his hair and throws up a hand to point accusingly at Sherlock.
“No, no, no,” he snaps. “I don’t want to talk about the Wizarding World. Aren’t you sick of it? Once you get past all the excitement of the magic wands, the Wizarding World has just as many boring, mundane rules as the other. Aren’t you bored, Sherlock?”
“Frequently,” Sherlock says.
“I’ve been watching you all for weeks and I’m already so bored. Stupid little groups of stupid, insular people, all went to the same school, all know each other’s family history. Sleepwalking their way through cleaning charms and paper planes, with all this power right at their fingertips. Don’t you think it’s time to shake things up a little? Don’t you think it’s time they woke up?”
His voice rises as he talks until he’s on the verge of shouting, and then he cuts himself off sharply, dragging his hands down his face and stretching his open mouth into a distorted, silent scream. Panting, he stares up at Sherlock and whispers through his fingers, “Guess how well known I am in the Muggle world. Go on, guess how many little Muggle lives I’ve stamped out.”
“Well?” Sherlock lifts an eyebrow.
Jim lurches forwards with a roar. “I’m the most wanted man in the country. I own them, the government, the police, everyone. I have them all under my thumb.”
He pulls himself back from the brink again, breathing out and then slowly breaking into a grin. He smoothes a hand down the front of his jacket and drums his fingers on the pocket.
“But it’s just not enough, is it? You want the best of both worlds.” Sherlock glances at John out of the corner of his eye. He is still frozen, his face still blank and docile, his foot balanced over the water. Sherlock tilts his head towards the pool. “I assume the stone is a Portkey.”
“To Hogwarts, I imagine. If you’ve found a way to steal magic, where better to go than the highest concentration of raw, untamed magic per cubic foot in the country? Highest security, too.”
“I like to dream big.”
“Oh, of course. Can’t apparate in, can’t floo in or fly in. An unregistered Squib wouldn’t even make it down the garden path.”
Jim nods, still beaming, his eyes wide and dreamy. “There are ways, you know, if you concentrate. Round and round the garden. I made it to the edge of the lake.”
“But not into the grounds proper. For that you need a Portkey.”
Sucking in a doubtful breath, Jim rocks his hand back and forth.
“A St Mungo’s Porkey,” Sherlock adds, inclining his head. “Healers have near-instantaneous access to places ordinary Wizards do not.”
“I was going to grab the fat man. So helpful, so pliable. He didn’t notice a thing, gave me this Portkey willingly. Or that dull girl in the morgue, sweet and brainless.”
“Oh, it has a name?” Jim sneers.
His face twists cruelly. Without the clownish expressions he pulls, his eyes are hard and cold.
“But then I saw you. Oh yes, I know all about you, Sherlock - you’re so famous, you and your little pet Healer - and I thought to myself... I thought, Jim, my dear, you deserve a little fun. And you’ve played along so nicely. Delivered him straight into my hands.”
“And the corpse?”
“Hers.” Sherlock jerks his head back towards the corpse without looking at it; where he stands, he has a clear view of Jim’s every move and a peripheral sense of John’s presence, of John’s absence, of John’s body over the water. “I assume you’ve found a way into the St Mungo’s morgue as well. Not another stolen Portkey – you’re showing off, showing the Ministry nowhere is safe. You wouldn’t want to use the same trick twice.”
“I got the secret direct from the source.”
Jim smirks at him. He rocks forwards on his heels, leaning in as if to share a secret between friends. Voice hushed, he whispers, “Have you worked it out yet, Sherlock? How I’ve been doing it? My magic trick?”
He’s drumming his fingers on his pocket again. Likely an unconscious nervous reflex, and one which he might not even be aware of, so Sherlock lets his gaze drift smoothly over it and away without lingering.
“You’ve angered the Dementors,” he says instead.
Jim’s fingers falter in a moment of sudden self-awareness, and then they clench compulsively on the object in his pocket. He slips his hand inside.
“Perhaps they want the cloak back,” Sherlock says.
“Have you...” Breathless, Jim licks his lips. A quick, darting movement of the tongue, like a snake. “Have you ever seen under a Dementor’s cloak?”
Jim chuckles, his fingers clenching and unclenching in his pocket.
“I have,” he says, with a wide, reptilian grin. “It tried to give me a little kiss.”
He pulls his hand out of his pocket – a glimpse of something bone-white and smoothly polished between his fingers – and Sherlock can feel the sudden rush of wordless energy that accompanies it. The hairs on his arms stand on end. The taste of raw magic on the back of his tongue. In the pool, the water bubbles and John snaps to attention, planting both his feet firmly on solid ground again. The Portkey shoots up out of the water and lands smack in the centre of Jim’s outstretched palm, his fingers curling around it as tightly as the secret in his other hand. John grabs hold of his wrist and pulls out his - Sherlock’s wand –
“John!” Sherlock shouts, thrusting his hand into his robes.
John’s eyes flicker.
“Now,” Jim says.
John taps the Portkey with Sherlock’s wand at the same moment that Sherlock pulls the gun from his robes, and then John says, “Hogwarts,” in that flat, lifeless, Johnless voice.
And then they are gone.
Sherlock stands and stares at the spot where John had been. He steps forwards, then back again, pressing the gun against the side of his face. Hogwarts is miles away; even Baker Street is too far to go on foot, without John to apparate with him. Without John to Floo or send a Patronus message or one of the Ministry’s infantile paper aeroplane memos. He has no Muggle money with which to catch a bus or Muggle train, no wand with which to hail the Knight Bus.
Mycroft and his team will be looking for him. He could find one of his brother’s telephone boxes and let his sordid little department take control.
Sherlock opens his eyes and blinks. He’s staring down at the corpse on the tiles. Jim knows where the St Mungo’s morgue is. He must have killed the Secret Keeper to get his information.
Something clicks over in Sherlock’s brain.
Thrusting the gun into his robes again, he turns tail and runs out of the pool and back down the dark corridors. He finds a member of staff lingering anxiously on the pavement outside – she found the doors unlocked, heard raised voices, called the Muggle police; they’ll find the corpse and there’ll be another mess of Obliviations for Donovan to complain about, but there’s no time to think about that now. Sherlock barrels through the doors and past her without stopping. She shouts after him until he rounds the corner and disappears down an alleyway behind the back of the baths.
He slows to a jog, looking the building up and down. He paces down the alley to where the sunrise, creeping up over the rooftops in the east, touches the bricks. He can feel the presence of magic; of cloaks and shields and Muggle deterrent charms. When he narrows his eyes and focuses hard, he can see it in the air like a mirage, the bricks beyond it turned strange and unfamiliar.
“Molly!” Sherlock shouts.
Closing his eyes, he pushes through the mirage and runs his hands over the brickwork. His hair stands on end. The tang of magical energy makes his teeth ache. He crouches down in the gutter, pressing his ear to the bricks, and raps his knuckles against the wall, up and down, left and right.
“Molly!” he shouts again.
He knocks on the bricks, shifts forwards in the direction of the strongest vibrations of magic and knocks again – and his knuckles hit glass.
He forces his eyes open.
Through the mirage, he can make out a small window a few inches above the ground; and through the window a cavernous basement, lined with tiles and flickering with the same ethereal blue light as the pool; and far down on the floor stands Molly, her mouth hanging open and her wand limp in her fingers, staring up at him.
Sherlock jerks his chin at her. She nods back, despite her shock.
“Quickly,” he mouths with exaggerated care.
He staggers away from the wall, closes his eyes and presses his hands to his temples to ease the throb. When he can open his eyes again, the window has vanished and even the mirage has faded from view. He smoothes his hair down, straightens his robes and blinks furiously until his vision has cleared.
The waterproof Muggle map is still tucked inside his robes. He tears a square from Greenwich, fishes a pen out of his pocket and scrawls a quick note, with the pen cap held between his teeth. The air cracks around him like a gunshot halfway through the final word.
“Sherlock –” Molly gasps, flashing into view. “How on Earth did you–”
“The morgue’s location is no longer secure. No time to explain. The Chief Healer has gone on a long holiday, hasn’t he?” He pauses long enough for Molly to nod; her mouth opens again, so he grabs her by the shoulder and talks quickly over her. “Go to Stamford, get a two-person Portkey to Hogwarts and tell him to send this message to Potter immediately, then come back here with the Portkey. Quickly. Go.”
“Is Chief Healer Etheldred in trouble?”
“I expect he’s dead by now. It’s not important.”
He thrusts the note at her. She gapes up at him, her hands lifting to her mouth.
“Quickly, Molly!” he barks.
She draws in a deep, shaking breath, nods and grabs the note from him. With a crack, she disappears again. Sherlock pulls out his pocket-watch and stares down at it; his and Mycroft’s watch hands both point to ‘working’, which covers a multitude of sins. He has no hand for John. Another foolish error.
A minute passes far too slowly before Molly reappears, clutching a leafy twig in her hands. She holds the other end out to him with a grim expression and Sherlock grabs hold.
“Is Hogwarts in danger?” she asks.
“Then I’ll do what I can. To Hogwarts,” she says, with a tap of her wand, and the Portkey yanks them forwards at an impossible speed—
They land on their feet, on grass. Windswept and disoriented, Sherlock staggers a step, regains his bearings, recalibrates, turns to look around him. Neither John nor Jim is anywhere to be seen, but it’s been 2.9 minutes since he lost them. Molly stands by his side, breathing hard, and the castle looms over them at the end of the carriageway. Morning, breakfast, the Great Hall full of students and teachers alike. The Front Hall doors are the most heavily warded, but there are other ways to slip inside. Jim had been showing them all along.
“There is way into the castle from the lake, isn’t there? Something unobtrusive, easily overlooked?”
“There’s the passage up to the Reception Chamber – it’s only ever really used by first years before the Sorting. Nobody goes boating much, really... the Giant Squid always tries to join in.”
“Alert the Headmistress, Hogwarts is under attack. Send a message by Patronus, then leave the school grounds. It’s dangerous to remain.”
“But - what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to get John back.”
He takes off at a run, down the grassy slope away from the castle and towards the lake. A shortcut through the Greenhouses – he’s been here before, to consult with Longbottom about venomous plants; he knows the way. He has to get to John. He has - robes billowing behind him, he leaps down a rocky outcrop – to get - over a pile of lazily discarded broom, around a huddle of students surreptitiously sampling Muggle cigarettes, hastily shoved behind their backs at his approach, until they realise he’s no professor and turn to gape after him – to John.
It’s been 3.7 minutes since John left his sight. He bursts through a patch of low-hanging trees, his robes snagging on bare branches; Sherlock snatches the gun out and shakes his arms free of the sleeves and runs on, leaving his robes hanging from the trees without a backwards glance. He keeps running, gun in hand. Slides on a patch of loose stones, slips, regains his balance, skids to a halt where the pebbles give way to sand, at the water’s edge.
The boat is already over fifty feet away, gliding smoothly across the lake. He can make out John, sat docilely in the stern of the boat; he can make out the bone-white object held high in Jim’s clenched fist, the surface gleaming in the morning sun; and he can make out Jim himself, and the magic crackling around him. He hasn’t noticed Sherlock yet, but he will do in a matter of seconds.
Loose pebbles cascading around his feet, Sherlock lifts his gun and takes aim.
He makes his choice.
John is slammed back into himself by an incredible burst of pain in his shoulder. It pours through him like cold water, washing away the haze and leaving his senses brighter than he’d swear they have ever been before. He can see everything. The aftershock of sound is still reverberating around them; and a flock of startled birds rising from the trees on the shore; and Jim turning towards him. John knows where he is now, and he knows what to do.
He grabs Jim by the shoulders and cracks their foreheads together as hard as he can. The force of it stuns them both for a moment and John staggers and Jim staggers with him, the stone in his hand slipping free from his grip. Jim flings himself bodily after it, still unsteady on his feet, and John tightens his grip on Jim’s collar. The little boat rocks dangerously beneath them.
John is awake and alive and cold with the furious clarity of pain. He sees the marble hit the bow and bounce back towards Jim’s open palms, so he shoulders Jim with all his strength, shoving him sideways until their legs hit the side of the boat and it wobbles precariously. Snarling, Jim twists around again and reaches for John’s throat. John throws himself forwards first. Clutching each other, they topple overboard into deep, dark lake.
Beneath the surface, Jim thrashes wildly, first kicking out and then grabbing hold of John’s throat again, until John bends his fingers backwards and Jim snarls in his face in a stream of bubbles. They’re sinking. Through the spreading red cloud of blood that surrounds them, through the bubbles and the spume, they both catch a glimpse of the white marble drifting down into the shadows and Jim shoves John away and strikes out for it. John grabs his legs, pulling him backwards. In another bright cold burst of pain, Jim kicks him in the jaw. John grins. He’s wide awake.
As they grapple, the marble disappears from view again, lost to the murky haze of bubbles, seaweed and blood. They must be attracting attention. The squid, if they’re lucky; grindylows, if they’re not.
Holding tighter onto Jim’s leg, John pulls Sherlock’s wand out of his pocket. Jim kicks him again, harder this time, and for a moment John’s vision wavers. His lungs are burning, but he keeps hold of the wand and twists and elbows Jim hard in the nose.
Drifting in the darkness below them, they catch sight of the white marble again; it seems to glow in the deep. Jim rears up violently. He bares his teeth at John, grabs hold of his wand arm and sinks his teeth into flesh as hard as he can. John bellows in a rush of bubbles before he can stop himself and then there is no air left in his lungs.
He headbutts Jim in the face, feels something crack against his skull, but there’s no time to wonder whose bone was that? Instead, he grabs a handful of Jim’s hair with his free hand – the shoulder bleeding, numbing, his grip weakening, but for now still strong enough – and with his other he lifts his wand at last and breathlessly mouths, “Stupefy.”
Jim’s body goes limp, suspended in the water.
Blood drifts all around them now and sure enough when John kicks his feet experimentally he feels something clutch onto his ankle. He breaks the grindylow’s fingers with his heel and shoots a wordless stream of hot water at it whilst it’s distracted. Nursing its sore and blistering fingers, it shakes its fist at him and disappears back into the weeds.
His lungs are aching, his vision flickering, and his injured shoulder is icy cold. Dragging himself back to where Jim’s body has drifted in the current, John manages to tuck his injured arm around Jim’s waist and twist his numb fingers under his belt.
When he looks up, the surface of the water seems a long, long way away.
John grits his teeth, kicks off his sturdy, Muggle boots and swims.
Jim’s body weighs him down; John’s thick jumper and heavy jeans weigh him down, but Jim, his limp head knocking against the knot of pain in John’s shoulder ever few seconds, would be so much easier to let slip loose. John tightens his grip instead. He thinks the rippling light overhead is getting closer, but there are dark spots in his vision.
He thinks, what I wouldn’t give for some Gillyweed now, like Potter in the Triwizard.
Cedric had been impressed by that. In those long months between the second task and the third, he had told them all about the Mermish city down in the deep. For a few weeks, they had screeched at each other in the few words they knew of Mermish - mainly swearwords - and they had all sworn that they would steal some Gillyweed and explore the city properly once the Tournament was over. Good old Cedric. He had promised them all tickets to his first professional match, if he made it onto a proper team. And John had said, mate, ten years from now you’ll be playing for England.
And John had said—
And John had—
Something grabs him around the waist.
Something grabs Jim too, by the scruff of the neck, easing him away from John’s numb grip. He lets his arm go limp. The light is getting brighter very quickly, the water growing warmer, and then his head breaks through the surface. Cold air stings his cheeks. John splutters, wheezes, sucks in great mouthfuls of air. He has to close his eyes for a second.
Fingers push through his hair, cupping the back of his head.
“All right?” Sherlock says urgently, mouth against his ear. “Are you all right?”
“Did you shoot me?”
He opens his eyes a fraction, just enough that he can see Sherlock’s face, pressed close to his own face, his shoulders backlit by the morning sun cresting the mountaintops. “Thanks.”
Sherlock huffs out a breath that John feels against his skin. Together, they tow Jim back to the boat. It’s all John can do to keep his head above the water, his right shoulder numb and his left cold in that deeper, darker, older way. Sherlock is the one keeping them all afloat. He helps boost John up over the side of the boat and then John pulls and Sherlock pushes Jim inside, dumping him unceremoniously at the bottom. John sprawls onto the floor and lies there, limbs akimbo and chest heaving, pressing his face into the wonderful, solid wood.
Sherlock holds onto the edge, treading the water. His jaw is set, his eyes glittering.
“Do you still have the wand?”
Sitting up with a groan, John fumbles it out of his pocket and holds it aloft. Sherlock nods. He touches John’s shoulder, where his blood has seeped through his jumper and diffused across the sodden wool.
“Keep it out. Dementors are coming, but the Aurors will be here soon.”
“What are you doing?”
“I saw it,” Sherlock says. “I shan’t be long.”
Taking a deep breath, he dives back down again. John slumps against the side and peers down into the water; he can make out Sherlock’s body through the gloom, like a wavering white flame in the darkness, and then it’s gone.
John slowly tugs his jumper up and over his head one-handed and lets it drop, sodden and dripping, into the bottom of the boat. He gingerly probes the edges of his bullet wound with gritted teeth. He doesn’t know much about bullet or guns, other than that they’re louder and messier than half the hexes he knows all put together. He doesn’t know how to knit his flesh back together without the risk of making things worse; all he can do is cast a charm to halt the bleeding and another to ease the pain, everything held in stasis.
His teeth are chattering. He casts a warming charm too, for all the good it will do when there’s that familiar prickle of dread down the back of his spine and the cold ache in his wand arm. Overhead great dark clouds are gathering to block out the weak morning sun and on the lake the waves are growing bigger.
The crack of a Portkey rings out through the grounds. The first of the Aurors spins into view, her wand already drawn, but she staggers at the unexpected, all-consuming wave of despair. The shallows in the shadow of the Forest are freezing over. John grits his teeth. Memories lap at his heels like a rising tide – the blue light on the tiles, the scent of chlorine, Jim’s voice heard so faintly through the mental fog of Imperius.
... one wrong move... throw himself into the water willingly...
Well, John had.
On the shore, the Auror regains her composure and lifts her wand to John in salute. The rest of the team are appearing all around her; they too reel backwards in momentary shock when the tide hits them, but she urges them on. John lifts his own wand, takes a steadying breath, and strains his ears instinctively to listen. He can almost make out Potter shouting orders over the howl of the wind—
And then the wind dies.
The world goes suddenly silent. Something cold kisses John’s cheek and he looks up to see snow falling from storm clouds as dark as the lake.
Where the Forbidden Forest meets the shoreline, the shadows between the trees have deepened into inky black and Dementors drift out of the darkness, one after another after another, as silent as the grave. The grass freezes solid beneath them. All their attention focuses like a slow, sucking inhalation on John and the boat and the lake. For a moment he is frozen on the edge of the pool again, the wand hanging uselessly in his hand, and then he remembers that fierce, burning burst of joy when he came back to himself and knew in a flash of clarity what Sherlock wanted him to do.
“Expecto Patronum!” he shouts, and he grins with wild-eyed relief when silver light explodes from the end of his wand.
Huge and shining, his wolf bounds across the icy lake and charges at the front line of Dementors. It’s joined by a dozen other Patronuses, some John recognises – Lestrade’s German shepherd, Donovan’s jackdaw - and some he doesn’t, with Potter’s famous stag at the head of the pack. The lake glows bright silver in the Patronus light. Together, they push the front line back into the forest, but even as those Dementors retreat more pour out of the trees further down the shore. The ice is creeping across the lake.
John distantly hears an Auror shout, “There must be hundreds!”
The boat shakes hard and then Sherlock bursts up out of the water. Clutching at the side of the boat, he coughs and wheezes and spits out water, his wet hair plastered to his bone-white face.
“John,” he gasps.
John throws his wand down. The cold dread the wolf had kept at bay sinks back into his hands, but it is washed away by ice-cold water when he plunges his arms into the lake and heaves Sherlock onboard. Sherlock collapses gracelessly onto a seat and rests his head on his knees His shoulders rise and fall in jerky, shaking breaths. . Snowflakes melt gently in his hair. Kneeling down next to him, John fumbles the discarded wand back up and casts another warming charm, for all the good it will do. The ice has spread over the water, its white fingers creeping closer and closer to the boat, and the Dementors are drifting out onto the lake.
On the shore, Potter shouts, “Send a message up to Weasley! If the castle is secure, we need them down here!”
A Patronus peels away from the pack, pelting up the grass to the distant castle. It’s one less to hold the Dementors at bay and John feels the temperature drop again.
“Is Mycroft here yet?” Sherlock murmurs, head bent.
Sherlock nods and climbs unsteadily to his feet. John’s words die on his lips, now that he can see the marble clasped in Sherlock’s hand. Up close, without Jim’s command fogging his sense, he can see the stone is opalescent, almost translucent, and inside dark smoke writhes just beneath the surface as if it’s trying to get out.
“Hang on,” John says, leaping upright. “No, Sherlock, wait, don’t-”
“I can do this, John.”
“You can’t! You don’t know if–”
Sherlock grins at him and lifts his fist up into the air.
Light blasts out through his fingers, in a vast expanding dome of white and blue that rushes past John’s ears like a howling wind and crackles all around them. It is dazzling and deafening. Swearing, John throws a hand up to shield his eyes, lifts his wand and blindly sends his wolf charging out across the lake once more. He can make out a whole host of other, fainter Patronuses charging alongside his own. Jim’s victims, he realises: cats and dogs; a galloping horse; a bear swatting Dementors away with its huge, ethereal paws; and an enormous bird of prey circling overhead, its talons extended. It swoops down to meet the wolf, gliding alongside it time and time again.
A beam of morning light slips through the clouds and another half-dozen Patronuses rush into the fray, from the wands of a black-clad group running down the hill from the castle. John recognises their robes: Unspeakables, followed at a sedate pace by an equally familiar figure, swinging an umbrella. The ice around the boat creaks and groans and starts to crack.
"We're winning!" he shouts over the wind.
With a many-mouthed, hissing sigh that rustles the trees and frosts the grass and sends a chill down his spine, the Dementors retreat back into the Forest and the Aurors give chase. The lingering Patronuses start to fade away. Grinning, panting, John sags against the bow of the boat and lowers his wand. He watches his own wolf, prowling back and forth on the tree line, look up at him and disappear.
John tips his head back and laughs, eyes closed against the sunlight.
He can feel the dome of light and magic collapsing all around them, crumpling in on itself slowly at first and then with a roar. Raw, hungry magic hurtles back into the stone still clenched in Sherlock's fist. The boat shakes. Still grinning, John feels the wind rush past his face. It leaves his skin tingling like a shower of wand-sparks.
"Sherlock!" Mycroft shouts from the shore.
John peels his eyes open again. Sherlock stands motionless over him, his head thrown back, staring up at the great silver bird that is slowly wheeling its way back down to meet them. It lands on his outstretched fist and pecks once, weightlessly, at the marble clenched in his hand, and then it fades away. The boat rocks on a gentle breeze; the lake beneath it as still and clear as a sheet of glass again, and the storm clouds are dissolving into the pale blue sky.
Sherlock sucks in a slow breath. He lowers his fist to eye-level, slowly uncurls his fingers and stares down at the globe in the palm of his hands. The surface is pearly white and empty of smoke now.
“Put it down, Sherlock,” John says gently.
Sherlock glances sideways at him. He wets his lips with a quick, darting movement of the tongue, and his gaze slides back to the marble again.
John carefully slides the wand into his pocket. He lifts his empty hands again with equal care and touches Sherlock’s wrist. His skin is cold. John can feel him shaking slightly beneath John’s touch, his fingers twitching as if to close into a fist around the stone.
“Come on,” John says. “Let it go. I’m dying for a cuppa and a nap.”
Sherlock lets out a long, slow breath. Looking up at John, he uncurls his fingers and tips his hand and lets the marble roll from his palm, over the side of the boat and down into the lake. It sinks into the deep without a trace.
“Let Mycroft negotiate with the Merpeople for its retrieval,” he murmurs.
“Oh, he’ll love that.”
"Any chance to show off his Mermish."
John sits down slowly, suddenly exhausted. Someone on land waves their wand and the boat starts moving of its own volition again, back to shore. He rests his head in his hands, closes his eyes and feels cool fingers on his shoulder, brushing the edge of bullet wound.
“Nothing Poppy Pomfrey can’t fix,” John murmurs.
Sherlock huffs out a breath.
“It’s okay,” John says. “You knew you’d wake me up. You didn’t know what shooting Jim or his bloody magic ball would do. For all we know, it could’ve made things worse.”
“Yes,” Sherlock says.
Mycroft and his team are waiting for them at the edge of the lake, wands at the ready. The moment they’re in spell-casting distance, the Unspeakables levitate Jim’s body from the boat and bind him tightly with fine rope, leaving him hanging in the air before them, his head lolling forwards against his chest.
Mycroft raises an eyebrow at Sherlock, his hands folded neatly on the handle of his umbrella. He looks him up and down, nods and murmurs, “I hope for your sake the Squid hasn’t swallowed it, dear brother.”
“Oh, I should think it has more sense than that.”
Sherlock jumps nimbly out of the boat onto shore and stares hard into Jim’s slack face. He stands barefoot on the sandy bank, with a grace that belies his sopping wet trousers, his dripping hair, his shirt stained green with pondweed. John stumbles out after him, staggers and is steadied by Sherlock’s hand gripping his shoulder. He sits down heavily on the grass.
"Summon my robes, would you?" Sherlock says. "And my shoes are around here somewhere. And my gun."
One of Mycroft's underlings waves their wand obediently. As John watches, slowly lowering his head to his knees, a mass of expensive black fabric rips itself from the distant bushes and flaps down the shoreline towards them. It's followed closely by the imposing figure of Professor McGonogall, striding along with her hat tall and her wand drawn and with Molly Hooper and a team of Aurors jogging along behind her. She plucks the robes out of the air as she passes them.
"Holmes," she says. "Watson."
John waves his fingers at her.
"Lovely to see you, Minerva," Mycroft says. “The school is well?”
McGonogall lowers her glasses and stares down her nose at Jim, still hanging limply in the air with his hair dripping wet and his nose bloody.
“And this is he?” she says.
“So it would seem.”
“I presume your Unspeakables will want to speak to him.”
“If we may.”
Pursing her lips, McGonogall pushes her glasses back up her nose. She nods. Mycroft bows his head, raises his wand and closes his eyes. He swings his wand-hand down again in that slow arc that makes the air crackle and the water ripple and loose grains of sand slither down the bank. The ground shakes beneath them. It feels as if a great chasm has split open under their feet; John can’t see it, but he can sense it: the edge of the precipice, and the long, long drop. And then Mycroft brings his wand back down and Jim winks out of existence, the chasm snapping shut.
John sags back against the grass. He throws his least sore arm over his face and closes his eyes. His fingers are shaking. There are people moving all around them now, in a cacophony of voices and snatches of conversation –
“Potter says to –”
“Lestrade, get –”
“How’s your Mermish –”
John lets it all wash over him, until the grass rustles by his head. The murmur of expensive robes, that familiar intake of breath, and Sherlock says, “John,” from somewhere very close.
He lifts his arm away from his eyes and squints in the bright morning light. He can make out Sherlock’s face hovering over him and Molly kneeling beside him, her eyes darting back and forth between John and Sherlock and the crowd of Aurors bustling around them.
“Hello, Molly,” John says. “What’re you doing here?”
“Sherlock told me you were bleeding. Madame Pomfrey’s on her way, but I thought I’d better have a look at you.”
“She brought me here,” Sherlock says, scowling. “I told her to leave.”
“I couldn’t go while Hogwarts was in trouble,” Molly says briskly, probing John’s shoulder. She clucks her tongue. “Oh dear. It’s amazing what Muggles can do without magic, really, isn’t it? I mean, when you think about it. How are you feeling?”
“I’ve had better days.”
John chuckles to himself, his head swimming. He gazes up at Sherlock, whose frown is deepening, whose eyes in this sunlight are a remarkable shade of blue. It feels like a whole lifetime has passed since Sherlock came to him in the night and asked him what the Dementors made him see.
With cold fingers, Sherlock touches the side of John’s face.
Sherlock wordlessly shakes his head, still frowning down at him.
“Is there something on my face?”
“Oh, good,” John sighs, closing his eyes.
So sorry about the delay! I just moved into a new flat, which is hideously distracting at the best of times, on top of which it took approximately one million years to get internet set up.
Please note I've increased the rating to Explicit to be on the safe side.
He wakes up with his head fuzzy, his mouth dry and his face mashed into the side of a comfortably moth-eaten cushion. He would recognise the smell of the Auror break room anywhere: part wet kneazle and part Floo residue, with undertones of stale coffee. When he shifts, the sofa groans and the springs sag even closer to the floor. He peels his eyes open to stare at the mug of tea and bar of chocolate on the coffee table before him.
“All right, John?” Lestrade asks from somewhere close by.
John rolls over carefully. Every movement makes his head throb like a seventh year after too much Firewhiskey. He spots Lestrade in an armchair close to the fire, grinning at him from over the top of a copy of the Daily Prophet.
“How long did I sleep?”
“A few hours.”
“Merlin’s bloody beard.” John sits up, groans and rubs his hands down his face. Through his fingers, he says, “Where’s Sherlock? Is he all right?”
“He’s – all right, I think. A bit shaken up. Not sure if magic agrees with him. Look, Poppy Pomfrey was all for sending you both to St Mungo’s, but he refused point blank. Said there was no point while the most competent Healer in the place was out cold anyway. It took some persuading, but Potter finally sent him off to Muggle Relations. Granger’s interested in Squibs; she volunteered to take a look at him, check Moriarty’s little trick hasn’t done any lasting damage.”
Lestrade’s grin fades. He folds his Prophet and clears his throat.
“James Moriarty. That’s his name. Wanted man, in both worlds now. The Muggle Minister wants us to hand him over for a Muggle trial.”
“I can’t see Mycroft letting that happen.”
“Merlin, I hope not.” Lestrade taps the newspaper against his knee, frowning down at in thought; John can easily imagine how many Oblivations a Muggle trial would result in and he can see Lestrade’s thinking the same.
“He’ll get the kiss, if he’s lucky,” John says.
“What about if he’s unlucky?”
“Then he’ll get Mycroft bloody Holmes.”
John climbs to his feet, steadying himself on the back of the sofa. His legs ache and his shoulders are still throbbing, the left side cold and the right side hot, and he’s sick of the sight of chocolate. He takes the bar from the coffee table anyway, shoves it in his pocket and pulls out his wand to heat up the tea. It’s Sherlock’s wand. John stares down at it, at his fingers curled comfortably around the engraved handle. The sight of it makes his shoulders throb harder, somehow. He wants –
Lestrade clears his throat, startling John out of his reverie. He raises his eyebrows pointedly at the wand in John’s hand.
“Good of Mycroft.”
“To lend you a spare wand now. While, you know, yours is still being processed.”
“Right, that. Yes, good old... Mycroft.”
John is halfway to the door when Lestrade calls after him, “Oi, one last thing...”
He turns to see Lestrade, grinning, holding up the Daily Prophet again. He gives the paper a meaningful shake, as if John could possibly miss the photo of himself and Sherlock on the front page. The photographer has caught them mid-battle: the ice cracking, the air ablaze with the magic pouring through Sherlock’s fingers, the snow whirling dramatically around them as they push the Dementors back into the forest.
John heaves a sigh. “Creevey, was it?”
“On a broom with a bloody big camera, they tell me.” Lestrade is still grinning. “He’s got done for unauthorised flying too close to school property, in full sight of practically the entire Auror department, but he’s pretty cheerful about it.”
“Well, he’ll never have to buy his own drinks again, will he?”
“The WLE trainees keep bringing him fresh cups of tea so he’ll tell them all about it. Careful out there - they’ll be after you next, now you’re awake.”
John waves a hand, limping out into the corridor. He wants to find Sherlock. Everything else can wait.
The Ministry is seething with activity; John’s legs ache and people keep stopping him to shake his hand and pat his back, so it takes him twice as long as it should to navigate the crowds and corridors and make his way to the Muggle Relations Department. Weasley is standing guard outside Granger’s office, his arms crossed over his chest. He would cut an imposing figure if he didn’t beam at the sight of John’s approach and call out, “All right, Watson?”
“All right, Weasley.”
“Remember us little people, won’t you? Once you and Holmes have got your Orders of Merlin.”
“You already have an Order of Merlin,” John points out. “You’ve had one for years.”
Weasley sniggers, patting him on the shoulder.
“First class, they reckon,” he says.
“I didn’t do anything.”
“You nutted a nutter, mate. Even Harry never did that.”
Smiling a little wistfully, as though he would have liked nothing better than to have seen the Boy Who Lived headbutt a dark wizard, Weasley waves his wand and moves aside to let John pass.
He steps through the door into a warm, bright office, cluttered with a mix of Muggle and magic paraphernalia. Sherlock and Granger are huddled around the desk together, Granger bent down low over the tube she’s peering into; they are both so absorbed in her task neither of them look up at the sound of her office door opening, until John clears his throat and Sherlock jumps to his feet so abruptly he knocks his chair over.
“Oh, honestly,” Granger murmurs. She levitates the chair back upright with a quick wave of her wand. “Hello, John. Take a seat. I was just explaining to Sherlock that –”
Sherlock remains standing despite the chair now helpfully nudging the backs of his calves. His face is white, his shirt stained, his hair and robes in disarray. He stares at John.
“Should you be... up?” he says.
“Well, the most competent Healer at St Mungo’s told me it was all right.”
Sherlock purses his lips. With a nod, he grabs the chair hovering behind him, forces it down onto the floor and shoves it around the side of the desk, towards John. John rolls his eyes and takes the seat, and Sherlock rounds on Granger again.
“Tell him about the micro scope,” he barks.
Unperturbed, Granger looks up at John and smiles. She pushes the microscope closer towards him. “I’ve adapted it from a Muggle invention. It’s very useful, really. I have a sample of Sherlock’s blood down here-” She points at the bottom of the tube. “-and I’m looking at it, er, very, very close up – to check there’s been no magical damage.”
“And my saliva.”
Granger’s lips twitch. “Yes, and I looked at his saliva too.”
Sherlock crowds in close, gripping the back of John’s chair. His knuckles dig uncomfortably into John’s shoulder blades and John can feel his presence looming over him like some kind of guardian angel, or a human Patronus. He tilts his head back to look up at Sherlock’s face, which is cold and hard and still, his eyes feverishly bright. The full, unfiltered force of him, glowing like silver light.
“Tell him about Squibs,” Sherlock says.
Granger looks back and forth between them. She carefully pushes her microscope aside and brushes her hair out of her face, breathing out slowly.
“Well, we’ve been researching this theory for a while, thanks to some regular funding from a donor –”
“Mycroft,” Sherlock mutters.
“You know nobody’s ever really understood how magical ability can just spontaneously appear in non-magical families? Unfortunately, the Wizarding World tends not to care enough about Muggles to try to find out why, but we here have suspected for a while – and I think all this has more or less proven it, really – that Muggleborns are actually the product of long lines of Squibs mixing with Muggles. We think they carry the magic gene - the, er, the possibility of magical ability in a person, but it’s dormant and inactive. Like inheriting eye colour or hair colour, you see? You often hear about Muggles performing incredible feats under stress or having uncanny abilities – there’s a popular Muggle illusionist we’re keeping an eye on, in particular. It could be they’re Squibs with very low level abilities... which means the Squib population could be much larger than we ever dreamt.”
“So...” John leans back in his seat. Sherlock’s knuckles flex against his shoulder blades. “So, Moriarty found a way to - what? To take the potential magic?”
“He found a way to take everything,” Sherlock says. “Magic, memories, vital functions.”
There is something in Sherlock’s voice that makes John turn to look at him.
“You have a theory, don’t you?”
“The Dementor’s kiss also drains a person of memory and magical ability. I expect it could kill as well, if it went on long enough, although of course Dementors have always the messy functions of biological life far less – appetising – than inner life. Jim,” he adds, darkly, “has no such compunction.”
John stares up at him until Sherlock’s face twitches with impatience and a snatch of memory rises up from the jumbled fog of the Imperius.
“He said he’d... seen under a Dementor’s cloak, didn’t he?” John says. “Said it tried to kiss him?”
Sherlock nods and Granger gasps, clapping a hand over her mouth. She looks both appalled and fascinated.
“You think he killed it,” she murmurs through her fingers, voice low and fast. “Of course, there’s always been hypothetical speculation about the possible magical properties of Dementors, but nobody has ever actually tried. I think it would probably be considered as unlucky as killing a unicorn. And of course the only definite way to subdue them is the Patronus charm, and that’s really just a banishing charm – it doesn’t do any lasting damage. I’m sure I read an article in Magical Creatures Quarterly last year...”
Muttering under her breath, she tugs open a desk drawer and starts riffling through its contents.
“I expect even a Dementor’s throat can be slit,” Sherlock says, “if you try hard enough.”
“But how could anyone get close enough?”
“Maybe they don’t bother him,” John says, glancing up at Sherlock.
Still leafing through paperwork, scrolls of parchment and pamphlets on Outreach in the Muggle Community, Granger shakes her head. “I don’t think the Dementors ever affected Voldemort, but I think that was because they wouldn’t dare. To be truly unaffected, you’d have to be some kind of... of... sociopath.”
“Quite likely,” Sherlock says.
He keeps a tight grip on John’s elbow all the way home. They Floo from the Ministry straight into Mrs Hudson’s fireplace, making her shriek and whack them with her tea towel before she pulls them out of the grate and smothers them both in an all-enveloping hug.
“Oh, my poor boys. Look at the state of you,” she sighs, smoothing down Sherlock’s hair. She stares up at them with limpid, reproachful eyes. “Order of Merlin, first class, they’re saying! Just wait till I tell her next door. You know, you’ve left such a state upstairs. Furniture everywhere.”
“Sorry, Mrs Hudson,” John says automatically, wiping her lipstick off his check with his free hand; his other arm is still caught in Sherlock’s grip. “It’s back, then? Our flat.”
“Oh yes, Mycroft came and put it right this morning. Very efficient man, your brother, Sherlock.”
“And he always wears such smart robes –”
Sherlock’s hand tightens on John’s arm.
“We’d best be off, Mrs Hudson,” John says. “Long day, you know. We need a rest.”
“Of course you do. Oh, you boys, Orders of Merlin!”
She hugs them again. With barely a backwards glance, Sherlock tows John out of her arms and upstairs to 221B. The living room is exactly as they left it: the furniture piled up in the centre of the room; the overturned sofa; the empty mug John left on the floor a lifetime ago. Dust hangs golden and undisturbed in the mid-afternoon sunlight.
Sherlock paces around the room, stroking the edges of chair and tables; he whips the curtains open and yanks the windows up so hard the frames rattle. He sticks his head out to look down on the street below. John imagines him testing the scent of the air; double-checking every brick and spot of discarded chewing gum to be sure that nothing has changed without him.
The inestimable Mr Hudson’s trick wall, at least, is back where it should be. John runs his hand over the re-grown wallpaper.
“I’ll just –” he begins, pulling the wand out of his pocket and motioning at the disarray.
“Leave it,” Sherlock snaps, withdrawing from the window. He stares around himself one last time, breathing out heavily, and then he grabs the edge of the sofa and heaves. John starts forwards to help, but Sherlock waves him away. The sofa crashes back down onto the floor right-side-up, the floorboards reverberating, Mrs Hudson’s plaintive cry of, “Oi, mind my ceiling!” floating up from below.
Sherlock curls his fingers into John’s jumper and pushes him – gently, for Sherlock, but insistently – towards the sofa.
“I’m not a bloody dog, Sherlock.”
At that, Sherlock releases his grip, his hands pulling away again so fast it leaves John reeling for a second.
“No,” Sherlock says.
“I’ve had enough of being dragged around for one day.”
John sits anyway, suddenly exhausted. He rests his chin on his hands and gazes up at Sherlock. Sherlock twists away from John’s scrutiny, staring out the window, his mouth working.
“John... I’m... Your involvement was – regrettable – in this affair.”
“Well, I wasn’t about to let you run around after a madman on your own. You know I’d never let you do that.”
John closes his eyes. He listens to the infinitesimal sounds of Sherlock unmoving: a breath that rustles his robes, a fingertip tapping against his thigh; and then Sherlock declares, “I’ll put the kettle on,” and strides away in a flurry of movement.
From the kitchen, cupboards banging, mugs clattering, the kettle filling with water.
“You know,” John calls, eyes still closed, “if what Granger was saying is right, he could have just targeted Muggle-raised Squibs. Picked people off one by one. It would have been a lot slower, I suppose, less flashy. But we all would have been none the wiser until it was too late.”
He hears Sherlock flick the kettle on, and then soft footsteps approaching. Sherlock stops just inside the doorway and a heavy silence falls again. Just the sound of Sherlock breathing.
“I guess that would have been less fun for you both,” John murmurs.
“It was not fun.”
“Come on. He was practically wooing you. You were having the time of your life until I –”
Hands grab his biceps. Sherlock’s breath is on his face. Startling out of his near-doze, John opens his eyes to see Sherlock crouching down before him, his face inches from John’s face, his eyes pale and furious, his fingers clutching at John.
“Until you,” he echoes, and then nothing more.
They stare at each other.
There are scratches across Sherlock’s cheekbones and his nose, and his robes are snagged and torn, his shirt a water-stained mess. Despite Mrs Hudson’s best efforts, his hair is in a state of disarray, with a resilient piece of pondweed still somehow caught in the tangles. John doesn’t realise his own intentions until his hand is already in the air. He tugs the pondweed out and smoothes the stray curl of hair down with the palm of his hand, flattening it over Sherlock’s ear.
Sherlock’s eyes dart back and forth across his face.
“Look,” John begins.
“Kettle’s boiled,” Sherlock says.
He straightens up and strides away without a backwards glance, leaving John’s hand curling into empty air. John leans back and listens and lets himself drift. When Sherlock reappears with the tea a couple of minutes later, he’s dragging a dining chair behind him. He thrusts the mug at John, dumps the chair in front of the sofa, folds himself into it and shuffles forwards even closer until their knees knock together. He rests his chin on top of his steepled fingers and stares across at John expectantly until John lifts the mug, blows across the surface and takes a careful sip.
“Look,” John says again, gently, putting the mug back down. “It’s fine, I’m fine. Everything was fine, in the end. Not the first time I got into trouble, and it won’t be the last either –”
“Will you be secret keeper?”
Sherlock leans forwards, breathless, bracing his hands on John’s thighs. He pulls the wand out of John’s pocket, presses it into John’s palm and curls John’s fingers around the handle.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s perfect. Cast the Fidelius Charm.”
John shakes his head. When he starts to pull away, Sherlock catches hold of his fist between both hands and clasps it, tugging the wand up higher between them.
“Okay, okay. What secret do you think needs keeping?”
“You. I need to keep – you.”
Despite himself, John starts to laugh. “I’m not a secret.”
“You can be. What good is magic for, if not–? It’s imperative. You – My regard for you. John. I cannot afford to have such an obvious weaknesses. I’ve been foolish.”
“You’re trying to close the hatch long after the hippogriff has flown. You can’t keep me secret.”
Sherlock surges up out of his seat with a growl of derision. Leaning down over John, he snaps, “Why not?”
John has to tilt his head back against the sofa to look up at him, at the wand still clasped tightly between them.
“Well, for starters,” he says, “I write a column for a national newspaper.”
"You can stop that."
"Oh, I can, can I?"
Sherlock falters. His expression crumples for one brief second, before it hardens into a scowl again. He turns away, letting John's hands drop down into his lap. The wand clatters to the floor and Sherlock stares down at it. His fingers twitch.
"Sit down, would you?" John says.
When Sherlock sits back down, grudgingly, in the dining chair, John scoots forwards until their knees knock together again.
"You can't keep me secret," he says. “Do you honestly think I’d even let you? Look, you could have Mycroft hide me away somewhere and I would still bloody well find a way out. I'm always going to chase after you. Someone has to make sure you don't get yourself killed. So it's not that I don't appreciate the, er, the sentiment, I think, and I’m sorry if you think it’s a weakness but-"
Sherlock leans forwards, braces his hands on John's thighs again and kisses him.
Oh, some distant part of John thinks, of course. How obvious.
It's soft and chaste, just a dry press of the lips together, eyes open. John's hand lifts at that first brush of contact, his fingers curling in the space between their bodies. He can feel Sherlock’s breath on his skin and somehow that is what makes his heart lurch against his ribs, makes him gasp against Sherlock’s mouth. Sherlock’s fingers clench in his trousers and he draws back slowly, inch by inch, his eyes dancing back and forth over John’s face as if he’s mentally cataloguing every inch of it. John watches his tongue dart out across his lower lip.
“You aren’t my pet,” Sherlock says.
John breathes out slowly. He lays his out-stretched palm flat on the side of Sherlock’s face, his thumb brushing over his cheekbone, the tips of his fingers touching the tips of Sherlock’s hair.
“Definitely not,” he says.
It is as though something stretched tight between them snaps, so tangible John feels it like the crack of a Disapparition – or like a bullet speeding from a gun. Sherlock surges forwards again, right up out of his chair; he straddles John’s lap and cups his face in both hands and kisses him again, harder this time, and warm and wet, kneeling up over him so that the bow of his body bends John back. His lips are chapped. They both taste of lake water.
John starts to laugh.
“Be quiet, John,” Sherlock mutters, his hands sliding down onto John’s shoulders and pressing him back into the cushions.
Sherlock frowns at him. His hands drift back up John’s neck, under his chin, tracing the edge of his jaw with his fingertips, with a look of intense concentration on his face. He presses his thumb against the very edge of John’s eye socket, his fingers curling around his ear. His mouth hangs slightly open, and John can feel every hot, hitching breath gust over his face. The warmth suffuses him, the heat unfurling low in his belly.
When he slides his hands open-palmed up Sherlock’s thighs, Sherlock’s exploration stutters to a halt and his eyes flick up to meet John’s gaze.
“Jim and I...” he says.
John laughs again, short and breathless. He pushes his hands up under Sherlock’s robes, tugging them down from his shoulders.
“You want to talk about him now?”
Sherlock lets go of John’s face, first one side then the other, to let his robes slide down from his arms and pool onto the floor, and then he takes John’s face in hand again, his fingers pressing into his jaw.
Tilting John’s face up to his, he murmurs, “He felt powerful, John. I felt it too. The Dementors - I had it in my hands. I could have – Is that how magic always feels?”
“Not really, no.”
John focuses on Sherlock’s shirt buttons, undoing them one by one. Where the cotton parts, he runs his hands up Sherlock’s bare chest and Sherlock presses forwards into the touch. His body is a warm weight in John’s lap, pinning him to the sofa.
Distracted by Sherlock’s hands on his skin, John grabs the hem of his shirt and tugs it up over his head. Tossing it to one side, he lets his head drop back against the sofa and he stares up at Sherlock. Sherlock, kneeling up over him, his chest heaving, stares back down at him with wild eyes. He traces the edge of the round, new scar on John’s right shoulder, still pink and shiny and almost tender; he covers it with the palm of his hand.
“You...” John breathes and cups Sherlock’s cheek.
Sherlock’s fingers slip up into his hair. Their faces are scant inches apart, close enough to kiss; close enough that they are breathing the same air, their lungs moving in sync.
“It’s usually pretty dull, really,” he says, Sherlock’s thumbs stroking his cheekbones.
Sherlock rocks forwards to press his lips to John’s ear. John grabs hold of his hips and tugs him in closer still.
“I wanted to keep it,” Sherlock murmurs against his ear. “I very strongly considered keeping it.”
“But I –”
He pulls back again, looking down at John. His shirt is hanging open and his face is flushed, his hair an even wilder mess than it was five minutes ago. Something catches in John’s throat.
“But I – saw you,” Sherlock says. “And then I –”
Shaking his head, he tilts John’s head back again and crashes their lips together. It’s open-mouthed and sloppy and languorously, torturously slow, Sherlock’s hips rocking down against John’s in tiny little movements that make John’s head spin. He gasps into Sherlock’s mouth. Smoothing his hands across the plane of Sherlock’s stomach, he fumbles for the belt buckle, tugs it free and unfastens his trousers. Sherlock groans so low it rumbles through them both and John starts laughing again.
“Would you be quiet,” Sherlock mutters.
He grinds down against John hard enough that John’s chuckles stutter to a halt, his head falling back and his mouth falling open. Sherlock kisses him harder, their tongues sliding together hot and wet, and gasps into his mouth, his hips rolling back and forth, and John bucks up to meet him. Sherlock’s hands feel as if they are trying to catalogue everything all at once, one moment plucking at the button of John’s sturdy Muggle jeans, the next running up and down his sides, stroking across bare skin. He cradles John’s jaw, tugs at his hair.
With another shaking, breathless laugh, John pulls Sherlock’s trousers down his thighs and tugs his dick free. Sherlock sags forwards against him when John runs his hand up the length and John mouths wet kisses against the bared length of Sherlock’s neck. He can feel Sherlock’s own hands working down the warm press of their bodies to palm at John’s crotch, clumsily tugging his jeans open. Sherlock humps against him, his head tipping forwards into the crook of John’s shoulder and their dicks sliding together. There is a sweat-slick heat building between their bodies. John drags his hands around Sherlock’s waist and up under his open shirt to stroke the small of his back and then down, his fingers slipping under the waistband of his trousers. Gripping Sherlock’s arse, he pulls him in closer, rubbing up against him, and Sherlock grinds down frantically; he grabs hold of John’s shoulders to steady himself and ruts against him, hard and fast, his lips dragging up John’s neck and jaw. John twists his head and captures his lips again, clumsy and open-mouthed.
They are both silent now, but for the rustle of cloth and of flesh against flesh and the hot gasps for breath against each other’s lips. John worms his hand back between their bodies and takes hold of Sherlock’s dick; it’s hot and heavy and the skin is soft as silk against his fingers, and the ragged sound Sherlock makes, his chin dropping down onto John’s shoulder, melts through John’s body like honey. Sherlock thrusts into his fist in helpless little motions, his mouth open at the juncture between John’s neck and collarbone. He comes with a jerk and a gasp, almost silent, his teeth scraping over skin, his nails digging in too hard. His breath is very, very warm.
His fingers are even warmer, when they crawl clumsily down John’s shirtfront, over his hitching chest and through the trail of hair down his stomach. John is already so hard it almost hurts; he bucks at the slightest brush of Sherlock’s fingers, his head tipping forwards. Sherlock bites at his neck again and starts to pump John’s dick slow and hard. The world narrows down to hand and mouth. Each touch as bright as points of light.
John grabs hold of Sherlock’s hair, pulls him in closer still and comes like that, every inch of himself touching an inch of Sherlock. His chest heaves against Sherlock’s chest and he groans into the crook of Sherlock’s neck.
“John,” he feels Sherlock whisper against his jaw. “John. John.”
John clutches at his hair. He breathes in salt and lake water.
Eventually, somehow, the clock hands start to move again. A car alarm goes off in the street outside and the world beyond their bodies trickles back into existence. They pull themselves back together, piece by piece; straightening shirts and wiping fingers clean; brushing hair out of each other’s eyes. Sherlock slowly straightens up and lifts his head.
“I wanted to keep it,” he says again, voice low. “We aren’t dissimilar, Jim and I. After all, that’s what drew him to me in the first place.”
“You’re thinking about the Dementors, aren’t you?”
Sherlock nods. He sits silently, his pale eyes tracing the contours of John’s face as though committing it all to memory for later, detailed analysis. The scratch on Sherlock’s nose is livid red. John brushes the pad of his thumb across it.
“Well,” he says. “I suppose you have some similarities. The Squib thing, obviously, and you’re both a bit... mad –”
“Charming,” Sherlock mutters.
“– but no matter what Donovan says, you’re no killer. And Mycroft kept you from that Dementor when you are a kid, didn’t he? And I got you to lob that bloody stone into the lake.”
“And that’s your vote of confidence, is it?” he says, although he’s smirking. “My brother’s intervention and your... self, all that stands between me and power-hungry mass murder?”
“You like to pretend you’re above it all, Sherlock, but there are people who care about you – and you care about them. That’s how you’re different.”
Glowering, Sherlock ducks down and kisses him again, quick and hard and close-mouthed, as if to shut him up. John laughs against his lips.
“You know,” he adds, when they pull apart, “it was the power of love that defeated Voldemort in the end.”
“Magic,” Sherlock groans, with a look of abject disgust.
He slumps sideways across the sofa and throws his leg over John’s lap, casually pinning him in place. Those strange, pale eyes are almost shut, but there is a glimmer of white and grey beneath the lashes. John watches Sherlock watch him. He hooks his fingers around a bony ankle and breathes in the lingering scent of lake water.
Yes, he thinks. You don’t need magic. You have your brains and you have your gun.
And you have me.
John dreams of nothing.
A floorboard creaks and he presses his face deeper into the pillow, screwing his eyes tighter shut. He can feel sunlight on his eyelids and a breeze on his skin. He listens to Sherlock muttering, car horns honking, the sound of beating wings.
“John!” Sherlock exclaims. “You have to pay the delivery owl.”
John peels his eyes open. He squints in the mid-morning sunlight streaming into the room. All the windows are wide open and Sherlock stands before them, glaring at the collection of owls jostling for attention on the nearest window ledge.
“Fancied some fresh air, did you?”
“The whole place stank of Mycroft’s stale magic,” Sherlock says. “Even Muggle car fumes seemed the lesser of two evils. The owl, John.”
“They can’t all be delivering the Prophet.”
“One from brother dear, one from the ministry. The paper is yours, you pay for it.”
“You read it over my shoulder,” John points out, but he yawns and rolls out of bed, grabbing Sherlock’s tartan dressing gown from the back of the door and dragging it on as he goes.
He finds the kitchen in the same mess they left it in. Gathering up dirty mugs, he drops them into the sink and wipes vaguely at some crumbs on the countertop with the sleeve of Sherlock’s dressing gown. Same old kitchen, same old flat. Even the living room is almost back to normal. At some point whilst John was sleeping, Sherlock dragged the furniture back to more or less where it belongs. A corner of wallpaper is peeling away from Mr Hudson’s trick wall again. Only the dining chair still standing in front of the sofa is proof that anything in the flat has changed. John rubs his hand over the back of the chair.
All the windows are wide open in here, too, letting in cold air and the sounds of Muggle morning traffic. Goosebumps prickle across his skin. He fumbles his money pouch out of his discarded jacket, raps his knuckles on the dining chair and goes back to Sherlock’s room.
“Here you go,” he says, tossing Sherlock a sickle. “So what does Mycroft have to say?”
Sherlock catches the coin, thrusts it at the delivery owl and yanks their copy of the Daily Prophet free at last. He throws it at the bed, where it bounces off the mattress and slides onto the floor.
“He confirmed my suspicions.”
John perches on the end of the bed and stares down at the newspaper on the floorboards. There is another large photograph of Hogwarts on the front, the lights twinkling in all the windows. Beneath it, there’s a picture of Sherlock scowling at the camera and one of John from his Auror days. The news of all the people Moriarty killed has already faded from the front page; the Wizarding World has always preferred a celebration.
“Moriarty’s magic ball is treated Dementor bone.”
“Bloody hell. Well, I guess that answers why the Dementors were so riled up about it.”
Sherlock fishes a few owl treats from somewhere in the recesses of his silk dressing gown and thrusts them at the owls, shooing them away. When he turns back to John, there’s a feverish light in his eyes. He paces back and forth before the windows, his hands moving through the air while he talks.
“My brother believes the technique used was similar to that of a Remembrall. It’s not a huge leap from reading the subconscious mind to extracting it, I suppose. And of course it’s highly advanced magic.”
“He can’t have done it himself then.”
“Hardly. No, he’ll have accomplices, a network. Muggle and magic alike, I’d imagine. They might not know his plan has failed yet. We could catch them unawares.”
“That’s next then, is it? Tracking down Moriarty’s men?”
Sherlock’s pacing slows and he turns to look at John again. “If you’re with me?”
“You know I am,” John says. “Stop fishing for compliments.”
Sherlock smirks at him. Crossing the room, he gathers up the fallen newspaper, straightens out the creases and studies the pictures on the front. John watches the twist of his lips smooth out into a gentler smile. He passes the Prophet down to John and wanders away to the windows again.
“The Unspeakables won’t be able to hold onto him forever,” he says, sticking his head out to peer down onto the street. “Something will come undone and he’ll escape. Magic makes people lazy, John. It made him lazy, too.”
John looks down at the newspaper in his hands. The photo of him is a good ten years old; he stands in his Auror uniform, his chin up, frowning out at the world. He had received a commendation, he remembers, for rooting out a gang of New Grindelwaldians. The picture is more dashing than him in Healer robes, he supposes. Lime green never did anyone any favours.
“Well, Dennis Creevey’s been let off with just a light tap on the wrist,” he says, scanning the newsprint.
“Potter’s fond of him, isn’t he? Gryffindors.” Sherlock scoffs out the window.
“Oh yes, all those reckless gits, rushing into things without pausing to consider the consequences. Can’t imagine what that’s like to put up with.”
Pulling his head back out of the window, Sherlock whips around to shoot him an outraged glare. “I’m not a Gryffindor. If either one of us is a Gryffindor, it’s you.”
“Just because you guessed my house wrong when we met...”
“You seemed like a Gryffindor.”
“I was a different person when I was Sorted.” John looks down at the front page again, meeting the eyes of that angry young Auror. “We all were. A lot of things have changed since then.”
Sherlock sniffs. He turns to look back out the window.
“Lestrade sent your wand back,” he says. “It’s on the desk somewhere.”
“On the desk somewhere. Very helpful, thanks.”
John rifles through the debris on Sherlock’s desk – cryptic memos written on scraps of parchment; monographs on recognising unusual hexes and the practical uses of dragon’s blood; jars of boomslang skin; empty cauldron cake wrappers – until he finds the heavy Ministry envelope with his wand inside. He tips it out into his hand. Solid, dependable oak, dragon heartstring, ten inches. He wraps his fingers around the handle and feels something like the familiar tug, but fainter than it used to be.
Peering around, he spots the other wand on the bedside table. He picks it up in his other hand and stands and stares down at them both. He stares at the delicate birch engraving, settled comfortably into his palm. It warms his fingers. Everyone knows the wand chooses the wizard.
“You could keep it,” Sherlock says. “If you like. Having a spare wand around clearly comes in useful. I can’t imagine why more of your lot don’t do it.”
“We get attached.”
John sits down on the bed and carefully places both wands on the bedside table before he looks up at Sherlock. Sherlock, standing in front of the wide open windows, his ridiculous silky dressing gown rippling in the breeze. His hair is a mess. John would follow him anywhere.
“I’ve had that oak wand since I was eleven,” he says.
“You were different when you were eleven.”
“Yeah,” John breathes. “Come here.”
Sherlock moves closer, but slowly. He lingers at the foot of the bed. “John, I’m - no expert at sentiment.”
“My affection for you is...”
“I know,” John says again. “Come here.”
He holds out a hand, crooking his fingers impatiently. Sherlock snorts with laughter and lifts a knee to the mattress. Pausing with one foot still on the floor, he looks up at John from under his eyelashes, his lips twitching.
Voice low, he adds, “And I’m not a Gryffindor.”
“Sherlock, I swear, you are a house unto yourself. Now get over here, you git.”
He takes John’s hand and John draws him in, the windows wide open all around them.