"I agree. It’s an absurd means of settling disputes."
John Watson's eyes jerked open. Somehow, a man had managed to sit down next to him on the park bench without his having felt it. That was surprising enough by itself that it took him a moment to register what the man had said.
"I said, I agree. War is intolerably wasteful."
John inhaled, then exhaled slowly, staring at the man. He wondered if he were starting to have actual hallucinations now. There was certainly an air of unreality about his park-bench companion. He was tall and dark-haired, with eyes of an indeterminate color and a long, prominent nose. He was dressed well, but with a weirdly old-fashioned air—in a three-piece suit, with a formidable-looking umbrella though there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the chain of a pocket-watch—a pocket watch—visible. Honestly, the only reason John could come up with for him not being a hallucination was that he'd no idea why his subconscious would have wanted to conjure him up.
Most of his nightmares were so very literal and straightforward.
He cleared his throat. "I didn't say anything."
"But you were thinking it."
True, but—"How could you possibly know that?"
"You glanced at that newspaper in the bin. The article which is visible from your angle concerns troop movements in Afghanistan. For a moment, you looked grim and determined. Then you hand stole to your injured shoulder, and you shook your head and closed your eyes, smiling ironically. Really, Dr. Watson, you hardly needed to say a word to make those thoughts clear."
John narrowed his eyes at the stranger, astonishment and fear coursing through him. "How--?"
"And, yes, I am quite real. Perfectly solid. See?"
He extended his hand, palm up. John ignored it. "How do you know my name?"
"You were referred to me, Dr. Watson. I take a great interest in certain kinds of people, and I have friends who indulge me."
"Certain 'kinds of people?'" John nearly growled.
"You're a recently discharged soldier, a doctor with a remarkable service record and nothing at all in the world to do."
"That didn't answer my question."
The man's mouth folded up into half a smile. "You also have both a genuine injury and a psychosomatic one." He almost beamed. "So, you see, we are practically acquainted already. There's no cause for alarm."
"Who says I'm alarmed?"
The man tilted his head and studied him. "Your therapist would say you are. She thinks you suffer from post-traumatic stress, and that you're haunted by your memories of the war. She would surely be on edge right now, observing this encounter. Expecting a breakdown, no doubt."
His therapist? This man had been speaking to his therapist—had violated his confidentiality? Now he was furious, and it cleared away everything else in his head. He didn't give a damn whether he was speaking to a hallucination, or a criminal mastermind, or a devil, for that matter. He leaned in and grabbed the man by the tie, jerking him forwards. "Who the hell are you?"
The man didn't react at all. Apparently. After a moment, he coughed delicately and flicked his eyes downwards.
John followed his glance and saw that a blade protruding from the tip of that umbrella was resting lightly just below his sternum. John's fingers tightened on the tie as he imagined, vividly, letting it play out—his blood or the stranger's breath, or maybe both. Perfect clarity, one last time. Death in Russell Square.
Then he blinked, giddy, and let him go.
The stranger was completely unruffled. The umbrella returned to its prior position, propped against his leg. "You're not going to break down, Dr. Watson. I can tell."
After that? Even he wasn't sure, after that. "How."
"Let me see your hand. The left one, please."
Not entirely sure why he was obeying, John held it up. The man reached for it. John flinched. The man tch-ed, and John let him take it, feeling vaguely foolish.
"You have an intermittent tremor in your left hand."
John nodded, wary.
"But you're under tremendous stress right now, and it's perfectly steady. You're in no danger of a breakdown at this moment, Dr. Watson." His hand was still resting on the man's palm, the other hand hovering over it as if it could draw out secrets even without direct contact. "And that answers my question. Thank you."
"Your question," he said, very dryly. "And what was that?"
"Would you kill for me, John Watson?"
John just kept looking at him. The man leaned in, confidential.
"Fire your therapist. You're not haunted by the war, Dr. Watson, you miss it."
Abruptly, but without drawing back, he released John's hand and reached into his own jacket, producing—a business card.
Mycroft Holmes. Office of Forensic Accounting. Whitehall.
John looked back up from the card just in time for a pair of eyes to meet his at close range. "Welcome back," Mycroft Holmes murmured. He rose in a leisurely way and strolled off, swinging his umbrella gently.
John watched him go until he disappeared at the edge of the park. He was half-surprised when he glanced down and found that there really was a card in his hand.
A hand that was still steady, but only, he knew, for a moment longer.
The card was still in John's hand as he sat in a featureless anteroom three days later. He'd called up an acquaintance he'd made in the service as soon as he'd got back to the bed-sit, and left a message.
Celia had returned his call promptly. "Yes, the Office of Forensic Accounting is real," she said, tersely. "It's a minor department in the Government. And…legitimate. Within certain meanings of the word."
"And this Holmes character?"
A pause. "Inquiries would reveal that he is, in fact, a chartered accountant."
"Among other things?" he prodded.
"I'm sure you can form your own opinion on that, John."
John frowned. It wasn't like Celia to be quite this cagey. "If I go in there without backup, Celia, am I going to regret it?"
He could hear her catching the allusion to the way they'd met. "I think you're going to regret whatever you do," she had said finally. "That doesn't mean it's your worst option, though."
Worst option: looking around the bed-sit, the bed severely made up, the shelves empty, he'd known what that actually was. And so he'd turned up that morning and asked the stern-looking receptionist if Mr. Holmes were available.
She hadn't seemed surprised, hadn't even asked his name. She'd just invited him to have a seat. And now, though he hadn't seen her receive any sort of signal, she was offering to lead him down a hallway.
Holmes's office was wood-panelled and oppressively windowless, the bookshelves lined with financial texts and black binders. The furniture was as old-fashioned as Holmes's clothes, dominated by a heavy old wooden desk and a pair of cognac-colored leather chairs. Holmes greeted him calmly and asked him to sit down before seating himself behind the desk. He laced his fingers together in front of him and waited. The expression on his face was placid almost to the point of condescension.
"This looks like an accountant's office," John said.
"It is an accountant's office."
"You know what I mean."
Holmes smiled. "It's not the only place I work," he said, confidingly.
"I'm not a spy," John said. "I don't know what anyone's told you about me, but I don't know a thing about intercepting messages or stealing the plans to the nuclear plant or whatnot."
"Good. I'm not a spy, either." Holmes leaned back in his chair. "I think you underestimate yourself, but we manage stealth largely through specialists here. What I am looking for is steadiness in execution."
It wasn’t difficult to read between the lines, even with Holmes's bland manner. John said, "Literal execution. Executions."
"If you prefer to think of it that way. There are others."
“Black ops,” John said. “Murder. Jihad—“
"Not the same," Holmes said sharply. "That sort of collateral damage is completely unacceptable. And I don't recruit fanatics."
"You want me to be an assassin." John sat there, listening to the words hang in the air. They didn't sound anywhere near as terrible or frightening as he might have expected. He was sitting in an accountant's office, for God's sake.
And the accountant was as unperturbed as if they were discussing a slight overage of expenses. "I'm sure we'll make use of your other talents, as well, but yes. The number of people who can be relied upon to kill a stranger with one shot in the midst of high street is surprisingly low.”
“I’ve never killed anyone, except in self-defense. I’m a doctor. I save people’s lives. Or I try to. What makes you think I’m suitable for the position?”
He studied Holmes, trying to glimpse the reflection of himself in his eyes, but the man remained enigmatic. He only shrugged.
“I don’t think, Dr. Watson.”
“Oh, right. The voices in your head tell you everything you need to know.”
“Something to that effect,” Holmes agreed. Either he was remarkably immune to sarcasm, or he couldn’t even pick up on it. John couldn’t say for sure which it was. “Well? What do you say?"
John laughed, startled. "That's it, then?"
"You're offering me a job as an…an official government assassin?"
Holmes raised an eyebrow. "Is there a problem?"
"You met me on a park bench three days ago. You hardly know me."
"I assure you, Dr. Watson, I know all I need to know to make the offer."
John wished he didn't believe it, but if the man had gotten to his therapist, he'd surely been able to help himself to John's official records.
"What about—" He glanced down, reflexively, at his leg.
"That characteristic will be taken into account for as long as it need be."
Whatever that meant. "And I don't know you at all. Why should I trust you?"
Holmes smiled, all teeth. "Strictly speaking, you shouldn't. But if you think you can do better, by all means, return to your charming bed-sit. I give you three months before you put that stolen service weapon of yours to the use you always intended it for, but I have been wrong before."
John swallowed. And then swallowed again. "How can you possibly…" He let it trail off. He was angry, yes, and afraid, but that was rushing him forward, rather than back. He knew he was being manipulated; Holmes seemed to understand how to stick his long fingers right into John's soul and twiddle the knobs to get the result he wanted. But it was still real. Holmes had made him want something for the first time since he'd begged God for his life while bleeding out by the side of a dusty road. That something was mostly to hit Mycroft Holmes, but John thought it might carry him a lot further.
"Fine," he said abruptly.
Holmes tilted his head. "Fine?"
"Fine. I'll take the job."
"Oh, you did that the moment you set foot in this building." Holmes rose. "But let me congratulate you officially." He offered his hand.
John repressed a snort, feeling a little disappointed. He was already looking forward to the day he could actually surprise him. "Thank you, Mr. Holmes."
"Please," the man said. "Call me Mycroft."
And that was how John found himself, on a dreary Thursday evening three weeks later, sitting at a little restaurant in a quiet side street in Hackney, eating beans and toast. The three weeks had been peaceful enough. He’d never had a Crown job in his life that didn’t involve training and endless paperwork, but “we’re a minor office, John, we handle matters most informally,” Mycroft had assured him, and he hadn’t been back to Whitehall since that day.
A day after his meeting with Mycroft, a letter had arrived from a surgery, confirming his acceptance of a locum position on a fee schedule that already seemed a bit high. When he looked at his bank account, he realized he was actually getting paid five times that. They’d called him in to work a few times, convenient afternoon shifts doing routine work treating sprained ankles and minor burns in an unhurried environment. He’d moved out of the bed-sit into a modest-sized flat in Parsons Green; he wouldn’t be able to afford the rent if this didn’t work, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to last much longer in the old place. The rest of the money he left untouched. He couldn’t think of anything else he wanted to do with it.
The car had already driven past twice, slowly, his target scanning the street. Evidently John hadn't registered as a threat, because this time the voice in his ear—not Mycroft's, not anyone recognizable—said, "He's pulling over."
John forked a mouthful of beans and stood up. He tossed a crumpled bill onto the table and moved to the door.
The target was locking his car. He turned around. John saw his face. Nothing special, nothing that would make you think he needed to die. For a second that wasn't a second, John hesitated. This was insanity. He knew it was insanity. He'd conjured up a peculiar stranger in a three-piece suit and now he was about to kill someone on nothing more than that man's word.
It felt like he was slotting back into place in the clockwork of the universe.
Even at the crisis point, the target didn't recognize John for what he was; his eyes hadn't widened when John put three shots clean through his chest.
It was hard to miss, at that range. John had never had it so easy, so deliberate.
The target fell over backwards. John tossed away the gun with a clatter—he'd been promised that someone would collect it before anyone hurt themselves with it—and limped off. Mycroft's people were supposed to take care of any witnesses. His only job now was to get to another restaurant halfway across London.
"Confirmed kill," the voice came. "Congratulations."
John laughed. You had to laugh, didn't you? Congratulating him for killing a man as if he'd just got a First or something. It was ridiculous.
"Not as ridiculous as invading Afghanistan," said another voice, silky in his ear.
"Mycroft?" he said aloud, slowing without meaning to.
"Get to your termination point, Jezail," his handler cut in.
He kept an ear out the rest of the way, but there was nothing more from Mycroft.
The pub was warm and the lights dim. John was watching a woman in the corner. Pretty blonde, with just a glint of mischief in her eyes. It would be nice, he thought. He hadn’t even tried to pull since he’d gotten back. He’d felt too much like shopworn goods. Now, he only thought: it would be nice. He should give it a go.
He was about to signal the bartender to send her a drink when his phone—his new phone, OFA-issued, thank you very much, Harry—buzzed.
“There’s a car outside,” Mycroft said. “Please get into it.”
Debriefing, he guessed, feeling an odd pulse of excitement. He finished his pint and went outside.
The long black car, of course. Mycroft was sitting in the back seat, umbrella across his lap. He gave John a searching look, then tapped lightly on the window between them and the driver with the ferrule. The car pulled into traffic.
Mycroft settled back. They travelled for a few minutes in silence. Mycroft was looking out the darkened window, but John had the sense he was still being scrutinized.
"Well?" John finally asked, a little impatient. "Satisfactory? Target dead enough to suit your tastes?"
"Hm? Oh, yes, indeed," Mycroft said, turning to face him a little. "Just as I anticipated."
"Were you watching the whole time?"
"It was among the events I was following. Tonight was a busy evening." Mycroft sighed faintly. "How do you feel?"
John shrugged. "Fine. Not a scratch on me."
"You have just killed a man."
"It's not the first time."
Mycroft's eyebrows rose. "In cold blood."
Yes. That. "Well, he was a very bad man. Or so I'm told."
"Oh, he certainly was, John," Mycroft murmured, "but it's fascinating that you would take my word for it. Let me see your hand."
John extended it without hesitation this time. It would be easier to show Mycroft than to tell him, he thought. Mycroft delicately sandwiched the hand between his own. His hands were very soft, the fingers sensitive but faintly calloused at the tips.
"No tremor," he said. "You're still experiencing the rush."
"It's not a rush, exactly," John said. "It's…"
"Renewal. You feel reborn."
John let his head drop back onto the seat and his eyelids drop. Funny, before he'd been so resentful of Mycroft's rummaging around in his head. At the moment, it felt positively luxurious. "Do I?"
"Yes. Some people hurry home, take a shower, shed their clothing, sleep for a day. You ate a hearty meal at the termination point and then nipped off for a pint at a pub that caters to a clientele considerably posher than the lads at the place you normally frequent."
John's cheeks were heating, slowly, though he wasn't quite sure why. "And that shows?"
"Confidence. A lack of remorse. Indeed, a feeling of power. You barely touched your drink. You didn't need it."
"I would have pulled," he murmured, "if you hadn't interrupted."
Mycroft chuckled. "If you insist, you still can." He hadn't let go of John's hand. "And you feel very free, as if you'd left something behind."
"True. But how…?"
"You did leave something behind, John. Your cane."
John sat up at that, straight up, and glanced around him in the car. "You're right. But I don't even remember…"
"Do you want me to tell you?"
He met Mycroft's mildly inquiring eyes. "No."
"As you wish." Mycroft released his hand. "I can take you back to the pub if you like, John, but if I were you, I would go home and have a nice kip. The feeling of gratified purpose is strong, but it will crest and recede eventually."
John looked at his fingers. "And then what?"
"Then you'll do another job for me," Mycroft said. "Isn't that convenient for both of us?"
Without waiting for John to answer, he picked up his umbrella and tapped on the screen again.
The life of an official government assassin turned out to be surprisingly simple. He still hadn’t been back to Whitehall; they only wanted one thing from him, and they'd let him know when his services were required. The surgery called, two or three times a week, never when it would be inconvenient for him. He did the soothing work of his simple practice, and it felt good, like he was helping with problems he could actually fix. On his days off, he strolled through London, watched telly, cooked dinner, and went to bed early.
He started flirting with women again. Women and men, actually, which had led to a couple of quickies in strangers' flats. He knew it had to stay casual, and that was fine with him. It was like a more pleasant version of his job: knowing just when to act, and what to do. He seemed to be developing quite the eye for who would say yes, and mean only what he needed it to mean.
He stopped going to his therapist. She called a few times to follow up. He didn't pick up. Mycroft had been right; she was no good. He stopped writing his blog, too. That was no hardship.
He asked himself if he should feel guilty about what he'd done. He'd been to war, he wasn't squeamish. He thought about all the times when he'd been helpless, when all he'd been able to do was come in afterwards and try to patch up a bit of the mess. This was better, stopping the damage before it happened. But, honestly, it wasn't only that. The great gusts of relief that swept him from time to time, just as he was walking along the pavement, like brief but intense inner rainstorms—those came from feeling real again. With a purpose, no matter what it was.
Occasionally, he asked himself what he would have done if Mycroft had come to him with a more sinister offer. Would he be planting bombs himself, instead of picking off those who did? He didn't have an answer. He resolved not to worry about it. That wasn't what had happened.
One afternoon, he had coffee with Celia.
"So," she said, sitting down, "keeping busy?"
"That job I mentioned," he said.
She nodded, briskly, her blunt dark bangs slipping over her eyes. "That'll do the trick. You look well."
"I feel…" He thought about it, stirring his coffee. "Like things are happening again. To me."
"London's not Afghanistan," she said, "but it's still an exciting place."
"Yes. I remember that now." He'd loved London, before. That had been one of the worst parts of coming back—to find that it seemed as empty and grey as everything else in his life. Working for Mycroft had chased that killing fog away, and London hummed with life for him again.
"What's he like, your boss?"
He'd spent many more hours wondering about Mycroft than he had in the man's company, and he still didn't know how to answer that question. "Strange," he said. "Though I can't tell whether he's just taking the piss out of everyone, or if that's really as close to a normal person as he can get. I rather like him, though, in his own way."
"Be careful," she said. "They say he only cares about three things—England, himself…"
"And?" he prompted. Hard to imagine that Mycroft had some wife waiting in the country. "That umbrella?"
She laughed shortly. "Just…be careful. We're only means to an end, for them. And he, in particular, acts like a law unto himself when it comes to his people."
"I can look after myself," he assured her.
"I'm sure," she said, and the conversation shifted topics.
Four nights later, he got the next call.
In five months, they needed him three times. Just enough to stop him getting restless. Each time, his performance was satisfactory. Each time, he felt that perfect concentration on the task that left his brain giddy with endorphins afterwards. Each time, he sat afterwards in a car with Mycroft and let his employer inspect his hand for tremor and tell him how he felt.
He couldn’t remember ever feeling better.
Mycroft, with his fingers delicately tracking his pulse, agreed.
Then came the night when the mobile buzzed at three a.m.
"Yeah?" he mumbled into it.
"John," Mycroft said, "I need you to come to this address, at once." He rattled off a location—Pall Mall?—and then hung up without waiting for an acknowledgement.
John sat up and blinked at the phone, trying to clear his head. This was unusual. Normally, they called him at normal hours, with nothing more than a meetup point. And it was an impersonal woman's voice—never Mycroft. What was going on?
Well, he'd find out as soon as Mycroft wanted him to, no doubt. He fumbled into jeans and a jumper and stumbled outside to the waiting car.
It dropped him outside an elegant Georgian townhouse, where irritated-looking security waved him in. He didn't really take in his surroundings as he mounted to the first floor and entered a long, narrow drawing-room.
He had been gathering himself together, preparing for anything, but he hadn't anticipated anything like what he saw. Mycroft, in cream-colored pyjamas and spectacles, was leaning over a young man sprawled over half a sofa.
"John," he said, not looking away from the other man, "I did mention that we'd have use for your other talents, from time to time."
"Yeah," John said, approaching the two. The other man was extraordinary-looking; tall and thin as a praying mantis, head thrown back to reveal translucent skin at the throat, disordered dark waves of hair. He was also obviously suffering from an overdose of some kind. His eyes were half-shut and he was breathing far too slowly.
"What did he take?"
"Heroin," Mycroft said, "I think. There are supplies—" He jerked his head towards a nearby table, which was, in fact, piled with them. It made John wonder whether this had happened before.
He turned and began looking for the Narcan. Respiratory rate didn't seem so depressed that he had to push it via IV. IM would probably do the trick. He heard Mycroft say, "Sherlock, the doctor is here. Do try to be present."
He turned around, hands full, and saw that Mycroft had seated himself next to—well, it must be Sherlock, as improbable as that sounded—and folded his hand around his, tenderly but firmly. John looked at their linked fingers for a moment. Was this Sherlock an agent? A lover? Both? He still didn't know Mycroft all that well, but he had trouble imagining that he'd tolerate a junkie boyfriend.
As for a junkie agent—he supposed it was a question of what they were addicted to.
He shook himself. Better keep his reputation for a clear head under fire. "I'm going to go slow with this, but he's still going to be sick. You might want to get clear."
Mycroft gave him a sharp look, and John shrugged. "Fine. Then you can hold the emesis basin."
Mycroft stared at the bowl as if he'd never seen such a vulgar thing in his life, but he held it as John administered the Narcan into this Sherlock's upper arm. Sherlock's skin was marked enough to make it clear that this wasn't a one-time lapse in judgment, but John reserved comment.
Even with a slower approach, the vomiting was inevitable. John had expected fastidious Mycroft to jerk back, leading to the ruin of the sofa, but he held the bowl steady, even though his cuffs got splattered, and with his other hand pushed back Sherlock's hair.
Even more astonishingly, he was murmuring in a gentle tone, "It's all right, Sherlock, get all that nasty stuff out of you…"
John watched until Sherlock finished heaving and flung himself back against the sofa again. Sherlock's eyes fluttered further open and he looked right at John. His eyes were still a little hazy, but John had the feeling he was being measured and judged in exquisite detail. Then Sherlock looked away, muttering something inaudibly low, but threaded with contempt, and pressed a hand over his face.
Mycroft said to him, "Afghanistan. Though it's not relevant."
Talking about him, of course. Where did these people come from? It was a good thing he was getting used to all this. John handed Sherlock a towel, took the basin from Mycroft, who looked distinctly grateful, and said, "He should go to hospital anyway."
"No," the other two said at once. Sherlock's voice was a warm baritone, distinctive even in a mumble.
"A private nurse, then? You must have access to one."
"I would get one," Mycroft said, "if I thought Sherlock would be staying here to be looked after."
"But he needs—"
"To get out of this palace of the Borgias," Sherlock said, sounding remarkably disdainful for someone who'd been puking his guts out only moments earlier.
"At least stay the night," Mycroft said. He sounded resigned. Up to that moment, John wouldn't have believed that Mycroft could sound resigned.
"So you can work out a way to lock me up? No, thank you." Sherlock swayed to his feet. "I'll be fine at home."
"If you can call that place a home."
"Yes," Sherlock said distinctly. "I can. Sorry to have interrupted your lansquenet, Mycroft. I know the Indian finance minister does look forward to your evenings. Good night."
He stalked out of the room, in a gait that obviously would have been dramatic if it weren't so wobbly.
John looked at Mycroft. "It's really not a good idea—"
Mycroft's mask, however, was firmly back in place. "Thank you for your concern, John, but the point has been thoroughly canvassed. The car will take you back home."
John considered saying something else, maybe something vaguely sympathetic, but he didn't even know what he was sympathizing with. And the umbrella was still there, making any mistake a potentially serious one.
When he got downstairs, the first hint of dawn was lightening over the city.
Before going to bed, John opened his laptop and hit Google. He didn’t have much to go on, but “Sherlock”—though it was probably just a work name, like his—was unusual enough that it might yield some leads, if he spent some time on it.
As it turned out, he didn’t need to spend any time at all. Sherlock Holmes was the first, and practically the only, hit.
Not lover. Brother. Considerably younger brother.
Not agent, either. "Consulting detective," whatever that was. John browsed through his website, The Science of Deduction, trying to decide if he believed a word of Sherlock's claims. From anyone else, he would have scoffed. But, remembering how he'd met Mycroft, he couldn't be certain.
The rest of the hits were brief news reports, vaguely suggesting his involvement in the investigation of more than one murder. Some irritable letters to the editor, objecting contemptuously to coverage of either crimes or developments in chemistry. ("Sirs: Your recent suggestion that Mrs. Talbot was involved in the death of her second cousin would be unworthy even of a drunken village gossip…") And, finally, an obituary: loving mother of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes...
It was actually considerably more information than you could uncover online about Mycroft, who mostly figured as a name on a list of committee members in various professional accounting associations. Many more pictures, too; Sherlock was obviously aware of his unusual looks and apparently could strike a dramatic pose for the camera within an instant of spotting it. In the only image of Mycroft, by contrast, he was standing in what looked like a train station with his hands folded on his umbrella, his face turned almost completely away.
As John was studying this last photo, which had an oddly melancholy quality to it, as if Mycroft were anticipating some arrival which would never occur, his mobile, which was sitting by his hand, rang. Blearily, he picked it up and squinted at the screen. Same number as earlier.
"If you're not going to sleep, perhaps you would care to have breakfast with me."
John rubbed his hand across his eyes. "Pall Mall?"
"Across the street. The Diogenes Club. The car will take you."
From the outside, the club looked much the same as the other townhouses in the road. The woman in the small, but richly-appointed, lobby smiled professionally at John. "Dr. Watson? Mr. Holmes is expecting you in the dining room."
She led him to a quiet high-ceilinged room which, surprisingly, overlooked a back garden bright with flowers. Mycroft was seated at a round table in the far corner which allowed him to keep an eye on the room and the garden at once. He was absorbed in a tablet, but, as John approached, he looked up and smiled.
"Do have a seat, John."
He was in his usual outfit, freshly-turned-out and alert-looking. No one would have guessed that he had spent the night attending to his brother's medical crisis. As he sat, John tried to spot the family similarities. At first, they eluded him, but then he started to see it, just a little: both commandingly tall, though Mycroft looked more like some stately bird of prey and Sherlock like a scarecrow; the soft wave of Mycroft's bangs an echo of Sherlock's mass of curls.
"There's not much resemblance," Mycroft said. "Physically, that is. You'll excuse me for ordering for you."
Orange juice was arriving, and coffee. "It's fine," John said, unfolding the crisp white napkin onto his lap. "Has someone checked on him today?"
Mycroft had nothing on his plate but a slice of dry-looking toast and an egg-white omelet. He was carefully cutting the toast in little squares and spearing a bite of omelet with each. "He is subject to a certain degree of surveillance," he said. "A necessary precaution, for my only living family member. He returned home and hasn't stirred since."
"Aren't you worried he might have…" John hesitated, though he wasn't sure why. Mycroft seemed to have the fewest exposed nerve-endings of anyone he'd ever met. Even his fussiness was more like a cultivated barrier between himself and the world than an actual susceptibility. But Celia's words echoed in his head: They say there are only three things he cares about...
"His flat was swept while he was with me. There is nothing left for him to take."
The waiter was putting down some heavenly-smelling French toast. John stared at Mycroft. "Isn't that a bit…?"
"Meddlesome?" He smiled gently at John, as if he were disappointed. "Haven't you yet realized that my life is nothing but meddling?"
"Hang on, have you been meddling with me?"
Mycroft's look narrowed, became actively reproachful. "Have you splattered your brains across the wall of a hideous bed-sit in Southwark?"
Point taken, but John met his look steadily. "Is Sherlock a depressed ex-soldier at loose ends in his life?"
"You mean, does he need me? Despite his remarkable gifts, Sherlock has always had difficulty finding his path in life. Without me, I imagine he'd be dead, or homeless, or in an institution."
Mycroft spoke dispassionately enough, but John caught that hint of resignation again. He thought about Harry and wondered just how strong Mycroft's feelings might actually be. He forked up the French toast, which had a subtle cinnamon flavor, and something else he couldn't identify. "Is he really as clever as he thinks he is?"
Coming from Mycroft Holmes, that was practically an annunciation. And there was a certain glow in his eyes, even. Somewhere between family pride and a connoisseur's enthusiasm. "Then why doesn't he work for you?"
Mycroft made a face. "He would prefer to starve on the streets. Or so he keeps telling me. Occasionally, when he's desperate enough, I manage to convince him to do an odd job or two for me."
"How does he afford the drugs?"
"The bulk of our family's money is in my hands, but he does have a small income from our mother."
John shook his head. "I don't understand how someone so clever could just…throw his mind away like that."
"You don't?" Mycroft gazed across at John's plate. "I do. All too well. I suppose it's why I've been so easy on him. I don't imagine it's done him any good."
Now there was a wistfulness in his tone. John couldn't tell how much of it was to do with Sherlock, and how much with the toast. Odd as the latter would be, John liked that idea better. "Do you want some of this?" he offered.
Mycroft's mouth twitched, and he straightened. "No, thank you. And, lest I forget—"
He reached across the table to offer John a folded slip of paper. John opened it up just enough to confirm that it was a cheque, drawn on Mycroft's personal account, and handed it back without looking at the figure. "That's all right."
"The OFA doesn't pay you to render emergency medical assistance to my wayward relatives, John."
"It's not a problem, Mycroft," he said firmly. It would take more than a few nights administering opioid antagonists to repay what he owed Mycroft personally.
"All right, John." An involuntary, pleased smile stole across Mycroft's face, and he ducked his head a little. There was a moment's silence, and then he looked up again, past John. "Ah. Here comes the bacon."
John didn't get to bed until almost noon that day, and he lay awake for a half an hour or more just staring at the ceiling. He wasn't sure that he liked knowing Mycroft had his own family difficulties, that he wasn't just some peculiar self-made wind-up creature moving frictionlessly through the world. Mycroft was too fantastic a being to have anything so ordinary as a junkie relative. For Christ's sake, John had an addict in his family.
But, then, this Sherlock seemed to be nothing like ordinary in every other respect. If there was one thing John was sure of, it was that Mycroft wouldn't exaggerate anyone's intelligence just because he happened to be related to him. He certainly had to be strong-willed, to have stormed out of Mycroft's house only a few minutes after he'd been emptying his stomach into a basin. Which made it all the more strange and…unpleasant that he should be leading the sort of life Mycroft had implied that he was leading.
He rolled over and pulled the pillow over his head. However loyal he might feel to Mycroft—and the events of the past twenty-four hours had made it plain to him that he did feel loyal, far more than he had thought—his family affairs were no business of John's.
That night, he went down the pub to watch the rugby game. He returned home, feeling boisterous and pleased with life—until he spotted the figure lurking in the doorway next to his. He slowed, wondering if he should phone the office, until a passing car's headlamps threw a shadow against the wall. Tall, with tousled hair. He relaxed, deliberately.
"Evening," he said casually as he passed by.
"So," Sherlock said, cupping a hand so he could light his cigarette, "you'd be my brother's new project."
Now that he wasn't projectile-vomiting, he was even more remarkable-looking. The pallor evidently had nothing to do with the drugs, his eyes in the flickering glow from his cigarette-end were a dreamy blue-grey, and altogether he carried himself as though he thought he were a superior form of being, who dealt with the world exclusively on his own terms. Oh, yes, there was a resemblance, even if you had to know Mycroft well to see it.
"You're welcome," John said.
"Let's see," Sherlock said, crisply. "Ex-army, obvious. A doctor, rather than a medic. Either invalided out or discharged under questionable circumstances. Considering you couldn't find better work than what my brother had to offer, probably the latter. Alienated from family, too, no doubt as a result of the questionable circumstances. What did he do, promise you redemption in the service of queen and country?"
That probably would have been impressive, if he hadn't been getting regular exposure to Mycroft. "As a matter of fact, no."
Sherlock raised an eyebrow, clearly deciding to up the ante. "Let me give you some advice: get out while you still can."
"Why would I do that?"
"My brother," Sherlock said with distaste, "preys on damaged people. He promises that if you'll only be a very good fellow and do just as he says, your life will suddenly have meaning. He talks a good game, but it's all talk. He only wants to make use of you."
"I'm sorry," John said, "but are we still talking about me?"
Sherlock gave him a haughty stare, the spark at the end of his cigarette flaring as he drew in deeply. Finally, he said, "He'll never fuck you, you know. Mycroft doesn't care for anything small."
John stared back. "Take a keen interest in your brother's sex life, do you?"
"Believe me, I'd much rather be blissfully oblivious."
John snorted. "Are we done?"
Sherlock gave him one last appraising look. "Evidently. Don't expect me to cry at your funeral."
"Carry on the way you have been," John said, "and you won't be around to see it."
"Says my brother's pet assassin."
"Says a doctor. Your doctor, just a few nights ago. Good night."
John opened his door, depriving Sherlock of a dramatic exit. He'd live.
That night, for the first time in a long time, John dreamt of Afghanistan. He woke tear-streaked and furious.
The news of the explosion in Montague Street a few weeks later came when John was having breakfast in a nice girl's flat, his hair still damp from their shared shower. He didn't know what he should do. Surely Mycroft was involved. The situation didn't seem to call for John's particular talents, but he couldn't be sure. Ought he to go to Whitehall? Or would he only be in the way?
His uncertainty was resolved swiftly by a text: All staff are requested to report to the home office at once.
He ran out without saying goodbye.
He'd expected Whitehall to be a hive of activity, but in fact it was still quiet. Mycroft was drawing on his coat as he entered the anteroom, not a hair out of place. "Ah. John. Good. You can ride with me."
His tone was as unruffled as if he were proposing a picnic in the country. "Where are we going?"
As they headed outside, they were joined by three men of Mycroft's security detail. The car had yet to appear. Mycroft turned his head to say something to one of the men, and John saw something gleam in the corner of his eye.
"Mycroft, down!" he shouted, and shoved him to the pavement. The whine and sting of bullets tearing up the concrete began only a second later. John scrambled for cover behind a car. He glanced back to call to Mycroft, only to find that Mycroft had taken his own shelter, kneeling behind his umbrella. His umbrella.
One of the guards tumbled down heavily next to him, blood spreading across his shoulder. John took the gun from his unresisting hands and squinted upwards. The shooter was across the street, on a rooftop; he doubted the gun had the range, but if it was all he had—
He fired, and fired again. The car, their car, squealed up in front of them. It had to be armored.
"Mycroft," he started, but Mycroft was already moving, scrambling into the vehicle. John looked at the guard next to him. Dead. Behind him, the other two, also dead. He swallowed and followed Mycroft.
The car took off almost before he could get the door shut. Mycroft was breathing fast, but his eyes were still calm.
"Malcolm," he said mildly, "rendezvous point two."
"Yes, sir," the man said.
Mycroft closed his eyes for a second, and something passed over his face. When he opened them, he reached over and squeezed John's left hand, then looked meaningfully at the head of the driver. John's own eyes widened. Mycroft snapped his umbrella open again, and John shot the driver.
The resulting crash into the barrier wasn't nearly as bad as it might've been.
"Not your driver, then?" John said, as they clambered out of the wreckage.
Too late if he was, of course. Would Mycroft even tell him? John had to suppress the inappropriate giggle.
"Regrettably, no. My driver is deaf. I should probably say was. Pity."
Another car was headed up the street. John's hand came up by reflex, and Mycroft pushed it down. "It's all right," he said. "That's Anthea."
The passenger-side window came down, revealing a gorgeous dark-haired woman with a semi-automatic on her lap. "Sorry, sir, they delayed us—"
Mycroft was already opening the door. "Quite all right, my dear. I should have anticipated this line of action myself. Fortunately, Jezail was with me."
John followed him into the car. Anthea gave him a fierce smile from the front seat. He gathered he'd made a friend.
The facility John spent the next day in did look like it came out of a spy movie: big screens on the walls displaying various data, people hunched over rows of desks speaking urgently into phones. John gathered, after a while, that this was because it was actually an MI-5 location, though Mycroft and his people certainly acted as if they owned the place.
John was still all over blood: his, the other agents', the driver's…not Mycroft's, he didn't think. Mycroft had asked him to wait—"there's no telling whether you'll be needed again"—and so he had taken up a chair on the edge of the situation room. If anyone noticed what a mess he was, no one commented.
At one point, Anthea, passing by, had paused just long enough to pass him some fresh cartridges, as casually as if she were delivering coffee. He'd reloaded, very carefully. A few hours later, a young man with short dreadlocks from one of the nearer desks had offered him a slice of pizza from a box that was going round. He'd accepted, though he wasn't hungry. Other than that, he'd had nothing to do but observe, and it was hard to make sense of what was going on. It seemed that there were other bombers, or hostages, in play, but that was about all he could work out.
He couldn’t work out what he was feeling, either. Today had been a lot more like Afghanistan than any of his previous work for Mycroft: messy, chaotic, without any real context. Performance had been automatic and thrilling, but waiting there afterwards, uncertain and helpless, quickly drained the giddiness out of him. And sitting for hours on an uncomfortable chair in an excessively-air-conditioned room had made his shoulder begin to ache.
At least it was only his shoulder.
When his phone rang, it startled him. He glanced at the number—Celia—and went into the corridor to take it.
"Heard you were in a bit of a smash-up earlier today," she said lightly. "Just calling to make sure you're all in one piece."
"Didn't I tell you to be careful?"
"Won't happen again." Four bodies (at least) on a stately London road, a wrecked car…of course word had gone round. He should've realized it, but within Mycroft's bubble, the only important facts were the ones Mycroft wanted you to think about. "Was it on the telly?"
"It was, and then it wasn't. As it happens. Word is you were rather brave about the whole thing."
"Was I?" He'd liked the way Mycroft had taken the morning's events, as if they were all just part of the game. He felt uneasiness curling into his stomach at the thought that saving Mycroft Holmes's life might have drawn attention.
Celia seemed to catch the note in his voice. "No more than you want to be, I'm sure."
"Because it was nothing. Really."
"Got it. Well, I'll leave you to your nothing, John. Give me a ring when you've no free time, won't you?"
He smiled, a little, but she felt so far away. "Sure."
It was getting on towards evening when Mycroft, who had somehow grown more neat, not less, as the hours had passed, crossed the room to say something to the analyst who'd given John the pizza. That done, he looked at John.
"Ah, John. Of course. There are showers on the lower level, if you'd care to clean up a bit."
In the car, Mycroft had wiped the brains off John's face with his handkerchief. That had been all he'd needed at the time.
"Thanks, but—" John gestured to his bloody sleeve. "Hardly seems worth it."
"Ah, that. When the team swept your flat today, I had them pick up some of your clothes. Ask at Reception."
"Swept my flat? For what?"
"Protocol when there's been an assassination attempt."
John decided not to press for an answer to his question. "Are you sure you won't need me?"
"Not just at the moment." Mycroft considered. "As a matter of fact, there are cots down there as well. You might as well make use of one."
"While your aim is admirable, John, it could only be improved by some rest."
Mycroft spoke lightly enough, but it obviously wasn't a suggestion. John wondered if he'd noticed him rubbing his shoulder. He didn't want to get sent home. "All right."
John found his clothes, and the showers, and the windowless little room with a narrow bed. He lay down with his hair damp and his shoes still on and fell asleep almost at once, his gun tucked under the pillow.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed when a sudden noise, like a gasp, woke him. He reached for his gun, but Mycroft's voice stopped him.
"John. Sorry, I didn't intend waking you. There aren't many quiet spots in this place. You needn't get up."
There was a strange note in his voice. John rolled over. Mycroft was in the chair by the door. How long he'd been there, John didn't know. The narrow crack of light beneath the door left Mycroft little more than a silhouette.
In anyone else, John would have called Mycroft's tone bleak.
"Mycroft? What's wrong?"
"Failure to anticipate," he said. "A failure of imagination, really. Or of will."
It didn't really sound like he was talking to John. "Did something happen?"
"A second explosion. The person responsible—responsible for a great deal of crime in London lately, I'd say—is dead."
Mycroft turned his head away, so that John could glimpse his eerie profile. "You might as well know. My brother was involved. He was looking for our criminal mastermind himself, or, rather, they were playing a little game with each other. It would appear that the attempt on my life this morning was part of it.”
Four people dead. “Fun game, that.”
“Yes. I’m sure it was very exciting for the both of them. In any event, Sherlock had recovered some secret documents for me earlier, and he decided to offer them to Moriarty. As a sort of grand gesture, I'd imagine. He does love to be dramatic."
John's blood ran cold. "But that's—" He stopped short.
"Treason," Mycroft agreed, sounding like an actor in a Shakespeare drama.
Sherlock wasn't the only one with the flair for the dramatic, after all. But John couldn't...he'd been shot for his country. He couldn't pretend it didn't matter.
Still, he had to help Mycroft retrieve the situation.
"Did you recover the documents?" he asked.
"Yes. And Moriarty won't be discussing them with anyone."
"Then no harm actually done," John said, with some relief. "And no one has to know."
"This time," Mycroft said. "This time."
Mycroft loved England, and himself, and his little brother. In no particular order. What kind of person would make him choose?
If Sherlock was willing to do this, he'd do anything. Mycroft could stop him, but he wouldn't. Mycroft would be holding the basin for Sherlock in the middle of the night forever.
John felt something click and close up in him, like a puzzle box snapping shut. He pushed the blanket away.
Mycroft said, "Since you're awake, you might as well go home. It should be safe now."
John got up. Mycroft was resting his temples on his fingers. John wasn't going to say anything stupid and futile like: It's going to be all right. He used to say that to soldiers, but then they used to believe him. Instead, he found himself taking Mycroft by the shoulders—Mycroft dull and unresisting—and kissing his forehead.
For a second, he felt Mycroft begin to slump forward, but then he tightened himself up again, so quickly that anyone not as close to him as John was wouldn’t even have noticed it.
"Call me when you need me," John said.
When he shut the door behind him, Mycroft still hadn't moved.
It was easier to find Sherlock than John had expected. He'd simply returned to his flat on Montague Street, even though all the windows had been blown out by the explosion nearby. The door wasn't even locked.
Sherlock was sprawled on a long sofa, one arm above his head. He was in ratty-looking pyjamas and scowling at the ceiling.
"Let me guess," he said as John came in. "My brother sent you to babysit me. Well, I chased the other ones away, and if he thinks—"
"You know," John said casually, "every guess, every real guess, you've had to make about me, you've gotten wrong."
That got Sherlock's attention, if only a little. He turned his head, just enough to take John into his peripheral vision.
"I was discharged after I nearly died in an ambush in Afghanistan," John told him, easing the gun into his hand. "I'm not in love with your brother. And he didn't send me here tonight."
Sherlock's eyes widened, and he sat up, ready to bound forward. John covered him.
"Of all your stupid ideas—and that includes going to war and working for Mycroft—this must be the stupidest," Sherlock said. The disdain in his tone, however, was undercut by the tension in his body. If it was a stupid idea, it was a stupid idea he fully expected John might carry out.
"Not quite as stupid as giving out state secrets as party favors," John said. "Although I suppose it's not stupid if you're sure there won't be any consequences."
"So you've come to ensure that there are. By shooting me."
"It's all I've got," John said.
"How conventional," Sherlock sighed. "A morally simple-minded assassin. Dull."
The arrogance—the complete confidence in his own cleverness even in the face of mortal danger—was so like Mycroft that John's heart seized. Then he felt again the force of how dangerous it was, the Holmes brilliance and sense of impunity, with none of Mycroft's own dedication. John doubted very much that Sherlock cared even for two things.
"I wish I could just make you disappear to Belarus or something, but I can't, can I?"
"At gunpoint, I'd think you could accomplish anything you wanted to."
John shook his head and laughed. "Right. You really do think I’m simple. Even now." He sobered. "Your brother is a great man, you know. And I'm not a very good one."
"Neither is he," Sherlock said. "If you do this, he'll take you apart square inch by square inch. You can't be that much of a masochist."
"I'm not. But I didn't die in Afghanistan, Sherlock, and I always wondered why. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is the purpose I was meant to have."
Mycroft probably wouldn't forgive him. But Mycroft would understand. Whether he wanted to or not.
John tightened his finger on the trigger.